There is an instinctive and healthy expectation that our Biblical knowledge is stable. We are suspicious of new interpretations of old texts.
There are exceptions to this rule. If we discover something new, like the Dead Sea Scrolls, then our view of Israel and the scriptures adjust. Historical and archaeological research builds upon previous data, and sometimes turns old ideas on their heads.
A common weapon (a rhetorical tool) used to deny fresh interpretations of the Bible is to appeal to the instinctive and healthy expectation that Biblical knowledge is not in a constant flux. By employing this argument as rhetoric, there is a fallacy unleashed. The fallacy says that old views that are widely held by the larger community are final.
I am not proposing that Biblical knowledge is in a state of chaos. I am going to argue that there is a way to uphold that healthy instinct that our Biblical knowledge is stable, even as there is a way to spot fresh data and update and challenge old interpretations. This is more scientific than it sounds, and I shall explain.
The Problem Stated:
A common argument used against new ideas is to appeal to traditional knowledge as sufficient — maintaining that new data is interesting (at best) and certainly not able to overturn old views. I have seen this argument while working in the Song of Solomon. Data from the ancient world enables us to see new and valid interpretations. That has caused commentators to retreat to the tried-and-true argument that such new interpretations are modern and to be rejected.
Instead of rejecting new proposals about old texts, I suggest this: a view based upon ancient data is not to be treated as new or modern. If a new view is based upon ancient data (data we previously did not have available to our modern minds), then it may represent an ancient view. As more ancient data emerges from archaeological work, our view of the past must adapt. Ancient facts (lost or ignored for centuries), are yet ancient facts no matter when they are found again. Those ancient bits of data which we gather from sites in Israel, from manuscripts or inscriptions that are unearthed, etc., are sometimes more relevant than previously cherished views. Our old views, after all, are not always older than the ancient facts that were concurrent at the time that the Bible was written.
Given the above sketch, I would like to sharpen the distinctions and present two categories.
1) There are old, long-held and cherished interpretations.
Such interpretations are valid, tried and true given all the known facts that bolstered them. I am talking about interpretations that are historical, have large and broad endorsement from the Christian tradition and which have respected pedigree (I am not talking about old interpretations that have been dubbed heresy). When I say “old,” I mean really old — interpretations which, for example, go back to the Roman empire or earlier to Jewish writings of the Greek period.
2) There are ancient facts.
Ancient facts are often recovered in more recent times (via archaeology). Though “new” to us, we are to recognize that they are yet ancient. Such ancient facts correspond to periods when the Biblical authors lived (or thereabouts, if not earlier). For example, in the 1800s the French and British cracked the Egyptian hieroglyphs, and that DID impact our interpretation of certain Old Testament books, such as Nahum.
We thus have two categories: Long-held tried-and-true interpretations, and ancient facts. Which leads me to a principle I want to propose:
Long-held interpretations do not trump ancient facts.
To show how this might work, let me return to the Song of Solomon. Let’s say I hold to a view of the Song of Solomon which has a rich heritage going back to Origen. That heritage alone does not mean my view is more valid than a recent view built from recently recovered ancient facts. The recent view is, as it were, possibly as ancient as the ancient facts. But the ancient views were often lost along with the ancient facts. For example, humanity lost the ability to read Egyptian, and that knowledge needed to be recovered. When such data is recovered, it is not “new” — like some radical innovator who makes up new doctrines — even though it is new to us.
“New”, in this way, may represent far more ancient ideas.
In those cases where we have fresh archaeological data (like the Hebrew letters emerging from sites in Israel) and we also have competing old tried-and-true interpretations, a question rises: What is it that will help us to decide between these two interpretive scenarios?
Two rules may help us:
1) Weigh the data. We need to decide what is and what is not valid data, and then weigh it. “I have always believed _____ ” is not weighty data. The mere presence of a tradition is not sufficient to be weighed — at least we must judge its weight as light. To weigh tradition against new discoveries, we must determine the data points that led to the tradition in the first place! We must weigh data against data so as to compare apples to apples (as it were) and not apples to pencils. Historical facts are valid items to measure, contemplate and evaluate. A problem with competing interpretations can often be helped (sometimes solved!) in the light of data analysis. I say this knowing that some will not bend when presented with new and decisive data (I am not going to address such stubborned peoples at this point). Our reasonable service is to gather facts and find ways to analyze and weigh them.
2) Make sure we have the right facts. We need to make sure that the ancient data is being handled and presented properly (it must be used in a responsible manner). It is possible to mishandle inscriptions and artifacts. Caution is required. Consensus among those who are capable of handling the data is useful. This same requirement goes to the data that supports the old long-held view (the tradition)! The data all around must be validated. An unethical use of data is to prejudice the final results — this must be avoided.
Those are two rules that should be adhered to. With those, a guideline is also useful to keep in mind: New data propagates slowly through the ranks of Christian thinkers. New information and rebuttals from experts take time to move through the various parts of the Church, journals and seminaries. Data travels from the field, to journals, to seminaries and finally lands in commentaries and is picked up by pastors and the Church. Earth-shattering discoveries are the exception; for everything else, it often takes years for new research to make it into the sermon (or commentaries).
This guideline means that old commentaries may not integrate current trends captured in up-to-date journals. The use of the Dead Sea Scrolls are still impacting commentaries and pastors. Fifty years ago experts were using those same scrolls to advance amazing theories. Many of those then amazing and strange ideas are just now becoming accepted. People are able to weigh the data and accept new views (the ancient facts have won the day).
When we come to the Bible, tradition is not our only teacher. We have research and history. There is new light (new to us) that the ancient world understood, yet which we must now recover. As we recover lost languages and lost cities, we hear afresh what those ancient texts had been talking about all along.
This little article on data, interpretations and facts is meant to be a mild rebuttal to the oft heard argument that new is bad. I think we need to be more thoughtful about new data and we should have a realistic and sober understanding of how powerful new archaeological data is.
Biblical interpretation is not open to wild ideas or clever and ingenious imaginations. Innovators are not prized for merely being innovative. Our understanding of Jesus and the Bible is stable. There is also a healthy openness to ancient facts found in historical, linguistic or archaeological studies. Biblical knowledge is stable even as field archaeology and language studies are sometimes the basis for revamped interpretations. We are not thrown about by every wind of idea or every new doctrine. At the same time, we are smart enough to weigh, use and integrate ancient data newly discovered.
Related Post: Why do we make mistakes in interpreting the Bible?