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Episode 169: Pete & Jared – “The Bible & the “Problem of History”

What do you do when you notice something in the Bible that doesn’t pass the muster of historical research? In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast,  Pete and Jared discuss the problem of history in the Bible as they explore the following questions: 

  • Why is the problem of history in the Bible a uniquely modern problem? 
  • When did the consciousness of history begin to impact matters of Christian life and faith?
  • What is historical consciousness?
  • How did archeology and science drive the rise of critical biblical scholarship?
  • Why can’t we go to the Bible to solve the historical problem?
  • How did modern consciousness place a wedge between history and theology?
  • Why do modern scholars examine the relationship between text and event? 
  • Why is Pete putting chicks in the oven?
  • How do we determine what it means to be a Christian in relationship to history?
  • Does the problem of history have to be solved in order to be a Christian?
  • How does the problem of history present an opportunity to question core assumptions of faith?
  • But seriously, why is Pete putting chicks in the oven? 

Tweetables

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

  • “Critical, I mean, that [word] gets a bad rap, but really, all critical means is digging into the past to the original context rather than assuming that your own context is normative.” @peteenns
  • “It’s important for us as modern people to parse out the difference between history and theology, between past and present. Both of those distinctions were not important distinctions to make in the ancient world. Those were just not even categories to think about.” @jbyas
  • “The Bible has its own problems just reading it on a surface level, but now when people start digging literally and figuratively into the past, it raises more questions than it answers.” @peteenns
  • “To have integrity with scholarship, you don’t get to pretend that we haven’t made all these advancements that do problematize the Bible, ignore all that, and then still make credible claims about history and the Bible.” @jybas
  • “You can’t sidestep historical questions in either testament, nor can you steer clear of it affecting fundamental things about our understanding of the nature of Christian faith or the Bible. It’s not going anywhere, and we don’t have to solve it in order to be Christian.” @peteenns
  • “I like the literary [and theological] value of the Bible and I struggle with the history of it. If you felt that, you are well within a long tradition of Christians who have wrestled with it and Christianity didn’t just go away because we couldn’t solve the problem.”  @jbyas

Mentioned in This Episode

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Read the transcript

0:00

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]

Pete: Well, welcome everyone to this episode and our topic for today is the Bible and the “Problem of History.”

Jared: Yeah.

Pete: That’s our topic man, and it’s a pretty cool topic.

Jared: I think so. It is a bit of a heavy topic. There’s a lot of concepts that might be new for people and just a reminder if you’re looking for some people to interact with about this, ask questions, have more conversation, we have this Slack group. So, you can go to https://www.patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople and learn more about it, but it can be helpful not to have to look over your shoulder at the coffee shop and see if you’re gonna be accused of being a heretic for having these conversations.

Pete: [Laughter]

Yeah.

Jared: It’s a group of people who are already asking these questions.

Pete: Supportive, you know? And Jared and I, we had experiences in seminary, where after class you can go out and hang out with people, maybe go to a pub or something and talk about this stuff. That’s, sometimes you have topics where you just need to go back and forth a little bit. And I think this is one of them because this really hits at the heart of what causes a little bit of distress sometimes for people or just like I don’t really know what to do with this anymore. And that is the “problem of history”. So…

Jared: Yeah. Well, let’s start with what do we mean by the problem of history? Why is this a problem?

Pete: What do we mean by that, Jared?

[Laughs at himself]

Jared: Well, it’s recognizing in our Bible, which I think a lot of listeners, it’s why they listen. It’s why we go through these faith shifts is we start to notice things in our Bible that aren’t passing the muster of historical research. Like, what the historians say about events that happened aren’t lining up with our Bible.

Pete: Right. And sometimes just, it’s even simpler than that. It’s just paying attention and seeing how, you know, again, we always talk about this, there are four Gospels. They tell the story of Jesus differently. You don’t have to be a scholar to see that. You just read it and say –

Jared: That’s right.

Pete: “How come it says this in Matthew and this in Luke and John doesn’t even care?” You know, so, why does that happen? Even just on the level of reading the Bible like a normal person, you’re going to be confronted with the problem of history in the Bible. And the Old Testament version of that, of course, is the two histories of Israel. The first one is basically in the books of Samuel and Kings and the other one is in the books of First and Second Chronicles.

Jared: And if you get, if you’re just a little bit closer of a reader, we get it from the very beginning with the two creation accounts in –

Pete: Yeah!

Jared: Genesis 1-2 and then 2-3. We have these, if we’re paying attention, we can see these.

Pete: Right. And you see the two stories of creation and, you know, assuming that those are even historical, then you have that problem, like, well how did that happen? But there you even have the added problem, you know, that people in our time are probably a little more conscious of than maybe from centuries past, but you know, is this really six days? Or a garden with two magic trees in the middle and then a snake that talks? So, what do we do with history? It raises the issues of things like myth, which we may or may not get into today.

Jared: So, the historical problem is our Bible bumps up against a few things is what I’m hearing you say. It bumps up against our close reading, meaning our own logic says if Luke has Jesus giving this same sermon on a plain and Matthew has it on a mount, well, they couldn’t have both been true. So, we were bumping up against our own logic. We’re also bumping up against science and we’re bumping up against archaeology…

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: …and that’s what we’re talking about.

