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The Importance of History in Theological Study

Abstract

When one reads the Bible, one is reading a grouping of accounts about the ancient history of Israel. This includes the history of the Ancient Near East and the relationships of the Roman empire relative to Israel and the advent of Christianity. 

The Bible is not a solitary account of Israel. Its many stories and writings were developed over time that reveal the relationships of God’s people to the people around them. This is especially true in the Old Testament. By reading the Bible as a collection of historical accounts, we not only learn something about God’s dealings with Israel, but we also learn about the nations contemporary to Israel, and how God dealt with them through their relationship with Israel. 

Throughout the Bible, we are given information about the perspectives of ancient people and their views of the supernatural, political dealings with Israel, and how they influenced the people of God for good or bad. Going deeper by researching their history outside the Bible also provides insights into the biblical accounts.  We shall see that many of the Bible’s main characters regarded the inspired text as historical and took the accounts and people in the text as real-world people, not myths or legends without historical validity. 

Introduction

            There are many interpretations from Bible studies that only use the biblical text to guide a person’s understanding. This is normal but does have one drawback. Sometimes, a text is misunderstood because there may be a lack of information about the times and culture in which a biblical passage was written. 

Understanding the Bible requires that we understand something of the history that surrounds the text. Without knowledge of some history, our understanding may fall short.

            This thesis will present a case that history contemporary to the Bible provides insights into the biblical text that help us understand the Bible’s claims in a way that we cannot understand without it.

            We shall examine examples from history that help deepen our understanding of the Bible by demonstrating its cultural relevance to the text. This includes Christianity as a historical faith, the importance of Ancient Near East history when studying the Old Testament, the importance of Roman history in understanding the New Testament, the importance of understanding culture related to biblical interpretation, a progressive view of biblical history, and a brief examination of prophecy in the role of future history.

The Importance of History in Theological Studies

Definition of History

            Defining history, when first considered, seems to be an easy thing. According to Merriam-Webster, history is “A chronological record of significant events (such as those affecting a nation or institution), often including an explanation of their causes.”[1] This definition fits a general description of history as a collection of facts and events from a hopefully dispassionate perspective. However, when we come to an understanding of biblical history, there are different approaches to the text according to a person’s worldview. 

            A liberal view of biblical history regards much of the story of the Bible as myth or legend, but often without a factual record of real-world events, i.e., biblical history, to some degree, is made up. We see this approach from Progressive Christianity (which we will touch on later). 

            A moderate view of biblical history considers it a mixture of some factual elements and some which are myths or symbolic of some principle.

            A conservative view of history regards the Bible as an accurate record of all it purports to relate. But going one step further, a biblical view regards the Bible’s historical record as inspired by God and, therefore, without factual error in its original autographs. Biblical history is the record of God’s dealing with man in a redemptive context. “In the Old Testament, God is presented as an agent in the historical process. Supremely in the exodus from Egypt, but also in many other events, God displays his power.”[2]

Nailing down a proper perspective of biblical history is essential if we are to interpret the Bible correctly. “History is indispensable to understanding prophecy.”[3] The Bible was not written in a vacuum. Its events happened parallel to many other events in the world that were recorded at that time. Resourcing history and culture contemporaneous with biblical writings can help contribute to our understanding of the biblical text. However, while history may augment our examination of the text, it must not be determinative of the meaning of that text.

Christianity Is a Historical Faith

            Christianity, like Judaism before it and Islam after it, is a historical faith. This means we can trace its claims to people, events, and things in the historical record to validate or invalidate those claims. This is very different from most Eastern religions, which are not historical in that they teach a philosophy rather than focusing on historical events to validate their claims. This is also true of Mormonism, whose books contain remarkable claims for events that happened in North America, but for which there is zero archeological evidence.

