Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

Drew G. I. Hart: The Bible, Race, and White Supremacy (Reissue)

In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete and Jared talk with Drew G. I. Hart about racism, white supremacy, and the church as they explore the following questions:

  • What was Drew’s experience attending a predominately white university?
  • What is white supremacy?
  • What are some mistakes we make when we think of white supremacy?
  • What are some subtle ways white supremacy can show up?
  • What is systemic racism? 
  • Why is understanding the history of race in America so important?
  • How have racial slurs evolved?
  • Does the Bible help or hurt the fight against white supremacy?
  • How has theology been affected by white supremacy?
  • What are some ways we can combat white supremacy in our theologies?
  • What is anti-blackness?
  • How does race affect our social interactions today?


Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Drew G. I. Hart you can share. 

  • “We’ve been taught, all of us… by hundreds of years of racial inertia to see Black people as dangerous.” @DruHart
  • “Sometimes we often act the like church was kind of drug into slavery and white supremacy but no we were often leading the way.” @DruHart
  • “At what point are we going to live into our non-conformity as Christians and not be patterned by the racial patterns of our society?” @DruHart
  • “Many Christians that have been kind of feeling like they’ve always been able to just be the primary voices, they need to maybe sit at the feet of those who have been most oppressed, marginalized, and most vulnerable in this society.” @DruHart
  • “We need to own in the church the degree to which white supremacy has been imbedded into Christian theology and biblical hermeneutics.” @DruHart

Mentioned in This Episode

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Read the transcript



Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People, the only God ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.

Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.

[Music begins, then fades out]

Jared: Hey everyone, we thought it was important this week to interrupt our regularly scheduled program and look back at a conversation that we had with Drew Hart, an assistant professor of theology at Messiah College all the way back in season one of the podcast called “The Bible, Race, and White Supremacy.” I was introduced to Drew as he came to our congregation many years ago and talked to us about race. He has a book called Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism, which we would endorse and recommend for you to pick up. And as I thought about this, back in this first airing of this episode in 2017, it was only two weeks after the events of Charlottesville if you want to look that up, back then, and what happened there, that we recorded this episode and it was very fresh on all of our minds and all of our hearts. And here we find ourselves again, in light of the untimely deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. So, it’s important conversation. I would encourage you to take it to heart and may we continue to fight for, and be a part of, a more just world. With that, here’s our conversation with Drew Hart: The Bible, Race, and White Supremacy.

[Music begins]

Drew: Sometimes we act like the church was kind of drug into slavery and White supremacy. No! We often were leading the way. Many Christians that have been kind of feeling like they’ve always been able to just be the primary voices, they need to maybe sit at the feet of those who have been most oppressed, marginalized, and most vulnerable in this society, right? Those who are least, last, and lost in our society. Those are some of the voices that can help our church rediscover Jesus anew in a really meaningful way.

[Music ends]

Jared: All right, welcome Drew to the podcast here. It’s good to have you.

Drew: Great to be in conversation with you.

Pete: Fantastic.

Jared: Good, good. So, we’re talking today about race and the Bible. We’re always talking about the Bible, but this topic of race, we want to just start with, you know, Drew, there’s a lot of things that theologians who study all sorts of things can choose to go a deeper dive with, and learn more about, write books about. This idea of racism and race in the Bible, how does it connect with your story? Why are you interested in this?

Drew: Yeah, that’s a great question. You know, for me, I grew up in a Black church. I’m kind of a church boy in some ways, you know, it was my family and Jesus, and that was kind of the norm for most of my time growing up. And then I kind of got a sense of call towards the end of high school and wanted to study the Bible and ended up going to a Christian college in Pennsylvania, and I was a biblical studies major. And my time on campus, it was, I guess you could say a life changing experience, but not necessarily always in a good way. My experience there was that many of the Christians on campus, the White Christians on campus, one, they, many of them had not had much exposure with students of color on campus, especially Black students, especially students from the city. But even more than that, I repeatedly encountered what I would call anti-Black racism, you know, a fear of my body, and it was kind of strange to see how many people were threatened by me kind of having the sense of being scared and intimidated by my presence. And I would hear repeatedly students call other Black students thugs and all those other kind of terms that go along with just the Black stereotypes of Black people being dangerous. And so, for me, it was eye opening because my expectation was that I’m going to a school where I’m going to, you know, be with my brothers and sisters in Christ and this is going to be an amazing experience, and I kind of really misjudged what the broader Christian community was going through and dealing with. And it caused me to struggle and ask some really hard questions about Christianity in general, but more particularly Christianity in America and the kind of White Christian formation that many of my peers had received. And so, that set me on a trajectory. I was a biblical studies major in college, and then I, my MDiv time, I was really much more focused on those questions, and then before I knew it, I found myself in a Ph.D. program. I’m diving even deeper. I’m wanting to think about western Christendom and the history of it, and White supremacy, and how that flows out of it. And so, all these things just kind of developed out of initially, my negative experience that I had with many White Christian peers that really didn’t exhibit what I thought was Jesus, shapes lives as it related to most of the students of color on campus.


Pete: How did you handle that during your college experience? Did you have, like a community you could detox with, or were you sort of on your own and just pondering and brooding over this in your own mind? Or did you have a positive outlet? How did you handle that?

Drew: Yeah, so it was a few things. I often say that my first two years on campus, it was more probably just a kind of coping mechanism. I’d make a lot of racial jokes that were stupid, you know, my big Black friend. Nothing really substantial, you know, but it was just my way of trying to make sense of being a Black body in a place there were so few of us there. Because I was a Bible major, one of the great things about my program was that, you know, we asked really tough questions in the classroom.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Drew: So, in the classroom, it’s a very different way of looking and reading scripture than I had before that forced me to think like, what I’m seeing out in the everyday, you know, experiences and encounters on campus and what I’m learning in the classroom seem to be very different. If God really is this kind of justice-oriented God, and the God that brings Jews and Gentiles together, then why is this really all this mess existing as it is? And so, that was one resource was just being a Bible major. But even more than that, I mean, I began to cling more and more to other students of color on campus in a way that I hadn’t really relied on them prior to that. And so, many students of color became a family and a safe haven to kind of lean on when things got really challenging.

Jared: Before we, you know, we talk about race and the Bible, let’s just hang out with race for a minute, because you’ve already used a lot of concepts I think we could unpack and talk a little more about that you can maybe help define for us further. So, some of the things I’m thinking about, White supremacy, anti-Black racism, which you connected to fear in some ways, talking about Black body and that experience. Can you maybe just take some of those concepts and tie it to race and society and help us get a fuller picture of what we’re talking about for those of us who aren’t people of color maybe haven’t experienced or maybe can’t really grasp.

Drew: Yeah, no, that’s great. White supremacy, that’s certainly a term that needs to be unpacked. Especially right now because it’s a term that’s being used quite a lot both mainstream and in everyday conversations because of some of the current events. But one of the mistakes that we make when we talk about White supremacy, I think, is that we think that it only applies to folks who are participants in the KKK and neo-Nazis, and you know, some of that overt public stuff. You know, we think of White supremacy and we think of burning crosses and calling, you know, Black folk the N-word and all that stuff, and footage from the 1950’s and 60’s. But if we really understand White supremacy just in terms of the actual meaning of it, really what it’s about is racial hierarchy. Right? There’s not a way that we can use a different word, racial hierarchy. And all that means is that the way that race has been constructed, like, race itself is a social construction, like, biologically there aren’t races as people imagine, it’s ways that we’ve kind of construed humanity. But it’s not just a neutral construing of different groups, it’s all designed to create a hierarchy to say who is better, more superior, more intelligent, smarter, beautiful, normative, any of those kind of categories. And so, White supremacy is really about that racial hierarchy, that again, we can see going back to like, colonialism. You know, think about Christopher Columbus, right, as he comes over into the Americas. He’s judging up, you know, his superiority in relationship to the Indigenous communities that lived here first in America. When they brought Africans over, they deemed them to be at the bottom of all human races, right? So, they actually, you can see, Immanuel Kant and all these supposedly great Enlightenment thinkers, many of them had, like, very clear scales of hierarchy in terms of who was more superior and who was least superior. And always, White Europeans were always at the top and Black Africans were always at the bottom. And so, White supremacy really is about that idea. It’s an ideology that claims that Europeans are more superior than everybody else around the world. So it’s important to understand that. That’s it’s not just then, about Nazis, but any way, even in subtle ways, White supremacy can show up. And I’ll  give one easy example that kind of can make it plain.


