Archive for the ‘Personalities’ Category

Jean Ritchie, R.I.P.

June 3, 2015

The singer Jean Ritchie died on Monday.  When I was still regularly playing guitar and singing, her song “The L & N Don’t Stop Here Any More” was one of my favorites.

But what does she have to do with the study of the Bible?  Something she wrote about the culture in which she grew up struck me, and still strikes me, as important for Bible scholars to keep in mind.  The Cumberland Mountains, where she was from, bear a certain resemblance — at least stratigraphically — to the central highlands of Canaan/Israel/Palestine, where Israelite culture took form.  Here’s what Ritchie wrote, and what I cited in my doctoral dissertation and my book Theologies of the Mind:

It was always a wonder to me how families living close to one another could sing the same song and sing it so different. Or how one family would sing a song among themselves for years, and their neighbor family never know that song at all. Most curious of all was how one member of a family living in a certain community could have almost a completely different set of songs than his cousins living a few miles away.

[Jean Ritchie, Singing Family of the Cumberlands (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1955; repr. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1988), 128]

It’s worth remembering that much of what we have from ancient Israel is just the way that particular text was preserved in the “holler” where one small group lived.  It might have been quite different one holler over.


One Chapter a Day

December 31, 2014

For those who have not yet seen it, there’s a new Israeli project to get people to read one chapter of the Bible a day (five days a week).

You can find it at

It’s an all-Hebrew site, but there’s also an icon you can click to hear the chapter read in Hebrew — useful for those who know (or can learn) to read the Hebrew alphabet.

Once you create a log-in, you can click the קראתי button to say you’ve read that day’s chapter (though you can’t “stay signed in” when you visit next).  [That’s been fixed and you can now stay signed in.]  If you sign in and click the button, the site will keep track of what you’ve read.  This is the end of the 2nd week of the project, so they are on Genesis 10.  It should not be too hard to catch up if you are just starting.

If you read Hebrew fluently, there are a lot of interesting-looking articles on the site, and some fine graphics.

You can read more about it in this article from the Jerusalem Post.  The co-head of the project is Binyamin Lau, who is somewhat well-known.  (The other co-head is a woman named Gal Gabbai whom I’ve not heard of.)

Take the article with a grain of salt, however:

Professors Avigdor Shinan and Yair Zakovitz who engaged in a demonstration of Biblical polemics demonstrated another Biblical connection with Hanukka in that the first night of Hanukka falls on the 25th of Kislev and there are 25 words in the Hebrew version of the first verse of Genesis.

The reporter screwed up; Shinan and Zakovitz certainly did not make this elementary mistake.  (See my review of their book here.)  It’s sad even that an Israeli newspaper could print something so egregiously wrong.  I guess this project is desperately needed…

As I mentioned in my Biblicist’s Holiday post, for a while I read the Bible every day, finishing it from cover to cover 6 or 8 times.  I started doing so again a year or so ago, but dropped off the pace.  Now I will add this daily chapter to my two mishnayot a day (from the Blackman Hebrew-English edition, available online in PDF format—h/t Ricky Hidary) and my short slice of Talmud.

If you can figure out how the “25 words” mistake happened, please leave a comment (or e-mail the Bible Guy).


Update from Menahem Mendel.  Apparently reading the Bible has already started to spur controversy…

Update from Tablet.

Samuel/Saul at Shiloh

November 10, 2014

(Some Thoughts on the Structure of the Book of Samuel)

I begin my Intermediate Biblical Hebrew 1 course at Penn (HEBR 153 for those of you who are thinking of signing up) by having the students read 1 Samuel 1. We read slowly and carefully, and I give them the option of using the 40-page workbook for this chapter that starts off the Readings in Biblical Hebrew textbook by Ben-Zvi et al. that once served as the textbook for this course. It’s a story that’s intrinsically interesting, but also gives me the opportunity (1) to see how the students’ grammar chops are; (2) to introduce them to the reference tools—dictionaries, concordances, and grammars—hat they should be using to read the Bible carefully; and (3) to advance my secret agenda: The Bible’s more complicated than they told you in Sunday School. One of the complications, as I show them clearly by the time we read Hannah’s conversation with Eli in vv. 14­­–18, is that this particular chapter is not straight history. It is the beginning of a work of what my teacher Moses Shulvass (ז״ל) used to call belles-lettres. Nowadays, we call it literature.

