How an Archaeology Renegade Helped Save the Bible from the Postmodernists

March 1 2018

In 1972, a serendipitous encounter between the American Jewish lawyer Hershel Shanks and the famed Israeli general-turned-archaeologist Yigael Yadin launched Shanks’s career as an amateur expert on biblical archaeology. Shanks went on to found Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR), a magazine aimed at disseminating and popularized the latest discoveries in the field; he has only recently retired from his position as its chief editor. Thanks to Shanks’s efforts, and bravado, the Dead Sea Scrolls were published after decades of delay and made available for study by a variety of experts. The archaeologist William Dever recollects the important role Shanks played in another controversy in the field:

[An] infamous controversy began . . . in the 1980s and 1990s with several attempts by biblical scholars to write new histories of ancient Israel. Some such scholarly works virtually dismissed the patriarchal narratives [of the book of Genesis] as legendary. Others adopted a sociological approach that seemed to ignore the theological importance of the Hebrew Bible. A few works dabbled with the archaeological evidence then available. But none appreciated its real significance or the fact that archaeology had become an independent and professional discipline with enormous potential. . . .

This controversy, first spreading among European biblical scholars and involving a few American scholars, came to a head with the appearance of a book by Sheffield University’s Philip R. Davies in 1992, In Search of “Ancient Israel.” Note that “ancient Israel” is in quotes. That’s because Davies didn’t find it; in fact, according to him, it wasn’t there. . . . Another [scholar soon] demonized archaeologists—especially Americans and Israelis—and declared all histories [of ancient Israel] “bogus.” Two other works of the same era may be cited without further explanation, since their titles give them away: The Invention of Ancient Israel: The Silencing of Palestinian History (1996) . . . and The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel (1999). . . .

Already in 1998 and 1999 I had published several sharp critiques of what was being called “revisionism.” . . . I saw much of the revisionist attacks on the Hebrew Bible as dangerously ideological. In particular, the onslaught was influenced by postmodernist notions that “there are no facts, only interpretations”; that “all claims to knowledge are only social constructs” (thus the tactic of “deconstruction”); and that “texts lead only to other texts.”

[But even] in 1995 [or] 1996, [before most scholars had done so], Hershel grasped the significance of these issues, not only for Jewish and Christian readers but also for secularists and all who value the Judeo-Christian or Western cultural tradition. . . . One thing is clear to me and, I suspect, to nearly all of BAR’s readers—a realistic, believable history of ancient Israel still matters. And many are coming to understand that archaeology is a crucial source of new and relevant information. From BAR’s early days, Hershel Shanks understood that relationship, and he strove mightily to educate the public to the issues in a way that no other publication did. That will be his legacy.

Read more at Biblical Archaeology Review

More about: Ancient Israel, Archaeology, Dead Sea Scrolls, Hebrew Bible, History & Ideas, Postmodernism

The Danger of Hollow Fixes to the Iran Deal

March 20 2018

In January, the Trump administration announced a 120-day deadline for the so-called “E3”—Britain, France, and Germany—to agree to solutions for certain specific flaws in the 2015 agreement to limit the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. Omri Ceren explains why it’s necessary to get these fixes right:

[Already in October], the administration made clear that it considered the deal fatally flawed for at least three reasons: a weak inspections regime in which the UN’s nuclear watchdog can’t access Iranian military facilities, an unacceptable arrangement whereby the U.S. had to give up its most powerful sanctions against ballistic missiles even as Iran was allowed to develop ballistic missiles, and the fact that the deal’s eventual expiration dates mean Iran will legally be allowed to get within a hair’s breadth of a nuclear weapon. . . .

A team of American negotiators has been working on getting the E3 to agree to a range of fixes, and is testing whether there is overlap between the maximum that the Europeans can give and the minimum that President Trump will accept. The Europeans in turn are testing the Iranians to gauge their reactions and will likely not accept any fixes that would cause Iran to bolt.

The negotiations are problematic. The New York Times reported that, as far as the Europeans are concerned, the exercise requires convincing Trump they’ve “changed the deal without actually changing it.” Public reports about the inspection fix suggest that the Europeans are loath to go beyond urging the International Atomic Energy Commission to request inspections, which the agency may be too intimidated to do. The ballistic-missile fix is shaping up to be a political disaster, with the Europeans refusing to incorporate anything but long-range missiles in the deal. That would leave us with inadequate tools to counter Iran’s development of ballistic missiles that could be used to wipe Israel, the Saudis, and U.S. regional bases off the map. . . .

There is a [significant] risk the Trump administration may be pushed to accept the hollow fixes acceptable to the Europeans. Fixing the deal in this way would be the worst of all worlds. It would functionally enshrine the deal under a Republican administration. Iran would be open for business, and this time there would be certainty that a future president will not act to reverse the inevitable gold rush. Just as no deal would have been better than a bad deal, so no fix would be better than a bad fix.

Read more at Commentary

More about: Donald Trump, Europe, Iran, Politics & Current Affairs, U.S. Foreign policy