Pete: But even if you know, Luke and Matthew’s sermons of Jesus, even if they could be both historically true, it’s the very fact that we’re asking the question, right? It’s our sensibilities make us ask those kinds of questions. So, another way of putting it is that the Bible doesn’t make it easy for us when it comes to, “oh, this is history.” Or what is history? It asks a lot of us and for some people this isn’t a problem, but for many others, it’s like, it makes you stop in your tracks – things like miracles. Not to say that miracles can’t happen, but we ask the question. We talk about it. People rise from the dead; this is not a common experience that we have. So, on different levels, Jared, there is a problem of history just from reading the Bible sort of on our own without any supervision. It just sort of happens.

Jared: Right. Right. Well, let’s talk about why this is a problem because you were hinting at it there for a minute about the, well, what I want to use is historical consciousness.

Pete: Go ahead then.

4:49

Jared: It’s understanding there was a world 600-700 years ago and before and then there’s a world 600-700 years ago and after. And there’s this really significant dividing point that scholars and theologians talk about in the modern period that makes this more of a problem. If you would have asked a medieval monk how they handled the historical problem of the Bible, they would likely have no idea what you’re talking about. So, what is it that led it to being a problem in the first place? Because it is a problem for us –

Pete: Right.

Jared: In a way that it was not a problem for the ancients.

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: They just didn’t think about it. We don’t see in our Bible people wrestling with the historical problem. We don’t see theologians for hundreds of years, or anyone really, for hundreds of years wrestling with this, “well wait a minute, the text says this, what do we do with the historical account? Is this historically accurate? And why does that matter?”

Pete: Mm hmm.

Jared: These are very modern questions.

Pete: Right. Right. And, you know, I think the last thing we want to do is present a simplistic picture even if we want to present a simple picture, not simplistic. So, even that question, Jared, like where is that dividing line? When did things sort of begin and get rolling? That’s not an easy question to answer in and of itself, but we do have something that people have heard of which is the Renaissance and this movement of back to the sources. In other words, don’t just rely on the way things are, go back and dig into the past to really find out where things begin and therefore what things mean.

Jared: Right. Well, and all studies during, before the Renaissance, we have maybe, again we don’t want to be simplistic, but we call it the medieval period, and during that time all the authority for what’s true is really an ecclesial, it’s a church authority. The Pope is really determining what’s true and that comes through received tradition. Everything is received tradition. So, that’s why, I just say that because we might think, well, of course you go back to the sources. But we have several hundred years before the Renaissance where people aren’t going back to the sources. They’re saying, “No, no, no, we don’t need to go back to the sources. Why would you go back to the sources when we’ve built on the sources in this authoritative way, and that’s called tradition –

Pete: Right. Right.

Jared: And tradition is the truth.”

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: It’s only when people started questioning those traditions and said “wait a minute…”

You know, I think of Erasmus, who tried to be a good Catholic, it’s kind of like Martin Luther. They tried to be good Catholics and it doesn’t always turn out well for them. But, he says, like, “Wait a minute. What if the tradition got it wrong?”

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: “I’d like to…”

Pete: About the Bible itself.

Jared: Right. Well, and also during this time period we can’t separate that from the fact that we were just now finding the original sources.

Pete: Um hmm.

Jared: So, people were finding ancient Greek manuscripts and they were saying, “oh, yeah!” There’s sort of like lightbulbs going off. “Oh, I guess there were sources behind all this tradition.”

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: What do they actually say?

Pete: And how far back do they go? And what’s the original in questions like that?

Jared: Right.

Pete: So, that’s not a question that would’ve bothered someone in the 7th century.

Jared: Right.

Pete: But these are things that just happened. Why did they happen? Great question. People write a lot of books about that, but we can’t answer that. All we know is that it did, right? And this desire to, even simple things, again simple from maybe our point of view, but like, you really ought to learn Greek and Hebrew, right? That wasn’t invented during the Renaissance period, but it sort of got some legs there but it lasted and kept going. And that’s very much a part of our consciousness now when you go to seminary and you’re usually expected to pick up some Greek and Hebrew because it’s important to understand “originals,” even though that’s a complicated thing. What are originals? But leaving that to the side for a second you know, you have that consciousness of history that is beginning to invade, is that the right word Jared? Invade matters of Christian life and faith.

Jared: Right.

Pete: You know, invading is a negative way of putting it. It’s not a bad thing, but it just happened.

Jared: At first, maybe it wasn’t invasive until the implications started to come out.

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: Then it felt like an invasion.

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: But I just wanted to back up because the word historical consciousness can be very abstract, so again, not to be, this probably is simplistic, but people started around, we’re talking about the 1500s.

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: The 1600’s, the 1700’s, people started asking the question, “well, what really happened?”

Pete: Mm hmm.

Jared: And when someone said, “Well, why would you want to know that?” They said, “just because.”

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: Because we want to know what really happened. That’s historical consciousness and that wasn’t, those weren’t sustained questions before that.

