Unwavering and Obstreperous 

By William G. Dever

I’m one of the few people who can say they knew Hershel Shanks and BAR before they both became famous. In 1972, when I was Director of the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem, I answered a knock on the door of the Director’s residence, and a man introduced himself, saying, “I’m Hershel Shanks.”

I replied, “I’m William Dever.” So what? Perhaps Hershel thought that I should recognize the name. After all, he had published in magazines like Commentary. And, besides being an attorney in a prominent law firm, he had published a well-regarded biography of Judge Learned Hand.

I invited Hershel in, and he told me that he was on a year’s sabbatical in Jerusalem. He had already written an account of ongoing archaeological discoveries in Jerusalem. He further informed me that he was going to launch a popular magazine to report on new discoveries that would illuminate the Bible and attract the attention of a large audience in the United States. I remember telling Hershel that no amateur could possibly understand and interpret the then-burgeoning and complex archaeological research in Israel in any sensible way. Boy, was I wrong!

Hershel’s family and ours got acquainted, socialized, and toured some that year. I recall seeing the first, modest issue of BAR later. I disliked Hershel’s penchant for controversy (somewhat refined in due time). Nevertheless, I did serve on his Editorial Board off and on, resigning several times when we differed on various issues or when I thought he was using my name to stir the pot. (One article by Hershel was titled “Dever’s ‘Sermon on the Mound.’”)

Hershel and I have argued a lot over the past 40-odd years. In retrospect, we both must have enjoyed it, and we came to respect each other for our differing but significant contributions to the enterprise that we both loved so much. What’s not to like? Israel, the Bible, and archaeology!

One could point to Hershel’s use of the growing BAR platform to promote various causes, such as the need to publish the Dead Sea Scrolls. His tactic was always to overdramatize the topic and try to marshal public attention to pressure scholars (which usually worked). Then he would turn to a new, perhaps even more sensational issue. I recall saying once, “Hershel, get into epistemology. That’s the next big thing.”

Without blinking an eye, he replied, “Ok, but what’ll I use for illustrations?” Hershel has always had a great sense of humor, an appreciation for words, for pictures, and for the public’s thirst for news and novelty.

Much more important than Hershel’s numerous individual campaigns was his uncanny understanding of the American public’s endless fascination with old-fashioned “biblical archaeology.” And that was at the very time when many of us professionals were trying to separate the two disciplines of archaeology and biblical studies. Our purpose, of course, was to create a more serious dialogue, to move beyond the old amateur and sterile monologue. In time, we professionals accomplished our agenda, at least in part. But Hershel also accomplished his agenda. And he did it brilliantly, popularizing our complex excavations and esoteric research for a mass audience that we scholars could never have reached. Unfortunately, many professionals don’t even try to do that. Simply put, Hershel and BAR have mainstreamed what is variously called “biblical,” “Syro-Palestinian,” or now often “Levantine” archaeology. That must be recognized as a unique and invaluable achievement. And all along, it was Hershel’s unwavering and sometimes obstreperous vision.

It is hard to imagine our two disciplines as they matured, or our enhanced understanding of the Bible, without the profound effect that BAR has had under Hershel Shanks’s editorship. And I cannot imagine a successor who will put his unique stamp on the magazine as Hershel did.

William G. Dever is a Professor Emeritus of Near Eastern Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Arizona. Prior to that, he served for four years as director of the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem (now the William F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research). A world-renowned archaeologist, Professor Dever has dug at numerous sites in Jordan and Israel. He served as director of the major excavations at Gezer from 1966 to 1971.

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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