It is often said that we cannot understand the Bible unless we know about the history and culture of the society that it was written for. These are common statements:
- “It cannot mean what it never meant”, or in other words, It is not possible for the Bible to mean something that it didn’t mean to whose to whom it was originally given.
- “In order to interpret the Bible for a modern audience, we must first understand what it meant to the original audience.”
These statements don’t seem like problems on the surface; this approach makes sense when considering an historical document. Is this the correct approach to take with the word of God?
1. Can the Bible mean something that it did not mean to those to whom it was given?
If we believe that the men who wrote the Bible were moved to do so by God (see “Was the Bible written by God” and “Did God permit men to write parts of scripture?), it is not necessary for them to understand the words in order to record them. God can move men to write words which they do not understand (e.g. Daniel 8:27, 12:8-9). It seems clear then that the prophecies of Daniel must mean something which they did not mean to Daniel himself, since the meaning was unclear to him.
Another aspect of God’s word is that it contains deep messages which aren’t immediately evident to the reader (Proverbs 25:2, 1 Cor 2:10). If God has hidden part of his message then it is not necessary for the immediate audience to be aware of this in order to record the message.
God’s foreknowledge is another factor to consider. God knows the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10), therefore He knows who will read his words and how they will interpret them before it happens. Of course there will be many different interpretations, many of which will be contradictory. Since the prophecies of the scriptures do not have a “private” interpretation (2 Peter 1:20) then not all of these different readings can be correct.
God’s aim is to cause us to search diligently for the truth, to try the spirits (1 John 4:1):
…for Yahweh your God proveth you, to know whether ye love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.Deuteronomy 13.3
We should not limit the meaning of the Bible to the sense in which it was understood by those who first received the message; instead we should try to discern meaning that God intended.
2. Do we need to understand the historical context of the original audience?
The importance of context
Context is very important when trying to understand any passage of scripture. The bible is recorded in a series of narratives where stories unfold over verses, chapters and books. If we take a verse out of its context it can be impossible to understand, misleading or just plain wrong. For example “there is no God”, says Psalm 14:1, when we know that these are the words of “fools”, a view totally at odds with the rest of the Scriptures.
This is obviously true for Bible stories, but it’s also a familiar idea in other parts of the Bible. When one passage quotes another we are being told this this context is also relevant to our understanding, and we should go and read it to find out more.
When we use context to help us understand a passage, we are adding more information to our understanding, to make the meaning clearer. The more context we add, the more data points we have to build our understanding on.
Often when trying to understand a passage of scripture, we can get useful and relevant context from other sections; the law can help us to understand the epistles; proverbs cast new light on the parables of Jesus etc. The use of the same word in multiple passages is an example of “micro quotes” which help to establish the semantic field of the word in God’s mind. These contexts are given to us by God to help us understand his word.
One type of context we can inadvertently bring to our understanding of the Bible is our own culture. We have our own understanding of biblical ideas (e.g. bread is purchased sliced, lamb comes shrink wrapped etc.). If we have a different concept of these ideas, this will influence the way we interpret the Bible and we will misunderstand the message – we will be adding our own understanding to the Bible. Instead we need to do our best to let go of our own cultural context and discern the context and culture that God gives us. (Proverbs 3:5&6)
Another context that we can bring to the Bible is the history at the time it was written. We can discern much of this from within the Bible, but we can find out more from other sources, for example history books and archaeology. If we take this approach we are adding information from outside the Bible.
The Bible itself deals with the idea of adding to its message. (Revelation 22:18 & 19, Deuteronomy 4:2, 12:32 and Proverbs 30:6). When we use one passage to interpret another we are not adding to the word of God, we are letting it interpret itself (1 Corinthians 2:13). However if we use historical material from outside of the Bible we are effectively adding to the word. By using this additional information that God, in his wisdom, has neglected to give us we are downplaying the importance of context that God has already provided and instead using man’s wisdom (1 Cor 2, Isa 8:20, 1Pet 4:11). God’s law is perfect (Psalm 19:7). Any reference to historical material to help us try to understand the Bible is to suggest that God’s law is not perfect.
Written for our learning
The premise of statement 2 is that the Bible was not written to us, but to the people of the time it was written. However when we look at what the Bible says about itself we see a different message:
“But as touching the resurrection of the dead, have ye not read that which was spoken unto you by God…” (Matthew 22:31)
Here Jesus quotes the words of God to Moses in Exodus 3, but he claims that the words were spoken to the Sadducees. Clearly the words of Exodus were not just for Moses but also to those who came later. All scripture is “for our learning” (Romans 15:4) and to “equip us for all good works” (2 Tim 3:16).
