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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Michael Patrick O'Connor, 1950-2007Jo Ann Hackett

Michael Patrick O'Connor, Ordinary Professor and Chair of the Department of Semitics at Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, died unexpectedly on Saturday, June 16, 2007. The cause was cancer, which was not identified or incapitating until a few days before his death. He was 57 years old.

O'Connor received his A.B. in English from Notre Dame (1970), and an M.A. in creative writing from the University of British Columbia (1972; in 1989 he published a volume of poems, Pandary); he then turned to ancient Near Eastern studies, taking his A.M. (1974) and Ph.D. (1978) at the University of Michigan. After working as a freelance scholar for a number of years, he taught at Saint Paul Seminary School of Divinity of the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN, and then at Union Theological Seminary in New York, before joining the faculty of Catholic University of America.

O'Connor's intellectual interests ranged broad and wide, but he is best known for two books. The first is Hebrew Verse Structure (Eisenbrauns 1980; second addition with Afterword 1997), a revision of his 1978 University of Michigan dissertation, in which he relies on a syntactic description of BH poetry, as well as linguistic comparison from languages often far removed from BH, to offer a new vision of the way such poetry should be read and understood. The 1997 Afterword is a fascinating and revealing look back at the disappointingly narrow reception of his monumental and intricate analysis and will, it is hoped, revive interest in his alternate explanations for Hebrew Bible scholars who must necessarily have an understanding of how its poetry worked. The second book is commonly called "Waltke-O'Connnor," but actually carries the title An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Eisenbrauns 1990). Bruce Waltke had long hoped to publish his intermediate Hebrew class material, and O'Connor joined Waltke to create a detailed and up-to-date book that advances the student well beyond first-year study. As in O'Connor's earlier book on poetry, assertions are illustrated with copious biblical examples so that the student (and teacher) can both understand the assertions in a concrete way and evaluate its appropriateness. IBHS has been the most-cited, and perhaps the most influential, book on Hebrew grammar to appear in recent decades.

Other areas in which O'Connor worked included alphabetic writing and the ways ancient alphabetic writers analyzed their language, the grammar of early Aramaic and other inscriptional Northwest Semitic dialects, Hebrew lexicography, and onomastics. There are also many reviews and contributions to encyclopedic works. At the time of his death he was preparing a commentary on Esther. (Less known to biblical scholars are several volumes on aphasic grammar, published in the early 1990s, that O'Connor co-edited and contributed to.) Everything he published was painstakingly researched, tightly argued, and written with admirable clarity. O'Connor also often worked in the background, helping and collaborating with other scholars in a variety of ways, always wonderfully generous with his time, his vast knowledge and reading, and his advice.

As a friend, Michael Patrick was a gem. His sense of humor was, to say the least, somewhat wry; he spoke his mind and was sometimes seen as harsh because of that, but his comments were right on and as often self-deprecating as critical. He was a constant friend and a delightful correspondent, staying in touch with regular emails and with entertaining postcards sent from the sometimes unusual locales he visited. He will be sorely, sorely missed.

Michael Patrick O'Connor was born in Orchard Park, NY, a suburb of Buffalo, where he has now been buried. He is survived by his mother, his sister Kathleen, and his brother John.

Jo Ann Hackett and John Huehnergard (with thanks to Jim Eisenbraun; photo by Peter T. Daniels, 10-22-06)


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