Shemaryahu Talmon (1920–2010)
by Jonathan Ben-Dov
Professor Shemaryahu Talmon, a renowned scholar, an acclaimed leader, and a beloved family man, passed away in the month of Tevet 5771 (December 2010) at the age of 90. He was Professor Emeritus of Bible at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, serving in the Bible department between the years 1957 and 1988, and a winner of the Israel Prize for Biblical Studies in 1997. Among his many scholarly and public achievements, one may count the establishment and management of the Hebrew University Bible Project, the editing of scrolls from Masada and Qumran, key publications in the field of the biblical text, literature, and calendar, as well as life-long involvement in Jewish-Christian dialogue, and active management of various academic bodies in Israel and abroad.
Several months before he passed away, a group of colleagues and friends assembled at the Hebrew University Bible Project to celebrate Shemaryahu’s ninetieth birthday. He acted like he always did, combining sharp academic rigor with a healthy sense of humor, sharing his old memories with a smile, occasionally inserting a witty sting at something from the old days. This memory will live on among his close friends and colleagues.
Born in 1920 in Poland, Talmon grew up and studied in the city of Breslau (then in Germany), studying at the high school of the renowned rabbinical seminary. He used to tell how his father had hired a private tutor to strengthen the boy’s knowledge of Hebrew and Torah, as was common in those days. When the Nazis came into power, Talmon was arrested for a few months but managed to get away and immigrate to Israel with the last youth group leaving Germany before the war; other members of his family perished in the Holocaust. Upon coming to Israel-Palestine, he immediately became involved in local matters. Charismatic and good-looking, he became a local army officer, while also fulfilling educational missions. He was later sent to run the Jewish campaign of teaching and education in the detainee camps established by the British Mandate in Cyprus. After the war, he was able to begin his Bible studies at the Hebrew University.
Living in the as-of-then secluded neighborhood of Talpiot, Talmon rode his motorcycle every day to the university campus, often offering a ride to students and colleagues whom he encountered on his way. It was not uncommon to see Talmon with another professor roaming the streets of Rehavia, their coats fluttering in the wind. Living a rural way of life, Shemaryahu and his first wife, the late sociologist Prof. Yonina Garber-Talmon, even raised a goat in their house. The renowned author and Nobel laureate Shai Agnon was a neighbor and a close friend.
Shemaryahu Talmon was a piece of living history for the Hebrew University Bible Department, as well as for large sections of the profession in general. As a student of Bible and sociology, he spent many hours with Martin Buber, emulating many of Buber’s ideas about religious identities and the biblical narrative. He began his dissertation work under M. D. Cassuto, and after the death of that celebrated scholar in 1951, Talmon moved to work with I. L. Seeligmann. During these years and soon thereafter, he was in contact with Paul Kahle, who was very influential in forming Talmon’s conception about the development of the biblical text. Talmon spent time pursuing research on the Samaritans at Leeds with John Bowman, a field of research that interested him greatly in his early career. This led him later to undertake the edition of Sepher ha-Shomronim, a comprehensive study of the Samaritans begun by the late Yitzhak Ben-Zvi.
After being called to Jerusalem in 1957, Talmon was one of the first Israeli academics to establish contacts with the post-war scholarly establishment in Germany. In the late 1970s, this contact, especially with Rolf Rendtorff in Heidelberg, had significant consequences when Talmon became one of the founders of the Hochschule für jüdische Studien in Heidelberg and acted as its rector between 1982 and 1984. His involvement in Jewish-Christian dialogue began then, as he established a long series of interfaith encounters, long before this became fashionable in wider circles. Talmon met personally several times with the pope in Rome and worked hard to advance frameworks for cooperation between the Vatican and the Hebrew University, some of which have been active until today.
Talmon’s most central scholarly contribution was the new outlook he fashioned for the study of the biblical text. Under the strong influence of Paul Kahle, he worked ceaselessly to refute the Lagardian claims for the existence of a fixed Urtext, claiming instead a much more flexible view of the text in its early stages. This view began with his MA thesis, which developed into a dissertation (1955) on “Double Readings in the Biblical Text.” This interest continued with master works on the Samaritan Pentateuch and texts from Qumran such as 1QIsaa. Talmon’s innovative research paved the way for present-day discourse about “multiple literary editions” and about the reciprocity of textual and literary criticism. It anticipated the discussion of “rewritten Bible,” so relevant today, already in the 1960s. His influential book Qumran and the History of the Biblical Text (1975), written jointly with Frank Cross, remains a landmark in the study of the biblical text. Together with Cross he advised the dissertation work of Emanuel Tov, and the rest is history.
