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Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

Miguel De La Torre- Diverse Voices in Biblical Scholarship

In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete and Jared talk with Professor Miguel De La Torre about why we all need to seek out diverse biblical interpretations as they explore the following questions:

  • What does it mean to “decolonize” our interpretations of the Bible?
  • What does it mean to read the Bible deductively?
  • Why is interpreting the Bible in community important?
  • What is Miguel’s starting point for interpreting the Bible?
  • How do we get close to the “truest” reading of the Bible?
  • How did Justo González interpret the commandment of keeping the Sabbath?
  • What is W.E.B. Du Bois’ idea of “double consciousness”?
  • Who gets to write Bible commentaries?
  • How can each person diversify their understandings of the Bible? 
  • How have people’s understandings of the Bible been colonized throughout history?
  • What can each person do to diversify the biblical interpretations they are exposed to?
  • Why is it important for every generation to interpret the Bible for themselves?

Tweetables

Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Miguel De La Torre you can share. 

  • “Most individuals who read the Bible specifically with an eye on how to life their lives, read the Bible in a deductive manner.”@DrDeLaTorre
  • “Unfortunately, many people believe that the biblical text only has one meaning, and whatever that meaning is, is the one that I came up with, therefore it must be true.” @DrDeLaTorre
  • “In reality, we all read the Bible from our social location, from the area that we occupy. And when we do that, we read into the Bible our own social location, our own struggles, our own difficulties, and our own joys.” @DrDeLaTorre
  • “We cannot read the Bible if not from our social location. We all bring something to the reading, and the concern is, when one group of people make their objective reading subjective for everyone else.” @DrDeLaTorre
  • “We have an economic system that works best when you have a 5-6% unemployment rate, of which mostly they are people of color.” @DrDeLaTorre
  • “We need to truly read the works of other communities we’re not a part of so that we ourselves could be challenged on how to not only read the biblical text, but on how to do ministry.” @DrDeLaTorre

Mentioned in This Episode

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Read the transcript

[Introduction]

0:00

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

Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.

[Jaunty Intro Music]

Pete: Hey everybody, welcome to the podcast. Our topic today is diverse voices in biblical scholarship, and our guest is Miguel De La Torre.

Jared: Yeah, he’s a professor at Iliff School of Theology in Social Ethics and Latinx Studies, and you’ll hear in just a little bit, Pete got that wrong, and I think for good reason. The amount of writing he does on biblical scholarship, which I always find fascinating that he is talking about ethics, social ethics, through the lens of the Bible, which I think a lot of us at least grew up wanting to do.

Pete: Yeah, I just, again, my bias, right. I just assumed, you know, from reading his stuff, so. But anyway, so he’s written about 30,000 – 40,000 books I think. Just go to his website, he has a lot of stuff there and then very diverse topics like the politics of Jesus, reading the Bible from the margins, something called post-colonial theory. We talk a little bit about colonialism in the episode. But yeah, just, you know, very enlightening to bring someone onto the podcast who knows a lot about a particular area that we didn’t have, Jared. We just, we did not grow up, the seminaries he’s critiquing, I mean, you know, it’s not a cheap shot, it describes very much our experience in seminary.

Jared: Right.

Pete: And for me, graduate school too.

Jared: Well, and one thing that maybe we can talk about here for just a minute before the podcast starts, is I kept thinking in the back of my mind how this intersects with politics. Because I wondered if some of our listeners might think this is a political, and I guess it pains me to think that listeners might think this is a political issue of diversity in biblical scholarship. And I kept trying to find out why it would be the case, but throughout the episode –

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: I don’t know why this should be a political thing to talk about diversity and having multiple voices in how we read and interpret our text and how it’s not great for all of us that we’ve only read it through one particular lens for most of biblical, like, interpretation history.

Pete: Right. Yeah, because a dominant culture of a particular, maybe socio-economic class and skin color and gender has been at the top of the roost. And often, we’re blinded to the effects that our interpretation has on other people. But I talked about like, the ethics of hermeneutics and I didn’t really explain sort of what I meant. I was like, why are you reading the texts, what effects does it have on other people, and it’s just good to hear from people, you know, who understand that far better than I do who will talk about it and, you know, I always leave a situation like this where I want to think differently about what I do.

Jared: Yeah.

Pete: And why I do what I do.

Jared: Good. Well, and I would hope, maybe, many of our listeners will come away with that too. If nothing else, put a book or two in your Amazon cart or, not probably, local bookstores –

Pete: Yes. Local bookstores.

Jared: Once we can get to local bookstores –

Pete: Just wash your hands.

Jared: But grab a copy of a book from someone who has a background that’s different than yours and see how it might expand your worldview.

Pete: All right, let’s get to it.

