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Episode 207: Pete Enns & Jared Byas – Respecting the Bible for What It Is (And Isn’t)

Does the Bible address modern moral questions? In this episode of The Bible for Normal People, Pete and Jared dive into a discussion on the uniquely modern tension between an ancient text and modern ethics. Together, they explore the following questions: 

  • How do we navigate the tension between respecting the original context of biblical writers with authorial intention? 
  • How can we maintain our religious roots in Christianity in light of historical consciousness? 
  • How do we draw the distinction between the theology we find within the Bible itself, and the theological implications that we can extrapolate from it today?
  • In our modern age, how do we embody and find deep meaning in an ancient tradition? 
  • Is it fair to ask the Bible to provide clear instruction on modern problems/issues? 
  • Instead of looking to the Bible to justify what you already think, what is a better way to engage the Bible when considering problems biblical writers never envisioned? 
  • Why doesn’t the Bible address modern moral questions? 
  • What is a hermeneutical hangover? 
  • How does the Jewish religion handle modern ethical problems and questions? 
  • Is it necessary to ground our morality in the Bible? Why or why not? 
  • What makes the Bible different from any other book? 
  • Isn’t it fun to articulate problems and have deep discussions about theological stuff even though Pete and Jared don’t ever get around to providing final/clear answers? 

Tweetables

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

  • “The Bible doesn’t address modern moral questions, because it’s neither a modern nor a moral book.” @jbyas
  • “The tension a lot of people feel is that they have inherited a faith from their churches that is still very much pre-modern, in many respects.” @peteenns
  • “When we ask the question, ‘What does the Bible say about X?’ we’ve already assumed that it has something directly to say to us today in the modern world and that it’s geared toward this moral or ethical purpose.”@jbyas 
  • “The only thing driving us is not the text itself, it’s our need to have the Bible teach us. So what we’ve actually done is not adhere to biblical teaching, we’ve actually imposed our conclusions onto the biblical texts.” @peteenns
  • “Deconstruction can make you aware of the inadequacy of your current worldview.” @peteenns
  • “What I’ve learned is that a high view of Scripture, for me, is respecting the otherness of it. Respecting Paul for who Paul was, in the world that Paul lived in. For me, that’s treating the Bible with respect. And it’s ironic that, by doing that, I’m often accused of disrespecting the Bible.” @jbyas 
  • “We have a responsibility to do the abstract thinking necessary to advocate for this world that we live in. But I do not need a Bible verse to do that, because I think that’s expecting the Bible to do too much.” @peteenns
  • “I’m not expecting [the Bible] to be authoritative for my life, in a directional kind of way, but by shaping a conversation about how I think about my own humanity.” @peteenns

Mentioned in This Episode

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Read the transcript

0:00

Pete Enns 

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

Jared Byas  

And I’m Jared Byas.

[Jaunty intro music]

Pete Enns  

Hey, folks. Welcome to this episode of The Bible for Normal People. What’s our topic for today, Jared?

[Light laughter]

Jared Byas  

Today, we are going to talk about “Respecting the Bible for What It Is (And Isn’t).”

Pete Enns  

…and isn’t. Both of those things. Because what we’re all about here is: what is the Bible? 

Jared Byas  

And what do we do with it? 

Pete Enns  

And what do we do with it? Which are these eternal questions. 

Jared Byas  

Yeah. But I think part of the reason this topic has come up for this episode is because—I think there’s a reorientation that I’ve been going through where, you know, I’ve been having this episode on the “Making of the Modern Mindset.” And sometimes I can be critical of—

Pete Enns  

Your podcast series. 

Jared Byas  

Yeah, the little miniseries. And I can be critical of modernity and the limitations of modernity. And yet, I need to have a corrective lens to help me recognize also, though, that I respect the tools of modern critical scholarship. In fact, I’m assuming it sometimes in my criticism of modernity. And so I’m standing on the shoulders of critical scholarship. And I just think maybe it would be good for us to talk about some of that. 

Pete Enns  

Yeah. So I guess modernity being critical of itself, in a sense? Is that…?

Jared Byas  

I think sometimes there’s this idea that we can throw the baby out with the bathwater. And instead recognizing like, yeah, modernity produced some really good things, even when it comes to reading our Bible, that have been really helpful for us in interpretation. And yet, it can still be limited.

Pete Enns  

Right. So one of those things is—and we’ve talked about this a bunch of times before, we’re not going to beat a dead horse here today—but the idea of context, of understanding something of the context of these biblical writers, because it can really help us from saying things that are just pretty wack about the Bible, you know?

