Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

Episode 121: Pete and Jared Talk About the Afterlife

In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete and Jared talk about what the Bible has to say about the afterlife as they explore the following questions:

  • How did the biblical authors understand the afterlife?
  • Is the New Testament’s main focus on the afterlife?
  • What does the Old Testament say about Sheol?
  • What is salvation in the Old Testament?
  • What was considered a life well lived in ancient times?
  • How does the idea of the afterlife justify God?
  • Where is a firm concept of the afterlife first mentioned in the Bible?
  • How is apocalyptic literature related to the afterlife?
  • What can ancient history tell us about the development and understanding of the afterlife?
  • What is the apocalypse according to the New Testament?
  • Did Paul believe what other Jews at the time believed or were his ideas original?
  • What is the difference between resurrection and the afterlife?


Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Pete and Jared you can share. 

  • “For a lot of the Old Testament, it’s kind of silent on what happens when you die. It’s more interested… in your legacy living on in the life of your kids.” @jbyas
  • “Resurrection and afterlife are related but they’re not the same thing.” @peteenns
  • “Anything about eternal conscious torment when you die is by nature speculative and you’re outside the realm of biblical studies at that point.” @jbyas
  • “There’s no real clear notion of afterlife, at least nothing that we want to be a part of in the Old Testament.” @peteenns
  • “The Bible doesn’t get to constrain the questions we ask.” @jbyas
  • “It’s legitimate and it’s appropriate and it’s healthy and important, actually, to ask questions that the Bible isn’t equipped to even ask.” @jbyas

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.

[Jaunty Intro Music]

Jared: Welcome everyone to this episode of The Bible for Normal People. Today we’re gonna talk about the afterlife.

Pete: Hmm, death.

Jared: What happens when we die?

Pete: Death.

Jared: Yeah. But, you know…

Pete: This is the Bible for Normal People and normal people die.

Jared: Because when you get up on a Monday morning, you really need that pick me up –

Pete: [Laughter]

Jared: That real smile on your face. What better to do that than to talk about your death?

Pete: Yeah. Actually, this is my request. Jared’s gonna talk me off a ledge here, case I’m like, 59, and every joint in my body is rebelling at this moment, and I’ve been trying to, I’ve been trying, I think I can avoid death if I try hard enough.

Jared: [Laughter]

Pete: I think I have a plan. It involves the gym, and a juicer, and I think I can probably make it.

Jared: Man, every infomercial producer in the world is loving you right now.

Pete: [In typical announcer voice]

This episode brought to you by…

Jared: [Laughter]

That’s right.

Pete: No death fruit juice.

Jared: Oh man.

Pete: Oh gosh, alright. Well, ya know, it is a topic though.

Jared: Well, I hate to break it to you, cause you are gonna die.

Pete: We’re all gonna die.

Jared: So it does affect us all, and we want to just look at  –

Pete: Ugghhhh. Gosh.

Jared: What does the Bible have to say about it? And I think we might be surprised –

Pete: About dying or about the afterlife?

Jared: About the afterlife.

Pete: Yeah, that’s okay.

Jared: But we might be surprised by what is says and doesn’t say.

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: I think.

Pete: Yeah, I think so. Once you start looking for it, it’s like, wait a minute….


Jared: Yeah! Well, I can just, I can share. Maybe we can test our, how we grew up, and you can tell me if this is similar for you. But for me, growing up, it was a pretty much a foregone conclusion that Christianity, that the Bible taught that when you die, you become this soul. Your body stays in the ground, your soul is sent up to heaven, and then you’re just with God. I think, when I was really young, I pretty much just assumed I was singing hymns, I guess?

Pete: Mm hmm.

Jared: Forever? In this like, looked eerily like the church I grew up in.

Pete: [Laughter]

Jared: And that’s just pretty much what happened when you died. That was the afterlife.

Pete: It wasn’t a big blue background with fluffy clouds?

Jared: No, it was like red scratchy cushions and –

Pete: It is interesting. What do we think of, right –

Jared: Right.

Pete: With afterlife and I wonder what ancient people thought of, you know? We do have some clues in the Bible, I guess. But yeah, it’s like, I mean, it is afterlife we’re talking about, so it’s basically, I guess postmortem something, right?

Jared: Right.

Pete: So after life and you know, things like resurrection come into that, into play with that, but I think we’re really not talking about whether any of that is something that is real or true, right? We’re just thinking out loud here really, about how the Bible presents it, and then thoughts that a lot of people today have about this issue, which, you know, cause your point I guess, the Bible doesn’t really nail it.


Ya know?

Jared: Right.

Pete: It’s almost like it’s not even the main point, which is ironic, right? Because we’re raised to think the whole point of this is to “go to heaven when you die.”

Jared: Right.

