Theoretically the Greens could buy artifacts below market value and then, after an independent appraisal, donate them to the museum at market value. According to the museum’s available 990s from 2013-2015, the museum received about $537 million worth of donated artifacts. Hobby Lobby has experience with charitable giving; the company donates half of its pre-tax earnings to charity. “They’re just very shrewd business people with their giving and their buying as well,” said Carroll.
Eric White, now at Princeton University but then the curator for Southern Methodist University’s Biblical and theological library, knew Shipman and heard about his bidding practices at auctions on the Greens’ behalf—“winning everything in sight.” The general impression among academics was that the Greens were buying up anything and quickly, without much consideration. Booksellers told White that the Greens had bought whole collections and multiple copies of the same thing. Shipman had “the requisite faith and enthusiasm but little experience and no formal training,” White said in an email, though he added that Shipman never pretended to have expertise either.
Though White finds the Green collection interesting, he believes other Bible collections are greater—like those at the Vatican, the British Library, the Württembergische Landesbibliothek in Stuttgart, and the John Rylands University Library of Manchester—“all formed over centuries.”
“In my opinion, a library cannot buy intelligently in a big hurry, no matter how rich,” White said. “With the exception of Scott Carroll and possibly others, they did not seem to have the right people in place to do the hard work or to make those decisions, and the speed with which it was done just deepened the suspicion that the collection was large but ultimately not that well-chosen.”
In those early years, again per Carroll, the Green collection had a bare-bones staff, which made it “all the more chaotic.” Shipman set up the 2010 Dubai meeting where Green and Carroll viewed the 5,500 artifacts that Green was considering buying, according to Carroll. Carroll said he tried to dissuade Green from the trip twice on the grounds that it was suspicious, but Green demurred. After seeing the items, Carroll said he reiterated the risks around Iraqi artifacts. “He said, ‘My family is not averse to risk,’” Carroll recounted.
Before Hobby Lobby bought the 5,500 artifacts, the company brought in a top expert on illegal antiquities, DePaul University’s Patty Gerstenblith, to discuss legal requirements for importing antiquities with Green, Carroll, and others at the company. Carroll thought surely the Greens wouldn’t execute the purchase after that talk. Later Gerstenblith wrote a memo to Hobby Lobby’s counsel strongly advising against buying Iraqi artifacts. Next Carroll knew, the cuneiform tablets were arriving in Hobby Lobby warehouses.
Through his spokesperson Green declined an interview for this piece. He and his wife Jackie Green have a new book out, This Dangerous Book: How the Bible Has Shaped Our World and Why It Still Matters Today—but a scan of the book doesn’t show any mention of the smuggling settlement as the couple recounts building the Bible collection.
Offering a more critical take is another book just out, Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby by Joel Baden and Candida Moss. Bible Nation has some good reporting, but its tone is condescending toward the Greens, and the authors are plainly ignorant about some basics of the Christian world (for example, they equate the tithing of businessmen like the Greens with the prosperity gospel). They admit in the introduction that they had never heard of the Greens until four years ago, but they go on to make confident assertions about the Greens’ Christian motivations and beliefs.
More than a year after the Dubai transaction, Carroll and the Greens parted ways. The museum’s mission has shifted from its original approach (“to bring life to the living Word of God”) to something more subdued (“to invite people to engage with the Bible”). The hiring of David Trobisch as the new director of the collection also marked a shift. Trobisch is a liberal scholar who told Moss and Baden that the motivations of the conservative Christians he encountered in the course of the museum fundraising were “unbearable.”
From Carroll’s point of view, his departure was primarily because of the museum’s change in mission. As a more conservative Christian scholar, he felt he didn’t fit anymore. He emphasizes that he has no “ax to grind” with the Greens, and he’s hopeful about the success of the museum. While the museum’s mission is no longer so evangelical, the Greens haven’t changed: As their new book confirms, they have deep evangelical commitments to the Bible as the Word of God and think any encounter with Scripture—even academic—can be transformative.