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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