Ex-Toledoan sleuths out biblical relics for collectors

3/12/2012
BY DAVID YONKE
BLADE RELIGION EDITOR
Scott Carroll leads a tour of items from the Green Collection on display at the Vatican.
Scott Carroll leads a tour of items from the Green Collection on display at the Vatican.

Corrected version, changing the university from which anthropologist Morag Kersel is from.

Former Toledoan Scott Carroll doesn’t break into dusty tombs or dodge poisoned arrows, but the charismatic professor’s globe-trotting adventures in amassing the world’s largest private collection of rare biblical texts and artifacts have earned him the reputation of “the Indiana Jones of biblical archaeology.”

Mr. Carroll, a graduate of Sylvania High School, has purchased nearly 50,000 ancient biblical papyri, texts, and artifacts since November, 2009, for the Green Collection, funded by Steve Green and the Green family. The Oklahoma City-based owners of 499 Hobby Lobby retail stores in 41 states, the Greens have been bankrolling Mr. Carroll’s collecting with the ultimate goal of having the items displayed in a nonsectarian Bible museum.

“I tell the Greens that I trust them to know where to put a store, and they need to trust me to stock the shelves,” Mr. Carroll said in a telephone interview he gave The Blade from Rome, where the Green Collection this month opened an exhibit at the Vatican called Verbum Domini, or Word of the Lord. The exhibit, which is free and open to the public, features 152 artifacts displayed contextually in settings ranging from re-creations of the Qumran caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered to a monastic scriptorium and an excavation of a Roman garbage city in Egypt.

One of the main goals of the Vatican exhibit is to show the common links among Judeo-Christian religions, Mr. Carroll said.

“Some people, when they think of the Bible, they think of a book that is divisive. But in fact it is something that is a basis that unifies Jews, Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants on common ground,” he said. “It seemed to me that having an exhibit that celebrated these things they have in common, rather than the things that divide, would be enormously positive.”

Mr. Carroll said he has to laugh at opening an exhibit in Vatican City, seat of the global Roman Catholic Church, when he thinks of his childhood run-ins with the church.

“It’s kind of ironic because I was suspended and expelled from several Toledo Catholic schools in my upbringing,” he said. One of the expulsions, he added, was for setting fire to a church when he was in grade school.

“I chuckled at length talking to cardinals about my expulsions,” he said. “I was an athlete and rather rambunctious as a child — and that is putting it mildly. I was too active, not very self-disciplined, and ran into trouble.”

Toledo-area ties

Mr. Carroll, 53, played football and wrestled in school, first at St. Francis de Sales High and then at Sylvania High. He also played Division I football at West Virginia University. His wife, Denise Foreman Carroll, is a 1976 graduate of Toledo’s Central Catholic High School, where she was captain of the cheerleading squad. The couple, who have been married 32 years, live in Grand Haven, Mich., and have four adult children.

Scott Carroll, a Sylvania High School graduate, discusses highlights of the Verbum Domini, or Word of the Lord, exhibit at the Vatican. The display opened March 1 and will conclude April 15. The exhibit contains 152 biblical texts and artifacts from the Green Collection.
Scott Carroll, a Sylvania High School graduate, discusses highlights of the Verbum Domini, or Word of the Lord, exhibit at the Vatican. The display opened March 1 and will conclude April 15. The exhibit contains 152 biblical texts and artifacts from the Green Collection.
In college, Mr. Carroll said, he experienced “an intense spiritual awakening” that eventually led him to leave the Catholic Church and become a “Protestant by choice,” adding that he maintains “a deep appreciation for my Catholic upbringing.” Along with his new spirituality came a drive to understand the Bible’s historical backdrop and the languages in which it was written.

Mr. Carroll went on to obtain a master’s degree in church history from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and a doctorate in ancient studies from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and conducted post-doctoral work in ancient languages at Hebrew Union College.

In addition to being the director of the Green Collection, he is a research professor at Baylor University, a research scholar at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and a research associate at Tyndale House in Cambridge, England.

About six years ago, Mr. Carroll said, he met Steve Green, the president of Hobby Lobby and a devout Christian. The crafts stores close on Sundays, and the corporation’s mission statement says its purpose is, “Honoring the Lord in all we do by operating the company in a manner consistent with biblical principles.”

“I was introduced to the Greens around 2005 or 2006 by a friend of mine and I knew they had an interest in the Bible and religion, and that they had great success in business,” Mr. Carroll said. “Once a year for five years I went to them and just talked with them about the need for a nonsectarian museum of the Bible that really focuses on the research and importance of that book. For five years, they listened, but showed me the door.”

In 2009, when a handful of important biblical artifacts were to be sold at auction at Sotheby’s and Christie’s in London, Mr. Carroll again approached the Greens. This time they consulted as a family, asked Mr. Carroll to set a price, and gave him permission to bid.

“We were able to acquire five of seven items,” Mr. Carroll said.

Afterward, the Greens met him in Oklahoma City to discuss plans to obtain more biblical texts and artifacts.

