There is a question that I run into all the time. Sometimes it is asked explicitly: “Aren’t you asking too much of believers; doesn’t the plain truth of scripture make knowing all this archaeological and historical material unnecessary?”
Sometimes it’s not so explicit. Sometimes it’s a quiet nod followed by a “Hmm … that’s interesting … let me file this under ‘interesting factoid’ and go back to what I consider to be the real meaning of the text”
Both are expressions of fear. Fear that if we acknowledge the importance of historical, archaeological and geographical context to our understanding of scripture we are demanding a special knowledge of believers which conflicts with the perspicuity of the divinely inspired text.
In response, I must answer “Yup! God inspired hard texts!”
Scripture is dense
Scripture’s breadth and depth is wide and deep and so often, despite all our protests, it is difficult to understand. Tweet this
Consider the two men on a walk from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus. After overhearing the two men discuss scripture and the events of the passion week, Jesus calls them “foolish ones.” Jesus proceeds by, “interpreting, to them, all of scripture” Later on, when the two men realize they had been talking to Jesus, they exclaim to one another “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures” (Luke 24).
These were Jewish disciples Jesus was talking to. They refer to the chief priests in Jerusalem as their chief priests, and they earnestly hoped for the redemption of Israel from Roman rule. These were men who had likely spent much of their life studying scripture. They should have known the books of Moses and the prophets backwards and forwards and yet, they were fools to it.
The road to Emmaus demonstrates that scripture is hard; you can spend your whole life studying scripture and still need it explained to you.
Consider also what Peter had to say about Paul’s letters. Peter writes in his second letter to the church that “there are some things in them [Paul’s letters] that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do other scripture.” So Peter’s letter (part of scripture) calls some of Paul’s letters (also part of scripture) hard to understand and implies that the rest of scripture (the old testament) is also difficult to understand if you are ignorant. Apparently, the “plain truth” is not always apparent to everyone who studies scripture.
In order to prevent scripture from being misunderstood Peter goes on to implore the church to avoid the “error of lawless people.” Who are the lawless people? Non-God-fearing gentiles; those who haven’t studied or simply ignore torah and the prophets. In other words, Peter is imploring the church to avoid ignoring the greater context, to use what they know from the oral law and the torah and the prophets to properly interpret Paul (2 Peter 3).
Why I Search …
Ultimately, I search the historical, archaeological and geographical context of the bible because God inspired hard texts which are difficult to understand without their greater context. Knowing this greater context is not at odds with the perspicuity of scripture. To the contrary, it makes proper interpretation and exposition possible.
John Piper in his book, Brothers, We are not Professionals put it this way. “If god has inspired a book as the foundation of the Christian faith, there is a massive impulse unleashed in the world to teach people how to read. And if God ordained for some of that precious, sacred, God-Breathed book to be hard to understand, then God unleashed in the world not only an impulse to teach people how to read but also how to think about what they read – how to read hard things and understand them and how to use the mind in a rigorous way.”
I would take this one step further. If God ordained that this difficult to understand text would continue to have force five millennia after it was first written and inspired, then God unleashed into the world an impulse to teach people how to read a document written to a culture other than their own. Indeed, God unleashed into the world an impulse to study that foreign culture and to teach this hard to understand text from its greater historical and cultural context.
Those of us with the ability and desire to study such topics have a responsibility to provide that greater historical, archaeological and cultural context to the church body.
Join the discussion below: Is it “too much” to ask believers to invest their time in including backgrounds material in their biblical study? Do we risk creating an elitism through special knowledge if we do?Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, part 255: “guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”