Hershel Shanks, Whose Journal Uncovered Historic Israel, Dies at 90

Mr. Shanks died on February 5th at his Washington home. He was 90 years old.

His daughter Elizabeth Alexander, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, said the cause was complications from Covid-19.

Mr. Shanks made it clear that he was an amateur, albeit a passionate one. After attending Sunday school in his synagogue, he read Hebrew but could not translate it.

“As the reader may have noticed, I have not spoken of my biblical training,” he wrote in a lighthearted treatise from 2010, “Liberating the Dead Sea Scrolls: and Other Adventures of an Archaeological Outsider” “because I had none.”

But for many years he was part of a group of Jewish friends in Washington who met regularly to discuss the Bible. Although he grew up in a house where he wrote that “the New Testament was unusual,” he took a course in the Christian Bible that led to a meeting with William F. Albright, a distinguished figure in archeology, who authenticated the Dead Sea Scrolls after they were found by a young shepherd.

“Paradoxically,” wrote Shanks, “I came to the Hebrew Bible through the New Testament.”

At the beginning of this year of transformation in Israel, Mr. Shanks wrote 300 pages of a novel about Saul, the first king of Israel, which he eventually gave up as “not good”. Then he met Israel’s archaeologist rock star, Yigael Yadin, through an accidental find of his then 6-year-old daughter Elizabeth in Tel Hazor in the Upper Galilee.

The Shanks family visited Hazor Hill, the site of the 9th century BC. The largest fortified city in the ancient Kingdom of Israel was located, and looking for shards or fragments of pottery, when Elizabeth came across a small piece of a clay handle less than an inch long with an image etched into the clay. Mr. Yadin, who led the pioneering Hazor expedition in the mid-1950s, identified the image as a Syro-Hittite deity from the Late Bronze Age in a pose known as the “beating god”.

He asked Mr. Shanks to write an article about the handle for an Israeli magazine, which he did with the help of Mr. Yadin. And so a new career was born.

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