Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

Episode 170: Kristin Kobes du Mez – A Modern Church History of Toxic Masculinity

In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast,  Pete and Jared talk with Kristen Kobes Du Mez about patterns of toxic masculinity in the white Evangelical church as they explore the following questions: 

  • What led Du Mez to be interested in researching the modern history of patriarchy and toxic masculinity in the church?
  • Where is most of the “evidence” for militant Christian masculinity drawn from? 
  • Why did Du Mez avoid using the term “toxic masculinity” in her book Jesus & John Wayne? 
  • What cultural moments led people to identify with this kind of militant Christian manhood?
  • How did a particularly militant conception of masculinity become combined with Christian nationalism?
  • What influence did Billy Graham exert over the connection between Christian nationalism and masculinity?
  • What effect did Christian Zionism have on US militarism and the relationship between the US and Israel? 
  • How has the definition of masculinity changed over time?
  • How does John Wayne represent healthy and toxic aspects of masculinity?
  • What surprised Du Mez while researching Evangelical views of masculinity ?
  • Why were fears actively stoked by religious leaders during the Cold War era? 
  • What are some steps we can take to wrest Christianity from this ideology, or can we?


Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Kristin Kobes du Mez you can share. 

  • “Billy Graham … defines the best of Evangelicalism, and if that’s the best of Evangelicalism, then we kind of have to rethink who we are and what Evangelicalism is as a tradition.” @kkdumez
  • “Christ is someone who divests himself of power and that’s not what we see happening in terms of this “biblical manhood” or “Christian masculinity” where it’s about claiming power over others and claiming that that’s God’s will.” @kkdumez
  • “I did not set out to write a book about John Wayne, full disclosure, but what I saw, again, is that so much of the inspiration for ideals of Christian manhood were drawn from popular culture, not from deep biblical exegesis.” @kkdumez
  • “Always look at power. Who’s wielding power and to what ends?” @kkdumez
  • “Men who were not constrained by traditional Christian virtue… were paradoxically the most fit to protect Christianity. That’s why we have to see Trump not as a betrayal of Evangelical values, but as the fulfillment of those values.” @kkdumez
  • “How many of us have been complicit through silence, through choosing what is safe, what is least disruptive in institutions and churches and families and friend groups, of not speaking truth because that might come with a cost?” @kkdumez
  • “I think what the moment calls for right now is rigorous honesty of our own motivations. What’s needed is courage in this moment – individually and collectively.” @kkdumez

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]

Pete: Hello folks, welcome to this episode of the podcast and our topic today is “A Modern Church History of Toxic Masculinity,” and our guest is Kristin Kobes du Mez.

Jared: Yes, she is the Professor of History at Calvin University and has written a book called Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, and it was a doozy.

Pete: Yeah, and this is an important book. And you know what? We’re going to get right into the episode here, but if you’re interested in a deeper dive, you know, we have this afterword, we’re going to talk about some of the things that, you know, we came away with from reading the book and from talking with Kristin.

Jared: Right. Again, we often have things that we want to go further with but don’t have the time in the context of this podcast. So, if you want to hear more, we do afterwords from every episode that we have a guest on where Pete and I talk about this. You can just go to https://www.patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople to learn more.

[Music begins]

Kristin: So much of the inspiration for ideals of Christian manhood were drawn from popular culture, not from deep biblical exegesis. The fear was real in the hearts of followers, but it was actively stoked by religious leaders, by Evangelical men in almost every case, to consolidate their own power.

[Music ends]

Pete: Kristin, welcome to our podcast! It’s great to have you.

Kristin: Oh, thanks for having me.

Pete: Yeah, so, you’ve written about a really not at all controversial topic, which is really, I mean, I’m not making light of it because it’s really quite serious, but I guess white men in Evangelicalism and sort of the patterns of behavior that we’ve maybe seen over the last, I’m going to say, is it right to say, maybe 70 years?

Kristin: Mm hmm.

Pete: Or is it longer than that even? But a good, long time this has been brewing and some of it is just rising to the surface now, so. Which leads to the question, you know, what led you to be interested in researching, you know, really the modern history of patriarchy and toxic masculinity in the American church?

