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Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

Digging Up Dirt on the Bible

ancient israel

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

Over the years, I’ve fooled a lot of people into liking me. They read what I write or hear me speak and figure, “He seems relatively normal and non-criminal.” Of course, they get that impression. They are seeing me on my best behavior. 

To get to really know me they would have to dig deeper into my life to see what I do every day when no one is watching. There’s more going on than what I present to the world. 

All that writing and speaking is still “me” but just a choreographed version of me. And digging deep won’t necessarily yield deep dark secrets (though, who knows?). But you’d probably learn things about my eating habits, whether I’m neat o leave shoes on the floor for people to trip over, close cabinet doors, how often I clean the cat litter, what I buy at the grocery store, how fast I drive, and countless other real-life things. 

Digging beneath the surface would yield a fuller picture of what my life is like.

The Bible is a lot like me. 

OK, wait . . . that didn’t come out right. Take 2. . . . 

The Bible is a text that is also “on its best behavior.” We read there the intentional, crafted words of an elite few with an agenda, a point they are trying to get across. They do not give us a full picture of what “ancient Israel” was like, but what some ancient writers meant to make public. We glean precious little information about what life was like day-to-day for ancient Israelites, except for the casual side-comment. 

This is where archaeology comes in. 

Too often Christians have seen archaeology as a wing of apologetics, a field of potential proof that this or that event actually happened—like whether the walls of Jericho fell or the exodus from Egypt happened.

But archaeology serves a much nobler purpose. By digging deep in the ground, archaeology has brought to the surface a fuller picture of life in ancient Israel, beyond what the Bible’s public face that the ancient writers focused on.

I’m not suggesting the biblical writers were necessarily distorting the facts (though propaganda and spin do mark biblical stories at numerous points).

I’m saying that there is much that the biblical writers would never even think to mention precisely because they are normal and day-to-day. 

If I am writing about a moment of great importance, like the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, I would certainly focus on its role in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. I would definitely not choose to explain what a bridge is, how and when this particular bridge was constructed, the name of the road the marchers walked and what it was made of, and on and on. 

You get my point. I would not talk about any of these things because (1) nobody cares, and (2) there is no need to explain these things to contemporary readers.

The Bible was written by and for an ancient audience. There was no need to explain the everyday life. Archaeology can help paint a picture of what actual life was like for ancient Israelites. Surely the people of ancient Israel were not simply living the biblical stories—moving from one battle to another, pondering God’s will for their lives, waiting for prophets to speak God’s word. 

They were humans with a daily grind. What was that like? What were their houses like? How did they prepare their meals? What was their pottery like? Could the average Israelite read and write? Did children have any schooling? Did they really practice their faith the way the Bible presents it? What role did women play in the home and society?

These are some of the kinds of questions that archaeologists investigate and try to answer. Archaeology can give the biblical story a more human face.

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