23/09/2017 by Chris Green
There is a small but astonishing exhibition at the British Museum at the moment, Scythians: Warriors of ancient Serbia.
The Scythians were a wide-ranging group of aggressive tribes, nomadic because of the inhospitably of their land, and superb with horses. They were also astonishingly artistic and superb at their craft: their abilities with gold and leather is breathtaking, and to have seen them ride on display or into battle would have been astonishing. They lived in that vast and hostile tract that today lies north of Turkey and to the south of Russia – lots of the ‘Stans. And they did so throughout much of the Old Testament, and all the New.
They had no written language (or at least, that left a trace), and they lived in tents, and so all that archaeologist have to go on is their burial mounds, painstakingly excavated in Russia since Peter the Great. This exhibition is arranged with the Hermitage, which is where it is all housed. It won’t take you long to go round, because they didn’t leave much stuff, and what they did was often raided. Although there is some 3,000 year-old cheese if you’re feeling peckish. But the stuff from the unraided tombs is astonishing in its quality.
So why do you need to know about it?
Well, there’s a good case to be made that this race cropped up at various points in Old Testament times, and they also had trade dealings with Persian, Assyria and Greece. I’m always in favour of seeing stuff that reminds me that the biblical data is historical and valid. This is not Aladdin – it’s real history.
And, of its time, there are tantalising glimpses. The motif of the Tree of Life crops up over and again – what stories had they heard? At one point the museum’s description card coyly notes that a belt buckle shows the Tree of Life guarded by two ‘genii’ – if I didn’t know better I’d call those two winged beings other side of the tree ‘cherubim’. (I say ‘coyly’, I mean ‘anachronistically’, because the word ‘genii’ is an Islamic word and we are hundreds, if not over a thousand years, pre-Islam at this point. I’m not sure why BritMus chose that word here. Grumble over.)
But you will know that there is more than a tantalising glimpse of this group. There’s real text. Remember Colossians 3? ‘Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all’ (3:11). What are the Scythians doing there? They don’t crop up in the equivalent section of Galatians.
There are only two options. Either Paul is showing the extent of need, and describing those who might yet become Christians – and the exotic Barbarians of Scythia are on his list of groups to get a mission trip. No-one is beyond the gospel. Or, more likely to my mind, he’s describing those who are already converts. That word ‘here’ might be the giveaway, as it describes those already in the church. This unlikely, tough race of nomadic warriors in the northern fringe of what we know as Turkey had already started to turn to Christ.
The exhibition is quite small, and it’s not attracting the crowds, so you can go if you have easy access to London. Go to admire their skill with metal, gold and horses. Go to admire what we can learn from people who left no written record. ac
But go to remind yourself that no people group is beyond the gospel. If God can reach the Scythians, he can reach the people and culture where you live.
Enjoy your Sunday!