So, in the 1940’s, there was something called the Clark doll experiments, in which they had children, sociologists took one child at a time, either Black or White, and they would sit a White doll and a Black doll in front of them and they’d ask them a series of questions. Which doll is the pretty doll? Which doll is the good doll? Which doll is the bad doll? Which doll is the ugly doll? And you can imagine that most of the White children in the 1940’s gave all positive attributes to the White dolls and negative attributes to the Black dolls. But what was more shocking for the researchers was the response of the Black children. They actually also were more inclined to give positive attributes to the White doll and negative attributes to the Black doll, even though the dolls, other than the color of the doll, they looked identical, right? And so, they saw the White doll as more beautiful and more intelligent and smart and good and also the Black dolls as bad and ugly. So, that’s one of the kind of simple ways in which White supremacy is synced even in children’s minds. And so, it shaped how they saw the world and others, and so, most of those kids, I’m sure, weren’t a part of the KKK, but they had internalized these socialized ideas that were rampant in American society. And much later now, in the 21st century, that same experiment has been reduplicated with even more nuanced and different shades and all kind of stuff, and they’re finding a lot of the same results, is that all children, especially white, but all children are inclined to internalize this idea of White supremacy and also, on the other hand, anti-Blackness, that’s what I meant when I said anti-Blackness. This idea that not only is it a racial hierarchy, but that one of the most permanent functions and features of our racial hierarchy, hierarchical way of thinking, is that Blackness is bad. And so, Black people have always been deemed especially bad, negative, dangerous, thugs, criminals, all these kind of terms that had kind of morphed over time to describe African-American people. Hopefully that’s helpful.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Drew: And so, then my experience is just me encountering the significance of that in even Christian campuses.

Jared: So, what I hear you saying is White supremacy is really a preference for Whiteness, and the scale is really, is that explicit, kind of on the one side or is it subconscious on the other side so that even Black children can have these elements of White supremacy, meaning, a preference for Whiteness without ever having that be, being even aware of that.

Drew: Which then, if that’s the case, and I think evidence shows that it is, then we can’t, it’s too simple to just scapegoat neo-Nazis and KKK and those bad White supremacists, because it permeates our whole entire society in ways that even many Black people aren’t necessarily aware, sometimes, of the ways that we’ve internalized it. And so, it’s something that all of us need to take seriously and begin to kind of admit to, you know, intentionally working on and undoing in our minds.

Jared: Yeah, and if you say within that, you talked about the anti-Black racism, and you connected it with fear, which I think strikes a chord with me, because when I was trying to understand a lot of this idea of White supremacy or racism systemically, it didn’t really click for me, I didn’t understand it for a long time until, for whatever reason, I was confronted with the idea. Maybe I was finally self-aware enough to know that in certain places… For instance, I was in Phoenix and would take public transportation to teach at a university, and I found myself sitting by a lot of people of color. And when I was sitting still and was really aware and open to even asking the question, I found out what was really happening is I was afraid. And so, it wasn’t this, it wasn’t a negative feeling like, antagonism. It was just a fear. So, can you say, that was just so profound of a revelation to me, sitting on that train thinking, oh, I’m afraid. Why am I afraid? Because I’m sitting next to a Black person. That’s what systemic racism is. Oh! I’d never considered that before. So, just, can you say more about that as a phenomenon?

Drew: Yeah, I mean, and this is one of the kind of, I mean, to really understand it, in some ways we have to really understand the history in our country that, I mean, obviously like, I think we can underplay how much the aftermath of slavery still shapes our social interactions today. During slave times, you know, Black people were believed to be designed to be slaves for White people. After slavery ended, one of the biggest problems was that now Black people are roaming free and are not in their right place. And especially, obviously, that rhetoric became particularly strong in the South, right?

Jared: Mm hmm.


Drew: Because we need to restore the social order, put people back in their right place, and what did that look like? This is post-slavery, we see the emergence of the convict leasing systems, right, where hundreds and thousands and thousands of Black people are basically put in a neo-form of slavery through the convict leasing system for things like not getting permission to change jobs or loitering or whistling at a White woman, right? All these things happened. It was also the share cropping system, which is also a neo-form of slavery, again, where people are working the very same lands that their poor parents works as slaves. Now they’re doing it and basically stuck in a cycle where they can’t get out of it and where White people can change the terms of the agreements that they’re always in debt year after year. And so, we see all these different peonage systems where the whole goal was to put Black people back under the control of White people. And in some ways, what we see historically is that a free Black body is a dangerous Black body. The most dangerous, the people who were most likely to get lynched, right, were people who expressed their freedom in a society that said they weren’t designed to be free. Not to say that, though maybe not so overt, it’s still subtly shaping how people gaze at Black bodies. That Black bodies, we’ve been taught, all of us, Black people included, have been socialized by hundreds of years of racial inertia to see Black people as dangerous. And so, it’s not uncommon for people to come across another Black person, and maybe, you know, they might have personal Black friends that they love, and yet in this encounter with a stranger, have this instinct of fear, because it’s deeply ingrained in American psyche to fear free Black bodies. They’re dangerous, right? That’s their rhetoric. And so, even the language of thug, which gets used now, is just a new form of communicating those same old ideologies. It’s mutated, it’s upgraded its software, to, you know, 3.0 or whatever, but it’s still the same basic, it has the same roots going all the way back –

Pete: It’s a racial slur.

Drew: Absolutely.

Pete: Yeah. Well, ya know, Drew, let’s think about maybe going in a direction of how to address the problem. And you know, assuming that White supremacy, the way you define it, is probably a part of our churches more than we realize.

Drew: Yeah.

Pete: And there are many well-meaning people who would never think of themselves as racist or White supremacist but probably are. And just in your experience, let me ask you this, does the Bible help or hurt? Or both?

Drew: Yeah. Yeah.  And yes is my answer, right? It helps and it hurts. But I mean, it’s been used, right, to reinforce racism, and it’s been used to resist it and to liberate people from it. And so, it’s one of those hard things that we don’t always like to acknowledge, that it has the capacity to kill and destroy, and it has the capacity to bring life and to heal.

Pete: Mm hmm. So, what do we do? I mean, you know, people have argued for a very long time and it was a breaking point during the Civil war with Christians in the North and South, you can use the Bible to support both sides if you know what passages to go to. But how, what can we do? I mean, it’s more than just citing some Bible verse, right? How can the Christian faith, I guess, which is more than just citing Bible verses but it’s theology, it’s hermeneutics, it’s contextual – how can we help this? If that’s even the right word. How can we be agents of healing and change in the church and how might the Bible be helpful, how might a particular use of the Bible be helpful to move us in that direction?


