KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
The newest museum in Washington D.C. is dedicated to a single book. The Museum of the Bible opens next week. It's a $500 million project privately funded. It puts interactive exhibits next to artifacts and manuscripts. NPR's Tom Gjelten reports the museum rivals a theme park in design.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: The museum founders and designers want visitors to feel the story of the Bible - where it was written, what was going on when it was written.
CARY SUMMERS: This is Nazareth.
GJELTEN: Cary Summers, the museum president, shows us a recreation of the village of Nazareth as it was in the time of Jesus.
SUMMERS: This is where Jesus was raised. You know, he was born in Bethlehem, based the first few years in Egypt. The family comes back. They settle in Nazareth.
GJELTEN: The dwellings are of limestone that actually came from Nazareth. There are gardens with olive trees and birds. The sounds were actually recorded in Nazareth, so you feel like you're right back there alongside Jesus and his disciples.
SUMMERS: I mean, there was animals. And it was donkeys and hammering and - these were rugged guys - I mean, this - wow. And so that's what this really more represents.
GJELTEN: Museum guides dressed in clothing from that time will explain how Jesus conveyed lessons through the use of parables. This experiential approach will be seen throughout the museum. Visitors will learn about the development of the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, by walking through an exhibit that begins with Abraham and ends with the Book of Ruth. Summers says the mission is to acquaint visitors with the story of the Bible, not turn them into believers, not even to convince them the Bible is the word of God.
SUMMERS: We don't use the word that it's inspired. We don't go down that road. We're just trying to present it, just talking about the Bible itself.
GJELTEN: The museum does have a point of view, as seen in its description of the Bible's impact here in the United States.
SUMMERS: How did the Bible influence the founding of America and the functioning of America? Let's go in. We'll take a look.
GJELTEN: Glass cases here hold a variety of early colonial writings with Scripture references and the historic Bibles that inspired them.
SUMMERS: So we start with some of the earliest, you know, items - the 1614 King James, the Geneva Bible, which was really the base of most translations in America.
GJELTEN: The Museum of the Bible was largely funded by a billionaire Christian family, the Greens, founders and private owners of the Hobby Lobby chain of arts-and-crafts stores. This is the family that went to the Supreme Court to challenge on religious grounds the Obamacare contraceptive mandate.
CANDIDA MOSS: I would say that the Green family has been more successful at impacting religion in the public square here in America than really any other recent group.
GJELTEN: Candida Moss is the author of a new book, "Bible Nation: The United States Of Hobby Lobby." She worries the Green family connection means the museum has an evangelical agenda.
MOSS: They did try to put a Bible curriculum in public schools, and so I wouldn't want to underestimate the impact of this museum on people who come to visit it.
GJELTEN: In truth, the museum directors make no secret of their Christian convictions. Cary Summers acknowledges that board members have been asked to sign a statement of faith.
SUMMERS: I mean, it's just a commonality there. We're going to operate by the Bible. We believe in the Bible.
GJELTEN: But the museum says it's committed to a nonsectarian approach. Seth Pollinger, the museum's content director, says the Bible means different things in different faith traditions.
SETH POLLINGER: We have already realized this is at times offensive to Jewish audiences that say, well, when you say the Bible speaking from a Christian perspective, you're including the New Testament. But we don't include it. And so we - you know, I think we're working hard to try to find ways to nuance it. We don't feel like we need to steer people to the answer, the Bible.
GJELTEN: The museum has nonetheless provoked a buzz. Archaeologists have questioned the authenticity of some of the artifacts that came from Green family collections. In response, the museum has instituted measures to ensure all their items are legitimate. And the museum is getting praise for its efforts to educate people about what is still the best-selling book in the history of the world. Tom Gjelten, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF TOSCA'S "NATURAL HIGH")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.