Thursday, January 25, 2018

Some Thoughts on Bible Nation

“Gutenberg Gates”: Entry to the Museum of the Bible with 40-foot bronze reproduction of the printing plates of Genesis 1 for the Gutenberg Bible
Photo taken Nov 4, 2017 by Fuzheado, via Wikimedia Commons

Shortly after the official opening of the Museum of the Bible in November, I published a piece at Hyperallergic on some of the museum’s problems, a set of things to keep in mind if you happen to visit. That piece referred repeatedly to the book Bible Nation (by New Testament scholar Candida Moss and Hebrew Bible scholar Joel Baden), which came out a month in advance of the museum’s opening. However, it was something short of a review of Bible Nation. Since I think that this book and the issues it treats deserve further discussion, I would like to present some thoughts on it here.

First, the book is very much worth reading for anyone planning to go to the Museum of the Bible, or for anyone considering the implications of such a museum. It is the single most important piece of writing to date on the museum, its collection, and all of the Bible-related activities of the Green family, the main backers of the museum. As Moss and Baden discuss, the Greens have not funded just the museum and scholarship on their collection, but also Bible curricula and an evangelical Christian travel program to Israel. On one level, Bible Nation is useful as a compilation of news stories in various places – some broken by Moss and Baden themselves – on these different activities over the last five years. But it is more than this: even as someone who has been following these issues with interest for some time, I learned a lot from the book.

How does the book treat the Greens’ artifact collection and the collection’s provenance specifically (Chapter 1, “The Collection”), the area I’m most familiar with? The discussion is generally good. I learned much less here than in other sections of the book, because I’ve followed the developments here more closely over the last few years. As elsewhere in the book, the primary (but not sole) value of the reporting is synthesis. There were a few details that were new to me (for example, the reporting of the Greens’ donation of artifacts and tax writeoffs in the context of their larger philanthropic activities). The coverage of provenance issues is not exhaustive: it leaves out examples such as the purported (and problematic) “oldest known siddur,” which was the subject of several news reports in 2014. Rather, as Moss and Baden suggest, the problems they report are merely the “tip of the iceberg”.

One of the threads running through the book is that the Greens are restricting access to knowledge and endangering academic freedom. Moss and Baden set the tone in the preface: “This book is about the Greens, but it is also about a set of American values, in which . . . individualism and property rights trump free access to and public ownership of knowledge and learning.” (p.viii) They argue that the Greens do this in particular through the use of non-disclosure agreements for scholars working on their collection (see esp. pp. 73-80). Moss and Baden strongly suggest that this is something unique, or almost so, in academia: it is “at odds with the most common standards and practices in humanities scholarship” (p. 73). Their only suggested comparison (pp. 81-82) is the infamous case of the Dead Sea Scrolls, in which a small, secretive group of scholars took more than 40 years to publish the material, all the while restricting access to anyone outside the group.

But this sort of restriction is far more common than suggested in Bible Nation. The case of the Dead Sea Scrolls stands out because it is so famous; because the material has been so important to the history of scholarship; because the case was well publicized; and because it took several prominent scholars to open access to the scrolls – not because it is unique. In fact, archaeologists are notorious for taking decades to publish the material they excavate, if they manage to publish it at all during their lifetimes; and in the meantime they routinely restrict access to their material. I spent years studying unpublished material from excavations, in particular Iron Age figurines from the southern Levant. There are cases where I was actively misled by an excavator about the material from his site, or where I was prevented from mentioning the existence of figurines after I had been allowed to study them. In one case a European museum refused my team permission to publish material it held from an old excavation in Israel, even though we had been authorized by the Israel Antiquities Authority to publish the results of the excavation; the museum refused even to tell us exactly what items they held from this excavation. I was regularly restricted in what I could write about the collections I’d seen, often in oral agreement but sometimes in writing.

Moss and Baden appear to be unaware that restrictions on unpublished collections are so common. This is not surprising: they themselves acknowledge, in a different context, that they do not work firsthand with this material. (p. x: “. . . we are not the kind of academics most directly affected by the Greens’ actions. We are neither specialists in ancient manuscripts nor especially concerned with the transmission of those texts.”) But this context is important, for it potentially changes how we analyze the Museum of the Bible’s actions. I have been worried – as I have written before – that the Greens will be targeted disproportionately (because they are politically conservative, because they are evangelical Christians, or specifically because of their Supreme Court case) while comparable issues at other museums and institutions will be ignored. We should be sure to focus our critiques on general principles, not on individual persons or institutions we happen to already dislike.

In fact, the entire framing of the non-disclosure issue as a conflict between “individualism and property rights” and “free access to and public ownership of knowledge and learning” is a striking one. For it is precisely this framing that is one of the main arguments of those trying to legitimize the use of unprovenanced artifacts – which are a major feature of the Green collection and which Moss and Baden sharply criticize. Archaeologists, Assyriologists, and others who champion the publication of such material have used almost these exact words. We commonly hear warnings about “censorship” (including “censoring knowledge”), concerns about “accessibility to scholarship” and  “freedom of scholarship.” (See for example the chapters by John Boardman and David I. Owen in Whose Culture? The Promise of Museums and the Debate over Antiquities, ed. James Cuno [Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2009].)

On the surface at least, there is a certain tension between these two very different claims of censorship of knowledge. How are we to resolve it? Personally, I believe that the tension is more apparent than real, in particular because I find the claim that restricting the use of unprovenanced artifacts equals censorship to be overblown. After all, some archaeologists making these claims have taken decades to publish the finds from their own excavations – in the meantime restricting access to that material to varying degrees. I also find any concerns about censorship to be outweighed by the serious ethical, legal, and other professional problems presented by unprovenanced artifacts. Regardless, once Moss and Baden make this argument about access to knowledge, the tension needs to be discussed.

But where the Greens are most influential is certainly not in controlling scholarly access to their manuscripts, but in using their massive wealth to fund projects and causes with a massive public reach. Here Moss and Baden appear to be more perceptive than many other academic critics. They realize that the Greens’ funding of scholarship (and any possible distortion of scholarship that results) is less important than the legitimizing effect that that scholarship will have on the Museum of the Bible and the Greens’ other ventures. After all, the Museum of the Bible will reach more people, by orders of magnitude, than any single scholar can dream of doing. But Moss and Baden’s recognition of this influence is inconsistent. They conclude that

The Greens are free to use their considerable wealth to exert influence over politics and legislation; they are welcome to run their company according to their interpretation of biblical principles; and they are at liberty to try to evangelize. But when they, however unwittingly, disguise evangelization as education and fortify their beliefs as religio-academic consensus, they are doing more than merely misleading the public. When it comes to educating our children, informing our citizens, and serving as a resource to our politicians, accuracy and balance require more than notional guiding principles. (p. 194; my emphasis)

The Greens are legally free to do any and all of these things, and more (as long as they do not involve illicit activities like smuggling artifacts). Whether the Greens should do them, or should be allowed to do them, is another matter. Over the last few decades, one of the most consequential facts of political life in the U.S. and the world is the nearly inconceivable growth in inequality – a massive shift in wealth from the poor and middle classes to the wealthy. This shift has not happened by chance. It is the direct result of policy changes, policy changes motivated by the massive political spending of wealthy families and corporations. I must point out that Moss and Baden’s reference to exerting influence in politics is a brief one, and perhaps it is unfair to make too much of it. But especially in the context of Bible Nation, this shift should not be dismissed lightly but explored, even confronted head on. If we fail to understand this basic truth of contemporary life, how well can we really understand the massive political and cultural spending of families like the Greens (or the Waltons, or the Kochs) or companies like Hobby Lobby?

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