Research blog

Discover the Bible Lands with Todd Bolen

Todd Bolen is Professor of Biblical Studies at The Master’s University in Santa Clarita, California. He spent eleven years in Israel as an associate professor of biblical studies at the Israel Bible Extension near Jerusalem. He has graduate degrees from the Institute of Holy Land Studies (today Jerusalem University College), The Master’s Seminary, and Dallas Theological Seminary. Todd Bolen is master photographer. The website BiblePlaces.com developed from a passion for good digital photographs for studying and teaching the Bible.


Mariusz Rosik: Professor Bolen, in 2001 you have founded the website BiblePlaces.com to provide photographic resources for the study and teaching of the biblical world. When I look at this project, I am amazed by the fact how many great photographs you have managed to collect. They provide great help for academic teachers and theology students. How did you get the idea for ​​creating such a website? Tell us about the beginning of the project.

Todd Bolen: Everything began because my students started asking me for my photographs. I was living in Israel and guiding group after group to biblical sites all around Israel which gave me many opportunities to take photographs. I was traveling the land when it was green in the spring and when the leaves were changing in the fall and even occasionally when snow fell. So I was taking lots of photos and choosing the best ones that I could share with others. This first collection I produced is the Pictorial Library of Bible Lands, and over the years I just kept expanding the library with more and more photos of every site I could travel to.

How has your passion of shooting developed? And what about the story of one hundred slides of “Holy Land photos” for 25 dollars?

I took a job delivering newspapers when I was 11 years old and my first big purchase with my savings was a Minolta SLR camera. I started taking pictures for the school yearbook and on family vacations. Then as a college student I went to Israel and I brought lots of rolls of slide film with me. But what really made this whole project possible was the invention of the digital camera, as now I could afford to take as many photos as I had time to take.

Two moments were formative on my route to creating these photo collections. The first was on my first trip to Israel when the bus driver was selling a set of 100 slides for $25. And I bought them, thinking that they would fill in the gaps in my own slides. Unfortunately the slides were faded and did not cover some of the most exciting places in the Bible. A second event occurred some years later when I approached an outstanding photographer and asked him to create affordable photo collections that Bible teachers could use. He rejected that suggestion. Later I learned that he would charge $1,000 for a single photo, so it made sense to me why he didn’t want to make the kind of photo collections I had in mind.

Until now more than forty other photographers have contributed to the BiblePlaces.com collections. How did you get so many contributors?

I’ve been working on this project for 18 years now, and over time I’ve worked with various colleagues, taught thousands of students, and met many other interesting people. I have asked some of these individuals to share their best photos to make our collections as complete and excellent as they can be. One professor visited Kadesh Barnea in the 1970s before it became accessible, and he agreed to let us share his photos. Another professor rented airplanes in a number of countries in the Middle East to take photos, and he also granted us a license to use his photos in our collections. Some of my students have travelled to places I’ve not yet visited, and other friends have just been at the right place at the right time. When you put it all together, I think we’ve created a resource that covers so much of the biblical lands, scenes, and culture. It’s been years in the making, and we’re planning to keep at it as long as we are able.

I find very interesting the part of your project called “Historic Views of the Holy Land”. The Holy Land changes rapidly. Older photographs often reveal features not visible today. The Historic Views of the Holy Land series makes available photographs and illustrations of biblical sites from the last two hundred years. Why do you think that photographs and illustrations from the biblical world in times past is important today? Can they be useful in studying the Holy Scripture?

As I was developing the modern photographic series through my travels, I also was being made aware of a number of important photo collections from years past. As I looked through these, it was amazing to see just how different the Holy Land was just 50 or 100 years ago. Since my primary interest is in teaching the Bible, I love to see photos that show the landscapes without the modern high-rises and freeways that today clutter the scene. These old photos are a like a time machine that takes us back to an era that was more similar to biblical times.

