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Despite smuggled antiquities purchase, some say criticism of Bible museum is unfair

An exterior rendering of the Museum of the Bible. Photo courtesy of Museum of the Bible

WASHINGTON (RNS) — In 2013, Cornell University agreed to forfeit 10,000 cuneiform tablets amid suspicions they were looted from Iraq in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War.

Four years later, the items remain in the university’s hands. And it is one of many collections of ancient artifacts that have come under scrutiny in America.

Just last week, New York prosecutors seized a 2,300-year-old Greek vase from the Metropolitan Museum that they suspect was looted. For years, museums and institutions, from Yale University to Chicago’s Field Museum to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, have contained items of questionable provenance that had to be returned.

Some of these missteps generated headlines, and sometimes the pieces are kept, like the Parthenon frieze, acquired in the early 19th century, which the British Museum has refused to give back to Greece.

But they haven’t tarnished the overall reputations of these institutions, many of whose coffers were filled before the art and artifact markets were as regulated as they are currently, and customs laws had the strong teeth they now do.

According to a court filing, Hobby Lobby bought more than 5,500 artifacts for $1.6 million from an unnamed dealer in 2010. The artifacts were misleadingly labeled in shipments to the U.S. Photo courtesy of the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York

In the case of the 10,000 Iraqi cuneiform tablets, there has been hardly any public attention given to the matter since the initial agreement, even though the pieces “continue to be stored, preserved and studied at Cornell University … with the consent of the Iraqi government,” university spokesman John Carberry said this week.

By contrast, earlier this month, when the arts-and-crafts chain store Hobby Lobby agreed to a $3 million settlement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York over its purchase of clay artifacts from present-day Iraq, it was widely seen as a blemish on the forthcoming Museum of the Bible. Its board chairman, Hobby Lobby President Steve Green, owns one of the world’s largest private collections of biblical texts and artifacts.

The fine, The Washington Post reported, is “casting a cloud over the much-anticipated Museum of the Bible.” And The Atlantic added that the Green family name is “likely to bring even further scrutiny and attention” to the museum, given that it is “now tied to a story of dealer intrigue and black markets.”

Scott Thumma, an academic dean and professor of sociology of religion at Hartford Seminary, sees a double standard.

“Many of the collections of our great national museums and universities are full of the very objects that Hobby Lobby is being fined for smuggling and are seldom required to return or pay compensation,” Thumma said.

The allegations against Hobby Lobby are certainly serious.


RELATED: Experts say Hobby Lobby must have known it was illegally importing artifacts


In December 2010, the family-owned firm based in Oklahoma City, which posts $4 billion in annual sales, purchased 5,500 artifacts for $1.6 million. The sale was “fraught with red flags,” notes a U.S. Justice Department release, and the clay artifacts from present-day Iraq were misidentified and mislabeled as Turkish tile “samples” when they were smuggled into the country via the United Arab Emirates and Israel.

A clay cuneiform tablet, one of the 5,500 artifacts the owners of Hobby Lobby illegally imported into the United States from Iraq. Photo courtesy of the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York

Last weekend, Israeli authorities arrested smugglers who were alleged to have sold $20 million worth of antiquities to Hobby Lobby from 2010 to 2014.

Hobby Lobby agreed to surrender the artifacts in the U.S. Justice Department case and, in a statement, said it “was new to the world of acquiring these items, and did not fully appreciate the complexities of the acquisitions process,” resulting in “some regrettable mistakes.”

Museum of the Bible vice president Steven Bickley said the museum is “an independent organization governed by a broad and diverse board of directors, with strong professional and academic credentials, who make decisions in accordance with prevailing industry standards.”

Museum of the Bible Board Chairman Steve Green, with one of the more than 40,000 rare biblical texts and artifacts his family began collecting in 2009. The museum is scheduled to open in Washington, D.C., in fall 2017. Photo courtesy of Museum of the Bible

He added that “only a small number” of the 40,000 items in the Green Collection would be exhibited in the museum, slated to open in November just a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol and the National Mall.

But many academics have long viewed the museum — and its association with Hobby Lobby, which famously won a 2014 Supreme Court decision in which it challenged the requirement under the Affordable Care Act that employers pay for insurance for employees’ contraception — as compromised.

“Mainstream scholars certainly have taken more delight in pointing out the illicit dealings connected with the conservative Christian Green family’s project, than they would have if the Metropolitan Museum had been found to have been connected with something similar,” said James McGrath, chair in New Testament language and literature at Butler University.