Kristin: Yeah, so, this goes back many years, more than fifteen years, actually, the idea for this project. I was a new faculty member at Calvin University at the time, and I was teaching a US survey course and I wanted to introduce my students to the idea of gender in history and particularly masculinity, how ideas of masculinity change over time, how they’re linked to broader currents like economic shifts and religion and race and foreign policy and the like. So, I planned this little lecture around Teddy Roosevelt, and I showed my students how his particular idea of rugged masculinity was a product of his own time and how it was linked to American empire and American power. At the end of that class, a couple of guys came up to me and said, Professor du Mez, there is this book that you have to read and that book was John Eldridge’s Wild at Heart.

Pete: Ahhhh.

Kristin: So, I took their advice, I went down to Family Christian Bookstore and bought myself a copy. I’d heard of it, everybody was reading it at the time. This was back in 2005, 2006. The book had come out in 2001, it went on to sell more than four million copies –

Pete: Mmm.

Kristin: And so, I opened the book up and I saw immediately what they were talking about because Eldridge opens his book with a quote from Teddy Roosevelt and then he goes on to sketch this really militant, militaristic conception of what he calls Christian manhood. So, God is a warrior God and men are made in his image, every man has a battle to fight. And this struck me as not particularly biblical and puzzling and at the same time, this was again, 2005, 2006, it was the early years of the Iraq War and I was seeing all this survey data about how white Evangelicals were far and away more likely than other Americans to support the Iraq war, preemptive war in general, condone the use of torture, embrace aggressive foreign policy, and I just asked the question – what might one of these things have to do with the other?

Pete: Mm hmm.

Kristin: So, I explored this for about a year, did some research, and then ended up setting the project aside for various reasons. One, it was incredibly disturbing what I was uncovering, deeply misogynistic, militaristic writings and I also couldn’t tell is this, is this mainstream Evangelicalism or is this fringe? And if it is fringe, should I be shining a bright light on maybe the darkest underbelly of American Christianity? So, I just kind of bracketed it, set it aside, and it wasn’t until the fall of 2016 in the weeks after the Access Hollywood tape released, actually, that I ended up pulling this research back out because what I was hearing around Evangelical support for Donald Trump reminded me so much of the rhetoric that I had immersed myself in all those years ago in Evangelical writing on Christian manhood.


Jared: Well, can we take a step back and maybe define some terms here? You used, you know, masculinity and toxic masculinity, patriarchy – I think these can be confusing terms because you said it’s not particularly biblical, but I grew up very much in the world in which you are writing this book and you know, for me, it did seem biblical because we had the masculine examples of King David and the way that it was positioned seemed quite biblical. So, maybe let’s define some terms of what we mean by patriarchy or toxic masculinity.

Kristin: Sure. Well, I should say when it didn’t seem all that biblical, what I noticed when I was reading books like Eldridge and then there’s a whole kind of copycat industry around that book because it had been so successful was that most of the “evidence” for this militant Christian masculinity wasn’t drawn from the Bible directly, it was drawn from Hollywood heroes – from Mel Gibson’s William Wallace from the move Braveheart, from movies with John Wayne, mythical warriors, soldiers, and the like with some Bible verses sprinkled here or there.

Jared: Interesting.

Kristin: Right? But yes, defining terms. So, patriarchy is pretty simple, it’s really just male power, masculine power, where most power is given to men and restricted from women. So, it can take different shape and different historical periods, and yes, there is certainly a Christian patriarchy and a tradition of Christian patriarchy, and their ways to interpret different Bible verses to support male leadership, male headship in the church, in the home, and in society. And there are ways to interpret those very same Bible verses that really undercut patriarchal leadership, as you well know.

So, there’s that kind of patriarchy. And you mentioned toxic masculinity which is a phrase that I don’t actually use in this book largely because I’m aware that that is a phrase that really resonates with certain people, particularly progressives, liberals, and so on know exactly what we’re talking about and I think it can really put off conservatives. It’s a very loaded term.

Pete: Hmm.

Kristin: So instead, I just described things that actually could be described as toxic masculinity and here what we’re talking about more is not just the idea of, you know, maybe more narrowly masculine authority or male headship in Christian circles, but all of the kind of cultural trappings that then get built into those patriarchal systems. So, it’s, you know, what is it, what is a man? How did God make men? In all sort of ways, so, God made them not just to lead but to be kind of militant warrior, leader. God filled men with testosterone, and so they have these impulses that are very hard to restrain and that’s what makes them so aggressive and such good warriors to defend faith, family, and nation. It also, you know, entails ideas about sexuality that men have a hard time restraining their sexual impulses. And so, there’s all these kind of layers that get added onto male leadership attributes that are very quickly turned into, you know, all men are created this way or all men are this way and that God designed men to be this way. And these are things that arguably can cause great harm to men themselves and to women, to children, and really in terms of society and even international relations and so on. So, they can have some really caustic effects.