“I speak 13 ancient languages but one language I didn’t know was Oklahoman,” Mr. Carroll said. “Their classic quote to me was, ‘What we’re going to do is we’re going to start slow.’ But starting slow means something totally different to me than it did to them.”

Acquiring artifacts

Since those first purchases 26 months ago, Mr. Carroll has traveled half-a-million air miles a year to personally inspect, buy, and bring home important items for the collection. With help from his staff, he has acquired nearly 50,000 artifacts with no plans of slowing down.

“We are rapidly acquiring at the same pace we have been over the last several years and have the green light as well to nurture new, additional benefactors,” Mr. Carroll said. “I fully anticipate developing a few more benefactors over the course of the next year or so that will perhaps acquire at the pace of the Greens, and this collection will continue to expand at this rate.”

He said the timing for building the collection has been good, with “objects coming to us virtually out of nowhere in these times of financial need.”

Mr. Carroll is amazed by the commitment of the Green family and their goal of sharing the collection with the public.

“It really is a remarkable collection and I appreciate the Greens’ trust and, of course, their generosity in support of the vision to do something like this with the hope of displaying the items in a museum. They are looking seriously at properties in Washington, D.C., by the Mall.”

Mr. Carroll acknowledged that some of the rarest artifacts cost multiple millions of dollars, but declined to discuss an overall budget or financial details of the collection.

“When it’s items people have lost their life for — and that’s across the board for all these different faith traditions — it’s priceless. I can say, having worked in this world for three decades, the financial commitment of the Greens is incalculable. It’s astronomical. It’s mind-boggling. It’s humbling.”

A fragment of papyrus found for the collection by Scott Carroll contains Bible verses.
A fragment of papyrus found for the collection by Scott Carroll contains Bible verses.
Richard Linenthal, an antiquarian bookseller in London, described the Green Collection and Mr. Carroll’s work as “an amazing achievement.”

“It’s quite extraordinary what they have achieved in the space of 2½ years, and it’s a work in progress with enormous plans for the future,” Mr. Linenthal said. “A lot of major libraries in the world have treasures like this but they are collections that usually are put together over a long period of time. Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard, Yale — these are the world’s greatest libraries that have these sorts of treasures.”

Mr. Linenthal said it requires money, knowledge, and vision to compile a collection like the Greens’.

“They have gone aggressively into the market to acquire important things. However, they don’t buy just anything. They know exactly what they’re doing. They can afford to buy on a large scale, but they are buying on a very careful plan,” he said.

Exhibit ‘well done’

Mr. Linenthal had just returned from Rome after seeing the Verbum Domini exhibit, which he said was “extremely well done” with contextual settings, lifelike animatronic figures, and glass displays made by the finest craftsmen in Milan, Italy.

“It was fun and I enjoyed it tremendously. You could actually sit and ‘talk’ to St. Jerome sitting in his cave about the translation of his Bible. When you have a large budget, you can get the best people to do the displays. It’s a little bit theatrical, but people enjoy that.”

Mr. Carroll said he wants to strike a balance between being entertaining without becoming “Disney-esque.”

Mr. Linenthal said Mr. Carroll may not wear a leather hat and crack a bullwhip like actor Harrison Ford in the Indiana Jones movies, but the scholar has become a star in the field of biblical archaeology because he has “a huge amount of energy, loves the material, knows a huge amount about it, and conveys his enthusiasm very well.”

Morag Kersel, an anthropologist at DePaul University, expressed concern that the Greens ensure all items are all obtained from legitimate sources. Many ancient artifacts are looted from excavations, she said, with their origins covered up by middlemen, and buyers can unknowingly purchase stolen or illegally obtained goods.

But Mr. Carroll said he has been diligent to ensure authenticity and legitimacy.

“We’ve been extremely careful to vet everything acquired and are fully aware of the issues and problems,” he said. “I work closely with international and national agencies reporting suspicious items that come our way.”

Among the highlights of the Green Collection are one of the largest private collections of Dead Sea Scrolls; 4,000 Jewish Torahs; rare illuminated manuscripts; early tracts and Bibles of Martin Luther, and the western hemisphere’s largest collection of cuneiform tablets, an early form of writing.

Mr. Carroll wants the Green Collection to serve scholars and academics as well as the general public. He said he’s been able to combine both his personal and his professional interests in the Bible and that his knowledge and his faith have both been enhanced through his decades of research.

“The study of the ancient languages and the archaeological backgrounds of the Bible have done nothing more than inspire and promote and strengthen my faith,” he said.

As for any resemblance to Indiana Jones, Mr. Carroll laughed and said he’s not qualified to make comparisons.

“I didn’t coin that, and, in fact, I’ve not seen all the movies. … But I do enjoy archaeology, I do enjoy making private discoveries of ancient texts, especially papyri, and I love finding new things. … I wake up in the middle of the night and every morning awestruck that I have the opportunity to do the things I’m doing and to work with the people I’m working with,” Mr. Carroll said.

Contact David Yonke at: dyonke@theblade.com or 419-724-6154