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Prof’s Virtual Bible Project to make Holy Land accessible

ORLANDO, Fla. (BP) — Long before smartphones, before technology had literally reshaped modern society, Dan Warner had an idea for teaching the history and geography of biblical lands — a virtual tour of the Holy Land. The idea was innovative, and years ahead of its time.

Warner teaches biblical backgrounds on a daily basis in his positions as associate professor of Old Testament and archaeology at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s Orlando Hub and an adjunct faculty member at the Baptist College of Florida and Palm Beach Atlantic University.

Warner wants to help people see how geography influenced the biblical text, using interactive visuals rather than textbooks.

The Miami native and member of First Baptist Church in Orlando birthed the idea for a virtual Bible tour more than a decade ago during one of his frequent trips to Israel. He knew from his own experience that seeing the land leads to richer understanding of the Bible. But it is unrealistic, Warner believes, for most church members and lay ministers to visit the Holy Land, given the travel costs and time. Instead, his virtual tour project known as The Virtual Bible allows an affordable view of the land.

Warner launched The Virtual Bible Project in 1999 with James Strange, longtime professor of archaeology at the University of South Florida and excavator of ancient Sepphoris in Galilee. Warner and Strange presented their idea to a major Christian publisher shortly after they created the company. While the meeting went well, the publisher failed to see the potential and passed on the opportunity.

In spite of the setback, Warner refused to give up. He found a group of private investors and began working on the virtual reconstructions. To date, Warner and Strange have not taken a salary from their company. Instead, all of the profits have been invested in its development.

Warner and his team have completed four virtual reconstruction projects, including a detailed reconstruction of the events surrounding the passion week. A virtual tour of Bronze Age Megiddo was completed first, a natural choice because of the years Warner spent excavating the site. Next came reconstructions of Capernaum and Herod’s Jerusalem. A preview of Warner’s work is available on YouTube.

Each virtual reconstruction takes months to complete, but finances remain the biggest barrier to success for the Virtual Bible Project. Development is expensive, advertising is beyond the company’s small budget, and getting the finished product in front of potential consumers is a real challenge, Warner said. However, a distribution agreement with the publisher of Logos Bible Software will enable Warner to focus on additional reconstructions.

“Our goal is to create the whole ancient world,” Warner said. “We’ve just barely scratched the surface.”

Warner is well-suited for a project of this magnitude. As the son of a Baptist pastor, he was exposed to the Bible at an early age and developed a love for biblical geography and archaeology during his studies at Grace Theological Seminary in Indiana.

Warner credits a seminary professor for introducing him to the biblical lands. In 1979, Warner took a month-long trip with stops in Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Greece, Turkey and Rome with a group from his seminary. He was hooked. Warner saved all of his electives for his final year of seminary and moved to Israel to study. There, he interacted with noted archaeologists and focused on the subject.

Warner enrolled at Florida State University to pursue a doctor of philosophy degree in anthropology. There, he joined Harvard University in an excavation at the biblical city of Ashkelon and studied in Harvard’s summer academic program in biblical archaeology. Eventually, Warner transferred to the University of Bristol in England to complete his Ph.D. in biblical archaeology.

Warner has participated in excavations at Gerar, Tell el-Far’ah South (possibly biblical Sharuhen), Kabri, Megiddo and Gezer. He is co-director of the NOBTS/Israel Nature and Parks Authority excavation of the ancient water system at Gezer.

“Biblical archaeology gives us a window into the context of the biblical world,” Warner said. “It helps us realize (that the people of the Bible) were real people, in a real time, and in a real place. They lived in houses, they had families, they had jobs.”

“It helps us understand the biblical text through material remains and gives us illustrations of cultural situations that people participated in,” he said. “It clarifies and provides information that is not mentioned in the biblical text.”

The Virtual Bible project is the application of all that Warner has learned in his biblical study, his travels to Israel and in his archaeological excavations.

Warner dreams of a day when his biblical backgrounds classes can meet in a room with a 180 degree screen, allowing students to virtually step into the biblical world and witness recreations of biblical events. He believes the technology is available and that in time, someone will figure out how to make it work.
Gary D. Myers is director of public relations at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).