Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Historical Geography Helps in Understanding the Bible

Pastor Wayne Stiles is the one of the most vocal Protestants to advocate in studying what Pope Paul VI called the "fifth gospel": the geography of the Holy Land.  Stiles has written two books on the geography of the Holy Land not as general interest pieces but as study aids for better understanding the Bible and personalizing its message in oneself.

Stiles wrote briefly about how geography can help better one better understand the Bible and its message for the Jerusalem Post.  He also published an in-depth study about how early Christians viewed historical geography important as well as his research showing people's religious studies benefiting from studying the geography of the Bible.  A key background part:

The Church’s Need for Historical Geography

The church’s illiteracy in historical geography poses a problem, because apart from its inclusion in Bible study, believers cannot fully understand the context of a passage. The Christian has the obligation to know the Word intimately, for as Paul told young Timothy, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). “All Scripture,” is literally, “every [individual] writing.” The biblical text in its minute detail remains God’s means through which the believer becomes equipped to live the Christian life. The better a believer knows the Word—including the geography of the text—the better equipped he or she will be for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness.

History Values Historical Geography: Eusebius’ Onomasticon

In searching for relevant literature for this study, I did not find much that discussed the value of historical geography for the spiritual life. Dr. Robert Ibach provided me some assistance and noted, There are quite a few items dealing with pilgrimages to the Holy Land over the centuries. Some of them go all the way back to the fourth century. Even though these books may not deal with personal spiritual growth, the fact that Christians over the centuries have found these pilgrimages to be important speaks to their contribution to Christian life. 

As early as the third century A.D. the value of historical geography for Bible study was recognized by Origen of Alexandria. “Once he had moved from Alexandria to Caesarea, [he] went on ‘an investigation of the traces of Jesus and his disciples and the prophets’ in order to understand the Bible better."

But it was not until the forth century that a historical geography was written down for the purpose of assisting Bible study. Eusebius of Caesarea, a pupil of Origen, remains best known for his Church History in which he “collected, organized, and published practically all that is now known of many persons and episodes in the life of the early church. Without him, our knowledge of the early history of Christianity would be reduced in half.” Having lived in Palestine all of his life, Eusebius was well-suited to the task of writing his Onomasticon (“a collection of names”) around A.D. 325, a work that became the first historical geography text of its kind. He “is both the first church historian and the first biblical geographer; without his Onomasticon many biblical sites would never have been identified.”

Eusebius recognized the value of geography to biblical study, and he systematized his work—a venerable index and encyclopedia of sites and locations—with the Bible student in mind. “Eusebius’ arrangement made sense in terms of what he expected his readers to do. He apparently imagined them engaged in a study of a particular Biblical book.”

Here we have a painstakingly methodical work of scholarship in which Eusebius maps out a landscape of sites that would become pilgrims’ goals for centuries to come. Eusebius was probably an unwitting contributor to the huge boom in Christian pilgrimage during the fourth century, and may well have been amazed at how his study became a building block in the construction of ‘the Holy Land’ as a uniting idea for Christians.

Despite the Onomasticon becoming a resource for the creation of a kind of Christian Palestine, Eusebius’ work seems to be a kind of exegetical aid to the study of the Bible, and perhaps an enticement to Christian scholars like himself to investigate sites further. Eusebius’ intended audience was not the ordinary (though usually wealthy) pious Christians who would come to see Biblical sites after [A.D.] 325, but rather scholars like himself who wanted to understand the sacred text as well as possible, even if they might not set foot in the land.

Having lived in Palestine, Eusebius recognized the value geography gave to increase one’s understanding of the Bible’s message. And so his work was the first of many tools providing a geography of the Holy Land for those Bible students who may never see it. As Carl Rasmussen has noted, “Once one has a basic understanding of the geography of the Middle East one has a much better chance of coming to grips with the flow of historical events that occurred there.”

The survey results at the end showing people admitting the benefits of historical geography in their understanding of the Bible shows how geography can be useful in more than just the stand, stereotypical settings.

(Hat tip: Bible Places Blog)

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