            “The historical transactions of Scripture are part of a great plan, which stretches from the fall of man to the final consummation of all things in glory; and in so far as they reveal the mind of God toward man, they carry a respect to the future not less than to the present.”[4]

            Because Christianity is a historical faith, we have the benefit of resourcing history and archeology to help us understand the text in a deeper way. The dirt and the documents help present a fuller history than we might have without them. And because today’s generation often regards the Bible as something akin to mythology, the testimony of the ancient documents and the profiles of how historical peoples lived their lives gives us significant advantages during the examination phase of our Bible study. There are many examples of historical references to things in the Bible. 

            When writing his Gospel, Luke provided many references to the authorities and locations of his day, including Roman references to Israelite sites. Luke wanted his readers to understand that his account of the life of Jesus was based on history contemporary to them, of which some of his readers may have been a part. 

            Jesus referred to events of Israel’s past as if they were taken for granted as historical facts. Jesus referred in this way to Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, the Queen of Sheba, Elijah, Jonah, Zechariah, and others. His audience, also being Jews, understood his references because they also held these figures to be historical. 

            Even in the Old Testament, people referred to historical events closer to their own time. Nehemiah spoke of Israel’s history from the exodus to the exile. Solomon spoke of the exodus as the founding of their nation. The Judge, Jephthah, recounted the history of the wilderness wanderings and taking of the land of Canaan. 

            There is yet still more. The apostle Paul referred to Old Testament events as real-world happenings. Paul spoke of Adam and Eve, Abraham, Sarah, and Moses. He also quoted Old Testament scriptures as if they were historical and applicable to his day. 

            Archeology over the last century has produced a large number of discoveries corroborating biblical figures, places, and events. Discoveries of one kind or another include artifacts from Sodom, Edom, Amon, Egypt, the Hittites, David’s kingdom, Hezekiah’s works, and even a reference to King Jehu by his enemies.

            The importance of archeology in understanding some biblical references cannot be overstated. “There isn’t one single Levantine (Holy Land) archaeologist—even among those considered to be biblical minimalists—who doesn’t use the Bible at least periodically when doing archaeology. And in between those two extremes lies the discipline of Levantine archaeology, which, since its inception more than a hundred years ago, has consistently used the Bible as an important historical point of reference.”[5]

            The Old Testament also presents the importance of history to Israel. In Deuteronomy 6, the Lord spends a significant amount of time telling his people to pass on their knowledge of God to their children, i.e., tell your children your shared history of you and God. God is telling his people to maintain their history. The purpose, however, was not to simply relate facts and events. Its purpose was to convey something deeper. “Although the Bible contains history understood in a chronological sense, its primary purpose is to convey the meaning of history.”[6] Sadly, it seems that Israel did not always pass down its history from one generation to the next. Scripture tells us, “There arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel” (Judges 2:10 ESV).

The Importance of Ancient Near East history in Biblical Interpretation

            Many of the Bible’s stories were written during two great historical periods. To understand some of its references, we need a basic understanding of some of the history of those times. These times are the periods of the Ancient Near East (relative to the Old Testament), and the Roman Empire (relative to the New Testament). Regarding the importance of knowing something about ANE culture, Dr. John H. Walton remarks, “If we seek to understand the cognitive environment of the ancient world, we must try to comprehend how people thought about the past.”[7] We have two examples from the Old Testament to touch on briefly. 

            In Genesis 16:3, Sarai gave her servant, Hagar, to her husband, Abram, as a wife. Through her, Abram acquired a son, Ishmael. Where did Sarai get the idea to give to Abram Hagar as his wife? Sarai didn’t pull her idea out of thin air. She likely got the idea from the legal practices of their own homeland in Mesopotamia. One researcher has remarked, “The reasons for the addition of a second wife seem to center primarily on the problems associated with infertility or illness on the part of the first wife. Marriage to a naditum-priestess, who was not allowed to have children herself, required a form of surrogacy in which the naditum provided her husband with a slave-woman to impregnate. If this slave gave birth to children, then they were the legal offspring of the naditum, but it was necessary for the husband to legitimize them as his heirs.”[8]

            As is apparent in the Genesis account, Sarai’s experience in Genesis matches closely with the legal practices of her homeland in her day.