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: You mentioned, you know, maybe not using the term toxic masculinity, but describing things. What are some of these examples, you know, you’ve thrown out William Wallace and Hollywood, but are these, are there certain cultural moments over the last several decades that you would point out that led people to identifying with this kind of Christianity or this kind of Christian manhood more than others?

Pete: Can I ask too, Jared, just in the context, can we go back before Teddy Roosevelt or do you think that’s sort of like, a real crystalizing moment –

Jared: Starting point. Yeah.

Pete: Practically speaking.

Kristin: Yeah, well definitely. In the book I look back to the 19th century, just very briefly more to disrupt any notion that you know, this kind of more militant rugged masculinity is just default masculinity or default Christian masculinity. Because if you look in the 19th century, you can find ideals of Christian manhood that are not this kind of rugged warrior ideal. Quite the opposite. To be a man is to really master self-restraint, this gentlemanly self-restraint. Right? That’s this kind of Victorian Christian ideal of mature masculinity.


Now, that said, you also have in the American South in particular, a more rugged model of white Christian patriarchy in particular, which is linked to a kind of Southern culture of honor, and to mastery over not just women and children, but also enslaved people. And so, you see that history is complicated – you can find continuity and change and so you can find some kind of precursors, but you can also find patterns that disrupt more recent time. And I thought that was really important that things have not always been the way they are now and then what I do in the book is I show how a particularly militant conception became combined with Christian nationalism, right, with this defense of Christian America and then it’s really, you can see that coming together to a certain extent in the early 20th century, with Teddy Roosevelt and then the First World War, but even then you have liberal Protestants who are as likely to embrace this kind of muscular Christianity and Christian nationalism and you have conservative Protestants accepting Billy Sunday, of course, but many conservative Protestants who resisted, particularly Christian nationalism. And so, it’s not really until the Cold War era that things come together in a way we would recognize today. So, the 1940’s, 1950’s when we see conservative white Evangelicals linking this defense of Christian America to gender traditionalism and the idea that the man must serve as provider and protector. And given the Cold War threat, this role of protector is really important and because it’s a military threat that role has to also be an aggressive military defense and offense is usually the best defense. And so, it’s the Cold War era where this really does start to come together powerfully. You know we have Billy Graham, the formation of the National Association of Evangelicals, and that’s the era where thing really come together.

Pete: Yeah, I mean, what really stuck me in reading your wonderfully disturbing book, Jesus and John Wayne, was this Christian nationalism connection to toxic masculinity and just the almost effortless weaving together of those things and, you know, here we are. You mentioned Billy Graham?

Kristin: Mm hmm.

Pete: And again, I think, I’m thinking about people who may want to pick this book up and read it, and I hope they do, and, you know, there are some sacred cows that get tipped over in the book and for very good reason, I might add. Could you, do you mind riffing a little bit on Billy Graham’s influence in this whole merger of Christian nationalism and masculinity?

Kristin: Yeah. Yeah, you know, some responses I’ve gotten to this book is, I’ve heard more than once, you know, “you named names.” And frankly, as a historian, I don’t know how else to write.

[Light laughter]

Pete: Well, obviously.


Kristin: But yes, Billy Graham was one who comes under some scrutiny, but really nothing that historians haven’t been saying for a long time, it’s just that white Evangelicals have tended to tell their own histories, their own versions of events, and in that version of events or, you know Billy Graham is this kind of untouchable hero, all that is good in Evangelicalism. And so, I really did set out to disrupt that. One of my favorite pictures in the book is this young Billy Graham, and he’s this dashingly handsome figure, and he rose to fame as an evangelist in the Youth for Christ ministry, and that was during the Second World War. And so, he embraced this defense of America, Christian America and that was really at the center of his ministry. He was extremely patriotic, and then he ends up being the center of this web that is Evangelicalism, this web of institutions and popular media and magazines and radio and he’s really the hub. And he has this access to power, right, with the Eisenhower White House and a line of presidents following. And he’s incredibly ambitious, politically speaking, and he’s also, as I show in the book, an ardent supporter of Cold War militarism, of American militarism, of the war effort in Vietnam, and in so many ways, then, he kind of represents what white Evangelicalism becomes. On Civil rights, too, he has this reputation for taking down the divider between black and white attendees at his crusades, which was true, but that’s about as far as he went and he certainly stepped back from a whole-hearted critique of segregationism and certainly stepped back from a full-throated support of Martin Luther King, Jr.


