The Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. returned a centuries-old Gospel manuscript to the Greek Orthodox Church last week, prompted by revelations that the artifact had been looted from a Greek monastery during World War I. The move is part of the museum’s broader efforts to investigate its collections, following a series of acquisition scandals that have tainted the institution’s reputation.
Known as the Eikosiphoinissa Manuscript 220, the artifact dates to the late 10th or early 11th century. For hundreds of years, it was used during liturgical services at the Kosinitza Monastery in northern Greece, reports the New York Times’ Jane Arraf. In March 1917, it was among 431 manuscripts that were stolen from the monastery by a band of Bulgarian partisans, who operated in northeastern Greece during World War I, per the Museum of the Bible’s website.
The museum says that it began investigating the manuscript’s provenance in 2019, after Greg Paulson, a religious scholar at the University of Müenster, suggested that it was among the artifacts that had been looted from Kosinitza. The investigation revealed further evidence that this was the case, including the initials “M.K.” penciled onto the back cover of the manuscript; other manuscripts stolen from the Kosinitza Monastery in 1917 were marked with the same letters, indicating the place from which they had been taken.
The museum’s founders—the owners of the craft chain Hobby Lobby—acquired the manuscript at a Christie’s auction in 2011. Before that, it had been sold in 1958 by a New York-based antiquarian.
Next month, the manuscript will finally return to the Kosinitza Monastery, reports the Times.
Backed by the family of Hobby Lobby founder David Green, the Museum of the Bible is a $500 million ode to the Bible and its “transformative power.” In 2009, Hobby Lobby president Steve Green began amassing a trove of Middle Eastern antiquities for the planned museum, which opened its doors in 2017. And from the start, the institution has been dogged by criticism about its haphazard acquisition practices.
Months before the museum’s opening, federal prosecutors in New York announced that Hobby Lobby and the Green family had acquired at least 5,500 cuneiform tablets and other Iraqi artifacts “fraught with red flags,” which were shipped under labels misleadingly describing them as “ceramic tiles.” Hobby Lobby agreed to pay a $3 million fine and forfeit the artifacts.
But other scandals followed. In 2019, the museum announced that it would return 13 biblical fragments on papyrus, in the wake of allegations that the artifacts had been stolen by an Oxford University professor and sold to Hobby Lobby. In March 2020, an investigation commissioned by the museum revealed that all of its Dead Sea Scrolls were fake. That same month, Steve Green agreed to return 11,500 artifacts from his collection to Iraq and Egypt. More recently, Hobby Lobby forfeited a rare cuneiform tablet, inscribed with a portion of the Epic of Gilgamesh, to the United States government; the artifact was ultimately repatriated to Iraq.
“In 2009, when I began acquiring biblical manuscripts and artifacts for what would ultimately form the collection at Museum of the Bible, I knew little about the world of collecting,” said Green in a 2020 statement. He added, “These early mistakes resulted in Museum of the Bible receiving a great deal of criticism over the years. The criticism resulting from my mistakes was justified.”
Jeffrey Kloha, the Museum of the Bible’s chief curatorial officer, tells the Times that the institution is now much more rigorous in its methods of acquisition.
“If we don’t have every detail filled in, it’s simply not considered,” he says. “The process is very different than it was 10 years ago.”
While its collection practices were, at one time, notably chaotic, the Museum of the Bible is not alone in reckoning with its artifacts’ troubling histories. In recent years, institutions around the world—including the Smithsonian—have been working to repatriate stolen cultural treasures.
Still, many heritage objects remain in collections far from their homes. The Greek Orthodox Church, for example, has asked several other American institutions to return other manuscripts believed to have been looted from the Kosinitza Monastery. The Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago agreed to comply with this request in 2016; a lawsuit involving Princeton University remains unresolved.
“I think the Museum of the Bible is a great example of how not to build a collection, but I do wish other American museums would follow its example when dealing with their own existing problematic collections,” Tess Davis, executive director of the Antiquities Coalition, tells the Times. “In this case, curators saw red flags, they followed where they led, realized the manuscript was stolen, reached out to its rightful owners and voluntarily returned it.”