Pete: And I’m not so sure, in fact, I am sure that that’s not really the central issue in the New Testament at least. And certainly not in the Old Testament.

Jared: Right, well let’s start with the Old Testament because we have various notions here of what happens when we die. And again, I think it’s, I think there’s something I can sense hesitancy in your voice and in mine to even talk about this because it’s not that central –

Pete: No, it’s cause I’m dying.

Jared: In the Bible.


Pete: [Laughter]

Jared: It’s not that central in the Bible, so even, it is a little strange because it was so central for my, for me, thinking, growing up of –

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: What Christianity is all about, but the more you read the Bible, you realize, oh, it’s not really, it’s not really a thing.

Pete: Yeah, and my students are shocked when we just talk about it. I say matter of factly:

There’s no real clear notion of afterlife, at least nothing that we want to be a part of in the Old Testament.

What?? It’s not there?

Yeah, it sort of developed.

It developed?! What do you mean it developed?? Isn’t the Bible all supposed to be the same thing cause it’s God’s word?

Well, yeah, I guess, whatever. But, the fact remains, right? That we don’t have much to go on. We have that place Sheol –

Jared: Yeah, so let’s talk about Sheol.

Pete: Yeah. Sheol, which is like, the afterlife word in the Old Testament.

Jared: Mm hmm, right. Where does it show up?

Pete: All over the place. Yeah, I mean, it’s common, but the thing is that it seems to not have one clear notion of what it is, you know? It’s just the place, it’s sort of like Hades in Greek. It’s the abode of the dead, it’s just where you go. So, there’s some sort of postmortem something.

Jared: Mm hmm. But it’s like a neutral zone, right?

Pete: Yes. It’s not hell.

Jared: Right.


Pete: It’s not heaven. That notion is essentially foreign to the Old Testament, which is sort of a wakeup call right there, you know? It’s like, whatever is happening in our Bible, if there are any shifts in the New Testament, and I think there are, but they’re also shifts in Judaism later on. It’s a developing notion, but back in the old days, it’s –

Jared: Where do we, do you know where the phrase Sheol comes from? Like, what does it represent, or what, you know, cause we call it Hades, but Hades is a Greek term, so that kind of developed within Greek culture. What’s Sheol?

Pete: I mean, in terms of where it comes from, to be frank, I don’t know and I’m not sure if anybody knows. You see foot notes in study Bibles that say things like, yeah, this is the place where dead people go, and that’s about it. But, you know, you catch glimpses of it in various places, like Psalms for example. Or hey, you know, you don’t want me to die do you, oh Lord, cause in Sheol no one praises you. So, it’s a place where, you know, it’s not singing harps. You know, singing with harps and clouds or something.

Jared: Right.

Pete: It’s a place where, it’s like you don’t have your normal existence. You know, it’s like –

Jared: Yeah, you don’t have a lot of agency or –

Pete: No, exactly.

Jared: Yeah. Right, right.

Pete: You’re just floating somewhere.

Jared: Yeah, you’re just floating. I guess is what I always pictured it as.

Pete: Right, right.

Jared: Hmm. Well, and then, so we have Sheol, which we see in various parts of the Old Testament. And it’s often in more, wouldn’t it be more in poetic things I think of, like in the Psalms I think of Sheol quite a bit, like Psalm 139.

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: Even if I go down to, I think it’s one of those verses in 139. Even if I go down to Sheol, you know, God is still there.

Pete: Right.

Jared: So, we have that as a notion.

Pete: Which is already a diversity in Sheol, someplace, it’s almost like God is absent form you completely and yet other places, right –

Jared: God isn’t.

Pete: God isn’t, so again, it’s like, maybe they’re working it out themselves.

Jared: Right.

Pete: Maybe they’re thinking about it. Like, what happens to, no seriously, what happens to us when we die?

Jared: [Laughter]

Pete: I’m not kidding now, you know?

Jared: [Continued laughter]

Pete: And you read stuff in narratives, you know, you said poetic stuff, like, to be gathered with your fathers, or to be buried with your fathers. Which is a way of saying you’re dying –

Jared: Mm hmm.

Pete: Or you’re dead, but it’s a good kind of death and it’s a sign of a blessedness in death and then your life continues in your offspring, which is why offspring are so important.

Jared: Yeah, so, maybe let’s even backtrack before Sheol, because Sheol was the idea of an afterlife, but for a lot of the Old Testament, it’s kind of silent on what happens when you die. It’s more interested – which I think is an important thing to say – I think it’s more interested in your legacy living on in the life of your kids.

Pete: Mm hmm, right.

Jared: That’s sort of how you know you lived a good life and that’s how you live on into the future, is through your kids.

Pete: Yeah! Which is not, I mean, I don’t know, I know people today who think a lot like that.

Jared: Yeah.

