In this lesson, we will discuss why we approach the study of religious beliefs from a historical rather than a theological perspective.
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This course takes a historical critical approach to the study of religion rather than a theological one. This means that we approach the texts and materials from the presupposition that you cannot understand a text without understanding its context. We look at:
- when the text was written
- what the historical, political and economic issues were at the time
- who the author is (which isn’t always possible because often the author is pseudonymous or there is evidence of multiple authors or editors)
- what the purpose of the text is (why the author is writing about this particular issue at this particular time)
- who the author’s intended audience is (and if possible, what they believe)
- if we have other evidence (such as other texts or archaeological evidence) that also address this particular issue at this time
In other words, we try to understand as much of the original situation as possible – including what the predominant beliefs were at the time, what other factors may have influenced the author or his audience, and how the text was used (such as for entertainment, as part of a ritual, to keep a written record of an important event or law or transaction, etc).
Why Use a Historical Approach?
You might ask – why use this approach? Well, the ancient and pre-modern world was considerably different from our contemporary environment. If we ignore the original context, we can decide a text means whatever we want from our modern perspective. It becomes similar to interpreting an ink blot.
Similarly, Christianity began in the first century. Since then, countless theologians, philosophers, scientists, pastors and thinkers have debated and interpreted what the biblical texts meant. So we have plenty of opinions of what different people thought the Bible meant at different times in history.
But it has only been in the last three centuries – since the beginning of the 1800s – that we have had modern archaeological evidence of the cultures described in the Bible. Before that, no one knew of the rich culture of the ancient Near East or Egypt – nor could they read Egyptian hieroglyphics or cuneiform. So for most of our history, the Bible was the only source we had for so many of the ancient people the Bible depicts as heathens and opponents and oppressors – which is clearly a biased account.
Since then, we have discovered libraries of the Sumerians, Akkadians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Hittites and others that discuss the events of the ancient Near East in more detail and from different perspectives than those of the Biblical writers. We have uncovered the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran that describe Jewish beliefs that didn’t become part of Rabbinic Judaism but influenced early Christians. And we found the Nag Hammadi library that include so many of early Gnostic Christian writings that the Church fathers thought to be heretical. Previously, we only had their arguments for why these beliefs were not Christian. Now, we can read their own writings and compare with what others wrote about them – so we have various perspectives to understand context.
By looking at all the evidence we have about a text, we can gain a better understanding of what the author was writing about – and specifically what issues or events he was responding to.
We can look at what ideas were circulating at the time and what the author might be adopting from other sources or adapting to fit his worldview. And we can look at what others may have written in opposition to his worldview and how accurate they portrayed his arguments.
So to summarize, a few of the characteristics of this approach are:
- Non-theological and non-judgmental: We aren’t trying to make a value judgment as to which belief is the “correct” one. Rather, we are trying to understand each belief within its culture and context.
- Based on historical evidence: We examine evidence we have – the texts within a particular cultural or religious group, the texts from outsiders, and archaeological evidence – to draw conclusions about what a particular group may have believed. From a historical perspective, we can learn what people wrote about their gods. We can examine their altars and cultic objects to understand how they may have conducted rituals, what incantations they may have recited, what they believed the gods did or did not do for them. However, history doesn’t tell us whether those gods were real, what those gods are objectively like, or why the gods may have done or not done something. We can only understand the gods based on how their followers or opponents described them.
- Interdisciplinary: Understanding ancient and pre-modern religious beliefs involves a wide variety of disciplines including language specialists, archaeologists, historians, religious studies professionals, anthropologists, folklorists and others to piece together all the evidence.
We take this approach so the material is accessible to anyone – believers and non-believers alike. An academic study of history and culture cannot tell you what the absolute, objective “truth” is. However, it can help us understand the perspectives and experiences of those who came before us. It can offer insights as to why many of our traditions exist in the modern world. And ideally, it can help us learn from previous mistakes and avoid repeating them.
That said, faith is a personal decision, so once you examine the evidence and determine what it meant to people at that time, you can decide whether you agree or disagree, believe or disbelieve it now.