By Nathan Jones
What is the importance of Biblical Archaeology?
This question was posed to Dr. James Fleming, one of the most knowledgeable teachers of Biblical Archaeology, on our show Christ in Prophecy. Dr. Fleming has lived and taught in Israel for the past 37 years at Jerusalem University College and at the Hebrew University. His first claim to fame is that he discovered the ancient Eastern Gate buried beneath the current one. Dr. Fleming has walked or motorcycled about every square mile of Israel, and is so familiar with Israel past and present that Israeli tour guides come to him for training. He now operates the Explorations in Antiquity Center in LaGrange, Georgia, an interactive museum where people here in the U.S. can experience the life and times of Christ.
Dr. Fleming: If a Christian is serious about their faith, they need to know two worlds very well. They need to know the world of the Bible which is their faith document so that they can better understand what those words would have meant in their time and place. Secondly, they need to know the world in which they live so they can properly correlate the similar issues today that the ancient text can address, like for example an ancient prophecy to understand its proper application in the world today.
Dr. Reagan: How about giving us some examples on how understanding archaeology will better help us understand a biblical story or something else in the Bible?
Dr. Fleming: Well, of course, every page has those. But, for example, sometimes a word can be translated in two ways, and unless you understand what the original text meant you wouldn't know which it the correct usage.
This is going to be surprising to some, but the words "upon" and "against" are the same in Greek. The words "lift up" and the words "take away" are also the same. Now, vines in the ancient world didn't have wires holding up all the branches like modern vineyards have. At the Last Supper, Jesus in John 15 said that any branch that bears not fruit "I will..." normally it is translated "take away," but the same word is normally translated actually 75% of the time as, "I will lift up." It is the word used in the Ascension story. Well, the translator pictures modern vines already lifted up and so translates it, "I will take away." But, there is a very important difference in the meaning between "lift up" and "take away." Did you know that if a vine has a branch that touches the ground without wires holding it up it will make its own root?
Dr. Reagan: No, I didn't know that.
Dr. Fleming: The vine will no longer take its nourishment from the deeper mother root of the vine. And so, what the vine dresser does is stick a rock under the vine and yet another one to lift it up. Jesus in essence is really saying, "Abide in me, keep your nourishment coming from my deeper root, and I will lift you up so you won't support your shallow own root." You have to know how vines were grown at the time of Jesus to help interpret the text. This is just one little example.
Dr. Reagan: Give us another example as you must be a walking encyclopedia of examples.
Dr. Fleming: Of trivia!
Dr. Reagan: But, they help us better understand what the Bible is saying.
Dr. Fleming: Yes. How about a specific discovery? For example, let's discuss grave customs. In Bible times you never threw away old clothing. You would use them as rags and tear them up into strips to swaddle or wrap infants and you even swaddled the dead. The reference should always be "grave cloths," not "graves clothes," because they would wrap a body with torn up strips of cloth.
The Shroud of Turin would not be an example. In later periods you will certainly have a burial shroud, but not in biblical times. They would wrap a body. Now, when you wrap a body it is fine going up to the shoulders, but then you have to come to the neck. The head wrapping are always a little bit separate from the body wrappings.
Nathan Jones: That would explain then why Lazarus had to be untied. He didn't pull off a shroud. He had to be untied.
Dr. Reagan: Or, why there was a separate head wrapping for Jesus.
Dr. Fleming: If someone had stolen the body and left the grave wrappings there would be one pile of grave cloths. But, if the body wrappings were one place and there was the head wrappings separate from them... this is what made Peter believe, right, that the body was gone but the wrappings were undisturbed.
I don't want to make this a too literal thing because obviously the mystery of the Resurrection presence of Christ is the much more important reality than just looking at grave cloths. But, that is what it would have meant if you stopped to ask what were burial customs in the time of Jesus.