Jared: All right.

[Music begins]

Miguel: There’s this idea, this mythology, that the Bible can be read objectively. But in reality, we all read the Bible from our social location, from the area that we occupy. And when we do that, we read into the Bible our own social location, our own struggles, our own difficulties, and our own joys.

[Music ends]

Pete: Miguel, welcome to our podcast.

Miguel: Glad to be here.

Pete: Wonderful, well listen, you know, you’re a biblical scholar, and maybe just introduce yourself to our listeners, just, how did you get into this and what drove you into this lucrative field of teaching and biblical scholarship where we’re famous and we make a lot of money?

Miguel: Of course. Well, first of all, it’s interesting, because I’m not really a biblical scholar. I’m an ethicist.

Pete: Oh!

Miguel: But I’m an ethicist who really takes the biblical text serious in my own work.

Pete: Okay.

Miguel: And I’ve written a lot of books about the Bible, sometimes –

Pete: Yeah, I mean, you could’ve fooled me, because you do that biblical side very well. So, okay, you do wear many hats.

Miguel: Yes. But yeah, you’re right, I’ve written a lot of books on the biblical texts, and a lot of people think I’m a biblical scholar, but in reality, I’m just an ethicist.

Pete: Just an ethicist? Now that’s not right! Just?!

Miguel: [Laughter]

Pete: That seems pretty important, that might even be more important than being a biblical scholar. Anyway, so go ahead, how did you get into this field like, wanting to teach and particularly in this area of being an ethicist?

4:48

Miguel: Sure. Well, it’s interesting, because quite frankly since I was nineteen years old, I was a capitalist. I owned my own real estate company for a couple of decades, and I was a very successful businessman in Miami, Florida. And then, I went to church one day, it was a Southern Baptist church, and I basically started going to church for very deep theological reasons – the girl I wanted to go out with would only go out with me if I went to church with her on Sunday.

Pete: [Laughter]

Miguel: So, I started going to church on Sunday, but even though we broke up, one day I walked down the aisle, gave my life to Jesus, and really got into this understanding of Christianity and the biblical text and really got into it. At one point, I decided I wanted to leave my business and go to seminary and become a minister. So, I dissolved my company and I went to the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, literally during the years of the fundamentalist takeover.

Pete: Oh, okay. You were there then. My goodness, all right.

Miguel: Oh, yes. I was there during those fun years and I had a job at the library. So, while I was going to class and we kept learning about theology and biblical texts, it really wasn’t resonating with me. So, because I was looking at the library at night, I started pulling out books from the shelves that had Latino names on them, not knowing who Gustavo Gutiérrez was, not knowing who Bonino was, not knowing who the Boff brothers were. And I started reading that, and in that reading, I was very radicalized because I began to read theology and the Bible through the perspective of different voices, usually the voices of the poor and the marginalized and the disenfranchised. When I finished my theological education, I realized that there was no Southern Baptist church that was going to hire me as a pastor, so I did what every unemployed grad student does, I went ahead and got my Ph.D.

Pete: [Laughter]

Miguel: And when I finished, I got a job at Hope College where I taught there for a while, and now I’m teaching at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, as the Professor of Social Ethics in Latinx Studies.

Pete: I guess, so one thing that came up as you were talking is the ethics of hermeneutics, you know, the ethic of having a hermeneutic, of reading the Bible for an ethical purpose, which is something that, you know, many people are not taught. It’s like, you analyze the text and you come away with an original meaning, but I imagine that you probably have a different perspective that it’s really about, there’s a purpose that these texts can serve for the greater good of people and not just to write papers or write books.

Miguel: Oh absolutely, and I would even go a little further. Most individuals who read the Bible specifically with an eye on how to life their lives, read the Bible in a deductive manner. And what I mean by that is that they read the text, and they decide, they deduce from the text how they should be living their lives, what ethical acts they need to be engaged in. But, to read the Bible from the margins and read the Bible from the perspective of the disenfranchised, we turn that model on its head. So, in the doing of the gospel message, in the midst of feeding the hungry, and giving water to the thirty, and clothing the naked, and taking in the alien among us, we then go back to the Bible and then we read the text and now we are able to interpret the text from the social location of us doing the gospel. And in this way, the text really becomes alive. We begin to truly understand, I think, the message of what the text is talking about.

Jared: How is that, can you maybe break that down a little bit, Miguel, in terms of the mechanics of that? Why does that make a difference for someone versus the, you know, the first way of reading you talked about, this deductive way versus the get into the social context, into the behaviors and actions ethically and then reading it through that lens. What difference does that make?

