Why I Am Thankful For Hershel Shanks

Hershel Shanks’ autobiography, Freeing the Dead Sea Scrolls: And Other Adventures of an Archaeology Outsider, is out and Richard Bernstein has a little piece on Shanks and his autobiography in the New York Times. I likely won’t read Shanks’ autobiography. My reading list is rather long and, according to the latest numbers, my life expectancy is only about fifteen years. There may not be enough time for me to get around to it. And while I often enjoy biographies, I’ve never been a big fan of autobiographies. The very things that often motivate someone to write an autobiography can spoil the work. I am looking forward to the publication of Mark Twain’s autobiography but only because it is Twain, not because it is an autobiography.
For many, Hershel Shanks is someone they love to hate. His Biblical Archaeology Review, with its frequent real and supposed bows to real and supposed support for the historical foundations of the Bible, gives these folks apoplexy. At one level, I share their concerns. Hershel and BAR have always had an audience problem. The largest potential market segment for a popular magazine on biblical archaeology is exactly that set of folks who are seeking objective reinforcement of their religious beliefs. Even more, I don’t much like Hershel’s penchant for turning scholarly debates into adversarial relationships with him becoming the lawyer for his preferred side. He is a lawyer. Maybe it’s in his blood. His occasional shocking ventures into quote mining are also upsetting. He is a lawyer. Maybe it’s in his blood. Then there’s the self aggrandizement. The way he sometimes goes on, you’d think he was the publisher of a blog rather than a popular magazine.
But here is why all that doesn’t keep me from being thankful to Hershel Shanks. During my years of exile from the academic study of the Hebrew Bible and the ancient near east, the Biblical Archaeology Review and the Journal of Biblical Literature literature were my only continuous contacts with an academic world I loved and love. They kept my interest alive, my intellect engaged. They were also my only regular source of new discoveries and new ways of looking at old ones. I think I read them more thoroughly then than I do now. I’m not equating BAR with JBL. One is a serious scholarly journal and the other is BAR. But they both have equally important places in sustaining my enthusiasm and I am thankful.