Pete: Yeah, that question has its own value.

Jared: Yeah, in and of itself.

Pete: In and of itself. Like, I think of myself. I have historical curiosity. Like, why do you study this stuff and dig into it? I just, I’m interested. I just want to know what happened. You know?

Jared: Um hmm.

9:59

Pete: And again, that’s a question that is fueled not by the medieval period, not by the biblical period, it’s fueled by events and movements and philosophies of the past few hundred years. And living in the modern world, it’s very, very hard to escape that. I mean, just to jump ahead a little bit, even if you’re really conservative and you think everything in the Bible happens exactly the way it says it happened, you’re still historically conscious because you’re talking about it.

Jared: Right.

Pete: Right? You’re defending it and you have arguments for it. This is not like a liberal/conservative kind of thing. It’s just everyone has this historical consciousness and the Bible itself raises certain questions that if you have a historical consciousness the way we do, we’re going to say, “Wait a minute! There are four Gospels that don’t agree.”

Jared: Right. And there are conservative ways of handling that.

Pete: Right.

Jared: But noticing it is a uniquely modern thing to do.

Pete: And feeling the need to handle it.

Jared: Right.

Pete: Right? I mean, so, there’s not really a good guy/bad guy here.

Jared: Right. Right.

Pete: That’s not the point of this. The point of this is just that there is a historical problem for us as readers with respect to the Bible that has biblical roots, in a sense, but the matters have gotten a lot more complicated and a lot more, just baked into the whole idea of Bible, the historical consciousness. And that really, you know, Jared, that blossomed then, you know, the Reformation was, it didn’t help, right?

Jared: [Light laughter]

Pete: The Reformation didn’t help because when you have, again, not to be, I keep saying this but we’re really conscious of not being simplistic, but with the Reformation, the Bible was elevated to a particular kind of authority that many people think wasn’t really at work before the time of people like Martin Luther and some precursors and then John Calvin, those are the two big names. So, there was a shift, so to speak, in what you expect from the Bible. If the authority by which you live your life is no longer, let’s say the Church authority of the Roman Catholic Church, but it’s the Bible alone, well, you need really clear information from the Bible and you can’t have it messing around with history. You need to able to find a way to reconcile Gospels or reconcile the histories of Israel in the Old Testament. Not that they were like modern people, necessarily, this was like a bridge, almost, from medieval to modern, the influence of the Reformation.

Jared: Right.

Pete: It elevates the Bible to a status that eventually, again, this is a connection people make and it’s really important, but there are a lot of nuances we’re not getting into, but the connection between, you know, the Renaissance and then the Reformation Period and then what eventually happens in Europe where the Bible becomes an object of historical study. When in the Reformation, when you have people like Martin Luther saying, “Hey Catholic Church, you can’t tell me what to do. I don’t recognize your spiritual authority. I’m just going to read the Bible and get my authority from that,” that sounds great. The next step is well, we don’t recognize the spiritual authority of the Bible either, because have you read it? Look at all the stuff that happens. You know? It’s a weird book. It’s contradictory. Historically, it makes no sense, this and the other thing. And that gave rise to the study of the Bible in modern universities all around this notion of a historical consciousness. You know the criticisms about the Bible were like, this couldn’t have happened, for whatever reason, they’re just saying x, y, and z could not have happened. It makes no sense. That rises from a historical consciousness.

Jared: Well, and the way I would say it, maybe, is during this Reformation time where we’re starting to ask questions of history on its own terms, I feel like there was an assumed authority within the Bible for that. There was an assumption that once we started asking these questions, the Bible fit squarely with what we would say is history. What the Bible says happened is what happened. Then we started doing things like science. And so, we started creating these processes whereby we can say, well, “when we filter this through these sets of questions and create hypotheses and all that, we’re coming out with some conclusions that actually aren’t lining up with the Bible.” Yikes.

14:48

And then we had this split between people who, this is where we start to think of, well, are we going to follow the scientific process or are we going to continue to assume that the Bible just is historically accurate and everything else has to flow from that. And that’s when we get, you know, what you’re talking about I would call, people call a critical study of the Bible.

Pete: Right.

Jared: We’re taking these critical tools that we’re learning from historians and scientists and now we’re starting to apply them to the Bible.