Not only is it written for those who would come later, but also God knows the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10). The things that he caused to be written and has preserved to this day must include sufficient context to achieve their aims. He knew what we would need to know to understand what he wanted us to understand when he wrote it – it is unnecessary for us to use anything more than the context God has already given us in his word. God’s foreknowledge makes the Bible profoundly different from men’s historical writings.
God’s word contains a spiritual message which works against our natural human expectations (1 Cor 2 & 3). The Sadducees in Matthew 22 were reading the words of Exodus 3 in a very different way to Jesus, even though they were in the same historical context. This shows us that the barrier to our understanding is not our lack of knowledge of the contemporary culture but our lack of understanding of God’s ways. We should be attempting to replace our own cultural context, not with the culture at the time the message was given, but with God’s culture. This is a challenge, especially in an age when we are used to Googling every time we need to know the answer.
What if a word isn’t used elsewhere?
We might feel as if it is necessary to look outside scripture in order for us to understand it. We might point to words and concepts in scripture that are hard for us to understand without reference to external sources. (It should be noted that we need to be very careful not to say that the Bible doesn’t tell us something; we might just not have found it yet.)
An example might be the reference to Tammuz in Ezekiel 8:14. This word is not used elsewhere in the Bible, so it’s tempting to look at the history of the time of Ezekiel to work out what it is referring to. When we look at Ezekiel 8 it is clear that this is an example of one of the abominations that the house of Israel are committing (v6). Beyond this it is not clear what Tammuz refers to, but why does it matter? Was God unable or unwilling to give us this detail?
Our aim in reading the Bible is to become more Godly in our thinking and behaviour. How would learning about a false god help us? We know that God has given us everything we need in order to become a complete man of God (2 Tim 3:16). It isn’t necessary for us to understand what “Tammuz” refers to, in order to achieve this aim.
God has given us a vast amount of information to understand, and that’s where we should focus our energies if we want to become more like Him.
Should we update our understanding as our knowledge of bible history improves?
There are other issues that arise when we turn to sources outside the Bible to help us interpret it. Our knowledge of the historical context at the times when the Bible was written is constantly changing as new evidence is brought to light. Sometimes the conventional wisdom is thrown out when new facts surface. If we rely on this kind of data to interpret scripture, then our understanding will change depending on the current understanding of ancient Middle Eastern culture. However, the word of God does not change (Isa 40:8, Psalm 119:89), and so our understanding of it should not be dependent on the current state of historical research.
This is made more complicated by the way that the historians themselves are influenced by the culture they are in; historical evidence is open to interpretation. If we use history as a tool in our bible study, our interpretation becomes influenced by the way history is being told, whereas the word of God does not come from someone’s own interpretation. (2 Peter 1:20)
Should we treat the Bible as a historical document?
The approach suggested in the problem statements treat the Bible just like any other historical text. If we believe that this is the word of God (see Was the Bible written by God?), then we need to approach it in the way he tells us (see Inspiration and Interpretation).
To understand God’s word we need to put aside man’s thinking and put on the mind of God. We must absorb God’s culture from his word and think spiritually in order to understand his message. (1 Cor 2)
Many experts claim that the archaeological evidence does not support many of the events recorded in scripture, for example the Exodus and the conquest of the land of Canaan by the sons of Israel.
The nature of archaeological evidence is that it is sparse and circumstantial. Archeological data must be interpreted by taking a view on what seems more probable. The problem is that things that were once thought improbable can turn out to be true when new evidence comes to light. This reveals the flaw of taking a lack of evidence as evidence of improbability.
Consider an example which is not connected with the Bible; the Antikythera mechanism, discovered in 19011.
As understanding of this finding has increased, it has revealed how little we know about ancient Greek technology. It is not currently understood how the Greeks could have made this device with methods thought to be available at the time. If this artefact had never been found we would have many incorrect assumptions about Greek technology, based on this lack of evidence. It’s interesting to consider what other evidence is yet to be discovered that could totally change our understanding of history.
Biblical archaeology is open to the same issues. Consider the evidence of the ancient city of Jericho.
The conventional view
British Archaeologist Dame Kathleen Kenyon carried out excavations at Jericho during the period 1951-8. In summarising her finding, Kenyon made the case that the only feasible date for an invasion of Canaan by Joshua and the Israelites would be circa 1150 b.c, placing the destruction of Jericho, as described in the book of Joshua, on or shortly after this date.
Kenyon’s excavations at Jericho demonstrated that at the 1150 b.c. stratum level, Jericho was only a minor Iron Age settlement and not the rich, extensive, high walled city described in the Book of Joshua.
