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Mark W. Chavalas: Bible wasn’t written in historical vacuum


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Have you ever wondered about what life was like during the period in which the Bible was written? In fact, the Bible is an artifact from a dead, alien civilization — the ancient Near East, an area composed of the modern countries of the Middle East.

The writer of Genesis placed the ancestor of the Israelites, Abraham, in the city of Ur of the Chaldees, a thriving metropolis and capital of the largest Mesopotamian empire of the time, the Sumerian Third Dynasty of Ur at about 2000 B.C. This ancient world, centuries older than the Greeks and Romans, only came to light in a significant way fewer than two centuries ago.

In 1847, the Frenchman Adrien de Longpérier was able to read the name Sargon, King of Assyria, on one of the Assyrian cuneiform monuments uncovered by the first Near Eastern archaeologist Emile Botta. This Sargon was identified with the same mentioned in Isaiah 20:1, the first name of a Mesopotamian king to be read by a modern scholar from outside the Biblical text.

The 19th century European and American Christian worlds were stunned. Before this, most saw the Bible as a didactic book with pseudo-historical props but no concrete substance behind them.

Soon thereafter, the Englishman A.H. Layard found the first dramatic sculptural link to the Old Testament, the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III, which contained a note concerning tribute to the Assyrian monarch from King Jehu of Israel.

In 1852, Edward Hincks and Henry Rawlinson were able to partially decipher Sennacherib’s account of the invasion of Judah, which was remarkably similar to the biblical account in II Kings 18:13-16. Rawlinson also was able to translate an inscription of Sargon II, who claimed to have conquered Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel — interestingly, the Bible credited Shalmaeser V, his predecessor, with the victory.

The biblical books were now understood to be based upon concrete historical realia, revolutionizing our understanding of how Scripture was to be viewed.

But this was just the beginning. In 1868, the Moabite Stone of King Mesha was discovered, an autobiographical inscription which not only mentioned Israel and King Omri, but also the House of David  — a fact augmented by a recent Aramaic inscription from Tel Dan, found in the 1990s —  providing the earliest mention of an Israelite king outside of Scripture.

By the end of the 19th century, biblical scholars now began to accept the fact that the Bible could be studied in the context of the ancient Near East. I am a product of that tradition.

I have spent nearly 40 years studying the massive textual corpus from Mesopotamia in particular. More than 1 million cuneiform tablets have been found in the past two centuries that have provided a widespread context for understanding the Bible in its original context, garnering several life times of material for evaluating the biblical material as historically and culturally reliable and plausible.

Just imagine an archaeologist in 4011 A.D. For some unexplained reason, only Winston Churchill’s “A History of the English-Speaking Peoples” has survived as a literary artifact from ancient times the 20th century. However, this future archaeologist has just uncovered a massive text repository in the area of the former District of Columbia — the Library of Congress.

A whole new understanding of the world of Churchill would open up, illuminating our understanding of these volumes. This analogy rings true with the Bible, which, for

18 centuries was the only significant literary text remaining from the ancient Near East. Now, we have an enormous text base in which to place the Bible. We can not only understand the Bible in its original context, we can now perceive its relevant importance as a historical document, providing pertinent historical, cultural, legal, and religious information about our own cultural ancestors from the ancient world.

These brief notes are just a start. The 20th and early 21st centuries have provided many, many more discoveries and revelations. Stay tuned.


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