Pete: And critical, I mean that gets a bad rap, but really, all critical means is digging into the past to the original context rather than assuming that your own context is normative. So, trying to dig into the past and that’s exactly what biblical scholars did. And it was aided by things like, well for example, just a bunch of Germans sitting around with nothing better to do just really noticing things. I mean, legitimately noticing that there are anachronisms in the Bible, there are things that must have come from a later point in time. They could not have been written, like, by a Moses for example. Moses probably didn’t write about his own death. That’s an anachronism. Somebody else had to have done that. There are lists of these sorts of things. But that’s paying attention to the historical quality and raising to a certain level of prominence some of these historical problems. But maybe even more so is the study of archaeology, it really began in the 19th century, that’s when the “science” of biblical archaeology, doing it systematically, not just raiding tombs but actually mapping out what you’re digging and where you’re digging and what you’re finding and where deep down you’re finding it so you can date things. It’s all very interesting and fascinating, but it’s archaeology that unearthed things like creation stories from the ancient Assyrians or Babylonians or a bunch of other people, Egyptians, that look an awful lot like the biblical creation stories. They’re not the same, but man oh man, they’re breathing the same air. And that raises questions, it has raised questions about well, we don’t think these other things are historical. On what basis do we think now the Bible is historical since they share certain kinds of world views. And that’s not a small thing. And throw it, Jared you mentioned science, but it’s the rising of geology in the 18th century that led people to say, you know, the earth is not a few thousand years old, and theories began and they have different opinions and now we’re what, up to 4.5 billion or something like that? Whatever. But it’s very, very old. And in fact, you really can’t defend a global flood geologically. I know there are some who think they can, but no geologist I think that works outside of a very conservative Christian mindset would ever conclude you have a global flood and geological evidence for it. So, but the point is that people are debating it, right? Because there’s a science of geology that raises the question and the very presence of a debate makes the point we’re trying to make – there’s a historical consciousness. And then Darwin shows up in the 19th century and working off of what other people had already started and he’s got this theory of common descent and biological evolution and there you have it. So, all those things sort of come together. The science angle and the archeological angle, they all come together to raise to yet another level of almost urgency for people. I wouldn’t say almost, it was urgency for many people, the problem of history. Like, to what extent is the Bible historical? How do we know? What does it matter? The Bible has its own problems just reading it on a surface level, but now when people start digging literally and also figuratively into the past, it raises more questions than it answers.

Jared: I just want to make it clear that one of the reasons this is so difficult is because this isn’t a problem inherent in the Bible.

Pete: Right.

Jared: So, we started by saying, well, if we read the Bible closely, but what we have to make sure we mention is when we say that we’re saying we –

Pete: We.

Jared: In the last three hundred years.

Pete: With a historical consciousness.

Jared: When we read the Bible that’s a problem.

Pete: Right.

Jared: For the original readers of the Bible that we’re talking about, this wasn’t a problem.

Pete: Um hmm.

Jared: And I think that’s really important to recognize because –

Pete: They weren’t dumb.

Jared: Yeah. Right.

Pete: It’s just, I mean we would be no different, Jared and I, if we were living in this, we’d probably be killed or something for heresy.

Jared: [Laughter]

It’s true.

19:55

Pete: But anyway, you know the thing is, it’s not a matter of smart or dumb, it’s a matter of just, the historical context of the reader, right?

Jared: Mm hmm.

Pete: That’s just, we’re just saying this is the reality that we deal with, and this is why people talk about it.

Jared: I think it also limits though what we can expect from our Bible, which I think is really important. It highlights what we talk about on a Sunday morning anytime when the pastor says, “what do we do with social media today and how much we should be on our phones,” and we go back to the Bible as though the Bible is going to tell us that. This is like a grander version of that. Where it’s, we can’t go to the Bible to solve the historical problem because it wasn’t a problem for the people who wrote the Bible.

Pete: Right. What makes it extra tricky is that along with that the Bible does have a historical impulse.

Jared: Right.

Pete: It is telling a historical narrative.

Jared: Yes.

Pete: And I don’t deny, no one can really deny that. You’ve got a story of Israel that has movement and direction over time and the same thing with the rise of the church in the New Testament. That’s what makes it so difficult. There is a historical impulse, but not written by people with a historical consciousness that we have today. That’s, if the Bible said, “okay this isn’t history go read it and have fun,” we wouldn’t be talking about this.

Jared: Right.

Pete: But there is this historical assumption. Even though you have contradictory historical stories, that doesn’t matter. You can interpret history differently. Different people can interpret that history differently, but the very, again, you have these historical moments, not even moments. You have the structure of the Bible is so historical you can’t escape that, but the philosophy behind it, if that’s the right word, Jared, is different today than it was back then.

Jared: Well, I’m going try to, I’ll say it this way, you can tell me if I’m completely off because I’m processing out loud here. But I think the difference is it’s important for us as modern people to parse out the difference between history and theology between past and present. Both of those distinctions were not important distinctions to make in the ancient world.

Pete: Um hmm.

Jared: That wasn’t, so we’re weaving, we’re not just weaving, those were just not even categories to think about.

Pete: Right.

Jared: So, they’re doing history and, if you said “Is this historical or is this theological?” They would say, “Yes.”

Pete: Right.

Jared: “What do you, is this about the past or the present?”

“Yes.”

Pete: Yes.

Jared: These are all the same things.

Pete: Right.

Jared: So, that’s how I’m thinking. The modern consciousness put a wedge for us between history and theology. It put a wedge between past and present.

Pete: Um hmm.

Jared: In a way that wasn’t wedged before that.

Pete: Right. For any of us who’ve ever asked in reading the Bible, “yeah, but what actually happened,” or “did this actually happen,” that’s in a nutshell the historical consciousness.

Jared: That’s the fishbowl we swim in and can’t get out of.