Drew: Yeah, that’s a great question. So, I would say one of the things that I think needs to be taken seriously is, let’s pay attention to the particular traditions that have been especially liberative and peaceful and transformative in the midst of these challenges, right? So, there’s no question that, as you mentioned, you know, you can pick any verse you want to and kind of, you know, stack them in the right order and make your case. But there are particular ways that certain communities have read scripture in a way that has been life-giving, that has been transformative, has been restorative. So, I make the case that, you know, that particularly, I mean, I’m looking, I think about, like, the Black church. I think about Anabaptists, I think about many Christian communities that have emerged from the underside of White supremacy Christendom that have gained particular hermeneutics and ways of reading scripture together that are life-giving. And so, we ought to, as Christians, all of us, be paying a special attention to these communities that have different ways of approaching the texts that don’t lead to more oppression and domination and killing of others. So, that would be my starting point, was to just suggest who other Christian communities that have helped salvage western Christianity from itself, right? How can we sit in circles and in conversation with them around the biblical narrative and begin to study and to read these texts anew, these sacred texts anew, and see which texts are the, you know, we talk about the cannon within the cannon. What are the particular texts that are really important to different traditions? What are those texts and how are people interpreting them? And I think that that process, for all Christians, is really meaningful, right? That learning, you know, because I teach an African American theology course now at Messiah College, and as much as I love, you know, having as many African American students as possible in my class, I also believe deeply that this class is meaningful for all students and that will enrich all of them to take seriously both the theology and the ways of reading scripture that have emerged over time by Black voices in the face of White supremacy.

[Music begins]

[Producers group endorsement]

[Music ends]

Pete: Well, just picking up from what you just mentioned, is there a favorite text or narrative or story that maybe you might use in classes to help people see things from, let’s say, a non-dominant culture perspective. Something to really push people to see, listen, look at what the Bible is doing here and how can we apply this to our day and age? Are there any narratives or stories or passages that you find to be more helpful than others?

Drew: Yeah, I mean, and I think that there’s tons of them, right? I think, for me, sometimes, even as I’ll say scripture is used, abused in all different ways, sometimes I have to like, remind myself of that, because it seems so obvious.

Pete: Yeah.

Drew: For me, it seems that the Bible seems like such a prophetic, liberative text. But I do know and am very aware of the texts that have been used otherwise. But to answer your question, I think simple stories like, you know, Jesus when Mama Zebedee, right, comes with James and John and Jesus, right? And you know, she wipes the spit off their face and tries to make this do with Jesus. And what’s interesting is that after, you know, the disciples they get angry, you know, that they I guess maybe were not on the end. Jesus kind of responds to them by saying that the Gentiles lorded over you, right? That’s what they do, they lorded over you. So, like, even that language, like, for many of my students don’t even think about the fact that the Gentiles in that case are these Romans that are oppressing them that are occupying their land, right?


Pete: Mm hmm.

Drew: And so, all of a sudden you see Jesus naming and unveiling not only the hierarchy but the power dynamics in play, and then saying it’s not so among you, that that’s not how we live life, right? Except there’s this kind of non-lording over others way of life that Jesus is kind of pointing them to. But I think that’s just one small example of this reading these texts and thinking about ways that they kind of undermine and unsettle, kind of, White supremacist domination that kind of has gone in our land for so long.

Jared: Well, Drew, I want to go back to something you said earlier about a cannon within a cannon. First of all, because I wonder if a lot of our listeners would even know what you mean by that, but I also would like to hear more of what you’ve experienced as your students and others as you, we were talking earlier, Drew, that you came to our congregation, or something that we sponsored to talk about race on a few occasions at a workshop, and through those experiences, what are those cannons within a cannon? I’m very interested to hear your thoughts on what texts, so maybe explain what you mean by cannon within a cannon, but what texts do you find different perspectives focusing on? So, those people that you tend to think are resistant to admitting that maybe this thing of White supremacy exists, do they tend to focus on a certain number of texts, and were the liberative or the people who are willing to recognize it, do they focus on a certain set of texts? What are you observing?

Drew: It’s interesting, because I think, sometimes I feel like many folks actually have never actually read the Bible. So, there are, but there are stories and ideas and verses that I think kind of get privileged for a lot of folks. I think that, you know, I mean obviously, I mean, this is maybe a little crude, but you know, John 3:16 is in everybody’s head, right? And I think people in general think they like the gospel of John, and I think people will quickly highlight the violence and judgement of God in the Old Testament. So, there’s certain texts that I think, for many American Christians, at least certain stories, biblical stories begin to emerge as being privileged ways of helping and lenses through which we can see God, privileged texts that define what Christianity is about for them that define, you know, escaping this evil world –

Pete: Mm hmm.

Drew: And worrying about, you know, he creation and the people that are living.

Pete: I mean for conservatives, you know Drew, for conservative Christians, escapism is almost what the gospel is about.

Drew: Right.

Pete: And so, you don’t have a lot of room for what people also call social action. In fact, that’s what the liberals do.

Drew: That’s what the liberals do, right.

Pete: So you’re not going to have a lot of time, you know, with the mentality like that to sort of discuss this issue, which actually affects people and maybe one of the ways forward, which I guess you implied before, but, is having people with different skin color interact with each other and get to know each other. So, this is a humanized issue, not just an abstract thing out there.

Drew: Right, right, absolutely. And so, I would say, like, on the other end then, some of the texts, I mean, like historically Black church tradition has emphasized the Exodus narrative. And so, the idea of, you know, God being a liberator of the oppressed has been a huge theme that you can see through most of the spirituals and a lot of the Black church tradition. Certainly not without problems also, as you know, I know many of our Native American brothers and sisters will, you know, also point out some of the challenges of focusing on that text and what that means for them if they are Canaan, if they identify with Canaan and the conquest into Canaan. But nonetheless, I think you know, what are these key texts along the way? And I think, you know, for most Christians, you know, even just taking seriously the life and teachings of Jesus, right? Not just Jesus is my savior, and as you mentioned, you know, just help my escape this world, but Jesus has joined us and that we want to actually take seriously his teachings and his life. When you think about how that shapes us in a very different kind of way, because I would argue that race is, it’s a kind of formation, it’s a kind of discipleship. And so, if our Christian discipleship is distorted, then we need to even that much more, take seriously trying to be shaked by Jesus even more significantly in our Christian traditions. And so, I think that that, it’s interesting, like, for me, I’ve studied not only African American theology and Black theology, but also like, Anabaptist theology. Even though the emphasis are different, in some ways, there’s a lot of similar moves, right? This kind of turns towards the particularity of Jesus. It’s one of the similarities that we see between these two traditions, even if one is focusing more on the peace of Christ and the other the liberation of Christ, they’re both making a similar turn to kind of push against the abstract Jesus that’s being utilized to justify oppression. They’re kind of turning towards actually going back to the story of Jesus and seeing that as more liberative.


Jared: Well, and what I’m hearing, and maybe this is even a question/comment for Pete here and for you. But, what I’m hearing is, there’s something too, because I’m thinking of all my progressive friends and a lot of my conservative friends who would self-identify that way. There does seem to be this fundamental difference, and maybe I’m over simplifying, but in general, there’s a way we read the Bible in which the goal is to get you to heaven. So, there’s this abstract Jesus with this heavenly perspective and really, the goal, all that, you know, even the Exodus narrative is really metaphor or type or symbol of the ultimate Exodus, which is a spiritual Exodus. And then, the other tradition that’s a little more earthy or that when Jesus talks about “blessed are the poor,” it’s not the, I think it’s the Luke version where it’s “blessed are the poor” and the Matthew version, “blessed are the poor in spirit.” Right? So, is it really the poor, like, physically here on earth poor? And I think it’s important because it seems to be the lens, like, the first lens through which we read it. Because it’s all fine and good to say let’s follow Jesus, but which Jesus are we following? Are we following the one that’s talking abstractly and is trying to get your soul into heaven, are we talking about the Jesus that’s saying the same words but maybe is talking about liberation here and now and what we do to unchain those imprisoned and to liberate the oppressed here and now? So, do you, is that fair assessment and again, I would ask both of you. I’m thinking I’m over-generalizing, but it feels like until we get to that difference, we can equivocate, we can talk about Jesus. We kind of have to ask which Jesus, or we can talk about the Exodus, but which Exodus?

