Mr. Shanks wrote 300 pages of his book, about the life of King Saul, the biblical ruler of Israel, before deeming the manuscript “abominable.” So he switched to another project on his sabbatical to-do list. Fascinated by biblical archaeology, he had begun taking his wife and daughters to dig sites on weekends, showing them how to identify ceramic fragments known as sherds.
There was little information available at the sites, including at Hezekiah’s Tunnel, a long subterranean passageway with thigh-high water that he had begun exploring with a flashlight. “At the entrance to Hezekiah’s Tunnel,” he later recalled, “there was just an Arab selling candles to help people who wanted to visit it.”
Deciding to write a pamphlet for visitors, Mr. Shanks ended up publishing a full-length book — “The City of David: A Guide to Biblical Jerusalem” (1973) — that the Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz called “fascinating in an armchair; indispensable on the site.”
Mr. Shanks had found a new calling. Returning to Washington, in 1975 he started the Biblical Archaeology Review, a quarterly magazine (for a time it was published bimonthly) that translated serious scholarship for a popular audience. It reached more than 250,000 subscribers at its peak in the early 2000s and made Mr. Shanks “probably the world’s most influential amateur biblical archaeologist,” New York Times book critic Richard Bernstein wrote.
Known as BAR, an appropriate acronym for a magazine founded by a lawyer, the publication also served as a vehicle for Mr. Shanks’s archaeological crusades, including an effort to “free the Dead Sea Scrolls,” as he put it. Although the ancient religious manuscripts had been discovered in the late 1940s, they languished for more than four decades, accessible only to a small group of scholars before he went on the offensive starting in 1985.
“Without the public campaign that he initiated, I don’t know if they ever would have been released,” said Lawrence H. Schiffman, a professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University. “Many of us were working behind the scenes with the Israeli Antiquities Authority. But the main public pressure came from him.”
Mr. Shanks was 90 when he died Feb. 5 at his home in Washington. The cause was covid-19, said his daughter Elizabeth Shanks Alexander, a religious-studies professor at the University of Virginia.
Editing BAR until his retirement in 2017, Mr. Shanks presided over a magazine that counted evangelical Christians and Zionist Jews among its subscribers. He was said to have exerted complete control over the publication, once telling The Washington Post: “There’s no peer review at BAR. I’m the peer.”
Mr. Shanks embraced controversy, filling the magazine’s letters column with angry commentary from readers who argued over the use of B.C. (before Christ) vs. B.C.E. (before the Common Era) and the historical accuracy of the Exodus from Egypt. The magazine ran stories about recent digs and the discovery of artifacts such as the James Ossuary, a burial box that purportedly contained the bones of James, a brother of Jesus.
“His tactic was always to overdramatize the topic and try to marshal public attention to pressure scholars (which usually worked),” William G. Dever, an archaeologist and professor emeritus at the University of Arizona, wrote in a tribute. “Then he would turn to a new, perhaps even more sensational issue. I recall saying once, ‘Hershel, get into epistemology. That’s the next big thing.’ Without blinking an eye, he replied, ‘Ok, but what’ll I use for illustrations?’ ”
Mr. Shanks was widely credited with bringing a general audience into the thick of academic debates, through his magazine as well as by writing opinion pieces for The Post and the Times and appearing on television shows such as “Nova.” Beginning in 1985, he focused his attention on the Dead Sea Scrolls, a set of more than 900 manuscripts discovered in limestone caves around Qumran, near the western shore of the Dead Sea.
Written primarily in Hebrew and Aramaic, the texts were some of the oldest biblical writings ever recovered and promised to illuminate the development of Christianity and modern Judaism.
While attending a New York University conference, Mr. Shanks heard a presentation by Morton Smith, a Columbia University professor critical of the glacial pace at which the texts were being published. Nearly all of the scrolls remained inaccessible to scholars, controlled by a small group reporting to Israel’s antiquities department. Inspired by the presentation, Mr. Shanks went on a campaign for the remaining scrolls to be quickly published in full.
The “monopoly” over access to the documents was broken in the fall of 1991, after scholars began publishing photos of the unpublished manuscripts, including in a two-volume work released by Mr. Shanks’s nonprofit organization, the Biblical Archaeology Society.
Mr. Shanks called it “the final act in the drama of access to the Dead Sea Scrolls.” The scroll project’s editor, Emanuel Tov, soon declared that “the rules of the game have changed.” By 2001, virtually all the remaining texts had been published.
Mr. Shanks was accused at times of being overzealous in his efforts to bring the remaining scroll manuscripts to light. In the foreword of the scrolls book he published, he included a typed reconstruction of a manuscript prepared by Elisha Qimron, an Israeli scholar who later sued him alleging copyright infringement. In 2000, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled in favor of Qimron and ordered Mr. Shanks to pay about $50,000.
“It’s a case fought with a fury like I’ve never seen before,” Mr. Shanks told the Jerusalem Post. “As if I committed murder. I don’t understand it.” He said he had not realized Qimron had spent years working on the text. But when a judge asked whether he still would have published even if he had known, Mr. Shanks — still devoted to releasing the texts as soon as possible — was forthright.
“Correct,” he said.
Hershel Shanks was born in Sharon, Pa., on March 8, 1930. His mother was a homemaker, and his father was a shoe salesman who had emigrated from Kyiv in Ukraine.
Mr. Shanks was the first person in the family to graduate from college. He received a bachelor’s degree in English from Haverford College in 1952 and a master’s degree in sociology from Columbia University in 1953. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1956.
After working as a trial lawyer in the Justice Department’s civil division, he rose to partner in the Washington law firm of Glassie, Pewett, Dudley, Beebe and Shanks, which specialized in real estate law. In 1968 he published a book collecting legal opinions by federal judge Learned Hand, titled “The Art and Craft of Judging.”
In addition to BAR, Mr. Shanks founded two other magazines, Bible Review and Archaeology Odyssey. He continued his legal work at the firm until the late 1980s, when he retired after buying Moment, a Jewish opinion publication that he edited for 15 years.
Mr. Shanks married Judith Weil in 1966. In addition to his wife, of Washington, survivors include two daughters, Elizabeth Shanks Alexander of Richmond and Julia Shanks of Marblehead, Mass.; a sister; and two grandchildren.
In a phone interview, Alexander traced her father’s journalism work back to high school, when he edited the school paper before being kicked off the staff for “stealing stationery and writing a note to his parents, saying Hershel was working too hard and should be socializing more, and perhaps the family should consider letting him use the family car.”
“He was very mischievous,” she said. “At one point I remember him saying: ‘I’m not Jewish. I’ve decided to disown Judaism. I’m going to become a Mesopotamian.’ ”