But I keep things simpler to start with. The very first thing I show them is how different the beginning of 1 Samuel is from the books that precede and follow it. I first noticed this while preparing the essay that became “Three Biblical Beginnings,” which serendipitously found its way into a book edited by my friends Aryeh Cohen and Shaul Magid with the unfortunately deconstructive name Beginning/Again. The book of Joshua begins with the words “After the death of Moses”; Judges begins with the words “After the death of Joshua”; and 2 Samuel begins with the words “After the death of Saul.” 1 Samuel, by contrast, begins with the words, “Once upon a time there was a man….”

I don’t say anything further about this until we get to Hannah’s promise that, if she is given a child, “No razor shall touch his head.” This is one facet of the rule of the Nazirite found in Numbers 6, and—together with the “once upon a time” beginning of the book—it provides a clear link to the story of Samson in Judges 13. Perhaps this seems to the students like the “answer” to the unusual beginning of the book. At any rate, no one has ever asked the obvious question. But I have sometimes wondered about it myself: Why doesn’t 1 Kings begin with the words “After the death of David”? Instead, David does not die until the end of chapter 2 of that book, the famous “Godfather” scene.

One might have thought that scene would make a fine ending to the book of Samuel. Instead, the book ends with a series of apparently disconnected appendices that clearly do not proceed in any kind of chronological order. (Their arrangement, however, is so obviously chiastic—see the commentaries for more—that it could hardly be a coincidence.) It is a traditional truism that אין מוקדם או מאוחר בתורה (one should not assume that the Bible tells events in chronological order), and the Book of Judges has clearly rearranged things to show a deterioration in Israel’s political system, culminating with the announcement in Jud 21:25 that “in those days there was no king in Israel, so everyone did whatever he wanted.”

Samuel, of course (the book and the man) provides the transition the Deuteronomic History needs between the period of the judges and that of the kings—or more precisely, between the period of the book of Judges and the beginning of the reign of Solomon. For the transitional period includes the reigns of Saul and David, each of whom has a kind of claim to be Israel’s first king. (Like so many readers and historians before me, I’m ignoring here Abimelech of Judges 9, who is actually the first Israelite king mentioned in the Bible.) But why aren’t the last two chapters of David’s life placed at the end of the book of Samuel so that 1 Kings could begin—a la Joshua, Judges, and 2 Samuel—with the words “After the death of David”?

There’s one more feature of 1 Samuel 1 that generally surprises my students, but this is a feature that doesn’t become clear until the very end of the chapter. The first hint comes in the more than usually unsatisfying explanation Hannah gives for naming the boy Samuel:

Because I requested him from the Lord [me-YHWH sheiltiv] (1 Sam 1:20).

The word sheiltiv (“requested”) in this phrase is just one of seven occurrences in the chapter of the root שאל, which in various guises can mean “ask, lend, request, borrow.” The culmination comes in v. 28, where Hannah declares, “As long as he lives, he is lent to the Lord.”

The words “he is lent” translate the Hebrew phrase הוא שאול, and usually when I press the students for another translation they grope for a more felicitous English phrase. When I taught at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, I often found it easy to perform a magic trick. I would open the classroom door, find someone passing by, and ask then for help translating the Hebrew phrase הוא שאול. They would always innocently oblige with the most obvious translation of those words: “He is Saul.”  (See my previous post, שאל in 1 Samuel 1.)

There are many gifts for the literary-minded reader in this chapter, but one can understand the surface facts of the story without getting any of them. As Mozart once wrote to his father about his piano concertos, “There are passages here and there from which the connoisseurs alone can derive satisfaction; but these passages are written in such a way that the less learned cannot fail to be pleased, though without knowing why.” But here at the end of 1 Samuel 1, our author demands that even the least learned readers recognize that the name of Saul resounds while the story of Samuel’s birth is being told. Anyone who wants to understand how the Bible is telling the story of Israelite history must grapple with this literary demand.