Miguel: It makes all the different in the world. Unfortunately, many people believe that the biblical text only has one meaning, and whatever that meaning is, is the one that I came up with, therefore it must be true. So, there’s this idea, this mythology that the Bible can be read objectively. But in reality, we all read the Bible from our social location, from the area that we occupy. And when we do that, we read into the Bible our own social location, our own struggles, our own difficulties, and our own joys.

9:56

What occurs all too often, is that while every biblical interpretation is truly objective, what has happened is that one group, the predominant dominant culture, has made their objective interpretation of the text subjective for everybody else. So, because they have the power to make their objective interpretation subjective, we then believe that that interpretation must be true. But if instead, we all come to the text with just a piece of understanding it from our social location, then together in community we could get a fuller picture of what the text is probably talking about.

Pete: Could you flesh that you just a little bit more, the terms objective and subjective interpretation. That might be a little bit hazy for some of our listeners, so maybe flesh that out a bit?

Miguel: Sure. When I say an objective interpretation, that assumes that how I interpret the Bible is absolutely true, that somehow, I have reached the true message of that biblical text. Therefore, it’s totally objective. I’m not –

Pete: So, irrespective of your social location.

Miguel: Right.

Pete: Right, okay. So just sort of up there, just neutral and correct.

Miguel: Exactly.

Pete: Okay.

Miguel: So, the problem with that is, that we cannot read the Bible if not from our social location. We all bring something to the reading, and the concern is, when one group of people make their objective reading subjective for everyone else.

Jared: Mm hmm.

Pete: Right. So, the, yeah. So, I guess, you know, we are talking about those in power, the white western approach to reading the Bible, which, sort of has assumed a neutrality and not being effected by their social – now other people might be affected by their social location, but they’re not.

Miguel: Exactly.

Pete: Right. And that’s sort of, that’s, I mean, people don’t talk that way as much anymore as they used to, perhaps. But, it’s still there, right? There’s still an assumption that I can get at this truth. I mean, especially with maybe more conservative Christians, right Jared? It’s just like, “I’m just reading the text, I’m just getting what it means.”

Jared: Yeah, well, you know, with that Miguel, one thing, maybe you can comment on this, because I think what you say Pete, we’ve maybe gotten past that a little bit, but I think what it is, is not so much we’ve gotten past it, it’s more that there’s still this belief that now we can recognize it. I think in more conservative circles, we recognize we come at it from a very particular perspective, but I think the goal is to try to rid ourselves of that social context and location and get to the objective, once for all, absolute meaning. And we all need to be in that together, we all are trying to shed our contingencies and our subjectivities and our social context, and come at this one universal utopia interpretation, but I hear you saying that maybe it’s actually, it’s not such a liability, it might be an asset to have all these voices from all their contexts to give a fuller meaning.

Miguel: And while that may be true that we need all these voices to get a fuller meaning, I think we need to be humble enough to realize we’ll never get to that fuller meaning. We’ll always fall short, because every generation must read the Bible from their own time period as well. It’s not just in this moment in time, it’s also throughout history. So how the Bible was read and interpreted and used a couple of hundred years ago is very different than the way it is read and interpreted today. And that’s a good thing, because we’re dealing with different problems today than we were centuries ago.

Jared: Yeah, reminds me of someone was talking about parenting the other day, and how you can never be the perfect parent, because once you get the two-year-old stage down they become three, and then they become four. And so, once you finally kind of get a grasp of the four-year time, the times change, and that’s something that’s always going to be at play, is the changing times.

Miguel: The way I try to think about it is that if I say that the wisdom of the text is infinite, then my finite mind can never totally capture it, nor can the finite mind of my generation of any group. All we can do is as Paul would say, see through a glass dimly, one day hoping to see, you know, fully.

Pete: I’d love to hear you riff a little bit on a question that I know would come up in certain contexts here. If that’s how we describe the Bible, it’s sort of like infinitely, there are many infinite possibilities in engaging the text. But people will ask, well then, how will I know what to do? How will I know what to live? I need this book to tell me. How would you help someone who’s thinking like that, maybe think differently?

15:02

Miguel: I guess I would say that we need to be very careful in suspicion whenever we think that we can figure out how we must act based on one interpretation. History has shown us that has always been very dangerous. Life is messy and struggling to try to understand how to life an ethical life is also messy. And sometimes, we will get it wrong, and that’s part of our humanity. So, I would try to really advise about moving away from this concept that if I only know what the right interpretation is, then I’m going to be okay, because we probably will never know what the right interpretation is.

Jared: Are there boundaries to that? Are there other ways that you would say this is a bad interpretation, can we use value words like good or bad when we’re talking about interpretations?