Pete: Right. And we are in it, and we can’t get out of it. So, you have, for example, we just mentioned the Old Testament and what happened in the rise of critical biblical scholarship, what really drove it is things like archaeology and science and the New Testament as well. You know, the New Testament does not escape this. The more we’ve come to know, especially since the Dead Sea Scrolls, not to get into that topic and we won’t, but we’ve learned a lot about Judaism during the time of Jesus and Paul and before their time and how reading the biblical stories in light of that Jewish context actually affects, it actually leads us to ask questions of “Did this happen the way the Bible says it?” And then on top of that the Greco-Roman context as well that also raises kinds of questions for us.

Can I, one quick example, you know, there is a Roman inscription that was dated to, I don’t know, I think around the year 6 or 7 and the name of it doesn’t matter, but, and it talks about the birth of Caesar Augustus and about how his birth is of divine origin and he is the one who has come to save his people and he’s called the savior and his birth is to be celebrated for that reason and he, and what he brings is good news for all the people. And all you need to do is sort of compare this to Luke’s birth narrative and there are similarities between that.

24:57

Before that inscription is found and read, you’d never think to sort of ask, at least not in the same way you wouldn’t ask, “Well, what is it about the biblical birth story that’s historical if it seems to be so close to the story of Cesar’s birth?”

Or, you know, Moses escaping the threat of death and being put into a basket to float down a river until he’s picked up by someone else. You know, we know the story of Sargon who lived before the year 2000 and there’s a story very similar to that in the story of Sargon’s birth. We would not have even thought to ask the question, “It looks like the birth story of Moses, boy this looks a lot like that.” Right? So, it’s discovering those things, it’s archaeology, really, that has unearthed these stories and it forces us with the historical consciousness that we already have, it forces us to sort of ask the question – what is historical? How much of it is historical? And it’s just so hard to, Jared, to avoid those questions. You almost have to turn off a part of your brain to say, “I don’t care.” And actually, that’s fine. I shouldn’t have put it that way. I think some people just aren’t interested in that.

Jared: Right.

Pete: And that’s fine. Honestly, you don’t have to, we’re not trying to make our problem your problem.

Jared: Right, we’re not trying to create problems for people.

Pete: We’re just trying to lay out what the problem actually is. We do have a problem of history when reading the Bible and some people are just not interested in it and they don’t have to be.

Jared: Right.

Pete: That’s not what this is about.

Jared: But to have, maybe I’ll put it this strongly, to have integrity with scholarship, you don’t get to say I’m not interested about all that and then speak into history.

Pete: Right. And then make claims that the Bible is historically accurate here.

Jared: Make claims and conclusions. Right. You can’t ignore the scholarship and pretend that we haven’t made all these advancements that does problematize the Bible, ignore all that, and then still make credible claims about history and the Bible.

Pete: Right. I mean things like, “I don’t care about all that; all I know is what the Bible says.” Right? That’s not really a caricature, right? I mean, this is a very common way of saying it. That simply bypasses the reality of the historical problem that other people really find inescapable and the more one becomes attuned to that historical problem, the more you realize how that kind of a claim – it simply won’t support very much for very long.

Jared: It won’t be compelling.

Pete: It won’t be compelling. To others and maybe not even to yourself after a while.

Jared: [Laughter]

Right.

Pete: No, seriously.

Jared: Right.

Pete: I mean, you watch a special on cable tv or something about the Bible it’s like, oh my goodness gracious. I never knew any of this stuff.

Jared: Yeah. Well, let’s talk, let’s shift gears a little bit because there is, again, in scholarship with the rise of all this and this split between theology and history, and what do we do, there’s another problem that comes up and it’s the problem between the text and the event.

Pete: Right.

Jared: Because if we’re saying, “Okay, maybe the Bible as it portrays an event isn’t actually what happened,” now you have scholars who say, “Well, what I’m really interested in is what really happened.” So, now the Bible is maybe one piece of evidence, but it has to be placed alongside all this other evidence and I’m not privileging the Bible. If it comes out that this is what actually happened and the Bible got it wrong, so be it. I’m interested in historical study.

Pete: There are other standards by which the Bible should be judged and that’s the “historical standard.”

Jared: Right. So, we have those scholars who are more interested in that question. That’s the way they’re going to go. And then there are scholars who say, “Well, yeah, but for the last two thousand years our theology, our belief systems, our tradition isn’t based on what actually happened, it’s based on the text.”

Pete: Right.

Jared: And that is what needs to be normative for us is the text itself. So, we want to dig into the literary aspects, maybe, or the theological aspects of the text. And so there becomes this, would you, I don’t know, rift may be too strong of a word –

Pete: Well, debate. That’s for sure.

Jared: Yeah. Between text and event and which one is primary and what are we basing our belief system on? Is it the event? Are we going the historical route? Or is it the text? Are we going this theological route?

Pete: Well, I mean the, what we’re talking about is the relationship between text and event. And that is really another way of stating what we’re talking about when we say the problem of history when it comes to the Bible is what’s the relationship between what the text says and what actually happened. And, basically, modern scholars very much just work with the idea that they’re not the same thing, but what’s the relationship between them.

