Thursday, December 30, 2004

Repent, Hershel!

In the wake of the forgery indictments, it is time for Hershel Shanks and his publishing empire to do a little soul-searching. With the evidence mounting that the James Ossuary is a forgery, that the Jehoash tablet is a forgery, that the Ivory Pomegranate is a forgery, that the Moussaieff Ostraca are forgeries, that many Israelite bullae are forgeries, shouldn't Shanks, who has featured all these items prominently in Biblical Archaeology Review, start to feel a little remorse? Kudos to Jim West for being the first to raise this question.

Shanks will undoubtedly say that he is a journalist, he only reports on what reputable scholars say. And it is true that many reputable scholars have written on these objects in the pages of BAR. But would they have done so without Shanks's encouragement? Although he claims to be neutral concerning the authenticity of the controversial objects, he has a stake in prolonging discussion of them. Controversy sells magazines. And the lure of the BAR spotlight is becoming too tempting for many to turn away from. (FULL DISCLOSURE: I have written an article for BAR in the past, although not on any of these artifacts.)

The cycle is becoming all too clear: the forgers depend on the collectors for their livelihood, the collectors depend on scholarship to validate their finds, and all of them depend on media sensation to drive their careers and activities forward. Although I don't believe Shanks has connived at any kind of fraud, he is one major enabler of the whole messy business. He is the P.T. Barnum of ancient epigraphy.

Shanks has also done much good in bringing the discipline of archaeology to many with a gorgeously-produced magazine. In the early '90's, he played an important role in the liberation of the Dead Sea Scrolls and gave a significant platform to those who were the conscience of the discipline. Unfortunately, that whole affair had two ill effects: (1) it gave Shanks and BAR a lot of power within the media and among scholars; and (2) it produced a narrative that Shanks has been busy trying to reproduce ever since: "the Establishment is trying to put the lid on an important discovery, but a few brave souls are willing to be mavericks and risk everything to bring new light to the masses."

It is time for Shanks to realize the damage that he has helped to cause in the discipline of biblical archaeology. Although it is true that significant finds in the past have occasionally come from the antiquities markets, it appears in recent years that the tail has begun to wag the dog. I do not believe this would have been possible without the support of Shanks and BAR.

I call on Shanks to (1) stop accepting ads from antiquities dealers, (2) admit that he has gone too far in his enthusiasm for questionable and illegally-obtained artifacts, and (3) refuse to spotlight unprovenanced artifacts in his magazine until after they have undergone rigorous testing by a wide array of scholars. Only in this way can he begin to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.


Dr. Joseph Ray Cathey said...

Well Said!


Jerry A. said...

"The P.T. Barnum of Ancient Epigraphy"--an epithet that stings because of the truth in it. For a remarkable example of how this plays out in the pulp fiction wing of pop cultural Evangelism, check out Tim LaHaye's use of the James box, and the controversy around it, in his new "Babylon Rising" novel. An Indie (Vendy?) Jones character uses it as figure one in a class lecture. He even dodges around the question of its authenticity in a similar way...

Jim said...

To follow up a bit on Seth's comment- the result of this Shanks-LaHaye connection is that folk reading LaHaye's novels (and they are just that) believe them to be factual (a la the wretched tripe called the Da Vinci Code). Not knowing any better, seeing it in a "Biblical" magazine and then reading it in a novel which they take as "the gospel truth"- the layers of reinforced ignorance continue to grow until that ignorance is invincible.

EMC said...

Thank you all for your comments. I was not aware of the LaHaye connection, which is interesting. I'm afraid that the repercussions will last for many years.

Jerry A. said...

Jim, while it's true that the LaHaye-Shanks alchemy is having all kinds of chaotic effects, lots of people read those LaHaye novels with a grain--nay, a pillar--of salt. Check out the comments at the LaHaye entry in the great "Know your Evangelicals" series.