And so, I just tell the story that is a familiar story to professional historians but I, frankly, wasn’t quite prepared for how shocking some of this history would be to white Evangelical readers who really had to think again about this figure that they’d really held in such high esteem and that they thought, you know, he defines the best of Evangelicalism, and if that’s the best of Evangelicalism, then we kind of have to rethink who we are and what Evangelicalism is as a tradition.

Jared: I wanted to back up, we don’t have to get too far into this, but I think it’s important to note, again, for my upbringing I’ve been trying to rack my brain on this connection of nationalism and Christianity, and for me, the theological connection, which was interesting, was both, we held both of these things very sacred and very true, that Israel continued to be God’s chosen people, and we as a nation, had to continue to defend Israel lest bad things happen to us as a nation, AND we had sort of taken on Israel’s identity –

Kristin: Yeah.

Jared: Where there was this mix of, you know, going to Liberty where Jerry Falwell would quote Chronicles and basically, “if you are my people, you call me by my name,” like you know, this healing of the nation. Like, there was this interesting relationship with Israel, I think is what I’m trying to point out that allowed for this theological connection so that when I read my Bible and I see Israel having as a country, as a nation, this special relationship with God, I’m able to substitute America.

Kristin: Yes.

Jared: And that was really important for my identity growing up, and I, is that something that you’ve uncovered as well in this?

Kristin: Yeah, you know, I talk about Christian Zionism just a couple of times in this book, but I certainly could’ve done much more, because you’re right, there’s this idea of supporting Israel and that’s a defensive of US militarism as well. Anything in defense of Israel, and at the same time, this kind of slippage into America as a new Israel that is certainly present and again, America has this special role in the world, in world history. And what that looks like, then, is so, in the 1950’s, Evangelical values, you know, Christian America, and a defense of Christian America and also defense of the traditional family as the kind of foundation of the American social order, all of that was central to Evangelical identity, but it was actually central to American identity in many ways, right? It didn’t really set Evangelicals apart from any other Americans, especially white middle class Americans. This was the baby boom. You know?

Pete: Yeah.

Kristin: This was Cold War consensus. When the rupture happens, this is the 1960’s, and that’s when these values that Evangelicals held dear were abandoned by many other Americans. They start to doubt American goodness and greatness when they see what’s happening on the battlefields of Vietnam. The Civil Rights movement challenges ideals of American greatness and goodness on the home front. The feminist movement is challenging these “traditional roles” of women and men and that’s when just as many other Americans are questioning these values, that’s when conservative Evangelicals really doubled down. And they feel a sense of loss because in the 50’s, they were at the center of things, they were moving into the center of things, access to power. And all of a sudden, they find themselves once again on the margins and they feel like they are a faithful remnant, so God has charged them with keeping America Christian, which was looking hard with all the hippies and anti-war activists and so on, right? And keeping America strong at the same time. And so, it was this sense of, you know, if not us, who will do this? And so, that is also part of this. This sense of loss –

Pete: Yeah, and keeping America strong is keeping the church strong. It’s keeping the Christian faith, right?

Kristin: Exactly. Keeping the faith strong and raising your boys to be strong men.

Pete: Yes.

Jared: Well, and going back to that then, maybe can you say a little bit of the difference between masculinity and toxic masculinity? And maybe we can even, not to pick on John Wayne, but he’s in the title of your book.

Pete: There’s probably a reason for that.

Jared: How does John Wayne represent, you know, a healthy masculinity and a toxic, I just think it’d be a helpful distinction.

Pete: Yeah, concrete.

Jared: Right.

Kristin: Sure. So, masculinity is a really quite generic. It’s whatever people in any given time think ascribes to, you know, being a man. Whatever goes along with being a man. So, it’s a very fluid concept that changes quite a bit over time. Here again, you can find some continuities if you’re looking for them, but there’s a lot of change over time as well. But it’s essentially at any given moment what anybody deems masculine, right? Whatever goes along with being a man.


