‘We don’t excavate to prove the Bible true’ — Utah priest going to Holy Land to pursue two passions: scriptural studies and archaeological digs

(Courtesy Episcopal Diocese of Utah) The Rev. Mary June Nestler, during a recent visit to Jerusalem, stands before the famous Dome of the Rock mosque.

For Mary June Nestler, it’s all about truth — whether as an Episcopal priest uncovering wisdom from scriptural passages or as a seasoned archaeologist unearthing history from ancient dust.

Soon, she takes her dance with faith and the science of artifacts to a cradle for both: the Holy Land.

Starting in July, the Rev. Canon Nestler leaves her 12-year stint in Utah, the last eight as executive officer of the Episcopal Diocese, to become course director at the prestigious St. George’s College in Jerusalem.

Nestler also looks forward to lecturing at the Anglican campus on her speciality: contextual biblical studies. But the prospect of returning to the region’s rich archaeological digs — an obsession of more than three decades — especially excites her.

“My archaeological work has been in the Roman and Byzantine periods of the Levant, particularly [in] northern Israel [and] Galilee,” she recounts. “Archaeology was a different path from studying the early church primarily through text.”

Nestler has worked as both an associate to Israeli and American archaeologists, and as a consultant and supervisor at the Mount Carmel Project, an ongoing excavation expected to rewrite the history of an ancient monastery near Haifa.

(Courtesy the Rev. Mary June Nestler) The Mona Lisa of Galilee

It was while she served as an area supervisor at the Sepphoris dig in 1986 that one of Nestler’s biggest archaeological moments came: the discovery of what became known as the “Mona Lisa of Galilee” — an intricate mosaic floor found in the ruins of a 1,700-year-old Roman palace. The female portrait was part of a bigger design depicting the life of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine.

"[That] was terribly exciting. We thought we had only a ‘ho-hum’ white floor, and then we uncovered her face,” Nestler recalls. “We came upon it having gone through two or three meters of boring earth, and it was unexpected.”

While scripture may enlighten the soul, Nestler finds more earthly revelations in unburied ruins of Palestine.

Archaeology’s appeal is its “ability to illuminate history, or even redefine it,” she says. “It’s a complementary, integrative science.”

Nestler cautions, however, against assuming that archaeology necessarily proves the historical bona fides of accounts passed down from Jewish, Christian or Islamic religious sources.

“While I’ve excavated partly in the period of the writing of the New Testament, nonetheless I don’t consider myself a ‘Christian archaeologist,’” she stresses. “We don’t excavate to prove the Bible true or to find early Christians, Jews or Muslims. We find what we find.”

Although her archaeological work is not “primarily, for me, a spiritual exercise,” Nestler confesses to a feeling of “reverence” that comes from holding “a beautiful hairpin last worn in the sixth century or to finding a hoard of bronze coins hidden in a wall for safety.”

There is the thrill of mystery — if not of the Eucharistic kind she muses over as a priest. Rather, the “archaeologist must exercise historical and scientific rigor, all the while imagining how it all fits.”

That “giant jigsaw puzzle,” Nestler says, can be both “fascinating and occasionally astonishing.”

And, yes, these excavations can help illuminate scripture, Nestler says, noting that earlier this week history offered a fresh glimpse of the magnificence of Herod’s Temple, the massive Jewish worship complex of Jesus’ time.

Reconstruction of unearthed, intricately detailed marble flooring showed that Herod had “spared no expense” in raising perhaps the finest structure people of the time had ever seen.

“No wonder Jesus’ disciples said on seeing it, ‘Look, teacher! What wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!’” Nestler notes.

“We [can] get a sense of the historically grounded nature of some of the biblical writings,” she adds. “Any lens through which we can gain understanding of scripture is a good thing. For me, the scriptures are deep and rich.”

(Courtesy the Rev. Mary June Nestler) A view of an archaeological excavation in the Mount Carmel region of Israel.

Nestler is no less excited about her duties at St. George’s College, which is part of an Anglican complex that facilitates pilgrimages and residential study courses, tours of Holy Land sites, and interfaith conferences aimed at building understanding among the area’s Christians, Jews and Muslims.

Before she gets there, though, Nestler has much to do — preparing for her move to the other side of the globe and wrapping up projects for the Utah diocese, including preparation of the state’s annual Episcopal convention in Price at the end of April.

A successor to Nestler has not yet been named by Bishop Scott Hayashi, who acknowledges replacing her won’t be easy.

“Canon Nestler has graced the diocese with her heart-deep dedication to having done the Lord’s work in Utah,” he states, characterizing her appointment to Jerusalem as “an exciting and meaningful role for [a] lifelong educator and longtime priest.”

Nestler acknowledges some pride in her Beehive State ministry.

In 2006, she left as dean and president of the Episcopal Theological School at Claremont in Southern California to help launch the Utah’s diocese’s new clergy and lay leadership training Ministry Formation Program, which next fall morphs into a digital offering.

She also has served multiple stints as a deputy to the church’s general conventions, representing first the Los Angeles and then the Utah dioceses.

Having been to Jerusalem more than 50 times in the past 30-plus years, Nestler considers the city “a second home,” one where she hopes to share extended visits with two adult daughters during her three-year St. George’s contract.

Still, even casting her eyes once more on the Mount of Olives, the Sea of Galilee or the haunting expanses of the Judean Desert will not erase her memories of the snowcapped Wasatch Range.

“I have thoroughly enjoyed my time here. The state is stunningly beautiful, varied in peoples and ideas, and changing rapidly,” Nestler says. “I am most grateful to have enjoyed wonderful relationships with our staff, clergy and laity across the diocese, and will miss them greatly.”

But new experiences, treasures and truths await her in the halls and hills of the Holy Land.

(Courtesy Episcopal Diocese of Utah) The Rev. Canon Mary June Nestler