There’s another question that the story of Hannah raises, though it probably strikes most academic scholars of the Bible less as a question and more as a datum for understanding the prehistory of the book of Samuel. That is the location of the action in 1 Samuel 1, the scene of Elkanah’s annual pilgrimage: “the House of the LORD at Shiloh.” It’s well known that when David decides to build a Temple, the Lord responds indignantly (via Nathan’s dream):

From the day that I brought the people of Israel out of Egypt to this day I have not dwelt in a house, but have moved about in Tent and Tabernacle. (NJPS, 2 Sam 7:6)

Unless the Lord was trying to hide His house at Shiloh from the tax authorities, this is a clear contradiction. Is “the house of the Lord” in 1 Samuel 1 simply a reference that some clumsy later editor neglected to fix? The author of 1 Samuel 1 is anything but clumsy. It would have been easy to continue in the vein of 1 Sam 1:3, where we are told that Elkanah would go up every year “to offer sacrifice to the LORD of Hosts at Shiloh.” No need to mention a house. But our author does so, not once but twice (vv. 7 and 24).

This contradiction—it has only now occurred to me—is not (merely) a discrepancy in stitching together two sources.  It is a literary datum that explains to me why David’s death occurs at the beginning of the book of Kings and not at the end of the book of Samuel. Samuel is a story of transition, perhaps even usurpation. Just as Samuel, the last of the judges, will be replaced by Saul, the man whose name echoes in the story of his birth; just as Saul will be invisible in Israelite history the way he is here in 1 Samuel 1, being replaced by David, the eventual founder of the Israelite dynasty; so too Shiloh will be replaced. And that is exactly what the end of the book of Samuel shows us:

Gad came to David the same day and said to him, “Go and set up an altar to the LORD on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.” David went up, following Gad’s instructions, as the LORD had commanded. Araunah looked out and saw the king and his courtiers approaching him. So Araunah went out and bowed low to the king, with his face to the ground. And Araunah asked, “Why has my lord the king come to his servant?” David replied, “To buy the threshing floor from you, that I may build an altar to the LORD and that the plague against the people may be checked.” And Araunah said to David, “Let my lord the king take it and offer up whatever he sees fit. Here are oxen for a burnt offering, and the threshing boards and the gear of the oxen for wood. All this, O king, Araunah gives to Your Majesty. And may the LORD your God,” Araunah added, “respond to you with favor!”  But the king replied to Araunah, “No, I will buy them from you at a price. I cannot sacrifice to the LORD my God burnt offerings that have cost me nothing.” So David bought the threshing floor and the oxen for fifty shekels of silver. And David built there an altar to the LORD and sacrificed burnt offerings and offerings of well-being. The LORD responded to the plea for the land, and the plague against Israel was checked. (NJPS, 2 Sam 24:18-25)

And this is not just a temporary location for emergency sacrifice:

  Then Solomon began to build the House of the LORD in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah, where [the LORD] had appeared to his father David, at the place which David had designated, at the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite. (NJPS, 2 Chr 3:1)

It is the location on which the Jerusalem Temple would be built—the Temple to which (according to Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic History) all legitimate Israelite sacrifices must be brought. This is the Davidic Temple, the Temple that would replace Shiloh as David replaced Saul. I’m convinced that the book of Samuel ends with this episode to indicate just that. It is as if the fate of Shiloh is linked to that of Saul in 1 Samuel 1.  Saul will die in 1 Samuel 31, the middle of the book of Samuel, but Shiloh—implicitly—will be made invisible in 2 Samuel 24, the final chapter, just as Saul was in the first chapter. If only Shiloh were spelled with an א as שאול (Saul) is, I’d be absolutely certain.

The Semites at War

August 31, 2014

Civil war in Iraq is dominating the headlines, the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I has just passed, and the 75th anniversary of the start of World War II (in Europe) — is tomorrow, as I write.   Naturally, I’ve been thinking about the Sumerians and the Akkadians.


Who were the Sumerians and the Akkadians, you ask? Well, they were the Mesopotamians, the ancient inhabitants of the country we now call Iraq. As many people know, that modern political entity was created in the aftermath of World War I. T. E. Lawrence (“of Arabia”) played a role, albeit a somewhat ambiguous one, in the British campaign that ultimately led to Iraq’s creation. As Lawrence writes:


I meant to make a new nation, to restore a lost influence, to give twenty millions of Semites the foundations on which to build an inspired dream-palace of their national thoughts. So high an aim called out the inherent nobility of their minds, and made them play a generous part in events: but when we won, it was charged against me that the British petrol royalties in Mesopotamia were become dubious, and French Colonial policy ruined in the Levant.


