Question: How do you study Bible Context and how do I find good sources on my own?

bookGot asked this several times this week and since I hate rewriting the same things over and over again I figured it would be a worthy blog – and useful for my Context for Kids families who are wanting to know how to find answers for themselves.

In the past week I have come in contact with two cases where absolute lies were passed off by lazy “historians” and people in the media that should have been immediately checked. Here is what I posted yesterday on facebook – and hence the reason for writing this today. Quotation from A History of US, Book 5 by Joy Hakim

A few days ago I shared about how the “curse of the Pharaohs” became common knowledge as one person made a claim which got repeated and then repeated again. I had no idea that this also happened to a great hero Joseph Cinque (Sengbe Pieh), but we read this as we were studying the Amistad slave ship revolt in school this morning (and of course, I verified it).

“You will read in some books that Cinque returned to Africa and became a slave trader himself. That is not true. And yet that story has been written many times. Why? Because an author who learned the story of the Amistad and Joseph Cinque decided to write a novel about it. A novelist CAN WRITE ANYTHING THAT MAKES A GOOD STORY. He decided it would give the story an ironic twist to have Cinque become a slaver himself. A historian read the novel, THOUGHT IT WAS TRUE, and retold the story in a history book. (History books, of course, should always be true.) Then ANOTHER historian QUOTED the first historian, and then ANOTHER, and then ANOTHER. And that is how made-up stories sometimes come to be history.”

If you want to know how easy it is for an author to make unsubstantiated claims and how hard it is to disprove something that there is no evidence for check out this article on the attempt to find out the truth about the Cinque allegations and how people still insist on believing the lie http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/caribbean/amistad-cinque.pdf

About nine months ago I asked a local homeschooled high school student, who always aces the State tests, “If you were assigned a report, how would you research it?” He gave exactly the answer that I expected.

“Google and wikipedia.”

He was shocked when I told him that more often than not, that was a recipe for disaster. Why? Because anyone can have a webpage and frankly, anyone can edit or create a wikipedia page. All you have to do is make claims and you can even choose to or not to cite sources, but you don’t have to accurately reflect those sources and the sources don’t even have to be legitimate. Unless someone comes along who is fact checking, errors and myths can go unchallenged. Here is a quote from wikipedia which is “allowed to be imperfect”

“Don’t be afraid to edit – anyone can edit almost every page, and we are encouraged to be bold! Find something that can be improved and make it better—for example, spelling, grammar, rewriting for readability, adding content, or removing non-constructive edits. If you wish to add new facts, please try to provide references so they may be verified, or suggest them on the article’s discussion page. Changes to controversial topics and Wikipedia’s main pages should usually be discussed first. Contributing to Wikipedia will provide you with resources on all the basics needed to use, comment on, and contribute to Wikipedia.

Remember – you can’t break Wikipedia; all edits can be reversed, fixed or improved later. Wikipedia is allowed to be imperfect. So go ahead, edit an article and help make Wikipedia the best information source on the Internet!”

I’ve had people tell me that Wikipedia is properly vetted – this proves otherwise. This is not to say it is always wrong, but we should not put too much faith in its reliability. I’ve had folks claim that a book cited in a Wikipedia article says one thing – then I read it and it says the opposite. Of course, when they cut and pasted the reference straight out of Wikipedia complete with ISBN # in the exact same order, I knew they hadn’t actually read it – but I digress. It was a great book though, so it turned out for the best.

As for Google – type in something ridiculous, and someone has probably already “proven” it, complete with Bible references and quotes from Abraham Lincoln.  You can prove absolutely anything using Google and that’s because both the sane and the insane have equal access to producing websites, the educated and the uneducated, the saint and the con-man, the wise and the gullible.

Can Google be used to study? Yes. Find out the experts in your field of study and do a search for them and you might get lucky and find a free online paper, or a website, but most people in this life who work hard and study put the information into books and legitimate scholarly articles. They didn’t receive their information for free and they won’t give it out for free. I actually bought over 120 books last year and fortunately my book sales covered the expense – that means I wrote books to buy other people’s books so that I can write more books lol. In studying, I learned who the legitimate scholars are and who some of the pretenders are. (Hint: the popular people are often the pretenders because the real story is generally boring unless you are a total nerd, which I of course am)

The key is going with the established experts in the given area of study, not necessarily with the celebrities, and not necessarily the people you agree about everything with. People wanting to read casually about mythology like Joseph Campbell, but true experts roll their eyes at him because he is not credible upon deeper study. I also make sure I am dealing with an objective source by seeing how their findings line up with people from different backgrounds.  Believe it or not, I have found integrity and good scholarship (as well as a lack or integrity and bad scholarship) from Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, Jews, Muslims and Atheists! Good scholarship is marked by providing source material and not just by making wild claims, no matter how many people are making the same claims. When we are talking about archaeology and Bible context, the proof is either there or it isn’t and we teach what has been unearthed – and a lot of material has been unearthed over the last 150 years.

