A museum to learn about and enjoy the Bible in the heart of Washington, D.C.

Fifteen years have passed since the opening of the Museum of the Bible. The pedagogy of its exhibits makes it easy for visitors to understand the stories and the writing process of the best-selling book in history.

Gonzalo Meza-September 27, 2022-Reading time: 7 minutes
museum of the bible

"We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." (July 4, 1776). The beginning of the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America contains great ideals that thousands of Americans have defended throughout history. The buildings, streets, squares and gardens of the American capital, Washington D.C., pay tribute to them with monuments to remember their influence in shaping the nation. However, no one had paid attention to evoking another decisive factor: the Bible. To fulfill this function, the Museum of the Bible opened its doors, located just a few blocks from the National Mall (National Mall), the vast garden area surrounded by Smithsonian museums, national monuments and memorials. 

Only the Smithsonian Institution's network of museums (Smithsonian), includes 19 museums, galleries and even a zoo. 

A 21st century museum

The Museum of the Bible opened its doors in November 2017. It is a seven-story building covering nearly four thousand square meters. On display are objects spanning 4,000 years of the history of Christianity and the Word of God, from replicas of the Dead Sea Scrolls to the Bibles brought back by the first pilgrims on the Mayflower (1620) and the Bibles of the first settlers. The museum has temporary and permanent exhibits. Among the latter are: The impact of the Bible (second floor); Bible stories (third floor); The history of the Bible (fourth floor). The exhibition rooms admirably include state-of-the-art technology, providing visitors with an immersive and comprehensive reading of the themes on display. The museum also offers a virtual tour of emblematic Christian sites, such as the Holy Land or the streets of Galilee during the time of Jesus. 

The impact of the Bible in North America and around the world

What influence has the Bible in the political configuration of the U.S.? The second-floor collection, "The Impact of the BibleThe "American history of the United States" is intended to answer that question. You can't understand American history without understanding the influence of the Bible in the shaping of the nation. Thus, this section begins with the arrival of the first Pilgrims in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620 and traces the history of the Pilgrims to the present day. It also presents the enormous impact the holy book has on the world today, in movies, music, literature, and even fashion. 

The museum narrates the different Christian denominations that were established in the 13 colonies and the profound differences that existed among them and that affected their form of government and society. For example, in the North (New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut) the Puritans settled, who were not very tolerant of coexisting with other religions or denominations. In contrast, Rhode Island was a settlement founded by Baptists and Quakers, who were much more tolerant of other denominations in their territory. 

In discussing the Christianity of the 13 colonies in the eighteenth century, a section is devoted to the period called Great Awakening or the Great Evangelical Awakening (1730-1760), which caused a sharp increase in religious interest. It was led by Protestant leaders who moved from colony to colony to preach. Among the most prominent leaders were Anglican pastor George Whitefield. The Museum of the Bible speaks about this figure: "It is estimated that 20,000 people heard him speak at just one meeting in the Boston Commonand this was just one of more than 18,000 sermons he delivered. Whitefield brought the biblical stories to life in such a fascinating way that his listeners screamed, sobbed and even fainted." Moving on we come to the painful period of slavery and the struggle against that scourge, from its beginnings to the civil rights of the 1960s. This period is further overshadowed by the knowledge that the Bible was not always used to foster fervor and piety, but to perpetuate the slave system. At the beginning of the 19th century, there was an altered version of the Bibleknown as the "Bible of the slaves". Published in London in 1807, it was used by some British colonizers to convert and educate enslaved Africans. That book omitted sections and entire books of the holy book. 

Stories of the Bible

The third floor aims to take the visitor on a virtual tour through the Old and New Testament. In the first part you can take a virtual walk through the most significant events of the Old Testament, such as the story of Noah's Ark, the Exodus, and the Passover. At the end, it is possible to approach the New Testament through a 270-degree theater that offers an immersive projection narrating how the Apostles and first disciples of Jesus carried out his mandate to go and evangelize throughout the world. Finally, to physically connect the visitor with the real world of Jesus, a life-size replica of a city in Galilee is presented, featuring streets, stone houses, stables, water wells, and even a carpentry workshop. A group of artists bring this city to life through characters that embody the society and customs of that time and interact with visitors. 

