In December 2017, the annual conference of the Association for Jewish Studies, the largest gathering of Jewish scholars in the world, took place in downtown Washington. There were panels on medieval Jewish philosophy, Russian refugees and migrants, and divorce. But none generated quite the amount of heat as the one about the Museum of the Bible, which had opened a month earlier, just south of the Mall.
Many prominent Jewish scholars had criticized the museum for what they called a “supersessionist” approach, wherein Christianity supplants Judaism. And there were the problems with some of its artifacts. Four months before the museum opened, federal prosecutors announced a settlement with the big-box craft chain Hobby Lobby, whose evangelical owners, the Green family, set up the museum. The Greens had amassed one of the world’s largest Bible collections, which forms the basis of many of the displays inside the $500 million, 430,000-square-foot museum. But some 5,500 artifacts that were bought for the Green Collection had been looted from Iraq, prosecutors said, and Hobby Lobby, which owns the Green Collection and loans the items to the museum, agreed to return the illegally acquired objects and to pay a $3 million fine.
But at the Jewish studies conference, criticism of the museum went well beyond the provenance of its artifacts. Attendees packed a session on the museum’s role as a “mediator of Judaism.” No one was more strident than the panel’s formal respondent — the speaker designated to react to presentations — Mark Leuchter of Temple University. With New York University Dead Sea Scrolls expert Lawrence Schiffman, an Orthodox Jew and consultant for the Museum of the Bible, in attendance, Leuchter said colleagues in the museum’s employ were “court Jews,” who had “taken their 30 pieces of silver from the Green family.” In Christian Scripture, that is the price for which Judas betrayed Jesus.
“It does for intellectual honesty what Jonestown did for Kool-Aid,” he went on, to some snickers from the audience. “The top brass at the museum felt they covered their a--es by finding a few Jews who were willing to say okay.” Leuchter’s talk drew enough laughs that at one point he said, to more laughter, “I’m not trying to be funny here.” He concluded by saying of the museum, “I’m sure there are very fine people on both sides,” which drew several surprised “oohs.”
In the 2½ years since the conference, Leuchter’s opinion has not changed. He told me in November that he hasn’t been back to the museum and he believes it has “done virtually nothing to address our concerns as scholars.” However, other Jewish scholars have started to see the museum in a more measured light. Schiffman, who remains a consultant, and other prominent Jewish scholars say the institution’s reputation is changing with new staff, stricter acquisitions policies and some prized additions.
When someone complained to Schiffman that the exhibit “Jerusalem and Rome: Cultures in Context in the First Century CE,” which ran from June 2018 until June 2019, reflected an evangelical view, he pointed out that the Hebrew University of Jerusalem curated it. “The people from Hebrew University must have converted,” he said to me sarcastically. “Something funny must have happened before they created the exhibit, because they put it together. They shipped it. They wrote the labels. They put it in the cabinets.”
Perhaps the most prominent acquisition that has Jewish scholars taking notice is a medieval Hebrew manuscript that the museum calls the Washington Pentateuch. Few people had laid eyes on it before it went on display in the fall. (The museum was forced to close on March 15 because of the coronavirus pandemic, cutting short the manuscript’s temporary exhibit. A spokesperson says there are plans to display it as part of the permanent collection later this year.) The Washington Pentateuch doesn’t answer every criticism that has been raised about the museum, such as its emphasis on the Bible’s Christian context. But for some scholars, the manuscript is a significant symbol of the institution’s commitment to putting its mistakes behind it.
I got to see the Washington Pentateuch on a crisp November morning. I watched as two art installers clad in turquoise gloves built mounts and tweaked the manuscript’s resting spot for the next few months. Stephen Gorman, lead museum registrar, told them which side of the manuscript was the top before they placed it carefully in the glass vitrine. First the binding didn’t sit right, which Gorman speculated was because it had been taken out and shown so many times. The handlers fixed that before stretching sheets of plastic to secure the pages.
Weighing 20 to 30 pounds and consisting of 247 folios (or about 500 single-sided pages), it’s a kind of collage, about 90 percent of which one scribe penned around the year 1000. Another scribe, Joseph ben Jacob, wrote 21 folios — in Deuteronomy, Genesis and Numbers — in 1141, and it’s unclear when these replaced original ones. A different medieval hand wrote seven other folios at an unknown time, said Herschel Hepler, associate Hebrew manuscripts curator and exhibit curator.
