Skip to: Site Menu | Main content

H. Shanks, “The Liberator of the Scrolls,” and BAR’s Contribution to Archaeology

For years, BAR has promoted itself as having championed the interests of the Dead Sea Scrolls; in fact, Shanks continually presents himself as “liberating the scrolls from a handful of scholars and making them available to all scholars.” The opposite is true.

By Joe Zias
Science and Archaeology Group
The Hebrew University
February 2009

The Biblical Archaeology Society (BAS) registered in 1974 as a nonprofit public charity 501 (c) (3), exempt from US income tax. To further the interests of archaeology, it began publishing in 1975. In the first issue, Shanks stated in his editorial that the magazine was committed to the lofty aim of a “commitment to accuracy and things interesting.” He then continued: “We will not tilt towards our friends or against those who may not like us.”[1] The latter phrase in my opinion has shown over the last few years to be meaningless, along with his commitment to accuracy. Within four years, one could see ominous signs that something was amiss and the stated goals of furthering the profession may have been but a public relations ploy. Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR) 1981 Sept/Oct issue certainly suggests this. In the article titled “ TheRemarkable Discoveries at Tel Dan,” a box appeared towards the end of the article announcing the formation of a Preservation Fund to raise money to conserve the MB mud brick gate, one of the most important archaeological discoveries in the ancient Near East. Today, some twenty-eight years later, colleagues report that no money was ever received from this Preservation Fund. As a result, the gate was repaired with the help of the National Parks Authority under the direction of David Ilan from the Hebrew Union College.[2]

While preparing this essay, I wrote to BAS requesting details on how much money from the BAR Preservation Fund has been given to worthwhile projects such as scroll research or to the fund for the preservation of the gate at Tel Dan. After all, they are a public charity, exempt from paying taxes to the IRS, with yearly revenue in the millions of dollars, and I more or less fall into the category of public and have the right to know. I never received a reply. Therefore, I asked colleagues in the profession. Not only did they not know that the Preservation Fund exists, but also no one knows of anyone ever receiving a grant from it aside from three small grants in 1979.[3] The list of archaeological sites in desperate need of repair is long; however, the amount of money which BAR has put forth for excavation, restoration, or conservation of those sites or “liberated scrolls” appears to be minimal. Yes, there is evidence of good intentions here and there, but what is needed in terms of funding is, as the song goes, “a little less talk and a lot more action.”

“Liberator of the Scrolls”

For years, BAR has promoted itself as having championed the interests of the Dead Sea Scrolls; in fact, Shanks continually presents himself as “liberating the scrolls from a handful of scholars and making them available to all scholars.” The opposite is true. In fact, the definitive work on the subject of the Scrolls by Geza Vermes (advertised in BAR) contains the following sentence: “Bill Moffett, the ‘liberator of the scrolls,’(emphasis mine) died on 20 February 1995 at the age of sixty-two.”[4]

The decision of the IAA, of which I was a curator (1972-1997), to grant full access for qualified scholars to study the scrolls was due to internal and external factors, largely connected to the new director Amir Drori, Israeli scholars, and to some extent Moffett, the director of the Huntington Library of San Marino, California. True, BAR made a lot of noise, but that was about it in terms of the decision to grant scroll access to a wider public. What BAR did and must be given credit for was to publish a facsimile edition of the scrolls in 1991; according to Geza Vermes, “The quality of many of these pictures leave much to be desired, but others are serviceable.”[5] Having seen the said volume, I would have to add that Vermes was rather generous in his assessment.

As I was the curator in charge of the scrollery where the scrolls were kept, I more or less knew all the reputable scholars. The one thing they shared in common was the lack of funds to pursue research on the manuscripts. It was unfortunate that many of these world-class scholars had to literally beg for research funds: one of the main obstacles to their being published on schedule. Where was BAR during these years? Was BAR donating substantial funds or even minimal sums of money from its charitable nonprofit, tax- exempt organization, or was it sitting back reaping the rewards of those who had struggled so hard for decades? Had BAS/BAR been serious about the slow rate of publication, serious grants, chairs, post-docs could have been established whereby these very competent scholars could simply sit and publish the scrolls. For those scholars granted the privilege to publish the scrolls, it was rather something they did between carrying a heavy load of teaching and other academic duties that are part and parcel of being an academic in today’s world. In fact, given the circumstances, it’s a wonder that they got published at all. Decades later, on one of those rare occasions when BAR granted money to Qumran scholars as they did in 2002 for the Brown University, Qumran/Dead Sea Scroll conference, the sum from the self-proclaimed “liberator of the scrolls” sadly was but $250. That same year, ten times that amount was granted by Shanks to one of their James Ossuary (it’s kosher) supporters for an excavation carried out and published in the 1970s and 80s. Moreover, total grants to scholars that year were $8,500, while gifts and private contributions from supporters to BAR/BAS were $205,639![6] This is “creative” nonprofit accounting at its best and liberating the scrolls at its worst. Again, I wish to stress that according to the lawyers with whom we have consulted, it’s legal. Whether it’s in the spirit of those lofty principals upon which BAS was founded in 1974 is, in our opinion, highly questionable.