            Another appropriate example comes from the Old Testament’s use of the term, “Covenant,” specifically in relation to God and Israel. In modern times, we tend to think of a covenant like we do a legal contract. Contracts today are negotiated by two or more willing parties who seek amicable arrangements that they form through compromise. Modern contracts are then executed between the parties, and they apply only to the parties in question. However, this is not how covenants in the Ancient Near East (ANE) were arranged. The Bible uses the old form as the form for its covenants. 

            ANE covenants were never negotiated; they were imposed by an imperial power onto a vassal state. They revealed what the imperial did for the vassal, then stipulated what was expected of the vassal, and included rewards or punishments for obedience or disobedience to the covenant. In addition, biblical covenants were not just between God and the generation who made the covenant; rather, they were imposed and valid on their descendants, forever. We can see this form of covenant imposed on Israel in Exodus 20 and throughout Deuteronomy. 

The Importance of Roman History to Understanding the New Testament


            
During the time of the various kings in the Old Testament, idols permeated the land. The various idols that existed were usually set up by the Israelites as they sought to take part in the false idol worship of the nations around them, and those near them that survived Israel’s taking of the land. But these were purely religious in nature. By the time of the New Testament, things had changed. Roman idols were established throughout Israel but with two important differences.

            First, while the Romans set up idols and temples of false gods, they also set up idols of the Caesars in various places. Rome regularly did this in all its client states. The statues were representations of the power and authority of Rome over the state where they were erected. Wherever an image was set up, it represented Roman authority over that area.

            Second, though Rome was an authoritarian state, it did not seek to supplant the local religions in the countries it conquered. It established false gods and political idols alongside the local deity. Rome had a tolerance policy regarding local gods but insisted that Caesar was supreme. This was such a problem for the Jews that Rome allowed an exception for Israel in order to maintain the peace. 

            There is a small, but interesting event that took place during Jesus’ trial that is enlightened by an understanding of Roman culture. It was during the examination of Jesus by Pilate that this exchange took place: The Jewish leaders said to Pilate, “‘We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has made himself the Son of God.’ When Pilate heard this statement, he was even more afraid” (John 19:7-8 ESV). Why was Pilate, “More afraid?”

            It’s clear that Pilate did not favor killing Jesus (v.4). He had already said Jesus had done nothing warranting death. But when he heard Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God, Pilate naturally interpreted this in terms of his own culture. Being Roman, Pilate believed in the gods and demigods of Rome. If, in Pilate’s thinking, Jesus was a demigod, then having him crucified would certainly spell doom for Pilate. Thus, he was, “More afraid.” This may also give us insight into why Pilate washed his hands in front of the crowd. It was a common Jewish practice the Jews would have understood.[9] Pilate was trying to distance himself from being responsible for Jesus’ death. 

The Importance of Understanding Culture Related to Biblical Interpretation

 One example of cultural understanding related to the biblical text comes from the apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians, where he states, “Every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head since it is the same as if her head were shaven” (I Corinthians 11:5). This passage and its surrounding text have puzzled many interpreters. However, author Ben Stanhope reveals that during this period, based upon the teachings of Hippocrates, Aristotle, Greek plays, and other ancient literary works, the Corinthians believed that a woman’s hair was a sex organ. They believed that hair was hollow and caused suction in the body to draw a man’s semen higher into her body to impregnate her. The longer her hair, the better her chance of pregnancy. To cut her hair short or to go bald was considered licentious, making herself available to any man. Thus, the apostle Paul used a mistaken medical belief of their day to drive home the point of modesty.[10]

In the preceding, we see brief examples of why it is important to understand history that is parallel to the Bible. However, what we are really discussing is not so much raw history as it is how a society operates according to its culture. It was only natural for the people of the day to interpret the events they experienced according to their preconceived worldview. And this is no less true today than it was thousands of years ago. Allow me to draw an example from this author’s ten-year ministry in Mongolia. 