The museum conservatively dates this Hebrew Bible to 1000, making it one of the world’s oldest such books. Pentateuch, from the Greek, refers to the five books of Moses, or Torah, the first section of Jewish Scripture. It is the centerpiece of the exhibit “A Fence Around the Torah: Unveiling an Iconic Jewish Bible,” which was originally scheduled to close on March 29.
The Pentateuch may seem unremarkable initially to Hebrew readers, to whom it may look like any Hebrew Bible they would buy at a bookstore. Marginal notes flank biblical passages, which form the center of the page and have trop (cantillation marks) and nekudot (vowels). But those two additions that biblical readers so take for granted today were innovations of sixth- to 10th-century Babylonian and Palestinian Jewish scribes, known as Masoretes. Before this Masoretic Pentateuch, and a few others like it, biblical texts looked more like today’s Torah scrolls, which lack notes and vowels.
Everyone who has read the Torah at age 12 or 13 for a bat or bar mitzvah knows how difficult it is to chant a text without those symbols, said David Stern, professor and director of Harvard’s Center for Jewish Studies and content adviser for the exhibit. Today’s young Jews often memorize difficult Hebrew passages, because the Torah must remain, per rabbinical law, stripped of the useful symbols the Masoretes pioneered in Pentateuchs like this one. Since a book like a Pentateuch isn’t a valid ritual object to use for a Torah reading in traditional services, it needn’t conform to the same standards as a Torah.
“These books are usually viewed as sort of the final stage in the stabilization of the biblical texts,” Stern says. “It’s a kind of crazy project — sort of like half bookkeeping, half sort of connoisseurship.”
Gary Rendsburg, professor of Jewish history at Rutgers University, tells students, who don’t tend to know Hebrew, that they can read disemvoweled text messages (“txt msgs”) and vanity license plates (VNTY PL8) because they understand the system. Such modern-day shorthand gives a sense of what it is like to read Torah scrolls and the ways that medieval and ancient readers had to work through biblical texts before the Masoretes revolutionized them.
To understand how crazy the Masoretic process is, I put more than a decade of biblical Hebrew and rabbinical Aramaic training to use by closely examining the spread, spanning Exodus 14:28 to 15:21, to which the Pentateuch was open in the exhibit. This is a common choice, as it includes the “Song of the Sea,” whose white space evokes poetry and is an unusually interesting graphic in an otherwise dry Torah design. The magic lies in the margins.
Masoretic notations, here arranged in triangular configurations, respond on the displayed spread to an unusual word in Exodus 15:2. Working through faded ink and confusing penmanship, I realized the scribe detailed other biblical iterations of the rare word’s root: Isaiah 33:10, Daniel 4:34, Nehemiah 9:5, Isaiah 33:3, Ezekiel 10:17 and Psalm 118:28.
If this was a Christian rather than a Jewish manuscript, being made more than 500 years before Martin Luther, illuminators might have adorned margins with stunning biblical scenes or beastly “grotesques.” Why did these Masoretes allocate so much valuable real estate, in an era when parchment was nearly worth its weight in gold, to idiosyncrasies? How did they have all of these verses at their fingertips centuries before the first alphabetical listings of biblical words and the passages in which they appear (called concordances)?
“The notations serve as a cross-referencing system for every noteworthy feature of Scripture — grammatical, phonetic, orthographic, syntactic — and thus serve both to unify Scripture and simultaneously to make sure all those features are faithfully transmitted,” Stern explains. Such notations helped to preserve the integrity of the text by trying to eliminate human error in copying and transmitting the Bible. You could say the Washington Pentateuch is having a similar effect on the Bible museum’s reputation.
When it comes to salvaging the museum’s standing, the acquisition of the Washington Pentateuch could not come a moment too soon. “Let’s face it. Everything has not always been perfect,” Schiffman says. “I’ve had honest questions from some people about the museum, which of course makes perfect sense.”
Even after the museum paid that $3 million fine for illegally imported Iraqi artifacts, questions about the provenance and authenticity of its objects continued. In March, it was revealed that all 16 of the museum’s Dead Sea Scrolls fragments are fake, and the institution announced it was returning some 5,000 papyrus fragments and 6,500 clay objects with “insufficient provenance” to Egypt and Iraq, respectively. And as recently as May 18, federal authorities said the Gilgamesh Dream tablet, for which the museum paid $1.6 million six years ago, entered the country illegally. Hobby Lobby is suing Christie’s, from which it purchased the rare cuneiform tablet, claiming fraud and breach of contract.
