A Showstopping Act

By Robert R. Cargill

Bible Fest unveilling

At the Bible and Archaeology Fest in 2017, in Boston, Publisher Susan Laden and then-Editor Bob Cargill featured a tribute to Editor Emeritus and founder Hershel Shanks. Photo: Courtesy Cathy Van Bebber.

When Sue Laden (President of the Biblical Archaeology Society) first asked me to consider assuming the role of Editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, anticipating Hershel’s retirement in 2017, I declined. First among the reasons was, “Who on earth can follow Hershel?” I knew it would be an impossible task. I would immediately be compared to an icon. Hershel’s devoted supporters and the readers of  BAR would only be able to see my deficiencies—all the ways that I did not match up to the man who founded this magazine, argued before the Supreme Court, helped liberate the Dead Sea Scrolls, and asked way too many questions far too loudly at the SBL and ASOR sessions he attended. I simply couldn’t follow that showstopping act. It was a no-win situation if there ever was one.

Sue retorted, “No, you’re perfect. You’re already a public scholar who works in biblical archaeology, and you’ve already shown that you can handle many, many people—scholars and the public alike—regularly criticizing you publicly.”

I smiled and took it as a compliment.

And, so did Hershel. And that was perhaps the most powerful thing about Hershel Shanks. He knew his job was to report on the latest archaeological discoveries from the Holy Land, and that he was doing so as an “outsider,” that is, as someone without scholarly credentials in archaeology. Hershel didn’t mind asking hard questions, rubbing people the wrong way on occasion (sometimes on multiple occasions), but—and this is important—he never took it personally! And I know this because I was once a rather frequent critic of Hershel and of BAR. And yet, Hershel never took it personally.

Hershel understood that academic criticism is how scholarship moves forward. He knew that his passion for archaeology and the history of ancient Israel was shared by millions around the world, be they Jewish, Christian, Muslim, atheist—Hershel knew that people love to hear the stories of their ancestors told in a compelling manner, and as often as possible, with vibrant color pictures.

So, I decided to meet with Hershel. And like anyone who has ever met with him can tell you, Hershel Shanks was one of the most charming individuals you can meet. His booming voice, his laugh, his smile, the twinkle in his eye, all encased in his tall, lanky frame, topped by a quick wit and lawyer’s intellect quickly talked me into the job. Before I knew it, I was the second Editor of BAR with his blessing, a job I loved not only for the opportunities to work with fantastic scholars and bring new discoveries to the public, but because of BAR’s loyal readers. I loved most what Hershel loved most—interacting with subscribers, answering emails and letters, and meeting BAR’s readers at the annual Bible and Archaeology Fest. Hershel understood that BAR is always—first and foremost—about its readers. He loved you all as much as you loved him, and he would want you to know that.

Rest in peace, Hershel. It was an honor working with you, learning from you, and continuing your legacy with BAR for the past three years. Thank you for bringing biblical archaeology to the masses. May your memory be for a blessing (ז׳׳ל).


Past and present staff of the Bible Archaeology Society attended the annual Bible and Archaeology Fest in 2016, in San Antonio. From left to right: Sarah Yeomans, Bob Cargill, Susan Laden, Robin Ngo, Megan Sauter, Hershel Shanks, Cathy Van Bebber, Alicia Bregon, and Jennifer Drummond. Photo: Courtesy Cathy Van Bebber.

Robert R. Cargill is Associate Professor of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Iowa. He served as Editor of Biblical Archaeology Review from 2018–2021.

This week, the Biblical Archaeology Society remembers the life and achievements of Biblical Archaeology Review’s founder and Editor Emeritus, Hershel Shanks, who passed away in early February 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