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BiblePlaces Newsletter

Vol 19, #1 - January 27, 2020

Twenty Years of Photo Collections

by Todd Bolen

Twenty years ago this month, BiblePlaces.com was born. Though I didn’t secure the website until the following year, the first photo collection was released in January 2000. Some of you have been with us for quite a while, either as users of our photos or as readers of the blog or newsletter, and I thought you might enjoy a little bit of our backstory. I think, too, that one of the benefits of celebrating an anniversary like this is that it provides the opportunity to look back and reflect on how far we have come.

There were several critical moments that got this whole thing going, but before I mention those, I might begin with something more fundamental. It struck me in a new way recently when reading Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert.

If you want an average successful life, it doesn’t take much planning. Just stay out of trouble, go to school, and apply for jobs you might like. But if you want something extraordinary, you have two paths:

1. Become the best at one specific thing.

2. Become very good (top 25%) at two or more things.

The first strategy is difficult to the point of near impossibility. Few people will ever play in the NBA or make a platinum album. I don’t recommend anyone even try.

The second strategy is fairly easy. Everyone has at least a few areas in which they could be in the top 25% with some effort. In my case, I can draw better than most people, but I’m hardly an artist. And I’m not any funnier than the average standup comedian who never makes it big, but I’m funnier than most people. The magic is that few people can draw well and write jokes. It’s the combination of the two that makes what I do so rare. And when you add in my business background, suddenly I had a topic that few cartoonists could hope to understand without living it.

What Scott explains was not a strategy I formulated from the beginning, but it does explain pretty well how this came to be. I’m not the best photographer, not by a long shot. But when digital cameras first came out, I figured I could take enough photos to get a few good ones. Nor am I the best Bible teacher. But by leading groups around Israel year after year, I learned the locations and perspectives most important for teaching. The third component was some basic computer skills—being able to operate a scanner (for the older slides), burn some CDs, and create a simple website. The result was that I could take pictures particularly useful for biblical studies and distribute them.

My first digital camera: Nikon Coolpix 950 (2 megapixels)

Two conversations stick in my mind as pivotal to this whole project. The first was in the summer of 1999 when some seminary students on a tour I was leading pressed me to make my photos available. The second was a conversation with Richard Cleave, one of the creators of the famous Student Map Manual and an outstanding photographer of the Holy Land. I asked him to make his images available digitally for teachers. He was not interested, which meant that someone else would have to do it.

As a student, I had purchased a number of photo sets myself. On my first trip to Israel, I remember the bus driver advertising sets of 100 “Kodak” slides, and I bought it to fill out what I had not photographed. When I returned home, I showed my slides to whoever would watch, but I found that I used almost none of the purchased slides because of their quality and irrelevance.

The reality was that it was very difficult to find good photos in those days. Teachers couldn’t afford the prices of professional photographers, which went for around $60 for a single photo even when discounted for “PowerPoint-use-only.”

Teaching in the Jezreel Valley, with camera close at hand

Our first photo collection, the Pictorial Library of Bible Lands, was released 20 years ago this month, and it consisted of 4 volumes and a total of 1,600 photos. If anyone still has that set from the year 2000, I would kindly request that you throw it in the trash! It was a start, and starting is sometimes the most important thing, but the quality has improved enormously over the years.

I sold the very first sets to a bus full of students from Talbot School of Theology. With a few dollars in my pocket, I could pay the printer, buy more CDs at the store, and, most importantly, start saving to hire airplanes to take photos the average student couldn’t get. One year later, Dr. Richard Rigsby, leader of the Talbot Bible Lands program, invited me to join his group for a 24-day tour of Turkey, Greece, and Rome. That trip, along with more photography in Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, led to the expansion of the set to 8 volumes by the end of 2001.

Airplane at the Beersheba airport before the best flight of my life

There were no notes to accompany the slides (beyond the descriptive file names), and that bothered one of our early customers. So Wayne Wells offered to take my extensive site notes and match them up with the photos in PowerPoint. That decision was simultaneously one of the best and worst I ever made. On the one hand, it greatly increased the usefulness of the photos. On the other hand, it condemned me to an enormous amount of additional work over the years as new photos and volumes were added, all of which needed notes in order to be consistent.

It was about this time that Jim Weaver at Kregel approached me about publishing the collection. That resulted in a 10-volume CD set being released in early 2004. People still tell me they picked up the package of discs at Kregel’s booth at one of the Evangelical Theological Society conferences.

10-volume set published by Kregel
10-volume set published by Kregel

At this point, my focus shifted to two things: (1) taking pictures aggressively in Israel and all surrounding countries to build up a database for the next edition; (2) the development of a new series called Historic Views of the Holy Land. Of the latter, the initial volumes were released in 2004, and with the quiet addition of three new volumes last year, the total number has risen to 20.

Putting my friend's Land Rover to good use, near Alexandrium

The Pictorial Library of Bible Lands had one more edition waiting, with tens of thousands of photos trapped on my hard drive. I planned to do this work on the side while studying for a PhD at Dallas Theological Seminary. But coursework and research were all-consuming, and ultimately I realized there was no other way but to take a year-long break from studies to finish the “Revised and Expanded Edition.” Released in May 2012, this was the photo set I had always wanted. I was finally satisfied, both with the scope as well as with the quality.

