‘Passages' seeks to biblically enlighten

It’s rare to find a working replica of the Gutenberg press, an animatronic Anne Boleyn and a slice of the Dead Sea Scrolls in one location -- or, for that matter, anywhere.

But “Passages,” the traveling exhibition spotlighting what it is being called the world’s largest private collection of rare biblical texts and artifacts, is unique both in idea and staging.

The nonsectarian presentation debuted in Oklahoma City in May, a fitting unveiling since the collection belongs to the Green family, the founder-owners of the Hobby Lobby arts and crafts chain, which is based there.

Atlanta is the second stop for “Passages,” which will be stationed here through April and have a modified version open at the Vatican during the Catholic Lenten season.

“They want this to be an exhibit for the world,” said Aaron Rutherford, managing director of “Passages,” which is sprawled through a former retail site on Hammond Drive across from Perimeter Mall.

Rutherford said that a combination of numerous large churches in the area, as well as 23,000 square feet of readily available space to accommodate the 450-plus artifacts in the exhibit, contributed to choosing Atlanta.

Also, he noted, the fact that there are 17 Hobby Lobbys from Atlanta to Carrollton probably didn’t hurt.

Steve Green, president of Hobby Lobby, is a recent collector, procuring his first biblical artifact in 2009. But by enlisting Scott Carroll, a renowned scholar of ancient and medieval manuscripts, to direct the collection, Green’s status quickly elevated to mega-collector, and his dream of making the Bible accessible so people could understand its influence was realized.

Among the extremely rare finds by Carroll -- jokingly referred to as the “Indiana Jones of biblical antiquities” -- is the last will of Martin Luther, signed the night before his excommunication; the world’s largest collection of Jewish scrolls, including Torahs confiscated by the Nazis; and a large portion of the Gutenberg Bible.

All are showcased amid a maze of fiberglass walls shrouded with tapestries, creating segmented areas focusing on, for example, early Reformation bibles or European translations of the book.

Some areas include animatronic characters -- Louie the Lion roars at the start of the exhibit to inform children how he will help guide them through, and William Tyndale laments his fate while awaiting being burned at the stake -- while other nooks feature activities for visitors, such as having Psalms freshly printed on the Gutenberg press replica.

Carroll, speaking earlier this week from Rome, where he was meeting about the Vatican exhibit, said it’s impossible for him to identify his most prized discovery since his answer constantly changes.

“It’s like ‘Sophie’s Choice,' ” he said with a laugh. “In the collection, all of those things are precious to me and have been chosen out of a large assemblage of items. But if I really had to choose, I’d say the ‘Codex Climaci Rescriptus.’ It’s part of what would be one of the earliest near-complete Bibles, and it provides for us the Scripture in Jesus’ mother tongue.”

Others might gravitate toward the room that showcases the editions of the King James Bible that required corrections, such as the “Wicked” bible from 1631 that inadvertently eliminated the “not” in the seventh commandment (“Thou shalt not commit adultery”).

While Rutherford expects Atlanta traffic to exceed the 65,000 who visited the Oklahoma City exhibit during its tenure, the ultimate goal of the Green family and Carroll is to create a permanent museum, likely in Washington, D.C.

Carroll said the hope is to procure property within the next year followed by a three-to-five-year build-out.

But for the moment, the aspirations of the “Passages” team are for people to glean a richer understanding of the Bible from the exhibit.

“For someone who has no interest in the Bible, we hope they would walk away saying, ‘My goodness, what a fabulous book and a fascinating story that had a major impact on culture,' ” Carroll said. “But people on the other end of the extreme that have a strong religious beliefs system, their view of the Bible would be inspired by its story. [We want people] to have an understanding of the embroidery of history and have a deeper, more sophisticated appreciation of the story.”

Exhibit

“Passages”

10 a.m.-6 p.m. Mondays-Wednesdays, Fridays-Saturdays; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursdays; noon-5 p.m. Sundays. Through April 30. $18.95 (adults); $12.95 (children 6-18); $16.95 (seniors 62 and older). Children 5 and under free. Multi-day passes $36.95. Discounts available for military and college students. Perimeter Expo Center, 1201 Hammond Drive N.E., Atlanta. 770-804-9427, www.explorepassages.com/atlanta.

Upcoming lectures

Keynotes are held at 7 p.m. in the "Passages" lecture hall at the exhibit location. Tickets are free, but required. Some highlights include:

Jan. 17: Scott Carroll, the Green Collection and the role of ancient African texts in the Bible's survival

Jan. 24: Lauren Winner, reading the Bible in unusual geographic places

Jan. 31: Tim Larsen, how reading the Bible saved civilization

Feb. 21: Robert E. Cooley, the greatest archaeological discoveries and the New Testament

March 27: Charles Bressler, the Bible's influence on America through C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien

April 3: Peter Flint, the contents and challenges of the Dead Sea biblical scrolls

April 24: Peter Ward, "Gods Behaving Badly -- Bible's Message for Modern Issues"