Alex Joffe, an archaeologist and historian, said scholars “loathe the Greens, because they are evangelicals and because they are antiquities collectors, in that order. … The real targets are their conceptions of their faith, the Bible and America.”

Joffe, who has participated in and directed archaeological research in Greece, Israel, Jordan and the United States, said it is indisputable that the artifacts were imported illegally and seemingly intentionally. But he said the broader question that isn’t being discussed sufficiently is who gets to build museums “around the sacralized space of the National Mall.”

“Should a private family create a ‘national museum’ with a religious bent in the secular, religious space of central Washington? If not, why not?” he said. “Or are only approved topics, like the Holocaust and American Indians, as well as ‘art,’ acceptable?”

Joffe believes that the question of who gets to design national (albeit quasi-national), fundamental commemorative spaces is at the root of many of the objections to the museum project at large.

The Museum of the Bible is located two blocks from the National Mall, at 300 D St. SW. RNS map by Tiffany McCallen; Wikimedia Commons D.C. landmarks by Jarek Tuszynski, Ad Meskens, Diliff

Lawrence Schiffman, professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University, thinks many people jump the gun to indict a collection and a museum they have yet to experience. “It may be more suspicion that evangelicals are always out to convert everybody,” he said.

Not only does the museum insist it will deal in history rather than evangelization, but Schiffman has observed that many of the periods the museum plans to cover will be from the post-biblical era. “The notion that it’s some kind of church in disguise is not really what they are doing,” he said.

And as damning as a $3 million settlement with the New York Eastern District attorney is, Schiffman, a Dead Sea Scrolls scholar, notes that evaluating antiquities can be very complicated.

“It’s pretty easy to get duped,” he said.

But Roberta Mazza, a longtime critic of the museum, rejects the argument that the Green family and others in the leadership are being treated unfairly because of their religion.

“They committed serious and sustained crimes and behaved against basic professional standards,” said Mazza, a lecturer in classics and ancient history at the University of Manchester in England. “Their religious affiliation was and still is irrelevant.”

Roberta Mazza. Photo courtesy of the University of Manchester

Mazza said the scarcity of legitimate antiquities on the market has made it impossible to amass large collections without breaking the law or purchasing fakes. But she said people and institutions in the United States are still trying, citing the recent seizure at the Metropolitan Museum.

“The Greens are just repeating a model, which more than evangelical looks like American to me,” she said, adding that “tons” of books have been published on “the misdeeds of the Getty and other museums, with the help of antiquities dealers and bad academics.”

Steven Fine, professor of Jewish history and founding director of Yeshiva University’s Center for Israel Studies, agrees that regulation of the sale of antiquities “is quite intense.”

He, too, doesn’t think that the Greens’ beliefs are the problem. In fact, he said they should be more open about their religious motivations.

“The question for me is not whether the Greens have a religious position, but to make sure that they are upfront that their faith positions are the subject of this museum,” he said. “For me, it is just an issue of transparency. Remember that even by saying Bible, Jews hear one thing, Protestants hear another, and Catholics a third.”

An exterior rendering of the Museum of the Bible. Image courtesy of Museum of the Bible

Whatever the Greens’ motivations, McGrath of Butler and Thumma of Hartford said neither the family’s religious beliefs nor the manner of acquiring the artifacts is likely to have any effect on the museum’s future success.

“People will still flock to a Museum of the Bible, seeking reassurances that their faith is grounded in history,” McGrath said.

“Those for whom the museum is intended won’t care,” Thumma added, “and will indeed interpret the U.S. attorney’s action as anti-evangelical bias, or maybe even ‘fake news.’”

(RNS has a board member who is also on the leadership staff of the Museum of the Bible. RNS board members have no say in editorial content.)

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Menachem Wecker

36 Comments

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  • So to sum up the article, everyone else does it and gets away with it or gets no punitive actions, so why are we held to a different standard?

    To the ignorant this looks like persecution. To the wise it is about hypocrisy by doing wrongs thinking that the motivation for it makes it right.

    When will churches, sects, pastors/priest, parishioner, believer start speaking, acting like believers. Walk in the light people that is our mission in life, not whether a piece of antiquity survives. Learn from this situation, see where it’s wrong, accept it, remember to not do it again, and get back to living a life modeled on Christ. Everything else is vanity.

  • Unlike Elgin, Carter and Canarvon, Steve Green funded enemies of the nation to acquire his artifacts. All that smuggling, all those payoffs meant money in ISIS coffers.

