Archaeology, Backgrounds and the Study of Scripture
by Dr. Dennis Dirks
In this issue
Christian leaders face the challenging task of helping 21st century believers grasp the intended meaning of biblical text, and then relate it to contemporary experience. For many believers, relevance to current everyday experience is an incessant demand, sometimes the only thing that matters. To modern sensitivities, dusty fingerprints from the past hold little interest for the text-messaging, blog-oriented world of the 21st century. Yet the serious reader of Scripture appreciates the benefits and the essential nature of Bible backgrounds for fully grasping Scripture’s meaning. Often without understanding the past, appropriate application to current life situations cannot be made.
Archaeology and backgrounds are the study of ancient things and practices. They involve various disciplines including history, anthropology, sociology, biblical studies, and linguistics. They serve more than an Indiana Jones-inspired curiosity for the ancient past. Study of the biblical world provides a more complete understanding of various events in Scripture. For example, Craig Keener notes that “since there were plenty of exorcists in the ancient world, ancient readers would not have been surprised that Jesus cast out demons, but since most exorcists employed magic spells or pain compliance techniques to seek to expel demons, Jesus’ driving them out ‘by his word’ was impressive.”1
Backgrounds help make sense of seemingly obscure, difficult portions of the Bible. The findings of archaeology help us move beyond limitations of personal experiences and understandings that have been shaped by life today, but that may cause us unintentionally to distort the text. They help reach back to ancient meanings and intents at the time God’s Word was written. Such study contributes to unlocking understanding of ancient cultures that are related to biblical text, but knowledge of which has long been lost. It provides clues to ancient practices that fill out and illuminate understanding of scriptural references. Misconstruing biblical text is more readily avoided.
Clearly, we do not depend on archaeological discoveries to “prove” the veracity of Scripture. Backgrounds do not demonstrate the truthfulness of theological claims. For this we rely on the testimony of Scripture itself (e.g., 2 Tim 3:16). Yet backgrounds make possible greater precision in understanding God’s intent as we fulfill our responsibility for “accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).
1 Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (InterVarsity Press, 1994) p. 10.