How an Archaeology Renegade Helped Save the Bible from the Postmodernists

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 IDF’s First Investigation of Its Conduct on October 7 Is Out

For several months, the Israel Defense Forces has been investigating its own actions on and preparedness for October 7, with an eye to understanding its failures. The first of what are expected to be many reports stemming from this investigation was released yesterday, and it showed a series of colossal strategic and tactical errors surrounding the battle at Kibbutz Be’eri, writes Emanuel Fabian. The probe, he reports, was led by Maj. Gen. (res.) Mickey Edelstein.

Edelstein and his team—none of whom had any involvement in the events themselves, according to the IDF—spent hundreds of hours investigating the onslaught and battle at Be’eri, reviewing every possible source of information, from residents’ WhatsApp messages to both Israeli and Hamas radio communications, as well as surveillance videos, aerial footage, interviews of survivors and those who fought, plus visits to the scene.

There will be a series of further reports issued this summer.

IDF chief Halevi in a statement issued alongside the probe said that while this was just the first investigation into the onslaught, which does not reflect the entire picture of October 7, it “clearly illustrates the magnitude of the failure and the dimensions of the disaster that befell the residents of the south who protected their families with their bodies for many hours, and the IDF was not there to protect them.” . . .

The IDF hopes to present all battle investigations by the end of August.

The IDF’s probes are strictly limited to its own conduct. For a broader look at what went wrong, Israel will have to wait for a formal state commission of inquiry to be appointed—which happens to be the subject of this month’s featured essay in Mosaic.

Read more at Times of Israel

More about: Gaza War 2023, IDF, Israel & Zionism, October 7