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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Cyrus H. Gordon, the First American-Born, American-Trained Jewish Bible Scholar to Accede to a University Position

Gary A. Rendsburg

In Commemoration of the 350th Anniversary of Jews in North America

As the reader may know, I wrote a long and detailed obituary of Cyrus Gordon in JQR in 2001.[1] I will need to repeat some of that information here, but I also intend to take the discussion in a different direction altogether, in line with the theme of the 350th anniversary of Jews in America.

Let me begin with a basic overview of Gordon's life and career. I am able to tell this tale in large part because Gordon himself loved to relate his life story, and he did so on a number of occasions, starting with a brief overview in his 1971 book Forgotten Scripts [2] and culminating in his memoir titled A Scholar's Odyssey published in 2000.[3]

The basic facts are as follows: Gordon was born in 1908 in Philadelphia; he took his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania, and all the while he took courses both at Gratz College and at Dropsie College. His main teachers were James Montgomery at Penn and Max Margolis at Dropsie, though he also studied with such luminaries as E. A. Speiser, George Aaron Barton, and Solomon Zeitlin. His fellow students in Philadelphia included Samuel Noah Kramer at Penn and Robert Gordis at Dropsie.

Gordon spent the first half of the 1930s in the Near East as an ASOR fellow, working out of both the Baghdad and Jerusalem centers. His activities there elicit a who's who of biblical archaeology in the first half of the twentieth century. Gordon dug with Leonard Woolley at Ur, he spent time with Flinders Petrie at Tell el-'Ajjul, he worked with W. F. Albright at Tell Beit Mirsim, and he accompanied Nelson Glueck on his explorations in Transjordan. During these years in mandatory Palestine, Gordon met a number of young scholars with whom he would share long friendships and cooperative research, most notably Binyamin Mazar, Shmuel Yeivin, and H. L. Ginsberg.

When Gordon returned to the U.S. in 1935, he looked for a permanent academic position, but between the Depression and lingering anti-Semitism, none was in the offing. Gordon thus took a series of temporary positions at The Johns Hopkins University, at Smith College, and at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. During the war years, Gordon served in the U.S. military, about which I will say more later. Finally, after the war at age 38, Gordon landed his first fulltime permanent professorial position at Dropsie College in 1946. He taught at Dropsie through 1956, then at Brandeis for eighteen years, and finally at New York University for fifteen years. He retired in 1989 at the age of 81, then lived until 2001 when he died at the age of 92, ba' ba-yamim, savea' ba-hayyim.

One of Gordon's favorite lines was, "My story starts at home." [4] While this is true of all of our lives, it is particularly apt to begin with Gordon's childhood, especially given the persona of Gordon's father and how close father and son were. Gordon's father, Benjamin Gordon, was born in Lithuania and came to the U.S. as part of the great migration of Jews from Eastern Europe in the late nineteenth century. He settled in Philadelphia, was trained as a physician there, became an early and ardent Zionist, and was well connected with the upper crust of Jewish society in that venerable city.

Gordon was very proud of his father, who embraced the best of multiple worlds, the old and the new, the Jewish and the secular. A few stories will illustrate this. Among the prized treasures in Gordon's personal library was an autographed copy of Solomon Mandelkern's concordance. When we think of how invaluable this work has been to scholars for more than a century, it is almost unfathomable to comprehend the following: when Mandelkern completed his concordance in Leipzig in 1896, there were not a lot of people interested in buying his work. So Mandelkern journeyed to the U.S. in 1900 with his massive volumes, with a list of the leading Hebraists in hand, and traveled from city to city peddling his book, apparently like an encyclopaedia salesman. On this occasion, he stopped at the Gordon home in Philadelphia, and Benjamin Gordon bought a copy of the concordance, signed by the author, and it remains in the Gordon family to this day, as part of the personal library of Cyrus's oldest child Deborah.

Another glimpse of Cyrus's father can be gathered by the two names he gave his firstborn son: Cyrus Herzl Gordon. I have met only two people who were named for the great Zionist leader who died in 1904 — Cyrus Herzl Gordon and Theodor Herzl Gaster. Moses Gaster provided his son with the full name of the Zionist leader; thus, Theodor Herzl Gaster. Benjamin Gordon took a slightly different tack, as Cyrus once explained to me: his father named him after the two great ingatherers of the Jewish people, Cyrus the Great in antiquity and Theodor Herzl in the modern age. Would that any of us name our children in such fashion today!

