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Steven Ortiz and students work at a dig site in Tel Gezer, once ruled by King Solomon.
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Steven Ortiz and students work at a dig site in Tel Gezer, once ruled by King Solomon. | Photo provided by Steven Ortiz

The Bible in 3D

Biblical archaeology gives much-needed context to God’s word, says a professor whose program was cut from a Baptist seminary. Now a prominent Christian attorney is bringing it to Lipscomb University.

Most Sundays, W. Mark Lanier teaches Bible class for a Baptist congregation in Houston. 

Once, while he was guest-speaking for a Church of Christ, Lanier got pulled aside. 

“What are you doing at a Baptist church?” someone asked him. 

“Mission work,” he answered with a chuckle.

Mark Lanier

Mark Lanier

The well-known attorney and author of “Christianity on Trial: A Lawyer Examines the Christian Faith” grew up in the pews of the Broadway Church of Christ in Lubbock, Texas.  

Lanier, who founded one of the nation’s largest private theological libraries, writes, blogs and records videos about issues of faith — in addition to his 700-student Sunday Bible class.

“I teach in a Baptist church but not as a Baptist,” he told The Christian Chronicle. “I’m still a nondenominational Christian.” 

Now he’s helping a prominent biblical archaeology program move from a Baptist seminary in Texas to his alma mater, Lipscomb University. 

In January the Nashville, Tenn., university, which is associated with Churches of Christ, will start classes through its new Lanier Center for Archaeology, named for Lanier and his wife, Becky. The program will offer master’s and doctoral degrees. It will house a research library and biblical artifacts and engage in research and excavation projects in Israel, Cyprus and Egypt. 

“I didn’t choose Lipscomb. Lipscomb chose us,” said Steven Ortiz, who cofounded the center with fellow archaeology professor Tom Davis. 

Lanier “was just that instrument that God used,” Ortiz added.

Students excavate at Ilibalyk in the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan.

Students excavate at Ilibalyk in the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan.

SAVING BIBLICAL ARCHAEOLOGY

While other future lawyers were buried in criminal justice and political science textbooks, Lanier was poring over Greek and Hebrew manuscripts in Lipscomb’s Bible department. Among his mentors were scholars of ancient language Clyde Miller, Rodney Cloud and Harvey Floyd.

“I wanted to either preach or be a lawyer,” Lanier said. 

Law school, he decided, would allow him to do both. 

After graduating from Lipscomb in 1981 with a degree in Bible, he returned to Lubbock and earned his juris doctorate from Texas Tech. 

As a trial attorney, he built a reputation as a zealous advocate for clients in personal injury and product liability cases. In 1990 he founded the Lanier Law Firm, which has offices in Houston, New York and Los Angeles. He also founded the Christian Trial Lawyers Association.

Earlier this year he learned that Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, was shutting down its 37-year-old Tandy Institute for Archeology. 

The financial hardships brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic factored into the decision, but the move also was part of “institutional reset,” according to a statement from the seminary’s administrators. Degrees in archaeology no longer fit into the seminary’s mission to train ministers for churches of the Southern Baptist Convention, the statement read.

About two dozen students were enrolled in the institute’s master’s and doctoral programs. Five professors, including Davis and Ortiz, lost their jobs. 

For Ortiz, the dismissal led to prayer and soul searching.

“God, are you asking me to leave archaeology?” he asked.

Steven Ortiz, Mark Lanier and Tom Davis celebrate the launch of Lipscomb University’s new Lanier Center for Archaeology. Classes begin in January.

Steven Ortiz, Mark Lanier and Tom Davis celebrate the launch of Lipscomb University’s new Lanier Center for Archaeology. Classes begin in January.

He didn’t have to wait long for an answer. A former president of the seminary connected him with Lanier, who serves on the boards of two academic societies dedicated to archaeology in the ancient Near East. 

The professor hoped Lanier could find the program a new home at another school, perhaps Houston Baptist University. Instead, Lanier suggested Lipscomb, where he serves on the board of trustees.

Lanier quickly contacted Lipscomb President Randy Lowry and his fellow trustees. The attorney and his wife provided funds for the program for five years, after which it will be evaluated. Students who were enrolled in the Tandy Institute will be able to finish their degrees in Nashville.

Moving from a seminary to a Christian university may be a better fit for biblical archaeology, Ortiz said. The program can offer courses and resources to students in a variety of academic fields, not just future preachers.

Lipscomb’s provost, W. Craig Bledsoe, said that the program also “adds a new dimension to the university’s academic offerings with its first Ph.D. program.” In addition, “the field research opportunities that are also part of this program greatly expand the scope of what we do.”

UNITED IN ‘THE INTEGRITY OF SCRIPTURE’

For Ortiz, biblical archaeology isn’t about searching for evidence of the Bible’s authenticity so much as it is “using archaeology to help illuminate the biblical text,” he told the Chronicle from his new home in Spring Hill, Tenn., south of Nashville. 

Steven Ortiz

Steven Ortiz

A native of east Los Angeles, he was baptized Catholic, but his family didn’t practice any faith. As a youth, he began attending a Baptist church with his father and heard sermons from a preacher who focused on the historical and cultural background of Scripture. 

Ortiz developed a passion to see and touch the history he read about in Bible class.

He has lived in Israel and conducted tours of historic sites like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Western Wall in Jerusalem. He is the principal investigator and co-director of the Tel Gezer Excavation Project in the foothills of the Judaean Mountains. He is a co-director of another project in Ilibalyk, a medieval, Silk Road city in modern-day Kazakhstan. 

“You’re studying the Bible in 3D,” he said of his profession. “Christianity is a historical faith. It’s not a bunch of presuppositions. 

“Jesus knocked at the door, and I opened it. My faith is tied to history, a moment in time when I decided to follow Jesus. For us to interpret God’s word within the context of its revelation, we have to study its history.”

While Baptists and members of Churches of Christ may disagree on what the Bible teaches on some issues — including the role of baptism itself — Lanier said that both faith groups share “complete confidence in the integrity of Scripture.” 

“For us to interpret God’s word within the context of its revelation, we have to study its history.”

That belief “is no longer held firmly by many people,” Lanier said. “There is a world of cynics and skeptics who want to disprove the Bible” and seek to use archaeology “as a weapon against the integrity of Scripture.”

When people of faith, even those who disagree on how to interpret the Bible, stand nonetheless united behind its authenticity, “that, in and of itself, will speak loudly to this world,” Lanier said.

Ortiz described himself as a biblicist. 

“I study the biblical text at face value, within its cultural and historical context,” he said. “I do not come to the Bible from my modern-day cultural or historical perspective.”

He’s alarmed by the trend he sees in many Christian circles toward relying more and more on modern-day theologians than the authority of God’s word.

“I want to study the Bible,” he said, “and the Church of Christ has that tradition. As I’m learning more about the Church of Christ, boy, it’s just refreshing. There’s a solid emphasis on the Bible itself.”

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Filed under: archaeology Biblical archaeology Church of Christ Lanier Center for Archaeology Lipscomb Lubbock News Partners Top Stories W. Mark Lanier

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