Jared Byas  

Well, and I think that’s the heart of this episode, is let’s dig into and talk about this tension between respecting the original context and the authorial intention. What were the authors trying to convey? What were they trying to mean, when they wrote it? And how we understand it and make it relevant for us today. That is a perennial problem…

Pete Enns  

Yeah. 

Jared Byas  

…and tension. And, you know, we just had Dale Allison on the podcast, and he talks about—and you frame it this way, and it reminds me often of Jon Levenson, because that’s the first writer I read that really wrestled with this—how do we be Christians in a religious sense, and historians and experts in modern critical scholarship? How do those things go together? Because it’s not obvious.

Pete Enns  

That’s, in a way, the modern tension, I think. And now, I mean, how long has this modern tension been going on? That’s a good question. It’s longer than just a couple hundred years. But it’s really with the rise of things like, well, you know, science and the enlightenment and things like that, that gave people more of a historical consciousness. I think, you know, modern people have more of a historical consciousness than, say, John Calvin. Even though John Calvin had a historical consciousness, it wasn’t informed by things like archaeology or advanced science in any sense. 

Jared Byas  

Well, the data hadn’t rolled in yet. 

Pete Enns  

It hadn’t rolled in yet, and especially the big one is comparative religions—what we know about other religions of the ancient world. So we can look at the time of Jesus and understand something about Greco-Roman civilization and religion and how those two things, you know, are not unrelated in the gospel. So yeah, I think it is a big tension that we live with in the modern period. And not to get off topic here, but the struggle I think, the tension a lot of people feel, is that they have inherited a faith from their churches that is still very much pre-modern, in many respects. It doesn’t know what to do with science.

Jared Byas  

It hasn’t even integrated the data and evidence that we’ve gotten from all these modern advancements of archaeology, historical data, and scientific data, all these sorts of things they haven’t even really wrestled with that yet.

Pete Enns  

And that’s the big divide, I think, between, again—just let me use the labels, folks don’t take them, you know, too black-and-white-ish—but between fundamentalism and liberalism, you have fundamentalists have sort of done an apologetic end around historical problems. And liberals have gone right through it, and had what Walter Wink, a New Testament professor, calls an acid bath—and the naïveté has been sloughed off. 

4:57

Pete Enns  

But, you know, now liberals have been saying, we’re not really sure what to do anymore with this faith. But then you have also people in fundamentalism, who are becoming awakened to the modern problem of evidence and things like that. And so we have these two groups that really have very similar DNAs, you know, but they’re approaching this historical thing in very different ways. That tension is still very much with people. And it’s with me, it’s with you. 

Jared Byas 

Right.

Pete Enns  

You know, I haven’t gotten over this yet. It’s, you know, I don’t cry myself to sleep, but I still think about it a lot. How do you maintain a tradition, which is essentially a pre-modern tradition, in the wake of modern developments of thought that challenge that pre-modern tradition? And how do you do that? That’s a big thing.

Jared Byas 

Yeah. And we’ve talked about that, I think, in a few episodes, so I think it’d be good for us to drill down and get very practical in this episode. Because for what I’ve been thinking about, and frankly, just to be a little introspective about the podcast itself, is I think about this sometimes with our episodes—of how do we draw the distinction between the theology we find within the Bible itself, and the theological implications that we can extrapolate from it today?

Pete Enns  

Right.

Jared Byas  

And I think that sounds really nuanced. And I think it may take some time to unpack exactly what we mean by that. So there is a view of God that the ancient people who are referenced in the Bible had, that the authors of the Bible had, they had a view of God and that gets imprinted in the Bible. And then we have a certain view of God. And those theological implications aren’t the same as what the ancients thought of God. And I just think that sometimes in our effort to be biblical, whatever that means, we can disrespect that original imprint of how they thought of God. And we can make it seem like the ancients are on our side, with whatever the social, or justice or ethical or moral topic of the day is. We can disrespect that original intention. And I think the thing that helped me was understanding modern critical biblical scholarship. That gave me that distance I needed so that I could actually respect it on its own terms. I don’t know if that’s making sense.

Pete Enns  

No, but then, you know, if you live too much in the original historical meaning, however difficult that is sometimes to carry out like, you know, the author’s intention is a very difficult thing to uncover. 

Jared Byas  

Right.

