Feb  2018 13
Humble Interpretation

LiDAR is a remote sensing method from an aircraft “illuminating the target with pulsed laser light and measuring the reflected pulses with a sensor.” With LiDAR, archeologists can see shapes under a jungle that were otherwise invisible to them.

Because of my family connections to Guatemala, I receive a daily Google alert for “Guatemala.” A few weeks ago I read about an astounding discovery under the jungle in northern Guatemala, not far from the well-visited site of Tikal.

Using LiDAR, scientists discovered that the Mayan empire in that area was vastly different from what, based on accumulated research, they assumed. The LiDAR map showed, under the dense jungle, over 60,000 structures that archaeologists did not know existed: temples, dwellings, extensive systems of roads.

Until this discovery, scientists thought the Mayan empire, which peaked and declined centuries before the Spanish invasion, was comprised of maybe 2 million people. After the LiDAR map was created and studied, the estimate rocketed up to 10 million people.

Researchers now are re-thinking what they previously concluded about Mayan systems because it takes a great deal of organization, raw materials, food production, and knowledge for a civilization of that size to thrive.

In the estimate of scientists and historians, in the wake of the LiDAR discovery, the Mayan empire has risen into the realm of the Egyptian and the Chinese empires as among the most complex societies of the ancient world.

This story of the re-appraisal of the Mayan empire based on LiDAR research, uncovering the previously unknown, reminded me of the contrast between what we, who study the Bible and related texts for a living, think we know and what we may not know.

Think of the canonical Bible as akin to the Mayan city of Tikal. Tikal is a brilliant city from which the jungle has been cleared, but the jungle all around holds transformative clues to how to interpret what we see.

The Bible—like Tikal—is surrounded by dense jungle, layers and layers of interpretive clues if only we knew what was hidden under the canopy.

There are civilizations that have come and gone that once cradled and birthed a biblical book or writing, and we know so very little about any of those cradles. There are the biblical books, then there are all the books that did not make it in the Bible, all the events that went unreported, all the opinions that were ignored, and memories of what instigated a particular writing left unrecorded.

Jungle. Jungle all around, when an interpreter begins to venture an interpretation.

Occasionally, there is a LidDAR-like discovery in biblical scholarship, uncovering something previously hidden that changes the way we interpret. In biblical scholarship in the 20th century:

  • There was the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, an artifact of the separatist community at Qumran, with the oldest versions of biblical texts yet discovered, and several texts previously unknown, e.g., concerning the (mysterious to us, well-known to them) Teacher of Righteousness.
  • What and how we see the canon (the authorized books of scripture) changed when the Nag Hammadi library in Egypt was discovered, researched, and published. These Gnostic texts (Gnostics battled mightily with what become orthodox Christianity for numerical and persuasive dominance among early Christians) included the now famous (or infamous) Gospel of Thomas with a portrayal of Jesus that included profound similarities to and startling differences from the canonical gospels.

And, despite centuries of research, interpretation, study, and discoveries, here is what scholars really know about the communities that produced the books of the Bible: not a lot.

Scholars know a fair amount about the empires which conquered the land at some point in biblical history (e.g., Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Macedonian, Seleucid, Roman) because they left lots of monuments and other artifacts, but we don’t know much about a single, particular biblical community context, a single cradle: who, living in which city, of which social class, in which year, from what size community.

There are precious few extra-biblical (meaning outside the Bible) sources or references against which to verify or discredit biblical accounts.

There are lots of high probabilities among proffered scholarly opinions. But, overall, what biblical scholars offer is opinions, often strong opinions, about the origin of biblical texts, who wrote them, where the writer or editor lived, what were the concrete circumstances concerning which they wrote, what meanings the texts held for the original hearers, which other biblical authors a writer/editor was arguing with or against, whether or not there was a “real” event that a story tells (an invasion), a theological interpretation of an event (the exodus), or a theological fiction (which is the way some scholars see the Pentecost event in Acts).

What will be the next LiDAR-like event in biblical scholarship, an event that reveals a world we previously did not know, that changes everything we thought we knew? I don’t know!

The lesson I draw from the LiDAR-revealed world of the Maya when applied to biblical scholarship is this: we interpreters should interpret with humility. There is so much about any particular biblical book that we simply don’t know.

We research, we put a specific text in context, we ask questions, we look with the eyes of faith, and we venture an interpretation for what the text meant and what it might mean to a community today. That venture is an exercise in uncertainty, for we look into a jungle in which we see very, very partially.

Interpreting scripture is an exercise in humility. Anyone who claims to have already seen the whole geography around a specific text with perfect LiDAR is not to be trusted. Better to keep our claims humble, and explore beyond the cleared space together, respond with joy when the previously unseen is revealed, and change the interpretation.

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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