    People take delight in psuedo pious self righteous miscreants getting piloried for immoral and illegal activities. You don’t see where the board of the British Museum or Metropolitan Museum of Art getting such criticism because they don’t hold your themselves as moral superiors like Steve Green. He invited schadenfreude.

  • “When will churches, sects, pastors/priest, parishioner, believer start speaking, acting like believers. ”
    As far as I can tell, they ARE. Believers in power, money, dominion, and special privileges, all justified by what they call their faith.

  • I think he was using those scare quotes ironically. I.e., we only consider certain things to be “art,” and the Greens’ conception of a museum doesn’t qualify.

  • But that makes even less sense. No one criticizes the Museum of the Bible for not being an art museum for the same reason no one criticizes the American History, Air and Space, and Natural History Museums (all on the mall) on that basis: it isn’t and doesn’t claim to be an art museum. The only way the scare quotes (or, indeed, the comment itself) makes sense is as some half baked attempt to portray critics as culturally elite PC snobs for tolerating non “art” museums on the mall only when they’re for some oppressed minority. It’s silly. Not to mention counterfactual.

  • If only Hobby Lobby would admit its complete ignorance in regard to the healthcare needs of women. That’s another thing they should refrain from dabbling in.

  • I hate to say but I had to gloat a bit when they got caught misbehavin;. That was in response to being given tracts from their ministry over the course of several years – in spite of saying they were unwanted – by my sister and her husband intent on turning our family members into real Christians.

  • Two thumbs up, Spuddie. You hit the nail on the head. I would add…it is obvious that the Greens used subterfuge. They misidentified the objects and created/falsified receipts purposely to get them into the U.S. Is this not consciousness of guilt? We should go back to the time the laws changed regarding the importation of these sacred items and review the records of all the famous museums to check for items that were illegally brought to the U.S. Let the law act accordingly.

  • No, you didn’t sum up the article correctly. It isn’t that they shouldn’t have been charged when caught, but the statements that the charges are “casting a cloud over the much-anticipated Museum of the Bible” when similar actions by other museums don’t cast similar clouds over their own legitimacy. It seems to me that this should rather *enhance* their legitimacy as a museum — they’re even engaging in the same *crimes* as other museums!

  • An excellent article that offers a range of informed opinion. Religious matters will always be subject to interpretation and passionate debate, even displays of historical artifacts. All you have to do is look at the scholarly debates regarding biblical and ancient archaeological discoveries to see that this is true. Moreover, I would suggest that all museums do not present artifacts and art in isolation from the point of view of the curators and the benefactors. If you don’t believe that, simply go to a national park and listen to a docent presentation. I can understand that and still appreciate the beauty of museums, art exhibits, and national parks.

  • Since most who do are ignorant, the answer is yes. 🙂

    Don’t ask questions you don’t want answers for

  • “they’re even engaging in the same *crimes* as other museums!”

    The fact that they are engaging in them in recent memory as opposed to during the period of global imperialism from the 19th to early 20th Century makes a big difference. When other museums had acquired their pieces it wasn’t considered a criminal act, nor were terrorists paid off to do so. Many of the places where older museums received artifacts from weren’t independent states either. Also the fact that such pieces were the result of plunder of empire was not ever in doubt or concealed.

    In this day and age, the behavior of Steve Green rightfully casts a moral and ethical cloud around the museum. One would be hard pressed to find moral and spiritual solace in works brought here through theft and support of terrorism.

  • If you’ll re-read the article, not all of the examples Wecker gives are the loot of empires. One was of Cornell University in 2013, and another was the Metropolitan Museum in New York just last week. Do these events cast similar moral and ethical clouds over university and museum as Steve Green’s behavior?

  • Those places did not try to justify or have a hand in the looting the antiquities in question. In your examples, all of them gave the pieces back with little acrimony and whining. Most importantly, Neither Cornell nor the Met paid to have these pieces brought to the US or smuggled them in here. They were purchased at open auction or donated from outside sources.

    Steve Green’s acts are far more acrimonious. He actively participated in acquiring the pieces from enemies of the nation/terrorists and had them brought in through smuggling.

  • Actually yes. Which is why they were so quick to give up the exhibits and distance themselves from the sources where they got them from.

  • Actually no, not unless you can back that up. I can’t think of a single museum that has had its legitimacy as a museum called into question when items of doubtful provenance were found in its collection. Legal difficulties yes, not not charges that they aren’t a legitimate museum.

  • I didn’t see those museums making excuses for the artifacts. They gave them up pretty quickly upon discovery of unsavory acquisition. They did so to avoid such negative impressions. Again neither commissioned crimes to acquire them either.

