Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

Interview with Joe Gordon- A Conversation About Inspiration

In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete and Jared talk with Joe Gordon about the ideas behind biblical inspiration as they explore the following questions:

  • What does it mean for the Bible to be “inspired”?
  • What is the Bible useful for?
  • What does the Bible share with Creation?
  • How has inspiration been understood throughout church history?
  • Is the Bible a unique experience of God?
  • What are the Holy Spirit’s interests and end goals?
  • Why is understanding the Holy Spirit important for understanding the Bible?
  • Is looking at the Bible as a historical document helpful in understanding the Bible as inspired?
  • What is the rule of faith?
  • Why does the Bible need to be located in the work of God in history?
  • How do we hold the belief that the Bible is inspired with the fact that Christians have different canons of Scripture?
  • What reasons should we have for interpreting Scripture?


Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Joe Gordon you can share. 

  • “What God does in creation is call something into being that’s not God, that is enormously diverse and strange and challenging.“ @JosephKGordon
  • “A further way to think fruitfully about inspiration instead of insisting that its authors are puppets or marionettes that are being moved to and fro by God… we could instead think of it within an account of the broader mission of the Holy Spirit.” @JosephKGordon
  • “Objectivity, or getting things right, actually is a result of being a certain kind of person, a transformed, changed kind of person who wonders and raises questions and seeks out answers to those questions and defers to the wisdom of communities.” @JosephKGordon
  • “We need every resource that we can avail ourselves of to get to the objectivity, to get to the truth.” @JosephKGordon
  • “I think it’s absolutely necessary to affirm the authentic advances and understanding that historical critical work has made [in the study of the Bible].” @JosephKGordon

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: Hey everyone. Welcome to this episode of The Bible for Normal People. Our topic today is a conversation about inspiration and our guest is Joe Gordon. He teaches at Johnson University.

Jared: Yeah, and he wrote a book called Divine Scripture in Human Understanding and trying to create a theology of the Christian Bible, and that’s a tall order.

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: That’s a difficult task. So, we talk about some of these big picture things that maybe we’ve talked about or touched on in the past, like, inspiration, you know. What is the Bible? What do we do with it? So, it was a good conversation to draw out what are some of the issues and some of the challenges that we run into if we let the Bible be what it is.

Pete: Yeah, and still think of it as somehow inspired and that’s a tricky term and maybe we have to learn to define words like that very differently than we were raised to do. So, this is, I mean, this is a conversation that doesn’t end, folks. This is like, what is the Bible and what do we do with it? This is just another angle of coming at it and, yeah, it’s a conversation that doesn’t end.

Jared: Yeah, and it’s a good voice to have as part of that conversation, so let’s jump in with Joe Gordon.

[Music begins]

Joe: Folks interpreting scripture, the ones who do it the best, I think are not fundamentally interested in exclusively interpreting scripture. They’re instead interested in knowing God, knowing themselves, and knowing history. They’re interested in discerning what God might be doing.

[Music ends]

Pete: Well, welcome Joe, to our podcast. Great to have you!

Joe: It’s great to be here, thank you.

Pete: Yeah. So where are you now? What state are you in?

Joe: I am in the lovely state of Tennessee, just south of Knoxville, Tennessee.

Pete: Are you staying isolated and socially distanced?

Joe: I am.

Pete: Yeah.

Joe: Very isolated in east Tennessee, yes.

Pete: Yes. Can it get more isolated?

Joe: I think it would be kind of hard to, actually.

Pete: Yeah.


Joe: We’re out in the middle in the wilderness.

Pete: Oh, wow! That’s pretty cool. So, listen, we are really excited to talk with you about the Bible, because that’s sort of what we do here, and you know, lot of people who listen to this podcast, they listen because they struggle with the Bible and how to wrap their heads around big concepts like what does it even mean to talk about this thing as the word of God or anything, or what do you mean by inspired? And I read it as just sort of, difficult and weird, and ancient and out of touch, and you know, so maybe, let’s talk about this thing first. You wrote a book and, you know, we can talk about that later, but you know, when you think about topics like the Bible and how inspiration works, I think often times people are trying to speak into something that they see could be done better, you know? So, like, there’s a problem they’re trying to solve. So, what would you say is the problem that you’re trying to get a handle on in your book?

