ESV Archaeology Study Bible | Book Review
Unearthing the context of Scripture
The Bible is God’s Word in human words. As God’s Word, it is inspired and inerrant, the final authority for what Christians believe and how they behave. As God’s Word in human words, it reflects the time and place of its original composition. Interpreting Scripture correctly, then, means understanding both its divine message and its human forms.
Archaeology is one of several academic disciplines that help us do the latter. The interpretive fruit of archaeological investigation is evident in the recently published ESV Archaeology Study Bible, edited by John D. Currid and David W. Chapman. Notable features include the following:
- Introductory essays to the Old Testament and the New Testament, as well as to the books within each testament
- Notes on individual biblical passages showing how archaeological studies illuminate their meaning
- Sidebars about specific people, places and concepts mentioned within the text
- Photos, maps, diagrams and charts to illustrate places, things and events
- Articles on topics related to biblical archaeology as a discipline
- A glossary, a bibliography, indexes and a brief concordance
From the outset, the editors identify three “foundational pillars” that characterize their work: “biblical orthodoxy,” “academic integrity” and “accessibility.” They affirm the historicity of Scripture, but they also note instances where archaeologists disagree on the time, place and meaning of biblical events. Most importantly, they show how archaeology helps readers better understand the biblical text’s original context. Let me offer three examples.
First, covenants. The Bible makes repeated references to covenants. For example, referring to the giving of the Ten Commandments, Moses says, “The LORD our God made a covenant with us in Horeb” (Deuteronomy 5:2, ESV).
Archaeologists have discovered a number of second-millennium B.C. Hittite covenants between a suzerain and a vassal. These suzerain-vassal treaties lay out the reciprocal rights and duties each has toward the other, though the relationship is not egalitarian. The suzerain is clearly in charge.
What’s interesting about these Hittite treaties for our purposes is that Deuteronomy is organized roughly like one of them. For example, the treaty between the Hittite King Mursili II and his Amurru subject Duppi-Tessub contains five elements: preamble, historical prologue, stipulations or commandments, witnesses and sanctions, both positive (blessings) and negative (curses).
Deuteronomy similarly has a preamble (1:1-5), historical prologue (1:6-4:49), stipulations (5:1-26:19), witnesses (31:19-22; 32:45-47), and sanctions (27:9-30:20).
Obviously, there are differences between Deuteronomy and the Hittite treaties. Moses was a monotheist; Hittites were polytheists. Deuteronomy is a covenant between God and His people, whereas the other treaties were between a human overlord and other human subjects. Still, it is helpful to know that when God revealed himself to the Israelites, He did so in a cultural form that they would understand.
Second, parables. Jesus Christ is famous for His story parables — e.g., the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). Interestingly, the only other people to use story parables during this period were Jewish rabbis. They used them to explain Old Testament texts, introducing them with the formula, “To what may the matter be compared?”
The Talmud records hundreds of these parables, and all of them are in Hebrew, even though the commentary about them is in Aramaic.
In many ways, we live in a golden age of biblical interpretation.
How does this help us understand New Testament parables? For one thing, it helps us understand that when Jesus taught His disciples, He used a well-established Jewish form of teaching — the story parable.
For another thing, though the rabbis used parables to elucidate the meaning of the Law, Jesus used them to help His listeners understand the advent of the kingdom of God. Note Luke 13:18,20, for example, where Jesus asked: “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it?” and “To what shall I compare the kingdom of God?” (ESV).
Finally, Jesus’ use of story parables may hint at the fact that He taught in Hebrew. New Testament scholars often say that Aramaic was the lingua franca of the Holy Land in the first century A.D. That’s true to an extent and is reflected in the Gospels. Jesus uttered words and/or phrases in Aramaic (e.g., Mark 5:41; 15:34), certain place names in Jerusalem were in Aramaic (e.g., John 19:13), and Aramaic phrases even made it into the liturgical language of the Early Church (e.g., 1 Corinthians 16:22).
But if Jesus’ use of story parables paralleled the rabbis’ well-established form of teaching, and if the rabbis told parables in Hebrew (even long after the first century A.D.), then it stands to reason that Jesus told His parables in Hebrew, too.
Third, the Erastus Inscription. I recently had the opportunity to travel through Greece, retracing Paul’s steps around the Aegean on his second missionary journey. One of our stops was Corinth, a city whose church Paul founded and in which he spent 18 months of fruitful ministry (Acts 18:1-17). Paul wrote two letters to the church in this city (1 and 2 Corinthians), and it is likely that he wrote his magnum opus, Romans, from this city.
Our guide walked us through an overgrown field of grass until he came to a roped-off pavement. Pointing down, he read what’s left of a mid-first-century A.D. inscription discovered in 1929: “ERASTVS. PRO. AED. S. P. STRAVIT.” That’s an abbreviated Latin sentence. When translated, it says, “Erastus in return for his aedileship paved it at his own expense.” (An aedile was a public official in charge of public buildings and, in Corinth, the famous Isthmian Games.)
Interestingly, in Romans 16:23, Paul sends greetings to the Roman church from one “Erastus, the city treasurer,” using the Greek word oikonomos rather than the Latin word aedile (ESV). It’s not certain, but it is quite possible that the Erastus of the inscription is the Erastus of Scripture, whom other New Testament passages identify as a coworker of Paul’s (Acts 19:22; 2 Timothy 4:20).
The value of the Erastus Inscription is not so much that it confirms the existence of a person mentioned in the New Testament. Rather, its value is that it shapes our understanding of the sociology of the Early Church. Sometimes, we think of early Christianity as a movement of poor people with little social influence, which it largely was. But Christ drew converts from all segments of society, including wealthier public officials such as Erastus.
This helps us better understand some of the tensions between richer and poorer members that strained the fabric of Corinthian church unity (e.g., 1 Corinthians 11:17-34). I’m not suggesting that Erastus participated in this division, by the way. I’m only pointing out that there can’t be division between rich and poor in the church if there aren’t both rich and poor within the church in the first place.
In many ways, we live in a golden age of biblical interpretation, at least from the standpoint of what we can know about the world of the Bible. The ESV Archaeology Study Bible is an excellent, one-volume reference work that brings to bear the results of archaeological investigation on the necessary responsibility of reading the sacred text in light of its ancient context.
Given the amount of useful information the ESV Archaeology Study Bible contains, it is reasonably priced and will repay careful study.
ESV Archaeology Study Bible, ed. John D. Currid and David W. Chapman (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018).