Mitchell Dahood is dead at 60. He died in Rome on March 8 of a sudden, unexpected and massive heart attack.
I should write Father Mitchell Dahood, for he was a Roman Catholic priest, a Jesuit, who spent nearly 20 years teaching at Rome’s Pontifical Biblical Institute. But I, like most of the scholarly community, knew him as Mitchell. He seldom wore his priestly garb on trips outside Rome. As a scholar, he was simply Mitchell Dahood—an intellectual giant, but in person a warm, friendly, enthusiastic, ebullient seeker after truth, totally unaware of his own importance.
Mitchell Dahood was born in Anaconda, Montana, to which his parents had immigrated from Lebanon. In Montana, his father worked in a copper smelter. From childhood, Mitchell wanted to become a priest, and his scholarly bent was clear. Eventually, he earned his Ph.D. under Albright at Johns Hopkins and a Ph.D. from Weston College in Weston, Massachusetts. After his ordination, he was immediately assigned to Rome where he remained for the rest of his life. There he became one of the world’s leading specialists in ancient Semitic languages, particularly Hebrew and Ugaritic, and, more recently, in the language of Ebla which scholars call Eblaite.
Dahood’s best-known work is his three-volume commentary on the book of Psalms, in the Anchor Bible series. It is a highly controversial and much criticized work, largely because of its extensive use of Ugaritic to illuminate the Hebrew text.
Ugarit is a site in northern Syria on the Mediterranean coast where, in the 1930’s, a team of French archaeologists uncovered a large archive of cuneiform tablets. The language of the tablets, known as Ugaritic, is pure Canaanite. Although the tablets date to the 14th–13th century B.C., hundreds of years before the Israelites emerged as a nation-state, Dahood believed that the Ugaritic language and culture represented the closest parallel to Hebrew of any ancient language and culture of which we have extensive data.
This linguistic position was extensively developed in a massive and still uncompleted work entitled Ras Shamra Parallels: The Texts from Ugaritic and the Hebrew Biblea to which Dahood contributed some of the most extensive sections.
Ugaritic is indeed a very difficult language and often lends itself to a wide variety of meanings. Dahood brought an unexcelled ingenuity and creativity to its forms and etymologies in an effort to understand obscurities in the Hebrew Bible, particularly in poetic passages. For some scholars, a familiar refrain was (as Jack Sasson of North Carolina University put it), “Dahood seems to score again!” For many others (as Johannes C. DeMoor put it), “Dahood is possessed by an obsessive zeal to force up the number of similarities between Ugaritic and Hebrew. In the process he does not shrink from using very dubious or even totally wrong evidence.”
But even DeMoor, amidst all his criticism, recognized that “Dahood must be given full credit for making the first comprehensive and systematic inquiry into” the balanced, parallel pairs of semantic units that characterize both ancient Hebrew and Ugaritic poetry.
Perhaps the fairest evaluation of Dahood’s work comes from P. C. Craigie of the University of Calgary who agrees with DeMoor that “Mitchell Dahood has gone too far.” But, Craigie adds, “Even if one were to reject 75 percent of all Dahood’s contributions on this topic, we should still be left with a major contribution to comparative scholarship.”
Mitchell Dahood’s character is best reflected in his reaction to criticism: He took it placidly. He was a man without rancor. At least outwardly, he did not seem to be hurt by criticism. He simply went on using his vast erudition, in his own scholarly search for truth.
In the last years of his life, Dahood turned from Ugaritic to Eblaite, the language of the sensational archive of over 15,000 cuneiform tablets uncovered at Ebla. Although they date to the mid-third millennium B.C., over a thousand years earlier than the tablets from Ugarit, Dahood found Eblaite even closer to Hebrew than was Ugaritic. Dahood quickly began using the same methods with Eblaite texts that he had earlier used with Ugaritic texts in an effort to elucidate the Bible.b Not unexpectedly, he met much of the same criticism.c
Of the handful of scholars equipped to explore the implications of Eblaite for Biblical Hebrew, Dahood was almost alone in his willingness to plunge in, to begin the task, to make the mistakes, to take the criticism. He may well be irreplaceable. On this front, there may now be nothing but silence—perhaps for a generation.
When he died, he was preparing an article for BAR on the occurrence of Sodom in the Ebla tablets. Unfortunately, we will never be able to read what was only forming in his mind.
The day before he died, he sent us a postcard from Rome which we received and read only after hearing news of his death. Despite the delay in writing his article, he assured us, “I will compose the piece [on Sodom].” He ended with his customary enthusiasm about a new observation: “A couple of short [Ebla] texts in MEE 3 [Volume 3 of Materiali Epigrafici di Ebla] can be read wholly as Hebrew. Cordially, Mitchell.”
These were the last words we shall ever hear from Mitchell Dahood. We shall miss him greatly, as a scholar and a friend.
Mitchell Dahood is dead at 60. He died in Rome on March 8 of a sudden, unexpected and massive heart attack. I should write Father Mitchell Dahood, for he was a Roman Catholic priest, a Jesuit, who spent nearly 20 years teaching at Rome’s Pontifical Biblical Institute. But I, like most of the scholarly community, knew him as Mitchell. He seldom wore his priestly garb on trips outside Rome. As a scholar, he was simply Mitchell Dahood—an intellectual giant, but in person a warm, friendly, enthusiastic, ebullient seeker after truth, totally unaware of his own importance. Mitchell Dahood was […]
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