One of these collections comes from David Bivin. He came to Israel in 1963 as a student at Hebrew University, and he brought a high-quality medium-format camera. For the next decade he shot several thousand pictures around the Middle East. Then those slides were all put in a box where they sat for 30 years. Then one day he walked into my office in the Judean hills with a large box of these slides. He had no projector to view them on, so we held them up to the window to get a look. I knew immediately that these were something special—high-quality, color photographs of the land before so much of the modern transformation. I bought an expensive scanner that was able to digitize these larger-size slides, and some friends pitched in to help, and a year or so later, we had one of the volumes for this new series: View That Have Vanished: The Photographs of David Bivin

Older photos not only provide another view for sites that you can see today, but in many cases they show us what no longer exists. Construction has really taken its toll, as new suburbs are built and power lines are hung. Archaeological excavations change as the team may choose to bury what they uncovered or to reconstruct it and change its appearance. Capernaum is a favorite place to visit, but it’s harder to see the ancient ruins of Peter’s house today than it was before the modern church was built. Jerusalem is more and more crowded with tourists and buses. The Jordan River no longer floods, and few farmers winnow their wheat at the threshing floor any longer. Not all change is bad, I know, but I like that we can in some sense have the best of both worlds through access to historic photographs.

Prof. Todd Bolen

Your team has just released the Gospels volumes for the new Photo Companion to the Bible series. This collection provides thousands of high-quality images to help Bible students and professors to understand and teach the Scriptures. This PowerPoint-based resource includes landscape photos of Galilee, Samaria, and Jerusalem, as well as aerial views, museum artifacts, and historic images. Could you tell us, please, where does the idea for creating such collection come from?

I have wanted to create such a collection for more than a decade, but I didn’t quite know how to accomplish it. In the meantime, we have continued to expand our photo collections so that we have a much bigger storehouse of images to draw from. But then the “solution” appeared, and it was an obvious one: use PowerPoint as a means of tying together the biblical verse, the verse reference, the photograph, a description of the photograph, and more details about the photograph. A photograph by itself doesn’t necessarily help someone to understand the Bible, but when you put it in the context of a biblical passage with a clarifying explanation, everything makes sense.

What we have done with the Photo Companion is to go through every book, chapter, and verse of the Gospels to provide illustrations that bring the text to life. This new series really is the culmination of all of our previous work, as it joins together in one place the best landscape images, the best historic photographs, and the best museum artifacts that are related to each verse. We feature sites sacred in various traditions (e.g., Catholic, Armenian, Greek) as well as antiquities from museums all over the world. We’ve created a library, full of images that one can draw from to discover whatever one’s interest is. For Matthew 27, for instance, we have more than 230 slides related to Jesus’s trial, crucifixion, and burial. A student or casual reader may just enjoy looking through the full set and learning as much as they can. A teacher may want to choose just 10 slides to use for a class. But whatever the need, we’ve tried to provide the best and most relevant images.

Let me just add too that everything is created to be easy-to-use and completely editable. A teacher can make whatever changes to slides, descriptions, and labels to suit their needs. Nothing is “fixed” so that it cannot be edited. This also is useful for those who want to translate labels into other languages.

You mention that you have finished the four volumes of the Gospels. What are you planning to do next?

Our volume on Ruth is now complete and we will be releasing it soon. This is a very special volume because it lends itself so well to visual illustration. We have some spectacular photographs of the Bethlehem area and some unique images of the harvest, including winnowing and threshing. We also have added some extra items, such as illustrating the road that Naomi travelled to Moab and back. To understand the gate in Bethlehem (which has not yet been discovered), we have photographs of other city gates that we have labelled and described. We have photos of sandals from the time of Ruth as well as an ancient inscription that mentions her great-grandson, David.

We are working now on Exodus and Acts. These two books are particularly challenging because they have so much potential and cover so much ground. Our team is working away and we hope to have these completed by the end of 2018.

Your photographs look very professional. Is photography your job or just your hobby?

Photography is a hobby for me. My primary job is teaching at the university, and I love to teach the Bible to eager students. I don’t consider myself to be a highly skilled photographer, but I have relied upon this secret: if you take enough photographs, some will come out good! The other thing that I think makes our photo collections unique is our knowledge of the Bible and the biblical lands. It makes a difference when you know the details of the text so that you can take the right shot or take it from the right angle. I want photographs that “teach,” not just something that looks pretty on a postcard. So if I can capture a picture of the “Sea Level” sign with the Sea of Galilee in the background, that image communicates to everyone that the Sea of Galilee is many hundreds of feet below sea level. If I can get a picture of Capernaum just as the sun is going down, that’s a perfect illustration for the story in the Gospel of Mark where people began to come to Jesus to be healed as the Sabbath was ending (Mark 1:32). If I am taking photographs in museums, I know which part of the artifact or inscription to focus on.

Kids of Todd Bolen with the new collection of the Pictorial Library of Bible Lands

You collected thousands of pictures not only from Israel, but also from many different countries and places mentioned in the Bible. What were these countries? Perhaps you have some special events related to your work as photographer there?