Drew: Yeah, no, absolutely. I mean, there’s no question that, I mean, I always think of Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth who, right from the get go, they want to make plain that they’re very different Jesuses that are being followed, right? So, for Frederick Douglass, it’s in his slave narrative at the end in his appendix, he says that there’s no further distinction or difference, like they’re so far apart, the Christianity of this land versus the Christianity of Christ, the true Christianity of Christ. And so, for him, he wants to make a differentiation that just because someone is calling themselves a Christian, doesn’t mean that it’s the true Christ. Now, obviously, to claim the true Christ is to make a particular claim. I guess one should prove, but certainly as a matter of faith, we can certainly stand on that. I think that the difference between the escapism of, you know, let me say my prayer. Let me go to heaven and that’s all that matters and everybody else can go to hell versus the con of actually taking seriously that Jesus, you know, was in Luke 4:18-19, he says, “the spirit of the Lord is upon me because he’s anointed me to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recover sight to the blind. Let the oppressed go free to proclaim the Lord’s favor.” Well, if Jesus really means that, then that’s a very different kind of posture towards others and towards people that we engage every day.

Pete: I mean, it strikes me too, Drew, that maybe another way of putting this is that, you know, we all have our theological lenses through which we look at things like day to day social issues that affect us. And maybe, you know, part of the power of things like what has happened recently, at least when we’re recording this, in Charlottesville, is to force us to reimagine our theologies.

Drew: Yeah.

Pete: That how much our own thinking, I mean, none of us has God in our pocket and you know, we all create God in our own image, we really do. You know? I know I do. But we need to be reminded sometimes of those lenses can actually distort our understanding of the real thing and maybe that’s part of what we’re talking about here. We have Christians who see things in certain ways because of how they’ve been taught and how they’ve been conditioned, and they highlight certain passages and minimize others, or they, you know, choose an interpretation of the Exodus story that is maybe, more abstract and less liberative because that’s how they’ve been taught. And that will affect how they deal with people who look different than they do. That’s a big task. You know, we’re talking about theological reeducation.

Drew: Yeah, no. As you were talking, it made me think of a Dietrich Bonhoeffer quote when he was in prison, he said something to the effect of like everything you might expect of God, God has nothing to do with that. Then he goes on to say, like, you know, we need to immerse ourselves slowly again and again into the birth/life teachings of the death and resurrection, right? So, this idea that we all have these projections of God that we make –

Pete: Mm hmm.


Drew: So, it really is a different kind of formation that we need to enter into that’s going to continually and slowly and patiently undo those filters, right? And so, one of those practices that we –

Pete: And being self-critical, which is hard to do. We have to be self-critical and there’s nothing too push us towards self, healthy self-critical, not a loathing, but a healthy self-criticism. I think there’s nothing to push us towards that better than life. Stuff that happens that we see that makes us think, my goodness gracious. I sort of agree with those bad guys over there, what’s wrong with me? What am I thinking about? Where is my head right now? And boy, that takes a lot of time, I imagine.

Drew: Yeah.

Pete: It’s been taking a long time. It’s been taking hundreds of years in our country. Well, what else do you have for us Drew? Have we solved this problem? I don’t think so.

Drew: No. I mean, well, I’ll just go back and, I mean, I think that taking seriously as we’ve already been talking about Christian discipleship. I need to go back a step before that and say we need to own in the church the degree to which White supremacy has been embedded into Christian theology and biblical hermeneutics, right? Like, I think we’ve refused to own the depth and the degree to which that has happened. I think many Christians, it’s easy to kind of look back, and be like, oh yeah… slavery is bad. You know what I mean? These kind of superficial things, the outcome of the things never actually interrogates our actual theology itself and say there might be something that has happened to our theology that could not only accommodate doing those kind of things, but in many ways bolstered bad work, right? That it was the church that often, sometimes we act like the church was kind of drug into slavery and White supremacy. No! We often were leading the way.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Drew: So, I think that there just needs to be more honesty in owning that and in acknowledging that and lamenting these realities. Then, from that, I think it creates a space where we can kind of grope our way towards something more faithful.

Pete: Reclaiming the prophetic voice of the church to critique culture rather than just go along with it.

Drew: Yeah. And so, we need to engage in different practices, we need to learn. I often, I believe that what we hear Jesus talking about the first is last, the last is first, I believe that there’s times in which many Christians that have been kind of feeling like they’ve always been able to just lead the way and be the primary voices, that they need to maybe sit at the feet of those who have been most oppressed, marginalized, and most vulnerable in this society, right? Those who are least, last, and lost in our society. That maybe that those are some of the voices that can help our church rediscover Jesus anew in a really meaningful way.

Jared: Excellent. Well, Drew, we’re coming to the end of our time here, but you mentioned one last thing. You mentioned taking our past seriously, doing the grieving, the repenting, the lamenting of that. Taking responsibility for that. But what would be one thing that you would say that we can do, people maybe people of color or not, that we can do as we’re moving, what’s something proactive that we can be doing? What advice would you give us?

Drew: I mean on the most easiest, basic level is start reading from different authors and learning from different theological sources, right? Who are the kind of people that we’re kind of going to to learn? So, if there’s something distorted about our Christian traditions that allow for accommodation of White supremacy, then what if we take some time to learn from those voices that have been marginalized and ignored and dismissed in the theological tradition that have actually, for four hundred years, been resisting all these things, right? While most White Christians were going along with it for the past four hundred years, only after the fact do Christians say, oh yeah, that was bad. Well, Black Christians, for example, have been for all four hundred years, the majority of Black Christians knew that there was something terribly wrong with Christianity. So maybe there’s some, a time in which we might want to take those voices and people seriously and learn from them. And so, I encourage people to read widely, read Black womanist theologians, and biblical scholars, and as well as Native American and other underrepresented groups. Just take the time to begin to read the Bible differently in view of others. And that’s, I mean, books are actually a very safe, easy thing to do. It doesn’t necessarily have to disrupt your life, at least not initially. Now, if you’re actually going to try to be obedient as you hear from God, then that should unsettle and disrupt your life, but I believe that that’s a simple starting point.


But even more than that, I think that, you know, we’ve got to begin to live differently in terms of our daily practice. So, you know, most people live, they, you know, the average White person goes to all White church, live in all White neighborhoods, send their kids to all White schools, interacts mostly with all White social networks. At what point are we going to live into our non-conformity as Christians and not be patterned by the racial patterns of our society, right? And decide that I’m going to put my body along certain bodies that I’m not supposed to and enter into certain spaces and dwell there that I’m told are not my spaces. In what ways am I going to begin to have new ways, intentionally develop new ways of seeing others, right? I think all these things are actually part, should be part of our Christian discipleship. It needs to be embodied and lived out and fleshed in our everyday lives. What we do Monday through Saturday actually matters. Our social relationships actually matter, and our willingness to live in solidarity and struggle with those who are struggling for justice, that actually is a part of discipleship.

Jared: Good advice, Drew. Thank you for that. And as we head out, maybe you can, why don’t you let people know what projects do you have out? Are you working on any new projects and maybe where people can find you online if they want to learn more about the work you do?

