VR Project – Back in Time to First Century Israel

Michael Hartman (Miami, Florida, USA)

Archived discussion

About the presenter

Missionary Michael Hartman has served in world missions for more than 20 years, and currently leads the WELS Latin America mission team and serves as president of Academia Cristo. He has traveled throughout Latin America, lived in Mexico and Puerto Rico, and now resides in the Miami metro area with his wife Rachel and their four kids. He holds a Doctor of Ministry degree in Church Planting, and focuses on enabling Christians to carry out ministry with consumer-focused technology.

Virtual Reality Project: A trip back in time to first century Israel (Coming soon!)


Stand on top of the Mount of Olives and look down at the road that winds down, past the garden of Gethsemane across the Kidron valley and up onto the temple mount that dominates the scene. I'm not a professional writer. If you haven't seen it, it is hard to describe. But once you've been there, you'll never have the same image in your mind when you read the Psalms of ascent that were sung by pilgrims as they approached Jerusalem. You'll never have the same image in your mind when you hear your pastor read the account of Jesus' entrance on Palm Sunday.

A tour of biblical sites helps a Christian notice previously overlooked details and connect events in a way previously unnoticed. If you have never gone on one, there is real value in taking a Bible lands tour.

For most who go on a tour, it is a once-in-a-lifetime trip. For many, a visit to Israel is a dream that will never be realized or at least not until much later in life. And of course, none of us can go back in time to visit first century Israel.

There is no substitute for physical presence. But lately there is a new medium that I believe opens the door to help many "see" and "visit" key Biblical sites in a way they never could before.

Virtual Reality (VR) has been around for a while, but it appears to be poised to go mainstream. Facebook just announced the release of its new Oculus Quest 2 VR headset. The price is $299. Additionally, Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg is on record stating their company's goal to get 1 billion people using virtual reality. Yes, that's billion with a "B".

Zuckerberg says Facebook is best positioned to be a leader in VR because he believes it is a social media platform. I agree. I have seen the ability to engage with people and groups in VR.

VR as a teaching platform

I believe VR can also be a powerful teaching platform. This belief led to the development of this project. Thanks to a grant from WELS Multi-Language Productions (MLP), I am currently working with a VR development company to build a Virtual Reality First Century Land of Israel prototype.

Together, a teacher will be able to meet with a group of students in a VR setting such at the Mount of Olives and look across at a recreation of Herod's Temple. Looking down, they will see the Garden of Gethsemane with its still young olive groves. They will be able to open the Bible together while they "stand" on top of the mountain. The teacher will also be able to show his students videos while they are inside the VR world.

The project is currently under development. Here are a few video clips of what is being built. Please keep in mind these are not finished products and are still being edited. I decided to share these videos to give an early glimpse of what is being built.

VR First Century Israel The Temple is modeled after the second temple found in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.


Nazareth. The synagogue is modeled after the reconstructed synagogue at "The Nazareth Village" in Nazareth.

Jerusalem city proper. Modeled after the one found in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Allow a few comments on Jerusalem. You will notice this is still in the early stages of construction. It only contains portions of the city proper. Places such as the Mount of Olives, the crucifixion site and other places are coming. Also, notice the small door that leads to the temple. The temple is huge! These videos do not do justice to its appearance in VR. VR is a medium where you have to try it to get it.

God willing, by March 2021 you will be able to put on a VR headset and take a trip back in time with others to visit first century Israel and grow in your appreciation and understanding of the history altering events which took place there. Please keep in mind that this is intended to serve as a prototype. I believe it will be a useful teaching platform. But its primary goal is to open the eyes of other Christians to the opportunities that VR presents as a way to share the gospel and teach others about Jesus. God willing, this project will lead to an even bigger and better version in the near future.

