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Biblical Archaeological Review: Friend or Foe?

BAR is friend and foe: it clearly has an ax to grind. Read it if you want to see some fine pictures and illustrations, but read it with care and with the understanding that its view is slanted to support a particular perspective. By no means is BAR objective, and that is its greatest failing.

By Jim West
Quartz Hill School of Theology
September 2005

BAR, as it is known to readers and members of the Biblical Studies guild, describes itself as follows: "Biblical Archaeology Review connects the academic study of archaeology to a broad general audience eager to understand the world of the Bible. Covering both the Old and New Testaments, BAR presents the latest discoveries and controversies in archaeology with breathtaking photography and informative maps and diagrams." BAR also advertises antiquities for sale, for which it has come under a good deal of criticism by those who oppose the sale of such national treasures. To some, BAR is the devil in a thin disguise, and to others, it is the gospel truth encapsulated in a monthly. Read the Letters to the Editor section of any issue, and you will see both sentiments reflected. But neither extreme is, of course, accurate. Somewhere between the two the truth lies, though from my vantage point BAR is closer to the devil than it is the gospel, even if just barely. Allow me to explain why.

I will confess right up front that when I have read BAR I have found it an unpleasant exercise mainly because it is offensive to me that a magazine supposedly concerned about the preservation of antiquities offers on its pages the opportunity for unprovenanced artifacts to be obtained by the public. This merely gives those who will forge or loot motive to do so. BAR is, in that sense, fueling the illegal looting of sites and the illegal manufacture of forged artifacts. And it makes money from it indirectly. That BAR advertises antiquities for sale is, to put it bluntly, distasteful to me. BAR’s editors would doubtless argue that the antiquities trade is legal and they are doing nothing wrong. Perhaps so- but legal does not necessarily mean moral.

That single major stumbling block to enjoyable reading aside, in the lines which follow I would like to offer something of a more thorough critique of the magazine. Mind you, it has done great things for archaeology and the field of biblical interpretation. The editor, Hershel Shanks, was one of the driving forces behind the full publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were languishing in darkness and isolation until he took to the presses and called for their release. For that alone, we all owe him, and BAR, a debt of gratitude.

Nonetheless, BAR has also published some extraordinarily inflammatory essays. The magazine has repeatedly denigrated so called "minimalists." See, for example, from 1994, "David" Found at Dan," Biblical Archaeology Review 20.2; from 1997, "Face to Face: Biblical Minimalists Meet Their Challengers," Biblical Archaeology Review 23.4: 26-42, 66-67; and from 1999, "Has David Been Found in Egypt?" Biblical Archaeology Review 25.1: 34-35. Shanks’ disdain (or at least seeming disdain) for some of the scholars at Sheffield (Davies and Whitelam) and Copenhagen (Lemche and Thompson) is a firmly established bit of lore. And he has used his magazine to wage a bit of a war against them.

Further and more serious problems plaguing BAR are the unfounded claims to authenticity about various artifacts (like the Ivory Pomegranate, the "James" Ossuary, and the Jehoash Inscription). Most noticeably in recent months BAR has refused to accept the now well-established fact that the "James" Ossuary’s inscription (particularly the latter half) is fraudulent. At this writing, in fact, the chief proponents of the Ossuary are awaiting trial for fraud in Israel. Yet BAR continues to urge retesting of the Ossuary (on their website). Indeed, it would not be saying too much to say that BAR "rushed to judgment" on the Ossuary and that it is this "rush to publish before all the facts are in" that weighs most heavily on the academic world and on my mind in particular. This naturally forces us to ask: Why the hurry? The same is true of the "Ivory Pomegranate" which BAR defends as authentic to this day: see

http://www.bib-arch.org/bswbOOossuary_pomegranate.pdf

In postmodern America (and the rest of the world for that matter), information flows instantly. The internet makes it possible to communicate with a worldwide audience in a moment’s time. Print media are especially under pressure to provide material that is fresh, timely, and ground-breaking if it wishes to retain some level of relevance. Perhaps it is that very pressure which lies behind the decision of BAR’s editorial board to publish the Ossuary before testing had been carried out or it had been sufficiently examined by a number of experts.

But, rather than focus on one or two particular instances in my evaluation of BAR, perhaps the fairest approach is to see if BAR meets its purpose as defined in its own self-described goals. Again, this is what BAR says of itself:

Biblical Archaeology Review connects the academic study of archaeology to a broad general audience eager to understand the world of the Bible. Covering both the Old and New Testaments, BAR presents the latest discoveries and controversies in archaeology with breathtaking photography and informative maps and diagrams.

Does BAR connect the academic study of archaeology to a broad general audience? Indeed it does. As a matter of fact, the contributors which BAR is able to enlist are a veritable who’s who of biblical and archaeological stars. One cannot pick up a copy without seeing a name extremely well known among participants of the largest organizations whose members are biblical and archaeological scholars, the Society of Biblical Literature, and the American Schools of Oriental Research (respectively). The July/August 2005 issue, for example, has contributions by Steven Fine, David Ussishkin, Philip King, Ronald Hendel, William Hallo, and Kenneth Kitchen (who is, to be fair, not a biblical scholar or archaeologist, but an Egyptologist). So, yes, indeed, BAR does in this regard what it claims to do.

Continuing with our evaluation as to whether or not BAR meets its own goals, we examine its claim of covering both the Old and New Testaments. This is decidedly correct and well enough known among readers of BAR as to require no further illustration.

The divinatory paragraph concludes:

BAR presents the latest discoveries and controversies in archaeology with breathtaking photography and informative maps and diagrams.

BAR does indeed present the latest discoveries; but that is precisely the key problem. The latest discovery may, or may not, be authentic or authenticated. But in its desire to "break the news," BAR will publish (as the "James" Ossuary fiasco shows most definitively) before the verdict is in. Somewhere between the 3 or 4 or 5 or more years it takes to have final reports issued from archaeological digs and BAR’s "find it, publish it" approach lies a happy medium wherein finds can be authenticated by a team of scholars and the public which BAR professes to serve can thereby receive accurate information. Because, when all is said and done, accuracy is more important than speed. The public will most likely appreciate accuracy more than quickness if it means they have the facts and not "suppositions."

And BAR does indeed offer its readers the latest "controversies"; but for the most part, BAR takes sides in such a way that the reader knows where its board is tilting even as essays are read. As a magazine devoted to the promulgation of archaeological information, perhaps it should abstain from bias (insofar as this is possible, of course, for any of us).

The title of this essay is a bit misleading, I must confess. BAR is neither simply friend nor foe of biblical and archaeological studies. It is both at times. It is friend because it offers beautifully illustrated examples of archaeological artifacts, and it is foe because it too quickly and too gullibly accepts what it is sometimes deceptively given. It is friend because it offers some of the very best in critical, yet accessible, scholarship, and it is foe because it too often denigrates those scholars with whom it disagrees. BAR is friend and foe: it clearly has an ax to grind. Read it if you want to see some fine pictures and illustrations, but read it with care and with the understanding that its view is slanted to support a particular perspective. By no means is BAR objective, and that is its greatest failing.