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Philip Davies

By Thomas L. Thompson
Professor Emeritus
University of Copenhagen
May 2018

The death of my most dear friend Philip Davies on Friday, May 31, by cancer is a great loss to our entire field. He was not only a scholar of great talent and integrity, who interested himself in all that touched biblical studies. He was also ever a scholar of astonishing originality and discipline, whose impact on the field was immeasurable, not least because of the clarity of his arguments and his ability to focus on the rhetorical center of an issue. Who would have dreamt that such a simple distinction as that between the “biblical Israel”, the “ancient Israel” constructed by historians and the “Israel of the past”, which no longer exists, could have provoked a decade-long debate among biblical scholars, archaeologists, historians and theologians as Philip did in his 1992 essay, In Search of Ancient Israel?

Philip was a scholar, whose long active involvement in the roles of teacher, adviser, editor and publisher created in a career of some fifty years an understanding of the production of knowledge in modern research and scholarship, which was without parallel. The title of his Festschrift captioned Philip as “Far from Minimal’ (Burns and Rogerson 2012). When one tries to describe Philip’s contributions to biblical scholarship as associated with but a singular direction in scholarship, one should consider that this volume, honoring Philip, appeared as the 484th volume of the Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series, a series for which Philip had been one of the founding members! Philip had also been one of the founders of the journal itself, as long ago as 1976, before minimalism had found a voice of its own. Philip also had more than forty years of involvement with the program of Biblical Studies in Sheffield, which engaged him in the training of a great number of graduate students. Philip was a scholar who dealt with problems and the critical voice he brought to any given issue defined his method. I think Ingrid Hjelm’s reminder: “One should and does think of Philip Davies as a minimalist, but he has supported so many maximalists as well”! The breadth of Philip’s scholarship was his greatest gift and it forms the greatest challenge for any who wish to address his critique seriously.

I first met my friend in England in 1975. It was shortly after I had received my PhD from Temple University and I was giving a brief lecture tour, which James Barr had arranged for me to discuss my dissertation. Philip, I remember, had returned to England to take up his new teaching position at Sheffield. I will never forget the physical landscape of our meeting, although I continue to avoid any significance it might have had for me. We stood facing each other in the sun. He stood on the shiny black-asphalt paved street near the corner of a curved sidewalk and we talked—for some two hours—about all that was going on in the field: about Gottwald and Weippert, archaeology in Europe and the ever-plaguing problem of the Americans’ biblical historicizing. I cannot recall any of the details of our conversation, except that it continued and we did not move from the street corner or out of the sun. Perhaps we were afraid that if we went to a pub for a beer or stopped the conversation in any other way, it might never be taken up again.

I first had direct experience of Philip’s teaching capacities in 1986, when Philip had a research leave and was teaching a course at the École Biblique and I was also working at the École on the Toponomie Palestinienne project together with Francolino Goncalvez. I was also preparing a literary reading of the origin stories of the Pentateuch, which the Sheffield Academic Press had agreed to publish. As I was living in the Old City, we decided to meet every Thursday—with as many of his students who wished to come—at my apartment for a lunch of falafel sandwiches and beer. Some 6-8 students usually came. After lunch, we discussed things biblical as long as we and the beer lasted; that is, until about 6:30 PM. Conversations always brought forward two interrelated themes, which Philip and I enthusiastically were involved in: history and archaeology on the one hand and the literary implications of texts and narrative on the other. The first circled around the question of developing historical interpretation of Palestinian archaeology, which avoided efforts aimed at historicizing biblical narratives. My Toponomie project occupied much of my workdays at the time and engaged me in tracing and identifying the considerable loss of the cultural heritage, which had been embedded in Arab names of villages, wadis, springs, wells, hills and valleys, etc. Both this and the potential of developing post-processual interpretations of archaeological remains engaged Philip’s experience with the Palestine Exploration Fund, brought our conversations to a clearer awareness of the role played by politics in our work. Nevertheless, the students’ interest in biblical studies repeatedly brought our conversations back to the problems related to a Zionist interpretation of a “history of Israel”—rather than Palestine—in terms of a biblical-archaeological construction of history, ever in deep conflict with a literary and folkloric analysis of biblical origin stories. This second theme awoke in Philip sharp, incisive critique, laced with an irony, which repeatedly exposed the deep sense of his humor and joy in his work.

I was not unaware of how generous Philip was in such discourse, both to me and his students. He had an impressive ability to become quickly engaged in whatever was most central and relevant to his students and colleagues. Their interests quickly became his own. Rather than turning a conversation to his own interests, his interest became that of his interlocutor! What he brought to the conversation was simplicity and clarity and an immense understanding of sound critical methods, expressing his immense reading and experience. What was most interesting about discussions with Philip was that he was rarely interested in finding agreement. He rather seemed to be always taken up with clarifying what was ambiguous or confused. In these early discussions, Philip and I rarely agreed on very specific issues, but I always came away from such a conversation understanding better what I had meant! Philip Davies, as a teacher, was, perhaps, the most well-read biblical scholar of his generation. He was engaged in the whole field and sought ever to see it as interrelated and coherent. He was that rare scholar who was engaged in the whole of biblical studies.

A few years after our meetings in Jerusalem, I had the great good fortune of teaching with him for a semester in the theology department at Marquette University in, I believe this was in the Autumn of 1990. Philip came to us on a teacher’s exchange program and took up the teaching obligations of my colleague John Schmidt, who spent the semester in Sheffield. Without the least hesitation, Philip and I sought to find again the common ground we had shared in Jerusalem and began to meet at his apartment each week. The context, however, was quite different this time. Not least because I was quite well-prepared for these conversations, engaged as I was in finishing the final draft of a history of European and American scholarship, regarding writing the “history of Israel” from Wellhausen’s Prolegomena to Ahlström’s History of Palestine. Two years earlier, I had spent eight weeks in the library of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute and shared many lunches with Gösta as he set out on the demanding final draft of his History.

When I met with Philip while he was at Marquette, so many changes had occurred in the field of biblical studies that I felt that the greatest need I had was to find a clear and simple narrative to guide me through the restructuring debates of the 1970s and 1980s, which I felt had changed biblical studies so radically. I could bring the many conflicting arguments and perspectives onto the table for discussion, but I lacked both clarity and simplicity, for me unfathomable virtues, which Philip possessed in abundance. Looking back on these difficult, at times heated, but always new and fresh discussions that Philip offered with such generosity, I see in retrospect of his death our loss of an immeasurable gift of clarity. Honored be his memory!

Comments (1)

Thanks so much Thomas. I knew Philip for about 25 years, thought Joe Blenkinsopp at first, when I taught at Notre Dame in the early 1980s. Not well as you did, but well enough, brushing shoulders at conferences and the like. He was a giant of a personality and I loved his flash of a smile and sense of humor. We disagreed on a lot of things but generally I was out of my water in dealing with his focus. On the Dead Sea Scrolls we came together to some degree. So sorry you have lost such a dear friend but clearly your memories are vivid and precious. Warmest best...James
#1 - James D. Tabor - 06/04/2018 - 18:58

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