Hershel Shanks was neither an archaeologist nor a biblical scholar when the notion of creating a popular magazine devoted to biblical archaeology began to germinate in his mind; he was a real estate lawyer in Washington. But in 1972 he took a yearlong hiatus and traveled with his wife and two daughters to Israel, where he became captivated by the wealth of archaeological digs.
As he put together research about some of those excavations for a book called “The City of David: A Guide to Biblical Jerusalem” (1975), he formed lasting relationships with prominent archaeologists. He returned to Washington with a determination to publish a magazine about intriguing discoveries and scholarly controversies in a field where the very truthfulness of the Bible was at stake.
The magazine, Biblical Archaeology Review, which Mr. Shanks commanded for over 40 years until his retirement in 2017, popularized what was a rather arcane, technical and exclusive subject and made it digestible for tens of thousands of readers.
“He had a wonderful knack for turning dry academic content into something that was accessible,” Glenn K. Corbett, the magazine’s current editor, said in an interview.
In the early 2000s, the magazine had 230,000 paid subscribers, with a pass-along readership of 600,000. Roughly one-third of the subscribers are evangelical Christians who revere the authority of the Bible, with many believing it is without error or fault, but it is also read by observant Jews and Zionists.
Notably, Mr. Shanks was also a forceful leader in the early 1990s of the successful campaign to, as he put it, “free the Dead Sea Scrolls” from the narrow coterie that had monopolized the study of those texts, advocating for scrutiny by a wider range of scholars and for public exhibition. Considered among the most crucial archaeological finds of the 20th century, the scrolls were rolls of parchment discovered in caves near the Dead Sea in 1946 and 1947 containing biblical and other texts, in Hebrew and Aramaic, that illuminated the period when Christians broke away from the reigning but fractured Jewish establishment.
“Hershel’s persistence and his noise made it all happen,” said Megan Sauter, the review’s managing editor.
Mr. Shanks died on Feb. 5 at his home in Washington. He was 90.
His daughter Elizabeth Alexander, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, said the cause was complications of Covid-19.
Mr. Shanks made it clear that he was an amateur, albeit an impassioned one. Having gone to a Sunday school at 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 jaunty 2010 memoir, “Freeing the Dead Sea Scrolls: And Other Adventures of an Archaeology Outsider,” “because I had none.”
But for many years he belonged to a group of Jewish friends in Washington who met periodically to talk about the Bible. Although he grew up in a home where, as he wrote, “there was something treyf (unkosher)” about the New Testament, he took a course in the Christian Bible that led to a meeting with William F. Albright, a towering figure in archaeology who had authenticated the Dead Sea Scrolls after they were found by a young shepherd.
“Paradoxically,” Mr. Shanks wrote, “I came to the Hebrew Bible through the New Testament.”
At the start of that transformative year in Israel, Mr. Shanks wrote 300 pages of a novel about Saul, the first king of Israel, which he eventually abandoned as “no good.” Then he got to know Israel’s rock star of an archaeologist, Yigael Yadin, through a fortuitous find by his daughter Elizabeth, then 6, at Tel Hazor in the Upper Galilee.
The Shanks family was visiting the Hazor mound, the site of what in the ninth century B.C. was the largest fortified city in the ancient kingdom of Israel, and searching for sherds, or ceramic fragments, when Elizabeth stumbled upon a small piece of a clay handle less than an inch and a half long with an image etched into the clay. Mr. Yadin, who led the landmark 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 “smiting god.”
He urged Mr. Shanks to write an article about the handle for an Israeli journal, which he did with Mr. Yadin’s help. And so a new career was born.
Biblical Archaeology Review was published bimonthly in its early years but is now quarterly. It often simplifies esoteric scholarly articles and crowns them with tantalizing titles like “Did a Rolling Stone Close Jesus’ Tomb?” and “What We Don’t Know About Moses and the Exodus.”
“He has a gift — a journalist’s eye, as it were — of spotting hidden nuggets within the world of arcane academic scholarship,” Eric H. Cline, a professor of classical and ancient Near Eastern studies at George Washington University, told Christianity Today, a magazine aimed at evangelicals.
More than a few scholars became increasingly ambivalent as Mr. Shanks violated traditional academic norms — by, for example, publishing 1,787 photographs of Dead Sea Scrolls fragments in 1991 in defiance of protocols restricting access. One Israeli scholar sued for copyright infringement, and Mr. Shanks was ordered to hisse more than $40,000. Still, by the early years of the new century nearly all the texts and fragments had been published, with many displayed in museums.
“His tactic was always to overdramatize the topic and try to marshal public attention to pressure scholars, which usually works,” William G. Dever, an archaeology professor at Lycoming College in Pennsylvania, said in a written tribute to Mr. Shanks after his retirement.
In 1987, Mr. Shanks gave up his law practice and bought a second magazine, Moment, a Jewish affairs bimonthly that had been founded 12 years earlier by Elie Wiesel and Leonard Fein. He was its publisher and editor until 2004.
Mr. Shanks giving a talk in Washington in 2002. He became known for his ability to simplify esoteric scholarly articles.Credit…J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press
Hershel Shanks was born on March 8, 1930, in Sharon, a steel mill town of 15,000 in northwestern Pennsylvania, near the Ohio border. Escaping pogroms, his father, Martin, had immigrated with his family from Kiev when he was 6 and later found work as a salesman in a shoe store across from the mills. He eventually bought the store and deputized 11-year-old Hershel as a salesman. His mother, Mildred (Freedman) Shanks, was a homemaker.
After high school, where he was editor of the newspaper, Mr. Shanks studied at Haverford College and received his law degree from Harvard. He then worked for several years at the Department of Justice, handling appeals court cases, before going into private practice, specializing in real estate law, and rising to named partner.
He started Biblical Archaeology Review in his mid-40s, writing all the articles in the first issue himself and paying for it with $600 and the money from two ads. For years afterward, he edited and assigned the articles. In the magazine’s early years, he paid writers $10 for short pieces and $15 for longer ones.
In addition to Ms. Alexander, Mr. Shanks is survived by his wife, Judith (Weil) Shanks; another daughter, Julia; a younger sister, Leah Gordon; and two grandchildren.
Given his ardor for the subject, some wondered why Mr. Shanks never become an archaeologist himself. His daughter recalled his deciding moment: when he spent a day methodically digging out demarcated spots at the Tel Gezer excavation in central Israel and carrying out bags of dirt. The disciplined monotony, she said he told a colleague, was not for him: “One day of digging was more than enough.”