Every now and then it gets frustrating to read or listen to people who claim the “truth” based upon their having found a story on the Internet or in some other recently-created resource. This is true in all walks of life, from politics and economics to biblical references. It amazes me that well-meaning people believe that someone who wrote something in 1998 can be seen as the origin of truth about something that occurred in the first or second century.
It may well be that the resource is accurate about the origin, having gone to the materials available from that era and researched them. That is different. But it is not the source. The source is the original document or artifact.
This is particular an issue in biblical studies. It is infuriating to me when some preacher or supposedly-qualified expert claims an ancient truth based upon a document or other resource that was created in recent times. It may be a quotable opinion or representation, but it is not a source.
The sources of biblical information are the documents and artifacts that come from the biblical era. Such ancient sources as the Dead Sea Scrolls provide insight into the life issues and teachings of those who lived in the biblical era and recorded their data. Art and sculpture of the era provide, with some accuracy, the culture of the era. But the words which have been found in ancient documents, written in the language of the time, are even more important to scholars.
Reading the scriptures in the ancient languages of the biblical era can provide insights which are lost in modern translation. There aren’t a great number of people around who have a working knowledge of Aramaic and ancient Hebrew. But those who are out there are invaluable in helping to decipher the mysteries which have plagued biblical scholars for centuries.
Figures of speech, for instance, have existed in languages long before English was invented. Just as we wouldn’t want to be held to the literal meaning of a figure of speech in today’s American English, it is irresponsible to attribute literal accuracy of figures of speech from ancient languages.
Natural disasters, medical “miracles” and interpersonal relationships are all prone to such figures of speech. When we make them into literal, scientific explanations we have applied a feature which we find ordinary in our day and age, but which would have been foreign to the mind of the first century person. We take for granted meteorology, for instance. But the origin of storms, droughts, and such factors as floods and tsunamis were easily attributed to religious or supernatural activity in the ancient world. Understanding this, and being able to put the source material in the context of its era may completely change our understanding of the events which have been reported.
A simple example, for instance, is the word “virgin.” It is understood in contemporary languages as meaning a woman (or man) who has not yet experienced sexual intercourse. It is measurable using modern technology. The use of the word virgin in contemporary English doesn’t require a lot of inaccessible methodology.
But in the ancient world, we are told, the word virgin has a variety of meanings, meaning “living in her father’s house,” “living apart’” “maiden” and other such euphemisms for an unmarried, young woman. The gynecological interpretation that we have imposed upon the word are later developments. To extract the word virgin from a translated (many times) biblical text and define it according to a 21st century definition is a flawed methodology. You can see how it may have an effect upon theology, especially if treated in the scientific, literal manner. For some, who rely upon a more literal translation of the words of scripture, it becomes “the Word of God,” while, in reality, it is the words of humans who have played a part in the multiplicity of translations of biblical texts.
Going back to the sources requires not only a knowledge of the ancient languages, but a keen understanding of the sociological and cultural mores and non-scientific interpretations of the day.
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