At this point, I pretty much thought I was done creating photo collections. I finished my dissertation in May 2013 and moved out to California to teach on the home campus of The Master’s College. I continued to travel to the Middle East, but I expected to limit my work to free updates of particular units as I was able.

The Pictorial Library of Bible Lands, 18 volumes

But then a friend from my PhD program, Steven Anderson, approached me at the Evangelical Theological Society conference in November 2014 and asked if I had a project he could assist me with. In fact, I did. In the back of my mind, there was the “holy grail” of photo collections: a series illustrating each book of the Bible. I had taken a few stabs in that direction over the years with the help of some friends, but I couldn’t quite figure out how to make it work. But then, the obvious finally dawned on me: we could organize photographs by biblical chapter and verse, as well as provide some explanation for our image selection, by using, well, PowerPoint. That sounds quite simple now, but at the time, it provided the solution that I could never figure out with jpg picture files. (I was trying things like naming jpgs “Matt0101 Genealogy mosaic in En Gedi synagogue,” and it just wasn’t working.)

That discovery launched a whole new adventure, and for the last five years, an expanding team of amazing people has worked to create what I consider to be exceptional study and teaching resources for now 11 books of the Bible (and Psalm 23). Every book we finish in the Photo Companion to the Bible series seems to me to be better than the previous one, and I really believe we are creating something special. Everyone on the team believes that.

Some of our amazing team at a recent dinner during the ETS Conference

What is next? We make no promises, but our current goal is to finish the New Testament as well as certain historical books of the Old. We have at least an initial draft of each of those books, and in some cases we are even further along. Sometime I might write up a little bit of the process of how we create these. We are also working on a new volume in the Pictorial Library series and another one in the Historic Views series.

The Photo Companion to the Bible

A lot of people have made these 20 years possible, from my colleagues at IBEX in those early days, to various current and former students who did all manner of tedious tasks, to a number of professors and pastors and lay leaders who provided critical encouragement and support along the way. A.D. Riddle has been a partner the longest, and Kris Udd has kept this project moving forward in the last couple of years with his consistent excellence. Chris McKinny and Christian Locatell have created so much valuable content in the Old and New Testaments respectively. Assisting me in more ways that I can name are Kaelyn Peay and Charity Pearson. And my four oldest kids have saved me time in so many different jobs over the years. My wife Kelli has provided vital support throughout it all. There are many others without whom I don’t know how I could have done it, including John, Mike, Chet, Matt, David, Tom, Gloria, Craig, Joshua, Yuliya, Jodi, Jeremy, Kim, Heidi, Caden, and Eric. Our earnest hope is that the Lord will use these photo collections to help Bible readers, teachers, pastors, Bible translators, and others to better understand, explain, and treasure God’s Word.

Highlights of 20 Years

Jan 2000Released initial edition of Pictorial Library of Bible Lands (4 volumes, 1,600 photos)
Jan 2001Registered BiblePlaces.com
Mar 2002Sent first BiblePlaces Newsletter (77 issues to date)
Aug 2002Released 8-volume edition of Pictorial Library of Bible Lands (5,000 photos)
Oct 2002Pictorial Library of Bible Lands released in Chinese (later in Romanian)
Feb 2004Kregel published 10-volume edition of Pictorial Library of Bible Lands (6,000 photos)
Nov 2004Released first 8 volumes (of 20, currently) in the Historic Views of the Holy Land series
Aug 2005Launched BiblePlaces Blog (2,800 posts to date)
Jan 2006Launched Life in the Holy Land website
Aug 2009Released The American Colony and Eric Matson Collection (8 volumes)
May 2012Released 18-volume edition of Pictorial Library of Bible Lands (Revised and Expanded, with 17,500 photos); added volume 19 (Persia) in Oct 2018
Dec 2014Began development of the Photo Companion to the Bible
Jan 2015Began daily posts on Twitter, later expanded to Facebook and Instagram (1,850 posts to date)
Aug 2017Initial volumes released in the Photo Companion to the Bible series (the Gospels, 10,000 slides), later followed by RuthPsalm 23ActsEsther, and Daniel
Nov 2019Released the most recent volumes in the Photo Companion to the Bible series: JoshuaJudges, and Romans (7,500 slides), bringing the Ultimate Teaching Set to a total of 51 volumes

Featured BiblePlaces Photos:
Galilee, Then and Now

The featured photos this month provide contrasting views of various sites in Galilee from the 19th and early 20th centuries with modern photos. This set includes photos of Caesarea Philippi, Hazor, Chorazin, Capernaum, Tiberias, Nazareth, Beth Shean, and the Sea of Galilee. The photos come from a variety of sources, including the Pictorial Library of Bible Lands and the Historic Views of the Holy Land. These then-and-now comparison photos are available in a free PowerPoint.

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All contents © 2020 Todd Bolen. Text and photographs may be used for personal and educational use with attribution. Commercial use requires written permission.