News Articles

Archaeologist sees key place for his field in seminary education

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–Steven M. Ortiz grew up in east Los Angeles, attending a Southern Baptist church with his then-newly converted father, intrigued by sermons from a pastor who regularly cited the historical and cultural background of the biblical text.

“My personality is the type that I want to touch and taste it,” said Ortiz, reflecting on his journey from a curious kid to a Ph.D. archaeologist who has worked with some of the field’s foremost scholars.

The day he was interviewed in his office at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, Ortiz’ adrenaline was just beginning to subside from the week before, when the seminary’s I. Ruth Martin Collection of archaeological artifacts, dating back to the Iron Age (1,000-586 B.C.), was rediscovered after being stumbled upon deep in the climate-controlled library archives.

It seems the collection was inconspicuously marked, boxed and stored amid aging church music documents on a bottom shelf. Just a few days later, Ortiz was lecturing to a handful of students in the newly minted seminar room that now houses the Martin collection. Many of the 100-plus pieces of pottery, including cuneiform tablet writings, jars, oil lamps and ancient coins, were already displayed in glass cases.

The recovery of the artifacts, which join other artifacts in the Charles C. Tandy Archaeological Museum at Southwestern, gives students a tangible sense of biblical history, Ortiz said.

Ortiz joined Southwestern’s faculty last fall as associate professor of archaeology and biblical backgrounds and director of the Tandy Museum, coming from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. After Hurricane Katrina sent the Ortizes to Grapevine, Texas, to be near family, Ortiz found support as a fellow professor at the Southern Baptist sister school in Fort Worth.

That relationship eventually developed into an opportunity to revive Southwestern’s archaeology program, which was discontinued in the 1990s. Last fall Ortiz was busy teaching several courses and designing a curriculum to propose to the school’s trustees at their spring meeting for the master of arts program in archaeology and biblical studies, with an eventual goal of offering a doctoral degree in biblical archaeology.

The revived M.A. degree will be one of only two among SBC seminaries — the other is at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo. — and one of the few programs at evangelical Christian schools where scholarship will include archaeological digs and exposure to some of the world’s leading scholars, Ortiz said, whereas most programs involve studying archaeology secondhand.

If all goes as planned, master’s-level students may begin the program this fall, Ortiz said. In the 1980s under the leadership of George Kelm, now retired and living in San Antonio, the seminary participated in a dig, known as a “tel,” at Timnah, Israel; many of the artifacts from that dig are displayed in the Southwestern’s Tandy Museum.


Pointing to a map on a wall inside the museum, Ortiz noted that Timnah, where students worked on the Tel Batash excavation into the early ’90s, is only three to five miles from Gezer, site of the current dig involving Southwestern and led by Ortiz and Sam Wolff of the Israeli Antiquities Authority.

Gezer is on a strategic path that led from the lower elevations through the mountains to Jerusalem, Ortiz said. By the late Bronze Age [1,500-1,200 B.C.], he said, “Every time a king marched through the Holy Land, they had to conquer Gezer [to get to Jerusalem].”

Scripture tells of David driving the Philistines as far as Gezer, marking it as a boundary point between Israel and Philistine lands, Ortiz said. Gezer is referred to in 1 Kings 9:15-17 as one of Solomon’s fortified cities. If armies were to get to Jerusalem from the east, they would pass near Gezer. The passage records that Pharaoh captured Gezer, killed the Canaanite inhabitants and then gave it as a dowry to Solomon for his daughter, who was one of Solomon’s wives.

Last summer Gezer was re-excavated for the first time in 30 years by a joint archaeological expedition, led in part by Ortiz and Wolff. It will continue in 2007 with consortium members that include Southwestern, Midwestern Seminary, Lancaster Bible College, the Marian Eakins Archaeological Museum, Lycoming College and Grace Seminary.

In fact, Southwestern will co-sponsor the dig work at Tel Gezer with the Israeli agency, a shift that comes in conjunction with Ortiz’ move to Southwestern. “The Tel Gezer excavations have the potential to be one of the few American excavation projects in Israel that is training the next generation of biblical archaeologists,” Ortiz said.


