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.

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Read more at Biblical Archaeology Review

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

Syria’s Downing of a Russian Plane Put Israel in the Crosshairs

Sept. 21 2018

On Monday, Israeli jets fired missiles at an Iranian munitions storehouse in the northwestern Syrian city of Latakia. Shortly thereafter, Syrian personnel shot down a Russian surveillance plane with surface-to-air missiles, in what seems to be a botched and highly incompetent response to the Israeli attack. Moscow first responded by blaming Jerusalem for the incident, but President Putin then offered more conciliatory statements. Yesterday, Russian diplomats again stated that Israel was at fault. Yoav Limor comments:

What was unusual [about the Israeli] strike was the location: Latakia [is] close to Russian forces, in an area where the IDF hasn’t been active for some time. The strike itself was routine; the IDF notified the Russian military about it in advance, the missiles were fired remotely, the Israeli F-16s returned to base unharmed, and as usual, Syrian antiaircraft missiles were fired indiscriminately in every direction, long after the strike itself was over. . . .

Theoretically, this is a matter between Russia and Syria. Russia supplied Syria with the SA-5 [missile] batteries that wound up shooting down its plane, and now it must demand explanations from Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. That won’t happen; Russia was quick to blame Israel for knocking over the first domino, and as usual, sent conflicting messages that make it hard to parse its future strategy. . . .

From now on, Russia will [almost certainly] demand a higher level of coordination with Israel and limits on the areas in which Israel can attack, and possibly a commitment to refrain from certain actions. Syria, Iran, and Hizballah will try to drag Russia into “handling” Israel and keeping it from continuing to carry out strikes in the region. Israel . . . will blame Iran, Hizballah, and Syria for the incident, and say they are responsible for the mess.

But Israel needs to take rapid action to minimize damage. It is in Israel’s strategic interest to keep up its offensive actions to the north, mainly in Syria. If that action is curtailed, Israel’s national security will be compromised. . . . No one in Israel, and certainly not in the IDF or the Israel Air Force, wants Russia—which until now hasn’t cared much about Israel’s actions—to turn hostile, and Israel needs to do everything to prevent that from happening. Even if that means limiting its actions for the time being. . . . Still, make no mistake: Russia is angry and has to explain its actions to its people. Israel will need to walk a thin line between protecting its own security interests and avoiding a very unwanted clash with Russia.

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Read more at Israel Hayom

More about: Hizballah, Israel & Zionism, Israeli Security, Russia, Syrian civil war