There’s a new book out about Lawrence, and an interview on Fresh Air with its author and (especially) a review of it in the Jewish Review of Books by Hillel Halkin led me to Lawrence’s memoir, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. I found it very strange, not least because of its constant discussion of the racial characteristics of “the Semites”:


If tribesman and townsman in Arabic-speaking Asia were not different races, but just men in different social and economic stages, a family resemblance might be expected in the working of their minds, and so it was only reasonable that common elements should appear in the product of all these peoples. In the very outset, at the first meeting with them, was found a universal clearness or hardness of belief, almost mathematical in its limitation, and repellent in its unsympathetic form. Semites had no half-tones in their register of vision. They were a people of primary colours, or rather of black and white, who saw the world always in contour. They were a dogmatic people, despising doubt, our modern crown of thorns. They did not understand our metaphysical difficulties, our introspective questionings. They knew only truth and untruth, belief and unbelief, without our hesitating retinue of finer shades.


Later he writes:


Its birth in Galilee had saved it from being just one more of the innumerable revelations of the Semite. Galilee was Syria’s non-Semitic province, contact with which was almost uncleanness for the perfect Jew. Like Whitechapel to London, it lay alien to Jerusalem.


And there is this gem:


The Jew in the Metropole at Brighton, the miser, the worshipper of Adonis, the lecher in the stews of Damascus were alike signs of the Semitic capacity for enjoyment, and expressions of the same nerve which gave us at the other pole the self-denial of the Essenes, or the early Christians, or the first Khalifas, finding the way to heaven fairest for the poor in spirit. The Semite hovered between lust and self-denial.


Human nature doesn’t change over the years, but a book like this is a good reminder that the superficial trappings of thought can change radically. The history of human conflict can be summarized in the slogan “them and us,” and one hundred years ago—not just for Lawrence—the Semites were very definitely “them.”


And that’s where World War II comes in. From the German perspective, of course, that war was to be the culmination of a great racial struggle between the Semites and the Aryans. But I’m a scholar of Bible and the ancient Near East. Just a couple of weeks ago subscribers to Jack Sasson’s Agade e-mail list—which once inspired a Facebook group called “Jack Sasson is filling up my inbox”—received an e-mail announcing that the Netherlands Institute for the Near East was celebrating the 75th anniversary of its founding, on August 17th, 1939, just two weeks before the war broke out. But there’s a more significant scholarly 75th anniversary this year as well, that of a remarkably timely article published by a young Danish scholar who would become one of the most famous Assyriologists of the 20th century: Thorkild Jacobsen.


In the final issue of the Journal of the American Oriental Society, dated December 1939, Jacobsen published an article called “The Assumed Conflict between Sumerians and Semites in Early Mesopotamian History.” As my teacher Tzvi Abusch wrote in his appreciation of Jacobsen, written for a volume published in his memory, this was a time not merely “when the Nazi threat hung over Europe” but also “when racist categories were normal in the academy.” As Jacobsen wrote:


According to accepted views the early history of Mesopotamia is essentially the history of a racial conflict; its events represent stages in a deadly struggle between two inimical racial groups, Sumerians and Semites. In that struggle the Semites, who could draw on racial reserves in Syria and Arabia, came out victorious.


He notes that in Breasted’s Ancient Times of 1935 (then, of course, a recent book) every phase of Mesopotamian history is “presented in terms of racial conflict.” He writes of a war between the Sumerian (and thus non-Semitic) King Lugalzagesi of Uruk (now Warka; biblical Erech) and the Semitic King Sargon of Agade, and asks:


Does this war represent a long-brewing decisive clash between the two races which formed the population of Babylonia, Sumerians and Semites, or is it merely a fight between purely political units, two city-states vying with each other for power and influence?


The short answer is that Lugalzagesi’s statue has an inscription in Semitic, and Sargon’s own inscriptions attribute his victories not to Semitic gods but to Sumerian ones.   Moreover, the later history of the conflict shows “no vestige” of racial feelings. After the Semitic kings had fallen in their turn, a Sumerian writer recording the details shows


no animosity, not even indications that the Agade kings were considered strangers, their hegemony different from the previous hegemonies of Kish and Uruk. And indeed, this total lack of hatred or even animosity is shared by all other Sumerian texts known to us and is obviously incompatible with the idea of a racial struggle.


