What's Missing from the Museum of the Bible
The case for including Arabic—and Islam
In the Museum of the Bible, a new state-of-the-art institution dedicated to the world’s bestselling book, you can stroll through a recreation of first-century Nazareth, take a break in the biblical garden plotted with sage and hyssop, have a falafel at Manna restaurant, or grab a quick snack in the Milk and Honey café.
Visitors with Middle Eastern roots might find comfort in these familiar themes, and rightly so, since the Levant region is where the Holy Book originated. But that’s where the association ends. Throughout the 430,000-square-foot museum in Washington, D.C, Arabic script is rarely seen outside the temporary exhibits on loan from Jerusalem, although there are a couple of texts in Judeo-Arabic, varieties of Arabic spoken by Jews and written in the Hebrew script.
The museum centers on the Bible’s influence, so the absence of a dominant language of the region from which the book emanated seems jarring. Arabic is also the language shared by millions of Arab Christians.
One of the few prominent features in Arabic is a translation of a psalm engraved on a window, alongside 15 other panels in various languages, in the entrance’s main atrium. But its absence elsewhere—including from the digital guide available in 10 languages—raises questions about the museum’s goals and target audience.
The half-billion-dollar venture is funded by Steve Green, an evangelical businessman whose family owns Hobby Lobby, a craft-store chain that purchased thousands of ancient artifacts smuggled from Iraq and that recently agreed to pay $3 million to settle the resulting government civil action.
“I think it speaks so clearly to the way that they are defining the Bible,” said Joel Baden, a professor of Hebrew Bible at Yale Divinity School and co-author of Bible Nation, a book on Hobby Lobby that details the Greens’ efforts to advocate for their religious views.
“For them, the Bible is American Protestantism [and] the story they are telling is the story of ‘the Bible goes West,’” Baden added. “There’s a disconnect of the Bible from any non-Western themes … which is incredible.”
Green maintains that the museum is non-sectarian and inclusive of all faiths. “We’re not looking at any particular faith tradition, but we embrace any of them that have a love for this book,” Green said. “It’s simply educating on this book.”
A tour through the museum tells a different story. There is little recognition of the Bible’s influence on other religions, like Islam (or Mormonism, or Eastern Orthodoxy, for that matter).
“The Bible was probably the most visible and most clearly articulated expression of Middle-Eastern-style monotheism and therefore it helped to shape the vocabulary that was used in the Koran,” said John Voll, a professor emeritus of Islamic history at Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.
The Bible and the Koran share several common themes, including the oneness of God, the idea that God sent messengers and prophets to inform human beings, and the recognition of Jesus as someone who relayed God’s message to people.
Yet, in the section of the museum dedicated to the Bible’s global impact, there is no mention of the Holy Book’s influence on the Koran. This shared history is only vaguely alluded to: One plaque titled “Shared Traditions—similar texts with distinct messages” states, “Ancient texts from Israel’s neighbors include many ideas, themes, and types of writing also found in the Bible. Similarities show how biblical traditions are rooted in the shared culture of the region.”
“Islam deserves to be included in a history of the Bible, but Muslims are not part of the happy alliance of conservative Jews, Catholics, and Protestants who work well together when it comes to ... shared social goals,” said Candida Moss, a theology scholar at the University of Birmingham, U.K., and co-author of Bible Nation. “Islam does not fit with the pro-Israel and big-tent conservative orientation of the organization.” The museum has a long-term agreement with the Israel Antiquities Authority.
In the building, I found three references to Islam: In a multimedia experience based on the Hebrew Bible, in a plaque that highlights the Bible and Koran as different texts that share some stories and characters, and in an exhibit on long-term loan from the Israel Antiquities Authority, which mentions Islam as part of the three Abrahamic religions.
“There’s a couple of placards that deal with Islam,” Green explained. “Obviously some of the characters in the Koran, like Abraham and Jesus, are mentioned. But [this museum] is not about the Koran, it’s more about the Bible.”
The near-exclusion of Islam contradicts the museum’s claims about inclusivity and non-denominationalism. The prominence of evangelical Christians on the museum’s board and its initial mission statement to “inspire confidence in the absolute authority and reliability of the Bible” also lend credence to criticism that its message is not purely educational, as Green now claims.
“For all of the changes that the museum has made from day one until the present, the story [Green] wants to tell has never changed,” said Baden, the Yale professor. “And that story does not include Islam—or Mormonism or Eastern Orthodoxy.”