Pete: Even if they think of afterlife in some other way, you just, you wanna, like, how do you wanna die? In a bed, with your family around you, and your kids.

Jared: Mm hmm, when you’re old.

Pete: When you’re old, right!


Jared: [Laughter]

You forgot that important part.

Pete: Not like, right away.

Jared: Yeah!

[Continued laughter]

Pete: Oh, we’re laughing about death.

Jared: Ah, yes.

Pete: Yeah, so, I mean, it’s something that is, it indicates a, like, you’ve died well, blessed by God and you’re gathered with your fathers, which, well, doesn’t that mean afterlife consciousness? I mean, frankly, there’s no indication of that. It could, or it could just mean you can be buried in the same country as your fathers.

Jared: I was gonna say, you literally be gathered with your fathers.

Pete: Yeah, right. And you’re all there together, and maybe, I mean, I’d like to think there’s some speculation there on the part of the ancient Israelites thinking, well, maybe if we keep ‘em all together, right?

Jared: [Laughter]

Yeah, then in the afterlife they’re not gonna get lost.

Pete: Yeah, so they’re all buried, I mean Abraham and Sarah buried in the same place, you know, stuff like that. So –

Jared: Well, I think I emphasize that because growing up where the emphasis was so much on the other-worldliness of faith, and I always appreciated learning and reading authors like Jon Levenson and others where they really emphasized that it’s, there is a way to die well without necessarily a belief in eternally living on forever. And I think that’s important, especially because there are people of other faiths and there are people of no faith who I want to respect and honor their way of kind of living long lives and dying well, and it doesn’t always have to include this anxiety of getting people saved so they have this long, eternal life –

Pete: Mm hmm.

Jared: Which, I mean, for me, I appreciate that. It kind of calmed my anxiety to say hey, a lot of the Old Testament doesn’t seem concerned about that. It’s concerned about, life is tragic if it’s cut short, life is good if it’s long and you have children who can carry your name.


Pete: And if it’s cut short because you’re righteous, or good, I mean, that’s tragic but it’s also something to be honored, especially later on in Judaism.

Jared: Mm hmm, yeah.

Pete: So, you mentioned salvation, which is a good thing to, maybe just, to tie into this because, you know, what salvation means in the Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament is not, you’re on safe ground when you die and that’s exactly the assumption that I think Christians have made. It’s not an assumption. They’ve highlighted maybe some few things in the New Testament that might indicate that, although I’m not very sure about that, but salvation, like in Luke’s gospel at the beginning when Jesus is born to salvation is to save the people from their enemies – that’s salvation. And salvation, redemption, deliverance – words like that in the Old Testament – it is a “this life” thing. There’s simply no question about that.

Jared: Right.

Pete: You can’t really debate that, it’s God shows God’s presence by delivering people from enemies, and that’s the preoccupation in some of the Psalms and elsewhere.

Jared: Yeah. So, we have, kind of thinking about the afterlife we have this idea of one notion that says, well, in a lot of places maybe the assumption is they didn’t really know what to do with the afterlife, but it was really more about long life, having posterity, legacy. Then we have this idea of Sheol, which is kind of this neutral, it’s always gray in my head for some reason, it’s like the neutral zone.

Pete: Yeah. I feel like some scene in some Disney movie, which one is it, where, I forget which one.


It might be Hercules or something, you know what I mean?

Jared: Oh, yeah yeah. Mm hmm.

Pete: What, it’s like, the River Styx!

Jared: Yeah, it is Hercules.

Pete: Like, they’re floating in there like, uuughhhrhhhh, but –

Jared: [Laughter]

That’s right! Yeah, that’s right, that’s right.

Pete: It’s just not a place you want to go, but it’s a place you’re inevitably going to go, and –

Jared: Right, but you’re not tortured actively.

Pete: No!

Jared: It’s not hell.

Pete: There’s no devil down there. There might be, not in the Bible, but elsewhere there is somebody who’s in charge. There’s a deity in charge of this place to not let you out because you want to get out.

Jared: Right, right.

Pete: But you’re just sort of there in the Old Testament, that’s it.

Jared: Well, and then I want to point out Ecclesiastes, because in chapter three, that old doubter –

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: Talks about, you know, who knows whether the soul goes up or the spirit goes up.

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: I don’t know what the Hebrew there is, is it ruah, breath?

Pete: I don’t remember. Yeah, there’s yeah, nephesh maybe, but probably not.

Jared: Okay.

Pete: Yeah, we need to look up, we need to prepare for these podcasts, don’t we?


It’s in the Bible for heaven’s sake!

Jared: Well, I figured you had the whole Bible memorized in Hebrew, Pete!

Pete: Our listeners can look this stuff up. They’re fine. We’re not gonna tax them with too much information, but…

Jared: But anyway, in Ecclesies… Ecclesies? Clesies.

