It’s called “Museum of the Bible,” but one type of artifact dominates the collection behind the new, massive institution that sits in the heart of the nation’s capital: Torah scrolls. And while Torah scrolls are indisputably an important part of the Bible’s long history, there are other factors behind the museum’s large collection of them—motivations both evangelical and financial.
According to Jeffrey Kloha, director of museum collections, of the 2,559 items owned by the museum, some 1,835 are Torahs—scrolls containing the first five books of the Bible, and the holiest textual artifacts in Judaism.
For the conservative evangelical founders of the museum, these numbers are not a coincidence. In researching our 2017 book Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby, we concluded that the half-billion-dollar museum is part of a broad effort by religious conservatives to promote an evangelical view of the Bible’s history, importance, and influence on American society. The Torah scrolls at the museum play a substantial role in this project.
At the museum, around 10 Torah scrolls can be found in standard display cases; another 200 or so are kept behind a large glass wall, fully rolled up and stacked horizontally like bottles of wine in a cellar. The rest of the museum’s collection is in storage, while the Oklahoma-based Green family, who own the mega-chain Hobby Lobby and were among the key founders of the museum, hold another few thousand Torah scrolls at the Hobby Lobby compound in Oklahoma City. All of them are “decommissioned,” which means that because of wear or damage they can no longer be used liturgically in Jewish services.
In conversations with us over the past three years, officials of the umbrella organization that runs the museum have put forward a number of explanations—some complementary, some contradictory—for why they own so many Torahs. These include preservation and restoration, the belief that the scrolls support evangelical theological claims, and the tens of millions of dollars in financial benefits that can be gained by donating scrolls to charitable organizations.
Museum president Cary Summers told us in 2015 when we interviewed him for our book, “We are the hospital of the world for Torah scrolls,” rescuing them, he explained, from deterioration. But the museum’s “rescue” mission appears problematic to some.
According to traditional Jewish law, decommissioned Torah scrolls are to be either buried in a Jewish cemetery or stored in perpetuity in a genizah, a dedicated synagogue space for out-of-use ritual objects. Damaged scrolls can also be restored and rededicated for ritual use, while those that survived the Nazi era are permitted to be displayed in exhibits dedicated to documenting the Holocaust, as they are, for example, at the Holocaust Museum a few blocks away.
The Torah scrolls at Museum of the Bible are not part of a Holocaust exhibit. Moreover, somewhat strangely, the language used at the museum suggests that they are being rescued not from deterioration, but from their traditional Jewish rites. A placard in the museum accompanying one scroll describes it as having been “saved from being ceremonially buried or placed in a genizah.”
Kloha says that the museum “annually engages a rabbi who is an expert in Torah scrolls to review the collection, classify individual scrolls, and identify those which might be candidates for repair and donation to a synagogue.” The museum declined, however, to provide the name of the rabbi who does this review, and would not reveal how many, or whether any, scrolls had been repaired or donated. There is no mention either at the museum or on its website of any preservation efforts.
The sign that stands in front of the wall of Torah scrolls at the museum is entitled “The Consistency of Jewish Scriptures.” It is here that the theological message intended to be conveyed by the scrolls is most apparent. Nowhere else in the museum are so many multiples of a single artifact displayed in this manner. The sheer number is meant to convey a message: all of these perfectly identical copies of scripture attest to the unchanging nature of the biblical text from antiquity to the present.
The Green family and Hobby Lobby are not the only evangelicals interested in Torah scrolls.
On an early fall afternoon in 2015, students filed into an assembly hall at the Rawlings School of Divinity at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. There was great excitement, because this evangelical Christian seminary was about to receive a piece of the Bible’s history. Ken and Barbara Larson, owners of the Midwestern furniture chain Slumberland, had generously agreed to donate a sixteenth-century Torah scroll to the institution’s library.
It was an exceptional moment for everyone involved. Liberty Museum does house a small collection of ancient artifacts known as the “Liberty Bible Museum,” but the institution is better known for hosting Republican politicians than ancient Jewish artifacts. This was not only the first Torah scroll the school had received; it was the first time that many of those present had even seen a Torah scroll. The scroll was unrolled before the eyes of the expectant crowd. A few lucky students were able to participate: standing shoulder to shoulder, they gently lifted the Torah scroll up for everyone to see. The pads of their bare fingers pressed tightly against the centuries-old parchment to prevent it from falling. In that moment, they did something most Jews have not: they touched the written word of God. This is something that would never happen in a Jewish context: Torah scrolls are almost never fully unfurled and are read using the assistance of a yad (a ritual pointer) to ensure that the reader not come into direct contact with the sacred text.
This was not the Larsons’ first donation of a Torah scroll. They have given scrolls to Bethel University in Minnesota; Asbury Seminary in Kentucky; Master’s Seminary in California; Trinity International University in Illinois; Multnomah University in Oregon; Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville; Covenant Theological Seminary in Missouri; The King’s College in New York; Moody Bible Institute in Chicago; Cornerstone University in Michigan; Westminster Seminary in California; Regent University in Virginia; and others. The Larsons have purchased 50 scrolls, mostly from the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries, and plan to give them all away. Not all of these scrolls are presented in the most scholarly manner. As University of Minnesota PhD student and Jewish educator Noam Sienna noted on Facebook, the photograph of the Larson scroll on the Southern California Seminary website is currently mislabeled and upside down.
