Why on earth should people who are interested in reading the Bible spend so much time studying extra-biblical ancient Near Eastern material?
Alessandro Scafi produced an extremely fascinating book titled, Mapping Paradise: A History of Heaven on Earth, in which he charted the history of map-making in the western world. He particularly focused upon the representation of the garden of Eden within medieval maps of the world, mappae mundi, and showed how maps changed through the ages. I think there are some valuable applications to studying biblical genres that we can make from observing the changes in map-making.
Notice several features in the map above which are different from modern maps:
- As was typical for mappae mundi, this map is oriented to the East instead of the North
- Paradise was usually located at the far corner of the world, however, (various maps represented Paradise differently but) this map presents “Earthly Paradise” in an inset box that distinguishes it somewhat from the rest of the map. The map maker wanted to convey the theological message that Paradise was on earth yet humans no longer had access to it.
- Relative distances and shapes of land masses are not accurately represented
- Jerusalem is the center of the world
- Many major cities and other features are not included
So, how do we assess this map? Is it worthless because it does not accurately represent the geography of the world?
When we interpret and assess mappae mundi we need to understand their genre which includes their intended purpose. The purpose of these maps was not to guide travelers, in fact, when sailors started using maps as aids for navigation maps changed dramatically (it was at this point that maps changed their orientation to the North, represented geographic features more accurately, etc.). Instead, these maps were intended to convey theological messages–the relationship between earth and paradise, the effects of the Fall and the exiles to the East, the theological importance of Jerusalem, etc. If we judged a mappa mundi on the basis of how accurately it represented the actual geography of the world we would be missing its entire point, the reason why it was made in the first place. It is like this with biblical genres. Before we interpret a text, any text for that matter, we need to understand its genre and concomitantly the reading expectations that we should bring to it.
Here is another analogy. This is an old map of the London tube system:
This map was actually not the first that was produced as a guide for the Tube. Here is an earlier map:
The latter map provides more accurate relative distances between stops and the actual pathways of the tracks. However, for a tube rider this map is somewhat confusing. This is why the former map was produced–it does not represent the relative distances between stops and the lines are drawn in only three ways: horizontally, vertically, and with 45 degree angles. So, is the topological tube map wrong? Not really, you see, tube riders only use a map to discern about four bits of data:
- Whether they are on the right line
- Whether they are going in the proper direction
- How many stops until their destination
- Where can they switch lines
A topological map provides all of this data in a clear and easily accessible manner at the expense of an “accurate” geographic representation. Accordingly, a topological map is perfectly suited for a tube rider, however, if someone were trying make a mashup that overlaid the path of the tube with a Google street map of London a topological map just wouldn’t work.
It is like this with biblical texts–you have to properly understand the purpose and genre of a text or else you will misunderstand or misapply it. We know this intuitively as we encounter Jesus’ statement, “I am the vine” (John 15:5)–we understand that he was giving a theological statement not a comment on his physical makeup, in other words, this is like a mappa mundi.
But, not all parts of the Bible are as easy to sort out as John 15:5 and that is why looking at cognate texts helps us better understand ancient genre expectations. Reading cognate texts helps us better understand the purposes and intentions of certain ancient genres, since, like what we see in the difference between medieval and modern maps, ancient conventions can often be quite different from modern ones. If we apply our modern expectations upon a mappa mundi we make a genre mistake. Similarly, in many cases, if we apply our modern expectations upon biblical texts we might misapprehend them. If something as seemingly simple as understanding 600 year old maps is more complicated than we might expect, then how much more complicated is the task of interpreting the Hebrew Bible?