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 US 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 artefacts. 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.

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Marion Woods, who lives in 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, the 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 honouring God's word, and I wanted to be a part of honouring God's word."

Guests line up to enter the Museum of the Bible, which opened to the public Saturday in Washington, D.C. Photo / Bill O'Leary
Guests line up to enter the Museum of the Bible, which opened to the public Saturday in Washington, D.C. Photo / Bill O'Leary

Not everyone was as enthusiastic as Woods - at 9.30am, she was on her phone, trying to persuade her friends to come join her at the museum. Many fellow members, who had claimed 12 free tickets for the opening day, were handing their extra tickets to the security guards at the door.

Some exhibits were bustling with visitors, particularly the walk-through recreation 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. But the museum was far from capacity. On the lower floors, a gallery on Amazing Grace and another on the Stations of the Cross were nearly empty at 1.30pm. A film about the Bible played to a huge theatre 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 that 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 artefacts, she purchased one and donated it for the collection.

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

Nine-year-old Ellie Moiola stood watching New Testament reenactors, 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, Calif. 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."

Visitors listen to a living history interpreter at the Museum of the Bible. Photo / Bill O'Leary
Visitors listen to a living history interpreter at the Museum of the Bible. Photo / Bill O'Leary

The Green family, evangelical Christians who own Hobby Lobby and who took their fight against mandatory employer-provided birth control to the Supreme Court, spearheaded the creation of the museum and supplied much of the funding. They purchased the former Terminal Refrigerating and Warehousing building at Fourth and D streets in Southwest Washington, then 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 artefacts from Iraq. The company was ordered to pay a $3 million fine, though the museum said that the artefacts 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 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 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, a 60-year-old 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 myriad controversial issues 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.

Visitors take in a permanent sunset over biblical-era Jerusalem at the Museum of the Bible. Photo / Bill O'Leary
Visitors take in a permanent sunset over biblical-era Jerusalem at the Museum of the Bible. Photo / Bill O'Leary

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 night at the Trump International Hotel.

The Mathemeier family, visiting from Winter Garden, Florida, said they were 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 museum chairman 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.

She and her husband Scott said they hope the presence of the Museum of the Bible in Washington will remind the nation that the phrase "separation of church and state" is not in the Constitution.

"All faiths should be welcome, but we should remember there was one faith that the country was founded on," Scott said.

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.

The Washington Post's Michelle Boorstein contributed to this report.