Drew: Yeah, well first I would just note, I have a book called Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism, which is extremely helpful for just trying to enter into these kind of conversations and breaking down even further what that means for us as the church. You can find me, I blog at the Christian Century, my blog is called Taking Jesus Seriously, though it’s not always active. I’m on and off. More active space that you can find me at is on Twitter, @DruHart, you can find me there, Facebook and all other places. And I’m often traveling quite a bit around the country speaking, and so just look it up, I might be in a town or city nearby.

Jared: Great. Well thanks again for coming on and talking to us about this important topic and explaining some of these concepts to us. It’s truly helpful, it’s good to have you on.

Pete: Yes, thank you Drew, we learned much.

Drew: Thank you for having me, I really appreciate it.

Jared: See ya later.

[Music begins]

Pete: Well folks, thanks again for listening to another episode of The Bible for Normal People and we found our conversation with Drew Hart to be just wonderful. Make sure you find Drew on Twitter @DruHart. And also, if you get a chance, to look at his book Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism, a very important and highly praised book about obviously a very, very important topic. As usual, you can reach Jared and me on Facebook and on Twitter and on my website, https://peteenns.com/. There you can see my speaking schedule, you can book me if you’d like, and just see the books that I’m working on and also the conversations that we’re having there.

Jared: And we want to highlight today, the community that we would invite you to be a part of. We have a Slack community, which is an app, basically allowing you to message back and forth with a group of people around topics of the Bible, what it is, and how we read it, and that’s part of what we’re doing on Patreon. So, if you want to learn more about that, you can go to https://www.patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople, scroll through the rewards and for $5 a month, you can have access to this growing community of people who have these conversations on a regular basis. Pete and I will drop in on occasion for some helpful, and if not, sarcastic comments.

Pete: Or just belch for like, a half an hour, and then go away.

Jared: Well, it’s not audio.

Pete: [Laughter]

Jared: You’re going to type it out?

Pete: Shoot. Yeah.

Jared: You’re going to type out your belching? That’s commitment.

Pete: I didn’t know that.

Jared: That’s commitment.

Pete: That changes everything.

Jared: [Laughter]

Pete: What do I do now? Oh no. Okay.

Jared: All right. Well, we’ll talk to you guys next time.

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What Archaeologists Do & Why It Matters with Cynthia Shafer-Elliot

Interview with with Cynthia Shafer-Elliott: What Archaeologists Do & Why It Matters

February 19, 2018

Archaeologist Cynthia Shafer-Elliott turns a 2D Bible into a 3D picture by digging up artifacts from everyday ancient Israelite life. These were real people with real habits and customs that we never really see on the pages of the Bible.

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Read the transcript

Pete: Okay, welcome listeners, to another episode and welcome to Cynthia Shafer-Elliott for being our guest today. Hi Cynthia, how it going?

Cynthia: Well, how are you?

Pete: You’re from California.

Cynthia: I am, and it just started winter, like, the other day.

Pete: Oh, what’s winter like? 70 degrees?

Cynthia: It has been, yeah, but now it’s raining so I feel really bad for you all as you had that big artic blast.

Pete: We did, it was horrible.

Jared: We’re like Game of Thrones; our winter lasts years.

Cynthia: [Laughter]

Pete: Yeah, yeah. A thousand years actually, so…

Cynthia: Oh, you poor people.

Pete: Hey, listen, Cynthia, in case you haven’t noticed you are an archeologist.

Cynthia: I am, yeah.

Pete: You are. You know, I studied that a little bit in graduate school, but I’m not an archeologist myself. I don’t like getting dirty –

Cynthia: [Laughter]

Pete: And I don’t like getting up early. So, apart from those two things, help us, just, you know, what do you do? What do archeologists do? And that’s something that, you know, if you think of it as Indiana Jones or something like that, but –

Cynthia: Yeah…

Pete: That’s not it. But what do you do and why do you do it?

Cynthia: Yeah, you know, I have to explain this to my students all the time because I’m trying to bribe them to come with me to Israel to dig. So, what we do is we’re trying to understand ancient Israel better. And we do that by, well, I do that by both examining the biblical text and examining what we call material culture. And material culture is all that physical stuff that they left behind that could be buildings, architecture, features of a house, say like, an oven or a cistern that could be what we could call the artifacts that they left behind, like pots and oil lamps and things like that. And so, what we’re trying to do is uncover what they’ve left behind in order to understand ancient Israel better. So, we do have to get up very early, because we’re there in the summer and it’s very hot. Yeah. So, we work early hours and it’s not for the faint hearted. You know, it’s hard work. It’s kind of like akin to the academic fat camp –



Where you go and you’re working so hard and you’re using muscles that you didn’t remember that you had and you are having a hard time because it’s hot and dirty and you’re in the sun, but at the same time, you are the first person to uncover something that hasn’t been seen or touched in thousands of years. Yeah!

Pete: What’s the most interesting thing or exciting thing that you’ve ever uncovered, or maybe you were a part of a team that uncovered something?

Cynthia: Yeah, I get asked that a lot. I think all of us in that field get asked this question a lot. It’s a really interesting question though, because what I like is probably not what most people find exciting, but I would think what most people would find exciting is, I was part of a one-season on a Venetian Tomb excavation back in 2002 I think, yeah. I think that’s when it was, with Eliat Mazar, and this tomb, this little tomb hadn’t been excavated and it also hadn’t been robbed. And so, we had this little tomb full of artifacts that people would take to, when they’re revering their ancestors. So, these are high end materials. These aren’t everyday artifacts like cooking pots or something, but these are fragile or precious things, like a metal sword or bronze sword, excuse me, or some scarabs, or jewelry, and then all this, if I can say this, all the skeletal remains too, but we’re not supposed to talk about that.


So, but that’s really, that was really exciting, and the fact that it was right on the Mediterranean probably didn’t hurt either, but for me personally, it’s when we’re, I’m right now, I’m excavating houses and one of the things I love, it sounds –

Pete: So am I, you should see my basement.

Cynthia: [Laughter]

Pete: Horrible. Anyway…

Cynthia: One of the things I love that I find, as simple as this sounds, is sometimes you find a handle of a vessel, like a jug or a pot or something, and while the vessel itself was wheel made, the handles are pressed on usually by hand. And so, sometimes you see and feel the potter’s thumbprints and sometimes you even find their thumbprint and to see their thumbprint on this vessel, it just, it takes my breath away every time. I think it’s just, wow, look at this, reminds me that somebody made this pot and it begets all those questions of who made it and why and what did they do with it and why did they leave this behind? And for me, it’s the stories behind the artifacts, behind the architecture, the stories of the people that used these items and lived during this time that I find the most fascinating.

Jared: So, at some point we’ll talk more about some of those findings and what does that mean for your understanding of daily life in ancient Israel and the time periods that you studied, but maybe talk some about how does biblical archeology impact how we read or have read the Bible. Like, what’s the interplay between the scriptures and archeology?

Cynthia: That’s another really good question, and depending on who you ask, you’ll have a very different answer. But part of the issue that a lot of us in our field have to answer is kind of even how you phrased the question using that term “biblical archeology.” You have people within the field who say, “well, yes, you should be calling it biblical archeology and you should be digging with your trowel in one hand and your Bible in the other.” And then you have others who say, “absolutely not!” Because archeology is its own discipline and you have no other archeology that uses a text to define or interpret its answers. So, people often think that archeology is, it’s more scientific, there’s less interpretation than say, in biblical studies, but I would say that’s not the case.


