By Mike Haynes
The new Museum of the Bible appears to be a good fit with the Smithsonian and other national museums in Washington, D.C. Its director, Dr. Tony Zeiss certainly thinks so.
Zeiss, who took over as the MOTB executive director in 2017 three days after retiring from
|Dr. Tony Zeiss|
Museum of the Bible
But he pointed out that people already versed in the Bible – such as many Texas Panhandle residents – will feel at home in the renovated refrigeration building just one subway stop from the National Mall.
“We don’t interpret the Bible; we don’t promote any one faith tradition; we don’t promote any religion. We’re nonsectarian,” Zeiss said. “And we had to do that for obvious reasons. You limit your audience if you try to say, ‘This is just for Catholics, or this is just for Jewish people, or this is just for Protestants.
“The Bible is the foundation for at least seven, probably more, faith traditions, so we want to honor all of those, but really, we just want to focus on the Bible. We think the Bible will speak for itself.
“And I know the great people in West Texas, that’s what they would say. We don’t have to flaunt one thing or another; we just say, ‘Hey, let people get engaged with the Bible, and it will speak for itself.”
Zeiss, 71, has some credibility when talking about Texans. The Indiana native’s Texas wife, Beth, is from Copperas Cove. He was a dean at Central Texas College in Killeen, where Beth was a library director. Zeiss, a Church of Christ Sunday school teacher, was on the board of Dallas-based motivational speaker Zig Ziglar for eight years.
As an educator, Zeiss said he has spoken at Amarillo College, and he is a longtime friend of former AC President Bud Joyner. And he has been an outdoor writer for Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine and for Centex Sportsman.
In addition, Zeiss has written more than 20 books on leadership, history and other topics.
The MOTB features documents that excite scholars, such as the Codex Climaci Rescriptus, which was one of the first artifacts the Greens bought in 2009. The CCR is a fifth to ninth century document that features Syriac script written over Greek biblical text that has been scratched off but is readable with multi-spectral imaging. Such modern technology is used by MOTB researchers, and museum visitors also will see high-tech features on each of the four main floors.
|Christianity Today magazine cover,|
The cover of Christianity Today magazine last November, the month the facility opened, showed a Bible under glass. Zeiss said that image could be misleading; he described the $42 million spent on technology and interactive activities such as video tables where guests can write their own reactions with their fingers and the Hebrew Bible 45-minute walk-through experience that includes a realistic, brightly burning bush from the book of Genesis.
“The fire department heard about it and came over here to see it, not realizing there’s no fire to it,” Zeiss said.
Years before the museum opened, its staff was posting Facebook videos and other social media items with scholars explaining biblical art, pieces of Egyptian papyrus or the ongoing construction of the “World of Jesus of Nazareth.”
“We’ve created as much of an interactive experience as possible,” Zeiss said. “Especially, you look at millennials and younger, that’s what they want; that’s what they’ve grown up with.
“We were up somewhere just below the Louvre in terms of hits on social media. People want to know about it. And they sense that we’re making history here.”
He also recommended a New Testament video in a wraparound theater.
“I took Ambassador Ron Dermer from Israel and his family on a tour, and they liked that as much as they like the Hebrew Bible experience,” he said.
Dermer’s involvement is typical of the wide net the museum has spread in its exhibits, research and education efforts. He said the MOTB board wanted to avoid criticism of its quality and focus.
“We knew we needed academic credibility from the get-go, or we would get all sorts of criticism,” Zeiss said. “You’re going to get it anyway; it’s the Bible, probably one of the most criticized books in the history of mankind.
“So we have used over 100 scholars to vet everything you read, every video you watch, every word you hear, for accuracy and authenticity.
“That in itself was a huge task, because we had Hebrew scholars, Catholic scholars, Protestant scholars and scholars of no faith. To get them to come together and synthesize all of that, to come together and agree on how these things should be presented, was pretty major.”
Some religion-based attractions, such as the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter in Kentucky, promote a particular Christian agenda.
“We’re not,” Zeiss said. “That’s how we were able to achieve loans from world-class museums around the world. This is the first, as far as I know, comprehensive, world-class museum to the Bible in history.”
The MOTB has attracted temporary exhibits from the Israeli Antiquities Authority, the Vatican, the Bavarian State Library in Munich, Germany, and from Jewish libraries in Amsterdam. Zeiss said the Israeli collection is from the national museum in Jerusalem.
“They have never loaned out their artifacts before, but they believe in this concept, and so they have an entire gallery and sent over 1,250 artifacts,” he said.
A temporary exhibit on the song, “Amazing Grace,” coincided with a musical in the MOTB’s World Stage Theater and focused on the role the anti-slavery movement played in John Newton’s writing the celebrated song.
Another example of the museum’s ecumenical approach is the year-long residency of Rabbi
|Rabbi Eliezer Adam of Jerusalem is a scribe spending a year|
at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. Adams
demonstrates to visitors how scribes copied the Torah centuries ago.
(Photo by Mike Haynes)
“You ought to see how he captures people’s attention,” Zeiss said.
Beyond the D.C. building, the MOTB has wide-ranging research and educational programs. The Scholars Initiative pairs college students with academic experts, and a digital-based curriculum ties in with the MOTB’s three areas of focus: the Bible’s history, narrative and impact.
About 100,000 high school students in Israel already are beta-testing the material, Zeiss said, along with 40,000 in Great Britain and some at U.S. Christian private schools. “Again, it’s nonsectarian,” Zeiss said. “It’s just about the Bible.”
As president of community colleges in Pueblo, Colorado, and Charlotte, North Carolina, Zeiss was known for getting projects done and raising funds for them. Now he faces a challenge of generating more than $36 million a year to operate a museum with 170 full-time and 35 part-time employees. Admission to the MOTB is free, so income comes from gift shop and other sales, museum member donations and guests’ suggested donations.
Then-Charlotte Chamber President Bob Morgan told Charlotte Magazine in 2012, “What I love about Dr. Zeiss is that he’s passionate about whatever he’s passionate about. And he’s passionate about many things.”
One of those things is the Bible, which seems to make him a good fit for this museum. “That’s why I’m here,” he said.