Giant of New Testament Archaeology

James F. Strange (1938–2018)

james-f-strange

James F. Strange

James Francis (“Jim”) Strange was born in 1938 in Pampa, Texas, the youngest child of Floyd Thomas Burchfield and Buena Frost (“Frostie”) Burchfield. The family soon moved to Tyler, Texas, where he grew up with his two older sisters, Mary Lynn and Tomasene. Jim was adopted by his mother’s second husband, Jerry Donald (“Rip”) Strange.

During his early years in Tyler, Jim acquired a taste for the outdoors by working his way up the ranks of the local Scouting program. He eventually attained the rank of Eagle Scout. From his time in Scouting, Jim fondly recalls being driven to a farmer’s field north of town, where he and the other scouts were allowed to follow the mule-driven plow and carefully watch for artifacts to be exposed. Because the field had once been a battleground between the Caddo and the Comanche, the plow soon brought to light many buried arrowheads and potsherds.

After high school, Jim attended Rice University, graduating in 1959 with a B.A. in philosophy. Continuing his education, he entered Yale Divinity School, where he earned a bachelor of divinity in 1964. It was during these years that Jim developed a strong interest in the Bible and its setting, leading him to gravitate toward archaeology.

Accordingly, after graduation from Yale, Jim looked for a doctoral program in New Testament studies at several universities, asking to be allowed to research issues in New Testament archaeology. Two schools accepted his proposal and application—Drew University and the University of Montreal—both of which had fine traditions of Biblical and archaeological studies.

Jim decided to attend Drew University in 1964 as a part-time graduate student. In 1969, he interrupted the writing of his dissertation to participate in his first archaeological dig—the excavations at Tel Gezer under the directorship of Bill Dever. That is where he and Eric Meyers first met and became close friends. Jim served as an area supervisor at Gezer, an experience that fostered in him a passion for archaeological fieldwork. As a result of that experience, he was invited to join Eric as an area supervisor in 1970 at Khirbet Shema’ on what was to be known as the Meiron Excavation Project (MEP). Jim became associate director of MEP in 1971 and served in that position until 1981. It was there in the Upper Galilee that Jim earned the affectionate title of “Abunah,” or “Father,” when Eric explained to their Druze workers that Jim was not only an archaeologist, but also a Baptist minister. Jim considered archaeology to be a divine calling and his professorship to be his place of ministry. He often said, “I want to be the best archaeologist I can be.”

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As a member of the MEP, Jim excavated small Jewish villages, especially ones with synagogues, rather than the urban sites favored by so many archaeologists at that time. Very few synagogue sites had been excavated in the years since the German team of Kohl and Watzinger conducted soundings at a number of synagogue sites at the beginning of the 20th century. By excavating four sites with synagogues, the MEP was able to contribute to what became a rapidly growing and flourishing field—the excavation of Classical-period sites in Galilee.

After completing his Ph.D. in New Testament studies at Drew, Jim accepted a position at the University of South Florida (USF) in Tampa, Florida, where he remained for the length of his academic career.

During his time at Rice, Jim met and married the love of his life, Carolyn Midkiff, who herself served in many dig positions, including registrar and camp manager. The two of them went on to raise four children, Mary Elizabeth, James Riley, Katherine Alexandra, and Joanna Carissa, with the entire family often spending summers overseas on excavations. All of his children worked as area supervisors at Sepphoris. This undoubtedly led to two of them following in their father’s footsteps: James Riley Strange, Associate Professor of Religion at Samford University and Director of the Shikhin Excavation Project in Galilee, and Katherine Strange Burke, a lecturer in Islamic studies at UCLA.

carolyn-jim-strange

Carolyn and Jim Strange stand on the cardo at Sepphoris in the early 2000s. Photo: Daniel A. Warner.

Jim distinguished himself throughout his long career at USF, where he began in 1972 as an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and quickly rose to the rank of full professor in 1977. During this time, he served as Chair of the Department of Religious Studies, Executive Director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Hellenic Studies, and Dean of the College of Arts and Letters. Among the many honors he received were the Silver Medallion Award for Brotherhood from the National Conference of Christians and Jews in 1987 and a National Geographic grant in 1989. He served on the board of directors for the Florida Endowment for the Humanities from 1983 to 1987, was named Distinguished University Professor in 2001, and received the Charles U. Harris Service Award from the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) in 2006.

Jim’s extensive career in archaeology centered in Israel, from his first experience at Tel Gezer to his serving as Director of the USF’s Excavations at Sepphoris from 1983 to 2010. In addition, he also participated in—or advised—excavations at Khirbet Shema’, Meiron, Gush Halav, Nabratein, Tell er Ras, French Hill (Jerusalem), Khirbet el-Qom, Caesarea Maritima, En Gedi, Survey in Lower Galilee, Yodfat, Cana, Qumran, Mt. Zion, Jaffa, and Shikhin.
 


 
Read more about the work of James F. Strange in the BAS Library special collection Remembering Three Archaeological Giants.
 


 
Jim developed a range of archaeological skills that few possess. His work with his father taught him surveying with an optical transit. He drew balks, top plans, pottery, glass, and artifacts with precision. He wrote excavation manuals for Caesarea and Meiron and published articles on archaeological method and theory. Early on, he established himself as a ceramicist, and his work in the MEP allowed him to contribute to the typology of Hellenistic- through Byzantine-period pottery widely in use in Israel today. Jim was a polyglot, speaking four languages and reading 12 in addition to English. His desire to disseminate his research resulted in an impressive body of published works.

He lectured in the United States, Canada, England, France, Germany, Spain, Denmark, Norway, South Africa, Bosnia, and Israel—and was frequently interviewed in television specials on the historical Jesus and archaeology of Israel.

It was primarily through ASOR that Jim was able to maintain his close contacts with colleagues through the years, and his regular participation in its Annual Meeting and membership on the Board of Trustees meant a great deal to him and those around him.

Jim’s colleagues, students, excavation volunteers, family, and friends benefitted from his sage mentorship, generous friendship, and innumerable academic contributions, and for his being the very personification of the Gentleman Scholar. As such, he has been a true inspiration to us all. He died in his home on March 23, surrounded by family.
 


 
“Giant of New Testament Archaeology: James F. Strange (1938–2018)” is excerpted from the article “‘The Nobles of the People Dug It’: Remembering Three Archaeological Giants” in the July/August 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
 


 

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  • DALLAS says

    A fond farewell. I heard Jim Strange lecture at Florida in the 1990s. Another giant gone!

  • Joe says

    I have seen Jim’s insights into the the Bible and archaeology on a few video clips and my faith has been made richer. God’s Blessings to his family.


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