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Why Science Can Help Us Understand The Bible

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I recently joined a group on Facebook that discusses scientific evidences for creation. While the purpose of the group is discussion about how the natural world points to a Creator for all things, very often the group is engaged in heated discussions over young-earth and old-earth creationism. The debates can be heated, and even have a lot of venom, which is tragic. But there is one argument presented against scientific influence in Bible interpretation that I’d like to address. First, let me set up the position that is often taken against allowing science to interpret biblical discovery. The position is often stated that the person who uses science to guide or influence biblical interpretation is adding to the biblical text or allowing science to interpret scripture rather than scripture interpreting scripture. I have no doubt that the person or persons who hold such an opinion desire to trust and believe the Bible as the final authority on the Christian life. I actually admire people who hold the scripture in such high regard. However, there is a problem with this rule imposed on biblical interpretation. It forgets that we use a variety of extra-biblical disciplines to arrive at theological meaning all of the time, without regarding it as improper. For instance, we use the following extra-biblical sources to help us arrive at interpretation and meaning from scripture:
Historical study
Archaeological study, and
Geographical study

Allow me to give a brief example of each one.

Historical Study

Historical study and archaeological study are closely related when it comes to biblical interpretation. Much of our historical understanding of biblical times comes through discoveries in archaeology. For instance, why was Abraham not confronted by God for adultery when he took Hagar to bed? Why was it that Sarah offered her servant, Hagar, to her husband for her to have children through a union of Abraham and Hagar? The closest thing we have to this in modern society is surrogacy—asking or hiring a woman to bear a child for another woman. In modern society this involves medical procedures to impregnate the surrogate. But in the society in which Abraham and Sarah lived this involved sexual intercourse between Abraham and Hagar. None of this practice is explained in scripture, it is simply taken for granted that the reader understands why Sarah did this. Here is the kicker. Abraham did not ask Sarah for her servant. It was Sarah’s idea to offer her servant to her husband. Gals, would you ever consider such a thing? Can you imagine Sarah coming up with the idea in the first place?

Sarah came up with the idea because, as we have learned through the discovery of Ancient Near East law codes, it was part of the law of their country of origin that a barren woman may give her servant to her husband to acquire children through that union. Sarah and Abraham were simply following a legal custom of their day, and it wasn’t considered adultery. It was a legally accepted arrangement. Isn’t it curious that God never confronted Abraham for sleeping with his wife’s servant? He may have not blessed the union, but neither did he ask Abraham for repentance.

From our way of thinking we would regard this as a form of adultery. But we know from historical study that it was not considered as such in Abraham’s day. The same is true with a man having multiple wives. It was not favored, nor was it condemned.

Part of historical study is understanding the culture of the day in which biblical characters lived. Take Pilate as an example. During the examination of Jesus by Pilate the scripture says that Pilate was very afraid when he heard of Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God (John 19:8). Yet, nowhere in the scripture are we told why Pilate was afraid at this news. It is likely that John assumed the reader would understand Pilate’s fear because he was writing to an audience that understood Roman motivations. But in order for us, the modern audience, to understand Pilate’s fear we must go to historical sources to aid our understanding. Pilate feared because he came from a culture that believed in demigods. Pilate feared because in his own mind he wondered if he was about to pass judgment on, what in his mind, might be a demigod. Certainly, he would be punished by the gods for such an act. In this case, historical study helps us understand the biblical text that we would not fully understand without it.

Archaeological Study

In the last century archaeological discoveries have had a significant impact on our understanding of the Bible. One recent discovery is that at Tel-el-hamman in Jordan, better known to us as the site of Sodom. Discoveries made at this site in the last 11 years have aided our understanding of the biblical text surrounding this event.

Discoveries at the site have aided our understanding of Lot’s importance in the city while he was a resident. We understand why Lot did not want to flee to the valley when urged to leave by the angels, because of the terrain surrounding the area, so he fled to Zoar.

Discoveries in Sodom have also given us an understanding of just how wicked the people of Sodom were at that time, because of what we have learned about cultural practices from the site’s excavation, including the mandatory training of 12-year old boys in practices of Sodomy. They were literally, interned in these practices.

Geographical Study

This is an area that also aids our understanding of the biblical text, and has even impacted interpretative challenges. One example is the referral in Revelation 3:16 to lukewarm, hot and cold. Many Bible teachers have interpreted this passage as meaning that hot represents a passion for Christ and cold represents being against Christ, while lukewarm refers to indifference. Yet, knowing the geography of Laodicea helps us arrive at a different interpretation. Near one part of the city were hot springs used for health and medicinal purposes and elsewhere outside the city were cold waters used for consumption and irrigation. Inside the city the waters were stagnant and so dangerous that drinking the water would make one extremely ill to the point of vomiting. Suddenly, our perspective changes when we learn about the geographical references in the text.

Aided By Science

These three areas of extra-biblical study dramatically aid our understanding of the scripture. If this is true with these disciplines, then why can it not be true with other sciences as well? Some might argue that historical study, archaeology, and geography are not sciences in the strict sense, but I don’t think this is relative. These are disciplines outside of the Bible that we regularly use to aid our understanding of a biblical text and even help us arrive at interpretation and application. If these extra-biblical disciplines can aid our theological inquires then why can’t astronomy, physics, biology and other research aid our understanding of the Bible?

The Bible was not written in a vacuum. In addition to its supernatural origin, it is also a product of the cultures and histories from which is sprang. It is filled with references to things that we do not fully understand without the influence of other disciplines to aid our understanding. This does not mean that we can’t understand who Jesus is without these disciplines, but it does mean that some of our understanding is partial without having background information relative to the original authors, audiences, and cultures that they came from. So too, the Bible’s references to the natural world and the nature of creation acquire a fuller and deeper meaning for us when we aid our understanding with what the sciences reveal to us.