Since living in England, my family and I have had our imaginative capacities expanded when it comes to reflecting on history. Bounding on castle grounds and clambering hillsides once ascended by Viking invaders or defended from Picts by Roman soliders… these multi-sensory experiences provide a landscape / cityscape / castle-scape for imagining the historical events that transpired so long ago.
Using the imagination might seem too much like a flight of fancy when it comes to so sophisticated a discipline as biblical scholarship. But in fact, we are always using our imaginations. The shreds of papyrus picked up in the sands, the torn pages of faded codices, the cracked sculptures discovered under the earth in modern day Turkey, the crumbling mortar in the remaining temples—these are textual and material artifacts by which we imaginatively construct the world of the Old and New Testaments.
Hadrian’s Wall was built by the Romans when the church was still young and just beginning to flourish in the Empire. My kids run alongside it sometimes, wielding plastic versions of swords or shields fashioned from the prototypes of actual weapons pulled out of bogs or found corroding in the dirt. Those dear little children are role-playing, vividly spying their enemies on the horizon and fortifying their pretend defenses. This is imaginative play. They are mentally imaging a scene constructed in their minds from the ruins and remains of bygone events and peoples.
Professionally trained and long-tenured scholars do the same thing every day (though perhaps less playfully). To really understand the biblical text, one must try to taste the dirt and smell the smells, to feel the grit and hear the banter in the markets. Fanciful work? Yes, at times. But the imagination can be a powerful ally aiding our retrospective investigations of the past.
Now, sometimes biblical scholarship gets imaginative in ways even my kids would deem irresponsible. Like stretching the imagination to say that clearly the Jesus of the Gospels was no more than an impoverished cynic-wanderer who had some pithy things to say. Like offering a multi-year account of the history of some community purportedly responsible for one of the Gospel texts (for which there is little by way of evidence, textual or material).
Sometimes our imaginations get the better of us, I suppose… even if we would never want to admit that we are doing something as “childish” as thinking imaginatively.
In spite of the fanciful mishaps, we need not disparage the imagination as a tool of our trade. Running along Hadrian’s Wall with my kids and deflecting sailing “arrows” with my “shield” might be another element of my training as a PhD student.