Pete Enns  

The best we have is a text from which we extrapolate a possible historical intention, because we can’t ask authors. And then authors aren’t always the best interpreters of their own material, which, you know, literary critics will tell us. But, you know, we have this rather difficult situation of having a very different view of even the nature of reality than these ancient writers. And that’s the ever present tension. How do we embody and live with and find meaning, deep meaning, in this tradition, which for most of its history, was not living where we live? 

Jared Byas  

Right.

Pete Enns  

And then getting really practical about, you know, we need to respect the original intention. But then how do we do theology? It’s easier just to say, well, their intention is what we think it is, and that—you can make the connection that way very nicely, but it will eventually unravel. 

Jared Byas  

Right. 

Pete Enns  

And so maybe there’s another way of doing it. And by the way, folks, we’re not going to have final answers to this, are we Jared?

Jared Byas  

Everyone is going to be shocked that we’re not going to have—they’ve come to expect…

Pete Enns  

I know, they’re so used to these clear answers we get. But you know, folks, isn’t it just worthwhile to have discussions about this stuff? And just to articulate the problem?

Jared Byas  

Especially in this case, because I think the problem might be even in the questions we ask. So again, some of what we’re saying may feel abstract. And so let me bring a very practical example. We might ask the question: Is the Bible for or against abortion?

Pete Enns  

[sarcastically] That’s obvious…

Jared Byas  

And that question itself is problematic because of the things we’re talking about. Because when we use the word abortion, we mean something very specific. And we’re trying to ask, what does the Bible have to say about something that, frankly, wasn’t the same kind of thing that we’re talking about. And so when we do that with all kinds of things, what does the Bible have to say about immigration laws? What does the Bible—you can be on the left or the right politically to ask these questions—what does the Bible have to say about x or about y or about z? When we ask those questions, we’re stuck in this problem that we’ve been talking about. 

9:59

Pete Enns  

Right. Or climate change, or I mean, name your favorite topic. Name something that means something to you.

Jared Byas  

So is it even fair? I’m going to ask you this. Is it even fair to ask that question? “What does the Bible have to say about climate change?” Let’s say.

Pete Enns  

No, I don’t think it’s fair at all. I think it’s, you’re gonna start looking for things to justify what you already think. I would rather say, is there wisdom in our tradition that we can engage today for understanding a problem that they never envisioned? 

Jared Byas  

Well said.

Pete Enns  

Are we done with the podcast now? That’s it?

Pete Enns  

That’s it. But that’s my opinion. And I know that might not be super popular, but you know, I don’t look at abortion, for example, as a biblical issue in terms of there are passages, you know? You know, people have tried. And it’s not that the Bible informs their understanding of abortion, it’s that their understanding of abortion drives them to read the Bible in a certain way. And I just want to say to that, just let’s be aware of what we’re doing, right? There may be other reasons for some people to be really against abortion. But those are, let’s say, more ethical reasons, or I’m going to even say theological reasons, the way you understand God, or the nature of life, or things like that, or human freedom, you know? I mean, there are different angles to come at that. But you can’t find a verse to address this problem the way we understand it today. Because it’s the problem the way we understand it today. 

Jared Byas  

That’s it. Yeah, maybe another way of saying it is the Bible doesn’t address modern moral questions, because it’s neither a modern nor a moral book. And so, again, it comes down to what is the Bible? When we ask the question, what does the Bible say about x, we’ve already assumed that it has something directly to say to us today in the modern world, and that it’s geared toward this moral or ethical purpose.

Pete Enns  

Right. And I think a way of expressing the idea is, I mean, probably many of you have heard people talk about the “biblical teaching on.” The Bible is teaching something—well that’s making a lot of assumptions that it’s there to teach us about X, Y, and Z. And it teaches us about, well, what’s it teaching us? It’s teaching us whatever the Bible wants to talk about. It’s there for—it becomes our authoritative guide. And I do want to suggest that if that’s the case, we really should be Six Day Creationists. I think Genesis 1 is teaching that from the perspective of this writer (that’s my important qualification), that creation is a six-day affair with a seventh day of rest. It’s morning and evening. I take from the point of view of the writer, I take that to be somewhat a plain statement. It’s just that today we have to wrestle with things like science, you know? And how do we do that? So I don’t want to put science onto Genesis 1 and say it’s talking about Day Age Theory, you know, that is talking about epochs and evolution and stuff.

Jared Byas  

If we really understood what the original authors meant, we would know that they meant a day is an age.