Joe: So, it’s a long journey, and I will shorten it for the sake of time, but I grew up, at least from middle school on, in a church context, a Christian church, and I came to love scripture through that experience. I had some calling to ministry and so I went to a Bible college and one of the stated goals I had whenever I went to the school that I went to was to get the Bible right, because I had seen so many people, I thought, get it wrong. So, I was going to take my two years of Hebrew –

Pete: [Laughter]


Joe: Two and a half years of Greek, and courses surveying basically most everything in both testaments and I was going to get it right! And I had such a wonderful experience at that school, Johnson Bible College was the name of it then, now it’s Johnson University, where I teach, by the way. I discovered so many things about scripture and its richness and its humanity, but it raised a lot of theological questions for me that I couldn’t answer solely on the basis of my work with the languages and in those survey and exegesis courses. So, then I sort of jumped ship in graduate school and went to theology, specifically. And long story short, I could not get away from the questions that I had about scripture, about what its purpose was, about how it could both reflect the rich, varied, diverse humanity of its many authors and also still be received as a gift from God with a message from God. The questions just kept coming back to me, so then when it came time for me to write my doctoral dissertation, that’s what I focused on. I wanted to focus on how to interpret scripture responsibly, but I discovered there’s a problem that I faced at first. And that was, I should get an account of what the Bible is down before I move onto questions about what to do with it.

Pete: Sounds simple enough.


Joe: Right. Yeah, so, you know, four hundred and thirty short pages later, I have offered one articulation of the nature and purpose of scripture. What I tried to do, what I hope that I’ve done, is give an account of scripture that both measures up to its rich, diverse, sometimes even strange, perplexing humanity, but also finds a way to receive it as a gift from God for God’s work in the world for God’s people. So, that’s what the book that you’ve mentioned is all about.

Pete: Okay.

Jared: Okay, well, let’s jump right in, because this language of, I’m not going to let you off the hook with the language –

Pete: Yeah!

Jared: A gift.

Pete: Not letting you off the hook, Joe!

Joe: No! Don’t let me off the hook.

Pete: We’re not. We will not. Don’t you worry.

Jared: I meant it much more nicely than Pete is stating that, but you know this idea of receiving it as a gift from God, that evokes this language of, in my tradition, would have been inspiration. That somehow, it’s inspired from God and whatever we mean by that, that it comes from God.

Joe: Mm hmm.

Jared: It’s received as a gift. So, what, you talked about the diversity and the richness of the diversity. How do you square a book that comes from God with diversity?

Pete: Well, that’s sort of his whole book.

Joe: Exactly.

Pete: [Laughter]

Joe: It really is the whole book. It really is the whole book. It’s a great question.

Pete: Well, I’m just, before you answer, because I want to just echo what Jared was saying from a slightly different perspective. For a lot of people, that is the question, because you’re taught that inspiration has to mean a certain kind of thing, and then you read the Bible and you don’t find that thing there at all.

Joe: Mm hmm.

Pete: You find historical particularity, you find context, you find contradictions, tensions, diversity, multiple voices, and, I mean, that is a great topic to be thinking about, because that’s, I mean, a lot of people struggle with any sense of respect for scripture when they see it acting in a certain way. So, yeah. That’s sort of maybe, you know, another angle of coming at that. So, go ahead.

Joe: Yeah.

Pete: Explain it. Answer it.

Joe: Answer it, right. So, this is just a systematic theology of the Christian Bible. It’s very important to acknowledge it is “a”, not “the” systematic theology of the Christian Bible. But the question of inspiration is a really, really important question. What God does in creation is call something into being that’s not God that is enormously diverse and strange and challenging. And so, I don’t see the diversity and strangeness and challengingness of scripture as different than that. Although, it is different than creation. But, you noted that the people have often received an idea of inspiration and then they come to scripture and they discover that it doesn’t behave, to use language that Pete has used, in the ways that they have been taught to expect it to behave. Well, there’s a simple solution for that. Come up with a better understanding of inspiration.