Pete: [Laughter]

Jared: Gee wiz.

Pete: Who knows if the spirit of man goes up and the animal goes down?

Jared: Right.

Pete: Which is interesting they’d already assumed some things.

Jared: That’s right.

Pete: Right?

Jared: Yeah, there seems to be something in the air, right, already.

Pete: And this is a post-exilic second temple text. And that’s important, I mean, people disagree on when it was written, but very few people say earlier than the fifth century, and some say even a little bit later. So, you already have developments there of a different way of conceiving of the afterlife, and it’s just sort of thrown at you here in chapter three. It’s like you’re just supposed to know what to do with this, right. Now, he’s doubting it entirely, right?

Jared: Right.

Pete: But the thing is, he’s doubting it. What the it? The it came from somewhere and it didn’t come from the rest of the Old Testament. It didn’t come from pre-exilic Old Testament texts.

Jared: Right.

Pete: It came from somewhere, and that’s the interesting thing.

Jared: Right, well, let’s maybe go into that, because I think that ties into, there’s definitely a phase, right? So, if we’re talking older, you know, talk about pre-exilic. So, we’re talking, you know, sixth century and before –

Pete: Mm hmm.

Jared: Israelite kind of belief and practice, as we, at least as we have it kind of recorded in the Bible. That’s where we have, kind of, not a lot to go on.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Jared: There’s just not a lot there. We have this Sheol, but then as we get closer and we start getting to post-exilic, which is important because now we’ve got all these other people groups starting to intermingle with the Jewish people, and we start getting Hellenistic influences and other things that starts to shape. It’s interesting, you talked about development earlier, how the afterlife concept kind of develops and it develops, coincidentally or not, obviously not, with these people groups that are now bringing their own ideas about the afterlife into it. So, can you talk a little bit about that around when this would be and kind of what those influences would be?


Pete: Yeah, I mean, in the context of other cultures who maybe have their own views on things, and also theologically in response to things that stop making sense to them. So, I mean, with Ecclesiastes, that’s a good question where he’s getting this from and I’m not sure if we can say with any certainty, but there’s something in the air and is it the result of Babylonian influence, or is it maybe Persian influence? Some people say that.

Jared: Well, let’s make that explicit. So, what we’re saying is, there is a belief in the culture in which Ecclesiastes is written, where the spirit, there’s a belief that the spirit of people goes up, presumably to heaven to be with God –

Pete: Mm hmm.

Jared: And the spirit of animals go down into the ground to be, who knows?

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: Gone.

Pete: Yeah. What are they doing down there?

Jared: Annihilated, whatever.

Pete: Is this a conscious spirit goes down with animals?

Jared: Right.

Pete: Do animals go to heaven? No Billy, they all go to hell. They go down there, so, ya know.

Jared: [Laughter]

But, so there’s this, that’s kind of the, it seems like that’s the belief that Qoheleth, the writer of Ecclesiastes, is assuming.

Pete: He’s calling into question a lot of stuff.

Jared: Right.

Pete: That we would consider to be, you know, fairly straightforward, like, orthodox Biblical teaching, and he’s skeptical.

Jared: Yeah.

Pete: He’s skeptical because he’s somewhat of an evidentialist –

Jared: Mm hmm.

Pete: Like, he doesn’t see the effects of things and so he says, who knows? We don’t actually, I mean, it’s actually, it’s sort of refreshing.

Jared: Yeah! I mean, he’s kind of right. We don’t know!

Pete: He goes, hey pal, we don’t actually know anything. So, like, in other words, you can’t, I’ve heard people sort of try to correct the negativity of this guy, Qoheleth as you called him in Ecclesiastes, and say well, he doesn’t have, you know, an understanding of like, when you die you go to heaven and everything is going to be okay. He’s saying, I’ve thought through that one, and I don’t know that it’s there, do you know that it’s there? I just, I don’t know, I find it a little bit refreshing.

Jared: Mm hmm.

Pete: But he doesn’t dwell on that, you know, it’s really just a little bit there in chapter three and that’s it. So, we catch a glimpse –

Jared: Mm hmm, but, you know, again, like you said – there’s definitely an influence, and it’s not coming from the rest of the Old Testament that this influence is coming. You said it could be Babylonian influence, it could be –

Pete: Perhaps.

Jared: Could it be Greek influence at this point?

Pete: Maybe, if it’s that late.

Jared: Mm hmm.

Pete: And if it’s that late, it would have to be –

Jared: It’d be real late, like second century.

Pete: It might even be the third century at the earliest. And there are some people who think Ecclesiastes is that late, it’s possible, it’s hard to tell. But it’s coming from, I mean, I think it’s enough to say it’s coming from some type of reasoning process or influence that is after the tragedy of exile, which maybe is something that got people thinking about a whole lot of stuff.

