Tourists from Purpose Driven Tours enter the Museum of the Bible. Picture: Evelyn Hockstein

Housed in a former 1920s refrigeration warehouse, eight stories high and covering 430,000 square feet, the institution claims to be the "world's largest museum dedicated to the Bible" and about the same size as the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, the blockbuster cultural destination that opened in 2016.

Members of the Purpose Driven Tours group make their way to Washington's Museum of the Bible on Dec. 5. The tour, which originated in Jackson, Mississippi, is a nine-day holiday excursion for Christians. Picture: Evelyn Hockstein

Hobby Lobby chief executive Steve Green serves as chairman of the museum board. His family loaned 2,800 biblical artifacts to the institution.

"As many people as we can educate about this book, the better," Green said. "I think seeing the biblical foundations of our nation - for our legislators to see that, that a lot of that was biblically based, that we have religious freedoms today, which are a biblical concept, it can't hurt being there."

The Museum of the Bible devotes considerable space to the Old Testament and steers clear of affiliation with any denomination. Its leadership, like many members of the Purpose Driven group, is primarily evangelical Christian.

Officials hope that the museum will become as much of an attraction for faith-based group tours as the Capitol or the Library of Congress, and that hordes will pass through the 40-foot-high, two-ton Gutenberg Bible portals depicting text from Genesis.

Tour operators such as Purpose Driven, most traveling by bus and religious in nature, are critical to the museum's success.

Tourists from Purpose Driven Tours enter the Museum of the Bible. Picture: Evelyn Hockstein

To stay competitive with the city's panoply of free attractions, such as the Smithsonian, the Bible museum does not charge admission, although it suggests a $15 individual donation for adults and $10 for children. In a city with costly lodging and budget-conscious tourists, it might remain more of a suggestion than a reality. During the group's visit, other visitors were overheard scoffing at upcharges.

Bus tours, however, pay $12 a head for entry and receive preferred admission. During a fall hard-hat preview of the museum, Barber became so excited that he registered his $1,925-a-person Christmas tour for all the bells and whistles.

The Purpose Driven group visited the special valley of David and Goliath exhibition ($8 a ticket) and experienced Washington Revelations, a "flyboard flying theater" (also $8). They attended a performance of the musical "Amazing Grace" ($85), which, the night they saw it, played to a 472-seat house that was only one-third full.

In Manna, the sixth-floor cafeteria-style restaurant, the group dined on platters that included the $14.99 Scholar's Initiative (rice, rotisserie chicken, pickled vegetables) and the $16.99 Amazing Grace (tahini grits, lamb meatballs, chickpeas, beets).

A screening of a film about Jesus at the Museum of the Bible. Picture: Evelyn Hockstein

With discounts, Barber paid around $117 per person for the entire visit, a boon to museum coffers and perhaps a bellwether of future groups' investment. More than 900 groups have booked tours through next December, according to museum officials, almost half arranged by a large operator based in Florida. The average group size is 30, a spokeswoman said, originating in all 50 states and from as far away as Israel.