For both the Larsons and the Greens the scriptural and textual integrity of early modern Torah scrolls is evidence of divine agency in the preservation of biblical manuscripts. When the Liberty scroll was donated, Ken Larson said, “Our goal is that these Torahs will be used by students and will reinforce in their hearts and minds that God’s word is alive and that it has been protected,” he said. Their purpose, therefore, is not merely educational; it is spiritually edifying.
Scott Carroll, who advised the Green family on acquisitions from 2009–2012 and was director of their collection, appears at most of the public events associated with the Larsons’ donations. At Liberty, he explained the significance of the Torah scroll to the assembled crowd. “The Torah is foundational for understanding the Bible,” he said. “Now that you have it in your possession as students at Liberty, you will be able to become better protectors of the Bible and engage actively in understanding scriptures.”
In an interview with us, Steve Green, president of Hobby Lobby and chairman of the Museum of the Bible board, said that the Torah scrolls, and in fact the Jewish people themselves, testify to the perfect transmission of the word of God: “[If] you want to say that there was a telephone game and [the Bible] was passed down and it changed over time, you’re free to believe that. But let me show you the evidence: God gave those people [Jews] a job, and they did that job well. They took it seriously, and they do to this day take it seriously.”
Exemplifying this view of scripture as unchanging is Rabbi Eliezer Adam. Rabbi Adam is a sofer, or Torah scribe, who was hired to sit beside the Torah scroll display, carefully crafting a new Torah and chatting with visitors during museum hours.
“We have a debt of gratitude owed to the Jewish people,” Green continued, “because they provided us with the Hebrew text and they did it well, and that is the story that the scrolls tell, that they have done it and continue to do it until this day.”
For many Jews, this type of language is unsettling: it colonializes Judaism and its most sacred text, making them into part of a Christian narrative, both historically and theologically. The idea that the Bible came directly in its current form from God and never changed over the millennia is a standard position for some evangelicals, but one that, to most biblical scholars, is deeply problematic.
The text of the Bible has been subject to innumerable changes—some intentional, some accidental—over the course of its 2,000-year history of copying and editing. Even the text of the Torah scroll has not remained stable: the medieval period saw debates within Judaism about which manuscript should serve as the basis for the standard Torah scroll. (The one that eventually won out, and that serves as the basis for virtually all modern translations, including the King James, contains dozens of scribal mistakes.)
Some key figures connected with the Greens’ relatively recent history as collectors say that there’s another reason the museum owns so many Torah scrolls: because they are relatively cheap for the Greens to buy and, when donated to the museum, can be worth many times their purchase price in tax write-offs. (Other aspects of the Greens’ collecting practices, as has been well-documented, have been less than perfectly above board.) According to Scott Carroll, when they first started collecting biblical artifacts, the Greens wanted to identify artifacts for purchase that could be donated to the museum for tax purposes.
When Carroll began collecting for the Greens, he told us, the average cost of a decommissioned Torah scroll was between $1,000 and $1,500 apiece. But they could be appraised for a great deal more. The replacement cost for a Torah scroll in the United States varies from anywhere between $50,000 and $120,000; Carroll put a fair average at around $70,000. “And then you’re dealing with something that’s several centuries old, that survived the Holocaust, and this and that, and you’ve got these items reaching—it depends what they are, but $90,000 to $150,000 to $250,000 and even more.” (The price of a Torah scroll has increased. In a mid-2015 interview, Carroll told us they were selling at around $7,500-$10,000, still a substantial rate of return by anyone’s estimate.) At a tax write-off of up to 100 percent of the appraised value of each piece, Carroll said, “It’s a great opportunity to buy something that is [priced] low that would in a Western market appraise high.”
As with the Greens, the tax implications for the Larsons of donating Torah scrolls are not insubstantial, and are surely not unknown: they have used none other than Scott Carroll to help them identify and acquire their scrolls.
When we asked Steve Green how he decides which artifacts to donate to the museum, he confirmed that the donation process is driven by financial considerations. “I don’t know that there’s a lot of rhyme and reason to it,” he said. “It’s just what’s easy….We want to donate X amount, and we can do it with this [artifact].” He also acknowledged that scholarly research was being used for the purpose of financial valuation: “The more scholarly research, the better we know what it is, then an appraiser can accurately assess what it is.”
The problem was that scholarly research takes time. Green said that decisions about what to donate could be challenging because an item had not yet been fully studied, and therefore could not be properly valued. This, according to Carroll, is where the Torah scroll collection came in handy. They could be quickly appraised and donated without having to wait for scholars to finish research.
And this may well explain why the museum owns such a disproportionately large number of this particular artifact. When we asked whether this was the case, Museum of the Bible directed us to the Green Collection; the Green Collection declined to participate in this story.
If the math is right, this all means that the purchase and donation of these Torah scrolls has netted the Greens many millions of dollars worth of tax write-offs. These scrolls, the heritage of European Judaism, now sit in a display case at the museum or in storage, in the possession of one of the world’s most prominent evangelical families. Carroll noted that this situation may result in an unfortunate impression: “The Greens in some way have built... a Christian museum on the backs of Jewish items.”