Hobby Lobby's Bible museum forced to give Iraq back prized stolen religious artifact

Hobby Lobby's Bible museum forced to give Iraq back prized stolen religious artifact
Jackie and Steve Green, image via Screengrab.

Hobby Lobby has been one of the powerhouses behind muddying our country's separation of church and state. Before the Supreme Court became stacked with radical right-wing legal embarrassments, it was still a painfully conservative court. In 2014, they handed down a decision allowing Hobby Lobby and other privately owned corporations to hide behind sexist religious beliefs in order to deny women federally mandated contraception coverage in their health care. Steve Green is the president of Hobby Lobby, which he inherited control over back in 2004 from its founder, his father David Green.

Steve has in turn done all kinds of wondrous things (including the aforementioned fighting against women's reproductive rights), like founding—and mostly paying for—the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. Green did this because his family has been collecting an outrageous volume of ancient artifacts since 2009, and they wanted to show to the world the relics of their wealth and religious worldview. Of course, since 2015, Green and his Bible museum have been under investigation for both the authenticity of some of the artifacts, as well as the legality of their acquisition by these Christian crusaders. And since those investigations began, Hobby Lobby has been forced to give back tens of thousands of stolen artifacts.

On Wednesday, Hobby Lobby agreed on parting with one of their most prized, and stolen, possessions.

The Museum of the Bible will be returning the Gilgamesh Tablet to Iraq "after the Justice Department concluded it was stolen around the start of the Gulf War and sold illegally in the U.S. market." Known as the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, the clay artifact is about 3,500 years old and considered to be one of the oldest preserved religious texts and works of literature. Hobby Lobby bought the tablet for $1.67 million in 2014 in order to put it in Green's Museum of the Bible. It is believed to have been looted from an Iraq museum in 1990.

A big part of starting a Bible museum is getting Bible-times stuff. Unfortunately for Green, most ancient Bible-days artifacts can only be found in the areas around where that famous Palestinian Jew, Yeshua of Nazareth, lived. Double unfortunately, getting one's hands on thousands of artifacts from not in your literal backyard usually requires lots of looting. In a series of decisions and settlements, Hobby Lobby has had to pay hefty fines and return tens of thousands of artifacts in a couple of different decisions.

In August, it was reported that Iraq had repatriated around 17,000 stolen artifacts from the United States, 12,000 of which came from Hobby Lobby's Museum of the Bible. At the time, the Gilgamesh Tablet was not among the repatriated items. The museum had received so many items in such a short time that thousands of those items had yet to be researched and it is still unknown what exactly they had.

This wholesale approach to artifact collection has also led them to reportedly purchase stolen artifacts not just from looters but from a scholar who has been disgraced for both bad scholarship as well as robbery.

Christ Church professor Dirk Obbink was arrested on 2nd March 2020 for alleged theft of ancient papyrus from the Sackler Classics Library in Oxford. Professor Obbink was suspended from his duties at the University in October 2019 following allegations that he had stolen up to 120 pieces of ancient papyrus owned by the Egypt Exploration Society collection, housed in the Sackler Library.

One of the things Obbink ended up passing along to Hobby Lobby was a fragment from the Gospel of Mark that Obbink had made scholarly waves with by claiming he could date it to the first century CE—potentially making it an incredibly important piece.

According to Obbink, the words might have been copied down within 30 years of the date of the original biblical manuscript. There are no known biblical manuscripts from earlier than the second century, so this was a major discovery. (The fragment is now believed to date to the second or third century.)

In the Green's defense, investigators say that the providence of various artifacts, including the Dream Tablet, were misrepresented to Hobby Lobby buyers by the auction house they bought them through, and Obbink was a well-known professor at the University of Oxford before his downfall. Not in the Green's defense, they amassed what amounted to be the largest private collection of rare biblical texts and artifacts in less than a decade. Hobby Lobby has launched a lawsuit against the auction house.

Steve Green and his wife Jackie have authored a few books, including This Dangerous Book (2017 and This Beautiful Book (2019)—about the same book! It's dangerous and beautiful, just like Steve Green and his appetites for material things.

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