Miguel: Well, I would hope we would, yes. So for me, the way I’ve wrestled with this, is that I look, my entry into the Bible is through John 10:10, which says “I have come to give life and give life abundantly.” So, the idea is, if there’s an interpretation that does not bring life or life abundantly, then there’s something wrong with that interpretation. And I could give you a couple of examples. When, in Ephesians Paul says, “slaves, obey your masters,” well, that doesn’t give abundant life to slaves. So, somehow the interpretation slaves must obey their masters is a wrong interpretation and therefore it must be rejected. Or “wives, be obedient to your husbands.” Again, that does not provide a full and abundant life for women. Now, you’ll probably say, but wait a minute, I’m now dismissing some parts of the Bible. Isn’t that dangerous? Jesus does this himself and teaches us how to do it.

Pete: [Laughter]

Right.

Miguel: I mean, he said, “you’ve heard it said, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I say unto you, if anyone slaps you on one check, turn the other.” So, Jesus is basically saying this passage in the Bible that said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth which is found in the Torah, that’s wrong. Don’t do that.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Miguel: Instead, learn to turn the other cheek.

Pete: Right.

Miguel: So, the question then becomes, when I read the text, and Joshua tells me to commit genocide and kill everything that has life, I have to reject that interpretation because it does not bring abundant life.

Pete: You know, I think it’s, what you said is very important, Miguel, because the Bible is more than just a collection of verses. We’re actually watching an approach to interpretation in front of us, and that is something that can be a model for us to, I mean, I don’t know if this is the right word to use, maybe you wouldn’t use it, but even to sort of interrogate scripture. Not to be suspicious of it, but to say, listen, I might be able to understand why they said something like this at a certain time, but today, this does not bring life. This is something else. And so, we have to move beyond the confines of the text, is that, does that accurately, at least from your point of view, or would you put that a different way?

Miguel: Oh, absolutely. Not only must we interrogate scripture, we really have to wrestle with it.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Miguel: Like Jacob wrestled with God, and whenever you wrestle with God, you usually end up limping away. You know, it’s not, you know, it’s not this intellectual exercise. A true wrestling with the scripture sometimes hurts.

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: So, in our context, Pete mentioned kind of the white, middle class, upper class, western way of interpreting. Can you maybe give a concrete example of what that looks like, and what an alternative way of interpreting, maybe there’s an example from a text or something, so we can see concretely what these different viewpoints or different interpretations might look like?

Miguel: Sure, of course. So, let’s take something a little simple, like one of the commandments. The commandment says seven days you will work, but on the seventh day you shall not do no work, you shall keep it as the Sabbath unto the Lord. Something like that, again, I don’t have a Bible in front of me, I’m going by memory now. So, you know, and I’m sure your listeners have gone to church and I’m sure the pastor has preached on this particular commandment. Seven days you shall work, the Sabbath, you shall keep it. Do no work on that day. And more than likely, they probably heard a sermon that had three points and a poem.

19:57

We’ll skip the poem, but usually the three points might be something like, we keep the Sabbath because God commands it; we keep the Sabbath because it’s a day of renewal, a day of resting from doing all this hard work; and maybe a third point, we keep the Sabbath because it’s a time to be for family and focus on what’s important in life. And that’s a pretty good sermon, which I’m sure many people have heard, and many people have preached, if I’m not, you now, and I’m sure you’ve probably heard those sermons yourself. Now, Justo González, who writes a book called Santa Biblia, talks about a preacher who was also putting together a sermon on this particular verse. But he was a Latino preaching to a congregation made up mostly of migrant workers and day laborers. So, he began by asking the congregation, how many of you were able to work five days last week? And a bunch of hands went up. How many of you were able to work six days last week? And very few hands went up. And then the preacher asked, what does this tell us about our society that prevents us from keeping God’s commandment, six days you shall work.

Pete: [Laughter]

Jared: Hmm.