The history of the Bible

The fourth floor offers an admirable tour of the various versions of the BibleThe collection includes the first Torah scrolls, from the earliest Torah scrolls to the movable versions. In the collection it is possible to appreciate fragments and original pieces of: The Gospel of John Papyrus (AD 250-350); the Prayer Book of Charles V (1516); the translation of the New Testament by Erasmus of Rotterdam (Novum Instrumentum Omne1516); the commentary on the Mishnah of Maimonides (incunabula of 1492); the Bear Bible (1569), i.e. the version translated into Spanish by the Reformer Casiodoro de Reina (1520-1594). It is called "del Oso" because of the publisher's emblem on the front page. This part of the museum also has a reading room where you can read the Bible in a space designed for meditation. At the end of the room, there is a simulated library where the Bibles in all the languages that have been translated. In this task of translating the Bible and make it accessible in all languages highlights the work of the American Bible Society (American Bible Society, ABS). This institution has collaborated with the Catholic Church by publishing translations approved by the American Conference of Catholic Bishops and even a lectio divinaavailable on its website. This work is praiseworthy because, as we learn at the Museum, there are dialects that still do not have a translation. For example, for the indigenous people of the Sierra Tarahumara, in northern Mexico, oral tradition is more important than paper. For this reason, although the Bible In the Rarámuri language since the 1970s, few indigenous people had access to it. To overcome this barrier, a few years ago LA ABS and other organizations made available to these communities 3,500 MP3 players with the oral version of the Old and New Testament in their language. 

Protestant influence

Although the Museum of the Bible claims not to be associated with any particular Christian denomination and claims to be impartial, it is possible to glimpse in the institution a narrative line linked to Anglo-Saxon evangelical Protestantism. Some examples. In the historical journey through the influence of the Bible In the different stages of the history of North America, very little is said about Catholicism and its presence and impact in Florida, Louisiana and northern New Spain (which today includes the states of California, New Mexico and Arizona). 

The history of the United States did not begin with the first Mayflower Pilgrims in 1620. Many decades earlier, the Gospel message was already reaching the Indian populations through Jesuits and Franciscans. One such group was led by Friar Pedro de Corpa and his Franciscan companions, who arrived in Georgia and Florida in the 16th century and suffered martyrdom at the hands of the natives in 1597 (their cause for beatification is being studied in Rome). This influence of the Catholic faith in the U.S. also left its legacy in large cities of the country that bear the name of Mary, the saints or the sacraments: "The Town of Our Lady, Queen of Angels" (California); the state of Maryland; San Antonio, Texas; San Francisco, San Diego and Sacramento in California; St. Augustine in Florida; Corpus Christi, Texas; Las Cruces New Mexico. It should be noted that the municipalities in Louisiana, a French colony in the 17th and 18th centuries, are called "parishes", and are the equivalent of a county, the most populous being the "city-parish" of New Orleans. 

Similarly, the Museum of the Bible evokes very little of the religious intolerance toward Catholics in American history. The first colonists fled from any form of monarchy in the Old Continent. They came to the 13 colonies in search of prosperity and religious freedom. Soon, however, some colonies became intolerant, particularly of Catholicism, whose bishops and priests they saw as the legates of a foreign government headed by a monarch, the Pope. The culmination of this intolerance towards Catholicism came in 1850 with the nativist political party Know Nothing and with his ally, President Millard Fillmore. An anecdote of this stage is the Washington Monument, made of marble, granite and steel. Donations were requested for its construction, which arrived not only in monetary form but also with blocks of stone and marble. In 1850 Pope Pius IX sent his donation: a block of marble from the Temple of Concord in the Roman Forum. In 1854, members of the Know Nothing When they learned that the pontiff had donated this block to join the others to form the monument, they broke it to steal it and then threw it into one of the Potomac's banks. Some fragments rescued from that stone are now part of the Smithsonian Institution's collection. 

To compensate for this void of Catholicism in the institution, the museum has established a relationship with the Church and more recently with the Vatican Museums. The result of this collaboration is the temporary exhibition Basilica Sancti Petri: The transformation of St. Peter's Basilicawhich presents the history of its construction and transformation by architects and artists such as Antonio da Sangallo, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Carlo Fontana, Agostino Veneziano and others. In addition, on the fifth floor there is the exhibition Mystery and Faith: The Mantle of Turinwhich, through sophisticated technology, explores the Cloak, presenting it as a mirror of the Gospels through the Crucified Face and Body of Our Lord. It is impossible to directly touch the textile of this piece in the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Turin, but it is possible to do so in this exhibition through a 3D replica that allows the visitor to feel each section of this sign of faith. 

For those who cannot make a transatlantic trip to visit the Museum of the Bible, there is a website where it is possible to visit its rooms and see some of the manuscripts in detail, Bibles or papyri and even listen to audios in English on topics as diverse as archaeological research in Israel; new discoveries in the city of King David; the Bible Hebrew; the role of the Bible in the conversion of inmates in prisons; and the Bible and U.S. foreign policy. The Bible Museum, in person or virtually, is a reference site for those who wish to delve into and learn more about the book that has changed the history of mankind.

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