Archaeology plays a major role in how we understand the Bible. It is more than Indiana Jones style trips to far away lands in search of lost treasures or the holy grail. In a practical way, archaeology illuminates scripture as we come to understand the culture and language of the time in more precise ways. Imagine if you lived 2000 years from now and the only thing you had to understand America was a DVD of Ferris Beuller’s Day Off and a copy of the Declaration of Independence. Once you learned English based on the best available evidence, you could come up with some pretty strange things that American’s must have been like. From the vantage point of the year 4007 something from 1776 and 1986 may seem relatively contemporary. But from our vantage point we can tell that culturally they are extremely different. Archaeology opens a window to the past that helps us understand their language and customs better as we get closer and closer back in time to those who have gone before us and recorded the history of God’s interactions with His people that was couched in a language that would otherwise be far removed from our understanding.
Archaeology and Translation:
Language and culture change over time. It has only been in the last 300 years or so that we have understood the differences between Classical/Attic Greek and Hellenistic/Koine Greek, which has some implications for the accuracy of our older translations. Additionally, the number of words we have parallels for in extra-bibilical literature also increases our understanding of the biblical text. In 1886 Thayer listed 767 Greek words that were distinct to the New Testament. Today there are less than 50. Do you think that has a profound effect on our understanding of how to translate particular passages? Absolutely. How do we come across these words in extra-biblical literature? Archaeology. For the 50 or so we have left in Greek (more in Hebrew) it makes it difficult to understand what these terms mean when you only have them in one passage. With only a few data points our knowledge of the words in scripture are often not as concrete until we get more and more pieces of the puzzle – land deeds, wills, legal documents, personal letters, etc in biblically contemporary Hebrew and Greek all help us fine tune our understanding of scripture. When you read a modern translation you benefit from those who have looked at these pieces of the puzzle and have put the fruit of their labor into the translation process to give us accurate translations.
God has not handed down an inspired dictionary or lexicon of the Greek or Hebrew languages. We don’t have anyone who was frozen in the year 600 B.C. or 55 A.D. and has recently been thawed out to tell us how things were or what the words meant. There is much to be discovered and that comes through the reconstructive process of archaeology and lexicography. Imagine if you lived 2000 years from now and the only way you could understand what the word “cool” meant was from Ferris Beuller? That would severely limit your understanding of that word and its nuances. Could it be a term about temperature, about popularity or both? But imagine how much your comprehension would improve if you then discovered a Webster’s dictionary and a complete set of Encyclopdia Britannica. Likewise, advances in archaeology give us a greater number of instances and usages of biblical language that give us a richer understanding of the biblical text.
How does this play out practically in scripture? Here are just a few small examples.
In Deuteronomy 14:1ff the Hebrews are told not to cut themselves. Why? “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. Out of all the peoples on the face of the earth, the Lord has chosen you to be his treasured possession.” In Canaanite religion the story was told how the God El would cut himself in mourning Baal’s death. The point God is making is that his people are not to look like a bunch of pagans. Notice that matches with the rational God gives them in this verse yet the story of the surrounding culture is not present in the Bible. It is only found in the extra-biblical account about Baal and Canaanite religion. That is one example of how reading the literature of the surrounding cultures gives insight into how scripture was heard and understood in their day.
Exodus 15:2, Psalm 118:14, and Isaiah 12:2 all contain a term that has traditionally been translated “song.”
Exo 15:2 – “The LORD is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation. He is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him.”
Psalm 118:14 – “The LORD is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation.”
Isa 12:2 – “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid. The LORD, the LORD, is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation.”
The translation of that word has recently been changed to “defense” rather than “song” based on some South Arabic (a cognate of Hebrew) inscriptions that may give some insight into how this term was used by surrounding peoples. The interesting thing here is that in each of these contexts both song and defense seem to fit
Exo 15:1 – “I will sing…the Lord is my strength and my _________.”
Psalm 118 – psalms are associated with song and the surrounding context of this verse is one of battle, so again either translation could fit the context.
Isa 12:1 – “I will praise you, Lord…the Lord is my strength and my ________.”Again, song or defense would fit the context of Isa 12 as well.
We may not all be archaeologists or lexicographers, but it is still important to realize the role these discoveries play in our understanding of scripture. We benefit from them indirectly as we read our Bibles today and all of the work that went on behind the scenes to bring about an accurate translation. Without a doubt archaeology helps us understand the language and culture of scripture.