Miguel: You see, the reason why we found the first example so comforting is because most people who hear this are white, middle class, economically privileged, who probably have a job which they just take for granted. So, they work six days and if allowed, they’ll probably work seven days, but taking the day off becomes crucial. But for the poor of the world, for the day laborers, for the ones who are struggling to even survive, the issue is not taking the day off, the issue is being able to work six days. And this is what I mean by reading the Bible from one’s own social context. So, now if you asked me, so which interpretation is truer, is closer to something that we could say is more true? I would argue that it is always the interpretation coming from the margins of society, because not only do they understand what it means to live in a society that is rich, they also understand what it means to live in a society that is poor. This is what W. E. B. Du Bois talks about double consciousness. Now, we could stop the interpretation there, but we could also take it now one step further. And that is, in this country, if I was to work full time at minimum wage, which is about, what, $7.50, $8.00 an hour? I will be making less than, what you call it, than a living wage. There won’t be a county in the United States that I could afford rent. So, what this tells me is, the reason, well what this means is that the reasons wages are mostly kept low is by making sure you have a reserve army of laborers. If you have people who are willing to take your job, then you could afford to pay lower wages. In this country, unemployment is usually highest among African Americans and Latinos. So, we have an economic system that works best when you have 5% – 6% unemployment rate, of which mostly they are people of color.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Miguel: So, not only does this verse critique the idea that somehow, I need to just take one day off, instead focuses on trying to have a job for six days. We have an economic system that is designed so that I don’t work six days. For in fact, if I work forty hours, then the company has to pay me benefits. So, they make sure I work less than forty hours a week. So, this little verse that we’ve always interpreted as just taking a day off, really has deep economic consequences to even our star portfolio, because if we were truly paying a living wage, wages are an expense, which therefore means that they return on our stock will go down, which means our retirement fund will be worth less. So, do you see how we’re all so in, connected to this verse economically that we’ve always interpreted as just taking a day off? That’s what I mean by reading the Bible from the margins.

Pete: Right. To take into account the real situation of those who are hearing the verse and what is the, the liberating and comforting, what’s the word of God to them, I guess is what we’re saying.

24:55

And that may sound different at different times under different circumstances, and different peoples who are listening to the text and listening to the sermon. So that’s, yeah, I guess that’s what you’re saying, right? I mean, it really is, to think there’s one meaning in here, in this Sabbath command, seems a bit shallow.

Miguel: But what has occurred over history is because the dominant culture gets to write the commentaries that basically focus on the importance of taking the day off. That then becomes the truth of that verse.

Pete: Mm hmm.

[Music begins]

Miguel: And what I’m saying is, there was so much more in that verse if we begin to read it from the perspective of the poor and the marginalized and the disenfranchised.

[Producers group endorsement]

[Music ends]

Jared: Okay, so, let’s back up, because you’re taking about the economic system behind even this one small verse about Sabbath, and then you brought into it, well, the reason we read it from the dominant perspective is because people writing the commentaries are from the dominant perspective, which is really to say there is something about biblical scholarship in the way that it’s written and the way that we employ people or maybe the way it goes all the way back to the people we admit to graduate programs, that there is some lack of equality in that system as well. Is that what you’re saying too, that the people that are writing the books that the pastors are reading in order to prepare these sermons are largely written by white people?

Miguel: Absolutely. And not just white people, but individuals who have got, who have received theological training in some of the most prestigious theological schools in the country who basically only learned, you know, white European ways of doing interpretations. So, when I went through theological school, you know, of course, you know, besides having to learn Greek and Hebrew and reading all these great German biblical scholars, I never had to read any scholars who were African American or Latinx or Asian American or Indigenous. In other words, I read them anyway for my own knowledge, but here’s the thing: all my white colleagues who only studied the German giants were considered educated. I, when I studied the perspective from the margins, I was considered as doing this interesting side elective stuff, not true scholarship. So, there was a bias within the academy, which is changing, and I will say that, but not when I was going through school, against those of us who insist on rejecting euro-centric biblical interpretations and only focusing on interpretations that come from marginalized communities.

Pete: So, when we’re talking about diverse voices in biblical scholarship, it’s not just, well, we need to hire more people. We need to hire more non-white people. It’s the system itself is rigged in a way, or it’s been rigged, maybe it’s getting better, but the system itself works against that happening.

Miguel: Oh, absolutely. I mean, the way the theological system works is that schools, the faculty in the school are the ones who determine what other faculty member they want to hire. And usually, they hire people who are like them, who think like them, who have the same philosophical underpinnings as they do, and who read the biblical text the way they do. Seldom is there this desire to bring in voices that have always been considered, from the very beginning, not to really be scholarly at all.

29:48

And then what many times happens, is that even when students of color go to these particular top-notch theological schools, what they learn is how to read the text through the eyes of white euro-centric scholars. So, they may have a brown or black face, but they’ve learned to speak with white voices. So, it’s not just, let’s just hire some more people of color, it really is decolonizing our minds from just reading the Bible through the lens of euro-centric writers and thinkers.

Jared: Can you say more about what that phrase means, because I would guess a lot of people have heard it, but not in this context and maybe not enough to really understand what it means to decolonize. And the way you said it, it sounds like it’s connected to the idea that there are even African Americans or Latino biblical scholars who have, in a sense, I don’t know if it’s the right word, like, been white washed and reprogrammed to think this way because this is the right way to do it. But maybe, can you just unpack ‘decolonize’ a little bit?

