Book Review: Todd Bolen, Acts: Photo Companion to the Bible

Bolen, Todd. Acts: Photo Companion to the Bible. BiblePlaces.com, 2019.

Todd Bolen has been producing high quality resources for Bible teachers for many years on his website Bible Places.com. I first became aware of Bolens’s Pictorial Library of Biblical Lands at an ETS in 2003. I have used these photographs in virtually every class I teach in order to add some colorful graphics to an otherwise dull PowerPoint presentation. Even though I have some critiques of the collection below, if you are teaching the Book of Acts, then the Photo Companion to the Bible is an essential collection of images to use to illustrate your lectures and sermons. If you are a student of the Bible, you can read the text of the Bible and page through the slides in order to place the text into a physical context.

I reviewed his Gospels Photo Companion to the Bible soon after it was released in 2017. At that time Todd told me the Acts Companion was “coming soon.” But as he told me in a recent email, it took a while longer than expected. This is not surprising since the collection contains more than 4,000 photos in twenty-eight PowerPoint sets. The slide set for Acts 13 has 250 slides, Acts 20 has 180 slides. This includes every place Paul and the apostles traveled and every photograph is identified and explained. In some cases, additional material appears in the slide, such as citations to journal articles.

Along with photographs detailing the Paul’s missionary journeys, many inscriptions are included (the Gallio Inscription, the Temple balustrade, the Politarchs inscriptions, Roman calendars, etc.). In addition there are high quality photographs of coins, artifacts, models, scrolls from museums. There are maps tracing Paul’s travels created by A. D. Riddle of RiddleMaps.com.

Since these are PowerPoint slides, the editors provide annotations explaining the image and the location of the photograph. There is also a code in the notes indicating the source of the image. Many are from Bolen, but there are other contributors (and I noticed a few wiki commons images as well). This is very helpful for identifying the location of museum photographs or some of the historical photographs.

I looked over most of the data sets, but for this review I will focus on Acts 13, 250 slides in all. Each slide has a phrase from the Bible across the top, the reference is in the bottom right corner. A brief description appears in the bottom right corner, and a few lines of explanation appear in the slide notes along with the image credit. Since Acts 13 begins in Syrian Antioch, there are a few slides from the modern city of Antakya in south-east Turkey, including a photograph of the ancient hippodrome taken between 1934 and 1939. There are plenty of photographs of Roman remains on Cyprus including the gymnasium at Salamis and Villa of Theseus at Paphos.

To illustrate Paul’s encounter with Bar-Jesus, there are two Aramaic curse bowls,   one from Babylon and the other from the eleventh century A.D. There are two Latin inscription was found near Pisidian Antioch with the name Sergius Paulus, one is a public domain image from The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Perge is well illustrated, including the rock-cut pass between Magydus and Perga on the Via Sebaste and later Via Sebaste after Döşeme pass. After Paul leaves Pisidian Antioch, he travels to Iconium, as illustrated by a photo of a Roman bridge on the Via Sebaste east of Yunuslar between Pisidian Antioch and Iconium. Many of these photographs of Roman roads are from Mark Wilson, one of the best sources for Paul’s travels in Asia Minor. He also contributed a photograph of an inscription mentioning Galatia and Pamphylia, from Perga. The slide cites Wilson’s recent article, “The Denouement of Claudian Pamphylia-Lycia and its Implications for the Audience of Galatians,” Novum Testamentum 60 (2018): 337–60. This is the kind of detail I appreciate in these slides, there are others with citations of journal articles, such as the God-fearer mosaic from the synagogue of Sardis (dated to c. AD 365), citing John H. Kroll, “The Greek Inscriptions of the Sardis Synagogue,” Harvard Theological Review 94/1 (2001): 9.

For Acts 13:50, “But the Jews incited the devout women of prominence” there is a photo of a statue of Plancia Magna from Perga (2nd century A.D.) followed by an inscription at Perge with her name. Plancia Magna was a wealthy and powerful women in Perge, although certainly not a believer. This statue shows there indeed were prominent women who had significant power in a city like Perge.

There are some slides which do not seem particularly on topic. “Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch” (Acts 13:1) is illustrated with a wonderful Tiberias. Why? Herod moved his capital from Sepphoris to Tiberias. Barnabas and Saul speak in the synagogues in Cyprus (Acts 13:5), this is illustrated by the synagogue at Magdala. To be fair, there are not many first century synagogues and Magdala is an excellent example, but is not a synagogue from Acts 13.

Others strike me as unnecessary. For example, there is a picture of mist surrounding Nimrod’s fortress in Israel to illustrate “Immediately a mist and darkness fell on him” and a photo of a blind man in Jerusalem for “He went around seeking people to lead him by the hand.” When John Mark returns to Jerusalem, there are several slide of Jerusalem including the Syrian Orthodox site for the upper room. For Acts 13:17, “The God of this people Israel chose our forefathers” there is a photograph of Abraham’s well in Beersheba and several beautiful photographs from Egypt since 13:17 mentions Egypt. In fact, most of the slides illustrating Paul’s sermon are not necessary, but since the goal is to have something for every verse, they are included here. I would have rather had 75 more slides of Roman roads between Perge and Pisidian Antioch.

Evaluation. For many people, using Google Image Search to find pictures for their lectures is second nature. It is easy to do and there are often good photographs available without any usage restrictions. So why purchase this set of photographs from Todd Bolan?

First, these photographs often do not appear on the web. For most of the collection, Bolen has taken the photographs himself and he owns the copyright. These are not snapshots from someone’s Holy Land Tour taken with their iPhone.

Second, there are several types of photographs which are difficult to obtain yourself, such as aerial photography. Bolen has also included many historic photographs from the American Colony and Eric Matson collections released by Bible Places in 2009.

Third, if you are just grabbing a few photographs from the web for your teaching, perhaps you are violating copyright law. The copyright notice is as follows:

The purchaser is granted permission to use this work in face-to-face teaching, video-recorded sermons, class notes, church newsletters, and like contexts. Separate permission must be obtained from BiblePlaces.com to use this material in books, magazines, commercial products, websites, and online courses. Slide notes should be treated as any other copyrighted written material, with credit given when quoting from these notes. For copyright inquiries, please email Todd Bolen at tbolen94@bibleplaces.com.

Yes, I know we all do it and it is doubtful you will get in trouble for snagging someone’s vacation pictures from Flickr. But some universities and churches are trying to limit resources to “fair use” copyright images. The Photo Companion to the Bible allows for legal images which can be freely edited for your own needs.

If you purchase the Photo Companion, you can download it immediately with the promise of free lifetime updates as well as get a DVD copy. One important thing to consider is the copyright permissions which come with the Photo Companion to the Bible. All the images are free for use for any purpose (teaching, sermons, etc.), although if they are used in a publication, you will need to obtain permission. I have seen Bolen’s photographs in many books from major publishers, which speaks to the quality of this resource.

If you visit the website, there are samples of Matthew 4 and John 2 so you can get an idea what the collection looks like. Finally, here is a five minute video promoting the Photo Companion.

NB: Thanks to Todd Bolen at BiblePlaces.com for kindly providing me with a review copy of this resource. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

 

 

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