Jacobsen’s article directly confronted not just the racist categories of contemporary culture, but the anti-Semitism was setting Europe on fire as he wrote.


According to Bendt Alster, in the same memorial volume, Jacobsen “always considered himself—with his own words—a scholar working ‘in the Danish tradition.’ He talked of the University of Copenhagen at the time when he studied there, around 1920, as ranking among the finest universities in the world. Today there is no commonly recognized ‘Danish tradition’…” The sad denouement of the story is that there is indeed a Danish academic tradition today, one called “the Copenhagen School,” whose focus on denying that the Bible is a historical document sometimes bubbles up into antagonism to modern Israel. I can still remember my shock—widely shared, if my recollections are right—when a biblical scholar named Keith Whitelam (from the University of Sheffield, the English fellow-travelers of this school) came out with a book explaining “that the Jewish version of the Old Testament is a fiction designed to legitimise Israel and that the history of the Palestinian people has been silenced.” It is the reverse of anything Jacobsen would have thought of as “the Danish tradition.”


Meanwhile, the millennia-old series of wars in the Near East is still continuing. These days, with the possible exception of the Kurds, it is all-Semitic all the time. (The Gaza war is particularly internecine, especially if — as my teacher Moses Shulvass once said to me — “The Ten Lost Tribes? They are the Palestinians.”) And we no longer think of international political conflict as racial, unless you want to interpret the North-South divide in that fashion. The struggle between the races was succeeded by the battle between the economic systems of “capitalism” and “communism,” a picture which has now given way to a paradigm of religious conflict or, more starkly, a clash of civilizations. This too will, no doubt, be followed by still another us-vs.-them distinction, equally obvious and equally transitory. But the ancient Near East will continue to resonate as the historical and also the imaginative background to today’s news. Unhappy with the government? The ancients felt your pain long ago.


Jacobsen concluded his paradigm-shifting article this way:


We must accordingly abandon the idea of a racial war. The Semitic population was very likely to a large extent formed through constant filtering in of single families from the desert. It is obvious that such single families, settling and adapting themselves to life in the city or on the farm, would very soon feel as citizens of the city-state to which they had happened to immigrate and where they had become established. They would not constitute a common group, united across existing political boundaries. Semites and Sumerians lived thus, according to all the texts teach us, peacefully side by side in Mesopotamia. The wars which shook that country and the aims for which its rulers fought had nothing to do with differences of race; the issues were purely political and were determined solely by social and economic forces.


It bears repeating that Jacobsen’s article was scholarship, not politics. I saw Jacobsen in person only once, when he came back to Harvard from his retirement home in New Hampshire to give a talk. As I saw him then, he was an old fellow with a tie as wide almost wider than it was long. But he himself was a man of great and warm vision. Jacobsen was an Aryan in the categories of his own day. But while he was working on this article he was also working to bring Jewish Assyriologists who had to flee Nazi Europe to his then academic home at the University of Chicago. As Tzvi Abusch writes about him, Jacobsen “saw an alien and distant human life as something that not only existed in its own terms but also mattered very deeply for our own cultural, spiritual, and personal lives, indeed, for the enduring human spirit.” And he saw the same in his own time. It’s a worthy example to follow.


2016 update:  See now, similarly …

Hezekiah and Isaiah

June 29, 2014

On the long Saturday afternoons during the summer, I invite friends to come over to my house at 5 PM and spend a couple of hours reading the Bible with me. We have snacks and drinks; it’s our version of the traditional “Third Meal” (סעודה שלישית or, in Yiddish, shalishides) eaten toward the end of the Sabbath. We’re getting toward the end of 2 Kings this summer, and our reading yesterday, in 2 Kings 19, helped me start to think about the book of Isaiah. Let me explain.

The situation in 2 Kings 19 is that Jerusalem is under siege by the Assyrians. A representative of King Sennacherib has threatened the people inside the city that they will have to eat their own excrement and drink their own urine if they don’t surrender. (See The Bible’s Many Voices, p. 42, for more on this threat.)