And so, it’s kind of this empty container into which you can put things in and remove things. So, some of these things can be very good things like honor and honesty and courage and you can put a lot of virtues, or as I said before, self-restraint. Now, when things move in the more toxic direction, I think that’s when these attributes start getting defined in a sense in opposition to as opposite from whatever gets in the femininity box, right?

Pete: Mm hmm.

Kristin: And that’s when things get really dicey. And that’s exactly what we see happening in the Christian literature here. Folks like James Dobson back in the 70’s already will say that men and women are different in every cell of their bodies, which, you know, biologically you can make that case, but then the kind of cultural layers that get added to that, what that ends up looking like is attributes are considered masculine are opposite of those considered feminine. So, let’s take for example, the Fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, self-control – I mean, you know where this is going. These are all the feminine traits, these are great for the ladies.

Pete: That’s only in the women’s Bible.

Kristin: Exactly, the one with pink flowers on it.

Pete: Yeah.

Kristin: Right, and so then men, what is it to be a man? Testosterone is key, so testosterone is God’s gift to men and to society through men and the fruit of that is aggression and violence which can be channeled, must be channeled for this greater good. But violence is key to masculinity, to being a man, and it’s about power and it’s about claiming power and grasping power and holding power. And so, I, you know, this is as I said before, I didn’t, when I first was reading this didn’t feel particularly biblical because as I read the scriptures and look at the model of Christ, it seems like, you know, to me Christ is someone who divests himself of power and that’s not what we see happening in terms of this “biblical manhood” or “Christian masculinity” where it’s about claiming power over others and claiming that that’s God’s will.

Jared: Well, even mundane things such as, I just remember my parents going to counseling and one of the main takeaways was the reason your marriage is struggling is because my mom, who had been a banker for 20 years, does the finances.

Kristin: Yes!

Jared: That’s why. Well, if my dad would just take, my dad, who’s been a truck driver for 20 years would just take over the finances, you’d be better!

Kristin: Exactly.

Jared: And it’s like seemingly so mundane and it was such a train wreck.

Kristin: Exactly, there are so much within this cultural baggage that gets, you know, kind of baptized as, you know, biblical manhood or biblical womanhood and it affects sexuality and sexual morality and power dynamics. But you asked about John Wayne, right? So, I did not set out to write a book about John Wayne, full disclosure, but what I saw, again, is that so much of the inspiration for ideals of Christian manhood were drawn from popular culture.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Kristin: And not from deep biblical exegesis.

Jared: Mm hmm.

Kristin: So, we take somebody like John Wayne – you can find some good attributes if you look at certain John Wayne movies perhaps, but what really elevated him to cult status in American history so that for decades up until very recently he was America’s number one most favorite actor until just a few years ago. And if you look at his heroism, this is where I started to notice that we had to talk not just about Christian masculinity, but about white Christian masculinity, because I notice that all of the heroes that these Christian writers were holding up were white men. Some of them Confederate generals, even. And then John Wayne is a great case in point where all of his kind of greatest hits on screen, he was the heroic white man who would use violence as necessary to subdue, in most cases, non-white populations. So, the wild west, you know, the cowboy hero subduing Native Americans, or else defeating Mexicans, you know, at the Alamo or trying to. Or, you know, on the sands of Iwo Jima against Japanese or the Green Berets, Vietnamese. And so, it’s this white masculine power, the need to use violence as necessary to pursue righteousness and achieve order and that fits very closely, maps very closely onto both the kind of social and political implications of this Christian militant masculinity that I was tracing in the popular literature.


Pete: Mm hmm. Yeah, so, you know you’ve been living with this topic now for maybe two decades? Is that fair to say?

Kristen: Just about. Off and on, yes.

Pete: Yeah. So, in all, I mean, in your research, is there anything that’s just surprised you? I mean just like – I can’t believe I’m reading this.

Kristin: [Light laughter]

Pete: Or maybe something that really irked you, you know, and going through these things and just looking at this relatively recent history in American culture.

Kristen: Yeah, um, many things honestly.

Pete: [Laughter]

Kristen: I did not know what I was embarking on.

Pete: Is this part two of our podcast? We need more time.