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David Norris 2020-10-19 11:00:38pm
This looks great! I haven't jumped into the world of VR for any projects yet, but after seeing your samples, I should be investigating that further. About how long does it take to create one of the environments? Is it a long process? What sources are you using for modeling the landscapes?
Mike Hartman (WELS World Missions) 2020-10-20 2:10:19am
Hey David. Great questions. Thanks for the interest.
I believe VR has significant potential as an education tool, and education is a strength in our Lutheran churches. My goal is to encourage others to see the possibilities, so your words are encouraging.

Picture visiting the VR First Century Israel together with others for part of a Bible study. Together you read through Scripture while walking through the Temple together. The Bible Study leader leads a discussion that you have together in VR.

To answer your questions.

How long does it take to create an environment? This project is taking about as long as it takes to build a complex website. (About a year to build everything.) I am working with a VR developer. That said, it depends on how much details you need. I've seen my developer build simple sets in just a week.

Working on this project has been a a big educational experience. You face a lot of issues similar to turning part of the Bible into a movie. There are some details you can't know, but decisions need to be made. To help with this issue, I've focused on using the work of other experts. For example, Jerusalem is modeled after the 1st century Jerusalem model at the Israel museum. The high priest's house is being modeled after the Burnt House museum in Jerusalem (a house believed to have been destroyed in 70ad and inhabited by a wealthy family who served in the temple.) The synagogues in Nazareth and Capernaum are being modeled after the synagogue at the Nazareth Village museum.

Unlike Scripture, a VR build won't be inspired. But like visiting Israel today, the goal is that it help you visualize the world of the Bible and bring important historical events to life.
David Norris 2020-10-20 6:53:44pm
Thanks for answering my questions Mike. God's blessings on your project!
Greg Schibbelhut (Luther High School) 2020-10-23 4:10:17pm
Missionary Hartman, Thanks for enlightening us on future ways to make Bible history come alive virtually. We just got our first VR headset last year at Luther High School and are excited to see the possibilities of using it for education. Since we are also experimenting with 360 video lately, I am wondering if you plan on incorporating any 360 video shots to complement real footage with created animation?
Mike 2020-10-26 1:14:15pm
Hi Greg! Great to hear from you. I'm excited to hear you were able to get your hands on a VR headset. I agree that there are lots of education possibilities. I vividly remember the group of Luther High kids who seven years ago opened my eyes to some smartphone ministry possibilities. Your students built the first app for Latin America. This spring we launched our third app. That third one has been downloaded over 250 thousand times since March.

As far as your question about 360 video...

The VR project I'm currently working on is intended to enable a teacher to visit first century Israel together with a class of up to 40 students. You will be able to look around (360) at everything that has been built. You will also be able to open a Bible together while you stand in the life-sized model of first century Israel. You will also be able to watch YouTube videos while you are there. (For example, you will be able to stand at the temple entrance and could watch a video about the Temple.)

However, I don't think the YouTube integration that we're building will work for the 360 videos your describing.

Honestly, once the first century Israel VR build is launched this coming spring we will need a few teachers to try it out. Those teachers will be able to provide valuable feedback and input as we work to create improvements. As you know, with these type of technology platforms, you launch something basic and then build improvements on top of the original creation. That's how you build something truly great.

Thanks for the comment! Blessings on your work.
Tom Kuster (Christ in Media Institute) 2020-10-27 4:33:50am
Mike are you anticipating avatars? That is, will I be able to look around at the (avatars of the) other 39 members of my "class" and see the teacher, as we roam around first century Jerusalem? I was on such a tour once in real reality, and the guide had to keep urging us to keep up with the group so we wouldn't wander off and get lost. Will I be able to wander off in your virtual Jerusalem?
Mike 2020-10-28 10:12:33pm
Tom, Yes. You will appear as an Avatar and will be able to see the others who are there the same time you are. This means that, yes, people can wander off. I've been in similar spaces were you could wander off, but could still hear the instructor from wherever you are.