Living in Israel puts you in close proximity to so many other countries where the Bible events occurred. So I made it my goal to visit as many biblical sites as I could. Jordan was the easiest, because you could drive to the border and cross over within a few hours. Egypt is also close by, and I took various trips with my wife, with students, and with other friends. In each of these countries, there is so much to see that you have to return many times to see it all. And you learn from each trip how to do the next trip better. Turkey is one of my favorite countries because it is so big, so beautiful, and so biblical. So much of the Bible occurred here, from Abraham’s time in Haran in Genesis all the way to the seven churches of Revelation. Greece is important because of Paul’s missionary journeys and the whole cultural background of the New Testament world. There are also the many islands that Paul visited, and I’ve now made it to all of them, including Malta, Crete, Cyprus, Cos, and Rhodes. It’s not easy to get to some of these places, and I consider my travel to be not only fun but also a way to serve others. I want to capture through my lens the scenes that will help bring each biblical event to life so that all can “see” the settings of Scripture.

And now, if you agree, a more personal question. From 1996 to 2007, you were an associate professor of biblical studies at the Israel Bible Extension near Jerusalem, where you taught biblical geography, history and archaeology to students in a semester-abroad program. It is eleven years, quite a long time. How do you remember staying in the Holy Land? The Land of Jesus became for you something like a new home? Or maybe someone who comes from abroad always feels in Israel just like a stranger?

Israel certainly felt like home to me, and it still does as I return regularly to teach and photograph. But I might qualify that statement. There is the Holy Land of today which is often characterized by politics and debate and turmoil. But in my work there, teaching students the Bible while standing at the ancient locations, I felt more like I was living in “ancient Israel.” I love to hike the trails through the Galilean hills and the Judean wilderness, and while you’re doing that you can forget that you’re living in the modern world. And I don’t think it takes too long for most people to feel “at home” in the Holy Land. Our students spend three months there and in that time they become so immersed in the geography and history that many of them will say that they know the Holy Land better than they do their own hometown. One piece of advice I like to give to people is this: as you are able, get off the bus and away from the group and just soak in the sights and the sounds and the smells. So much is unchanged from the way that it was in biblical times.

It seems that as a biblical scholar you are interested especially in biblical geography, history and archaeology. You are co-author of Bible Atlas and Companion. You have written articles for the Archaeological Study Bible andnotes for the Zondervan NIV Study Bible. You earned your PhD at Dallas Theological Seminary. Your dissertation was on the Aramean oppression of Israel during the Reign of Jehu. Why did you choose this topic?

My first passion from when I initially studied in Jerusalem was the history of ancient Israel. I loved to learn about the kings of Israel and Judah and the battles they fought and the inscriptions they left. This is the area where I wanted to teach as well. When I wrote my masters thesis, I chose to study the reign of Jeroboam II (circa 800–750 BC). When it came time for my dissertation, I just wanted to expand my in-depth knowledge of this era and so I chose the previous era (840–800 BC) which is particularly exciting because of the conflict between the Israelites and the Arameans. Military engagement often leaves traces behind in the archaeological record, and so my study pulled together all of the data from excavations, inscriptions, and the biblical text in order to have a comprehensive understanding of Jehu’s reign. This all is proving very helpful as I now co-author a new textbook on the history of ancient Israel.

Professor Bolen – if you don’t mind – you have a beautiful family, your wife Kelli and five children. In Poland, mostly catholic priests are biblical scholars. They (like me) don’t have families. In such situation, probably is much easier to dedicate your time for studying the Bible and academic activities. How do you manage to combine the work of a biblical scholar, academic teacher, traveller and photographer with your role of the father of the family?

Paul says that if you are married and have a family your interests are divided, and that’s certainly true. I cannot focus on only creating photo collections or writing, but I have to split my time between them all. Happily, these various areas of life all are gifts of God that provide much joy for me. I also enjoy combining interests as I am able, so sometimes I would turn a photography trip into a camping vacation and take some of my children with me. As I am developing the collections, I train them in various areas so that they can learn more skills and so that they can make the work go faster. My four oldest children (ages 20 to 14) have all worked with me in recent years in creating the newest collections, including taking photos, writing notes, and editing PowerPoints. My wife is very supportive, and she carries all the load when I am traveling. We met while we were both studying in Jerusalem, so she has always encouraged me to do everything I can to learn more, travel farther, and serve others. God has been kind to bless me with so many delightful gifts.

Thank you for the conversation.

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ks. Mariusz Rosik