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By Philip Davies
University Of Sheffield, England
October 2005

Hershel Shanks' magazines are above all an exercise in mediating between two cultures, a scholarly one and a popular one. As far as the Bible is concerned, these two are in a rather unusual position; whereas most popular culture is respectful of and interested in the opinions of experts and usually ready to be informed and educated by them, popular biblical culture seeks only to be informed and educated in its own beliefs, which are, broadly, fundamentalist.

Any effort to begin to bridge the gap to show a mass readership how biblical scholarship works and why its conclusions are as they are, how scholars differ, and why, must be commended. However, there are actually three discourses at play: scholarly, in articles and reviews; popular, in correspondence pages; and commercial, in the advertisements. Personally, I find the mix entertaining and even thought provoking: each of the three is using the Bible as a different kind of commodity--and the magazine itself, a commercial product, by retailing scholarship for a popular audience participates in all three. Ideally, it should do this without any preference. As an organ of communication, as a mediator, or broker, it can and should shuffle these cards and deal.

Of course, a significant number of scholars abhor the very idea of "popularizing" (most of us will have encountered this attitude), as if the inevitable simplification involved in making scholarship comprehensible were some sort of betrayal of academic values. Most healthy-minded academics are only too eager to go beyond the narrow audience reached by the scholarly journal and monographs, and even beyond the slightly less- restricted audience of the university or seminary classroom, to the great popular mass beyond. To be truthful, the urge is compounded as much by personal vanity as enthusiasm for communication--but so what? To this extent, many scholars--and rightly so--have supported Shanks' venture.

Hence, there is a ready supply and demand for the magazines. But the relationship between the three constituencies requires a certain amount of negotiation. Let's start with the balance between scholar and reader and their very different cultures. Some kind of neutrality is required, and some kind of an attempt to induce a mutual respect and understanding is necessary. But read this:

One thing is sure from the result of our reader survey: BAR readers are independent-minded people. They pick and choose, making up their own minds. But, as attested by the fact that they continue to subscribe, they like to read and sift arguments even when they disagree. And they are not overly impressed with the conclusions of so-called experts. Over half (54 percent) of our more than 8,000 respondents believe that Israel emerged in the Promised Land just as the Bible describes it”as the result of a military conquest...A surprising 26 percent of our readers believe the aim of archaeology should be to prove the truth of the Bible. (BAR 21/2, March-April 1995, p. 42)

What are the views of "independent-minded people"? Is it commendable that they do not pay much attention to scholarly conclusions? Does the editor merely wish to avoid telling his readers that they ought to listen to what his contributors say? Who are the "so-called experts." Is it necessary to flatter the readers by denigrating the contributors? Here is an indication that the editorial line is more sympathetic to these readers than to those who supply the copy. This may seem at first a good commercial move, but it is not likely to encourage good quality contributions.

It is also contradicted by the following comment in the first of a new feature "First Person":

The intention [of the "bold new design"] is to make BAR more accessible to more people”in a word, to make BAR even more”here comes what is for some a dirty word”popular¦.Yes, we are devoted to the belief that you can communicate with an interested mass audience without sacrificing scientific or scholarly integrity. (BAR 22/4, July/August 1996, p. 6)

The piece ends with the following statement: "One final thought: If you like what you see and agree with what we're trying to do, please give a gift subscription or two to a few friends." This introduces the second danger area: commercialism. Shanks' aim is not just to communicate but to make money and sell as many copies as possible. And this is true of all newspapers and magazines: there is nothing at all wrong with this “ indeed, profit is a necessity. Hence, the passage above, citing "scientific or scholarly integrity ¦ interested mass audience" is followed by a commercial bid: "give a gift subscription." Nevertheless, the potential effect of commercialism on any popular medium is well known and especially worrisome when scholarship is the product. And the necessity of making a profit introduces a third player into the process, a second customer: the advertiser. For newspapers and magazines, these constitute a significant proportion of income. The size of that proportion determines the amount of influence that advertisers are able to exert over editorial policy.

Profit is not a dirty word. But somehow, a number of us scholars feel a bit nervous-- to put it no more strongly than that-- at the idea of scholarship being a commercial commodity. Popularizing is one thing (as mentioned earlier), but popularizing plus commercialism often seems to lead to sensationalism. So the enterprise of popularizing scholarship needs an editor who not only mediates fairly between scholar and reader but also ensures that commercial pressures do not intrude into the editorial process.

The problem of inappropriate advertisements has certainly surfaced in BAR. Objections from readers and contributors to a number of advertisements appearing in BAR have been voiced, and Shanks defended most of them in an editorial piece: "Should you patronize our advertisers?" (September/October 1990: the topic recurred in the October 1996 issue). The most awkward and offending case was of advertisements selling antiquities, many of which must have been illegally acquired or transported. On this topic, Shanks actually took up an editorial stance against such activity:

[E]very publication wants you to patronize its advertisers. Their advertisements make our magazine more interesting.... BAR is different. We have distinctive problems. We try to find principled solutions.... In at least one instance we are going to advise our readers not to patronize an advertiser. (Has any other magazine ever done that?... Although we accept these ads because of our commitment to be an open channel of communication, we nevertheless advise you not to patronize these advertisers. In short, don't collect'. (BAR 16/5, Sept-Oct 1990)

"Principled" and "commitment" stick out here as slogans of integrity. But most magazines would not take such advertisements in the first place, and most advertisers would not place ads in a journal that editorialized against them. Two conclusions are evident: BAR needs (or wants) the income from such advertisers; the advertisers know very well what kind of people read Shanks' magazines-- those who will not be put off by editorial warnings. There's very little integrity elsewhere. When Shanks continues with "We accept these ads because of our commitment to be an open channel of communication," it is difficult to believe that this is an entirely honest claim.