Pete: [Laughter]


Joe: Don’t have bad understandings of inspiration. And the starting place for that is from within Christian theological tradition, which is where I start the book. Understanding that everything that is in creation comes from God, and scripture is a thing among those created things coming from God. And so, it makes perfect sense for it to reflect other kinds of characteristics that you would expect of created realities, the diversity, again, the challenging, perplexing strangeness. So, a further way to think fruitfully about inspiration instead of insisting that its authors are puppets or marionettes that are being moved to and fro by God, which is a common idea of inspiration in church history. We could instead think of it within an account of the broader mission of the Holy Spirit. Instead of trying to nail it down as a certain kind of thing that comes from God in a certain kind of way, we could ask questions about what the Holy Spirit is characteristically up to, what the Spirit is interested in, what the Spirit’s ends and goals are. And of course, you know, there’s a rich witness to the Spirit’s work, and the Spirit’s goals in both testaments. And so, that’s one of the ways that I try to approach the challenge.

Pete: So, the Spirit more than just, like, inspiring the Bible in some ill-defined way, it’s working within these weird contours of the Bible, like, respecting all that stuff we talked about before. Okay.

Joe: Yes. Yeah, absolutely.

Jared: So, in some ways, what I’m hearing you say, I want to try to articulate this. On the one hand, we have what I would say, maybe, kind of the natural theology of the Bible. In my tradition, we would have separated it out. Like, the Bible is special revelation. God somehow, like, special language and word, it’s different from how God reveals God’s self, say, in nature in all of those other ways. But I hear you putting those together and saying, hey, everything that God makes is God’s, and all of that is part of creation and the Bible fits in within that. And so, what, you know, how do we, why do we separate this special thing out when it’s all part of the creation? And then secondly, I hear, not only that, and I don’t want to put words in your mouth, so you can correct me, but, from my perspective, and kind of my training, almost like, a pragmatic understanding that we actually, you said, first, let’s get what the Bible is down, then, lets figure out what we do with it.

Joe: Mm hmm.

Jared: But when we take a more spiritual or spirit-based understanding, it’s almost, what’s the Spirit doing with it is actually more of the starting place.

Joe: Yeah, you could see what the Spirit is doing with it as the starting place. You can get into other problems if that’s the primary motive of approach. So, I take other ones besides that, but it is very practically focused in that famous text in 2 Timothy, whether Paul or somebody else wrote it, it doesn’t matter as much to me, but it’s still an important canonized inspired text. We read all of scripture as God-breathed, theopneustos is the Greek word and useful, useful for teaching, correcting, rebuking, and training in righteousness. The author of that text doesn’t define what it means for scripture to be God-breathed. Unless we see usefulness as part of it, a definition for it, and then the question is, well, what is it useful for? And that’s where my discussion of the characteristic work of the Holy Spirit comes in. It’s useful for the kinds of things that God’s spirit intends to do in the world. So, and then, again, that gets filled in from a number of other different angles.

Jared: Well, I think that’s important, and the reason I make that point is because there’s this, it seems to be there’s an assumption that we have to figure out what the Bible is in some abstract way, and that’s a very Western way of thinking about the world. Like, lets figure it out in some objective, non-biased, impartial sense, and then we can figure out how to apply it. And I just think there’s some merit to saying, well, what about, how do we use it as being more of the starting place and not being so concerned with what is it in some abstract sense. And so, I appreciate what you’re saying, I hear the sense of, what is it useful for? How is the Spirit of God using this tool, maybe one of many tools that the Spirit of God is using in the world, and how do we begin to kind of catch that train and ride it?


Joe: Yeah, yeah. That’s nicely put. I do want to say, though, I’m not wholly opposed to abstraction or even an ideal of objectivity that some of the other things that you just mentioned, I don’t care for philosophically. But I think that objectivity is possible. It’s not possible through the removal of biases though. It’s not possible apart from subjectivity. Objectivity, or getting things right, actually is a result of being a certain kind of person, a transformed, changed kind of person who wonders and raises questions and seeks out answers to those questions and defers to the wisdom of communities. That’s what I think objectivity results from. I don’t actually, I want to make a stronger claim than that. It’s not just that I think that’s what objectivity results from, that’s what objectivity results from.

Jared: So, there’s a sense of, in which we need the diversity of different contexts in order to get to this objectivity. Is that an implication of what you’re saying?