Start with some legitimate names in contextual research – John H Walton is easily the most readable, really no contest. Look at who he works with and whose work he cites in his studies – they will be legitimate. Get a copy of Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, as well as his IVP Bible Background Commentary on the Old Testament, as well as his Illustrated Zondervan Commentaries, and The Lost World of Genesis One. Certain names will keep popping up as sources. Learn the differences between scholarly books like his, and commentary like my King, Kingdom, Citizen – a book that is properly documented but I am not an actual expert even though I seriously study the experts. I wouldn’t tell anyone to write a report citing me, but citing my sources, definitely. Get as close as you can to primary source material.

Read what a number of people say about a subject before jumping to conclusions – after all, the first thing we hear sounds reasonable until it is rebutted.

Pro 18:17 The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him. 

Even a good scholar can be wrong on a point, we all have our blind spots – the more scholars you get together, of differing backgrounds, the less likely it is that they will have the same blind spot. If an Atheist, a Muslim, a Protestant and a Jew can all agree on a piece of Ancient Near Eastern context, then chances are excellent that you have yourself a very objective piece of information. However, if your only source is a bunch of people with a narrow agenda who quote each other, back away quietly before they try to convert you – no matter how many people follow their youtube videos (especially if they do that scary thing with obscuring their voice – that’s just creepy!).

JSTOR.org is a great starting place for looking at scholarly articles and you can register and have 3 free articles in your bookshelf at a time, checked out for three weeks before you can get a new one to replace it. You can’t print them out, but it’s worth it to check it out before you pay money for the privilege of being able to download it. Even scholars have to eat, after all.

Start small. I started with listening to teachings, but then I decided to actually test drive the information. Rico Cortes was my first context teacher, and then Ryan White and then Joe Good. If I listen to a teaching and I want to know it and not just decide to believe  it, I buy the books they recommend and then I read others as well. As I have grown in this, however, I am knowing who to take seriously on certain subjects and who not to waste my money on. And just because I take an expert seriously doesn’t mean I automatically accept what they are saying – there has to be supporting evidence and not just claims.

Parents of my context kids – be studying with your kids, if they are interested, but I wouldn’t let them study alone. Bible context is not always G or even PG-rated – especially Egyptian mythology, dang, ANY mythology. Please, please do not hesitate if you have a specific interest, to ask me who the real deals are doing the good research.

Getting back to the books is time consuming and expensive, but required for real studying. Watching a video isn’t studying, it simply gives us something to agree or disagree with, but it is very valuable to get us started and to alert us to new areas of study. It’s also good to hear someone else’s take on it, someone who actually speaks English (unlike most of these ANE scholars, sheesh, who write “ivory tower intellectual” instead of “normal people language”). I sometimes disagree with my teachers because we will see the facts in a different light, but we are seeing the same facts, not just making them up.

Once I have a topic, I will find a book on it – usually I get a recommendation. Sometimes I will even contact an author as ask who they recommend in their field and they are often surprisingly quick to answer. That book will have references, and if they are papers in journals, I can oftentimes find them online and read them myself to make sure the author is being honest about what is there. Sometimes a book will lead to another book and especially on topics like Honor and Shame where it led to six books, plus a bunch of articles. When I studied it out, I felt like I could finally teach about it with  integrity – not just asking you to believe something that I had chosen to believe.

References alone do not mean legitimacy – I can reference a book I have never even cracked open and tell you it says something, when I have cherry picked or twisted the information. There are some very popular books out there that have done just that, and then they get quoted, and someone quotes the book that quoted them and then you have a Cinque situation,  only now it’s believers doing it, and the subject matter touches on God.

Just one last thing – If you ask a teacher for proof of what they just taught and they respond with “google it” or “If you give a man a fish you will feed him for a day but if you teach a man to fish he will never be hungry again” or “it’s just obvious to everyone,” then it’s time to realize they aren’t teaching but regurgitating. Feel free to disregard what they are saying. Most people have not verified what they are saying and have no wish to because information limits us – kinda like it does with a defense attorney who actually knows his client is guilty. Information limits what we can and cannot pass off as truth, so a lot of folks avoid it – thing is, they never make it sound like they haven’t actually studied.

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