The third episode I wish to relate turns our attention still further in the direction of the theme of Jews in America. The Gordon family was quintessentially Litvak, to use the native term for Jews from Lithuania, a term that describes not only the family's geographical origins, but much more as well: mode, flavor, and temperament, with a particular emphasis on devotion to Jewish learning, rational thinking, and an openness to secular learning as well. Such origins, however, were overlooked when it came time to deciding which synagogue in Philadelphia to join. As I intimated before, Benjamin Gordon was an enlightened man and a leader of both Jewish and general Philadelphia society. Accordingly, there was only one synagogue to join, and that was Mikveh Israel, the Sephardic congregation which dates to 1740. And how fitting that I should mention Cyrus Gordon's attachment to Mikveh Israel in this the 350th year of Jews in America, marking the founding of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York City, the sister congregation of Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia. Gordon was exceptionally proud of his association with Mikveh Israel, and whenever there was need to speak of something relevant to Jewish liturgy in the classroom, Gordon always added that he was much more familiar with Nusah Sepharad.

For those of you are not familiar with Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia, let me describe it a bit. All Jews of any standing were members of the congregation. In Gordon's day that meant Cyrus Adler, Mayer Sulzberger, various members of the Gratz family and the Dropsie family, and Gordon's teacher Max Margolis. At an earlier time, Isaac Leeser served the congregation as rabbi, as did Sabato Morais, who went on to become the first president of the Jewish Theological Seminary. If one goes back far enough, Haym Salomon, the financier of the Revolution, as he is called, was a prominent member of Mikveh Israel. In short, the synagogue was exceptionally rich in American history, and Gordon's attachment to the synagogue informed much of his very patriotic American stance.

But before moving more in that direction, I digress just for a moment to stress the point just made in passing. From an early age Gordon was taking classes at Gratz College, and already as a teenager he was taking classes at Dropsie College. All three of these institutions — Mikveh Israel, Dropsie, and Gratz — were at the time located on the same corner, at the intersection of Broad and York in North Philadelphia. Imagine that you are a 17-year-old student at Dropsie College, and your teacher Max Margolis, the president of the institution Cyrus Adler, and the chairman of the board of trustees, Mayer Sulzberger, are seated nearby in the synagogue pews. A very quick story: Gordon told me that he once noticed Margolis reading or re-reading the Haftara during the rabbi's sermon. After services, the young Gordon asked Margolis about his habit, to which the master teacher scowled, "Why listen to a bad sermon when you can read a good one!"

On a personal note, I would add how moved I was to have spent a Shabbat at Mikveh Israel about six months after Gordon died and to have heard his name included in the roster of the recently deceased during the Hashkava prayer. Such are the Sephardic traditions that Gordon loved, and the formality of Mikveh Israel especially, which holds true of Shearith Israel as well: Gordon had not been a member of the congregation for more than 60 years, and yet his passing was noted on every Shabbat during the year after his death at the recitation of the Hashkava.

To return to Gordon's formative years: as I mentioned earlier, at Penn and Dropsie Gordon studied with the best of the best in the 1920s. He once mentioned, in hindsight, how fortunate he was to have been educated in such a setting. There was no topic in the broad fields of Bible, classics, and ancient Near East in which one could not find instruction. Thus, in addition to his other illustrious teachers, I should here make mention of the fact that Gordon studied Old Persian with Roland Kent and Sanskrit with W. Norman Browne, two of the leaders in their respective fields in the twentieth century. And to top it all off, there was a first-class museum on the premises, with many of the great treasures of Nippur, among other sites, located at the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania. One never knows how and why a person develops an interest in a particular direction, but one can see the broad horizons that would characterize Gordon's career already at an early time. This was certainly true of Gordon's entrée into the world of the Aramaic magic bowls, the largest collection of which in the U.S. is housed at the Penn museum, found at Nippur in the late nineteenth century and published by Montgomery in 1913. [5]

Let me fast forward at this point to World War II. Given Gordon's patriotic flavor, it should come as no surprise that he volunteered for the Army in 1942, at the age of 33, a bit too old to become a foot soldier, but with talents in a particular area that the army recognized at once. Gordon moved to Washington, D.C., where he was appointed the head of a new cryptanalysis team that the army was forming. Not only Gordon, but other linguists as well were gathered together to use their collective ability in deciphering and analyzing coded languages. The Nazis and the Japanese sent messages in code, not just in German and Japanese, but in such languages as Arabic, Turkish, and Persian as well. It did not take long before Gordon and his team had cracked all the codes; while I do not believe that their story has been fully written or documented yet, no doubt their accomplishments played a major role in the success of the Allies' military endeavors. Incidentally, two of the other linguists present in Washington were Joseph Greenberg and Martin Joos, the former especially well known because of his later work on language classification in Africa and in the Americas,[6] the latter less famous but the author of an important book called The Five Clocks.[7] As Gordon later remarked, his cryptography work for the U.S. Army provided him with the tools that a decade later would help him in the decipherment of Minoan Linear A (a decipherment not widely accepted, but that is another matter altogether).

