Archaeology | Hermeneutics

Why context reigns in archaeology and bible study

If you are a writer, pastor or creative you might have heard the adage that “content is king.” It has been the mantra of the blogosphere for years. Even non-creatives have adopted the phrase making it the center of new forms of “content marketing.” But when it comes to archaeology and biblical studies, “context is king.”

Context, for the archaeologists is everything. Indeed, where a particular artifact was found, its provenance, is often more important than the artifact itself. Context is so important to the archaeologist that it is the fundamental unit of archaeological data. Everything from the smallest potsherd to the most massive of ancient walls is assigned a context.

When context is lost: Thousands of buckets of dirt wait to be sifted at the Temple Mount sifting Project. Unfortunately, this material was removed from the temple mount prior to being investigated in its original context. Though significant for statistical purposes, objects found in the sifting process will never again be unequivocally connected to the temple mount.

Four benefits of knowing the archaeological context of artifacts

1. Context gives meaning to the artifact

Context tells us in what way an artifact was created, used or discarded. It connects the artifact to the greater narrative of the room, the building, the neighborhood, the city, and the society in which it was found. If an artifact is completely disconnected from its original context, if we have no understanding of how the artifact functioned within that society then it is often relegated to ambiguous categorization: “unknown, possible game piece/cultic item”

2. Context dates the artifact

The layer in which an artifact was found places the artifact within stratigraphic sequence or relative chronology of the site.

3. Context controls the artifact

Context reigns in the imagination of the archaeologist, or researcher. Artifacts are not whatever an archaeologist wants them to be. When artifacts are removed from their context all sorts of suppositions can be made about them which may have nothing to do with their original time and place.

4. Context provides perspective

While objects may be intrinsically valuable for their beauty, form, function or economy, lack of context destroys our ability to have proper perspective. Someone developed that object to function well, someone created its beautiful form, and someone conceived it to be more efficient. Without the perspective of context it is far too easy to elevate the status of the artifact above that of the artisan or society that created it.

Biblical Scholars, commentators, pastors and armchair theologians would do well to apply these lessons to their handling of the biblical text too.

Four benefits of understanding the cultural context of scripture.

1. Context gives meaning to the text

Some would have us ignore context because they view the biblical text as simply the literary product of an ancient society. Homer’s Odyssey, for instance, should not be subjected to a contextual reading because it is a work of fiction. “So too,” they say, “the biblical text is the literary fiction of a particular culture, disconnected from any basis in reality and thus has no need for contextual analysis.”

But, if context doesn’t matter to the text, if the people places and periods it describes didn’t actually exist, if God didn’t actually act in redemptive history then …

the biblical text’s content doesn’t matter.

The text is simply an “unknown; possible game piece”

Others would have us ignore context because their view of inspiration places the text above its human authors. “Let scripture interpret scripture; anything else would threaten its perspicuity,” they argue, “If scripture is not wholly above its human authors, then its divine authority is threatened. The meaningful thrust of the text is not towards the cultures to which it was first communicated, but to us, today, in its final form.”

But if context doesn’t matter, if God never actually intended to communicate his truth to Abram, or Moses or Isaiah in ways that were meaningful to them in their own time and place, and if their own cultural milieus didn’t affect how it was constructed and communicated then …

The biblical text’s content doesn’t matter.

If God wasn’t actually trying to communicate to them in ways they could understand what makes us think he is actually trying to communicate to us.

The text becomes an “unknown; possible cultic item”

2. Context dates the text

The communication that occurred in scripture did not occur in our own time and place. Fallen fools that we are, we are far too capable of anachronistic thinking. We far too often apply the lifeways of a western modern world to the revelation to an eastern ancient one. By placing the biblical text in its proper chronological context we prevent ourselves from imposing modern standards and worldviews on the text.

3. Context controls our reading of the text

Context reigns in our proclivity for reader response devotions which are burdened with presuppositions from our own time and place. I don’t trust anyone that tells me that the work of the spirit supersedes the need to do the hard work of studying the text in its original place and time. The hard work of studying is, in fact, the unleashing of the spirit into the world.

God choose to communicate his revelation to the world in specific places, at specific times, using the limiting language of specific people. He has also ordained, given the cultural gulf between his initial revelation and today, that education and teaching, and scholarship would be necessary in order to encounter his truth through scripture.

The text does not mean whatever we would like it to for our own situation. It witnesses to the truth communicated with specific intent to a specific place and time. As such, it is vital that we understand the self-imposed cultural limits of God’s self-revelation if we are to properly interpret and apply it in our own lives.

4. Context provides perspective

Finally, when context isn’t king, we elevate scripture over God, we elevate the act of communication over the intent of communication and we confuse what was said for why it was said.

The artifact is not more important than the society that created it.

Scripture is not more important than the God that revealed it.

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