Pete Enns  

Right. And the only thing driving us is not the text itself, it’s our need to have the Bible teach us. Right? So what we’ve actually done, though, is not adhere to biblical teaching, we’ve actually imposed our conclusions onto the biblical texts. That, I mean, I think that’s not uncommon. Who doesn’t do that on some level? But it’s about being hermeneutically aware. Oh, wait a minute—I just did that, didn’t I? So what are the implications of that? So, you know, I think there are so many topics like this. Abortion is one, and creation is one, and you mentioned immigration.

Jared Byas  

Yeah, immigration, where we talk about—just with a lot of refugee crises and things like that. It is like we’re going back to the Bible to support our activities and actions. And I think sometimes I cringe regardless of where the argument is, whether it’s my position or a position I disagree with, when we (what I would call it) disrespect the original intentions of the text where it’s clear, at least in my mind, that this isn’t what this is talking about.

Pete Enns  

Whatever it’s about, it’s not about this.

Jared Byas  

Right. And sometimes it’s just even a practical reality of: how could it be? It’s a modern problem. It’s a construct that we deal with, the idea of political like nation states is different.

Pete Enns  

Exactly right, yeah, right.

Jared Byas  

Policies are different. And so I don’t know what we gain from that, other than maybe it’s this holdover of treating the Bible—and I say holdover more from a progressive standpoint—I think from a more fundamentalist, religious perspective, it is this—but thinking of the Bible as this authoritative thing, out of which we have to ground all of our moral decisions in it.

14:58

Pete Enns  

Because it essentially speaks directly to us today.

Jared Byas  

And so I do, I think sometimes I can be maybe even harder on my progressive friends. Because it seems like they’re still doing that, even though they don’t even hold that view of the Bible anymore. It’s almost like this hangover.

Pete Enns  

Yes, right.

Jared Byas  

It’s maybe like a hermeneutical hangover.

Pete Enns  

Or carryover? 

Jared Byas  

Yeah, where we still have to, have to, ground it…

Pete Enns  

Of course they’re drinking, probably, because they’re progressive. So, that’s fine. 

Jared Byas  

So that’s just a literal hangover. That’s not the hermeneutical kind. 

Pete Enns  

[Light laughter]

Jared Byas  

So yeah, and I think it’s worth bringing up because it reminds me a little bit of Nietzsche—where, you know, Nietzsche kind of says we’re still in the modern world, we’re still operating as though there’s a God. And I don’t know if you guys realize that yet. Like, once you realize that we’ve killed God, this is like, this is gonna be pretty scary. Like, you can’t ground it in this anymore. And I feel like sometimes, as progressive Christians, they will do that too. Where it’s like, no, you realize you got rid of that authoritative understanding of the Bible, and yet you’re still kind of trying to ground all of your ethical and moral proclamations in it. 

Pete Enns  

That’s right, yeah. Yeah. 

Jared Byas  

And I just don’t know if that’s being intellectually honest. 

Pete Enns  

It’s not being intellectually dishonest.

Jared Byas  

Or maybe not aware.

Pete Enns  

I think it’s more not aware. I think it’s more of a reflex, you know, and I think sometimes, you know, what happens with a lot of people, they have the crises of faith because they become aware. It’s not because you know, they’d read some book and that made them become godless or something, just that you became aware. And that’s true deconstruction, you know? They became aware of the faults within their own system and said, “Oh, crap, what do I do now?” Right?

So I mean, but you know, back to the original author thing. You know, it’s important with respect to, you know, refugees, for example. The Israelites weren’t refugees when they came out of Egypt. They were delivered by God. And the only reason they hung out for 40 years is because they were disobedient, but they had a land they were going to. They were by definition not refugees, they were going back to a land that they claimed as their own, right? Jesus was not a refugee when he, you know, the Holy Family was going down to Bethlehem. 

Jared Byas  

Down to Egypt.

Pete Enns  

Well, first down, you know, to be born. And then you know, but then going down to Egypt. It was a flight, but it was not in any respect a “refugee status” like we think of today. But again, see, the thing is that—I think that personally, we should be really willing, especially a rich country should really have their arms open wide to help people who are suffering under political regimes. I’m just saying, I don’t think I need the Bible verse to support that. What I think, I mean—and you feel free to disagree, Jared—but I think what can support that is a broader engagement of, let’s say, Christian theology over the ages. And not just Christian, but Jewish theology too, and if you want to throw in other religious faiths, go right ahead. But I think there are other rationales for why we should be against refugees instead of a biblicistic one, because that I don’t think that’s, that’s just making the text a tool for what we already think.