In other words, you could see people. And, if you're standing in one area of Jerusalem, you could still hear the instructor/leader.
Amanda Quist (Bethany Lutheran College. ) 2020-10-29 8:24:37pm
This is an interesting project. Is the developer using Maya to model these spaces? I teach a 3D Modeling and Animation course at Bethany Lutheran College that uses a program called Cinema4D (https://www.maxon.net/en-us/). This program is relatively approachable for design students and is the standard in the design industries we're targeting. Here's an example of what one of my students has created recently in the area of interior design: http://mediaarts.blc.edu/portfolio-items/interior-design-urban-loft/. I am not experienced in VR, but my colleague Brian Klebig very much is. He and I have talked about having my students design for VR, but this hasn't yet been prioritized because we need to purchase additional software to make these C4D spaces accessible by VR. I'm commenting because this is certainly possible to do in the not-so-distant future, so if it makes sense for you to work with BLC students on a future project, we can certainly explore that possibility!
Mike 2020-11-03 3:37:11pm
Amanda, Thanks for checking out the project. Unfortunately, I don't know the answer to your question concerning what the developer is using to model. I asked him and am happy to share once he replies.

I'd love to connect on future projects if that's possible. I was surprised how difficult it was to find a VR developer. Maybe it's not so difficult if you're in the VR world. But from an outsiders perspective, finding a developer was my first big challenge. (I am an outsider to VR, but not to using technology for ministry. I've led three app development projects, among other tech related projects.) I'm glad to know Bethany is training students for this. I think this will be a highly marketable skill and a good one for Christians to have.

Mike 2020-11-04 11:59:30pm
Amanda, To follow up on your question. My developer says they use Maya and Blender among others.
Amanda Quist (Bethany Lutheran College.) 2020-11-10 8:52:27pm
Thanks for looking into this! My students and I are certainly not in "the VR world" right now, but we are in the business of world-building. Accessing those worlds in a VR space and designing them for this type of access could be our next challenge.
Leanne Ross (WLHS retired teacher) 2020-11-04 3:39:05am
I'm so impressed. What a marvelous teaching tool. I'm excited for the teachers who have an opportunity to use this technology and the horizons it will open for their students. I (almost) wish I could be a student in such a classroom.
Mike 2020-11-04 3:39:45am
Leanne, You sound like someone who is open to trying new things. Consider asking for a Quest 2 for Christmas. :-) Like the internet and smartphones, Virtual Reality will have its pros and cons, but God gave us Christians a communications assignment. The Apostle Paul and early Christians were the best at using the Roman invention of letter writing. (Standage, "Writing on the Wall") Martin Luther went viral with the printing press and even invented a form of communication (pamphlets). (Pettegree, "Brand Luther") Today I'm privileged to serve on a team of missionaries that uses social media, Zoom, smartphone apps and other communication tools God has given us to daily share the Gospel with thousands and train hundreds of Christian leaders around the world. From a human perspective, Virtual Reality is the next communication tool we will have in our communication assignment arsenal. The more Christians we introduce it to, the more we can use it for our God pleasing important task of making disciples.
Mike 2020-11-04 3:42:43am
Go to Amazon and put "Quest 2" in the search line.
Elijah Dorn (Martin Luther College) 2020-11-05 8:37:19am
Missionary Hartman,

Watching the quick previews of the virtual construction sites you provided was really eye-opening for me. I’ve never thought about how useful virtual reality could be in ministry. As someone who has never explored pictures or videos of Israel’s biblical landmarks, these samples were very exciting to look at -- and they’re not even finished yet!

The plan for virtual tours throughout all these different sites is very intriguing. I think it is very cool that it’s possible to enjoy the tour in the company of other “tourists” that you can actually see on the screen with you. However, I’m curious about the role of the instructor. Are you planning on having an actual teacher who is trained to give the detailed tours, or could, as an example, one of my religion teachers from my old high school take the role of the tour guide and lead his class? I think there could be benefits to both, so I’m interested in what you have in mind.