Hezekiah’s advisers turn to the prophet Isaiah for advice:

2Kings 19:5
  When King Hezekiah’s ministers came to Isaiah, 6 Isaiah said to them, “Tell your master as follows: Thus said the LORD: Do not be frightened by the words of blasphemy against Me that you have heard from the minions of the king of Assyria. 7 I will delude him; he will hear a rumor and return to his land, and I will make him fall by the sword in his land.”

Isaiah reassures the king that God will not let Jerusalem fall into the hands of the Assyrians. But King Sennacherib sends a further message, which boils down to this: “Do not let your God, on whom you are relying, mislead you into thinking that Jerusalem will not be delivered into the hands of the king of Assyria” (2 Kgs 19:10). King Hezekiah brings the Assyrian threat to the Temple and prays to God to save the city. Immediately, Isaiah sends a message of his own to Hezekiah, with this oracle — primarily in God’s own voice — directed against Sennacherib:

21 “Fair Maiden Zion despises you,
She mocks at you;
Fair Jerusalem shakes
Her head at you.
22  Whom have you blasphemed and reviled?
Against whom made loud your voice
And haughtily raised your eyes?
Against the Holy One of Israel!
23  Through your envoys you have blasphemed my Lord.
Because you thought,
‘Thanks to my vast chariotry,
It is I who have climbed the highest mountains,
To the remotest parts of the Lebanon,
And have cut down its loftiest cedars,
Its choicest cypresses,
And have reached its remotest lodge,
Its densest forest.
24  It is I who have drawn and drunk the waters of strangers;
I have dried up with the soles of my feet
All the streams of Egypt.’
25  Have you not heard?
Of old I planned that very thing,
I designed it long ago,
And now have fulfilled it.
And it has come to pass,
Laying waste fortified towns
In desolate heaps.
26  Their inhabitants are helpless,
Dismayed and shamed.
They were but grass of the field
And green herbage,
Grass of the roofs that is blasted
Before the standing grain.
27  I know your stayings
And your goings and comings,
And how you have raged against Me.
28  Because you have raged against Me,
And your tumult has reached My ears,
I will place My hook in your nose
And My bit between your jaws;
And I will make you go back by the road
By which you came.
(New Jewish Publication Society translation)

As one of the group said, that passage has some phrases (especially vv. 25 and 28) that are very reminiscent of God’s speeches at the end of the book of Job. But — as I knew — that also means it’s reminiscent of Second Isaiah (see pp. 209 and 313 of The Bible’s Many Voices). I’ll do a Beginners’ Guide post on Second Isaiah in the future, but for now (as I told my friends yesterday) you should know that chapters 40 and following of the book of Isaiah are NOT in the voice of Isaiah of Jerusalem, but of an anonymous prophet from the time of the return to Jerusalem during the Persian period. See, for example, Isa 45:1, “Thus said the LORD to Cyrus, His anointed one.” The book of the original prophet of Isaiah closes with Isaiah 35. The intervening chapters, 36-39, are a kind of appendix to that book — another version, more-or-less exactly the same, of the material that is also found in the historical telling of 2 Kgs 18:13-20:19.

One of the bigger questions that biblical scholarship has left on its plate is the question of how the quite different voice of Second Isaiah was put together with the prophecies of Isaiah of Jerusalem in a single book, without there being any indication that the two prophets were separated by 200 years of history. The facts that
• Isaiah of Jerusalem is quoted in the book of Kings, but in a voice that reminds us of Second Isaiah, and
• precisely this material is found in the book of Isaiah linking the two prophets
must be a clue that will lead us to the answer to this question.

Since — as I also say in The Bible’s Many Voices (see p. 12) — it is quite probable that it was Isaiah’s successful prediction that led the Israelites to begin collecting the material that now makes up our Bible, the forging of the complete book of Isaiah from these two powerful voices is most likely an integral part of the story of why the Bible exists at all.

Thanks, friends. I’m eager to see what we’ll learn together next Saturday.

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

December 2, 2013

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.”


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.

Harry Orlinsky

January 7, 2013

In my column featured last week in Jewish Ideas Daily, I reported on an event held at the New York branch of HUC-JIR, the Reform Jewish seminary where Harry Orlinsky taught Bible for many years. I thought I’d use this space to expand a bit on my comments there, for readers who have a particular interest in the Bible, its scholars, and its translators.