Kristen: Right, right. You know, one of the things that shocked me – well, first let me step back and say you know, I set this research aside for more than a decade, but I didn’t stop paying attention. I kind of kept tabs on some of the leading proponents of this militant Christian manhood and what I saw was one after another, in the course of a decade, became implicated in scandals.

Pete: Right.

Kristin: Abuse of power and often sexual abuse, either directly or indirectly supporting friends who are perpetrators. And so, I paid attention to that and when I went back into the history, I was shocked at how we should have expected this, at how these ideals of masculinity and femininity mapped onto sex advice. I read a lot of Christian sex advise manuals from the 60’s and 70’s up to the present.

[Light laughter]

Jared: As we all do.


Kristen: [Continued laughter]

As we all should not do. And what I found there was incredibly disturbing. Really that blamed women for abuse, it’s a woman’s fault if, because men, again testosterone, you can’t really expect them to restrain themselves, not very much at least. So, if you’re an unmarried woman, you absolutely cannot tempt a man and if you are a married woman, it is absolutely your obligation to fulfill your husband’s every sexual need. And so, if he ends up being an abuser, even of a child, clearly you aren’t meeting his needs. It was that blatant and that shocking, over and over again. That would be one of the things.

Pete: All in the interest of keeping the system intact.

Kristen: Yes, yes. Right

Pete: Yeah.

Kristen: So, always look at power, right? Who’s wielding power and to what ends? And then the other thing I was not prepared for that I kept bumping up against in this research that is I think relevant in where we are today was the question of authority. Just how important authority or, if you will, power was. Going back to the 60s, the 70s, the sense of we need to reassert authority over culture, over young people, over children, over women. And as I was reading this, it kept striking me that this is really, um, leaning towards authoritarianism. This is deeply anti-democratic and I wasn’t sure what to do with that. But I just wrote it into the history, wrote it into the narrative I was telling and really only in recent years have I had to kind of grapple with the implications of this in terms of the resiliency of American democracy, our democratic institutions and norms.

Jared: I mean, I don’t want to go down this tangent, I think there is some important –

Pete: You clearly do.

Jared: I do. I do. When I said I don’t, I mean I really do.

Kristin: [Laughter]

Jared: But, I can’t help but think though, if we’re taking, what do we do with the Bible in the midst of all this? Because I think there’s some challenges within that. Just you bringing up democracy, I’m like well, the Bible doesn’t have democracy in it.

Kristin: Right.

Jared: There isn’t a lot of democracy being advocated for here in a lot of ways. And so, you know, I guess I’m trying to figure out, what went wrong over the last fifty to seventy years that we had this Bible that Christians for a long time have sort of staked their faith on and said this is really important, it’s central to our faith, and yet you mentioned there’s something particular in the last fifty to seventy years, a hundred years, that went awry. It wasn’t, you know, I’m speculating because I’m genuinely just processing out loud, but is there something about having this consciousness of war and there’s a lot of fear now around it? Um, we have, we now have video, we have pictures you know, Vietnam War where we could see it on our nightly tv screens. Is there a fear that had led to this over-compensation where we have to somehow justify violence so that we don’t feel so afraid? I’m just trying to figure out where this came from.

Kristen: I love this question. So, did fear kind of lead to this violence? That was absolutely my operating theory when I started this research and that was honestly if you look at conversations around the 2016 election and explaining white Evangelical support for Trump, it’s really the narrative that Evangelicals were largely holding their noses and they were just desperate, they were just so afraid to protect their religious liberty to kind of protect their very existence, and so any extreme actions were the response of fear. That was my kind of working theory.


And then when I went back into the history, I realized at a certain point that we needed to flip that script.

Pete: Huh.

Kristen: If you go back to the Cold War Era, you know, sure, you can see that there was a lot of fear. But then one of the questions I started asking was who is stoking that fear? And what I saw is over and over again, which isn’t to say there weren’t legitimate fears during the era of the Cold War, but there is an active stoking of that fear both by the government and by religious leaders in the early Cold War era, throughout the Cold War. And then I started looking at specific examples, I started looking at things like Jerry Falwell, Sr.’s ministry and Mark Driscoll’s church and even these crazy stories of the fraudulent ex-Muslim terrorists that were all the rage after September 11.

Pete: Right.