In addressing the seminary’s trustees last fall, Ortiz cited an increasing public interest in archaeology, such as a recent article in Newsweek magazine. “Because of archaeological research, revisionists can no longer deny the historicity of the Bible,” he said. “What they do is they change the historicity of the Bible. And so they find other Gospels. They just change it a little — Jesus being married to Mary Magdalene, etc., etc. In Old Testament [studies] there are similar trends there.

“They don’t deny the historicity of David and Solomon anymore, they just change it a little — David and Solomon weren’t really ancient kings of Israel; they were small tribal chieftains. Or, we have all the dating wrong,” Ortiz explained, giving examples of how revisionists attempt to dismiss the biblical account.

“And this is where my work comes in. This is where it’s important,” Ortiz said. “… Can a history of Israel be written [such as] ‘The Mythic Past’?” he asked, reading a book title. “These are textbooks used in major universities. ‘The Invention of Ancient Israel,’ ‘The Creation of History in Ancient Israel.’ If you take a course in any major university or college in the country, these are the textbooks that are used in a basic Bible course.

“And so you as pastors, as ministers — when you send out your college students and they come back, they’re asking you the question, ‘What do I do? Is the Bible true? I’ve been challenged in my Bible history course.’ And that’s one of the issues God has called me to,” Ortiz said. “The accounts of David — are they historical or are they mythological? And this is the question that’s presented in most classes.

“The solution, naturally, is archaeological research, going and actually having evangelicals involved in archaeology,” Ortiz noted, adding, “… [M]ost evangelicals have abandoned archaeology for many reasons. One, it’s difficult. It’s hard to stay married. You leave your wife for two months. You get dirty. You deal with pottery. It’s not interesting. You get boring lectures in class. So, most people avoid archaeology.”


Ortiz caught the archaeology bug while he was a college student at Cal-State Los Angeles. A double major in anthropology and sociology, Ortiz headed to Israel on a summer study program and was hooked. “I fell in love with archaeology,” he said. “I fell in love with the land. I finished my undergraduate degree and went to Israel to work on my master’s degree.”

While there, he was able to study under some world-renowned archaeologists and earn a master’s degree in biblical history. From there, he headed to the University of Arizona, where he earned a Ph.D. in Near Eastern archaeology under noted scholar William Dever. Ortiz was able to use his unusual background as a committed Baptist evangelical in a field of many skeptics when an offer to teach came from New Orleans Seminary.

“God brought both passions [archaeology and the Christian faith] together at New Orleans,” Ortiz said. While there, he taught and directed the Center for Archaeological Research and brought a new level of prominence to the program, bringing to campus speakers such as Israeli archaeologist Gabriel Barkay, known for uncovering the oldest known copy of Old Testament Scripture while excavating a burial tomb near Jerusalem in 1979. The priestly blessing, recorded in Numbers 6:24-26, was discovered on two small silver scrolls dated to the seventh century B.C.

New Orleans Seminary’s archaeology program frequently began to draw attention from the city’s newspaper, the Times-Picayune, mostly because of a reporter who was intrigued by archaeology. In 2004, Biblical Archaeology Review called Ortiz a “prominent evangelical scholar” in the field. At a Houston luncheon that same year hosted by the American Jewish Federation and the Anti-Defamation League that featured Southern Baptist ethicist Richard Land, a Jewish host introduced Land as an alumnus of New Orleans Seminary and lauded the school for what he described as its fine work in biblical archaeology. “That [Gabriel Barkay] lecture catapulted the program,” Ortiz recalled.

In addition to archaeology students, ministerial students should have a grasp of biblical archaeology, Ortiz said, noting, “It just elevates your preaching, because you’re putting it in the context of its revelation.” He also noted that donors such as I. Ruth Martin, a Southwestern alumnus and longtime professor at Pembroke State College in North Carolina who died in 1989, are crucial to building a top-notch biblical archaeology program.

“I hope we will be the next training center for biblical archaeology, at least in the SBC and in the evangelical world,” Ortiz said, “and to be a major player in our field of research.”
Jerry Pierce is managing editor of The Southern Baptist Texan, newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.

    About the Author

  • Jerry Pierce/The Southern Baptist Texan