Life, interrupted

Dr. Craig Bowman with pictures of artifacts.

Back from cancer, Rochester College prof plans return to Israeli dig

Five years ago, when Craig Bowman last visited Israel, he could never have guessed what it would take to get there again.

A professor of Old Testament at Rochester College, Bowman expected to return to Israel in 2010 with students to continue working on an important archeological dig. Instead, he went on a harrowing personal journey to stay alive. Now back to work after 18 months off, he is hoping to raise the money needed to take students abroad next year.

A California native who earned a Ph. D. from Princeton Theological Seminary, Bowman has taught at RC since 2000. In 1998 he was diagnosed with a blood disorder. A self-described extreme athlete, he refused treatment. “At the time it wasn’t bugging me so I thought, ‘Why think about it?’” he said. Then in 2007, a mini-stroke forced him into treatment.

“After two years of doing very well, I thought, I had a bone-marrow biopsy.” A second blood disorder was discovered, and traditional chemotherapy began. After a year, it was deemed a failure when he was diagnosed with leukemia. A bone-marrow transplant followed.

“Even at that point, it didn’t register with me that a bone-marrow transplant is a last-ditch effort to keep you alive,” he said. His brother turned out to be a perfect match but, 100 days in, Bowman was diagnosed with graft vs. host disease, a common but serious side-effect of a transplant.

“At that point I hit rock bottom,” he said. “Four weeks into it, I said, ‘I’ve had enough. I’m ready to die.’”

Though at first too weak to even read a book, Bowman eventually found the strength to get back on his feet–literally. Now 60, he has returned to teaching, competed in a 100-mile bicycle race and been cleared for international travel next year.

Now he’s focused on raising the money needed to take students back to Israel. From 2003 to 2009, RC students made seven trips, five of them to dig at a site called Tamar (also known as En Hazeva) near the Dead Sea to help excavate ancient ruins. The site is managed by a Michigan-based Christian group called Blossoming Rose under the authority of the Israeli Antiquities Authority. Though others have also worked on it, the site has had no further excavation since Bowman was there.

The origin and significance of the site are in dispute. Some scholars believe it was an outpost of the same name referred to in a Bible reference to King Solomon. Others say the reference is to another town with a similar name.

A century ago the remains of a Roman fortress were documented on the site. “It’s massive,” Bowman said. “So one has to raise the question: Why?”

The site had a spring and was at the crossroads of important trade routes; its interaction sphere included a copper mine 13 miles away.  Carbon dating puts some of the excavated layers in the Iron Age, 10 or 11 centuries BC. Pottery dates back to the 10th Century BC.

Taken together with other nearby findings, Bowman and others are becoming more and more convinced that this is Solomon’s Tamar. “These days I think there’s no debate that Solomon’s ‘Tamar in the wilderness’ is our site,” Bowman said.

Once the findings are published, they could help scholars document Solomon’s existence and the scope of his empire.

About 20 Rochester College students have participated so far. Despite the long gap since the last trip, “There are a lot of students who are interested,” Bowman said. “If I can announce that there is funding available for them, all they have to do is buy a plane ticket.”

An estimated $300,000 is needed to cover a three-week dig and publication of the findings, which will require a translator and a photographer. Twenty thousand artifacts are stored in the basement of an Israeli museum. “We need to send a student to Israel for a year to photograph,” Bowman said.

Tax-deductible donations may be made through the Rochester College Development Office, 800 West Avon, Rochester Hills, MI 48307. For more information contact Bowman at or (248) 218-2143.

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