Kirsten: And what I saw in each case is that the fears were real. The fears of ordinary Evangelicals were very real. So, somebody like Falwell would really incite fear in the members of his Thomas Road Baptist Church. Those who followed his ministry that, you know, we have the truth here and you cannot trust those on the outside. If they’re not with us, they’re against us. This kind of militant worldview, us versus them.

Jared: Which is kind of like a cult leader’s M.O., right?

Kristen: It is and it’s also like, it’s war. It’s war, right? In war, if you’re not with us, you’re against us.

Jared: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: And desperate times call for desperate measures. This is even clearer in Mark Driscoll’s case where he used this kind of war motif that explicitly militaristic conception of his ministry to demand absolute loyalty of his followers because in war you demand loyalty. Otherwise, you’re a traitor.

Jared: Interesting.

Kirsten: Right? And so, he stoked fear, actively. He was flanked by security guards in the sanctuary as he was preaching –

Pete: [Light laughter]

Kristen: To build this sense of, and you don’t go to that church down the road because you’re going to get false teaching and the consequences of this are eternal damnation. And so, again, the fear was real in the hearts of followers, but it was actively stoked by religious leaders by Evangelical men. For what purposes? In almost every case, to consolidate their own power and that’s how this worked. And so, I was able to both hold fears are legitimate and they are also manufactured.

Pete: Yeah, right. Yeah, I mean capitalizing on fear, which many people have described the Donald Trump era that way too.

Kristen: Yes.

Pete: There’s some fears that people have, but these fears are being stoked. I think, you know, for me one of the big takeaways, Kristen, is along with Christian nationalism is the – simple observation. You’re asking a question that people have asked. How could Evangelicals vote for Donald Trump? Well, here’s why.

Kristin: Yeah.

Pete: I mean, because this is a very old problem, I mean not hundreds of years old, but it’s decades in the making and it’s not that this is something that the Evangelical system, that’s aligned with politics, this is something they’ve created, right?

Kristen: Um hmm. Right.

Pete: That’s a scary thought to me. Not scary. It’s just disturbing and infuriating and even maddening.

Kristen: Yeah.

Pete: That this has happened and people just don’t see it and I just don’t know why, I don’t know, what am I talking about? I mean, why don’t people see anything? It just, it seems rather obvious to me that you can’t, it’s really hard to mix the Gospel with this kind of Christian Nationalism.

Kristen: Yes.

Pete: And you said, you know, they might appeal to Bible verses taken out of context, whatever, but you know, the ethic of Jesus is such and such, but they take care of that too. They have posters of Jesus, who is ripped, carrying an AK-47 in like, a bandana, you know? And Jesus wants you to fight and kill people.

Kristen: Exactly. Exactly. This is the “corrupted the faith” part of my subtitle, right? It’s what I noticed is in the case of Donald Trump and the case of John Wayne, the heroes that they looked to, the warriors that would lead the charge were, not coincidentally, men who were not actually formed by Christian virtue, right? Because they could come in and they could do what needed to be done. They would not be constrained by traditional Christian virtue at all, so they were paradoxically the most fit to protect Christianity, and again, the best defense is an aggressive offense and that’s why we have to see Trump in many ways not as a betrayal of Evangelical values, but as the fulfillment of those values.

Pete: Right. That answers a very basic question people have asked again, how, look at all the stuff that Donald Trump has done, how can Christians support him? Again, here is the answer, because he’s an outsider who can get away with stuff.


Kristen: Yeah.

Pete: Right.

Kristin: And yet they have to change Jesus then, right? Because if we’re supposed to be followers of Christ, who is your Jesus? And so, they do transform Jesus into this, you know, a warrior leading, you know, wielding a bloody sword, charging into battle on horseback with tattoos down his leg. That’s Driscoll’s Jesus.

Pete: Yeah, it is.

Jared: It just reminds me, and I’m trying to look up the quote, I think Jerry Falwell, Jr., toward the end of Trump’s presidency basically kind of made that point of you know, well yeah, sure, maybe we, it’s not, but I’m not voting for him because he’s a Christian. Like, I’m voting for him for these other reasons. I’m supporting him for these other reasons.

Pete: And then you have this Cyrus thing. You know, here we have this secular messiah essentially, you know? From Isaiah.

Kristen: Yeah.