29:54

And some, you know this is, people really try to work this stuff out in the 20th century, sort of the middle of the 20th century, the biblical theology movement is what it was called, but there was a little bit of a debate there between, well, what’s normative, what really matters is what God did – the acts of God. And there’s a Harvard scholar, G. Ernest Wright, who wrote a book the The God Who Acts and this is sort of like a go-to kind of book to sort of see what this view was, but the Old Testament, what it does, the Old Testament is interpreting God’s acts but really the heart of it is what God did. It’s on the level of event. Well, how do you know what happened? Archaeology, right? That’s what comes in to sort of prove or disprove whatever happened.

Jared: It becomes your methodology.

Pete: It becomes your methodology, becomes your standard. And I love archaeology; I don’t know if it can do all of that for us, but that’s the idea. But then there were others, another German theologian, there won’t be a test on this, don’t worry, Gerhard von Rad who said, “Yeah, I get that, but you know what? The Old Testament is really the only significant axis we have to these events.” Right? So, what actually happened? Well, we really just have the Old Testament. So, it’s really on the level of the text that we sort of put all our cards, you know, put  our chicks in the oven, whatever the expression is-

Jared: [In a tone that betrays his bewilderment]

Chicks in the oven?

Pete: I know. That was a deranged Freudian thing.

Jared: Man, you just got dark!

[Laughter from both]

Pete: What am I trying to say?

Jared: You got eggs in a basket!

Pete: Eggs in a basket!

Jared: And you got chicks in an oven.

[Laughter]

Pete: I knew it was related to chickens somehow!

Jared: [Continued laughter]

Pete: Anyway. I don’t know if we’ll cut that out, but I hope not because –

Jared: No, we got to keep that in.

Pete: We got to keep it in.

Jared: We got to keep it real here.

Pete: Because I’m an idiot, so yeah.

Jared: Because you like to put live baby chicks in ovens apparently.

[Laughter]

Pete: I know. Apparently. That happened. That did get dark real quick.

Jared: Of course, this is why we’re talking – so I, yeah –

Pete: You know what made me think of that? Probably because I stepped on ants the other day on purpose and I don’t like doing that.

Jared: Oooh.

Pete: Like little, tiny ants that were in my house, and I just got sick of them, and I just stepped on them and as soon as I did that I said, “that was just so bad.” And I mean that. I actually don’t like killing animals. Anyway, can we get back to the topic here?

Jared: Yeah.

Pete: Where were we? Oh yeah, text and event?

Jared: Yes, text and event.

Pete: And von Rad, the German and –

Jared: Well, this is a good point, because I want to stop you for a second –

Pete: Okay.

Jared: Because you said the question is the relationship between text and event, but then you said something like normative. And I don’t think it’s the relationship between the text and the event, because that’s a very abstract scholarly endeavor.

Pete: Okay…

Jared: The relationship between text and event. The question is those who want to still be Christian, where do we put our emphasis?

Pete: Mm hmm.

Jared: Where is the value? And that’s a different question than hey, are we trying to – what’s the relationship between text and event? It’s an abstract question. I think it gets weight, so as a researcher as a scientist, that’s a question that I’m interested in and I could spend a whole career learning about and stuff, but it doesn’t really matter to me.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Jared: But as a Christian, it does matter.

Pete: Right.

Jared: And so, I just want to put a little more emphasis on it.

Pete: Right. So, let me put it this way. Okay, umm, as a Christian, it’s the text of the Bible that is the thing that it’s not trying to figure out what happened. It’s the text of the Bible. I actually support that. I think that’s not a, by any means, a ridiculous or naïve notion. Provided that you also realize there is a historical problem, right?

Jared: Right.

Pete: And you’re willing to look at that squarely and face it and say, you know, what happened on Mount Sinai or what happened in Egypt in the Book of Exodus, there are historical problems with the way the Bible puts it, but for me, it’s the text, it’s the story, it’s the theology of the biblical writer that is really important for me. Let’s say it’s normative for me. It’s what drives me. But then you can’t say, “and then I simply believe this is what happened.”

Jared: Right.

Pete: Right?

Jared: Yes.

Pete: Without acknowledging the fact that there is a historical problem here, right?

Jared: Right.

Pete: Now, others say again, “well, I guess the text is okay, but I really just want to know what God did,” right? And they might say, “well listen, I need to go there.” The thing is that, I mean, I may be wrong on this, but my sense is that emphasizing the event let’s say over the text is probably not nearly as popular as the text over the event. Right?

34:44

Jared: Yes, yeah. Well, because to emphasize the event over the text means you’re conversant with things like archaeology and it’s not as easily accessible to talk about events once you separate the biblical account of that from these other studies and research methods.

Pete: Right. The Bible, in other words, the text of the Bible doesn’t simply give us events.

Jared: Right.

Pete: There’s a, I don’t want to use the word gap or ditch, that’s really not a constructive way of talking about it, but there is some distance –

Jared: An interpretive layer. There’s a layer, maybe, maybe a layer is a word-

Pete: I don’t know. Layer, to me, is too nice.

Jared: [Laughter]

Pete: I would say there is an interpretive distance between event and the way people talk, as there is any time, right? I mean all human beings have the same problem here. This is why the problem of history is much broader than the Bible, right?

