CU-Boulder prof employs 23 ancient Near East languages in a quest for biblical understanding
Modern readers of the Holy Bible—both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament—often say that context is critical.
Samuel Boyd, assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, heartily agrees. And he should know.
After all, when he conducts research into the origins and interpretation of the Bible, he has no fewer than 23 ancient NearEast tongues at his disposal, including four dialects of both Hebrew and Aramaic — the language of Jesus — and two each of Greek and Babylonian, not to mention Hittite, Ugaritic, Ethiopic, Punic and others.
“To really study biblical texts in their historical contexts, how they were produced, how they were handled by ancient audiences, you have got to touch all these ancient languages,” says Boyd, who recently was named the Rocky Mountains-Great Plains Regional Scholar for 2016 by the Society of Biblical Literature.
“If someone wants to travel with me to Finland, I’m useless. But if you ever want me to translate ancient Phoenician, I can help.”
In truth, many modern Bible adherents haven’t even read the full text in English, much less in its original languages, and few understand the historical, legal, cultural or linguistic contexts in which the documents came to be written.
Boyd can tell you, for example, how the many names for God in the Hebrew Bible (known to many Christians as the Old Testament)—Adonai, Elohim, El Elyon, Pachad Itzak (Isaac’s fear), “rider of the clouds” and more—reveal the polytheistic heritage of the ancient Israelites.
“In Psalm 68, god is called a ‘rider of the clouds.’ That’s the same imagery, the same phraseology, as a storm god in Ugaritic named Baal,” Boyd says. Baal is known to most modern Bible readers only as a “false god” worshipped by the Israelites.
But I’m not there to tell them if God exists, or attack anyone’s beliefs or convert them. I just want them to think critically about a fascinating book. … It’s like Plato’s caves: Wouldn’t you rather go see everything in the light? It’s so much more interesting that way.”
Boyd says the ancient Hebrews moved toward a monotheistic concept of God at least partly as a result of continual suffering at the hands of bigger, more powerful societies. In ancient cultures, destruction of a god’s temple and exile of its people was clearly understood as the defeat of that deity. But following the Israelites’ period of Babylonian exile, they began to refashion their concept of god.
“They asked, ‘What if our god didn’t lose? What if he’s more transcendent? What if it’s our fault? What if there’s really only one God?’” Boyd says.
Despite the protests of biblical literalists, scholarship on the historical and linguistic context of the Bible reveals a highly mutable, indisputably human document. Boyd sees modern attempts to read the book as inerrant as fraught with danger. For example, Leviticus 18 is commonly interpreted as condemning homosexuality.
“Leviticus 18 is one opinion (on homosexuality). But it’s not the only one in the ancient context,” Boyd says. “The way we conceive of law codes wasn’t practiced in the ancient world. There was a statue in the back of the temple with the law, and most people couldn’t read. Law codes were ideological, not practiced. If we are going to use Leviticus 18 in modern political debates, what gives us that right, when it wasn’t practiced as part of a law code to begin with?”
Boyd, who has done archaeological work in southern Turkey and Israel, is distressed about the loss of monuments and other evidence to violence in the Middle East, as groups like the Islamic State seek to destroy anything that does not agree with its interpretation of the Quran.
“It’s so sad that we live in a time when monuments are being lost by the second,” he says. “I try to use that as leverage in class, to show how important this knowledge is.”
Boyd approaches his subjects from a strictly secular, scholarly perspective in the classroom, fully aware that he may challenge students who are believers.
“That can be threatening for students, to know that the person standing up there is affirming that these documents aren’t inerrant, that they are human productions,” he says.
“But I’m not there to tell them if God exists, or attack anyone’s beliefs or convert them. I just want them to think critically about a fascinating book. … It’s like Plato’s caves: Wouldn’t you rather go see everything in the light? It’s so much more interesting that way.”
Clay Evans is a free-lance writer in Boulder.