I would say that there is maybe just as much interpretation within archeology as there is in biblical studies and as much as I love doing both biblical studies and archeology, I understand that they’re, and I try very hard to notice that they’re two different disciplines, and that these disciplines need to be done in their own ways and the interpretation from those studies and some of those artifacts need to be done in an appropriate methodological way. Now, that’s not to say though, that you can’t use the Bible to help us understand the physical world of ancient Israel or vice versa, that you can’t use archeology to help us understand the Bible. You absolutely can! But I think it has to be done so carefully that you can’t just be digging in Israel and say, “oh, I found,” let’s see for example, “I found this gate for this city and we think it might be from the time of the Iron Age, the Iron Age I. And so, therefore, we know Solomon built gates, so therefore, we think this is Solomon’s gate.” You know, that’s kind of a big jump. You have to have a little bit more evidence than that. So, even kind of in that crosshairs between those two disciplines, you absolutely want to use everything at your disposal to understand ancient Israel better. You want to use Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, you want to use other artifacts, like, textual artifacts like ancient near-Eastern texts. Also, archeology and iconography, which is representational art, like, figurines and things like that, it’s my opinion we want to use everything at our disposal, but we also want to do so carefully that we’re not allowing these other disciplines to kind of take our interpretation into a direction that maybe the actual physical evidence isn’t, or maybe is going in. Does that make sense?

Pete: Oh, yeah. It makes a lot of sense. Cynthia, you used the phrase I think, Iron Age I?

Cynthia: Yeah, sorry.

Pete: Explain that. Explain, you know, the epics, the eras, the stages that you archeologists have to work with all the time and maybe how they overlap with the biblical story a little bit if that’s possible?

Cynthia: Yeah, you know, depending on who you read or which scholar, archeologist you talk to, those dates are going to fluctuate a little bit, especially with, when you think of possibly very early Israel. Those dates are not set in stone because we realize that some things transition a lot longer than other things. So basically, we break down, just like in any history in any archeology, we’ve got different historical time periods, or archeological time periods that we look at ancient Israel. And the time period that most seems to represent when Israel would have existed is the Iron Age, and the Iron Age can be further subdivided into smaller ages like Iron I, Iron II, some even say Iron III, but some would call Iron III by a different name. So, it kind of depends on who you read and you know, what kind of school you belong to, but Israel is fairly firmly planted in the Iron Age. Now, when Israel comes on the scene and how they come on the scene is another question, but for me personally, the time period I’m most interested in is the Second Iron Age, and that’s roughly from around 1000 onto when Jerusalem was destroyed in 586 by the Babylonians.

Pete: And Iron Age I, that’s 1200, right? 1200 to about 1000?

Cynthia: Right. And that’s a pretty small time period, but that transition, that time period, early Israel is still very much debated by archeologists and biblical scholars on how Israel came on the scene and when, and so that’s a whole big discussion. But, yeah, so Iron I is roughly from 1200 – 1000, Iron II is roughly from 1000-586, and then you go on into the, you know, Neo-Babylonian periods then Persian and so on.

Pete: Yeah. Yeah, it’s, you know, when you get to the origins of Israel, I guess, one reason why scholars debate that back in Iron I around 1200 is because there isn’t a lot of archeological evidence, right?


Cynthia: Right, correct.

Pete: Yeah. That’s a shame.

Cynthia: It is a shame, because as, you know, historians and archeologists, we want as much evidence as possible and unfortunately, we don’t get a whole lot outside of the Bible. What we do know is the earliest mention of a people group called Israel is from, outside of the Bible, is from a stele called the Merneptah stele. And Merneptah was a pharaoh of Egypt after Ramses II I believe, and he did a military campaign into Canaan. And in this stele, which is a stone monument, it’s a victory monument, in this victory monument he talks about this campaign where he destroys a few city states. He names Ashkelon, but also names a people group called Israel, and this is our first mention of a people group called Israel in what becomes known later as the land of Israel, and that’s from about, I think the stele dates from around 1207 BCE. And then we don’t have extrabiblical anchor for King David until the Tel Dan stele was found. And the Tel Dan stele doesn’t date until the 9th century, which is after David would have existed. But the stele, again, a stone monument erected by Hazael, King of Aram-Damascus talks about his campaign against Israel, Judah, and he mentions Beit David or the House of David, which could mean the dynasty of David and that’s our, and that’s from the 9th century. So, what’s interesting is because of those two artifacts, we have the earliest reference of Israel with the Merneptah stele, and then we have the earliest reference to the kingdom of Israel established by David, which provides a solid beginning and end for the emergence of Israel and a kingdom called Israel. And so, unfortunately, we don’t get a lot of monumental type artifacts that talk about this people group called Israel or this kingdom called Israel or Judah or talking about David or Solomon, and that’s the stuff that most people like to hear about is the monumental stuff.

Jared: Right.

Cynthia: Yeah! So, most of what we do isn’t the monumental. It’s most of the, you know, “oh hey, I found this pot!”


Jared: So, before we go to kind of the pots and pans of everyday life, I think it would be good to even talk about some of that and some of the interesting things there. But can you just replay, because you used a lot of language I think is pretty common in archeology. The stele and the tels, Tel Dan, you mentioned, can you just rehearse real quick that lesson of those languages, like what’s a stele, what’s a tel, and maybe if there’s other common language that you guys as, that you as archeologists would use to describe places or things, that might be helpful to orient us.

Cynthia: Right. The term that you would need to know is the word “tel.” And tel being a not like a poker-tell, but basically a hill, a mound, it’s an artificial mound and you find them all throughout, you know, Israel and Southern Levant. And the Southern Levant is a geographical territory that Israel belongs to, so that would include the modern-day states of Israel, West Bank in Gaza, Palestine, Jordan, southern parts of Lebanon and Syria. And so, a tel is basically a artificial mound that they realized back in the pioneering days of archeology of ancient Israel that these mounds are basically the remains of layers of a buried city or town and that when we excavate them, you are basically going back in time. So, the most recent occupation of that city is at the top and the further down you excavate, you are going through the different layers of when that city or town existed and what was left behind.

Jared: So, how many tels would there, just a scope that we’d be talking about in this region that archeologists work on?

Cynthia: Oh geez, that’s a really good question and one I don’t know the answer to. But there’s tons.

Jared: So, it’s many, many, there’s a high volume.


Cynthia: Yeah, there’s a high volume and they range in size, you know. You’ve got some very small ones that maybe it was just a little village that existed for a short amount of time, and then you have some really large ones, like Lachish. Where Lachish was the second most important city in the kingdom of Judah and it was occupied for, you know, many, many, many centuries. It’s just a huge site. So, when we excavate, most of the time we’re excavating on these tels, and most archeologists though, we realize, well, it’s one reason why it’s so laborious is you’re moving all this dirt from all of these different layers and your wheelbarrow skills get really good taking care of all this dirt. But, we basically have a very slow methodological process, which is why excavations take so long because you have a process and you have a question your, or time period that you’re trying to concentrate on, but you have all these other layers before your time period. So, for instance, I’m interested in the Second Iron Age, like we already talked, which is roughly the time of the divided monarchy, the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. And that’s the time period I’m most interested in, but the site I’m digging in Tel Halif, that site was occupied after the Iron Age II, it was occupied during the late Roman, excuse me, even before that the Persian and late Roman Byzantine, and so we have to go through those other layers and treat those other layers like they’re just as important as the layer we’re interested in. So, we have to document everything, take heights and measurements and keep everything and analyze everything. So, it’s a really lengthy process but when you get to a tel and you realize that these are layers of a buried city.

Jared: Stay tuned for more Bible for Normal People.

[Producer’s group endorsement]

Pete: So, how do you know when you are? You dig down, and the further down you dig, the further back in time you go. How can archeologists tell what century they’re in –

Cynthia: Right.