Joe: Yeah! Absolutely, it is. We need every resource that we can avail ourselves of to get to the objectivity, to get to the truth. So, and I would argue that the drive towards that, the desire for that, is actually built into our nature. It’s something that God, it’s another gift that God gives to us. God intends for us to know, to grow, to wonder, to raise questions, to have insights, to be transformed, to transcend our limited perspectives as we encounter and raise questions and grow in our understanding.

Pete: Well, okay. So, here’s something that I can hear people wondering about how you process something here. How does, the world of modern biblical scholarship, which has been around for, you know, two, three hundred years, maybe four hundred years depending on how you look at it, has really dug into history and tried to uncover what happened and things like that. How valuable is that, or can that be valuable when you turn to the topic of the Bible being inspired? Or are they just at odds, you know? Because modern biblical scholarship does tend to see problems, and to peel those problems apart and to give explanations for why this is such a problem, and that seems to be not really consistent with thinking of the Bible as something that the eternal infinite Spirit of God would have inspired. How do you, can you bring those two worlds together?

Joe: Yeah, well, the only way to do it is very carefully, and I can’t say that I think I’ve done so either personally and especially not in the book itself. What I hope for, the book is more modest, that it provides a basis for thinking fruitfully about the results of historical, critical work, for evaluating them. Historical critics, of course, are people, right?

Pete: Mm hmm.

Joe: I mean, despite what you might think.

Pete: [Laughter]

Joe: You know, going to the SBL and seeing all these strange –

Jared: I mean, have you spent a lot of time with Pete? Or…

Pete: [Laughter]

Joe: Well…

Pete: [Continued laughter]

Joe: But I mean, they’re people. They have concerns and worries and questions and desires and fundamental commitments, both stated and unstated. The interesting thing about biblical scholarship is many folks who get into it out of a desire to enrich and enhance their faith. And then they bump into that problem that we’ve already identified; they discover that Scripture doesn’t actually match up with the ideal of inspiration that they’ve received. And then all sorts of things can happen in a person’s personal journey there. But what often has happened is that folks leave. They leave their faith. They leave specific communities that they had prior recognized as enriching their lives, and they move into other ones. Maybe other religious communities, maybe other Christian denominations or churches or maybe they leave entirely. And that needs to be, that needs attention. That should be considered carefully and reflected on by somebody like me who aspires to try to understand scripture as a gift from God.


Pete: Mm hmm.

Joe: Not everybody feels like they can receive it that way because of personal, you know, personal histories with it. But I think it’s possible, well, first of all, I think it’s absolutely necessary to affirm the authentic advances and understanding that historical critical work has made. There’s just no question about that. I was a little bit alarmed by many of those things whenever I was an undergraduate student, you know, studying the languages for the first time, being taken aback by discovering ancient near-eastern parallels to the Creation accounts in Genesis, for instance. You know, that was jarring to me, but once I started making those connections personally, I had to deal with those things, but the way in which I have personally dealt with them is to press deeper into the questions. So, maybe I received, I don’t even know that I could say somebody gave me an understanding of inspiration that I had, that I took. So, I had some understanding of inspiration that didn’t work out anymore. But I could still, from where I was, appreciate scripture and wonder is there a better way to think about this. Is there a better way to wonder about inspiration? Are there better ways of formulating it? And then, that opens you up to 2,000 years of Christian reflection on those things.

[Music begins]

[Producers group endorsement]

[Music ends]

Pete: Well and that’s, I mean, that was going to be my next sort of point to discuss with you, to see what you have to say about this whole history of the church and I know that you press really far back to, for conversation partners, I guess we could put it. And you mentioned a big issue for you seems to be something called the rule of faith.

Joe: Yeah.

Pete: So, can you explain that and what that means, and how something like really ancient can maybe even fit into discussions we’re having today, which are not just modern, but you know, post-modern.

Joe: Post-modern. Yup.

Pete: We’re all over the place, right?

Joe: Yeah, we are.

Pete: Go ahead.

Joe: Yeah, that’s a great question. Yeah. So, what I argue in the book is that in order to understand scripture, we need to locate it, and I locate it in a variety of locations. The second chapter locates scripture historically within the developing faith of the earliest Christians. So, the New Testament Christians are people too, right?

Pete: Mm hmm.