I think that this is a very big step for our ministry in an increasingly technology-based world. Thank you so much for the hard work and brilliant brainstorming that you’ve put into this project. I’m excited to see what it becomes next year!
Mike 2020-11-06 5:07:17pm
Elijah, I'm glad you enjoyed the presentation. Great question. There's great value in taking a tour led by a trained tour guide. However, I envision this platform actually working best when you have a Bible class leader, religion teacher or local pastor leading a group of people in a Bible study in this VR space.

Just yesterday I saw the first draft of the Mount of Olives VR construction site. The value of this is that it helps people (even life long Christians) better visualize the connections in the Bible. On the Mt of Olives you have Bethany (Lazarus' home), the Garden of Gethsemane, the spot Jesus rose to heaven, the village where the disciples found the donkey on Palm Sunday, the road to Jericho (Good Samaritan), and you can see Jerusalem and the temple in the distance. A Bible study leader, local pastor or religion teacher can take a group of people to this spot and help them visualize and connect the stories.

Mike 2020-11-06 5:09:14pm
Here's a brand new video link to the first draft of the VR Mount of Olives. Interesting fact. The developer found someone who took the exact elevation specs from the current Mount of Olives from Google Maps and used it to create the VR Mount of Olives. While the Mount of Olives has undoubtedly changed some of it's topography in the past 2000 years, it gives a great real perspective.

Reagan Moore (Martin Luther College ) 2020-11-06 3:18:09am
Missionary Hartman,

In one of my Latin classes at MLC we are enrolled on a “tour of Rome” which uses a similar 3D landscape, albeit not in VR. It has been an interesting learning experience to me and it’s very cool to see that this is also being used for other ancient places like Israel. It is a great way to learn about a place that no longer exists today.

In regards to the project. I was wondering at what scale your model was going to be? Will it cover all of Israel or just a few key places? I’m assuming it won’t include the entirety of the country but I guess I don’t really have any idea.

Thank you so much for the work that you are doing on this project. I believe that it will be an important learning resource for many people to better understand ancient Israel.
Mike 2020-11-06 5:17:02pm
Reagan, I'm excited to hear how your Latin Class is using 3D landscapes. That's great. One of the differences between this and other platforms is this platform will allow people to engage while they are visiting the landscape together. It becomes a more shared and social learning experience.

As far as the scale and scope of the model, you bring up a great issue. The VR First Century Jerusalem is HUGE. And while it's great to visit it in VR, the experience isn't quite the same as actually walking around in the space. VR has a long way to go before it becomes a Ready Player One type experience. (Google Ready Player One 2018 movie if you don't know the reference)

Because of certain technology and experiential limitations, I'd encourage you to think of the VR Land of Israel prototype that we're building as a series of stage scenes that people can visit. They can walk around on the stage, and then open a door which "beams" them to another stage.

For example... You're standing on the Mt. of Olives. You can walk around this HUGE scene. However, you'll get close enough to Jerusalem and there will be a "door" that you'll enter. It will "beam" you to the next stage which will be the Temple Mount. From the Temple mount stage you and walk around in and enter the temple. You can also open a "door" and "beam" to the main area of Jerusalem. In Jerusalem proper you can walk around on some of the streets. While on the streets you will be able to enter into certain doors and "beam" to stages such as the high priest's home, Nicodemeus' home or the house with the upper room.

Aser AVa Seifu (EECMY School of Jazz Music, Film and Media, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia) 2020-11-07 4:36:35pm
Hello, Michael Hartman Thank you so much for sharing the future media, I wish to learn from you more, Since I am a faith based college leader, I wish my school will be aware of this soon, If you are willing, can we prepare a Zoom meeting with our school leaders, Please ? Church and schools should be benefited from this; I hope I will tour with you Israel, in March 2021.
Mike 2020-11-08 5:29:09pm
Aser, I am glad you are taking an interest in VR as a potential education platform. I'm always happy to talk to others about it.