Jared Byas  

Yeah, I think that’s often what we do. Right? The Bible is a tool. Even if you come back to thinking about what I’m hearing you say in the context of that Wesleyan quadrilateral that we bring up quite a bit, is to say, we may come to the conclusion that as Christians, we should maybe have this policy toward refugees. And when we say that, I feel like the conservative Protestant answer, the answer I would have gotten: “The reason we can do that is because we have a straight beeline to the Bible.”

Pete Enns  

Right.

Jared Byas  

But actually, the quadrilateral is helpful to say, “No, but what does our tradition say historically? What does our experience say? What does reason say?” Those all can be theological. That can all be because we’re Christians. It’s just that this, this hyper sola scriptura that we got handed to us, has caused us not to be able to see how valuable all those other things are.

Pete Enns  

Right. Forgive the hobbyhorse moment here. But this is, you know—the history of Judaism is not a simplistic thing, just like Christianity isn’t. But you ask a Jew, even a conservative Jew, “What do we do about this ethical issue?” and they’re not going to run to find a prooftext in their scripture. They’ll anchor something there, but there’s a whole Jewish Talmudic discussion that has happened (and not just Talmudic, but beyond that) to basically inform them because the faith is always anchored, but it’s always evolving and changing too—because times change. And situations change. And it’s that in creative engagement with a text—see, that’s, I love that! 

Jared Byas

Right. 

19:54

Pete Enns  

And as sort of a creative engagement with trajectories of the text. But I want to understand those trajectories as much as possible as coming out of…the biblical writer was saying something for that moment. How can we bring that into conversation with our own moment in time? And I think that’s the discussion that’s been a part of Judaism and Christianity for probably 2500 years. 

Jared Byas  

Yeah, you know what two words come to mind when you described it that way? Which I think, I’ve been looking for these maybe principles, and I think a few of them are coming into focus. One, we’ve mentioned it, is awareness. I think one thing I like about the crea—the way that I often engage with Jewish writers, in their creative interpretations, is they’re all very self-aware of what they’re doing. They’re not pretending to anchor that creative interpretation in the Torah. They are very self aware that they are tagging this on to the end of a very rich history of tradition, and creative reengagement with that text over time. So I think awareness is critical. And I think Christians often lack that awareness because we were taught that that’s not okay to do. So we do it, we just pretend we don’t do it. So we’re incentivized not to be self aware of what we’re doing, because it would actually make it less-than if we did that. But the second I think, is, and this is a word I think we’ll hear more and more from you about, is adaptable. It’s that the Jewish engagement often is more adaptable to new data, new understandings. There’s a mechanism where we can fold in new information into our tradition, that I think, at least fundamentalists, as I would have grown up with, we would have not had that adaptability. Our faith isn’t resting on how do we engage in modern problems in faithful ways? It is, how do we impose the once-for-all truth we have on our culture? Which does not lead to adaptability. There’s no need for it! What are we adapting to if we have the truth?

Pete Enns  

It’s also dangerous to do that. 

Jared Byas  

Well, and you can even hear it in the language when I say we impose. There is almost a colonizing impulse built into that.

Pete Enns  

Mhmm. Right. And it becomes a power tool, and that’s one of the downsides, one of the dangers of not doing, let’s say, the contextual work of trying to understand these texts. Again, bringing those texts into different situations historically, that’s difficult to do. And people write commentaries, and people have traditions of how they do that. But still, to work with a historical meaning, let’s say, as best as we can tell—at least again, it’s not so much, “This is the one historical meaning.” But there’s some that you just have to rule out.

Jared Byas  

Right.

Pete Enns  

You know, the Bible is not talking about X. You can use this passage if you want to, to talk about something you already think is true, but let’s not kid ourselves. We’re not getting that from this text. You know, and I mean for me, one of the things I’ve been thinking about recently because I’ve looking at some scientific things for this book that I just finished—and don’t get too happy about that, because I don’t really know science very well—but I’ll talk about it for several chapters in my book.

Jared Byas  

So yeah, knowing about stuff hasn’t stopped you from talking about it.