Joe: With their own cares and concerns and questions and commitments, and among those commitments, most fundamental, is the belief that the God of Israel has done something alarmingly new through Jesus of Nazareth, through his son, and then that newness continues through the work of the Spirit of God in the early Christian communities. And so, peppered throughout the New Testament are pretty alarming confessions about this, confessions comparing Christ’s work to the revelatory work of God in the Old Testament through the prophets and saying that something new is here.


And the early church maintains the same kinds of commitments that God has done this new thing through Jesus and through the Holy Spirit and it is pondering that and reflecting on that, and it does so for the rest of Christian history, but the rule of faith is a key moment in that development. It’s an attempt to assemble those various convictions about the work of God in history in a concise, straightforward way. So, the rule of faith basically is a confession. Often, it’s trinitarian confession, the work of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And it is a key feature in a lot of early Christian literature that sort of stands in as a summary of what Christians believe and it’s earlier than the cannon. It’s earlier than the completion, so to speak, or the gathering or the publication of the Bible itself. So, there’s a German scholar who I quote in the book, and he writes something very striking: “The earliest Christian martyrs died without ever having held a New Testament in their hands.”

Pete: Mmm.

Joe: They had this faith and this faith, they articulate it, they organized their beliefs in a rule, the rule of faith, and it served as an orienting context for their engagement with scripture, first with the Old Testament, the ancient Jewish scriptures, and then later even with their engagement with the New Testament, but they were interpreting scripture, which was itself being effectively assembled, in light of their belief in what God had done in the world through Jesus and the Holy Spirit. So, the path of this is that the Bible is located in the work of God in history. Historically, that was the case for the earliest church, and it’s been the case ever since then. So, in order to know what scripture is, it needs to be located in the work of God in history.

Jared: What’s the impact of that? Because I’m thinking about, okay, so, I’m thinking about 1 John, which is kind of like what we’ve seen, what we’ve heard, that’s what we’re proclaiming to you. And so, there’s this personal experience with the divine that ended up being codified in our New Testament and then I think of the history of the church, and there’s lots of experiences. And so, where does the Bible fit in terms of, I mean, I, the ultimate question I’m going to ask is what makes the Bible unique or exclusive in this way? Or is it set aside next to these other experiences of God that we have throughout history of people’s personal experiences with Jesus? And, so, yeah. That’s I think that’s my question of what’s the uniqueness now of our Bible and how do we interplay that with people’s personal stories that I would argue, like, it’s really important to read Saint Teresa of Avila and her experiences of God as well alongside our New Testament.

Joe: I would agree that it’s important to read Teresa and, you know, countless other major spiritual giants, theological giants, saints who themselves were reading scripture. Part of its uniqueness is that this is simply the collection of texts that Christians are, have been receiving, and will continue to receive as long as Christian faith exists. So, the uniqueness is, it’s not something that can be pinned down, I think, just as the uniqueness of inspiration can’t be pinned down. Because, you know, we keep talking about the Bible, right? But what cannon are we talking about right now?

Pete: Right.

Joe: You both are, I think, you both hail from Protestant traditions, I do as well. So, we’ve got sixty-six books, but I know that there are Catholics who are Christians, and Eastern Orthodox who are Christians, and Tewahedo Ethiopic Orthodox who are Christians, and their Bibles are all bigger than ours. So, one of the things I try to do in the book is try to give an account of scripture that can –

Pete: Handle that.

Joe: Yeah, that can handle that, that can somehow respect Christian practice and use of scripture with a Bible that, to be honest, looks quite a bit different than my own.


Jared: I appreciate you even saying that, because it does, for me, resonate that maybe something I haven’t really given a lot of consideration, but even Saint Teresa or whoever else we’re talking about, what were they using to shape, what shaped their experience of God would’ve been the Bible. That would’ve been often the constructs and language that they would’ve had available to them to make meaning of these other experiences.

Joe: Yeah, yeah. Hans Frei argued that the world was enclosed in scripture before modernity, and the various, you know, images and symbols and ideas throughout scripture really just shaped eastern and especially western culture, western thought. Especially for those folks, of course, who were devoted, monks and sisters and priests. Now, there are lots of, as you both well know, very unsavory things in those histories, but there’s richness in those histories. And that’s one of the things that I have appreciated especially the more I’ve studied the history of Christian interpretation of scriptures. How many folks have done it well, have discerned how the Spirit might be usefully using it in their own midst, in their own communities, in their own lives?

