Florida Baptist professor works to create virtual tour of the biblical world

Examining Pottery crop
Dan Warner, left, examines pottery shards with Tsvika Tsuk during the Gezer Water System excavation in 2012. Warner and Tsuk, chief archaeologist for the Israel Nature and Park Authority, serve as co-directors for the water system dig.

By Gary D. Myers

ORLANDO, Fla. — Long before everyone owned a smartphone, before technology had literally reshaped modern society, Dan Warner had an idea for teaching biblical backgrounds — a virtual tour of the Holy Land. The idea was innovative, but years ahead of its time.

As associate professor of Old Testament and archaeology at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s Orlando Hub, and as an adjunct faculty member at Palm Beach Atlantic University and the Baptist College of Florida, Warner teaches about the geography and history of biblical lands on a daily basis. He tries to help his students “see” how the geography of the land influenced the biblical text. However, through interactive visuals rather than textbooks, Warner hopes to change the way people learn about Bible lands through a visual experience.

Warner, a Miami native and member at First Baptist Church in Orlando, came up with 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 biblical text. However, travel to Israel remains expensive and time consuming. It is unrealistic to believe that most church members — even ministers and Sunday School teachers — will have the opportunity to visit the Holy Land. His virtual tour project, known as The Virtual Bible, is a way for those who cannot visit biblical places to see the land in a new way.

Warner launched The Virtual Bible Project in 1999 with an esteemed partner — James Strange, a long-time professor of archaeology at the University of South Florida and excavator of ancient Sepphoris. At the time the Internet was still in its infancy and very few Christian interactive materials were available. Warner and Strange had the opportunity to present their idea to a major Christian publisher shortly after they created the company. The meeting went well, but the publisher failed to see the potential and passed on the opportunity.

In spite of the setback, Warner refused to give up on his dream. He found a group of private investors and began working on the virtual reconstructions. To this day Warner and Strange have not taken a salary from their company. Instead, all of the funds they have raised and generated from sales have been invested in development.

Warner and his team have completed four virtual reconstruction projects. A virtual tour of Bronze Age Megiddo was the first project completed. It was a natural choice because of the years Warner spent excavating the site. Megiddo was followed by reconstructions of Capernaum and Herod’s Jerusalem. Warner recently completed a detailed reconstruction of the events surrounding Jesus’ Passion Week. To see a preview of Warner’s work, visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oi9NlFssWWU.

Each virtual reconstruction is time-consuming, taking many months to complete, but finances remain the biggest barrier to success for the Virtual Bible project. Development is expensive. Warner found that developing a scene was only half of the struggle. Getting the finished product in front of potential consumers is a real challenge. Advertising was too expensive for his company’s small budget. Warner knew he would have to secure a publishing partner. Warner recently met with the publisher of Logos Bible Software to present his work. The timing was right and Logos agreed to distribute the virtual reconstructions with its software packages. With distribution secured, Warner can 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. The son of a Baptist pastor, Warner was exposed to the Bible at an early age and developed a love for the biblical geography and archaeology during his days in seminary at Grace Theological Seminary in Indiana. Warner went on to earn a Ph.D. in biblical archaeology from the University of Bristol (England).

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

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.

Recent technological advances have Warner dreaming big about the future. Ideas that Warner thought were impossible a few years back are looking more and more possible today. He 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 in time someone will figure out how to make it work.

For now, Warner continues sharing his passion for biblical backgrounds to students, church members and Virtual Bible customers.