The $500 million Museum of the Bible, largely funded by the evangelical billionaires who own the Hobby Lobby craft chain, opened its doors to the public, just blocks from the U.S. Capitol in a city where the separation of church and state remains hotly debated.

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WASHINGTON — The world’s most famous book — the one at the center of three religions and two millennia of conflict — got its own museum Saturday in the heart of Washington.

The $500 million Museum of the Bible, largely funded by the evangelical billionaires who own the Hobby Lobby craft chain, opened its doors to the public, just blocks from the U.S. Capitol in a city where the separation of church and state remains hotly debated.

Its symbolism — heralded by religious leaders — wasn’t lost on the visitors who walked through the eight-story, 430,000-square-foot space filled with high-tech exhibits and thousands of religious artifacts. The crowd was not nearly as large as the building could hold, but those who explored the museum expressed tremendous enthusiasm for what they found inside.

“I’m 73 years old, and I’ve seen a lot of things, but this is the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen,” said Jean Johnson, of Crow, West Virginia, who was particularly startled by an exhibit on languages that the Bible has never been translated into and left thinking about how to support more foreign mission work. She wished her church group didn’t have to go to the White House after only three hours at the Bible museum; she wanted to stay all day.

Marion Woods, of Greenville, South Carolina, was among the first inside. She had been anticipating this day for two years. When she first heard the museum was in the works, she thought, “I can’t believe there’s going to be a Museum of the Bible.” And then: “Why hasn’t this happened before?”

Woods, director of operations at a real-estate firm, flew into Washington on Thursday night and will leave Monday, spending as much time as possible in between at the museum. “Something inside of me just kept telling me I had to be there,” she said. “I feel like this museum is honoring God’s word, and I wanted to be a part of honoring God’s word.”

Not everyone was as enthusiastic as Woods; at 9:30 a.m., she was on her phone, trying to persuade her friends to come join her at the museum.

Some exhibits were bustling with visitors, particularly the walk-through re-creation of a village from the time of Jesus. At the Milk & Honey cafe, just a few tables were open at noon as diners bowed their heads in prayer before biting into their chocolate croissants.

On the lower floors, a gallery on “Amazing Grace” and another on the Stations of the Cross were nearly empty at 1:30 p.m. A film about the Bible played to a huge theater of almost entirely empty seats.

As they exited, a few early visitors called the atmosphere inside “peaceful” and “serene,” a marked contrast to the hordes packing many Smithsonian museums on busy weekends. Museum officials said they would not release an attendance count.

The lines outside were short. Couples, teenagers and parents with children in strollers snapped selfies in front of the museum’s massive Gutenberg Bible-themed doors as they waited to file through the metal detectors at the entrance.

Brenda McKelvin, a museum employee, greeted everyone with a smile. Originally from South Carolina, McKelvin can read Gullah, a Creole language spoken by African Americans along the Southern coast. When she learned the museum didn’t have a Gullah translation of the Bible among its artifacts, she purchased one and donated it for the collection.

Critics say the museum represents only a Judeo-Christian perspective, and omits other religions like Islam that draw from the Bible.

It was largely funded by Steve Green, the evangelical billionaire and owner of Hobby Lobby, the corporate name that has become shorthand for its role in the 2014 Supreme Court ruling that corporations with religious owners cannot be required to pay for insurance coverage of some contraception.

The museum showcases a variety of Christian and Hebrew biblical artifacts, including fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls and a Bible brought on the Mayflower. It also features exhibits on the Bible’s influence on society, including media, fashion and events in U.S. and world history.

Other artifacts in the museum span history, from ancient writings to Elvis’ personal Bible. Glitzy attractions include a motion ride, a life-size burning bush, a Noah’s Ark, and a rooftop garden with Bible-inspired plants.

Ellie Moiola, 9, stood watching New Testament re-enactors, in robes and sandals, explain how they use twine as a measurement tool.

“For the kids to be able to walk into the world of Jesus of Nazareth — that’s a really neat experience they can’t get anywhere else,” said her mother, Ayron Moiola, of Brawley, California. Twelve people in the extended Moiola clan flew from their small town near the Mexican border to be at the museum’s opening weekend.

Moiola praised the museum’s varied exhibits: “Just lots of options to tell the story you’ve heard your whole life in a really different way. And to have it so well done, and so thoughtful.”

Green and his wife, Jackie, began formally pursuing their vision of a museum focused on the Bible seven years ago.

The family purchased the former Terminal Refrigerating and Warehousing building at Fourth and D streets in Southwest Washington, gutted it and added two floors, plus a glass atrium on top to create a gleaming new space.

During the construction of the museum, Hobby Lobby was accused by federal prosecutors of illegally importing thousands of ancient artifacts from Iraq. The company was ordered to pay a $3 million fine, though the museum said the artifacts seized in the case were never part of its collection. Still, the action cast a shadow over the project.

The private museum stands just two blocks from the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum and its National Museum of the American Indian. Leaders of the Museum of the Bible hope that it, too, will become a must-see stop on Washington tourists’ lists.

Jane and Lenny Wells, both pastors from Lorton, Virginia, and daily readers of the Bible, said they were thrilled to see the museum open in such a prominent location. As they waited outside the entrance, 30 minutes early for their 9 a.m. admission, Jane Wells said, “This nation has moved so far from God. Its god is money and power. By having the museum here, it’s in your face.”

Lenny Wells said he thinks the museum will be a good influence on America. “When you think of Washington, you think the Smithsonian and the other museums,” he said. “I think it will have an impact on beliefs, maybe persuade some people that God is real.”

Tawana Moore, 60, a lifelong resident of the District of Columbia and a Baptist minister, was less convinced of the museum’s evangelistic impact. “I’ve devoted my life to serving Jesus Christ, just maybe not all of this,” she said, waving her hand toward the museum’s gift shop. “It’s a museum. It’s not going to save your soul.”

The museum’s leaders have said they want the exhibits not to take sides on the many controversies in which the Bible gets invoked, from homosexuality to abortion to climate change. Their primary goal is to get people to read the Bible, not necessarily to believe in it.

But high-profile religious leaders who attended the dedication on Friday prayed that the museum would lead people to God. And despite professing that the museum is apolitical, leaders hosted a $50,000-a-table opening gala on Thursday at the Trump International Hotel.

The Mathemeier family, visiting from Winter Garden, Florida, was fine with an evangelistic mission. Watching her daughter, Evangeline, 7, push a heavy wooden arm of a replica Gutenberg printing press, Chazzalynde Mathemeier recalled when Steve Green came to speak at her church in Orlando months ago.

“I looked at my husband and said, ‘We’re going,’” Chazzalynde said. She home-schools Evangeline and her son, Eric, because she wants them to have a “biblical worldview,” and doesn’t like how God is being removed from public schools.

The press operator held up Evangeline’s printed page, fresh with ink from the Gutenberg-style press, and the crowd of visitors oohed and ahhed.