This year is the hundredth anniversary of the birth of William Foxwell Albright, this century’s greatest biblical archaeologist. To mark the occasion, a scholarly conference was held at the Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, where Albright taught.
The papers presented attempted to look forward, to chart the course of ancient Near Eastern studies in the next century. They were very scholarly, not to say esoteric. One has special relevance to BAR readers, however.
In the course of his remarks, the man who now holds the William F. Albright chair at Johns Hopkins, P. Kyle McCarter, talked about scholars as popularizers. Speaking to his fellow scholars, McCarter said:
“In the next century, we should be popularizers. We dare not leave it to Harold Bloom.a
“Now I know the point I’m making is controversial. Some of you think that when we popularize our field we cheapen it—or, at least, that we oversimplify it and discard or neglect its significance and, indeed, its very integrity.
“Let me respectfully disagree. The integrity of our field is impossible without its popularization. If you disagree, it’s not because you’re too high-minded or idealistic—although you might be one of those good things—rather, it’s because some insecure, frightened scholar, quite probably some teacher of yours, taught you that you shouldn’t compromise your learning by translating it into categories that can be appreciated by the general public.
“Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. The ‘general public’ will understand our field as well as we do—sometimes better than we do—if we’re not afraid to share our esoteric, privileged knowledge with them. And they are, if the truth be known, our true constituency. The ancient Near East—not only the Bible, not only the civilization of the pharaohs, not only the sages of Babylon, but the entire ancient Near East, however broadly defined—is of vital importance to many, if not most, of the people you and I are likely to encounter as we walk to and fro upon this earth. It is our responsibility to develop in these people an understanding of what we are about. This is true not for the cynical reason that some of them might fund the chairs in which our students will sit in the 21st century, and thus we must ‘develop’ them. At least it’s not true only for that reason, or even primarily. It is true also because we need these people for intellectual reasons. Believe me, friends, we must speak to each other if our analyses are going to achieve intellectual integrity and academic excellence in the next century, but we must also speak with a much larger constituency than ourselves if our analyses are going to achieve any larger importance. We must require ourselves to articulate what we discover to as broad an audience as we can find to listen, and then we must listen to what they say in response [emphasis in original]. The interchange will give vitality, balance and precision to our learning.”
These remarks are in the true spirit of William F. Albright. Albright was a popularizer in the best tradition. Of course he could write as technically as anyone. Try, for example, an early book entitled The Vocalization of the Egyptian Syllabic Orthography (American Oriental Society, 1934). But he also wrote for the masses, not in a way that oversimplified or looked down, but in a way that elevated and opened doors—books like The Archaeology of Palestine and the Bible (Fleming H. Revell, 1932) and From the Stone Age to Christianity (Johns Hopkins Press, 1940). He wrote for popular publications as well as for scholarly journals. His articles appeared in the Sunday School Times and the New York Times, in Presbyterian Magazine and Jewish Forum, in Christian Century, in Christianity Today and in Jewish Heritage. If he had lived longer, he would have written for BAR and Bible Review, I’m sure.
How can I be so sure? He was my friend. In a way, he got me started. I was a lawyer with no training whatever in archaeology or the Bible. I had never seen a dig. But I read, and I was a member of a small Bible study group. In my reading, I came across something Albright had written that seemed to 071contradict something written by another scholar. So I contacted the great W. F. Albright at Johns Hopkins. The question involved was whether the title “rabbi” was used in the time of Jesus. I was in no position to gather the evidence. But I could, I felt, judge the strength and validity of the arguments; lawyers are, I was always taught, experts in relevance. Albright couldn’t have been more helpful. He answered all my letters promptly, and we even discussed the matter at his home. He had a son who was attending law school and this, perhaps, created a special bond. I say this without being sure, because he often referred to his son’s progress, and I was hard pressed otherwise to explain Albright’s friendliness to such an uninformed person as myself. In any event, our discussions led to an article entitled “Is the Title Rabbi Anachronistic in the Gospels?” in which I tried to set forth the evidence on both sides of the issue and which I eventually published in the Jewish Quarterly Review.
Our correspondence and friendship continued. When I invited him to be a guest at our Bible study group, he graciously accepted. About 15 of us drove over to Baltimore for one of the most memorable evenings of our lives.
A few years later, my wife and I visited Jerusalem. We stayed at the National Palace Hotel across the street from the American School of Oriental Research (now the W. F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research). One day I knocked on the door and introduced myself to the director (a man named William Dever, whom I had never heard of). “I know Professor Albright,” I said, “and I’ve been reading about archaeology.” Dever invited my wife and me in for coffee, and that was really how we got to know the Jerusalem archaeological community—all traceable to Albright’s kindness to a rank amateur.
This year is the hundredth anniversary of the birth of William Foxwell Albright, this century’s greatest biblical archaeologist. To mark the occasion, a scholarly conference was held at the Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, where Albright taught. The papers presented attempted to look forward, to chart the course of ancient Near Eastern studies in the next century. They were very scholarly, not to say esoteric. One has special relevance to BAR readers, however. In the course of his remarks, the man who now holds the William F. Albright chair at Johns Hopkins, P. Kyle McCarter, talked about scholars as […]