Museum of the Bible offers revelations, faces controversy as it opens

In the beginning, there was Hobby Lobby president Steve Green and his first purchase of a biblical artifact in 2009 that launched the Green Collection.

What Green has accomplished since then is a full-fledged museum dedicated to the "Book of Books" in Washington, D.C.

After nearly three years of construction, the Museum of the Bible will open its 40-foot tall, bronze doors - the Gutenberg Gates - inscribed with Genesis's first chapter in Latin to the public today.

Taking a page from the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture that opened last September, the Museum of the Bible will provide guests free admission and timed tickets as a way to control the crowds.

The museum is 430,000 square feet, features a 140-foot LED display mounted to the ceiling that show images like stained glass, a grand staircase with glass railings winding up as if to reach to the heavens, a glass galley that offers a view of the Capitol and the Washington Monument, an outdoor Biblical garden on the rooftop, and a massive 472-seat theater that will host the Broadway's Amazing Grace musical production until January.

Artifacts include the Codex Climaci Rescriptus, first edition Bibles and Torah scrolls, and other artifacts on loan from the Vatican Library and Museum and the Israel Antiquity Authority.

To go through the entire museum, viewing every exhibit and video, would take nine 8-hour days.

A conservative Christian known for winning his company's 2014 Supreme Court case against Obamacare's contraceptive mandate, Green and the other leaders have stressed that the museum is nonsectarian and is an invitation for visitors of all faiths to engage with the Bible.

The exhibits' contents are devoid of hot button issues like same-sex marriage and abortion, officials say.

The opening gala was held Thursday night at the Trump Tower, the Washington Post reported.

Zeiss said his hope is that President Donald Trump would visit the museum and that "every president would come at some time."

In 2010, the Museum of the Bible was formed as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit with the intent, according to IRS tax form files pulled from ProPublica, "to bring to life the living word of God, to tell its compelling story of preservation, and to inspire confidence in the absolute authority and reliability of the Bible."

The nonprofit's mission statement changed on its 2012 tax form: "We exist to invite people to engage with the Bible through our four primary activities: traveling exhibits, scholarship, building of a permanent museum in DC, and developing elective high school curriculum."

Green told reporters that "the intent had always been to be a nonsectarian museum."

Candida Moss, a University of Birmingham theology professor and co-author of the book "Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby," called it a "good faith effort" from the museum to be nonsectarian.

It has been "external criticism that has pushed them towards the museum that they have," she said.

The museum has included a section devoted to the Hebrew Bible and a few references to the Quran, though Green stressed to reporters this is a museum of the Bible.

Moss also argued that the museum is being billed as a "Christian Smithsonian" which is misleading to visitors, and it's "difficult to say you're a nonsectarian museum and have people signing faith statements," which Green confirms is asked of all members of the museum's board of directors.

Dan Barker, the co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, said the Greens have a "very specific evangelical motive" that they've tried to present as objective.

"When I visit the place I'm going to be looking for signs of proselytizing. If there are none, then I'll applaud that," Barker told ABC News.

Moss and Barker both intend to visit the museum.

"There's been a lot of people that have argued that ... we're going to be proselytizing or be an evangelical view or protestant view," Green said. "I think of a movie reviewer that reviews a movie they've not even seen. So how much credit can you give to someone who's not even been in the museum?"

Professor Christopher Rollston, a George Washington University professor who's an expert on the Old Testament, said "the museum is currently walking a fine line" on being nonsectarian, but noted that they have donors and may have visitors who might expect the museum to push a more religious framework to its exhibits.

"But they're trying to be quite historical in the wordings of the displays that they have," Rollston said, adding that, "They have made it clear that they're willing to listen to scholars' critiques."

"At this point, I'm reasonably pleased with most of the wording in the exhibits and with most of the displays," said Rollston, who's toured the museum in September and November. "...I'm hopeful that the ways in which the museum has been responsive to scholarship is something that will continue. And I'm hoping to that the willingness of the museum to listen doesn't end after the opening."

Rollston said he's going to remain "vigilant" about the museum's exhibits and the display language used to see if it continues to be "historical in nature and not sectarian."

But Rollston pointed out that it's a private museum, so the museum's leaders are going to do as they please.

Green added, "If we wanted to espouse our faith, we could, but we're choosing not to. And so we invite visitors to come in and decide if we've done that job well."

Besides combating the criticism that his museum is evangelical propaganda, Green has had to answer for the $3 million settlement Hobby Lobby paid to the U.S. Justice Department this summer for illegally importing Iraqi artifacts, which his company also forfeited.

"We should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled," Green said in a statement at the time.

Green admitted to reporters Tuesday that "mistakes were made early on and we learned from those mistakes," and assured the authenticity of the artifacts in the museum from his collection.