Pete Enns  

Never, never. I’ve made a career out of it, actually. So, but it’s, you know, it’s creation care, climate change, and things like that, which I think are very, very real. And I think Christians should be very, they should be on the forefront of saying this planet is a gift, what are we doing? And I don’t think we need to anchor that in the biblical principle or a biblical verse. I don’t think giving humans dominion over the planet is supportive of climate change activism. I don’t think things like the Year of Jubilee is, you know, where you sort of let the land regroup a little bit. I don’t think that’s about caring for the planet, because the whole point is to care for the Israelites. You want to have good crops and stuff, just let the land lie fallow for a year and then start up again. So I don’t think there’s a need to sort of connect this, you know, Paul, creation is groaning, waiting for the revelation of the sons of God or whatever the passages in Romans 8. Again, that’s a very theological eschatological statement, I don’t see what that has to do remotely with climate change. But I still think it’s a very true and real thing, but for a different sort of sets of reasons. And one of which is just bringing evolution into it right at the outset. 

We’re all connected. Every living thing has DNA. I don’t quite get how it works. But it’s adenine, thymine, guanine, cytosine, they’re all grouped together, but in different orders, and in different, like, numbers of genes and all that kind of stuff that I don’t understand. But we’re all connected! You know, we have like, what is it, 99% of apes DNA we share. I think, mice, it’s like 75%. You know, I did not know this until I started reading, but we share 50% of our DNA with cabbage. Think about that. Which explains to me why some of my students can fail an open note test—but that’s another issue entirely. 

25:09

Pete Enns  

So the point is that, here’s one reason why we should care for a planet: we’re all, all of life has the same code. We’re all—Plants, you know? Bugs. Everything. We’re so connected, and if we are the most conscious of beings, and we are, for that reason we have a responsibility to do the abstract thinking necessary to advocate for this world that we live in. But I do not need a Bible verse to do that, because that’s taking things—I think that’s expecting the Bible to do too much. And the bottom line is that I don’t care if the Bible said the opposite, I would still want to do this. You know? Because I think it’s true and right. And I think it’s, you know, I don’t expect biblical writers 2,000 years ago to have even had a conversation about this.

Jared Byas  

So I think even in the way that you’re saying that, it makes assumptions about what the Bible is, because again—I just keep, I can’t get out of my head my presuppositionalism. Right? Which is this idea in some of, I think both of our backgrounds, of, “What grounds you to even say that something is right and true? If you don’t have the Bible as this infallible grounding, why should I believe you when you say that we should advocate for creation?” You know, why should I? And so I think that perfectionist thinking, that we have to have this infallible grounding for anything we know and do on a moral front, is often what’s feeding this desire to go ground it in the text.

Pete Enns  

And I understand the argument. I mean, it’s a good thing to have. 

Jared Byas

Oh, yeah. Sure. 

Pete Enns

But the problem is: “If you don’t have the Bible, how are you going to ground your morality?” And my response is, “Are you asking me to ground my morality in the Bible?” Because there are a lot of things there, you know, I mean, the Bible assumes the continuation of slavery.

Jared Byas  

Yeah, if you do truly ground your morality in the Bible in a plain way, it’s likely that you will get arrested soon.

Pete Enns  

Right! And you should be, you know, and for a very long time. But you know, the response is, like, for example, okay—slavery. Even in the New Testament, it’s assumed by Paul, right? But people say, “Yeah, but that’s not a biblical teaching.” Well, what is it then? A suggestion? You know, how do we determine teaching? And that’s a very slippery thing, because a teaching—something gets the label “a teaching” if it’s deemed consistent with a certain theological outlook, right?

Jared Byas  

Well, there’s already a filter by which we’re deciding…

Pete Enns  

The filters are always there. 

Jared Byas  

Right.

Pete Enns  

They’re always there. Even a literal interpretation, that’s a filter, and you don’t interpret everything literally. And you have reasons why you don’t do that. So the Bible becomes more of a conversational resource really, than this authoritative thing that is determining all these, let’s say, ethical questions. And of course what started this whole conversation is that trying to respect…Let’s not say the author’s intention, because it’s hard to nail, but just the other worldness and antiquity of it. Respecting that, will at least make us very self-conscious about what we’re doing when we’re sort of imposing our own agenda onto the Bible. And that when somebody says, “I think you’re imposing a modern agenda on the Bible,” at least we should take a moment to reflect on that and to pause and to say, “You know, I didn’t think, I guess maybe I am. I wasn’t sure that I was doing that.”

Jared Byas  

Yeah, that that space of humility that allows us to say, “You know what, you might be right. Let me do a little more investigating into that.” How am I maybe projecting my own agenda? And, again, those intentions aren’t always malicious. 

Pete Enns  

Yeah, right. 

Jared Byas

Those intentions are often: I want to do good, and I feel like I need to ground it in the Bible. 

Pete Enns  

That this is the only way I know how to do good.

