How A Radiologist’s 45 Years Of Collecting American Manuscripts Fed A Museum Display About The Bible

How A Radiologist’s 45 Years Of Collecting American Manuscripts Fed A Museum Display About The Bible

As someone who has spent decades studying how dissenting opinions have shaped our republic, Ted Steinbock has high hopes for the new Museum of the Bible in Washington DC.
Caroline D'Agati
By

The National Mall recently welcomed a new neighbor—the Museum of the Bible. Despite its founders’ evangelical background, the museum is not an evangelistic enterprise. It strives to show the Bible as a pivotal force in history.

One of the museum’s particular strengths is its Bible in America exhibit. It demonstrates the centrality of the Bible to American history, from priceless works by colonial-era ministers to a Jet Magazine article about Billy Graham. Although the works span centuries, continents, languages, and demographics, the Bible is the one common thread through the whole story.

What’s perhaps almost as fascinating as the tightly woven narrative is that Museum of the Bible scholars and historians didn’t really have to stitch that narrative together themselves. A radiologist in Kentucky had spent the last 45 years doing it for them.

A Show in Cuba

The story behind the story began in Cuba. In 2012, the Green family, the Museum of the Bible’s main donors, put on an exhibition in Havana—no small feat in a nation still heavily controlled by anti-religious dictator Fidel Castro’s iron fist. With world-renowned scholar Dr. David Trobisch guiding the show, the Greens sought historic artifacts that would enhance the exhibition’s impact.

Given exhibition’s controversial subject, it’s shocking the Castro regime allowed it. After all, the topic was hugely subversive. It had challenged authorities for millennia. It had been the justification for wars, revolutions, slavery, colonization, and liberation. The Greens’ Havana exhibition was about the Bible.

To examine the role of religion in Cuba’s colonial period and the slave trade, they searched for a series of nine tracts written by a Dominican friar in the 1500s. “A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies” was written by Bartolomé de las Casas in 1552-1553. In it, he urges the king of Spain to stop cruelties against the peoples of the Caribbean. Only 10 complete sets of the tracts survive. And Ted Steinbock had one.

‘If You Stop Learning, You Stop Living’

Dr. Robert Ted Steinbock and his wife Sarah live in Louisville, Kentucky. Both have impressive full-time jobs: Ted is a radiologist and Sarah a county attorney for the Metro Louisville government. But it’s what they do with their free time that brought them in touch with the Greens for the Cuban Bible expo: the Steinbocks own more than 12,000 historic manuscripts, papers, and books dating from the fifteenth century through the civil rights movement.

Ted has been collecting for more than 45 years. He bought his first rare book as an undergraduate at Harvard University—the Puritan minister Cotton Mather’s religious history of New England. He now owns 13 copies of the same title because, in his words, “You’re okay with one, but two is better and three is a collection!”

Steinbock strikes those he meets with an earnest and insatiable curiosity. At age 65, a medical doctor with two Harvard degrees could easily feel he’s learned enough for a lifetime. But not Steinbock. His books are not the vanity collection of a millionaire, kept under lock and key. They are the well-read, beloved signposts on the journey of a humble lifelong learner.

While most folks might see it as a mark of pride to graduate from college in only three years, Steinbock sees the lost fourth year as a missed opportunity. That has been part of what inspired his collecting. “It’s been an intellectual journey for me… At least in part, this all has been my way of continuing my education. If you stop learning, you stop living.”

Museum of the Bible Invites Visitors to Think Critically

Given his enthusiasm for the Museum of the Bible’s mission, one might assume that Steinbock’s collection is inspired by his personal ideology. After all, why else would someone purchase a Puritan book entitled, “The Day of Doom: or, A Poetical Description of the Great and Last Judgment?” Surely he must be another devout Protestant.

He is not. Steinbock was raised in a Catholic family and believes the Bible has been a force for good in American history, but he’ll tell you that he does not wear his beliefs on his sleeve. “I’m not collecting these to justify my own view or because they confirm my views of religion, but because they’re important in their historical context. And they also resonate with me just because of the conviction with which people were writing.”

He sees this same objective, scholarly approach throughout the museum. Although much hay has been made about accusations of unlawful acquisition of artifacts or sub-par scholarship, Steinbock has no such reservations. He asserts that Museum of the Bible staff have been nothing but thorough in vetting the authenticity and accurately describing the historic importance of his pieces.

He also has great trust in the integrity of the Green family and their honest desire for people to think critically about the museum. “As I go through it, I don’t see any one story, one preaching. They have made this a very objective story about the Bible and its effect on history and the world today. And it’s up to the individual to take away the information that they get here and read more about different things that are expressed and shown in the collection and storyline.”

Stewarding History for the Future

As someone who has spent decades studying how dissenting opinions have shaped our republic, Steinbock has high hopes for the museum. In an age where many visitors will be skeptical or unfamiliar with the Bible, he believes that the museum has a critical role to play.

“That’s why I think the Museum of the Bible is so important,” he says. “It shows the incredible impact of the Bible on history, literature, music, the arts, geography, and science. Just as the Bible has many chapters, the story of the Bible in the world has many chapters, and I find each one fascinating.”

Visitors will find most of Steinbock’s pieces in the temporary exhibit Amazing Grace and the permanent Bible in America exhibit. The artifacts currently on display are on long-term loan to the museum. But with such faith in the museum’s mission, Steinbock hopes they will eventually be donated or purchased as part of Museum of the Bible’s permanent collection. He wants scholars, students and visitors to be able to learn from his collection—and he believes Museum of the Bible will be the best place to do that.

Caroline D'Agati is a writer, former park ranger, and New Jersey expatriate living in DC. She studied English at Georgetown and media studies at The New School. You can follow her on Twitter at @carodagati.

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