An Illegal Archeological Dig in the West Bank Raises Questions About the Museum of the Bible

Like the ownership of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the legitimacy of archaeology in the West Bank has been constantly in question since 1967. In the last half-century, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) and the Staff Officer for Archaeology of the Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria (the military government that rules the West Bank outside of East Jerusalem) have conducted or licensed excavations at hundreds of sites in the West Bank. The 1954 Hague Convention severely restricts the archaeological activity that can be conducted in occupied territory, limiting it to salvage work where ancient remains are in danger, and then only to be conducted in cooperation with authorities from the occupied territory. But Israeli excavations in the West Bank — like the Museum of the Bible-funded Qumran dig — are routinely conducted unilaterally, without any Palestinian involvement. This means that all of these excavations, including the one at Qumran, are in violation of international law. There are also ethical questions about the use of archaeology, intentionally or not, to stake claim to Palestinian land and provide evidence of ancient Jewish presence there.

…It is not merely the Museum of the Bible’s funding of a West Bank excavation that is ethically dubious, however. There is also the matter of whom they are funding. Randall Price, the recipient of the grant and co-director of the excavation, is Distinguished Research Professor at Liberty University, founded by prominent televangelist and Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell. Price is the main figure profiled in a February 2013 Atlantic article entitled “The Biblical Pseudo-Archaeologists Pillaging the West Bank.” As the Atlantic piece indicated, Price (who has also taken part in an expedition to look for Noah’s Ark on Mt. Ararat in Turkey) and evangelicals like him might have difficulty receiving permits to dig within Israel proper, but he has been able to dig at Qumran over many years because of looser restrictions within the West Bank licensing system.

…In 2016–17 the Museum of the Bible reported a grant of $38,413 to the university to publish the Aramaic magic bowls in the Museum of the Bible’s own collection. Already by 2011, the Green Collection claimed to have the “second-largest holding of incantation bowls in the world.” However, most Aramaic incantation bowls are unprovenanced, and hundreds suddenly appeared on the market starting in the early 1990s, apparently looted in the aftermath of the Gulf War. If the Greens acquired such a large collection within a mere two years (it is widely reported that they began collecting artifacts and manuscripts in 2009), it is almost certain that they must have acquired unprovenanced items looted and smuggled out of Iraq — in violation not only of Iraq’s antiquities laws but also of a UN Security Council resolution.

…This funding arrangement may shed some light on the issue of the rumored “First Century Mark.” Starting in 2012, rumors circulated among biblical scholars of a fragment of the New Testament Gospel of Mark dating to the first century CE. This rumored First Century Mark would be significant as the earliest known version of the text, and one dating shortly after the book would have been written (it is generally dated by scholars sometime in the middle decades of the first century CE). It was thought that the Green family owned or was trying to purchase this fragment, but no firm evidence was ever put forward about this. Last month, the EES posted a note about a recently published Oxyrhynchus papyrus, confirming that this was in fact the rumored First Century Mark — except that it dated to the late second or early third century, and was owned not by the Museum of the Bible but by the EES. The publication of the fragment was edited by Dirk Obbink. The Museum of the Bible’s funding of Obbink’s Oxyrhynchus projects might have some bearing on puzzling aspects of the case, such as why it was believed that the fragment was owned by the Museum of the Bible. (If in fact the Green family is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars funding Oxyrhynchus-related research, then they may have a proprietary attitude toward that research even if they do not own the fragments themselves.)

…Why does all of this matter? The Museum of the Bible is an evangelical Christian institution. Its original mission statement, on its first Form 990 given in 2011, declared that the museum’s goal is “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.” While this has since been modified, and the museum is careful to check its displays with consultants to remove language of exclusivity, there is still an implicit Christian — and particularly Protestant — bias throughout the museum’s narrative. The museum and Green maintain that they want to be “nonsectarian” and “let the facts speak for themselves,” but the museum’s own exhibitions undermine these claims. In its walls the Bible is understood first and foremost as the Christian Bible; Jews are just bystanders in a Christian world, or else they are props. And the Bible is seen as historically correct, without nuance.

…The public will get a distorted view of what biblical scholarship actually does, or should do. And, through the museum’s various collaborations, its vision of the Bible is one that is increasingly endorsed, even if implicitly, by academic scholars. Then there is the museum’s willingness, even eagerness, to acquire and fund the study of unprovenanced antiquities. Most of these items are probably either forged or stolen. Their acquisition has involved the violation of the antiquities and customs laws of several countries as well as of international law. And these objects have often been looted from war zones, where their purchase funds continued violence.

If there is a battle between Museum of the Bible funding and scholarly ethics in the study of the ancient world, then it appears that the money is winning. Hands down.

An Illegal Archeological Dig in the West Bank Raises Questions About the Museum of the Bible

sigh….

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