Jared Byas  

Right. “I have to ground it in the Bible, and that motivates me and inspires me to do that.” I just think that we don’t, you know, two wrongs don’t make a right, so to speak. Like you don’t, you don’t have to do it that way to be motivated. We can be grounded in the broader Christian tradition. There are a lot of good things to say about that. And I think learning to allow that to be a good enough grounding, for me, is more of the work to do.

Pete Enns  

A less absolutist kind of grounding, but one that’s more, maybe, willing to be in conversation. And that’s what you know, the Wesleyan quadrilateral, again, is really quite a striking bit of wisdom. “Well, it doesn’t tell you what to do…” Of course it doesn’t, that’s the whole point. But you’re engaged in community, thinking about reason and tradition and Scripture and…

Jared Byas 

Experience. 

29:53

Pete Enns  

Experience. Thank you. The big one, yeah. And you know, the three-legged stool of the Episcopal Church is a very similar notion. But, so scripture is there, and it’s there for a reason. You can’t get away from scripture, and you shouldn’t want to, but it’s not like a plain reading of the Bible that gives you theological knowledge. It’s who you are as a person, it’s when and where you were born, it’s the influences of your life, it’s your ability to exercise reason. And an example of exercising reason for me is…I understand why Genesis 1 talks about creation the way that it does, because it’s an ancient document and it’s participating in an ancient world, and it’s how people understood things. I’ve just applied reason to that. “You’ve explained it away!” No, I haven’t explained it away. If you take that literally, you’re explaining it away! Right? But we can have a reasonable discussion on that, and it’ll be a lot determined by our larger worldviews or experiences or traditions and all that kind of stuff. 

Jared Byas  

Yeah, and I think it does go back to, you know, we use this word “worldview,” which, given my background in Christian higher education, makes me shudder a little bit. But I do think there is something to say for—we come to the table always and already with some perspective of how the world works, what principles are at play. So it is this—we can’t get away from that, we will always have it. But I do feel like there’s this mutual movement, where we’re always interpreting the world by it. But we’re also able to create these little spaces. And this is why I think maybe we both are so interested in humility and curiosity, because I think those are good tools to open this space, where our experience of the world can actually critique our worldview. And shift it just a little bit. And that’s that mutual interplay. If we’re not aware, there’s that word again, that we have a worldview, that we have a perspective on the world, then we won’t ever have that space that can critique that worldview or that perspective.

Pete Enns  

And then there’s a commercial for deconstruction, because deconstruction can make you aware of the inadequacy of your current worldview. That doesn’t mean you try to jump for the perfect one, you just take that journey and see where it goes and grow as a human being as a result without achieving absolute knowledge.

Jared Byas  

So at the risk—I want to have a real live example here, because as we’re talking, I keep drawing connections to the Adam and Eve story, as we’re talking about this. And so I almost hesitate to bring it up, because I’m like, well, maybe I’m doing the very thing we’re talking about here. But again, for me, it’s illustrative. It is a, it’s content that we can use to sharpen our understanding, to be thinking about things. And I think we do this with literature and with story all the time. And so I think I want to bring it more into well, not that we can’t do that. It’s just that what if we did it more on the level like, I make all these other connections culturally between literature and movies and other things that enrich how I see the world. That’s why we have these stories. And so I think it’s not that we don’t want to draw connections between our experience and the experiences we find in the Bible, it’s that we want to be aware of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. And maybe it needs to change, because the way I understood those connections in the past didn’t allow for differences of opinion. Didn’t allow for humility. Didn’t allow for curiosity and creativity. It didn’t allow for these things that now I think are important to being Christian. 

Pete Enns  

Yeah, you know, over the past few days I just read a short story by Tolstoy called “The Death of Ivan Ilyich.” A friend of mine said, you gotta read this, so I read it. It was fantastic. But the thing is that I, throughout, I was connecting it to my own existence. But I was doing so recognizing that I’m reading a late 19th century Russian novel, and I was trying to imagine that moment, that space, even the names themselves. And I imagined them, and the way houses I imagined were decorated back then in the 19th century, right? And the kind of like, there was this whole upward mobility, success orientation at which I could connect to mine. But theirs were different, because they had different titles for where these people went on each stage of their success. And my point is that I actually connected with it, by letting it be that other story back there and not saying like, “Well, this means me. This means my time.” Right? And, you know, reading “The Lord of the Rings,” the same thing, you know, you get a lot out of it. And boy, the riders of Rohan were so brave going after the orcs, but I’m not thinking, “who are the orcs in my life?” I’m not thinking, “I want to get a horse.” I’m just saying, you know, it’s something that story makes me think about my life differently. Right? Now, the Bible does that too. And of course, the question—and a legitimate question people would raise—is what makes the Bible any different? I think it’s because of the content of the story more than anything, but it’s not that it has this immediate connection to us. We have to work at it. And part of that working at it is trying to under—just let the Bible be this ancient thing. And then how do we connect to our reality? But we’re not taught to read the Bible that way, most of us.

