Discussions with the Diggers: Dr. Steven Ortiz

DwtD Steven Oritz

In my on-going series, Discussions with the Diggers, I have been interviewing archaeologists in order to understand how their work in the field illuminates Scripture.  I was privileged to be able to interview Dr. Steven Ortiz who co-directed the excavations at Tel Gezer.

Dr. Ortiz, recently co-founded the Lanier Center for Archaeology to offer doctoral program, field research through Lipscomb University  Previously he served for 20 years as a professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, before they decided to shut down their archaeology program.  He has published articles in numerous journals, and contributed to several books.  In particular, he wrote the study notes for Joshua-Ruth in the ESV Archaeology Study Bibe.

BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY REPORT:  Welcome to the Bible Archaeology Report, Dr. Ortiz.  How did you get into the field of archaeology?

Steven OrtizDR. STEVEN ORTIZ: I was first interested in studying the Bible more deeply. Reading the biblical text as a young man I realized that to truly interpret the text correctly you needed to know the social and historical context. When I graduated high school I wanted to take my savings and go to Israel, but went to college for an Anthropology degree. Ironically I first dug a California Indian Site and became more interested in Cultural Anthropology instead of Archaeology. It was not until the summer before my senior year in college was I able to go on a study tour to Israel that included an archaeological dig. This changed everything. I came back two years later to study at the Institute of Holy Land Studies (now Jerusalem University College). I travelled throughout Israel and the region (e.g. Egypt, Jordan, Syria) as well as dug all summer. It was this formative period that I realized my aptitude and passion for archaeological inquiry. The study of the biblical text is still a driving force in my research and interest–I just realized that there were not many evangelical archaeologists who knew how to handle archaeological data properly. After my MA in biblical history I came back to the US to study under William Dever at the University of Arizona.

BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY REPORT:  What digs have you been a part of?

DR. STEVEN ORTIZ: Tel Dor, Tel el-Hamma, Ketef Hinnom/Jerusalem, Lachish, Tel Zeitah, Tel Miqne-Ekron, Tel Gezer and Tel Burna. As the former director of the Tandy Institute for Archaeology I was involved in the development of two new projects, Ushural-Illibalyk (Kazakhstan) and as a consortium of the Karnak Great Hypostle Hall Project.

BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY REPORT:  Can you give us a brief overview of the importance of Gezer in the history of Israel?

Tel Gezer, from the south. Photo: Todd Bolen, BiblePlaces.com

DR. STEVEN ORTIZ: Gezer was an important Canaanite fortified city during the 2nd Millennium. It sat at an important juncture along the traditional via maris (coastal highway between Egypt and Mesopotamia). It was always conquered by invading armies (e.g. Egyptians, Assyrians). It became prominent in the history of ancient Israel when it became one of the three cities that Solomon fortified (1 Kings 9:15: Hazor, Megiddo, Gezer). The biblical text also hints at the role the United Monarchy played regarding international diplomacy during this period. It was actually an Egyptian pharaoh who conquered Gezer and gave it to Solomon as a wedding gift in a marriage alliance between the two monarchs. Gezer is not mentioned again in the biblical text, although archaeology helps us to reconstruct its role in the Kingdom of Judah.

Gezer aerial 2015
An aerial photo of Gezer from the 2015 excavation season. Photo: Gezer Excavation Project, http://www.telgezer.com/

BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY REPORT:  What are the significant finds you made at Gezer as it relates to biblical history?

The six-chambered Solomonic gate at Gezer. Photo: Todd Bolen, BiblePlaces.com

DR. STEVEN ORTIZ: Gezer has been extensively excavated. First by Macalister from 1902-1909 and then by Dever and Seger in the 1960s and 70s under the auspices of Hebrew Union College (HUC). These excavations have provided much data in regards to Gezer’s impact on biblical history. The famous Gezer Calendar (sort of a farmer’s almanac) was discovered at the turn of the century and it is one of the major epigraphic finds of the southern Levant. The Gezer standing stones were first exposed by Macalister and continue to be visited by locals and tourists today. The infamous Solomonic six-chambered gate was also discovered (originally thought by Macalister to belong to a Hellenistic building and later confirmed by the HUC excavations to be dated to the 10th century.

