For those of you who don’t know him, I’m very excited to introduce a good friend to you. For those of you who do know him, I’m very excited that you get to hear his heart and his insights and be blessed once again. This week I’ll be posting a three-part interview with Todd Bolen.
Todd was Associate Professor of Bible at TMC’s IBEX Program (Israel) for eleven years until recently pausing to study the Bible intensively (and get a Ph.D. for it!). He has one wife, four children, four degrees, and tons of pictures. He was one of my most influential teachers, and is now a friend. I ask him for advice before making any big decision, and he never fails to say at least one important thing that no one else said. He has studied at The Master’s College, The Institute of Holy Land Studies, The Master’s Seminary, and now Dallas Theological Seminary. He maintains BiblePlaces.com (with blog), writes at Todd’s Thoughts, published the Pictorial Library of Bible Lands, just finishing teaching 1 Samuel at church, and is guaranteed to be working on half a dozen special projects at any given time. I love Todd because he is passionate, intense, caring, direct, wise, practical, sacrificial, disciplined, and he loves his family, all because he deeply loves God. I think you’ll find his thoughts instructive and encouraging.
The first two parts of the interview will focus on teaching and the Bible, and the third part will focus on students and life. My questions are in bold.
You’ve spent the past three semesters studying intensively in the Bible Exposition Ph.D. program at Dallas Seminary. What are the overarching lessons you’ve learned so far about reading and studying the Bible?
I didn’t know as much as I thought I did. It’s not just all the things I’ve forgotten (which is plenty), but all the things I just never thought about. I think there are two extremes to be avoided. The first is to think that we know enough; we all really need to spend more time in the Book. The second is that there is so much to learn that we can never learn it all and therefore we shouldn’t even try. My program is centered on learning the content of the books of the Bible, and I have found great riches in every portion of the Bible that I have studied. I have also been impressed with just how well the apostles knew the Old Testament, and how little we know it. My encouragement to others is to avoid substituting reading books about the Bible and instead read the Bible itself.
You want to spend your life as a college Bible teacher. Why do you want to teach, and how did you come to know that God wants you to teach?
God made me want to share what I have learned with others. It is not fully satisfying to me to uncover great truths and to keep them to myself. When I was in high school, I desired to be a pastor for high schoolers and I went to college with that goal. While at TMC, I realized my giftings were more academic than pastoral, so my goal was modified more toward “pastoring” in a classroom. Encouragement along the way was helpful in knowing that this was the right direction.
You enjoy studying and teaching historical backgrounds, geography, and archaeology of biblical times, among other things. Why are these particular fields so important to you (and why are they important for us)?
I love the Bible and I want to understand the Bible and I desire that others will love and understand the Bible. Living in Israel opened the Bible up to me unlike anything else and I don’t know any other place where this occurs more dramatically or quickly. Teaching in Israel is quite easy, because you can do a very poor job but students with an open heart can’t help but learn. For me the geography and archaeology are means to the end of correctly understanding Scripture. Thus I’ve never been interested in being an archaeologist, but I appreciate archaeology as a witness to the ancient world. History is a story and I love stories.
You teach several classes that deal with scriptural narratives, and you’re big on understanding the (real) main point of individual stories in Scripture. Why do we so often misinterpret the meaning of biblical stories? Can you give us a couple examples of stories whose actual meaning is different than its traditional or surface meaning?
There’s no magic to understanding the Bible; its meaning is not accessible only to a few trained specialists. The often-neglected key to understanding is the context. We quote a verse about God knowing the plans that he has for us, without having any idea that this was part of a letter that Jeremiah wrote to his fellow citizens who had just had their homes destroyed, their families wiped out, and their bodies dragged off to live in Babylon. We read David and Goliath as if it is primarily about God helping underdogs, without recognizing that the giant that David really defeated was Saul. Don’t read verses, read chapters. Don’t read chapters, read books. This is more work than grabbing a verse and going, but accuracy has its rewards.
What’s your favorite class to teach, and why?
I’ve always liked the “History of Ancient Israel.” Deuteronomy–2 Kings is truly a rich area of Scripture that too few people take the time to study. I’ve come to realize recently that some of my passion for it was owing in part to my lack of knowledge of other portions of Scripture.
You always seem to be working on a half-dozen special projects. First, why? Second, what are a few of your current projects? Third, what’s one project you’ve always wanted to do but wonder if you’ll ever have the time?
The first few years we were at IBEX, I took very few photographs. I used slides in class, but because they were awkward, expensive, and difficult to incorporate within the lectures themselves, I did not utilize visual aids well. When classroom projectors and digital cameras became available, I was motivated to take advantage of the possibilities. People started asking me for copies of my photo collection and a world-renowned photographer rejected my request to create a collection to sell to teachers. Those were among the seeds that started me on the path of developing a collection for others. This changed my life, and in some ways I regret what it cost me. On the other hand, I believe that the Lord positioned me at the right place at the right time — living in Israel, with some experience in photography, needing visual images for my own teaching, and right on the cusp of the new digital technology.
I started with 4 photo CDs and that collection expanded to 10. I then saw a need for a complementary collection of old photographs and that has resulted in a new series with 9 CDs to date. I’m currently working on an additional 12 CDs, most of which I should finish this summer (after working on them over the last 5 years). Then I have a massive revision of the original set (the Pictorial Library) scheduled for next year. All of these are intended to make good materials available to teachers at an affordable price.
I have some ideas for future projects, but those will have to be fresh moves after I complete the present ones.
You’ve often emphasized the humanity of Christ in the gospels. Why do you think we lean towards reading the gospels through the divine lens instead of the human lens? Can you give an example of a gospel narrative where we miss something important about Christ when we overemphasize the contributions of His divinity to the story?
What makes Jesus unique from every other person in the Bible (and in the world) is his deity. That reality, combined with the cults and pagans that deny this truth, often leads us to place a strong stress on our Lord’s divine nature. Because we cannot understand how Jesus could be 100% God and 100% man, we naturally tend to see him as one or the other. I think it is important to know that Jesus was just like us in every way except one (his lack of a sin nature). This has great relevance for us in seeing how Jesus responded to setbacks and resisted temptation. He didn’t just wave a magic wand to fix his problems or insist that since he could not sin, he need not fight. Rather, Jesus lived his entire life in dependence upon the Spirit. He is our model. Jesus defeated Satan in the wilderness because he sought the Spirit and because he fought with Scripture.