    For example plenty of museums catch flack for displaying art known to be stolen by the Nazis. They even made a movie besmirching the reputation of the Austrian Gallery Belvedere for holding on to a painting acquired by theft. Woman in Gold with Ryan Reynolds and Helen Mirren.

    It also doesn’t help Steve Green’s reputation either that this is primarily a vanity project.

  • I didn’t ask about these two museums specifically, but museums in general. And while your example of the Austrian Gallery Belvedere fits into that, did the movie in question state that the AGB isn’t a legitimate museum?

    We do need to narrow the set we are discussing, though, to museums dealing with archeological and paleontological artifacts — items you dig out of the ground. That was the set I was thinking of anyway, I wasn’t thinking of art at all.

    “It also doesn’t help Steve Green’s reputation either that this is primarily a vanity project.”

    When the Stanfords founded Stanford University, was it “primarily a vanity project”?

  • by my sister and her husband intent on turning our family members into real “Christians”

    I prefer to use quote marks around Christian(s) when referring to fundies/evangelicals as I’m all too aware of their agendas given I have a SBC “preacher” brother.

  • It’s very tough to pretend what is being created as a personal vanity project will have the legitimacy of a long standing (and in many cases public funded ) museum. This was before the smuggling scandal. Green made the project a personal testament of self aggrandizement. The fact that the guy became works famous for acting like a self pious dillhole to his employees doesn’t help much on that front either.

    “When the Stanfords founded Stanford University, was it “primarily a vanity project”?”

    Good question. Need to read up more about the school’s funding. It very well may have been at its founding.

    What works against Steve Green here is:
    1. He tried to push a dominionist tainted Bible study class on public schools
    2. He portrayed himself as being so religiously pious that he was compelled to deny employees basic rights under the federal healthcare statute.
    3. He commissioned crimes including payoffs to ISIS. Which won’t endear him to most.

  • The first of your bullet points could call into question the legitimacy of the museum — and is a good reason to wait and see what the exhibits are like before making a final decision — but as I said, I don’t see how either his refusal to be a party to even incidental abortions (and the Supreme Court wisely recognized that a basic right to engage in a particular activity does not mean a basic right to force others to be accessories) or a crime common to museums delegitimizes the museum. The second is an unrelated personal/business matter and the third has to do with how artifacts are obtained, not with how they are understood.

  • I wonder how many exhibits he obtained through looting.

    “a crime common to museums delegitimizes the museum”

    I can’t think of any museum in the modern era which obtained exhibits by paying looters and smuggling. What Steve Green did was far from common. Worse still, it was somewhat treasonous.

    I have no desire to give a benefit of a doubt to people funding ISIS and Al Qaeda. Feel free to do so. I can’t.

  • Of course you know a museum in the modern era that obtained exhibits by paying looters and smuggling, it’s mentioned in the article — Cornell University. It’s just that they know how to do it secondhand so that the government can’t *prove* that they knew of the doubtful origins of their acquisitions, as the article I linked to pointed out. When it comes to the actions of Green’s new museum compared to other museums, the failure is one of incompetence fueled by lack of experience. Give them time, and they’ll be as adroit as any other museum at acquiring their artifacts of doubtful provenance without risking legal liability.

  • Nobody has charged the staff at Cornell with anything to that effect. You are making a wild guess here and rationalizing. They gave the exhibits back and didn’t try to excuse it. As you are trying to do.

    Any museum which encouraged looting has no legitimacy. No it isn’t a common practice

    “When it comes to the actions of Green’s new museum compared to other museums, the failure is one of incompetence fueled by lack of experience”

    Bull effing crap. This was deliberate, well planned and knowingly illegal actions done in support of the museum. You can’t point to anything similar being done by other museums. He even had the tablets deliberately relabelled to fool Customs. This is a purveyor of popsicle sticks and glitter acting like a gangster.

    You want to make excuses for a smuggler and a person who gave material support to terrorists go ahead. But I consider him complete and utter scum for it.

  • Like I said, you might want to take another look at that article I linked to about Cornell and the problems with bringing people like them to justice when it comes to the antiquities market.

  • If they are worried about the Bible being “around the sacralized space of the National Mall,” they are going to need to remove the Washington Monument (capstone reads “Praise Be to God”), the Lincoln Memorial(Quotes Scripture), Jefferson Memorial (Warns of God’s judgment) and Martin Luther King Memorial (a Baptist preacher? Really?). I mean, they’re just NOW getting concerned about this? LOL!

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