Kenyon said there was no evidence for a destruction of Jericho at the 1150 b.c. stratum level. In Kenyon’s view, the destruction of the rich high walled city of Jericho was carried out much earlier by an Egyptian raiding party, circa 1550 b.c., i.e., some 400 years earlier.
The conclusion that commentators have drawn from Kenyon’s research, is that the account of the destruction of Jericho in the Book of Joshua is unreliable.
In 2001, Israeli Archaeologists Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman published their book “The Bible Unearthed”, containing this passage:
The process that we describe here is in fact, the opposite of what we have in the Bible: the emergence of early Israel was an outcome of the collapse of the Canaanite culture, not its cause. And most of the Israelites did not come from outside Canaan – they emerged from within it. There was no mass exodus from Egypt. There was no violent conquest of CanaanIsrael Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman published their book “The Bible Unearthed”, page 118
Finkelstein and Silberman deny the historicity of the Exodus and the Conquest. They state that the Books of Exodus and Joshua are a work of fiction, probably written in the 6th century b.c.
It’s interesting consider what other evidence has been found:
In 1907 to 1909 and again in 1911 Ernest Sellin and Carl Watzinger excavated at Jericho and uncovered the destruction of a rich bronze age city which was defended by high walls. For the most part the walls had collapsed outwards, but there was a section of wall which had not collapsed at all, and contained the remains of some two storey dwellings which had been built into the defensive structure of the wall. This archaeological discovery corroborates the record in Joshua 2:15, 6:22-23 and verse 25, which details the location of Rahab the Harlot’s house, which was situated adjacent to the wall. Today, the portion of standing wall complete with dwellings has long since disappeared from the site. However, photographs taken during the 1907-9 excavations clearly show where the portion of standing wall was excavated, with the two storey buildings adjacent being clearly seen. This represents a graphic confirmation of the Biblical record.
Kathleen Kenyon’s excavation report also confirms the detail of the destruction of Jericho as set out in Joshua 6.
- A rich city whose high walls fell outwards and down, destroyed by fire, but with artefacts and jars full of corn left intact to burn.
- The presence of abundant amounts of corn acts as a useful date marker which synchronises with the Joshua record as to the time Israel crossed the river Jordan into Canaan i.e., on or just after the harvest period (Joshua 3:15)
- Kenyon identified an Egyptian raiding party as the likely perpetrators of her proposed 1550 b.c. destruction. However, Kenyon’s theory of an Egyptian assault on Jericho is questionable; there were lots of useful day to day artefacts still in place, and there was no evidence of looting or vandalism, evidence you would expect to see if the destruction of Jericho was the work of a raiding party. Also, there were copious amounts of corn still stacked neatly in store rooms which were just left to burn. Again this does not tally with an Egyptian raid bent on plunder.
The total devastation of Jericho unearthed by Kenyon, does however point to the Joshua destruction, with everything in the city (other than precious metals – Joshua 6:19) being left to be burned as a devotion sacrifice to Yahweh. This finding fits the Biblical record of Joshua 6.
So, if the details of Joshua chapters 2 and 6 have been so clearly confirmed in the archaeological record, why is it that the world of archaeology dismisses the fact that Joshua and the Israelites were the conquerors of Jericho?
The problem arises because of the conventional view of the chronology of the Exodus and the conquest of Canaan. Archaeologists base their chronology (conventional chronology) on ancient Egyptian chronology. The reason for this is that the Egyptians recorded their history in stone, and the outside walls of their temples, and mortuary buildings contain extensive hieroglyphics from many different dynasties of pharaohs. The semi-arid desert conditions, mean that many of these hieroglyphics are well preserved and in a good state of order, thus they present an almost perfect archaeology.
Also, because of the sheer wealth of hieroglyphic and other material that is available for analysis, Egyptian chronology tends to form the bedrock for the chronology and history of many other ancient middle eastern peoples. Egyptian chronology, therefore, is the basis of many other interlocking histories of other nations within a Middle Eastern context. For these reasons, archaeologists consider their Egyptian chronology as generally “fixed and firm”, the “gold standard” of chronology, with only a plus or minus factor of 20 years or so on the generally agreed dates.
The conventional chronology has Ramesses II (The Great) as the Pharaoh of the Exodus, and places the Exodus circa 1250 b.c. and the entry into Canaan and conquest circa 1200 b.c.
Archaeologists have identified Ramesses II as the Pharaoh of the Exodus for a number of reasons, but largely because of the Bible references in Exodus 1:11, 12:37, and Numbers 33:3 which refer to the city of Rameses. Exodus 1:11 states that the Israelite slaves built two cities for Pharaoh and in the latter two passages the Exodus journey is chronicled using the names of these cities as geographical markers. It is a leap to claim that the city of Rameses was therefore named after Ramesses II, and that therefore the events of Exodus 1.11 took place within the reign of that king, especially because Rameses is also mentioned in Genesis 47:11, generations before the Israelites built these treasure cities.