            Historically, Mongolia has been a Buddhist society for hundreds of years. Prior to the 20th century, Mongolia was the most Buddhist nation on earth, surpassing even Tibet. The first Dali Lama was Mongolian. 

            The most popular translation of the Bible in Mongolia is called The Blue Bible. It uses Buddhist terminology to refer to God, Jesus, prayer, sin, and a variety of other biblical concepts. The Blue Bible uses an entirely Buddhist vocabulary of nearly 150 words to discuss Christian concepts. This has facilitated a long-standing practice of syncretism of Buddhism with Christianity in the Mongolian church. So much so, that “56.9 percent of Christian respondents essentially admit that they keep a Christian image in their home for the purpose of worship as they might a Buddhist or Shamanist image.”[11]

            When doing evangelism in the countryside, it is natural for the Mongolian to interpret what he hears about Jesus through a Buddhist or Shamanist perspective. It is all he knows. When one associate was in a countryside community doing discipleship work with a man whom he brought to Christ, the man asked him, “I’m making an idol of Jesus; how long should the hair be?” 

            On another occasion, while sitting at my desk in our studios, a Christian couple came to receive counseling from our response team. They went to a private room and left their daughter in the lobby to wait for them. She was around ten years old. When she saw a wooden statue of a Mongolian woman that we used in some of our TV sets, she approached it, bowed her face down to it, and worshipped it there in our front office for all to see.

            We see from these examples that it is not only important for us to understand the culture in which the Bible was written, but we must also understand the history and culture of the people we are trying to reach in other countries. By understanding our target culture and understanding the Bible’s culture, we can create bridges of understanding so that the Mongolian person, or any person, can form the right perspective when learning about who Jesus really is. 

A Progressive View: Discounting History In the Bible 

            It would seem obvious to the average reader that the Bible is trying to communicate some kind of history. For the conservative reader, he takes the Bible at face value. But the person who approaches the Bible with a liberal worldview takes the Bible’s accounts with a grain of salt. As one example, this is true of what is called, Progressive Christianity.Progressives don’t rely on established history. Their approach to the Bible disregards its historical claims and seeks to apply a different meaning to the text, contrary to a more conservative approach. Note this approach from these two progressive writers:

            According to Gregory C. Jenks, writing in Taking The Bible Seriously But Not Literally, “The events represented in the Bible [are] more often fictional than historical…the Bible may need to be read contrary to its literal and historical significance…For its own sake as much as for ours, the Bible needs a demotion.”[12]

Fellow progressive, Dwight Welch agrees, stating, “The moment Genesis is taken as a historical record is the moment that it can be dismissed. And unfortunately, that means that whatever resources can be found in Genesis will likewise be dismissed.”[13]

            Because Progressive Christianity dismisses the historical validity of the Bible, it is free to change the meaning of the text according to its worldview, a worldview foreign to the text. Thus, though calling itself Progressive Christianity, it is not Christianity at all. 

Future History

            Unlike other perspectives of history, there is one type of history that is unique to the Bible, which offers a type of confirmation that God was at work in the world in the past and is at work in the future. This is prophecy. “Prophecy is most commonly viewed as prediction or foretelling. Biblical examples of predictive prophecy are the oracles against the nations. These prophecies, which appear in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, among others, predict the fall of various nations.[14]

In one sense, we may say that prophecy is a form of future history that places redemptive events within a future historical context. If we take the book of Revelation as an example, we see that the future presented by God is as immutable as the past. Additionally, with regard to the future, prophecy is not always clear. Many interpreters look at specific prophecies and try to attach them to modern nations and events. The problem with this form of interpretation is that prophecies are not always spelled out in such detail. Even the scripture itself tells us within prophecy that some of its predictions will not be understood until a future time. The prophecies of Daniel are one such example: “But you, Daniel, shut up the words and seal the book, until the time of the end” (Daniel 12:4 ESV). 

