Frank Moore Cross … and his place in the history of Bible scholarship

On Sunday afternoon a week ago in Baltimore, at the annual convention of the Society of Biblical Literature, there was a two and a half hour session dedicated to the memory of Frank Moore Cross, longtime professor of “Hebrew and Other Oriental Languages” at Harvard University, director of the Harvard Semitic Museum, and one of the first and longest-lasting interpreters of the Dead Sea Scrolls. His final work was published in the year of his death, 2012.

It was a family affair. Not only was his daughter present (along with other members of the family), but the event featured eight of his doctoral students, all of whom evidently regarded him as what the Germans call their “Doktorvater,” their father in an academic sense. This, of course, implies that they owe him more than simply the respect that any human being owes to another — they are obligated under the responsibility to “honor your father and your mother.” These eight certainly did that.

I’ve been at other events like this, for scholars of a slightly earlier generation than Cross, who were the teachers of my teachers. (Cross was the teacher of some who are more or less my colleagues.) There is always an element of humor, poking gentle fun at the beloved idiosyncrasies of the scholar — some of them (not Cross) extraordinarily idiosyncratic to go along with their outrageously vast knowledge of ancient languages. In Cross’ case the humor was gentle. He seems to have been beloved by his students.

The eight scholars represented eight different specialties within biblical studies: archaeology, paleography, text criticism, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and more. Yet, as one of the more irreverent scholars pointed out, “Cross did all this [stuff].” Though Harvard represents just one of the streams of biblical scholarship in the academy, it is a major one. And through his friendship with David Noel Freedman — the two of them famously co-wrote two dissertations in order to earn their degrees — his influence spread through another chain of scholarship as well.

Yet one word kept floating through my mind as I listened to the panel: “Aristotle.” Many of Cross’ particular readings of Dead Sea Scroll texts, his interpretations of biblical words, and his paleographic work will stand the test of time. (Paleography is the study of how scripts change over time, permitting documents to be dated by the letter forms used in them; when the Dead Sea Scrolls were carbon-dated, Cross remarked that he was delighted that his paleographical work had confirmed the accuracy of carbon-dating.) But somehow his most famous more general book, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, has a slightly musty smell about it now. Perhaps it is simply that I myself read it so long ago in my own studies. Nonetheless, my impression is that Cross’ work channeled the field for too long in a direction that it needed to break out of.

A few minutes after the talk, I ran into a senior scholar who does not come from the Cross academic lineage. He remarked to me, in a way that was clearly intended to be a corrective to the session we’d just attended, “Cross was a Mozart — not a Beethoven. He made everything more elegant. But he did not start anything new.”

“Then he was Mozart to Albright’s Haydn?” I asked. “That’s right,” he replied.

William Foxwell Albright can indeed be said to be the Haydn of 20th-century biblical studies. He was based in Baltimore, at Johns Hopkins University, and trained a generation of scholars in his own right, Cross among them. His great scholarship has an even mustier smell than does that of Cross. (Albright was extremely forthright about rethinking his earlier work and pointing out where he’d been wrong, so he might well agree with that assessment if he were alive today.)

And it is hardly an insult to call someone a Mozart. But if biblical scholarship needed a Beethoven, someone to forge a “new path,” Cross was not the man. My interlocutor with the musical metaphor unpacks it for us: “Even as it was published, his Canaanite Myths synthesized Albrightian verities, without, however, reaching for newer horizons.”

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Next on “The Bible Guy” — a report on the group of Pentateuch scholars who spent last year at the Hebrew University discussing the Documentary Hypothesis.

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