Steven Ortiz at gezer-calendar
Dr. Steven Ortiz stands next to a replica of the Gezer Calendar.

The HUC excavations confirmed the dating of the six-chambered gate but more importantly defined the stratigraphic history of the site. While Macalister identified 7-8 major strata (cultural/historical horizons), the HUC team identified 26. Thus they fully documented the history of Gezer as it transformed from a Canaanite city to an Israelite city. One of the epic events that they discovered was the destruction of the six-chambered gate to Shishak, probably on his way up to Jerusalem (1 Kings 14:25-26).

STeven Ortiz2The Tandy Excavations concluded 10 seasons of excavations from 2006-2017, under the direction of myself and my co-director Sam Wolff. We were able to confirm the dating of the six-chambered gate to the 10th century (e.g .United Monarchy) as well as expose a large administrative building abutting the gateway (we called it ‘Solomon’s Palace’ in press releases, knowing that Solomon probably did not visit the site, nevertheless it would have served his regional governor and the state). We also found more evidence of the Shishak destruction with toppled over ashlar stones. The project also uncovered a massive destruction beneath this ‘Solomonic City,’ most likely the result of the Egyptian pharaoh who conquered the city (most scholars propose that this pharaoh was likely Siamun). Beneath this destruction was a city that lasted about 200 years with evidence of rebuilds and remodeling. This city was built over a massive LB destruction. We found a large building with nearly a meter of burnt destruction. Within this building were three skeletons (2 adults and a youth). This destruction is attributed to Merneptah. A famous account written on a stela mentions his conquest of Gezer as well as Israel (this is the only archaeological evidence of the name Israel outside of the bible, hence the stela is famously known as the ‘Israelite Stela’). There are more connections, a rebuild and destruction that is contemporary with the wars between Israel and Judah in the 9th century, a major rebuild probably associated with Uzziah’s expansion.

BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY REPORT:  We were all saddened to hear the news that Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary was shutting down it’s archaeology program.  What does the future hold for you personally?

DR. STEVEN ORTIZ: God has been gracious. I was shocked to hear that the new administration did not believe such a program belonged in a seminary setting. Perhaps they are right. A donor and lay bible teacher heard that our program was cut and found a home for us (including my colleague, Dr. Tom Davis) and our research (https://www.laniertheologicallibrary.org/). We are moving to Lipscomb University in Nashville. We are excited to be in a university setting housed in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences with appointments in Hazelip School of Theology. Lipscomb will also help the nearly 25 students who were without a degree program (some of these students moved to Fort Worth in January to start the archaeology program, only to find out two months later that the archaeology program was terminated that semester).

Tell Bornat, possible Libnah, from west, tb011606860_thumb[1]
Tel Burna from the west. Photo: Todd Bolen, BiblePlaces.com
The research of Tel Gezer will continue under the auspices of a new research center and program at Lipscomb, as well as our new work at Tel Burna. Students who are currently involved in research and publication will continue. This includes our projects in Cyprus, Egypt, and Kazakhstan–and two new projects in Jordan and Sudan.


I am saddened by the trends in SBC seminaries. Southern Baptists have a high view of God’s Word and are keen on the study of scripture within its historical and cultural context. When I was hired at Southwestern, we had 12 faculty in Old Testament and New Testament Studies. Now there are only five. The trend is to hire theologians and church history faculty. I thought I was going to retire at Southwestern. After 20 years of being an SBC professor, God has moved my calling and ministry to a Church of Christ School. I am excited for the next 20 years of ministry demonstrating the historicity of the biblical text as well as living in Music City.

I’d like to thank Dr. Oritz for taking the time to answer my questions and for sharing with us the importance of the excavations at Tel Gezer

Here are some articles that Dr. Steven Ortiz has written or co-written, which may be of interest to readers (links automatically download files):

Guarding the Border to Jerusalem: The Iron Age City of Gezer 

The Archaeology of David and Solomon – Method or Madness?

United Monarchy: Archaeology and Literary Sources


Disclaimer: I allow each archaeologist to answer in his or her own words and may or may not agree with his or her interpretation of their work.

Title Photo: Provided by Steven Ortiz

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