Miguel: Of course. And I think the word you just used, whitewash, is an excellent way of understanding the colonizing of one’s mind. If my mind is colonized, in other words, if I learn to see reality through white eyes, through the eyes of the dominant culture, through the eyes of people who historically have oppressed people of color, then what happens is that I begin to believe that truth can only be understood through euro-centric thinkers. So, I look to my oppressors for my own liberation. And that could be very damning, to be honest with you. To decolonize my mind, and this is a process I’ve been going through now, and I’m not even close to getting to the final point of having my mind decolonized, but to decolonize my mind means, how do I begin to look at reality from my own social location, from my own culture, using my own cultural symbols and not using the verbiage and the way of thinking of the colonizers.

Pete: Of those who mean you no good.

Miguel: Yeah, those who have historically justified my colonization and my oppression.

Pete: Yeah.

Miguel: And a good example is, you know, and we all know this, that during slave times, you had preachers that were hired by the slave owners to come in and preach to the servants, to the slaves about obeying your master, and not stealing from the master, and not running away from the master. That’s a colonizing process in where you try to teach the oppressed how to be domesticated, how to be subjugated to how the master was not only reading the Bible but teaching them how to read the Bible. So, the decolonized methodology is to begin by saying, no, these interpretations were designed to maintain my oppression, so I’m going to reject them, and I’m going to learn to read the text from my own eyes, or though my own eyes.

Pete: So, what do you think then, is the way to help correct the problem, and let’s stay with academia. You know, you’re a professor, I’m a professor. Let’s stay in that world, like, practically speaking, what can happen to, over time, to change the situation where we don’t have colonization happening, we have true diversity of voices.

Miguel: Well, it really begins with the professor’s syllabus. If one of your listeners is a student at a theological school, and they look at the syllabus, and all that’s on the syllabus are European thinkers, and there are no women, there are no people of color, there are no queer thinkers, then they are truly not getting an education. They basically are learning what people used to think a hundred years ago. But like I said, unfortunately, many times professors are basically teaching what they were taught when they went through graduate school, which is, you know, the so-called classics. So, I would say, number one, we need to begin to bring these voices into the classroom. And secondly, these need to be an integral part of the full curriculum, not elective classes. It’s not like saying, well, I’m going to take a class on Latino theology as an elective. This needs to be central to the whole curriculum.

34:49

Pete: Yeah. That’s a hard step to take because, like, it’s hard to kickstart that if the professors are themselves maybe, fumbling through that, and might not even see themselves the importance of diversifying their bibliography. 

Miguel: And I think this is why the students must hold the professors accountable. You know, because you’re right, many professors are still teaching stuff which was great back in 1950 when we lived in a more racist and segregated society, but we’re not in that time period anymore. If that’s, if the syllabus is not diverse, then students have to demand that. I mean, the students are paying good money to be in that school. And quite frankly, any school that doesn’t have diverse syllabus, a student should really think about going elsewhere.

Pete: Right.

Jared: It seems like, I just want to think systemically here, because it feels, the challenge might be that, and I’m kind of grasping at straws because I’m not exactly sure what the categories might be, but if you’re judging, if I’m teaching a course on biblical interpretation, and I’m trying to judge what the curriculum is going to look like, there’s already a particular framework that I’m passing judgment through, there’s a filter through which I’m saying, yup, this is in, this is not, and that filter is already biased toward a certain way of doing biblical interpretation. So, in some ways, I guess I wonder, there’s a challenge there where I wonder even for a lot of folks, if the, like what you said, maybe the African American author who gets onto the syllabus is the one who has been whitewashed and is already playing the same game and playing by the same rules. It almost seems like there’s a large element of trust to say, maybe, asking other colleagues who are minorities or from marginalized people groups and saying what do you guys think, represents a good, you know, representation of scholarship from your social context, and then just trusting that. Because I feel like if we, or if kind of the euro-centric person who’s been trained under that model is trying to filter that, the filter is already biased in some way. Is that making sense?

Miguel: Oh, it definitely does. And I think a true academic is always going to need to ask others who are experts in the field for their advice. A good example, I’m teaching this quarter, I’m teaching a class called Biblical Ethics, and to practice what I preach, every disenfranchised group, you know, I have a book from that group written by scholars in that group, so we have an Asian American perspective, a Latinx perspective, an African American perspective. But for example, when I was looking for an Asian American scholar, I called a friend of mine who is Asian American biblical scholar and I asked them, what’s the latest book out there that I need to be reading to better understand an Asian American perspective to the Bible? And he gave me a couple of books and I chose one. So, you know, I don’t know everything, but I should know enough people that get help to diversify my class and my syllabus. And the ones who are going to benefit are my students who will now be exposed to all of these different perspectives.

Jared: And that in itself, it seems like, is an act of decentering yourself to even say I need help and allow other peoples to influence your classroom and how you’re setting that up, which seems to be an important step in this process too.