Never one to sit still with the same task for too long, after about two years in D.C. on this project, Gordon asked the Army for a transfer to the Near East. An opening in the Persian Gulf Command provided the perfect opportunity, and off Lieutenant Gordon went, excited at the prospect of returning to the lands he loved. Gordon made his way through the Mediterranean, then to Egypt, through Palestine and Iraq, and eventually to Iran. As I noted earlier, Gordon had studied Old Persian, and it was not long before he learned to speak Modern Persian. He had various duties in Iran, including serving as interpreter or intermediary with the local officials and rulers. One of the major efforts for the U.S. Army at this time was to secure the overland supply route through Iran to ensure a steady flow of arms to the Russian Army. The last time I saw Gordon alive, when I visited him at his house in Brookline in September 2000, he was proudly wearing a medal on his jacket pocket, recently delivered to him by the Russian government for his involvement in the lend-lease enterprise more than a half-century earlier. I mention this detail because it speaks to the love that Gordon had for this country, and that seems an appropriate point to make as we celebrate 350 years of Jewish settlement in this land.

I do not want to give you the impression that Gordon did nothing but push papers across a desk to make sure that some convoys transported rifles safely across the Iranian plateau. Somehow he found the time to engage in scholarship as well; for example, he visited the Teheran Museum and published a number of Aramaic magic bowls from that collection. In addition, he visited the major archaeological sites of ancient Persia, including the tomb of his namesake. One of his favorite photos was a picture which he fondly called "Cyrus at Cyrus," with Gordon kneeling in front of the large tomb of the founder of the Achaemenid Empire.

I want to add one more detail about Gordon and the military. During the years that Gordon taught at N.Y.U., he continued to live in Brookline and commuted to New York City. He would fly down or take the train on Wednesday morning, teach Wednesday evening, Thursday evening, and Friday morning, and then return to Boston on Friday afternoon. Where would Gordon stay? Sometimes in a local hotel — but typically he stayed at the officers' house at the U.S. Coast Guard station on Governor's Island, off the southern tip of Manhattan, conveniently located not too far from N.Y.U. He would take the subway to South Ferry in Battery Park, where a small Coast Guard ship would meet him and ferry him over to the island. By this point in his life, Gordon had achieved the rank of retired colonel, and such were the benefits that accrued to this office. But I don't think Gordon stayed on Governors Island just to save money — I think it was more a result of the pride he had for this country and in his military service, and thus Gordon kept returning to military settings whenever the opportunity arose.

With the war over, Gordon returned to Philadelphia, and there he landed his first fulltime academic position, with tenure, at his unofficial alma mater, Dropsie College. Many of his former teachers, including Solomon Zeitlin, were now his colleagues, and it was at Dropsie that Gordon began his long production line of doctoral students, beginning with G. Douglas Young, William LaSor, and Nahum Sarna, then dozens more thereafter, especially during his most fertile years at Brandeis.

Gordon was very proud of the fact that he was the first American-born American-trained Jewish professor of biblical studies to hold a university position; that is, at a place other than a seminary or similar Jewish institution. Among his slightly older contemporaries, we can point to people like Speiser, who was born in Europe, Sheldon Blank and Nelson Glueck, both born in the U.S., but educated in Germany, and H.L.Ginsberg, born in Canada but educated in London. Two individuals who deserve mention here were exact contemporaries of Gordon, namely Robert Gordis and Harry Orlinsky. All three were born in 1908; it must have been a very good year for North American Jewish Bible scholars! Gordis, as David Sperling pointed out in his very informative book Students of the Covenant, gets pride of place as the first American-born American-trained Jewish Bible scholar, having received his Ph.D. under Margolis in 1929, [8] one year before Gordon completed his training under Montgomery in 1930. Orlinsky was born in Canada, and then trained in the U.S.; by the way, he too was a student of Margolis, though the great master died soon after Orlinsky arrived at Dropsie. Most importantly, all of these North American-born individuals — Blank, Glueck, Ginsberg, Gordis, and Orlinsky — spent their academic careers at either H.U.C. or J.T.S. Only Gordon made it to the university campus, first in temporary positions at Smith and Johns Hopkins, then later in life at Brandeis and N.Y.U. Thus I repeat, Gordon's claim is correct: he indeed was the first American-born, American-trained Jewish scholar of Bible to accede to a university position.

