A Man for the People

By Christopher Rollston

Hershel Shanks is someone I consider to be a very dear friend. During recent years, he has often written me and suggested that we have lunch at the Cosmos Club, one of the most distinguished social clubs in Washington, D.C., among whose members are some 30 Nobel Prize recipients and some 60 Pulitzer Prize recipients. And among this august membership is the founding editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, Hershel Shanks.

Hershel Shanks and Christopher Rollston at the Cosmos Club.

Hershel is certainly known to many as the Editor of BAR, and rightfully so. But he began his professional life not as an editor, but as a lawyer, trained at Harvard. Even in the practice of law, he was no ordinary lawyer. In fact, he rose to such prominence that he has argued law before the Supreme Court of the United States. However, archaeology was his true passion, so long ago he turned from law to archaeology. And we are all the beneficiaries of this fateful decision.

Of course, Hershel is not a field archaeologist; he is not an epigraphist; he is not a historian; and he is not a scholar of the Bible. But he has constantly kept his finger on the pulse of those fields and on the movers and shakers in those fields. He publishes articles by scholars in the pages of his magazine—articles that he laboriously edits for style. Sometimes too laboriously. Indeed, upon receiving Hershel’s edits on the first article I wrote for BAR, I phoned him and said that the edits were just too much and I preferred not to publish the article. He responded to me and said, “Frank Cross once said the same thing to me.” He paused and then continued, “But Frank reconsidered. So give it a couple days, look over it some more, and then let’s talk.”

I did just that. And the more I thought about the article, the more I liked his edits, and the more I came to recognize that his edits made my article more accessible and more comprehensible to the broader public. Along those lines, I am often struck by Hershel’s broad reach. To be sure, the articles in BARare read at universities and colleges throughout North and South America, Europe, Australia, the Middle East, and Africa, but this is certainly only a small part of Hershel’s reach. I know this because at the only lumberyard in my small Michigan hometown, a learned lumberman has sometimes bent my ear about articles he has read in BAR. And at a Michigan barbershop near my ancestral home, BARis there among the reading material on the corner table. This is emblematic of Hershel’s ability to reach a broad readership.

In short, Hershel has done a great deal to put biblical archaeology on the map in homes and businesses throughout this country and beyond. That is not to say that I always agree with Hershel, or for that matter that he always agrees with me. We sometimes differ on substantive issues. But our friendship is deep, heartfelt, and enduring. One anecdote should suffice in this connection:

In August 2012, I wrote an article for the Huffington Post about the fact that the Hebrew Bible and Greek New Testament often marginalize women. Within a few days of the publication of that article, I found myself in deep trouble with my (now former) institution. In December of that same year, I was forced to resign after a decade of teaching at that institution. I received many letters of support and words of encouragement. They all meant, and still mean, so very much to me. And among those supportive souls was Hershel Shanks. I distinctly remember sitting at my desk one morning in October of that year when my phone rang. It was Hershel. He said, “I heard. I’m sorry. This will be all right. But you need to get out of there and find someplace else to teach.”

We chatted for a few more minutes. His words at that time are reflective of the person he is. I treasure those moments. And Hershel was right; I’m now pleased to be teaching at an institution that values rigorous academic research and writing. And, as fate would have it, I’m also now just a stone’s throw away from Hershel, as we’re both in Washington, D.C.

To be sure, some might suggest that Hershel is bluster and bombast. But I think not. I think that Hershel has a heart of gold, that he is kind, compassionate, and considerate. Naturally, there is some chutzpah in my treasured friend Hershel. But that is at the surface level, the public persona. The essence of the man, his very nephesh, is generous, kind, and affirming. He has truly done so much good in the world. And so, to me, he will always be among my most precious friends.

Christopher Rollston is Department Chair of Classical and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and Associate Professor of Northwest Semitic Languages and Literatures at The George Washington

The Biblical Archaeology Society remembers the life and achievements of Biblical Archaeology Review’s founder and Editor Emeritus, Hershel Shanks, who passed away February 5, 2021 at the age of 90. Across more than four decades, beginning in 1974 until his retirement in 2017, Hershel transformed BAR from a relatively modest publication reflecting his deep personal interest in the biblical past into the world’s best-selling and most widely read biblical archaeology magazine, enjoyed by millions. 

We have collected reflections on Hershel’s legacy from some of his colleagues and dear friends. Many of these originally appeared in Festschrift: A Celebration of Hershel Shanks, the special double issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, published in 2018. Please enjoy these memories and celebrate Hershel’s contributions to the fields of biblical archaeology and biblical studies.

In Memory of Hershel Shanks Main Page

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