Jared: Mmm.

Pete: This could come to an end any minute, ya know? And so, I mean, that’s, apart from that what else? We have Daniel, right? I mean, Daniel 12?

Jared: Yeah, ‘til we get to the New Testament.

Pete: Yeah. Until we get to the New Testament, and there’s stuff in between too, but, ya know, Daniel is another one where, there we have what seems to be a clearer notion of something postmortem and it’s a context of judgement, but what do we have here? Daniel 12, starting in verse 2, “many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” So now we’re dealing with coming back to life. It’s not like what happens to you after you die. It’s sort of like, I mean, Tom Wright calls talks about life after, life after death, and that’s sort of what’s happening here in Daniel. But “those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.” So, this is a notion that actually you find elsewhere in Judaism at the time. Daniel was probably written in the second century. At least the final form of it, it may have earlier traditions –

Jared: Which is way, way late.

Pete: It’s pretty darn late.

Jared: Yeah.

Pete: Yeah, it’s written in the context of Greek influence, and a response to the persecutions that were happening early in the second century and Daniel sort of alludes to that throughout the places in his book, but –  

Jared: But is this one of the first notions? So, so far we’ve been talking, we’ve kind of been walking through the Old Testament in terms of ideas of the afterlife. Is this one of the first references that we have to this idea of what we might call bodily pre end of the world resurrection?

Pete: Something. Yeah, this is it, in my opinion. There is a passage in Isaiah that some people pick on, and honestly, I’ve read this so many times, I think it’s in chapter 28, again, I don’t have the Bible memorized. But, I mean, you have national resurrection and, but again, resurrection and afterlife are not, they’re related. They’re connected. They’re not the same thing.


Jared: So, like in Ezekiel, right? With the dry bones and that’s clearly a picture of Israel resurrecting as a people.

Pete: Yeah, after the exile.

Jared: Mm hmm.

Pete: Exile is a place of death, coming back to the land is resurrection, and it’s the valley of the dry bones where they come back to life. And it’s not mysterious at all what that means, because Ezekiel says I’m talking about the return from exile, right? So, you have a national resurrection, but the resurrection business is all post-postmortem, right? So, I mean, on one level, if we just try to stick with what happens to you when you die, not one day in some distant future moment, but when you die, there isn’t much to go on. Here it’s just, you know, you’re in the dust, right, and then you raise to everlasting life. Now, the nature of that life is basically like the stars in the sky and that’s a notion of Judaism. That’s one of several ways people talk about like that state of immortality, right? So, we have to make the distinction between the afterlife, what happens to you when you die, and at what point do you talk about, well, the immortality of somebody and is it the immortality of the soul or of the body? And Jews had very different opinions on that sort of thing. But what happens after you die, even Daniel is not helpful really. It’s not after you die, it’s raised one day in the context of judgement, and I think that’s a really, really important development in Judaism, that God raises the dead for the purpose of judgement. That’s not an Old Testament notion other than Daniel, but Daniel is already participating in a way of thinking that’s very much influenced by that Greek context. 

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Pete: Is this where we get the idea of, like, apocalyptic literature where it starts to be, we’re now a persecuted people and we have, we have to find a way to honor and to make sense of these noble people who die for just cause. This can’t just be the end for them, there’s resurrection is a way to sort of, I don’t know what the right word is, validate that? To –

Pete: Actually, it’s to justify God. It’s a defense of God, really.

Jared: Right, yeah. Cause otherwise, these innocent people are just dying.

Pete: Why be Jewish if you die before you see the return of the glorious kingdom? You know, the Davidic reign reinvigorated, which many Jews thought would be happening at some point. And if you are faithful in keeping the covenant, you would be rewarded for that by participating in the kingdom, but if you die, tough beans for you. So, in order for God to be just to these martyrs, or just people who just died, not even martyrs, just people who died – the reasoning was, you know, well God must raise the dead. What else can God do? And I think it’s fair to say, I mean, these things, folks, the myriad of issues that interweave when you start talking about some of this stuff, it gets really a lot and there are different angles to take, but at least for me, Jared, what I think is that this is the development during this period of time after the destruction of the temple, after they came back from exile, of thinking through basically, what is God like? And how can death be the end if God is going to be just to those who have been faithful to him? It’s basically a matter of fairness and justice, and even to say God’s righteousness, right? For God to be righteous, God must raise the dead because otherwise, they’re just dead and all that’s like, why bother being Jewish? Especially in the sense and people say the same thing about why bother being Christian? You know, this life is all there is. Well, yeah. Eat, drink, and be merry, and all that kind of stuff, right?


Jared: Right, yeah. Which again, Ecclesiastes addresses quite a bit.

Pete: Right, yeah.

Jared: His answer is, yeah, well, I understand it’s all vanity, but, praise God anyway.