Jared: Right.

Pete: Like how you recount past events is part of how we interpret the past too. So, in the Bible we have the interpretation of events and on one level, we may not be able to get much past that. Or maybe, maybe we can, I don’t know. But it seems like you have to hold those things together. So now text is very important, but text doesn’t give us event. But the event is not really accessible fully at all and the main axis we have to it is through the text, which is interpreting the event, and then there’s other stuff we know from science and archaeology that throws a wrench into all this stuff because it really cast into some doubt whether some things happened at all, right?

Jared: Um hmm.

Pete: That’s the historical consciousness conversation that we have in one level or not when we scratch our head at places in the Bible saying this just doesn’t seem like it’s something that actually happened, right?

Jared: Right.

Pete: And it’s hard to avoid that.

Jared: And as Christians, I can just say for me personally, I’ve definitely been divided on this. I’ve wrestled with these things. Because on the one hand, it’s very easy for me to say something like, we’ll take Jonah for example because that’s something that always comes to mind for me. It’s very easy for me to say the Bible is extremely important and matters a lot to me in the book of Jonah because it speaks to me as a story. There are some theological truths that I take from it. There are some moral truths that I take from it. These are very important things for me and I can kind of say that. And then someone will say, “Yeah, but does it matter if Jesus was raised from the dead? Does it matter if there really was an Exodus? What does that matter?” And then things start getting really murky for me.

Pete: Um hmm.

Jared: Because of this problem, the historical problem. And I just think we’re in a moment where I think a lot of Christians are trying to wrestle with what does it mean to be Christian and answering that question in relationship to history.

Pete: Um hmm. Right.

Jared: I think that’s a difficult question to answer that a lot of people are wrestling with.

Pete: That’s the big picture way of putting it. Right. I mean with Jonah, if, the historical problem is less of a problem if we have come to the conclusion, well, it seems to be a story. Right?

Jared: Right.

Pete: But the other parts of the Bible that don’t seem to be presented as a story or parable, they seem to be talking about kings-

Jared: Like Samuel, Kings, and yeah.

Pete: Exactly. Or, you know, the Exodus story with all the historical problems with it, it’s still presented as some event that was foundational to Israel’s existence, you know? And the New Testament too. Jesus’s birth and what he did and what he said, and you know resurrection, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, all those things. Those are historical kinds of things.

Jared: Right.

Pete: That’s how the New Testament writers talk about those things, as historical events. Um, you know, so you can’t escape, you can’t really sidestep this question in either testament, nor can you steer clear of it affecting even fundamental things about just our understanding of the nature of the Christian faith or the nature of the Bible. And I guess that’s sort of a concluding point we could come to, Jared, that um, this problem is not invented by The Bible for Normal People. We don’t sit around saying – “How can we screw people up real fast?” We’re more trying to articulate something that is there that I’m sure many, if not most, of our listeners have experienced on some level.

Jared: Yeah.

Pete: And it’s not going anywhere, and we don’t have to solve it in order to be Christian. That’s to me the big point and you can’t solve it. You can live with the tension. It’s part of, as a matter of fact, just channeling something Tripp Fuller said in a previous episode, dealing with the historical problem is part of doing theology.

39:56

Jared: It reminds me of the problem of evil.

Pete: It does? Explain please.

[Light laughter]

Jared: Yeah, sorry. My synapsis always making weird connections.

Pete: Like chicks in an oven?

[Laughter]

Jared: Exactly. That is the problem with evil. Pete, you are the problem of evil.

Pete: I’ve heard that before.

Jared: No, it’s a problem that we can’t solve. Why do good things happen to bad people and why do bad things happen to good people? If you had to solve that problem before you could be a Christian-

Pete: Right. Or believe in God or something, right.

Jared: Or believe in God, that would be a challenge. But the problem is still there, there’s still not a great answer to that question.

Pete: Right.

Jared: This is the same thing. I think we, again, because I grew up in a fundamentalist tradition that basically said to be a Christian is to not have doubt and not have tension and not have question. I grew up in a system that taught me anything that was ambiguous or hard to understand or a tension or anything had to be resolved if you’re really going to be a Christian. And so, then they, and of course, they would also have the answer. There were simplistic answers that you just sort of took at whole value and I think that’s a really, really important place to end on for us and it’s why I brought up the idea that, for me, I’ve wrestled with, well, I like the literary value of the Bible and it has a lot of theological import and I struggle with the history of it. If you felt that, you are well within a long tradition of several hundred years for the last five hundred years of Christians who have wrestled with it and Christianity didn’t just go away because we couldn’t solve the problem. I just think, I agree, I think it’s a really important point to make.

Pete: Yeah, and to think that the problem of history has to be solved so you can get on with the matter of faith is a highly, it’s an intellectualized version of Christianity, which is always, trust me, it’s always going to get you to some sort of deep water. So, if we remember, again something we’ve heard on this podcast before and I’m going back to things Richard Rohr said a couple of times that he’s been on, how our experience is really something that we need to value as being very authentic connection with God. If that is what drives us rather than clearing up all these deep intellectual issues which people, serious people, ponder for their whole lives, if solving those things is not the foundation of faith, but if our experience, our existential experience, with the Spirit of God is, then you can say, “yeah, thinking about history is part of what I do as a person of faith, it’s not the thing I have to solve in order to have faith.”

