On April 8, 2008, former Society of Biblical Literature President (1975-76) David Noel Freedman, Professor of History and Judaic Studies at the University of California, San Diego, died at the home of his son David and daughter-in-law Genevieve in Petaluma, California. He was 85 years old.
Freedman was born Noel Freedman on May 12, 1922, in New York City, to Beatrice and David Freedman. He deeply admired his immigrant father, a successful playwright and shtik writer for the likes of Eddie Cantor and Buster Keaton. The over-worked Freedman senior died in 1936 at age 38, and his son adopted a new first name in his honor. In his 70s and 80s, David Noel Freedman tried to bring back his father’s memory in another way, reissuing some of his works in print and arranging for a staging of his father’s first hit, Mendel, Inc.
A child prodigy in several areas, including chess, Freedman graduated from UCLA in 1939, aged 17. He subsequently attended Princeton Theological Seminary, receiving a Th.B. degree in Hebrew Bible, before embarking on doctoral studies at the Johns Hopkins University under William F. Albright, who proved a second father-figure in Freedman’s life. Exhibiting a penchant for originality that would characterize his entire career, Freedman earned his Ph.D. degree in 1948 by writing two (!) dissertations together with Frank M. Cross, Jr. These seminal works on the history of Hebrew spelling and on archaic biblical poetry were later published as The Evolution of Early Hebrew Orthography and Studies in Ancient Yahwistic Poetry.
Freedman held a series of professorial and administrative positions at various theological seminaries (Western Theological Seminary, Pittsburgh; Pittsburgh Theological Seminary; San Francisco Theological Seminary; Graduate Theological Union), before settling into long, overlapping tenures at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (1971-92) and UCSD (1986-2008). His alumni hold teaching positions in dozens of universities, colleges and seminaries around the nation, not to mention the hundreds of clergy that passed under his tutelage. (Inconceivable to those who knew him only as a wizened senior, some will remember his challenge to take on all comers in tennis; he rarely lost!)
During a career of 60 years, Freedman wrote, co-authored or edited 470 books and articles on the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and archaeology. Some of these proved controversial, but Freedman’s attitude toward the work of others was, “Let a thousand flowers bloom!” He was the most uncensorious of men, and his unpretentious demeanor earned him the love of hundreds of students, colleagues and readers. Freedman was a tireless spokesman for the beauty, interest and relevancy of the Bible and biblical studies. His work affected a variety of cultural communities, with fans including Jews and Christians of all stripes, plus numerous secularists.
It is too soon to identify Freedman’s personal contribution to biblical studies. His interests were so wide-ranging, and so unique, that they seem to have stood apart from their time. But Freedman’s other legacy is already crystal-clear. There never was such an entrepreneur-facilitator-collaborator-disseminator of biblical scholarship. His own formidable intellect and inordinate capacity for work, combined with a rare affability, qualified Freedman to lead a variety of enterprises—as archaeological director (Ashdod), as director of the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research (1969-70, 1976-77), as journal editor (Journal of Biblical Literature [1955-59], Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research [1974-78], Biblical Archaeologist [1976-82]), and book editor. In the last capacity, he oversaw the publication of hundreds of popular and technical works, especially in the Anchor Bible Series, now at around 120 volumes.
Freedman never retired, having fought years earlier for the abolition of mandatory retirement at UC. His life was his work and his work his life. Until the week of his death, he was engaged in editing manuscripts and teaching UCSD graduate students via webcam. At the close of what proved to be his final session, he proposed to use the Internet, a new discovery to him, to bring 10,000 viewers into his classroom!
Like his revered mentor Albright, David Noel Freedman functioned as the “nerve-center” of American biblical scholarship for his day. With his passing, we both mourn and celebrate. His light is extinguished, but he died full of years, with his faculties and passion intact. Requiescat in pace; `alav hashalom.
See the tribute to David Noel Freedman in Biblical Archaeology Review