The New Testament writers expect us to know basic facts about their world. Dr Thomas Davis tells Kay Carter how archaeology can help to fill that information in.
One of the things that sets Christianity apart from other worldviews is that it isn’t just a theory, philosophy or moral code — it is rooted in real-world events and is only coherent if these events actually happened. This means that it matters whether we believe Bible narratives (sensitively read with a respect for their context). It also means we need to know something of the ancient world if we want to understand the Bible deeply and appreciate Christian heritage richly.
To say that having a good grasp of history will help us read the Bible better isn’t to suggest that somehow Scripture is incomplete or doesn’t contain everything we need to comprehend the Christian faith. However, the Bible is written in a way that focuses on actual happenings, so the importance of understanding its context flows from Scripture itself. All this means that Christians owe a debt of gratitude to the historians and archaeologists who seek to provide information about the world of the Bible and the early Church.
I am discussing this with Dr Thomas Davis, Associate Director of the Lanier Center for Archaeology at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee, and he encapsulates the importance of historical literacy among Christians in a characteristically direct way: “There are certain historical fundamentals we’ve got to understand, because if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead Paul is absolutely right, we’re a bunch of idiots. And if the Bible is not, at a fundamental level, historical, we’re a bunch of idiots too. In our culture there is a pervasive postmodernist problem with truth which always wants to say, I’m okay if you don’t agree with me. Well at a certain point it matters if it’s historic or not, it really does.”
Davis believes that his subject, archaeology, can help Christians not only to examine the evidence for Bible reliability, but to have a better understanding of their faith and heritage. “The Bible is a theological interpretation of history,” he says. “It’s a true interpretation but it’s not a full interpretation. It’s one that happens to be theologically correct, and it is the spin that God wants us to have, but there is so much more we would understand about the Bible if we could see the material world around it.
“Let’s be clear that the Bible comes from a real world — it’s not something that was created in a library somewhere — and some knowledge of that world is assumed by the Bible writers. Matthew expects you know how to farm, that you know what a vineyard looks like, that you know what a marketplace is like. So when Jesus tells a parable set in the market, Matthew assumes the reader knows there will be a guy standing in the corner looking for work.
“That background has mostly gone for us, yet it was there and it was real. Archaeology can help us understand why Jesus says certain things the way he does. It helps us see why Paul talks differently to different cities — because the people are different, they have different cultures, different expectations. Archaeology gives you that which Scripture does not.
“It’s like if you walk into a supermarket and you have your list of what you’re going to buy. Thousands of years later a historian might read your list, and that’s all he knows about the supermarket. I’m the archaeologist, I come along, I excavate the supermarket. I can tell you where the fruit stand was, where the vegetables were and what types they had. I can find out what you didn’t buy.”
This type of context detail isn’t just theoretical; it can shape our understanding of Bible narratives. “Take taxation, for example. Everybody assumes that Matthew [from Matthew 9] is a tax-collector for the Romans, but he’s not. Herod Antipas doesn’t have to pay taxes to Rome. So who is Matthew collecting for? Well he’s either collecting for Herod Antipas himself, which is an interesting speculation, or he’s collecting for the temple. Either way, that piece of information shapes what we think the story is about.”
Another example Davis gives is of the falling out between Mark (sometimes called John) and Paul, referred to in Acts 15. Barnabas and Paul are going on an evangelistic journey and Barnabas invites Mark as a mission partner. But Acts tells us: “Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other (Acts 15:38).”