WASHINGTON-The crown jewels can't compete: A cuneiform tablet from thousands of years ago, a Dead Sea scroll featuring Genesis 32, a New Testament papyri from the second century, an Ethiopian translation of the Bible from the Middle Ages, William Tyndale's 1526 translation of the New Testament.
The Green Collection, one of the largest private collections of biblical manuscripts and artifacts in the world, premiered Thursday night to a dazzled crowd of scholars, politicians, and businesspeople at the Vatican Embassy in Washington, D.C.
This is one of the rare instances of a family, the Greens of the Hobby Lobby retail empire, meticulously collecting a vast number of biblical manuscripts, about 30,000 items, and then making them available to the public. The collection's first exhibit, called Passages, will open at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art on May 16 and run through Oct. 16. The exhibit may appear at the Vatican later this year, and then in New York City for Christmas. Sometime in the next three to five years, the Greens plan to build a museum in one of three cities-Dallas, Washington, or New York-to permanently display the artifacts.
Steve Green, president of Hobby Lobby, traveled to Israel, Turkey, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and beyond to search out and buy the disparate manuscripts with the help of Scott Carroll, an expert in ancient and medieval documents. They pulled the massive collection together at a blinding speed: 17 months. Green, raised Pentecostal, is Baptist now, and has poured millions of dollars into Christian universities and nonprofit organizations. This project is his passion-"love of the book," he says-but he didn't want to collect biblical manuscripts like art enthusiasts would Picassos.
"The whole reason to collect them is to tell the story," Green told me. "We have amassed a collection not to be put in a closet but to share the Word. We want a very broad reach."
The museum will be nonsectarian, to reach more than the Christian community.
"It's intended to be a very academically sound presentation," Green said. "These are just the facts. You make your decision on what you choose to believe."
The Greens set up a board of scholars to analyze the works and will bring in other scholars as needed-so far 30 universities are involved.
The collection's debut at the Vatican Embassy made for an interesting ecumenical celebration of Scripture, given church history surrounding the spread of the Bible. On display in the embassy was a Catholic indulgence from 1525, and alongside it the papal bulls from the 1520s condemning Martin Luther (Luther had condemned in kind, calling the Pope the "anti-Christ."). Luther's translations of the Old and New Testaments lay beside the papal bulls. And across the room sat the Tyndale Bible, one of the first vernacular translations of Scripture, which helped spread Protestantism across Europe.
The idea of a private family buying artifacts from dealers and then creating a museum for the public, according to Carroll, "is an American phenomenon. It doesn't happen in Europe." Carroll, who will serve as director of the museum, had previously assembled a similarly vast collection for the Van Kampen family, but when the patriarch died, he said, the items weren't turned over to an institution, making his work "all for naught." Carroll said this as he held a seventh-century Syriac gospel, which he and Green bought from a London dealer. He then launched into a story about dissolving mummy masks and finding ancient texts from the lost library of Alexandria: "They used [the texts] like papier-mâché," he explained.