“We shun controversy,” BAR editor Hershel Shanks likes to tell visitors to our offices.
BAR was not founded as a muckraking publication, but in our day we’ve had our share of causes, controversies, battles—even an international lawsuit. We don’t go looking for fights, but we don’t walk away from them, either.
The tone was set early. In just our fourth issue (December 1975), we published a big blank square where a picture should have gone. The space had been reserved for a photo of a kernos that had just been accidentally discovered in a kibbutz field (a kernos is a hollow round tube with figures attached to it that is thought to have been used as a ritual object). The Israel Department of Antiquities, as the Israel Antiquities Authority was then called, had given a photo of the kernos to the Jerusalem Post, so we assumed we would have no trouble obtaining a copy. We were wrong. For reasons never made clear, our request for a photo was rejected. The blank square was our form of protest. It was, as we will see, just our first tangle with Israel’s antiquities authorities. (We should add that the Department of Antiquities later relented and we published the photo in a subsequent article.)
We published an even larger blank two years later to protest the fact that Professor Nahman Avigad was withholding photographs of his spectacular discoveries in Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter until they were first published in a scholarly journal (a common practice, by the way). Avigad, understandably, was not pleased, but we can happily report that we soon mended fences. Avigad went on to write several articles for us, and his landmark work in the Jewish Quarter has been well documented in our pages—complete with many wonderful photos.
In the same article in which we protested the missing kernos picture, we also took issue with the policy of the Near East Archaeological Society, which required potential members to affirm the inerrancy of the Bible. We felt such an affirmation was fine as a personal expression of belief but was inappropriate for a scholarly organization. The NEAS has since softened its stance—somewhat. One can skip the affirmation if one wants to join as an associate member. To our knowledge, NEAS has one associate member, Hershel Shanks.
BAR manages to ruffle feathers even over the abbreviations we use. We grant our contributors their preference between the standard B.C./A.D. and the alternative designations B.C.E./C.E. (Before the Common Era/Common Era). The latter designations are very common in academic circles because of their theological neutrality. But many readers see their use as a slap at Christianity; this is by far the single most commonly cited reason for canceling subscriptions. (For the record, staff-written items use B.C./A.D.)
And we don’t have to restrict ourselves to our editorial content to find examples of controversy in our pages. One longstanding debate between us and some readers concerns our advertising. Readers have knocked us for running ads that they think bash religion; others have complained about ads that claim to provide proof of Biblical miracles. Some object to ads they think of as simply trashy. But our policy has also been to favor a free forum of expression, both in our content and in our advertising. “We make ideas available—some good, some not so good,” we wrote in September/October 1990. “Therefore you, our readers, must think, must make judgments, must question—then decide … But we reserve the right to expose deception wherever we find it.”
Sometimes the ads that got criticized were our own. When we announced that we would sell replicas of ancient idol figurines, we received a slew of cancellations. We responded by running an ad with the words “BAR’s New Idol Set” emblazoned across the top; below it, in bright red stencil lettering, we added, “Warning: These Idols Are Not to Be Worshipped!”
Other ads that continually generate controversy are those for antiquities. The argument against such ads is that by encouraging the sale of antiquities they foster looting at archaeological sites. It is a 027legitimate argument, and several scholars have refused to publish with us because we run antiquities ads. But we accept the ads because most of the artifacts on the market were excavated long ago, before many countries passed laws banning the export of their antiquities.
We also believe that many antiquities laws are misguided and counterproductive. Our position has set us squarely against the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), the professional group for classical archaeologists (for the most part). The AIA is opposed to antiquities ads and prohibits articles in its journals and papers at its meetings on objects obtained on the antiquities market. It goes so far as to vilify antiquities collectors on the grounds that the collectors’ acquisitions fuel looting. We, too, oppose looting, but are convinced that current laws simply drive the antiquities market underground; they do nothing to curtail it. Unlike the AIA, we praise those collectors who make their objects available to scholars for study or who bequeath their collections to museums or universities upon their death. But we are not in favor of collecting, and have even gone so far as to urge readers not to patronize our antiquities advertisers.
We believe that market forces can be a far more effective tool in combating looters than current laws. Duplicate artifacts, especially of common pots and oil lamps, which currently cram government storerooms but add nothing to scholarship, should be sold off. They can be tagged with an identification number in case they are ever needed for future study. Why would anyone buy a dubious artifact on the illegal market when a certified twin can be had just as easily? The bottom would fall out of the illicit market.
Our causes sometimes force us to criticize the very people whose work we cover. We have decried what we call “archaeology’s dirty secret”: the unconscionably long delays in publishing excavation reports. Archaeology is a destructive process; when an excavator clears an occupation level to get to an earlier period, that level can never be recovered. The only way for fellow scholars to know fully what that level contained is to study the site’s final excavation reports. Yet sites sometimes go years, indeed decades, without being published. The failure to publish is the academic equivalent of looting. Thanks, we believe, to our campaign, we are seeing a turnaround among scholars; it is becoming much more common for excavations to earmark funds within their budgets for publication of their results. It is also no longer rare for a dig to set aside every other year or every third year for study and publication. Our efforts, we are told, provided an impetus for an international conference on the publication problem, held in Cyprus in 1999. A group of influential archaeologists and antiquities officials urged that excavators who failed to publish not be granted any further dig permits.