Jared: Well, it’s thinking of faith as a process and a series of conversations and debates and tensions and struggles and triumphs and, you know, sometimes we win those and sometimes we don’t and that’s part of the process of faith, rather than I said a prayer once and now the way to keep that locked away is to not have questions and every time I have a question that’s called into question, my faith is. My salvation is. Whatever you want to say. So, I think it’s this reevaluating how we even think of faith.

Pete: Right.

Jared: And so, thinking about the problem of history as an opportunity to maybe question some of these core assumptions about what faith is and how we do it might be a good next step for us.

Pete: Right.

Jared: So, it can be a teacher.

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: It can be a teacher in our faith journey.

Pete: The historical problem can be not just a problem.

Jared: Right. Good. Well, the last thing I want to say is maybe it’s worthwhile, Pete, for us to do –

Pete: Are we, are you going to give an altar call?

Jared: Yes. With every head bowed and every eye closed…

Pete: Do you renounce the tyranny of historicity?

Jared: [Laughter]

No, I think, we said many times throughout this episode, we said we didn’t want to be simplistic, but we did want to simplify it. And really, what that meant for me was a shortcut way of saying we don’t want to namedrop this three-hundred year history of things. So, I think maybe we might want to put an afterword up on Patreon for this episode. We only usually do that with guests, but I think it might be worthwhile to do another seven to ten minutes where we can just talk openly –

Pete: Okay.

Jared: Name drop, do what we’re going to do –

Pete: Okay.

Jared: Just dive in a little bit. So, if you’re interested in that, just go to https://www.patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople, you can check it out a little more because it can be a little nuanced and it can be complicated.

Pete: Right.

Jared: Alright. Well, thanks everyone. We hope this was a helpful episode and we hope you continue on the journey of faith even when you bump into these problems and challenges, it’s all part of the process.

Pete: See you folks.

[Music begins]

Megan: Alright everyone, that’s it for this episode. Thank you so much for listening and supporting our show, we hope you enjoyed this episode. A big shout out to our Producer’s Group who support us over on Patreon. They’re the reason we’re able to keep bringing podcasts and other content to you. If you would like to help support the podcast, head over to patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople, where for as little as $3 a month you can receive bonus material, be a part of an online community, get course discounts, and much more. We couldn’t do what we do without your support.

45:10

Dave: Thanks as always to our team: Producer, Stephanie Speight; Audio Engineer, Dave Gerhart; Creative Director, Tessa Stultz; Community Champion, Ashley Ward; and Web Developer, Nick Striegel. For Pete, Jared, and the entire Bible for Normal People Team, thanks for listening.

[Beep]

Pete: I’m trying to, channeling language here from Tripp Fuller, who we had on a while back. Uh, actually, let me pause here David. Is this coming after?

Jared: Yes.

Pete: Okay. Okay, weave this together somehow, will you, David?

Jared: Just start the whole Tripp section over.

Pete: Yeah.

[Beep]

Jared: So, if you’re interested in that, just go to thebiblefornormalpeople.com, fr-, sorry David, don’t say that. So, if you’re interested in that, just go to patreon.com…

[Beep]

Pete: What actually happened? Well, we really just have the Old Testament. So, it’s really on the level of the text that we sort of put all our cards, you know, put our chicks in the oven, whatever the expression is.

Jared: [In a tone that betrays his bewilderment]

Chicks in the oven?

Pete: I know. That was a deranged Freudian thing.

Jared: Man, you just got dark!

[Laughter from both]

Pete: What am I trying to say?

Jared: You got eggs in a basket!

Pete: Eggs in a basket!

Jared: And you got chicks in an oven.

[Laughter]

Pete: I knew it was related to chickens somehow!

Jared: [Continued laughter]

Pete: Anyway. I don’t know if we’ll cut that out, but I hope not because –

Jared: No, we got to keep that in.

Pete: We got to keep it in.

Jared: We got to keep it real here.

Pete: Because I’m an idiot, so yeah.

Jared: Because you like to put live baby chicks in ovens apparently.

[Laughter]

Pete: I know. Apparently. That happened. That did get dark real quick.

Jared: Of course, this is why we’re talking – so I, yeah –

Pete: You know what made me think of that? Probably because I stepped on ants the other day on purpose and I don’t like doing that.

Jared: Oooh.

Pete: Like little, tiny ants that were in my house, and I just got sick of them, and I just stepped on them and as soon as I did that I said, “that was just so bad.” And I mean that. I actually don’t like killing animals. Anyway, can we get back to the topic here?

Jared: Yeah.

Pete: Where were we?

[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 –

5:00

[Laughter]

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.

[Laughter]

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.

9:50

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?

15:00


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!”

[Laughter]

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.

19:47

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.

24:51

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?

29:55

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.

[Laughter]

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?

[Laughter]

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?

34:48

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?

[Laughter]

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.