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Biblical archaeology: heart-changing not Indiana Jones glitzy, prof says

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–He doesn’t swing on vines through winding caves, dodge massive boulders or narrowly escape pits of poisonous vipers. He isn’t hunting for the lost Ark of the Covenant while being pursued by thieves and evil governments. And he doesn’t carry a bullwhip or pistol in his quest for ancient artifacts.

But Thomas V. Brisco does share something with Indiana Jones — a passion for archaeology. And although his real life archaeological adventures are not full of the heart-pounding excitement of an Indiana Jones movie, that’s OK with him because he believes biblical archaeology should be heart-changing, not heart-pounding.

Whether he’s showing slides of fertile crescent topography, discussing Egyptian rule during the Late Bronze Age or leading unofficial tours of the British Museum’s archaeological exhibits, Brisco uses what he and other archaeologists have dug up to open up the world of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Jesus and Paul to people today.

Brisco is professor of biblical backgrounds and archaeology and associate dean for special master’s degrees at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. His “Holman Bible Atlas” won a Gold Medallion Award from the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association last year.

He has four years of experience as area director of an archaeological dig of Timnah, an ancient city associated with the story of Samson. His travels have taken him all over the ancient Near East, including Israel, Egypt, the Sinai, Lebanon, Turkey and Greece. And he has traced the apostle Paul’s footsteps through Rome, other parts of Italy, and Malta.

Most days at Southwestern his khakis and ties do not distinguish him from colleagues. But talk with him, attend a lecture or read his work, and his driving passion emerges — use archaeology to recover the Bible’s original context so that modern people might better hear Scripture as it was first heard.

Brisco became a Christian at age 9 at Reading Avenue Baptist Church in Texarkana, Texas. Captain of his school basketball team and catcher for the baseball team, he sensed he was missing something and became more involved in church around age 15. Confessing a love for rocks, fossils and minerals since boyhood, he still believed he would become a geologist.

At Beech Street Baptist Church in Texarkana, Brisco sensed God’s call. After consulting the church he believed the call was to preach. By 17, he was licensed and preaching in missions and retirement homes. By 18, he served as associate pastor and youth director. At Ouachita Baptist University, he served First Baptist-Ashdown as youth director, associate pastor and then interim pastor.

He never considered any seminary other than Southwestern because of the school’s reputation as well as the recommendation of OBU professors who were alumni. Not knowing exactly where the campus was located, he headed west.

His affinity for maps had not yet developed, however. “I didn’t bother looking at one — I just thought the seminary was on I-20 or 30,” he said. “When I got near Weatherford, Texas (about 20 miles too far west), I realized I was wrong.”

Once Brisco found Southwestern, he never left again except for a brief teaching stint at Ouachita.

“Southwestern has been part of my life since 1969,” he said. “It has become my home in a very meaningful sense.”

After earning his master of divinity in 1973, he earned the seminary’s first Ph.D. in biblical backgrounds and archaeology and received the seminary’s David Meir International Study League Award for proficiency in archaeology and biblical studies.

Brisco is thankful for Southwestern’s commitment to archaeological studies when many theological institutions are letting archaeological studies fall by the wayside. Though the popularity of archaeological studies waned during the 1970s, Brisco remains convinced such studies are vital to understanding Scripture.

“Archaeology is a tool that biblical studies can’t do without,” Brisco said.

Archaeology has helped recover ancient manuscripts and other raw data useful for reconstructing the past. This material sheds light on biblical peoples like the Hittites, whose culture, language and cities were only recently discovered.

Archaeology brings the Bible to life and casts “light upon the biblical world that we might understand the Bible in context,” Brisco said.

Such illumination is hard work. Archaeologists might work years on a site in a group of 5-by-5-meter plots, their every move and find meticulously recorded, knowing that when they leave enough remains uncovered to keep another team busy for years. The heroic, exciting archaeology of cinema is nothing like the reality of backbreaking work to uncover a drinking cup dating from Samson’s time.

Indiana Jones movies are not the only misconception people have about archaeology. Some people believe archaeologists set out to prove or disprove the Bible by dashing madly around the world in search of spectacular finds like Noah’s ark, Brisco said.

Yet because he is a Christian, the truth of the Bible is a given for Brisco.

“I’m not looking for facts to back up my faith. It is resting on something much more significant — the risen Lord,” Brisco said. “In fact, biblical claims are faith claims that must be accessed by faith. I don’t mean they’re leaps in the dark, but when we’re invited to believe the ultimate claims of the Bible, they are unverifiable by mere science, whether archaeology or otherwise. They are only verifiable by the experience of faith.”

Rather than trying to verify faith, biblical archaeology is more interested in helping to recover the Bible’s original context in as much detail as possible to provide a better understanding of God’s Word.

“It’s not that we’re uninterested — if there is an ark out there somewhere, certainly we would like to find it,” Brisco said. “But all archaeologists, as I tell my classes, are sort of born in the state of Missouri — you have to show us. It’s not just speculation. We must have objects that we can examine and try to determine their relationship to the Bible, if any.”

Brisco wants his students to understand that archaeology and history are not just isolated facts and events but are part of a story.

“If you can think that way, archaeology becomes a tool to understand the Bible at a deeper level,” he said.

Southwestern offers several courses in archaeology of the Old and New Testaments, the Greco-Roman world and the Iron Age as well as courses on the Dead Sea Scrolls and early Judaism. Southwestern was involved in the Tel-Batash, or Timnah, dig during the 1970s and 1980s.

Brisco is hoping to develop a summer study tour in the Near East. He also connects students interested in doing archaeological digs to projects conducted by various universities and foundations.

The insight archaeology affords Brisco has mixed well with his call to preach. He recently served as interim pastor in Texas and will do so again in Colorado. He is frequently asked to teach Bible studies.

“Serving the church in a variety of capacities helps us relate to what our students are called to do,” he said.

Noting the role his family plays in teaching and being a professional archaeologist, Brisco credits Judy, his wife of nearly 30 years. “Ministry for me would not be possible without her,” he said of Judy, whose work as a registered nurse has helped support his endeavors.

He put excavating on hold when his children were younger, but with his daughter a speech pathologist and his son about to enter law school, he would like to get back to digging as well as traveling to countries he has yet to visit like Iraq and Iran. For now, he knows that as a professor he is doing his part in a much larger work.

“I am part of an enterprise that is tremendously important by God’s grace. You realize you are privileged when you teach people who, next year or the year after, will be literally scattered throughout the face of the earth,” Brisco said. “To use our current slogan, I am touching the world and impacting eternity — you can actually feel it. You never quite get over it.”

He will never “get over” being a biblical archaeologist either. “I know the Bible to be true, so I don’t run around out there looking for something to prop up my faith,” he said. “I run around out there — if I do run around — trying to recover things that will help me better understand God’s Word.”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at www.bpnews.net. Photo title: THOMAS BRISCO.

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  • Cindy Kerr