We’ve also taken on the ultra-Orthodox in Israel, who have at times interrupted digs that have uncovered human remains. Thanks to pressure from the ultra-Orthodox, excavators must not disturb any burial they might discover. However, we have long noted, and indeed note again in this very issue, that Jewish law allows for the excavation of human remains if it is done with respect and if the remains are reburied.
Not all of our causes have been controversial; several, in fact, have won praise from all sides. Our Archaeological Preservation Fund has helped restore the Biblical sites of Izbet Sartah (Ebenezer), Lachish and Herodian Jericho. Currently we are trying to raise funds to restore the once impressive Roman temple at Kedesh, in northern Israel. Many beautiful architectural elements from this structure lie scattered near partially preserved walls. A relatively modest sum could bring back much of the temple’s glory.
Our annual Dig Issue tells readers about sites that are looking for volunteers for the coming season. Thousands of readers by now have joined a dig thanks to us, with many of them calling the experience a highlight of their lives. And we get much quiet satisfaction when a dig director tells us, as they often do, that the bulk of their volunteers found their way to their dig because of BAR.
But we cannot review the causes we’ve championed without discussing the topic with which we are now most closely linked: the Dead Sea Scrolls. As early as our fourth issue, we had an article on how the scrolls were found. But then the subject took a very different turn. Covering a 1984 archaeology conference in Jerusalem, we reported on a very exciting but also very disturbing development. Two scholars at the conference, John Strugnell and Elisha Qimron, described a letter found among the Dead Sea Scrolls that seemed to have been written by the founder of the Dead Sea sect, explaining why he and his followers had broken with the group to which the addressee belonged. The letter, now known by the acronym MMT, had enormous implications for 028understanding the sectarians who produced the scrolls and, even more widely, for understanding the Jewish world at the very dawn of Christianity. (For more on the saga of MMT, see “Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due,” in this issue.)
Strugnell and Qimron’s paper at the Jerusalem conference was the first time many scholars had heard of MMT, even though it had been found 30 years earlier. After the excitement generated by the presentation, an undercurrent of anger among scholars came to the fore: They could not study MMT or other Dead Sea Scrolls because the right to publish the scrolls had been granted to a mere handful of scholars. Anyone outside “the charmed circle” (in the words of scholar Theodor Gaster) had to wait until the official scroll editor published a scholarly edition of his materials. Nor could other scholars even see photos of the unpublished scrolls for fear that they might beat the official editor to the punch! But by the 1980s it was becoming painfully clear that the official publication team was woefully understaffed. Publication had slowed to a trickle. To add insult to injury, some of the official editors were assigning scrolls to their graduate students for publication—while other senior scholars could not even see pictures of those scrolls! Other editors had died, leaving their work to colleagues to complete, as if the scrolls were a matter of personal property to bequest as one wished. The Dead Sea Scrolls, scholar Geza Vermes declared, were in danger of becoming “the academic scandal par excellence of the twentieth century.”
While most scholars were helpless to change matters, BAR was not. By the late 1980s, our circulation had grown to a healthy 150,000; more importantly, we had established ourselves in the eyes of the public and in the view of major newspapers and magazines as the source for news on Biblical archaeology. When we began to decry the sorry state of Dead Sea Scroll publication, the world took notice.
We began modestly enough, asking that a publication schedule be established, with safeguards to ensure that scholars who did not meet their obligations would have their scrolls reassigned. We wanted the official publication team greatly expanded so that publication could be assured within a matter of years, not decades. Most of all, we wanted photos of the scrolls published so that all scholars could study them.
The Israel Antiquities Authority, who had gained control over the scrolls from Jordanian officials in the wake of Israel’s capture of East Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War, rebuffed our efforts. But in 1991, through methods both modern and old-fashioned, the dam burst. The first breakthrough was our publication of scroll texts that had been pieced together by Professor Ben Zion Wacholder and Martin Abegg, then his graduate student, with the aid of a concordance to the scrolls and a personal computer. Next, the Huntington Library in California, which had a set of photographs of the scrolls, announced that it would allow all scholars to study its photos. We praised the Huntington’s blow for academic freedom but quickly trumped their action. A still-unidentified source sent us a set of Dead Sea Scroll photos, which we promptly published as a two-volume book. Anyone who wanted to—scholar and layman alike—could study the scrolls anywhere they wished. The Dead Sea Scrolls monopoly had been broken, and in a spectacular, headline-making way.
Our success with the scrolls came at a price, however. In the Publisher’s Foreword to our two volumes of scroll photographs, we reprinted a reconstruction of the text of MMT that had appeared in a Polish scholarly journal. Elisha Qimron, one of the two scholars assigned to publish MMT, sued us in an Israeli court for copyright infringement and won. The decision was upheld just last summer by the Supreme Court of Israel. We are about $100,000 poorer, but the world is far richer. Dead Sea Scroll studies today is a robust field—university courses are devoted to the scrolls, popular audiences flock to lectures about them, the official scroll publication series has been producing volume after volume and many other books have been published outside that series. Indeed, the scrolls are a household name (comedian David Letterman even had a “Top 10 Secrets of the Dead Sea Scrolls” list).
Not bad for 25 years. For our next quarter century, we promise to return the field to the nice, dull ways it enjoyed before we arrived on the scene.
“We shun controversy,” BAR editor Hershel Shanks likes to tell visitors to our offices.