Miguel: Absolutely. Now, if I wanted to teach a class on just the Bible ethics from the perspective of white Europeans, you know, I don’t need to call anybody, I know what all the books are. I mean, I have to know them just to get my Ph.D. But to move beyond that comfort zone means that I have to now read books that I wasn’t planning to read before and that’s part of the academic life anyway, of growing and learning new things.

Jared: Is that a step that someone, because a lot of our listeners won’t have gone to seminary, aren’t planning to go into academia or anything like that, but could we translate that into congregational life and holding pastors and leaders accountable in terms of, you know, what resources are they using as they develop their sermons and that they’re preaching from. Is there also a call for everyday congregation members to be able to do that, and maybe do you have an experience on what a healthy way of doing that might be?

Miguel: Well, I mean, I would be disappointed if the preacher is not reading books written from other communities that the preacher doesn’t belong to. So, and it’s not just white people reading the writings of people of color, it’s also people of color reading the writings of other groups of color. We need to truly read the works of other communities we’re not a part of so that we ourselves could be challenged on how to not only read the biblical text, but on how to do ministry.

39:50

And as the world becomes more diverse, churches are going to be dealing with a diverse world coming to their front door. And if we’re not, if we’re unaware of how that diversity of that community works, we really can’t be good ministers. So no, yes, churches themselves, just like a professor needs to diverse their syllabus, pastors need to diverse their library and not just read the same thinkers that they read when they were going through seminary. And congregations, you know, your listeners who may not be ministers or professors, they need to branch out and go on Amazon and Google some books and expand their own minds as well – if they’re serious about understanding the biblical text.

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: Well, that’s an important point, that’s a great emphasis maybe as we wrap up our time is, you didn’t say if you’re going to understand the biblical text from a ____ perspective, it’s, if you want to understand the biblical text, period, the you have to include this diversity. And I think that’s a really important point to make, is it’s not something extra, it’s inherent in understanding the biblical text itself, is this diversity and understanding it from different communities.

Miguel: I couldn’t say it better. Absolutely. If not, we’re wasting our time.

Pete: Mmm. All right, so Miguel, you gave an example earlier about the Sabbath and biblical interpretation. I’m wondering, you know, in the few minutes that we have left, if maybe there’s another example that you think is particularly striking that might be just a good model for people to hold on, to say, okay, I think I understand what he’s getting at.

Miguel: Sure. So, let’s look at the New Testament. I’m sure we’re all familiar with the parable of the vineyard owner in where the story is that the vineyard owner goes out looking for laborers. So, at 6:00 AM he goes to the Home Depot, finds a couple of people hanging out there. He sends them to his vineyard to work. Around 9:00, he goes to the bodega, sees some more people, sends them to his vineyard to work. At noon, he goes to the barrio and sees some more workers and sends them to his vineyard to work. And at 3:00, just towards the end, he sees some more folks that’s walking the streets and says, go to my vineyard and I’ll make sure I pay you, and they go to do some work. And then he begins to pay everybody beginning with the last who came, and he pays everybody the same amount of money. Now let me pause there for a second. Isn’t Jesus being a little unfair here? I mean, the guy who works in 6:00 AM is getting paid the same amount of money than the one that only worked three or four hours?

Pete: I have a feeling that I’m not going to answer that question because I’m going to be wrong no matter what I say, so.

[Laughter]

Miguel: [Laughter]

But no, I would say most of your listeners would say, this isn’t fair! I mean, I worked all day and I’m only getting, you know, I’m getting the same amount of money that somebody that only worked three hours. This is socialism, this isn’t right. But here’s the thing – the reason we say it’s unfair is because our culture has taught us that money equals time. So that if I work one hour, I get $10. If I work two hours, I get $20. If I work three hours, that’s $30 and that’s what is fair. Time equals money. I give you time, you give me back money in proportion to the time I give you and that’s how our society and our culture determine what is fair. Okay. Now, the other thing that we have to do with this verse is because Jesus is being unfair, we now interpret the verse to kind of save Jesus from Jesus.

Pete: [Laughter]

Miguel: So, we say things like, well, Jesus is telling us that when we all get to heaven, we’re all going to get the same amount of blessings. We’re all going to get the same gifts when we get to heaven.

Pete: Yeah.

Miguel: It doesn’t matter if you accept Jesus when you’re young or right before your die on your death bed, we’re all going to equally get the glories of heaven. In this way, Jesus is not unfair and that’s how we interpret it. But again, Jesus is talking to day laborers and what he realizes, and what the day laborers know is that when you work for a day, you get paid for a day and if you only worked half a day and you only get half a day wages, half the people in your house are not going to eat that day. So, only a cold-hearted employer will send away a worker with not enough calories for them to be able to come the next day and work again.

