In July, the Green family made headlines for the other ways they spend their money. After a federal investigation, the Greens had to return $1.6 million worth of clay cuneiform tablets they had bought from Iraq. The money did not, as some initially reported, fund ISIS; but it did prop up a thriving market in looted antiquities and hasten the cultural predation of Iraq. Once these details emerged, the Greens were ordered to pay a $3 million fine to the federal government for smuggling items out of Iraq and mislabeling the shipments; the Greens had called the artifacts “tile samples” and claimed they were purchased from Turkey, not Iraq. “We should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled,” Steve Green told NBC News at the time.
Moss and Baden say the Greens started collecting artifacts in 2009, after repeated pitches from Jonathan David Shipman and former Cornerstone University professor David Carroll. According to the authors, Shipman wanted to keep his own Bible museum project afloat; Carroll tells them that Shipman managed to nudge the Greens onboard by pointing out to them that there would be financial benefits to purchasing artifacts. As the authors note, antiquities constantly increase in value, meaning that items in the Greens’ collection are worth more over time, and there are other benefits. “The rationale, again, is a financial one,” they write. “These are objects that can be bought relatively cheaply, but can be valued quite highly for tax purposes.” The project has since expanded beyond Carroll and Shipman, neither of whom are currently associated with either the Green Collection or the Museum of the Bible. But the Greens adopted their ideas with force. By 2010, the Greens had already collected 30,000 pieces—a significant investment for a family that, barely a year before, possessed no real collection at all.
The prospect of Steve Green as Bible-thumping Indiana Jones is a tantalizing vision. But in Moss and Baden’s telling, the family have long been victims of bad actors and their own incompetence. This is where Bible Nation delves deepest, revealing the extent to which the idea that some things must be verified, rather than taken by faith, contradicts the family’s beliefs. The Greens admit that the world of archaeology and papyrology is not their world; that they rely on “experts” to inform them of an object’s authenticity and importance. Yet this has repeatedly led them into trouble as the claims of their own experts have been disputed, and the authenticity of their collections questioned.
Many of the Greens’ prize artifacts are of questionable provenance, Moss and Baden report. Reputable collectors typically establish an artifact’s provenance, or its history of ownership, to confirm that it is authentic, and that it hasn’t been looted from its country of origin. Considering the Greens’ intention to display these items in a museum setting, one would expect them to place particular emphasis on the provenance of their collection. But this is unfortunately not the case. Moss and Baden thoroughly document a disturbing catalogue of errors committed by the Greens and their hand-picked scholars; there are items acquired from eBay sellers, then analyzed by students and academics affiliated with the Green Scholars Initiative despite the fact many, if not most, have little experience in papyrology or related fields.
This means the Greens now possess a fair number of items that lack verified authenticity. Among them: A selection of purported Dead Sea Scrolls. Moss and Baden write that the Green scrolls belong to a “wave” of Dead Sea Scrolls that came on the market in 2002—and that “none” have “any reasonable provenance.” One scholar tells the authors that some of these newly available scrolls are likely forgeries. And there’s more trouble. Green scholars repeatedly destroyed mummy masks in hopes they would find Christian papyri, a practice they assure the authors they’ve stopped. One individual linked to the Green Collection claimed he smuggled a tenth-century psalter across international borders in his luggage.
Many of these artifacts will be on display on the Museum of the Bible, which is set to open this fall despite ongoing controversy over the validity of both the items and the way the Museum intends to display them. The Greens claim the Museum will be non-sectarian, but the act of presenting the Bible on its own, without commentary, is specifically Protestant. Though the Greens have worked with Jewish and Catholic leaders not only for the Museum of the Bible but for previous exhibits, Moss and Baden conclude that they’ve unwittingly facilitated a fundamentally Protestant endeavor—a version of “Protestant triumphalism,” they call it.
Bible Nation is, in part, a family saga. The Greens possess a multi-generational vision not just of a Christian America but of a Christian world, and they suffer from a striking inability to see its contradictions and flaws. The same trait eventually doomed the Greens’ attempt to create a Bible curriculum for public schools, which they tried and failed to place in Mustang, Oklahoma public schools. As I and others reported at the time, the curriculum violated basic First Amendment requirements to teach the Bible as literature or history, not as true doctrine; the Mustang school district eventually dropped the plan. The Greens have since revamped the class, Moss and Baden say, and though it’s more secular than its predecessor it still presents an essentially Protestant view of the Bible. Judging from Moss and Baden’s account, the new curriculum is unlikely to survive a First Amendment challenge if a public school ever tries to take it up.
Steve Green does not seem to understand that the new curriculum has many of the problems of the old one. “My family has no problem supporting those that are out there evangelizing, we do that. But this one is a different role, it has a different purpose. A public school is not the place to evangelize, that’s what the church’s role is; a public school is for education to teach the facts,” he says. In Green’s view, the curriculum he has created does present the facts. He is similarly convinced that the Museum of the Bible is non-sectarian, just as he is convinced that the Constitution does not stipulate a strong wall between church and state. Green genuinely believes he is telling the truth. “We’re buyers of items to tell the story. We pass on more than we buy because it doesn’t fit what we are trying to tell,” he says of his artifacts. It’s not clear that he understands this to be the work of a propagandist.
The Greens are not the sole creators of the fun-house mirror world we inhabit, but they help sustain it. American evangelicals embrace them; the Supreme Court takes them seriously; Donald Trump, a man David Green enthusiastically endorsed, is president and panders to the family’s political allies. The Greens can say whatever they want. This is their nation, and we are their subjects.