Pete: Yeah.


Jared: That’s it! Not a lot else going on, but I wanted to mention one other passage. We were talking about a little bit earlier before we started recording, because I think it’s important here because it ties together the, you know, between the Old and the New Testaments, there’s a lot happening in terms of the identity of the Jewish people, and these different people who are coming in and taking over, and they have many different rulers, and it’s just a lot. And then there’s other things being written, and so one of the things that you mentioned was the Wisdom of Solomon. And in chapter three, it talks about “the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish, they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace.” So, it ties in really well with what, I’m just gonna put a little teeth to what you were saying, I think it’s a great example of this apology for God. It seems like they were destroyed, but really, they are at peace. And this is the kind of stuff that’s happening and going on during this time between the Old and the New Testament.

Pete: Yeah, and there was some diversity too, in Judaism, whether, you know, being raised and judged and passing the judgment, is it a physical thing, or is it more the soul continues? So, really the issue is between resurrection and immortality, and those are two different things, and what you just read in the Wisdom of Solomon is immortality.

Jared: Right.

Pete: It’s the soul continues, and there are strains of Judaism, not the least of which is Paul, who felt that it was, well, the body is very, very important because the body has to be raised. See, this is the thing, the body has to be raised in order to participate in the kingdom. Why? Because the kingdom’s here.

Jared: The physical reality, yes.

Pete: Yes! It’s not up there someplace, the kingdom is here. So, you participate in that. I think, you know, that’s sometimes missed. You know, like, we go up to heaven and we’re sort of a spirit. Okay, well, you know, at the end, as you know, typical Christian thinking – in the end what happens when Jesus returns? Well, the dead are raised. Now what? Like, do we go back up again? No, not really, I mean, or are we up to begin with? Like, where are we?

Jared: [Laughter]

Yeah, right. We need one of those maps – “you are here.”

Pete: Yeah.


Jared: Exactly.

Pete: But you see, you start plotting this stuff out, and it’s like, I’m not exactly sure. And you start looking for passages starting in the Old Testament to help you map it out, it’s like, my GPS is broken, because I’m not finding it here.

Jared: Mm hmm. Well I appreciate that, because I think that can be, that can be a helpful way to categorize what can be confusing, which is resurrection and immortality, because I don’t think people often think clearly about the distinction between that. That for Paul in much of the New Testament, there is a bodily resurrection. Would you say there’s not a lot said about what happens between when you die and when Christ returns, there’s not a lot said about what’s going on there. The real important moment is when Christ comes back, the dead are all raised and then there’s a physical reality of living in this reinvigorated kingdom.


Pete: Yeah, this new heaven and new earth so to speak. But it is a physicality, it’s not just an ephemeral thing. You know, I think what ties into this is, again, the notion of, well, use the word apocalyptic. The apocalypse, which isn’t the end of the world, it’s the end of the age and the beginning of the new one and the hope is for the new age. The new age is marked by resurrection and the rule of God and things are at peace and this was a major hope, but the thing is, and I think this, to me, has helped me make a lot of sense of this stuff. The notion was, this is gonna happen pretty soon. We’re not thinking like, in thousands of years, Jesus will come back, and then everything will be set straight. It’s happening very soon. Hold on, don’t get married. You know, just stay the pace. Don’t falter, don’t disbelieve, don’t doubt, because it’s an urgent moment. And so, there are many people, loved ones that Paul writes to, you know. In 1 Corinthians it’s a topic, like, what about them, and Paul says, yeah, they’ll be raised. I don’t know if Paul, I mean, I’m certain in my mind that Paul’s not thinking like, this could go on for centuries upon centuries upon centuries. So, it’s, let me say it’s easier to think of this reconstituted physical kingdom where the Messiah, Jesus, is on the throne, he returns to reclaim his territory. And those who have died, who are all, in their minds fairly recent deaths, or maybe going back to, you know, all this stuff that happened since the exile, it could be a lot of people, but it’s not several billion more, right? So, I think it’s easier to conceive of it, but for us, we have to, it’s just, it’s been a long time and are all these people physically, I mean, I’m just thinking out loud here. Are all these people physically gonna be raised? Where are we gonna put them? How does that work? And –

Jared: And then do they die again? Or is it just a forever kingdom on earth now where we don’t die?

Pete: You keep going with your body, I guess. And, you know, it’s a glorious body, this and that, and Paul talks about that in 1 Corinthians 15 too, so, you know, but it’s a spiritual body. You know, and people have, like, debated. To get into that, it’s like three podcasts, but what is that mean, a spiritual body, you know? But that what I’m saying. Paul is like, he says a few things –

Jared: Yeah. You have a corruptible body then you get an incorruptible body.

Pete: Yes, exactly. Right. That’s what I meant.

Jared: Yeah.