Pete: Or what age they’re in, whether Iron Age or Bronze Age or whatever?

Cynthia: Sure. The biggest indicator that we use is pottery. So, the pottery just changes over time. So, we call that typology or pottery typology, how those types change. So, the example I usually give in class is let’s say we talked into a room and we had all these different cell phones in a box, and we said you need to put these in chronological order. And you would more than likely do a really good job at putting those phones in order from when cell phones began to today because cell phones, when they first started, they were actually car phones and they were really big and they had these huge antennas and then they get to a flip phone and a smart phone and, you know, they kind of evolve over time and pottery evolved over time. And so, when we look at, let’s say, a jug, we know by looking at the handle, the rim, and the base of that jug, we can tell what time period it’s from because time periods have very certain features of their pottery.

Jared: And to clarify, I mean, I’m just clarifying with you, but in my head, pottery seems like a strange, like, décor element. But back then, it would have been the basic building blocks of domestic life, right?

Cynthia: Right, and you have pottery everywhere. You have broken pieces, which we call shards, sometimes you’ll have sometimes whole vessels, or we put vessels back together again. And so, if you were to, say, look at oil lamps and oil lamps are the little lamps that you would put oil in to help see at night. And they change, they evolved over time. They went from being just a simple bowl with like a slight pinch all the way to being more enclosed with decoration. And so, when you see these oil lamps, you see how they refined, how they made these lamps, maybe they realized that if they made them with multiple spouts, they’d have, they could see better or maybe there were influenced by other people and so, we look at pottery typically to date things and that’s one way that we specially do it on the digs, like, hands on when we’re excavating.


We say okay, we’re looking at all the pottery we excavated today, we’re looking at all these pieces, the indicative pieces like the rims and the handles and the bases or if it happens to have decoration on it. We look at those pieces and we say, okay, this is very clearly from the late Bronze Age, or this is very clearly Persian because it has very distinguishing features from those time periods.

Pete: Yeah. Pottery just the everyday stuff that, you know, you might not think much of and broken pieces and all that they can tell a tale of the past.

Cynthia: Mm hmm.

Pete: Well, you’re obviously very excited about it.

Cynthia: [Laughter]

Pete: What’s wrong with you? Anyway. Getting up early and digging, but I imagine you talk about this with your students a lot too, but what are, you know, the benefits of knowing some things about everyday life in the ancient world? And I want to try to really ask that question more succinctly – maybe they could be theological benefits or just faith benefits, you know, like, has this changed you at all and in terms of how you think of the nature of Christian faith by digging things up out of the ground?

Cynthia: Yeah, absolutely. I don’t think you can be involved in this and not have it impact you. When I first started excavating, it was history that I could feel, history that I could touch, it was that tangible connection to the past. And I feel that very profoundly still, like, when I was talking about the fingerprints on the pottery, and I think it connects us to the people, our own spiritual ancestors in ways that we may not realize how it can, because you’re there, you’re uncovering this stuff and you think, these are the people that the Hebrew Bible talks about, these are the people who were connected with their kingdom. I mean, the site I’m at right now is a site called Tel Halif, it’s in what would’ve been the kingdom of Judah and it was destroyed by the Assyrians in 701 when they came down to Judah after they conquered the northern kingdom of Israel. And to think about these people fled this house because the enemy was at the gate and it was either flee or be killed. And when I think about their lives and I think about that I’m handling what’s left of their physical existence, their daily lives, that touches me in a way that I think, gosh, no, that’s not gonna happen for me when I’m dead! I think about how those people lived and how their story is still being told and I wonder what story am I telling with my life and how was that affecting not only my own spiritual journey, but those that I encounter on a regular basis and it really makes me wonder if what I’m doing is going to be as profound as what I find that those people left behind.

Jared: That’s really well put, Cynthia. And maybe you can go more in depth in just, you know, you talked about their life and the things that you’re uncovering. What was family life like in the Iron Age, like, what have you learned about these people that are written about in the Hebrew Bible that are living these stories out? What was life like?

Cynthia: Yeah, you know, it’s, archeology helps us a lot because the biblical text, the Hebrew Bible, it wasn’t, we don’t get a lot of daily life stuff in it. The narratives, the end things that we have in the Hebrew Bible, they’re mostly talking about significant or monumental people, places, events, and things and sometimes we get a glimpse of what daily life would’ve been like, but that’s not the point of the scriptures, we’re not going to find a collection of recipes in there, you know? As much as I would love that. So, when we excavate these houses and we’re focusing on daily life, so we want to shift our attention from what historically has been within archeology of ancient Israel has been the focus, has been the monumental, the temples, the palaces, the city gates. All of those reflecting the elite people and that’s really interesting, but I’m interested in the everyday, your average ancient Israelite man, woman, and child. What was their life like?


Cynthia: And so we, when we excavate we need to shift from the monumental things to the everyday, and that would be the home. And so, at Halif we’re doing what we call household archeology where we’re focusing on houses primarily from the 8th century, so, within the Second Iron Age, this would be the time of King Hezekiah of Judah and Isaiah the prophet. And we’re uncovering their lives and when I’m studying what we find and then also what we can learn from the biblical text, I find that daily life was much more, can’t decide if I want to choose the word complex or simple.


But you hear –

Pete: Yeah, they mean the same thing.

Cynthia: Yeah. You hear from people who keep talking about the patriarchy within the text, right, and we hear a lot about that, and there have been scholars who have been doing this work far longer than I have, and I primarily think of Carol Myers from Duke University, where if you are focusing your attention more to the daily life, the social structure would have been less patriarchal. In fact, she would call it heterarchy, where depending on the circumstances, there is more room for negotiation and roles of power and authority within the household. If we look at the household level, who was part of that household? Well, that would be a multi-generational family. Grandparents, their married son and his family, that family could include unmarried daughters or aunts, it could include his married sons and their children, it could include hired workers and servants and all sorts of people that were related or maybe not related but were working together on the household farm, if you will. And when you take a look at the household and just daily life, you realize that we are putting on them this notion of, I think what people would call gender roles, that people in ancient Israel, any ancient society really, if their one focus on a day to day basis is survival, you would probably not have that so-called luxury of gender roles, that men do this and women do that.

Pete: You get everybody on board.

Cynthia: Yeah! Everybody on board! Especially in times of planting and harvest and if you think about it too, when the men were called to war, the women would be left behind at the house and they had to be able to do everything, because, they had to. You know? It wasn’t, oh, I’ll wait ‘til Joseph gets home and have him do it. No! Everyone had to participate regardless of your age, regardless of your sex, regardless of any other differentials for the survival of the family. And I think that keeps being the one thing I find as I’m studying these households in this daily life is, we keep putting things on it that we’re saying, oh, it’s part of our society or we’re living biblically. Well, what does that mean?


What does biblical worldview mean and which worldview are you talking about? I mean, are you…yeah! Whose worldview? And if you really want to talk about what life was like in ancient Israel, I’d be more than happy to have that conversation, but I don’t think it’s gonna sound like the way a lot of people think it would.

Pete: Yeah, you know, we sometimes think, and maybe I shouldn’t generalize but I’m right anyway –

Cynthia: [Laughter]

Pete: You know, I’m, people think of, you know, ancient Israelites as sort of running around with their Bibles –

Cynthia: [Laughter]

Pete: And all, you know, listening to the voice of God of what God is telling them about worship, this, and that, but it’s probably not the case.

Cynthia: Right!

Pete: I mean, would you agree that they’re just trying to survive and –

Cynthia: Right.

Pete: I sort of think of like, in our contemporary culture, people who just sort of go to church because that’s what they do –

Cynthia: Mm hmm.