With a few exceptions, God never asks us to believe anything without evidence. We do not simply, “Have faith” regardless of evidence. The scriptures are a form of historical evidence. Many of their claims have additional evidence outside of the Bible. History and archeology also present us with evidence. When it comes to prophesy about the future, we rely partly on God’s track record of past events as a testimony that what God had said to us about the future will surely come to pass. “The historical transactions of Scripture are part of a great plan, which stretches from the fall of man to the final consummation of all things in glory; and in so far as they reveal the mind of God toward man, they carry a respect to the future not less than to the present.”[15]

Conclusion

            Studying the Bible without outside aid can sometimes lead to a misunderstanding of a text. Through additional study in history and archeology, we can augment our understanding. It may not change the meaning of the text, but it may allow for a greater appreciation of the historical elements that make our understanding more complete.

            A good study of the Bible can also do the reverse by helping us to understand the cultures that Israel and the church interacted with in their history. We can arrive at a good understanding by recognizing that these two sides complement one another in our studies.

            Knowing more about Ancient Near East history and Roman history may reveal weaknesses in our understanding of the Bible; therefore, studying historical references of the times should lead to greater knowledge of the scripture. Future studies of the Bible should include searching out the latest scholarship about the people and places with which the scripture writers may have interacted.

            The end result of this thesis is that historical study is a valuable companion to Bible study and scholarship and should not be looked upon negatively. 


[1] Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “History,” definition #2a. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/history accessed July 15, 2022.

[2] Ferguson, Sinclair B. and J.I. Packer, New Dictionary of Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 307.

[3] Talbot, Kenneth, Hermeneutics Lecture #14, audio at 9:41, Whitefield Theological Seminary. Accessed May 31st, 2022.

[4] Fairbairn, Patrick, The Interpretation of Prophecy, https://books.apple.com/us/book/the-interpretation-of-prophecy/id1462615448.

[5] Collins, Steven; Scott, Latayne C. Discovering the City of Sodom: The Fascinating, True Account of the Discovery of the Old Testament’s Most Infamous City. Howard Books. Kindle Edition.

[6] Bond, Steve with Yarnell Malcolm B. III, History, ed. Chad Brand et al., Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), 767.

[7] Walton, John H. Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (p. 203). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[8] Matthews, Victor H, Marriage and Family in the Ancient Near East, August 29, 2003, page 15. https://silo.tips/download/an-examination-of-the-laws-and-customs-that-deal-with-marriage-and-family accessed on July 13th, 2022.

[9] Bunch, Taylor G., Behold the Man page 158. Copyright 1940, Pacific Press Publishing Association. https://books.google.com.au/books?id=HKCob-pYuw0C&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false accessed July 13th, 2022.

[10] Stanhope, Ben. (Mis)interpreting Genesis: How the Creation Museum Misunderstands the Ancient Near Eastern Context of the Bible (p. 172). Scarab Press. Kindle Edition.

[11] Terry, Tom, Mongolian Church Assessment, AMONG Mongolia, Press Institute of Mongolia, 2011, page 2.

[12] Jenks, Gregory C., Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally, December 4, 2011, https://progressivechristianity.org/resources/taking-the-bible-seriously-but-not-literally/ accessed on July 13th, 2022.

[13] Welch, David, A Progressive Christian Case For Original Sin, “Approaching Justice,” April 12, 2014. https://approachingjustice.net/2014/04/12/a-progressive-christian-case-for-original-sin/ accessed July 13, 2022.

[14] Gretchen Ellis, “Prophecy,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

[15] Fairbairn, Patrick, The Interpretation of Prophecy. https://books.apple.com/us/book/the-interpretation-of-prophecy/id1462615448. Accessed July 16, 2022.

tomterry
tomterryhttps://guywithabible.com
Tom Terry is head of Global Broadcast Strategy for JESUS Film Project and serves as General Manager of The Better FM, an online radio station for Asia. Tom is also the author of several books, including Bible studies and "Like An Eagle," his biography about living in Mongolia for ten years. In addition to these things, he is pursuing a Master of Arts in Theological Studies with Whitefield Theological Seminary.
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