Pete: Yeah, I mean, because I mean, there are creative approaches to handling the Bible because it’s forming their reality. It’s not an abstract thing you sort of, it’s not a book you learn about, it’s a book you learn from.

Joe: Mm hmm.

Pete: And to do that, you sometimes have to get really creative with an ancient book that might not speak to somebody living in 650 AD or something like that.

Joe: Yeah.

Pete: It’s just tradition that sort of keeps giving, because people have to access it in certain ways and they have to be creative about it and they can’t, you know, it’s not about original meaning or something, it’s about how that book has been transformed again and again and again in the history of the church. Not to put words in your mouth, but that’s what I think you’re saying.

Joe: No, yeah. You’re picking up what I’m putting down.

Pete: Good.


Joe: But I would say even more than that –

Pete: Don’t get too radical here on us Joe…

Joe: Well, I mean, it’s, you know –

Pete: Go ahead.

Joe: It is –

Pete: You have our permission.

Joe: Is it radical in quite a few ways, I think. It’s not just that there’s this rich history of reflection. It’s that folks interpreting scripture, I think are not fundamentally the ones who do it the best, interested in exclusively interpreting scripture. They’re instead interested in knowing God, and knowing themselves and knowing history, knowing, and when I say history I don’t just mean, you know, dates. I don’t mean recording one thing after another. They’re interested in discerning what God might be doing in history. One of the convictions in the rule of faith, I argue, is this conviction you could find at the beginning of Ephesians. God has made known the mystery of his will, a plan for all times to reconcile all things whether in heaven and on earth in Jesus. Christians were reading scripture because it gave them access to an understanding of the reality of that work.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Joe: The reality of the work of God in the world, not just in the past, but in their own time.

Pete: So, we’re getting to, I think, what the purpose of the Bible is.

Joe: Yeah.

Pete: Yeah. And it’s, I mean, I think people would like, in a way, again, I don’t want to sort of paint a lot of people with one brush, but I’ve been there too so I understand this. To sort of say, well, of course we’ll do that. We’ll read the Bible to find out about God, but there are ways of doing that are not as helpful as opposed to other ways. You know? I want to find out about God, so now I have to have an inerrant Bible, because you have to have a Bible that has no tensions in it.

Joe: Yeah.

Pete: No, none of the messiness, none of the historical weirdness, none of the distance. It has to be very, immediately accessible to us in sort of a rational kind of way, but, I mean, you know much more about this than I do, but the history of the church has largely not been, well, modern. Right?

Joe: Right, yeah.

Pete: It’s been very different ways of looking at the Bible and therefore different ways of thinking about its inspired nature. I guess the question is what is it inspired for? Is it inspired to be historically accurate or is it inspired that in the struggle with it, perhaps, another word I’m adding here, but the struggle with it that we commune with God and that’s the ultimate goal of why you do any of this stuff anyway.


Joe: Yeah, I would say yes to the latter, but I don’t see them as entirely opposed. Now, historical accuracy is, you know, that’s a question for multiple other podcast discussions, but Christians have received it as usefully bearing witness to things that God has done in the world.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Joe: And, you know, those things that God has done matter. It matters for Christian faith whether Christ rose from the dead. I mean, you know, Paul states this explicitly at the end of 1 Corinthians. Now, what the resurrection actually means is another question. It is, I think, bodily if you read the New Testament witnesses, but you know, I have a body and I can’t just show up in a locked room. You know, whatever happens with Jesus, the church testifies very strongly that something happens, and that matters for faith. If Christ is not risen, Christian faith is in vain, or it needs to be, I would argue, reconceptualized in a way that doesn’t really resemble Christianity anymore.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Joe: So, what happened matters, but on the other side, the second thing you said I affirm wholeheartedly. So, and I’m not recalling exactly what your words were, but if you could restate it concisely, then I could respond to it.

Pete: Yeah, the idea that the Bible’s, maybe true purpose, the reason why we read it is to commune with God, and maybe not just, like, information about God in a sort of a scientific sense, or historicistic sense, but it’s actually communing with God who’s present with you. And that’s, and scripture is, maybe its ultimate purpose is to bring us there.