Jared Byas  

And again, for me, we talk about having a high view of Scripture is often assumed to be that direct connection. And I think what I’ve learned is a high view of Scripture for me, is respecting the otherness of it. Respecting Paul for who Paul was, in the world that Paul lived in. For me, that’s treating the Bible with respect. And it’s ironic that, by doing that, I’m often accused of disrespecting the Bible. Like, the respectable thing to do is just to, is to consume Paul and Jesus and the New Testament and the Old Testament, and put it under my experience, rather than just letting it be what it is and having a relationship with it.

Pete Enns  

And I think what’s wrapped up in that is the notion of biblical authority. If you have that direct connection, you can have biblical authority. But I know Jared, you’ve talked about this, too, I forgot what book it is you were talking about, it might even have been Tolkien. But how reading these stories when they have an effect on us, there is a sense in which that story has authority. You know? It’s forcing the question of us to examine our own existence. I think the Bible does quite a bit of that actually, if you sort of get away from the, you know, “for my morning devotions, what am I supposed to get out of the coup of Jehu in 2 Kings?” or something like that? Probably nothing, by the way. But, you know, just reading that story, I put myself in their antiquity and I say to myself, I don’t want to be that way. But that story is still having an effect on me. That’s a very Jewish conclusion, in a sense. I’m not expecting it to be authoritative for my life, in that sort of a directional kind of way, but just shaping a conversation about how I think about my own humanity. Which is not secular advice. I mean, our humanity is a very precious thing, and Christians should be at the forefront of saying that sort of thing, as far as I’m concerned. 

Jared Byas  

Right. So as we come to a close here, I think for me that the takeaway, the thing that I frankly, I think I learned through processing this with you in this episode, are these two ideas of awareness and adaptability. That we do have a framework when we’re reading the Bible. And for me, I want to grow in the awareness of that framework, and I want that framework to be adaptable. Because I think that’s what allows me to, again, for me, that’s what allows me to keep a “Christian” understanding of the Bible.

Pete Enns  

Right. And I think, you know, my last little statement here jumps right off of that, that what you’re talking about is the history of Christianity and Judaism. And they weren’t inerrantists looking for the Bible to answer all of their questions. It was a different approach, and the adaptability was always there. And I think that’s something for people to sort of embrace and just take home with them—that the kind of discussion we’re having, half the stuff we said might be crazy. I don’t know. But the discussion that we’re having is, absolutely integral to the nature of the Christian faith and frankly, for a lot of people continuing on this path. Because if you don’t—listen to the James Kugel episodes, and others, you know—the reason that this stuff has survived is because it’s been adapted. It has moved, it’s not stood still, it’s moved along with the people. And I think that’s a good thing to hold onto. It’s actually very orthodox. It’s very incarnational in its thinking. And, you know, we’re not weird for talking like this. We’re actually pretty normal Christians,

Jared Byas  

Right. We fit within that tradition.

Pete Enns  

The Bible for Normal People. 

Jared Byas  

Exactly. 

Pete Enns  

This is it.

Jared Byas  

All right. Thanks, everyone.

Pete Enns  

See you folks.

[Music begins]

Stephanie Speight   

Well, that’s it for this episode of the Bible For Normal People. Before you go, we want to give a huge shout-out to our producers group who support us over on Patreon. If you’d like to help support the podcast, you can leave us a review or just tell others about our show. You can also head over to patreon.com/theBiblefornormalpeople, where for as little as $3/month, you can receive bonus material, be part of an online community, get course discounts, and much more. We couldn’t do what we do without your support. 

Dave Gerhart  

Our show is produced by Stephanie Speight, audio engineer Dave Gerhart, Creative Director Tessa Stultz, Marketing Director Savannah Locke, and Web Developer Nick Striegel. For Pete, Jared, and the entire Bible For Normal People team, thanks for listening.

[Music ends]

[BEEP]

Jared Byas  

I lost track of time. When are we supposed to be done? I think we should be done about now.

Pete Enns  

I think so too. Yeah.

[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.