Prompted by the initiative of M. Goshen-Gottstein, Talmon joined him and Chaim Rabin in establishing the Hebrew University Bible Project, which was, and in many ways still is, a pioneering enterprise in the history of critical Bible study. Establishing a team of assistants, the group undertook the immense load of recording every possible detail in the history of the book of Isaiah, from Qumran and the Septuagint to the medieval Massorah. Talmon used to boast that even the most junior assistant in the HUBP team later became an important professor in the field. Many hardships notwithstanding, Talmon saw to the publication of the first three volumes of the HUBP, with the fourth volume prepared by his successors. In addition, he was intensively involved with establishing and editing the journal Textus between 1964 and 1982.
Shemaryahu was one of the first to undertake the scientific study of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Already in 1951, long before writing his dissertation, Talmon published two articles on Pesher Habakkuk, including a key article on the calendar controversy reflected in it. This article, together with his 1958 article on the calendar of the Qumran Community, drew on the work of Dupont-Sommer and Jaubert while elaborating it to a comprehensive thesis that has survived the test of time. Talmon made good use of his background in sociology, which enabled him to develop a subtle understanding of the phenomenon of sectarianism, once again anticipating his time. In later years he published text editions of the Hebrew scrolls from Masada (1999) “inherited” from Yigael Yadin, as well as an edition of the calendrical texts from Qumran (DJD XXI, 2001). Often-forgotten branches of his research are important ventures into sectarian liturgy and prayer, as well as a profound theological study of the desert motif.
Being first and foremost a biblical scholar, Talmon wrote numerous influential articles on various aspects of the Bible. They were written in his characteristic style, either in Hebrew, English, or German, resorting to such arcane corners of the vocabulary that often left even the most competent readers of English bedazzled.
The study of biblical narrative was especially dear for Shemaryahu. In fact, his first book (published 1956) consisted of collected lectures on narrative art in the Bible. He was one of the few Bible scholars consulted by the literary critic Robert Alter when writing his 1980 book on The Art of Biblical Narrative. His debt to Martin Buber was paid in a series of articles on the latter’s view of the Bible, as well as studies about Franz Rosenzweig as a Bible exegete and translator. Retaining his old passion for narrative, Talmon often emphasized his article on “Wisdom in the Book of Esther” (VT 1963), a close contemporary of von Rad’s studies about biblical wisdom.
Never a prominent writer on ancient Near Eastern themes, Talmon produced a series of articles on “the comparative method.” In these articles, later included in various collected readers, Talmon presented rigorous limitations for the comparative method, directing the scholars instead toward the study of the text “from within.” He used this catch-phrase in the title of his book on Qumran (1989). It was this method that guided his exemplary articles in the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, as well as his long-term involvement in the editorial board of that project. Talmon always preached to his students that “one should first use the concordance, only later the dictionary.” He maintained special interest in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, at one stage hoping to complete a full commentary of them. In addition, he had a significant contribution in the study of biblical prophetic literature, not the least in his seminal study, strongly influenced by Martin Buber, on “Eschatology and History in Biblical Religion.” Finally, Talmon left a long-lasting impression with a series of articles on calendars in the biblical world and Qumran writings. These articles combine superb philological skills with a penetrating sociological sight, a characteristic Talmonic quality.
Shemaryahu was always a man of acts, not only of words. Alongside his role in the HUBP, he successfully filled a long list of senior academic positions. Talmon knew how to initiate big projects and put them on solid financial footing, always with an eye toward the future. In his various projects, Talmon was always keen on employing young research assistants and was especially active in their professional empowerment. Most notably, he made sure to publish at least one article jointly with each and every one of his assistants, not so much to enrich his (by then endless) list of publications, but mainly in order to pave the way for a new generation of young scholars.
Having been blessed with the gift of old age in good health, Talmon continued working at the HUBP until quite recently and lived happily with his wife, Prof. Penina Morag-Talmon, their children, and grandchildren. He was amused to notice that the recent years kept him busy producing articles for the Festschriften honoring his own students but nevertheless made great efforts to honor them with new and innovative studies. Indeed, Talmon has been a landmark in biblical scholarship, and thus should he be remembered.