Joe: Yeah, absolutely. It absolutely is.

Pete: The thing is, you know, I mean, I agree with that and I, to me, that’s something to strive for. But again, I’m hearing other voices in the back of my head saying there’s some things that the modern study of the Bible has brought to the table that calls into question basic historical credibility of things in the Bible. Because I think you put it really well before. Like, the Bible bears witness, like, reasonably well to history or something like that. It’s not a photo, it’s not an objective account in the way we usually use the word objective, but it bears witness to historical realities. It just does it in sort of ancient ways or diverse ways, but it’s still bearing witness to like, you know, the story of Jesus for example. And, but there are things about critical scholarship, which we can’t solve today, but there are things about critical scholarship that people say, it so turned things on its head. Like, the history of Pentateuchal scholarship and how, you know, the law is at the end of the story, not at the beginning. And if that’s in any way right, you know, it just raises certain challenges. I’m not saying your paradigm doesn’t make sense, I’m just saying I can see questions coming up. There are places where, now, it might just be that’s completely wrong. You know? I mean, that’s not really wrong from most people’s point of view, it’s been modified a lot over the past couple hundred years. But, you know, so I think, yeah. I guess the devil is in the details in a way, you know, working out some of those particular things about scholarship and about other things that, you know, sort of continue to nag a little bit for a lot of people. And people can put that stuff in abeyance, like, I know that’s a problem, but I still have a basic conviction about how the Bible works, and I’m going to live in that reality, and I’ll work those other things out along the way.

Joe: Yeah.

Pete: You know? That’s not a bad way to live actually. If you’re dealing with this kind of stuff, that’s another kind of rule of faith, maybe. I don’t know.

Joe: Yeah, well, we’re always in the middle. I mean, you mentioned biblical scholarship changing on those issues, you know. The assured results of critical scholarship are not assured. I mean, scholars change perspectives –

Pete: Oh yeah.

Joe: And they do it well, even, on the basis of paying attention to things that had been ignored or even on the basis of, you know, a shepherd boy throwing a rock into a cave at Qumran and finding Hebrew texts that are a thousand years older than any we previously had, right?

Pete: Right. Yeah.


Joe: Scholarship is on the move, and it’s like all human knowledge, or like, all human disciplines. It’s a tangle of both authentic brilliant achievements and ideological distortions held by its practitioners. This is true of all scholarship. I mean, we have in our post-modern condition, we have a crisis of authority, and the way that modern folks want to address it is to just find the right authority and then to defer to that one, but that’s irresponsible. You can’t do that with biblical scholarship, you can’t do that with the history of theological reflection, you can’t do that with modern science, which changes at a much faster rate than any of these fields. The only way to benefit from any of these is to find your way into them, to begin to understand them, to discover what the questions are and learn how to pay attention in the ways that folks who do that work pay attention. And we’re always in the middle, as you said.

Pete: Right.

Jared: Well, in some ways, it’s, whenever we adopt a certain end in mind, you know, I think one of the challenges of kind of the modern project was assuming there was this universal end in mind. And so then, we construct kind of the way to that end and then we universalize that. But there is, like you say, you know, different authorities for different objectives and different ways of being in the world, and so there is a place for scholarship and it’s really important in how we think about that. It lays the groundwork for a lot of things, but it’s often not maybe the end. When the end is, for instance, to experience God in a new way then maybe there’s other avenues for that as well that we have to sort of see as an authority and allow for maybe the community, the rule of faith, our own experiences, to play a part.

Joe: Yep, you have to decide how to go on in your life. You have to make decisions; you have to come to convictions. It’s important, it’s part of maturing, growing up. Again, I think the process of maturing is something that God builds into us, but that’s just part of it is deciding where to stand. And it’s tough work, but I actually want to say I’m all about universality, about finding a universal purpose. For me, that just means asking and answering every single legitimate question that arises and can arise in history. Nobody can do that. From a philosophical perspective, it’s more work than any one person in history can do. But there are theological reasons for pursuing a universal end as well, but not the kind that you clearly define and put in a box and set out in front of yourself as a carrot. If that’s what you’re looking for, you’re not looking for God, not in a way that meshes with what any faithful Christian throughout Christian history has said about that.