As a Chicagoan who moved to the Northeast Corridor only in my 30s, I still have not lost my gleeful wonder that — from Philadelphia, at least — you can hop on a train and spend the day in Manhattan. Though I sometimes do this just for a treat, more often I schedule a New York day to take advantage of a Bible event that’s happening there. A few years ago, teaching a class on Wisdom literature at Gratz College, I made sure to hear a talk by Ed Greenstein at NYU on “The Problem of Evil in the Book of Job.” (I’m teaching the same class this spring at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College; come on back, Ed!)

But I consider it a special duty to show the flag when, as sometimes happens, there’s an event in memory of a biblical scholar. The scholars of a generation ago were famous when I began my own studies, and they were generally the teachers of my own teachers. Harry Orlinsky, though one rarely encounters his name today, was a superstar of Jewish academic Bible studies when I first got interested in the field. His book Ancient Israel was quite well known in those days. It’s mostly of historical interest now, having been superseded by new archaeological discoveries and a generational change in how histories of ancient Israel are now written. (That’s a post for a different occasion.) Perhaps that’s why the event in his memory was so sparsely attended. His family members who were present might have comprised 20% of the crowd.

The event was also meant to mark the 50th anniversary of what is still called the “new” Jewish Publication Society translation of the Torah, produced by a committee that had Orlinsky as its editor-in-chief. I’ve been told that’s the only event scheduled to mark the anniversary. Yet the JPS Torah has become the Torah of non-Orthodox American Jews. I’m hoping we will be able to organize a session about it at the Association for Jewish Studies conference scheduled for Boston in December of 2013.

Most of what I’ll say from here on is taken from the talk by Leonard Greenspoon of Creighton University at the HUC-JIR event. Not only is Greenspoon a scholar of Bible translation; he knew Orlinsky very well in his younger days.

The “old” JPS Bible translation, published in 1917, was directed by a scholar named Max Margolis, who was (briefly) Orlinsky’s teacher. Margolis thought an American Jewish translation of the Bible ought to be modeled on the King James Version, whose Shakespearean diction would teach English to the immigrants who made up such a large proportion of American Jewry in those days. He was consciously modeling Moses Mendelssohn’s “Biur,” which provided a translation of the Bible into German (written in Hebrew characters) to help integrate Jews into the German cultural mainstream, to help them back up their demand for “emancipation.”

When Orlinsky began to call for an updated English version for Jewish use, he intended it to be a revised version of the 1917 translation. According to Greenspoon, it is “almost certain that his contacts with American Bible Society translators were decisive in changing his views.” Rather than a formal translation, demanding that the reader come to the text, Orlinsky began to think that a functional translation — where the text comes to where the reader is — was now more appropriate. As anyone who’s used the New JPS Bible knows, it follows the “functional” method of translation in a major way.

A simple example comes from Deut 17:6a:

על פי שנים עדים או שלשה עדים יומת המת

Old JPS (using the “literal” or “formal equivalence” method):

At the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall he that is to die be put to death.

New JPS (using the freer “functional equivalence” method):

A person shall be put to death only on the testimony of two or more witnesses.

This kind of translation is far more readable. The downside is that midrashic or other later Jewish interpretations may fix on the more literal “mouth” or “three” when these are invisible to readers of the New JPS translation. But to understand the peshat, the straightforward sense of the text, as it would have been understood by the original readers, the functional method is superior — except when the original text is a poetic or otherwise literary one. Admittedly, in such cases any translator is almost always bound to fail in some degree.

I wrote in my JID column about the “new” translation (based on Rashi and the Enuma Elish) of Gen 1:1. It’s a good example of Orlinsky’s statement that “We considered ourselves obligated to no prior interpretation of Scripture.” Though he never forgot that his work was in the service of the American readers of Bible — Christians with the RSV and the NRSV, Jews with the NJPS — his watchword was always “What does the Bible mean?” Not “what does the Bible mean to me?” but “What does the Bible mean?”

Rashi, who near the end of his life told his grandson that he would rewrite his Bible commentary if he could because new scholarly discoveries were being made on a daily basis, would certainly have been pleased. That’s not a bad encomium to have.