How do the dates of the conventional chronology compare with the internal dating which we can deduce as we compare scripture with scripture?
The Bible dates the Exodus as occurring 480 years before King Solomon commenced the building of the temple (1 Kings 6:1). If we assume that the conventional chronology is correct, the 4th year of Solomon is generally reckoned to be circa 967 b.c. If this date is correct, then it would put the date of the Exodus at approximately 1447 b.c., with the conquest of Canaan therefore, being dated to 1407 b.c.
This is approximately 200 years earlier than the conventional chronology. Why does the date, deduced from internal Bible dating, differ so much? The answer revolves around the identification of the Pharaoh of the Exodus. The conventional chronology, as we have seen, places Ramesses II as the Exodus Pharaoh, but this identification is questionable when using the internal dating from the Bible.
Some archaeologists have also come to this conclusion, i.e., that Ramesses II is not the Pharaoh of the Exodus, principally John Garstang (1876-1956), Bryant G. Woods, David Rohl and Dr. John Bimson. The principal reason for differing from the conventional chronology is that they reject the assumption Ramesses II as the Pharaoh of the Exodus. This view requires a major revision of the conventional chronology.
This example demonstrates that archaeology needn’t be a threat to our faith in the Bible. We know that the facts in the Bible are true (see Was the Bible written by God? and The Authorship Process). Instead we can interpret the same evidence differently such that it agrees with the biblical account.
Using archaeology to prove the Bible
Often people go further and assert that archaeology can be used to prove that the Bible is true. There are several problems with this approach
1. The best outcome is that we demonstrate that the bible is historically accurate. This is not proof that God wrote it; writing an accurate account of a historical event is not in itself an impossible task – we have examples of documents which are historically accurate but are written by men.
2. Archaeological evidence is open to interpretation. Although findings are often presented as facts, the way that artefacts which are discovered are interpreted is not an exact science. Archaeologists make their best guess based on the information they have, and develop an understanding which is based on what is “most likely”.
The assumption is that the simplest explanation is usually the right one (Occam’s razor). This is a valid approach when trying to make sense of ancient ruins, but just because an explanation is “most likely” doesn’t mean it is definitely the correct one. It is of course possible that a less likely explanation is in fact the correct one.
When interpreting evidence it is necessary to base any interpretation on assumptions which may be false. This can be seen by the number of different interpretations that different scholars come up with. This is man’s wisdom, not a sure foundation (Isaiah 28:16, Matt 7, 1 Cor 2:5) on which to base an understanding of God’s word, which has no private interpretation (2 Peter 1:20).
3. Archaeological evidence is not static: it changes as new information comes to light. New discoveries are always being made and, as a result, things previously believed to be true are sometimes overturned in the light of new evidence. If our faith is reliant on this kind of evidence it is necessary to reexamine our faith every time new finds are made. Conversely God’s word never changes (Isaiah 40:8, Psalm 119:89). It is unwise to build our faith on this kind of foundation (Matthew 7:24-27). For this reason it is unwise for us to use archaeological evidence as proof that God wrote the Bible.
4. If we rely on archaeological evidence to inform our understanding of the scriptures, we are limited by the state of the archaeological finding in the time we live. Those who came before us have less archaeological data on which to base their interpretation of scripture and those who come after us will have more. This limits our understanding to the age in which we live, contradicting the two principles laid out above (God’s word doesn’t change and it has only one true interpretation).
5. We cannot be selective in the evidence we use. While experts agree that the evidence supports some aspects of the biblical narrative, they also agree that many other parts of the Bible are not supported by the archaeological record. If your faith is strengthened by the evidence that agrees with the Bible then it will be damaged by the evidence against it. This is a particularly shaky foundation on which to build faith as it only takes one piece of contradictory evidence to undermine the whole.
6. We cannot learn anything useful from archaeology. If the evidence tells us something which supports what the Bible says, then we have learnt nothing – we already knew it to be true. If the evidence tells us something different to the Bible then again we have learnt nothing, since we must reject the evidence. If the evidence adds to the account of scripture in a complementary way then using it in our understanding is adding to scripture, an idea we have already rejected (see Historical Context).
Having made these observations it is evident that to attempt to use archaeology in our defence of the scriptures is both futile and counterproductive. Archaeological evidence is transient and unstable, but the word of God is sure and firm; we need to build our faith on the rock of his word.