Pete: Okay, could you expand that, Paul, for another paragraph. Help us understand what that means. We have these little indications that don’t, forgive me, explain much.

Jared: Right.

Pete: That’s the thing. And some of us want explanations, and we want to know and understand, and I’m not so sure how much help the New Testament is in actually with that. I mean Paul, in Philippians 1 –

Jared: Yup.

Pete: It’s, you know, to be with Christ is better by far. I could live, I could die, but, you know, when I die, I’m gonna be with Jesus. Okay, in what sense does that mean?

Jared: Mm hmm.

Pete: Like, you’re gonna stand there talking to him, is there like a spiritual connection, what happens?

Jared: And to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.

Pete: Yes, right.

Jared: So, there’s a sense of immediacy in that kind of more, maybe not immortality, but what happens when you die.

Pete: Right.

Jared: There’s a sense of, well, you get to be present with the Lord in that sense.

Pete: And that seems to be a holding pattern –

Jared: Until, and then you get to come back with Jesus, I guess?

Pete: I wonder if it’s sort of a Sheol kind of thing…

Jared: Like a waiting room?

Pete: Yeah, and I’m sort of tying things together here a little bit just as I’m riffing, but, the whole issue of Jesus that is resurrection, the harrowing of hell as we say, you know, it’s reclaiming the dead as his, and sort of putting an end to that. Maybe that’s going on with Paul. But again, my point is I have no idea really. I’m just sort of riffing here, so –

Jared: Right.

Pete: And we talk about, you know, practically speaking afterlife today, just other issues come to mind that probably didn’t have to come to mind with them. Like, the universe was smaller back then, it was like, okay, God is going to set up shop in Jerusalem again, but we have this infinite space that we live in, and what does it mean for God to show up, and is physicality really everything, or, you know, when you die is there consciousness? What does consciousness mean? People, philosophers, and neuroscientists talk about consciousness, and I don’t understand half of it, but it’s really interesting. And some say consciousness is something that is a product of material existence, namely your brain.

Jared: Mm hmm.

Pete: Other say, nah, it seems to be like, that doesn’t account for this. It seems to be outside of it. I’m hoping the outside ones are right, but who knows?

Jared: But who knows? Like Qoheleth said, who knows?

Pete: I don’t know.

Jared: Yeah. That’s right. Yeah, yeah. Well I just want to go back to one thing you said was in the New Testament, the idea that people will be resurrected and that might just be local. I just want to point out in Luke 13, Jesus mentions in this great kind of role reversal, he said, well, I’m basically gonna grab Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They’re gonna be with me in the kingdom with all these other random people, and there’s gonna be a lot of Jewish people who aren’t gonna make it –

Pete: Yes.

Jared: Because of this, so, and all the people are pissed off –

Pete: Right.

Jared: And, ya know, upset. But in that sense, like, he’s going all the way back to the patriarchs –

Pete: Right, right.

Jared: To a resurrect for this kingdom, so –

Pete: Right, and it’s not they’re going to heaven and the others are going to hell. It’s the constitution of a kingdom, and the question, okay, what happens to those who don’t pass the bar, right?

Jared: Right.

Pete: Well, there are differences of opinion. Some just –

Jared: We just know there will be crying and gnashing of teeth.

Pete: [Laughter]

Jared: We don’t know what that means.

Pete: They just stayed dead?

Jared: Right.

Pete: Or they ceased to exist? The notion of being tormented for eternity, I mean, we’ll leave this for other people, but that is a notion that is utterly foreign to the New Testament. I reject it completely.

Jared: Well, I think what happens is once we get out of kind of what we’re talking about today, like, this fuzzy, doesn’t seem to be that important to the biblical writers to get really clear on what happens when you die. Even if it was that important, I’m with Qoheleth. How could you really know? And so, anything about eternal conscious torment when you die, all that is by nature, speculative, and it’s, you’re outside the realm of biblical studies at that point.

Pete: Yeah, I guess even, you know, for people who are Christian, still to ask the question, was Paul speculating or was Paul also a part of his Jewish apocalyptic matrix, so to speak, where there were certain assumptions made, if that’s the right way to put it. They’re beliefs, certain beliefs about what the end means. And again, the end seems to not be shaped in, well, you go to heaven when you die. It’s the kingdom will be set up. What about all those people who died? Hey, good question. Let’s think about this. Hey, I know! God will raise the dead, and in the meantime, there is a holding place to go to, and that’s what Paul seems to be talking about. There must be something like that, right? And he believes that, he fervently believes that. That may come from his Jewish context, where he’s putting pieces together, and it is, you know, whether, and I know this is not the easiest thing for everyone to sort of think through, and I totally respect that, but, we think through this outside of the Jewish apocalyptic matrix. We do.

Jared: That’s not the water we swim in.

