When I told people that I was traveling to LaGrange to write about the Biblical History Center, most thought I was joking, and others imagined a version of the Creation Museum in Kentucky or the Holyland Experience in Orlando.
I didn’t exactly know what I was getting into, but I needed to experience this unique place so close to home.
When you walk into the center, you are greeted by affable staffers who epitomize small-town Southern hospitality.
Before group tours, visitors watch a short video introducing the facility and preparing them for the forthcoming experience. The upbeat video features the founder and CEO of the center, James Fleming, explaining the main themes and displays.
The video asks an interesting question: “What do Paris (Louvre), New York City (Metropolitan Museum of Art) and LaGrange have in common?”
Answer: Each of the three cities houses large quantities of authentic biblical artifacts on loan from the Israel Antiquities Authority.
The LaGrange center is one of seven such museums in the world. It also is the only museum in the Southeast that Israeli authorities have entrusted with a long-term collection of 250 artifacts, including a 5,000-year-old game board and several oil lamps used by early Christians.
After the introductory video, I perused the gift shop, which gave an impression similar to a typical Christian bookstore combined with the famous shuk in the Old City of Jerusalem, replete with wooden engravings, colorful dishes, and religious paraphernalia such as menorahs and shofars.
I passed on the Bamba and Chanukah gelt.
Established in 2005, the center was known as the Explorations in Antiquity Center until last year. It primarily caters to regional church groups and Christian school tours.
Several people at the center said its purpose is to help people understand the Bible (mostly the New Testament) and the ancient world in the proper historical-cultural context by providing exact replicas of ancient life settings, along with modern teaching based on current archaeology and biblical scholarship.
Fleming and others often lecture on topics relating to the New Testament, the Tanakh and secular biblical-historical scholarship.
There are clear, albeit inconsistent, attempts at balancing the need to be inclusive religiously with maintaining its core in secular, scientific archaeology.
“Most of our visitors are Christian, yet we do have Jewish visitors as well,” Fleming said. “All of our trained guides and staff use descriptive language and are aware of their audiences. We try to keep it academic yet accessible to everyone.”
So how did a biblical center land in LaGrange, population 30,000?
Fleming said, “We had a center like this in Jerusalem for 40 years, but because of a strong interest in sharing this experience in the United States, the decision was made to relocate.”
He said he wanted to stay in Israel but was forced to close because of a dearth of Christian tourists during the second Palestinian intifada (2000 to 2005).
Amid a worldwide search to relocate, the Calloway Foundation offered matching grants if the center would settle in LaGrange. Fleming and his partners jumped at the offer and have been tirelessly working to improve and expand the facility ever since.
Photography of the artifacts in the gallery is not allowed, but several displays are intriguing, including at least two authentic tombs from the First Temple period; an assortment of pottery and jugs, some from shipwrecks found off the Israeli coast; ossuaries; and oil lamps and other assorted items from Byzantine, Greek, Roman and early Arab periods.
I was given a private tour of the outside replicas by the center’s program director, Hananiah Pinto, a Brazilian-Israeli who has worked closely with Fleming for many years.
He often leads tours in Israel and elsewhere in the Mediterranean. Licensed as an official Israeli tour guide in four languages, Pinto focuses on the Jewish links with the New Testament.
He is particularly proud of the expansive garden, currently growing thyme, olives, almonds, mulberries, grapes, garlic, onions, figs and pomegranates, to name a few.
The interactivity of the impressively built and displayed archaeological replicas provides educational and entertaining opportunities and activities for people of all ages and backgrounds. Life in a 2,000-year-old village is portrayed from the viewpoint of an ancient shepherd and farmer as you wander through realistic replicas of an original goat-hair tent purchased from Bedouins on the Iraq-Jordan border, mangers, limestone catacombs, olive trees and an olive press, a stone mill, and a Roman amphitheater, where the center puts on lectures, plays and movies.
As in the Tower of David in Jerusalem, you can climb the steps and get a beautiful lay of the land right by the town gate.
Pinto first showed me the shepherd’s tent, which represents how the biblical patriarchs lived. The intricate tent faces a small but beautiful waterfall as visitors are regaled with biblical imagery and stories. Next door, in another tent that’s part of the shepherd area, guides share other biblical stories while showing children how to make pita and make tea for the adults.
“The Shepherd’s Bread Experience is very popular,” Pinto told a LaGrange paper. “Participants cook bread on an open fire, and butter is made just like shepherds did thousands of years ago.”
After walking outside and retaining as much information as I could about the replicas and artifacts gallery, I had worked up an appetite. Luckily, it was time for the “Passover meal,” an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord intended to mirror Jesus’ Last Supper (a Passover seder).
Some of the ingredients for the meal are taken from the garden.
Entering a dimly lighted but beautifully decorated room, I was joined by 30 guests from different parts of Alabama. We sat on carpeted benches in a squared semicircle facing Pinto, who shared information about the Last Supper and cultural-historical anecdotes about the food and why Jews recline during the meal.
Beforehand, we said Jewish prayers over the food, which included olives, hummus, ginger lentil soup, marinated chicken skewers and fresh fruit. Tortillas are served instead of matzah, but the charoset is much tastier than expected.
What: Biblical History Center
Where: 130 Gordon Commercial Drive, LaGrange
Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; closed Dec. 26 to Jan. 2
Admission: Fees vary by program, but the archaeological replica tour with the biblical artifacts gallery is $15 for adults and $12 for children ages 6 to 12; biblicalhistorycenter.com or 706-885-0363