Dr. Jim Parker on Excavation in Ancient Israel
Digging for buried treasure 150 feet below the surface of modern-day Israel, a team of archaeological experts works to enhance our understanding of Biblical culture – in the artifacts of the western lower Galilee, in a city fortified by King Solomon and the site of a water system dating back to the time of Abraham. New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary professor Dr. Jim Parker’s background in mining and Biblical interpretation has earned him a seat at the table with some of Israel’s foremost archaeologists, and an opportunity to cast Biblical light on an area dominated for decades by secular researchers.
Earlier in his career as an engineer, Parker explored sites along the Mediterranean Sea for granite and marble to use in the high-rise buildings he constructed, including the Galleria in New Orleans and structures that dot the skyline of Houston. His travels took him to Greece, Italy, Spain and Egypt, where he developed an interest in the history and culture of ancient civilizations. Back home in Kenner, he and his wife, Donna, were active in First Baptist Church, where he taught a Sunday School class. Then, he had a life-changing encounter.
“One morning, about 4:00 – literally to me – someone had come into our bedroom, and I heard someone speak to me,” Parker recalled. “I knew someone was there because I’d heard them speak – a man’s voice – and I jumped up and turned the light on and no one was there.” He thought he was dreaming, so he went back to bed. “I heard the voice again speak to me very clearly, ‘I want you to go to school.’ And that was it.”
For a week, he prayed and thought about the incident. At church the next Sunday, the chairman of the deacons called out to him, “Have you ever thought about going to seminary?” And he said, “No.” But within a week he enrolled in seminary, earning Masters’ degrees in Biblical languages and Biblical Archaeology, and a PhD from Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. He now serves as Executive Director of the Michael and Sara Moskau Institute of Archaeology at NOBTS, with co-directors Dr. Dennis Cole and Dr. Daniel Warner, all of whom are working alongside other institutions on the ten-year-old excavation of Tel Gezer in central Israel.
This summer, they expect to wrap up work at Tel Gezer, a site given to King Solomon as a wedding gift when he married an Egyptian pharaoh’s daughter. Sifting through tons of earth dating back to the Middle Bronze 2A period, Parker devised a hoist system to more efficiently remove sediment from the mouth of the Canaanite water tunnel. “Even now, we’re not quite sure why there’s nothing in the ancient world like it. It’s so large. It’s 12 feet wide, 24 feet tall, and a perfect arch, then it goes down at a 40-degree angle through solid rock to the water table, we think,” Parker said. “Along the walls, we have niches that we believe have religious inscriptions.”
This year, Parker negotiated an agreement with Tel Aviv University to work at Tel Hadid in the historically rich Aijalon Valley, near the site where the moon and sun stood still as Joshua pursued his enemies (Joshua 10:12), and where Saul and Jonathan battled the Philistines (1 Samuel 14:31). Sitting on a mound halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the site served as an entry point for ancient travelers on the way to Jerusalem. “We’ll be digging at three places at one time this summer – very unusual for us: Sepphoris, Tel Gezer and Tel Hadid, a site five or six miles from Gezer that’s never been dug,” Parker said.
The newest site, Tel Hadid, is regarded as so historically important that the government constructed a tunnel for a major highway underneath the site to avoid disturbing any artifacts. The partnership with Tel Aviv University promises to provide 25-30 years of work for archaeologists and Biblical scholars.
As the premier school of archaeology in Israel, Tel Aviv University has produced many liberal, or minimalist, scholars who are not sure of the authenticity of the Biblical narrative. They are not alone in their skepticism. Work by archaeologists such as Kathleen Kenyon, in the 1950s, cast doubt on the account of Joshua and Jericho, for example, prompting many to dismiss the idea of a real Exodus due to the lack of archaeological evidence.
However, excavation ten feet further down uncovered a vast Semitic city and an extensive civilization of Semitic people who lived in Egypt around the time of the Exodus, 1500-1450 BC. “She was absolutely wrong. She was looking at the wrong time period and made assumptions on and about the Bible that were incorrect,” Parker said. But at the time, there were no evangelical archaeologists working in that period, and faulty conclusions controlled the narrative for decades. “I think it’s essentially important that we have a voice in this arena because it sets the narrative for archaeology and Israel and the Middle East,” Parker said.
“We bring Carbon 14 dating and everything that we can possibly do to understand,” Parker said. “But the more of this kind of work that’s done, the clearer and clearer it becomes that the scripture was exactly as it is written. It’s almost over the top describing what this last decade has been like.”
Research at Gezer paints a picture of the culture Abraham encountered when he followed God’s direction to relocate to nearby Hebron. Among the pottery and stones, the team discovered a jar of jewelry hidden in the walls of the city. The cache includes a disk with an eight-pointed star and horns representing the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar. They also found standing stones, the high places used in the worship of Ba’al, the storm god. And that’s not all. “When we opened the gate up to bedrock and created a section in the gate, we found four jar burials of infants that were buried in the gate,” Parker said. “We’re now processing, trying to understand whether those were sacrificial in nature or if the children were buried there after their death.”
Parker said their task is not to prove that the Bible is true – that comes by faith. Rather, they are trying to bring understanding to scripture through archaeology. For example, archaeologists can uncover and study historical cities such as Capernaum. “On the theological side, can we prove that Jesus healed a leper there in Capernaum? That’s not something we’re able to discover,” Parker said.
“We might go down to Bethabarra where Jesus was baptized, and probably where Naaman the leper came, and we find 40 graves of people who were lepers there. You can see the leprosy in their bones,” Parker said. “That helps boost the story; it helps us understand both Old and New Testament stories.”
“The early church did a great, great service to us by locating many of the sites and making it easy to go and see, like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Inside that one church, you have Calvary, the place of the crucifixion, and just a few yards away you have the tomb. But the actual stone of the tomb of the first century is still intact inside the Aedicule,” Parker said. “Is it where Jesus rose from the dead? We have to take that by faith – that he did.”
Archaeology is one of the great opportunities for someone who feels a call to the Middle East. “There’s going to be 100 years of work in the wake of ISIS and what’s gone on in Syria with all the destruction there,” Parker said. “UNESCO World Heritage Organization has put out a call for people trained in archaeology.”
“We’ve never had a better opportunity to enter into the Muslim world. This is an area we really need to see grow,” Parker said. New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary offers several related fields of study including a Master of Arts specializing in Biblical Archaeology.
The Museum of the Bible and Archaeology at NOBTS is open to the public. It features pottery from the time before Abraham to the Babylonian captivity, examples of papyrus and cuneiform writing, an Esther scroll and facsimiles of the oldest, most complete Greek Bible, Codex Sinaiticus, as well as the Gutenberg Bible.
Dr. Jim Parker brought his experience in mining and engineering to the excavation sites, constructing a hoist system to remove debris from the site of an ancient Canaanite water system.
Israeli authorities were initially reluctant to allow New Orleans Baptist Theologoical Seminary team to use a crane near the Gezer water tunnel. Jim Parker’s expertise and detailed plans were influential in gaining approval for the project.
Susan Brown began her career in radio news. She was news director for WJBO/WFMF radio and a journalism instructor at LSU. She holds masters degrees from LSU and New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminar, and served as Chaplain at Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women.