If you’ve read any books or study bibles related to biblical archaeology, chances are you’ve seen the photography of my next guest in the Scholar’s Chair: Dr. Todd Bolen. I’ve been blessed by the work of Dr. Bolen and his website, http://www.BiblePlaces.com for many years, and I’m excited that he’s agreed to answer some of my questions. You can read more about Dr. Bolen’s resources and how I use them in my own ministry in my Resource Review of the Photo Companion to the Bible.
Dr. Todd Bolen is Professor of Biblical Studies at The Master’s University in Santa Clarita, CA. He’s earned graduate degrees from the Institute of the Holy Land Studies and The Master’s Seminary, along with a Ph.D. from Dallas Theological Seminary. From 1996 to 2007, Dr. Bolen taught at TMU’s Israel Bible Extension, leading geography field trips, participating in archaeological excavations, and directing the student life program. He has written articles for the Archaeological Study Bible, authored the notes for 2 Kings for the NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible, and contributed a number of essays to the Lexham Geographic Commentary series. He is currently working on a history of ancient Israel textbook to be published by Zondervan. Dr. Bolen is the man behind BiblePlaces.com and various photo-based resources developed to assist Bible teachers and students alike.
Welcome Dr. Bolen!
BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY REPORT: What initially sparked your interest photographing sites in the lands of the Bible?
DR. TODD BOLEN: I began like everyone else—on my first trip to Israel, with a camera and lots of rolls of film, trying to document my experiences. When I returned home four months later, I had six carousels of slide trays, and I made a highlights reel to show anyone who would ask.
The genesis of my serious photo-taking happened when three realities converged: (1) digital projectors made it much easier for me and others to show pictures in class; (2) I acquired a digital camera which meant I didn’t have to worry about film costs; and (3) I was guiding seminary students around Israel, and they wanted copies of my pictures. That all came together in the year 1999, and by January 2000, I was selling a 4-CD collection that I was making on my home computer.
BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY REPORT: You’ve developed a series of photo-based resources for Bible students and teachers. Can you summarize these collections for us and tell us what you’re hoping to accomplish with them?
DR. TODD BOLEN: The best way to describe them is in the order in which they came to life. The first collection was the Pictorial Library of Bible Lands, and this went site by site, region by region, and country by country to provide a broad set of images so that the student, teacher, tourist could virtually visit or re-visit these places. I think my collections were more popular because (1) I was living in Israel and traveling again and again to photograph these sites; (2) I carefully labeled all of the photographs, so people looking at them could identify their own pictures; (3) I enjoyed many unique opportunities, including religious festivals, varying weather conditions, and off-road trips and hikes; (4) I hired airplanes to get pictures with some amazing perspectives. Another strength of this series is its scope: from Persia in the east to Spain in the west, with most (but not all) biblical lands in between.
But as I was taking modern photographs, I was also becoming enamored with old pictures that captured the biblical lands as they were 50-100 years ago. That led to the creation of the Historic Views of the Holy Land series, which features everything from stunning American Colony photos taken as early as 1898 to beautiful color images taken by David Bivin in the 1960s.
The most ambitious project is the one we are devoted to now: the Photo Companion to the Bible. For this, we are taking everything in our database, including tens of thousands of museum photos, and creating a resource that goes verse by verse through the biblical books. This makes it extremely easy for anyone to jump into a biblical passage and quickly see all the photos that illustrate it, including geographic views, ancient artifacts, cultural scenes, and historic images. Whereas our earlier projects require a bit more user knowledge, this series is intended to serve everyone from the beginning Bible student to the seminary professor.
BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY REPORT: In your travels, you’ve been to many archaeological sites. Which site impacted you personally most powerfully?
DR. TODD BOLEN: I would say that my favorite place in the world is Jerusalem. That of course includes many archaeological sites itself, and that may be part of its magic. Everywhere you turn, there is something from the life of David, the era of the kings, or the ministry of Jesus. Hezekiah’s Tunnel is absolutely extraordinary, and being around when the Pool of Siloam was discovered was thrilling. Just up the hill is the Temple Mount, and I never tire of walking around the massive complex and thinking about all that happened there.
The archaeological site I visited most recently that blew me away was Susa in Persia. Now, I should hasten to add, that Susa is not very visually impressive (that honor goes to its sister city at Persepolis). But archaeologists have identified the features of Darius’s palace where the story of Esther took place, and the number of connections that I could see on the ground, combined with the fact that it is so rare to be able to venture to Susa today (in western Iran), just made for a most delightful experience.
BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY REPORT: Are there any sites you’re hoping to have an opportunity to photograph that you haven’t visited yet?
DR. TODD BOLEN: I haven’t been able to travel to Syria or Iraq, and they are at the top of my list. In Syria, I would love to see Damascus, Palmyra, and Ain Dara. In Iraq, Babylon, Nineveh, and Dur Sharrukin.
BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY REPORT: Since you are both a Bible scholar and have traveled extensively in the areas described in Scripture, how accurate have you found the descriptions of Bible places?
DR. TODD BOLEN: As I have traveled with students throughout Israel, teaching them biblical history, geography, and archaeology, I never think about apologetics. That is, I never think about making some effort to convince them that the Bible is true. I just open the Bible and point. After three weeks, or three months (depending on how long the study program is), they are just overwhelmed by the eyewitness nature of the biblical accounts. That doesn’t mean there aren’t open questions at points, but these are a small amount relative to everything we can see and experience. I am entirely convinced of the historical reliability of the Scriptures.
BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY REPORT: What are the next releases planned in the Photo Companion to the Bible series?
DR. TODD BOLEN: I work with an absolutely fabulous team—Kris and Charity and Steven and Kaelyn and Kai and Chris and Christian and A.D. along with four of my children—and they are doing amazing work of which I am so proud. In the Old Testament, we will have 2 Samuel out very soon. In the New Testament, we expect to have Galatians–Colossians available by early summer.
I’d like to thank Dr. Bolen for sharing with us about his ministry. I highly encourage you to check out the resources he has available at BiblePlaces.com. I use them regularly both in my personal Bible study, and in my preaching ministry. You can learn more about them here:
Dr. Bolen has also done extensive research on the kingdom of Israel. You can find his work on The Aramean Oppression of Israel in the Reign of Jehu and The Reign of Jeroboam II: A Historical and Archaeological Interpretation at his academia.edu site.
Finally, Dr. Bolen has co-authored a book with Steven D. Anderson entitled, Psalm 23: A Photo Commentary, which is available from Amazon.
Disclaimer: I allow each scholar 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 Dr. Todd Bolen