Hershel Shanks and the Biblical Archaeology Review

Rook_Hawkins's picture

I have been meaning to write an article on a few of the entries in the most recent BAR. No, not the Browning Automatic Rifle, I’m talking about the Biblical Archaeology Review. Although some of you would probably find the first more entertaining, the latter is really the more important and relevant thing to discuss, as far as I’m concerned. Especially in light of the guest appearance this Wednesday night on our show, Dr. Hector Avalos, and his fascinating book, The End of Biblical Studies.

I generally read through this periodical, not only because I find the articles compelling, but the Magazine as a whole attempts to break the chain of evangelism by presenting—and I mean it really tries hard—the most scientific articles it can find, or that have been submitted. Some are unbelievably inaccurate, and at times the Magazine editor, Hershel Shanks, will allow his Jewish-religious viewpoints to interfere with his choice of articles, and often his choice of words.

I make it a point to highlight his Jewishness, because unlike many Biblical periodicals that exist, Shanks is not a fan of evangelism. This is a point that has been consistently made throughout his career. In fact, one has to wonder if perhaps it was the combination of these two factors, his Jewish heritage and his problems with evangelism, that led Shanks to once have openly endorse and back the now-sensationalized James ossuary, which is now considered by many scholars to be a forgery. It was a mistake that has stayed with him for some time, and because of it he has received a lot of grief over it; and rightly he should receive it.

However, I am no fan of evangelism either. I have to support many of the positions Shanks does hold. Here is a recent letter he received, and published in his Queries and Comments section of the BAR:


I received my first copy of BAR, and I would like a question answered before I jump to conclusions and cancel my subscription. Upon reading through the magazine, I came across an article titled “The Life of the Dead Sea” (January/February 2008 ). The article begins with “Millions of years ago.”

Does your magazine hold to a creation view or an evolutionary view? Evolution goes against the Bible. God created everything in six days.


Shanks response was admirable:


You will probably be more comfortable canceling your subscription.


Hilarious to say the least, and I whole-heartedly agree. However, I have to take issue with some of his positions. If I didn’t, what sort of discussion would happen?

My first contention with Shanks is his horrendously obvious slant towards neoAlbrighteans. I would hesitate to call them maximalists, as I feel the only maximalists left are evangelicals. However, there are many scholars who still, whether by some level or another, hold onto the concepts of Bill Albright, which are severely outdated and hinder on implausibility—at least, as the evidence stands now. There is certainly no way to know whether future sites will yield his accuracy, but based on so many more recent studies, it is unlikely and practically improbable that such evidence will surface. William Dever, a well known neoAlbrightean for example, holds a special place in BAR, and is allotted this space to discuss, with Shank’s approval (whether he wants to openly admit it or not), those artifacts found by antiques dealers and sold illegally on the antiquities market. And why shouldn’t Dever be allowed to publish these articles using these finds? After all, Shanks was more than willing to jump on that wagon when the ossuary was found. And we all know where that wagon was headed.

My second contention with Shanks is his labeling of “Zionist” and “antiZionist” to scholars whose only crimes resemble the same ones applied to Eilat Mazar by Shanks, who would undoubtedly call Mazar a Zionist, but who so offensively labeled Kathleen Kenyon a “well-known anti-Zionist” which he then links to his article entitled, “Kathleen Kenyon’s Anti-Zionist politics—Does It Affect Her Work?” (BAR, September 1975) This sort of self-gratifying suggestion does not in any way diminish the quality of anyone’s works. Who is taking the reign from who, here? William Dever has neglected his duties as a professional in this regard as well, labeling Thomas L. Thompson of being an anti-Zionist as well, or rather being “anti-Israel” and “anti-Bible”. (“A View from Copenhagen” ) As if one can just ignore sound arguments based on their opinions of a person’s politics; are scholars to hurl epithets at one another instead of reading the material appropriately? Thomas L. Thompson has flat out called the labeling “hysteria”, and rightly it is. Shanks needs to apologize for these horrendous labelings, especially since many are inaccurate. When scholarship allows libeling to become a part of debate is when Hector Avalos’ book becomes a reality. It certainly will be the end of Biblical Studies, and Shanks will find himself the editor of a teen gossip magazine rather than a serious publication.