To be sure, even the world’s top museums have faced blowback over possessing artifacts and art that are fundamental to another culture’s identity and stories. For their part, Bible museum officials say they sought to correct those errors as early as 2016. The board adopted an acquisitions policy that year and in 2017 engaged Thomas R. Kline, a cultural heritage lawyer, to review all acquisitions and internal processes, says Jeffrey Kloha, the museum’s chief curatorial officer. Since 2017, staff members have reviewed every provenance to ensure objects meet “rigorous standards” and “best museum practices,” he adds. (The objects discovered to be fakes in March were bought before 2014.)
“There’s no question to me that the museum is trying to be extremely careful in what they’re buying now. They’re buying only the best and then making sure that the provenance is squeaky-clean,” says Sharon Liberman Mintz, curator of Jewish art at the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Conservative Judaism’s flagship educational institution. “They don’t want to repeat any of the mistakes that they made in the past.”
The Pentateuch is “such a rare survival that any institution would be chomping at the bit to be able to acquire this,” she continues. Even the JTS library, one of the world’s best repositories of Jewish books and manuscripts, lacks a nearly complete Masoretic manuscript.
Mintz believes Jewish scholars who denounced evangelical tones in the museum may have done so because they don’t see eye-to-eye with its politically conservative owners. But, she notes, the museum itself caters to Jews. She cites a time when it arranged kosher food for an event in which her husband, an Orthodox rabbi, participated. “They were just nice about it,” she says.
“While the family and the leadership were shockingly naive, the museum has learned a lot from those missteps,” says Aaron Koller, who describes those missteps as “serious breaches” in ethics and law. Koller, professor of Near Eastern and Jewish studies at Yeshiva University, offered the museum “three cheers” for preserving and highlighting the Washington Pentateuch, noting that the manuscript and other reputable acquisitions “are not from the murkier ancient world that tripped them up in the early days.”
So far, there have not been the same kinds of clouds hanging over the Pentateuch’s provenance as there were around its Dead Sea Scroll fragments, and the Pentateuch appears to have a stellar provenance. Some scholars didn’t want to guess what the museum paid in 2017 to reputable London dealer David Sofer, who had owned it since 1990. Others estimated in the low millions, perhaps up to nearly double the $3.61 million the Green Collection paid at a 2015 Sotheby’s auction for another Hebrew star of the museum, Codex Valmadonna I, which dates to 1189.
The museum’s spending itself has also attracted some controversy. Some critics have accused it of trying to “colonize” the field. But Stern argues the museum is free to buy what it pleases. And while he considers the Green family’s politics “detestable for someone like myself,” he doesn’t think any of that should affect the museum. He called the 2017 session at the Association for Jewish Studies conference, which he attended, “short of machine guns” and “a disgusting talk.”
Rendsburg, of Rutgers, says he enters the museum knowing the Greens footed the bill. “No one else has ever created such a thing. They had a vision and the money to implement the vision,” he says. “I know I’m not going into the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.”
Aaron Rosen, professor of religion and visual culture at Wesley Theological Seminary in the District, cautioned against what he called the “genetic fallacy” of assuming the museum’s past dictates its future: “There are some reasons for optimism, especially in the ecumenical and intercultural outlook of its section on the Bible in America, which could be at home in the Smithsonian.”
Steven Fine, Jewish history professor and director of Yeshiva University’s Center for Israel Studies, who describes himself as “a museum person turned academic, who is still a museum person,” thinks much of the remaining criticism comes from academics without museum expertise. “I would not want to talk about engineering, because I know nothing about it,” he says.
He brushes aside charges that the museum staff missionizes. “Do they think that I’m going to burn in hell at the end of days? Some of them might,” he said. “So, what do I care what they believe? Until then, we’re friends.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the museum was suing Christie’s over the sale of a rare cuneiform tablet, claiming fraud and breach of contract. Hobby Lobby is suing Christie’s. This version has been updated.
Menachem Wecker is a writer in Washington.
Designed by Twila Waddy. Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks.