In November, two of the premier academic organizations for archaeological and Biblical studies, the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) and the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), met in San Francisco for their annual conferences. At the same time, the Biblical Archaeology Society held its annual Bible and Archaeology Fest, which allows the interested public to hear engaging lectures from the very same scholars who are attending the professional meetings.
The meetings, which attract thousands of scholars from all over the world, many of whom give papers on the latest finds and developments in their fields, are always an exciting time for BAS and especially Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR) editor Hershel Shanks. BHD Web editor Joey Corbett recently sat down with Hershel to get his thoughts on the San Francisco meetings and what he learned from the papers he attended and the scholars he met.
Joey Corbett: Hershel, you’re just back from the conferences in San Francisco. What did you take away from your trip?
Hershel Shanks: Well, the first thing is that I came home exhausted … it’s a very high pressure experience. I go to both the ASOR conference and the SBL conference. The ASOR conference is small by comparison. I think they had 800 people. At ASOR, you tend to know more people and you can always come down to the hotel lobby and find somebody to talk to. I think that academics, they form friendships far away, so these conferences become very personally important to them because they see their friends with whom they work at long distances for most of the year.
The SBL conference is huge. I think there were 8,000 people maybe and hundreds and hundreds of different presentations. Usually you find the ones you want to hear but you find that you have two at the same time … that’s inevitable. In addition, they have huge book exhibits and it’s nice to go to these exhibits because not only do you see the books, but you see friends, you chat and renew friendships.
And finally, in addition, the Biblical Archaeology Society has what we call the Fest, the Bible and Archaeology Fest; I think this was the 14th year. It’s the only place in the world where lay people can come and have a choice of about 15 or 16 different lectures to attend and they are all given by absolutely top notch scholars. The reason that we can do that is that the scholars are all assembled at these big conferences just down the street. We then have a plenary lecture on Friday night where I introduce the speaker, and then we have a banquet on Saturday night and that’s a lot of fun. I sit up there with two scholars, one on either side of me, and we take questions from the audience and have some of our own questions and exchanges as well.
So by the time you come home from a week of this, you’re pretty exhausted.
I also have to tell our readers that we already have the plenary speaker for next year’s Fest, one of the most emminent archaeologists in Israel, David Ussishkin.
JC: Wow, that’s very exciting! Thanks for letting us know.
JC: In general, do you prefer the ASOR or the SBL conference?
HS: Each has its advantages. I know more people at ASOR and it tends to be more archaeological. On the other hand, much of the archaeology is very far removed from anything Biblical, so in that sense, I’m more at home at SBL.
And I think you really have to choose the papers that you listen to—there are good ones and bad ones at both. My determination is made the same way at both of them. A professor at my undergraduate college once advised me not to take courses by subject but by teacher. I think it’s the same thing here. My advice to anyone who goes, unless they happen to be a scholar with a very particular interest, is to choose the talks of the major scholars. I think one of the reasons that the conferences have gotten so big is that there are a lot of junior scholars who give papers in order to create a record for themselves and often their papers are very narrow. And there are so many papers, you can’t even hear 1 percent of them. So the criterion that I use is that if it’s a major scholar, I want to hear him or her.
JC: Were there particular papers or particular presenters that really stood out this year?
HS: Oh, absolutely, but I’m not going to tell you that! We’re developing stories; this is a great source for [BAR]. So you’re going to have to wait and see what comes out. But it’s not just getting the scholar’s paper and printing it; it’s working with the scholar about an idea they have and then transforming it into an article for BAR. There’s a lot that goes on between what I hear at the conference and what comes out in the final article.
JC: Can you at least give us a hint into the subject matter of some of the more interesting papers that you heard?
HS: Where David killed Goliath; a hoard of hundreds of ostraca discovered several miles from Jerusalem that are held in private collections and whether they should be published or whether we should ignore them; how the text of the Bible and some important passages were reinterpreted in the rabbinic period so they didn’t mean the same thing as they did when they were first written. Those are just a few of the things that stand out.
JC: Did you notice any overall trends, particularly at ASOR, in terms of the types of papers that were being presented or the types of themes being covered in various sessions? Do they tend to be less Biblically focused than you’d like?
HS: ASOR is an archaeological organization and it covers areas like Cyprus where the people that are interested in Cyprus are often not interested in the Bible. There are some connections, but, for many, there is no connection and those are legitimate areas of interests and they don’t involve the Bible, and BAR does involve the Bible. So in that sense some of the papers at ASOR are clearly not within our purview. But it doesn’t matter because there are so many papers that there’s more than enough to fill many issues of BAR.
JC: Do you think there’s a larger trend of, for example, more Israelis coming to give papers at ASOR?
HS: No. As a matter of fact, I think the Israeli delegation was quite small this year. I know we give a prize, which covers transportation costs, to two Israeli scholars to come over and attend these meetings and they’re called the Joseph Aviram prizes. Joseph Aviram is the long-time director of the Israel Exploration Society. So this enables these young Israeli scholars to present papers, and sometimes they’re very, very good. But no, I would say that a lot of the major Israeli scholars were not there this year.
JC: How do you feel Bible Fest went this year?
HS: Oh wonderful, just wonderful. Just talking to the people who attended—many of them come year after year and they’ve formed friendships among other people who come. And the scholars—you know you have an opportunity to listen to 15 great scholars at one place within a couple of days, and the people appreciate it. And frankly it’s very nice for me to see them because they’re so appreciative and, as I said, we have a good time at the banquet with our back and forthing. So the Fest was just fabulous.
Hershel Shanks is founder and editor of Biblical Archaeology Review. He has written numerous books on the Bible and Biblical archaeology, including The Mystery and Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Random House, 1998), Jerusalem’s Temple Mount (Continuum, 2007), Jerusalem: An Archaeological Biography (Random House, 1995) and The City of David: A Guide to Biblical Jerusalem (Tel Aviv: Bazak, 1973), which was published after his sabbatical year in Jerusalem.
Glenn J. Corbett is associate editor with the Biblical Archaeology Society. He received his Ph.D. in Near Eastern archaeology from the University of Chicago where his research focused on the epigraphic and archaeological remains of pre-Islamic Arabia. Since 2005 he has directed the Wadi Hafir Petroglyph Survey in southern Jordan.