Pete: It’s not. And you look to the Bible, and say, well, the Bible says this, but what if the Bible’s talk about afterlife is encultured?

Jared: Shaped by and conditioned by this certain environment.

Pete: Right. And like, other things in the Bible, once the environment changes, we have to, if I can use the word, Jared, reimagine things, and ask different sets of questions, right?

Jared: Mm hmm, yeah.

Pete: [Sigh]


Jared: Well, I want to come back, cause I think we kinda come back full circle here as we wrap up this episode, and that is, you know, we talked about the emphasis here on, at the beginning of our Bible’s in the Old Testament, there is more of a physical emphasis. There is an emphasis on the physicality of our lives. From the patriarchs on, it’s about living a long and full life, obedient to God. And then, here, just what you were saying when the New Testament rings a similar sound, which is, we’re talking about a physical kingdom. And so kind of, from beginning to end, this question, it just helps me think about the question isn’t really in the Bible. How do we figure out what happens when we die? But how do we either prepare for, be ready for, this kingdom of God, how do we live a long and full life here and now? It’s a very earth-centered narrative. Kind of beginning to end. There isn’t a lot of outer space, after life talk.

Pete: No, cause resurrection is, it assumes that the centrality of the physicality of it all.

Jared: Right.

Pete: And I’m like, what about in between? I don’t know.

Jared: Exactly.

Pete: You have ideas, right? But again, other strains of Judaism, it’s not the physicality of it all, like with Daniel or with the Wisdom of Solomon, there is another dimension, which is a –

Jared: There is a soul, kind of.

Pete: Immortality –

Jared: Yup.

Pete: And you know, I know a lot of Christians have been criticized for having more sense of like, the immortality of the soul, not the physicality of it, because the Bible says physicality. But there are reasons for thinking about immortality of what we might call consciousness and not the soul, but –

Jared: Mm hmm. The Bible is diverse.

Pete: The Bible is diverse, and also our context is different. So, ya know, I think it’s okay to talk about these things you know, and not to say, well here, the teaching is clear. Well heavens, it’s not clear! There are things that are said, but even what Paul says, it raises other sorts of questions that I think are really good things to be talking about.

Jared: Right. Well what I hear you saying, which I think is a larger point that we can maybe explore in another episode sometime –

Pete: We can call it after afterlife, another episode.

Jared: [Laughter]

Another episode. Uh, is that we don’t need to let, the Bible doesn’t get to constrain the questions we ask, does that make sense? That it’s legitimate and it’s appropriate and it’s healthy and important, actually, to ask questions that the Bible isn’t equipped to even ask because of the context in which it was written in.

Pete: Questions that never entered into the minds of the writers –

Jared: Right.

Pete: Are in our face all the time.

Jared: Because it almost seems like sometimes in certain traditions or in certain communities of faith, those are like, out of bounds or off limits. Like, you can’t even talk about these, like you can’t talk about neuroscience in relation to consciousness because that language isn’t in the Bible. And so, since the language isn’t in the Bible, we don’t really even know what to do with these categories of thought that have given us things like artificial intelligence and all of these other things that really need to be a part of the conversation, but a lot of times we cut them off at the knees. We don’t allow for it because, well, what would Paul have to say about it. It’s like, our minds can’t even compute because, well, obviously, Paul wasn’t thinking about that.

Pete: And that’s part of the reality of having a faith today that is always in conversation with, even rooted in an ancient story and text, but that still doesn’t, almost by definition, address all the questions that we have. And that’s, this is just a microcosm Jared, of the entire history of Christian thought, because that’s what’s been happening. The contexts have changed, situations have changes, and people have had to ask fresh sets of questions that, yeah, are fresh, that were not asked before.

[Music begins]

Pete: Well folks, I guess we could be talking about the afterlife for an eternity –

[Drum sting and laugh track]

Jared: [Laughter]

Pete: Wasn’t that really funny there, folks? Anyway. But no, that’s all the time we have today. We’ve had a good time talking about this, and as we sign out, we want to thank the people who make this possible, like for example Megan Cammack, who is our podcast producer.

Jared: Yes, and Shay Bocks, who is our creative director. She makes everything look so pretty.

Pete: Yes, I know. And Reed Lively, who is our community champion, who connects with all the people out there and makes that flow.

Jared: And last, but certainly not least, Dave Gerhart, who is our audio engineer extraordinaire.

Pete: Who doesn’t like, cut in bad words, you know, when he’s doing these podcasts.

Jared: But he does cut out our bad words –

Pete: [Laughter]

Jared: And so, we are [beeeeeeeeeeeep] grateful.

Pete: Yours Jared, maybe not mine, but yours. So anyway.

Jared: Alright, well thanks everybody. We’ll see ya next time.

Pete: See ya.

[Music ends]

[End of recorded material]

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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.