Pete: But they’re not actually thinking theologically about everything.

Cynthia: Right, yeah.

Pete: Which is a little unsettling, because you read these things like everybody is supposed to know this and, well, they don’t. You know, one thing I remember, this blew me away when I was in graduate school and I took my one archeology course because, as I’ve mentioned, I don’t want to get dirty or get up early.

Cynthia: Who’d you take that with?


Pete: Larry Stager.

Cynthia: Oh yeah.

Pete: Who just passed away a week ago or so, yeah, right around Christmas time. Yeah, I had my course with him which was wonderful. But I remember these figurines, these fertility figurines –

Cynthia: Right.

Pete: That apparently thousands of them were found.

Cynthia: Oh yeah.

Pete: In your time period –

Cynthia: Yeah. 

Pete: Well, you’re not supposed to worship with idols.

Cynthia: [Laughter]

Pete: But it seems like that was a pretty common practice!

Cynthia: Yeah.

Pete: What were Israelites like? Well, they probably did that because that’s just what you do when you’re religious.

Cynthia: Right, exactly. We find those figurines; they’re mostly found in domestic or households in houses.

Pete: Yeah, like up on the mantle or something like we would have.

Cynthia: Yeah, right. And so, when you think about it you think, well, these figurines, some people think they might represent the Canaanite fertility goddess Asherah, others have argued that it could be really a number of fertility goddesses, but they also, you see them in different forms and most of them are female figurines. There are some male figurines, there are some animal figurines, but the discussion is that these figurines were used in Israelite households to worship at home, they all didn’t go to Jerusalem every week to go to the temple, you know. Most of the time it was done at home. And that the fertility of the people and of the land was of utmost importance, and if you’re trying to just survive, then that’s what you’re going to pray for. You’re going to pray for rain, you’re going to pray that your wife is able to give birth to a healthy child that’s going to be able to help on the farm. And you can imagine if you’re this, you know, I give this kind of story to my students where if you can imagine you’re, you know, an Israelite farmer and say, your Canaanite neighbor, his field is doing really well but yours isn’t. And you say to your Canaanite neighbor, “hey, how is your field doing so well?” And they say, “oh, well, I pray every day to Asherah, and I, you know, offer libation offerings to her.” And you go, “huh, okay, well, I worship Yahweh, but I’ll also say a prayer to Asherah too.” And you know, Pete, that really throws people off a lot of times when you say, well, they worshipped Yahweh and. And I tell them, well, I ask them, I say, well, how much of the Old Testament have you read?


Pete: So you’re snarky too? Okay, good.

Cynthia: Yeah, a little snarky. Because it says it very often that the Israelites sometimes worshipped the Lord one-on-one, just really well, and other times they didn’t. And then archeologically, we have inscriptions like they found at Kuntillet Ajrud, which is a site way down south in Sinai where it talks about an inscription that says Yahweh and his Asherah.

Pete: So sort of his wife.

Cynthia: Right. That they were practicing, you know, worship of Yahweh and. And the biblical text dates it, you just gotta make sure, not a lot of people read the Old Testament anymore.

Pete: I think about the Ten Commandments, you know, and you shall have no other gods before me and no idols.

Cynthia: Right.

Pete: We read that today and we say, well, obviously, how hard could that be?

Cynthia: Yeah!

Pete: That’s counterintuitive in the ancient world.

Cynthia: Yeah.

Pete: That’s asking an awful lot of people to have this belief that only one deity is worthy of any sort of worship because, you know, your neighbors’ fields are doing pretty well and yours aren’t. I mean, I think that really drives home the offense of belief in Yahweh in an ancient culture. It’s not an easy thing, like, don’t you remember all those old stories? Don’t you guys see miracles every five minutes or something like that? They don’t see anything!

Cynthia: Right.

Pete: They’re just trying to hang on, and I, to me, that’s a humanizing part about what you do.

Cynthia: Yeah, it is.

Pete: It really brings that out in a way text, these texts that we read are not equipped to do that.

Cynthia: Yeah, exactly, and I, again, the texts are, their purpose isn’t to, the purpose is, you know, people talk about how they’re written by elite urban men, and so, it’s not like they’re purposefully trying to ignore just women, for instance, but they’re ignoring your average person. They’re ignoring the daily life of the average men, women, and children, except for when it intersects with the story that they’re trying to tell. And so, that’s where archeology really is helpful, because it gives that humanizing view of the past.

Jared: Yeah, absolutely. Well, we’re coming to the end of our time, Cynthia, so thank you so much for really educating us, I think, on archeology and the basics of what it is you do and why it matters and intersects our faith. Is there any projects that you’re currently working on or where can people find you online if they want to learn more about the work that you’re interested in and the work you’re doing?

Cynthia: We welcome people on our excavations, you don’t have to be a student, you don’t have to have any prior experience or knowledge, you just have to have a good attitude and be somewhat physically able –

Jared: Well, Pete would be out on both accounts.

Pete: [Laughter]

Yeah, right.

Cynthia: [Laughter]

The attitude part, yes.

Pete: Exactly.

Cynthia: [Laughter]

Jared: You’re not allowed after, you know, talking trash about it.

Pete: Yeah, well.

Jared: That’s great! So where would people go to know how do to that? Like, I’m sure they shouldn’t just buy a ticket to Israel and try to find you.

Cynthia: Well, they can contact me directly, you know, my Jessup email is all over the place, but also if the BAR, Biblical Archeology Review, their dig issue I think just came out. They do an issue every January just for digs and they give a list of the digs that are going to be going on the following summer, and to give you a breakdown of what time period they’re on, what they’re working on, and how much it costs, and what the accommodations are like, and all those sorts of details and when they’re digging and how to apply to go on a dig. And they also have some scholarships you can apply for too.

Jared: That’s excellent, I’m thinking maybe I should.

Cynthia: You should! You can come with me.

Jared: I have four little kids, so I don’t mind getting up in the morning or getting dirty.

Cynthia: [Laughter]

Pete: Or being away for six months.

Jared: Exactly!

Cynthia: Well, digs are normally, you have to go, usually they want you to volunteer for at least two weeks and the digs are usually four weeks long.

Jared: Oh, man. Well, that’ll be fortunate if I say I have to go for two weeks. That’d be great.

Cynthia: Yeah, I’m on Facebook, I’m on Twitter, I’m on Instagram and all my digs and when I take students or tours over to Israel –

Jared: Do you Instagram your actual digs?

Cynthia: I do.

Jared: Do you take pictures and post them?

Cynthia: Mm hmm, yeah. I’ll put them on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter. You know, I’ve got my profile up at https://jessup.edu/ and projects, yeah, I’m always working on projects. So, last year The Five Minute Archeologist book that I edited came out and that’s been great because it’s one of those books that is trying to help people who are interested in archeology of ancient Israel in particular, what do we do and why and who pays for this and do you get to keep things and the idea was to take questions that people often ask of archeologists when they meet them, like, on the plane or something. And so, there’s about thirty different archeologists and there’s really short essays in there. But the next couple of things I’m working on is, one will be writing and analyzing the House at Halif that I’ve been excavating for the last four years. So, I’ll be at the Albright Institute in Jerusalem there doing that, and then I’m coediting a project with Janling Fu from Harvard and Carol Myers from Duke on “A Handbook of Food in the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel.” We’re just getting started on that, that will be with T&T Clark.

Pete: That’s great, thank you Cynthia. That’s a lot going on. And again, we appreciate your time with us and, you know, giving us a glimpse of daily life in archeology and intersection and all that sort of stuff. It was very, very interesting, it was great to have you.

Cynthia: Well, thanks for having me.