But "open channels of communication" can get clogged. Here's another quotation from BAR, August 199, p. 24:

This article will offend some readers. It will jar many more. Our aim is not to shield our readers, but to present them with a variety of scholarly approaches to the Bible, even those they may disagree with.... In this spirit we offer this article to our readers. Indeed, in the next issue, we will publish another article on the Abraham cycle by a Baptist minister who looks at the same events from a very different perspective.

This seems as first sight quite open. But I have seen very few articles in any Shanks' journal that were commissioned (let alone from a Baptist minister) as a counterweight to a scholarly piece. And the decision to assure people immediately that another point of view will be given is strange. But he does from time to time commission attacks from scholars on each other. Up to a point, this can be defended (as I am sure Shanks would do) as a stimulating balance and open communication of ideas. But only certain ideas seem to him to require "balance." The danger is that rather than publishing challenging articles in a spirit of openness, they are presented to sensationalize and scandalize readers. Maybe there is a borderline case, but it illustrates the danger. Another danger is in encouraging scholars to attack each other in front of a mass audience. Maybe a gladiatorial contest enhances the reputation of some scholars, but it doesn't glorify the profession. Is this another indication (see above) that Shanks has an ambivalent attitude to scholars? Here is one letter of protest:

I wonder if there is a way to diffuse some of the rhetoric, cool off tempers and get straight back to straight archaeology. Is there anyone who could step into the fray and, without getting his head removed by the combatants, put more professionalism and less personal vendetta into the pages of BAR? Are you the one? (BAR 21/6, Nov-Dec 1996, p. 12)

But isn't the editor the ringmaster?

I quote these instances primarily to demonstrate the inherent dangers in Shanks' enterprise and not to denigrate the effort. On the whole, despite misgivings, I think BAR, and to a lesser extent Bible Review, has been beneficial to scholars and readers. Indeed, Shanks has campaigned against the non-publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the refusal of the Jewish Orthodox to allow graves to be excavated in Israel, and the failure of archaeologists to publish their findings. Here he has sometimes been able to use the influence he has acquired to make a difference, and for the record, I think he has been on the right side each time.

I will go further. I have on several occasions been asked by Shanks for material and have (until more recently) responded positively. I am still happy with those decisions. Did I worry that my own scholarship might be branded with a health warning? Yes, I did. Was I justified in going ahead nevertheless? Yes, I was. Do I mind? Not at all. Any scholar who claims to have been deceived or let down by Shanks needs a reality check. Like the antiques dealers, I think it better to let Shanks' readers make up their minds and go on buying. It is good for scholarship to reach the public.

Why have I have changed my mind and no longer write or subscribe? Not largely for any ethical reasons but for commercial reasons of my own. The publicity I have had for my views is a lasting benefit to me (and maybe to scholarship, but that's not for me to say). The returns have now diminished, partly because there is little more useful publicity to be had, but mostly because the respect Shanks has among the scholarly community has diminished. His stock value has plummeted, and the benefit to scholars of being included in his pages is much less. I am very sorry about this; it is a loss, one that many scholars will feel, but perhaps not so many readers, given their views on the value of scholarship they don't agree with.

Why did this demise take place? Not primarily through abuse of editorial privilege, though my one face-to-face argument with Shanks was over his refusal to allow Whitelam to reply to Shanks' charge of anti-Semitism (not that Whitelam would have agreed). That remains one moral blot much more serious than anything else: most are errors of judgment. The most notorious error of judgment involving Shanks was in fact not his own: he was the victim. As is well known, in the case against Qimron over the copyright in 4QMMT, he lost. I was, and am, 100% on his side. But over subsequent issues, especially the so-called "James Ossuary," he has exhibited very poor judgment. He has been obliged to challenge the competence of a large number of scholarly experts, which is surely an unwise policy for the editor of a magazine that sells scholarship. He has also exposed his lack of scholarly credentials (which scholars used to comment on but did not really protest). I wonder if the Scrolls scandal and the Qimron case reduced his respect for scholars. (That would be wrong but very understandable). Or was that disdain always there, as I have suggested? Perhaps he looks down on scholars for publishing with him; perhaps he hates those who are now criticizing him; perhaps a far too accommodating SBL has persuaded him that he is a celebrity. To do what Shanks has done needs a little chutzpah. But it usually leads to a fall. I would hate to see the end of BAR because I believe in popularizing scholarship. But I think it needs to have a new editor if it wants to be of any use to scholarship. Maybe there are other things Hershel can move on to: he has considerable gifts, and with the addition of a little humility, there is still much he might achieve -- elsewhere.