Pete: You’re almost creating a God at that point.

Joe: Exactly, yeah. Which, idolatry is a constant danger. I mean, you know, in our world it’s not people making statues, right? Our gods are very near to us. They’re in our pockets, vibrating constantly –

Pete: [Laughter]

Joe: Showing us all the images we might want to see.

Pete: I don’t know what you’re talking about Joe. I have no idea.

Joe: I think you might have an idea.

Pete: Oh, yeah. We’ve argued about iPhones before, but anyway. Well listen, Joe, this is a deep topic and it’s one that I think, you know, it’s really healthy for people to keep thinking about in their own way. You know, I mean, what is the purpose of the Bible, what does it mean for a Bible to be inspired when you’re still looking at all this, the messiness of it, and how can God be found in wrestling with this scripture and reading it. And I think being in conversation with other people, like you’re doing, you know, and like we’re doing here with you but through history, you know, because there’s a lot of richness there. People have actually thought about some things before we came on the scene and that’s pretty cool. So, in closing, just, what’s the title of your book, and where can they get it? Pretty much anywhere, I imagine.

Joe: Yeah, it’s available at all the normal places. The title is Divine Scripture in Human Understanding: A Systematic Theology of the Christian Bible.

Pete: Okay.

Joe: Amazon or the University of Notre Dame Press website.

Pete: Cool. And is there, if people want to just check out what you’re doing and who you are, can they find you online someplace, or are you one of these academics that keeps away from all those things?


Joe: Well, I’m mostly off of social media, but I did just reopen a Twitter.

Pete: Oh, no.

Joe: It’s really, it’s just dedicated to –

Pete: You might want to rethink that. Anyway…

Joe: I already am, yeah.

Pete: [Laughter]

Do you have a website? Or is there, maybe, if people can go to, you know, if there’s something even on your school’s website just so they can check out and if they have maybe a question that they can ask you a question or something?

Joe: Yeah, they can check me out on Johnson University’s website, my faculty page. It’s got my CV up there with contact info, and I’m happy to talk about this stuff forever.

Pete: Yeah.

Joe: So, yeah, my Twitter handle is @JosephKGordon if folks have questions for me, I’d love to talk with them.

Pete: Great. All right Joe, well thanks for being with us. This has been a stimulating discussion. I appreciate you taking your time, even with all your internet problems you had before you came here. So, that’s fine.


Jared: Yeah, it’s good to have you Joe.

Joe: Thank you. Really good to be with both of you, thanks for the opportunity to come and talk.

Jared: Appreciate the time.

Joe: Yup, thank you guys.

Pete: Bye, Joe.

[Music begins]

Pete: Well, thanks again folks for listening to The Bible for Normal People

Pete: Our team!

Jared: For everything that they do here.

Pete: [Mimics roaring applause]

Jared: That’s pretty good. Yeah, so we have Dave Gerhart, our audio engineer; and Megan Cammack, our producer; Reed Lively, who does, our primary administrator does a lot of behind the scenes, is also our marketing wizard; as well as Stephanie Speight, who transcribes our podcast for us each and every week. We couldn’t do it without you.

Pete: Right. Absolutely, thanks team and thanks to all of you for listening. See ya.

[Music ends]



Jared: So, we have Dave, our audio engineer; Megan Cammack, our producer; Reed, who is our administer, administrator –

Pete: Start over again Jared, you didn’t do Dave’s last name again.

Jared: Oh my gosh. I didn’t do it.

Pete: Maybe it’s for his own protection.

Jared: Yeah, okay.

Pete: Just start there again.

Jared: Okay. Here we go.

Pete: Sweet Mary.

Jared: Sorry, Dave. I don’t intend to miss your last name, but I didn’t write it down.

Pete: Yes, he does, he doesn’t like you.

Jared: I didn’t write it down! Okay? All right.

Pete: [Laughter]


Pete: That’s good. Yeah, okay. I thought you were going to say goodbye too.

Jared: Oh. Goodbye. Feel free, Dave, to splice that in there.

Pete: [Laughter]

Jared: [Laughter]

Pete: Anyway…

[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.