Pete: And all these things, you know, you can find biblical support, of course, for anything. You can find biblical support but there they have it, you know? And I just, you know, what’s stoking that? What’s the motivation? You know, I’m asking rhetorically now. It’s just a very complicated issue and getting out of it is going to be even harder.

Jared: Well, let’s go there because I think, I want to make sure we have time to talk a little about this, the saying, “Those who don’t understand history are doomed to repeat it.” So, you’ve done the historical research-

Pete: Yeah, fix this Kristen.

Kristin: [Laughter]

Pete: What do we do?

Jared: How do we not repeat it? Like, what are some steps we can take to wrest Christianity from this ideology, or can we? I mean, we’re always, in some ways we go from one system to the next. We can’t delude ourselves into thinking we can be systemless, but are there steps we can take here?

Kristen: So, early on when I started writing this book in earnest, I thought I can change things. I’m going to hold this up and it’s going to change things and it’s going to reform Christianity and then just a few months into the research, I gave that up. I saw just how deeply embedded this all was. And then I just decided, I’m going to testify to this. That’s all I can do. And then I got to the end of the manuscript, preparing it for publication and at a certain point late in the game, my editor emailed me and said, “So, this is a really depressing book, Kristen, and you can’t leave your readers here. You need to give them something.” And so, I gave it some real thought and I responded to him, “I’ve got nothing. I feel as depressed as you do.”

Pete: Jesus is coming back real soon. Maybe that’s-

Kristen: It’s not looking good.


And then he said, “Okay, I respect that.” And then about two days later I get another email, “Kristen, just give us something.” And so, that’s when I went back and I gave them the last sentence of the book, which is –

Pete: [Laughter]

Kristen: Right?

Jared: [Laughter]

That’s great!

Pete: Fine! Fine!

Kristen: Exactly! What was it? It was like, “What was once done may also be undone.” And honestly, I felt so sheepish sending that to him. Like it is not enough, and he was like, “Fine, I’ll take it.” And the book went into publication, right? And then honestly, in a sense the book has been out, it’s been out almost a year now and I’m holding to that because so many readers are holding to that phrase. There’s so many readers who, I mean, I received so many hundreds of letters from Evangelicals themselves, several a day, still to this day, saying this is the story of my life and I had no idea. And I think that history can help explain how their own personal stories are part of this larger story and how they have in fact, wittingly or unwittingly, been complicit in bringing us to where we are now. And so, I’m hearing a lot of energy around this question, what do we do next? How do we undo this?

First, ultra-important step is to see where we are and how we got here. Right? Because if we see that things have not always been this way then we can figure out, okay, who made these choices? Because choices were made and to what ends? And again, it’s usually to enhance somebody’s own power and then we can start to say – is this where we want to be as a church? Is this where we want to be as God’s people? And that’s a critical first step. So, I’m a huge fan of history, what it can do to open up these questions.

But then beyond that, this is where things get a little sketchier for me because my expertise is as a historian, not advising church leaders, but I think that one of the lessons that I learned from this research is how many of us have been complicit through silence, through choosing what is safe, what is least disruptive in institutions and churches and families and friend groups, of not speaking truth because that might come with a cost.

Pete: Yeah.


Kristin: And millions of those choices over decades of time really have brought us to where we are now. So, I think what the moment calls for right now is rigorous honesty of our own motivations. For white Christians in particular, what is needed is to listen to the voices of non-white Christians, to listen to those who have been excluded from their company, from you know, their conceptions of truth and their communities and I think that’s a really good place to start. There are, you know, vibrant traditions of prophetic Christianity on which we can all draw. So, I think that’s a critical step and really what’s needed is courage in this moment. Individually, and collectively.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Jared: I think that’s a great word for us to end on.

Pete: Yeah, absolutely.

Jared: And really appreciate you spelling this out, not just here in the podcast, but again in the book where you go into more detail and completely describe my childhood. So, appreciated that, in some ways, and also hated you for it.

Pete: There are pictures too; there are pictures too.

Jared: Which is, yeah, I don’t read books without pictures, so it worked out.

Kristin: [Laughter]

Jared: Well, thank you so much, Kristin, for coming on.

Kristin: Oh, thank you. It was a joy.

[Music begins]

Megan: All right, everyone, that’s it for this episode. Thank you so much for listening and supporting our show, we hope you enjoyed this episode. We want to give 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.

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.

[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.