Third, I cannot help but find it obnoxious that Shanks is unwilling, and downright indignant, to give way. In his article in the previous BAR issue, “In Defense of Eilat Mazar”, Shanks was wrong about the whole intent behind the original post he writes about, bringing in Eilat Mazar when such discussions were nonextant. He was called out on this by Eric Cline, who writes, “It’s a shame that Hershel Shanks didn’t do his research and fact-checking properly before he wrote his First Person editorial (‘In Defense of Eilat Mazar,’ March/April 2008 ) dragging people’s names through the mud.” Shanks was rightly cited as being one who creates “dissension between professional colleagues” by “sowing discord”. This judgment could not be more accurate, and often times Shanks does this just by labeling somebody inappropriately or inaccurately such as mentioned in the previous paragraph. An apology was owed to Cline, and a retraction was necessary, not only because it makes Shanks look bad to keep the article without a retraction, but also because he did suggest that Cline was responsible for bringing in Eilat Mazar. “First, it quoted Professor Eric Cline…(quote from Cline here-Ed.) No consideration of the evidence. No consideration for Mazar’s qualifications.” (ibid.) But Cline’s comment had absolutely nothing to do with Eilat, so why would Cline or National Geographic discuss the evidence? Once more we see Shanks dark side, where the whole point was to promote “Zionist” scholars over those who he deems differently. What is worse is that Shanks finds the reality of the situation “repulsive.” I’m sorry Hershel, but you do sow discontent. The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem.

To quote Avalos, “The religionism and ideology of Shanks is also evident in how the magazine judges scholars by the degree to which they support Judaism, Israel, or Zionism… such characterizations also display the degree to which being for or against Israel (not just against Judaism) is important for Shanks.” (“BAR – Most Loved and Most Reviled,” May/June 2008 ) Sometimes it is so important that he ignores everything else.

In fact, if those reading this article feel that I have spent the past few pages discussing petty issues instead of looking at the facts, you’re damn straight I have.  That is my whole point.  I have not had time to deal with any of the important issues, like whether or not National Geographic sensationalized material and the Gospel of Judas, or whether or not the Dead Sea Scrolls can be read a specific way.  There is no time, because I, like Shanks in many instances, have wasted all this room on bickering.

More articles forthcoming. Hector Avalos appears on the Rational Response Squad Wednesday, May 7th at 8pm EST.

BAR and Mr. Shanks

 I'm relieved to see that I'm not the only one that perceives that BAR is Mr. Shanks personal forum to express his political and religious views. What ever happen to real scholarly work regardless of which sect or religion it disconcerted? For the last eight or so years that I subscribed to BAR, it was both pathetic and amusing to watch Mr. Shanks' "Wishy Washy" positions on a number issues. I did cancel my subscription to BAR, solely because of Mr Shanks' use of the magazine as his personal forum. Mr. Shanks reminds me of Yosef Ben Matityahu (Joseph, son of Matthias) and after he became a Roman citizen, as Titus Flavius Josephus;  always changing his position to save himself.  


Are you ready to apologize

Are you ready to apologize for wanting to crucify Hershel Shanks over the James ossuary?

The “forgery trial of the century” has all but blown up. The trial judge who will decide the case—there are no juries in Israel—has told the prosecution to consider dropping the case. “Not every case ends in the way that you think it will when you start,” Judge Aharon Farkash told prosecutor Adi Damti in open court. “Maybe we can save ourselves the rest,” the judge told her.

The story was reported by Matthew Kalman in the San Francisco Chronicle, and from there around the world. He described Judge Aharon Farkash’s evaluation as a “humiliating collapse” of the government’s case and “a major embarrassment ... for the [Israel] Antiquities Authority.”

The government’s star witness, Yuval Goren, former chairman of Tel Aviv University’s institute of archaeology, was forced to admit on cross-examination that there is original ancient patina in the word “Jesus,” the last word in the inscription that reads “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.”

Recent events have also proved humiliating for the IAA in connection with the committee it appointed that supposedly came to a unanimous decision that the inscription is a forgery. In fact, several members of the committee expressed no opinion—but the IAA counted them as “yes” votes. Several other members of the committee based their vote not on their own expertise, but on Yuval Goren’s supposed expertise, which they were in no position to evaluate. One member of the committee who would have found the inscription authentic said he was “forced” to change his mind based on Goren’s scientific arguments.

No paleographer expert in the script of this period has found any paleographical problem with the inscription. And several scientists at the trial have undermined Goren’s scientific arguments. No other scientist has supported Goren’s arguments.

BAR has consistently supported the authenticity of the inscription, as have leading paleographers André Lemaire of the Sorbonne and Ada Yardeni of Hebrew University. All appear now to be vindicated.