He also argued that acquiring artifacts was a new area for them at the time, they didn't have a lot of expertise and there's liabilities when you import items.

"We've paid the fine. We've moved on. You learn. It's a new area for us. It takes a lot of expertise," Green told ABC News in an interview Tuesday. "We are acquiring and bringing together the best team of experts that we can to help us in that process."

One such piece on display is the Dead Sea Scrolls fragment. A plaque card titled "Are these fragments real? Research continues" accompanies the display and reads "scholarly opinions of their authenticity remain divided."

Rollston, who was a witness in the 2012 Israeli "Epigraphic Forgery Trial," said he has some concerns about the authenticity and provenance, or history of ownership, of some of the Green Collection's artifacts shown in the museum.

But he said he was "particularly pleased" that the museum chose to be "honest" about the scrolls because museums are not generally candid about artifacts potentially being forgeries. Rollston argued that it's important for all museums to display forgeries or potential forgeries so the public is aware it's an issue.

The nonprofit opened a traveling exhibit "Passages," in 2011 that has been to the Vatican City, Cuba, Israel, and soon after purchased the Washington Design Center for $50 million in 2012 as a home for a permanent museum.

Because the museum is in part a historical building, the museum and its team of 500 to 600 onsite construction workers daily had to be careful in demolition and renovations.

Keeping with their nonsectarian mission, private events can be hosted at the museum with a donation. The events, though, that have been booked almost a year before the museum opened, have the Bible somewhere as the core of their presentation, according to the museum's president's Cary Summers.

"So we haven't figured out all the rules of the game yet. Who do we invite, who don't we," Summers told ABC News. "And we're learning through this pre-opening what has worked well and what hasn't."

Part of the third floor is dedicated to an exhibit, "World of Jesus of Nazareth," that attempts to transport visitors to first century Israel during the time of Jesus Christ.

Lorelei Mah and Sammy Mah, two of the founders to the museum, recently returned from a trip to Israel to find that the exhibit "immediately transported us back."

"Close your eyes. Takes you back," Lorelei Mah told ABC News.

The museum also has technology that's never been used anywhere else in the world, according to Summers. "Washington Revelations" is a flight stimulation, Disney-esque amusement ride, pointing out "the Bible's presence in inscriptions, place names and monuments in our nation's capital."

The Bibles of Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, Harry Truman and George W. Bush's family Bible are also featured in the museum.

Green said that he hoped that once the museum is open, more individuals and institutions might be inspired to donate or loan artifacts.

However, what Rollston wished the museum focused more attention on is Thomas Jefferson's "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth," also known as the "Jefferson Bible."

America's third president and one of the nation's founding fathers took from the Gospels of the New Testament but omitted the Bible's miracles, like Jesus' resurrection, to create a piece of work that's a combination of enlightenment thought and Christian beliefs.

Rollston said it's important in a museum about the Bible to highlight the Jefferson Bible because the Enlightenment view of the Bible was the "predominant view of the Founding Fathers" and Jefferson was such an important figure in American history.

The museum also features modern cultural references.

In the museum's Impact of the Bible exhibit, Elvis Presley's Bible is displayed a few steps away from mannequins donning Dolce & Gabbana outfits with religious themes.

Kanye West's "Jesus Walks" and Coolio's "Gangsta's Paradise" can be heard in the music section for its lyrics' biblical references. The exhibit also has a small science section of bronze statues of George Washington Carver, Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton as attempt to provide proof science and religion can co-exist.

Lee Leibold, who calls himself an "incurable collector," and his wife, Beth, had visited "Passages," the temporary exhibit which Hobby Lobby opened in Oklahoma City back in 2011.

Hearing of Green's intent to build a permanent Museum of the Bible, Lee wanted to find something he could collect and contribute.

He donated two pieces: Woodrow Wilson's personal church pew when he became president and the original letter written on White House stationery signed by Wilson that accompanied each of the one million New Testaments given to World War I soldiers.

While the church pew is not on display, as Lee was told it would be featured in traveling exhibits, visitors can see the original letter from the president that urges American soldiers to read their personal pocket Bibles.

"The Bible is the Word of Life. I beg that you will read it and find this out for yourselves, read - not little snatches here and there - but long passages that will really be the road to the heart of it," Wilson's message reads.

On Tuesday, Lee and Beth traveled from Texas to tour the museum, excited to see Wilson's letter displayed.

Stepping into the museum as "very moving and a little overwhelming" and was pleased that the museum incorporated the Hebrew Bible, Beth Leibold said.

"It's open to everybody to get a really unique perspective, whatever their viewpoints are and [to] learn," she said as she toured the "Impact of the Bible" exhibits.

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