44:46

So again, the message is not about, you know, we’re all going to get to heaven and have the same amount of blessings. The message is that the worker has an obligation to be ready to work when called and the employer has an obligation to pay them enough so they could live that day and come back the next. And now compare this to our culture in where we talk about things like a living wage, which means that most wages are not enough for you to have a living of substance. We pay people so that they cannot afford housing and clothes and food, and we call them the working poor because they’re poor even though they’re working full time. So you see, to read the text from the perspective of the day workers, of the poor, it’s a whole total different interpretation than reading it from middle class economic privilege.

Pete: And I think another assumption that people might make about that parable is why the workers are showing up at different times, and it might because they’re lazy. So, they don’t deserve to get what the other people get, which is another assumption that probably comes from a perspective of privilege. Like, you know, you just roll out of bed at 4:00, you show up for work at 5:00, and you get paid the same. Well, that’s not fair. The guy didn’t work for it. Well, you know, we’re making assumptions about the nature of the worker that might really have, frankly, nothing to do with that story at all.

Miguel: And not even making assumptions, we are imposing upon a text a backstory that does not appear in the text and the text does not support. Because the text talks about the employer going to one location and finding some workers and going to another location where there are also workers who just got, who wasn’t picked yet. So, he sends them in. So, the workers were there from the beginning and it’s the employer who didn’t show up until much later.

Pete: Right. Well, yeah.

Miguel: But you’re right, what you do is we try to add stuff to the stories so as, so the story could fit into our particular world view.

Pete: Yeah, right. And if that worldview is part of the problem rather than the solution for justice, that takes an extra amount of examination to make sure that we’re not doing that which takes humility and just an awareness, really. I mean, I find when people become aware, they tend to want to think about this a little bit more. But sometimes, we’re just unaware, so. Alas. Well, listen, Miguel, we could talk for hours about this because I know that we’re both learning a lot, but we probably need to wrap it up. So, how can people find you online? Do you have a website, all that kind of stuff?

Miguel: Yes, I do. My website is http://drmigueldelatorre.com/.

Pete: Okay.

Miguel: And that’s the best way to get ahold of my website, but all my books are there, articles, as well as how to get ahold of me.

Pete: Okay. Do you have a blog too?

Miguel: I do and it’s called Our Lucha, which is also tied into the website, so the website has the link to the blog.

Pete: Okay. It’ll take everybody there, so great, okay.

Jared: Excellent. Well thank you so much Miguel, for coming in and expanding, I think, like you said, being able to be that for a lot of our listeners. A different voice, a different way of seeing the Bible and encouraging us to continue on that path. Thank you so much.

Miguel: It was my pleasure, thanks for having me on your show.

Pete: Okay, see ya.

Miguel: Adios.

[Music begins]

Pete: Well folks, thanks again for listening to another episode and I learned a lot, Jared learned a lot, it was pretty cool.

Jared: One thing to draw your attention to, and I kept thinking about it throughout this podcast, is on our website, https://peteenns.com/, we have a store there, and there’s a shirt that says all theology has an adjective.

Pete: Yes.

Jared: And that’s pretty much what this episode was about and trying to convey is all of our theology has an adjective. We all have a social context.

Pete: And if you don’t understand that, you definitely need to buy the t-shirt.

Jared: If it’s too much grammar for you.

Pete: Yeah. You just need to buy it to remind you of what you need to be doing and learning and all that stuff.

Jared: Yeah, but you can look at that shirt. We have other stuff on there too if you want to continue to learn. On the website we also have courses, we have one on Jesus and the Old Testament, we have one on truth, talking some of what Miguel was talking about today around subjectivity and objectivity and biblical interpretation. So, we have courses, we have books: Genesis for Normal People. We have other merch, so just check it out, https://peteenns.com/

Pete: See ya folks.

[Music ends]

[Outtakes]

[Beep]

Pete: Miguel, welcome so much to our podcast.

[Beep]

Pete: And now anything on the outro, what are we doing?

Jared: Well, let’s see what comes out. Sorry, Dave. I pretty much always have to do this.

Pete: They are never, ever, ever –

Jared: Prepared.

Pete: Prepared.

Jared: [Chuckles]

Pete: [Bag rustles]

These are so good, they just, they hurt me though. I hate these.

[Crunches food]

I’m eating wasabi peas, David.

Jared: Okay, what am I doing? Yeah, I’m going to try one of those.

Pete: They sometimes make me cry.

Jared: Yeah, wasabi is –

Pete: It’s serious though. It’s like, it’s almost like a healthy snack.

[Continues crunching food]

Jared: Yeah.

[Mumbles incoherently]

Pete: What the heck Jared?

[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.