Rather than helping financially strapped DSS scholars complete their work by providing asetting in which they were free to devote more time to the task, Shanks was doing just the opposite by publishing their work without permission. In 1990, Shanks published the extremely important MMT scroll, which Prof. Qimron had been working on for eleven years. This has to be one of the most important documents coming out of the approximately 950 Dead Sea Scrolls recovered to date. Qimron subsequently filed suit against Shanks in both the U.S. and IL courts and won a judgment in both. One of the lowest points in the history of the “liberator” of the DSS, and there are several, came when BAR published a cover photo of the distinguished Harvard Professor John Strugnell with fleas running over the cover of the magazine. Due to a medical condition present at the time in which he was eventually hospitalized, Strugnell was unable to reply. However what was equally appalling was the near total silence over thisness as usual. (Sometime later his colleagues signed a letter of support for Strugnell; however, the damage was done, and Strugnell lost his position at Harvard.) Only two academics protested in the media over this, I being one and the other academic rightfully boasted over the years that not only did he refuse to publish anything in BAR because of the cover, but he refused to even speak to Shanks declaring that “of the 6 billion people in the universe, you (Shanks) are the only one I don’t speak to.”[7] affair from the academic community, particularly colleagues of his, many of whom were indebted to Strugnell for his contribution to DSS studies. For many of these DSS scholars, it was business as usual. Following the “6 billion people” remark, Shanks immediately “retaliated” in 2001-2 by providing major funding for his Qumran excavation; ironically, the scholar (retired) not only started speaking to Shanks but began writing major articles in BAR as well.[8] That excavation was in many ways a preview of things to come in terms of how bad it can get when BAR uncritically provides funds to textual scholars posing as archaeologists.

This Qumran/BAR-funded excavation was best summed up by a rather perceptive BBC reporter who, after visiting the site, searching for a story, and speaking to the excavators, wrote when he returned to the Jerusalem studio: “these days it is hard to distinguish the smell of sulfur from the rotten stench of claims, counterclaims, and accusations emanating from the nearby site of Qumran.”[9] As more evidence of professional malfeasance and media whoring leaked out, I decided to publish a critique of the whole BAR-funded, “worthwhile” enterprise titled, “Skeletons with multiple personality disorders and other grave errors,”[10] showing how “artifacts” were planted in the site to keep the film makersand funders happy. One of the recipients of the grant is now one of the archaeological advisors to the Canadian filmmaker who produced the unforgettable 4 million dollar documentary on the Talpiot tomb of the Jesus family. The fact that he is not an archaeologist doesn’t appear to be much of a problem.

The moral of all this is if you can’t beat them, join them, or on the other hand, it may have been a rather novel way of getting one of those rare BAS excavation grants for “worthwhile projects.” Insult the CEO, and take the redemptive guilt money.


[1] H. Shanks, Introducing BAR, BAR vol. 1, no.1. 1975 p.16. The phrase “Not tilting against those that don’t like us” has proved meaningless over the years, particularly the way that BAR has treated scholars in the James Ossuary controversy and those scholars who have questioned the wisdom of publishing antiquities which are now in the courts.


[2] Internal Revenue Service Form 990 for the years 1998-2003 which are currently available on line do not indicate any monies from the Preservation Fund whatsoever being granted to Tel Dan. There were, however, small amounts given to preserving textiles mainly from the Judean Desert area.

[3] The Preservation Fund first appears in BAR in 1979 (Vol. V, No.6, p.6) whereby BAR donated funds for the preservation of three sites: Herodian Jericho, Arad, and the 4-room house in biblical Ebenezer. However, when I spoke to one of the recipients, I was told that the amount they received was a token amount and in no way contributed substantially to the site’s preservation. A recent visit to the site found the place in need of serious repair; however, aside from the one-time token amount, no money was ever received thereafter.

[4] The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English by Geza Vermes, p.9.

[5] The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English by Geza Vermes, 10, footnote 23.

[6] BAR continually and very successfully raises money, running ads for potential donors: “to further support its mission BAS supports archaeological exploration in the Bible Lands, encourages and supports scientific and scholarly research and writing by biblical archaeologists, develops and disseminates educational materials concerning biblical archaeology and slide sets.”

[7] BAR Jan/Feb vol. 21, no. 1 2001.

[8] He also gave a grant of $10,000 to the Shrine of the Book in 2000 for educational purposes.

[9] Ari Goldberg, BBC News World Edition 27 August 2002.

[10] J. Zias, Revue de Qumran 81, (2003) 83-98. A skeleton was discovered in the last days of the excavation, and one of the recipients of the grant announced to the press that it was probably John the Baptist. The only problem was that the burial contained a skull. A lead “coffin” was also discovered which turned out to be zinc. I immediately told the staff that it was simply trash which had been placed in the cemetery; however, they needed the attention from the media and claimed that it was 2,000 years old. Sometime later, it was shown to have been painted with Barium-titanium paint patented in the 1920’s to retard oxidation, yet they ignored the scientific evidence and continued to publish it as being from the first century AD. Two C-14 dates from a handful of skeletal remains showing them to be from the Chalcolithic period, thus planted for the media, were not published nor brought to public attention.