I come now to the most characteristic trait of Gordon: his broad horizons. I think it is safe to say that no scholar of the Bible, certainly no one whom I have mentioned in this paper (with the possible exception of Gaster), had such broad horizons as Gordon. The list of fields in which he worked and made important contributions is simply staggering: field archaeology, glyptic art, cuneiform law, Amarna letters, Bible, Hebrew language, Ugaritic, Aramaic magic bowls, Nuzi tablets, Minoan Linear A, Homer and Bible, and on and on. The list of subjects that he taught includes even more fields: Egyptology, Coptic, Hittite, Hurrian, Sumerian, Classical Arabic, and more. Gordon was exceptionally proud that, beyond the usual cadre of Bible and Semitics people, he produced the best of America's Hittite, Hurrian, and Sumerian scholars: Harry Hoffner in Hittite, Fred Bush in Hurrian, and David Owen in Sumerian. Another case in point: Gordon was very proud of his student Loren Fisher, who distinguished himself in Ugaritic studies especially, but whom Gordon trained in a variety of subjects, including Coptic. Gordon loved to relate how it was Fisher who taught James Robinson Coptic when both were on the faculty at Claremont, and of course Robinson went on to become one of this country's leading experts on the Nag Hammadi texts.

I regularly teach my students about the nostos motif, which dominates ancient epic literature, a point that Gordon made time and again in his publications. [9] The Gilgamesh Epic, the Odyssey, and three important Egyptian tales — Sinuhe, the Shipwrecked Sailor, and Wenamon[10] — all share this motif: each of these texts ends with the successful homecoming of the heroic figure following his episodic journey filled with adventures and visits to distant lands. Gordon loved these stories; they spoke to his soul. And that soul was one imbued with journey, as a view of his life will indicate and indeed as the title of his memoir, A Scholar's Odyssey, reveals.

But I also tell my students that American epic culture, as much as one exists, is one that does not participate in the nostos motif. Rather, Americana revels in the hero riding off into the sunset — not returning home, but moving still further west in search of the next horizon. Whether it's Horace Greeley's slogan "go west, young man," or Huck Finn at the end of the Mark Twain classic heading into the territory, or the heroes of the western movies riding into the sunset — in all cases, Americans understand that one cannot go home again, to paraphrase yet another American author, Thomas Wolfe. No, there is no nostos on these shores — the American fabric is different, the wide expanse of this country creates a totally different mode, the next horizon beckons, and it drives us ever onward.

I wonder to what extent this aspect of the American psyche had an effect on Cyrus Gordon. Could this serve as the background of Cyrus's vision of people constantly on the move, pushing ever further from home, with trade interconnections and cultural exchanges spanning distances that most other scholars would not countenance. I refer here not only to his work on the interconnections between the Near East and the Aegean world, a conclusion, that more and more scholars accept today. I refer to even broader horizons, such as his belief that Jews, Phoenicians, and others crossed the Atlantic in antiquity. He did not convince many with his work on the Bat Creek inscription found in Tennessee or on the Paraiba inscription from Brazil, but he never backed down from these studies. And at the end of his life, he became intrigued with long-range interconnections in a different direction. The fact that the earliest Chinese writing emerged with the use of a 22-character alphabet around 1200 B.C.E. stirred his curiosity, as did the announcement that Chinese silk had been found in a Rameside tomb (though as far as I know, this latter point has not been confirmed yet).

One can never be sure to what extent the presence of element a, b, or c in one's life affects an individual's social, intellectual, or psychological development. And so we will never know to what extent the broad horizons of the American psyche affected Cyrus Gordon. But I for one am willing to posit that such was indeed the case. As such, Gordon's love for this country, his pride in military service, his delight in Mikveh Israel, and his pleasure in having attained a university position — all of this and more were part of his essence, and in the long run are most instructive in our tracing the course of his intellectual odyssey.

Gary A. Rendsburg, Rutgers University,


XXXX1. Gary A. Rendsburg, "Cyrus H. Gordon (1908-2001): A Giant Among Scholars," Jewish Quarterly Review 112 (2001): 137-43.

2. C. H. Gordon, Forgotten Scripts (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971), 144-57.

3. C. H. Gordon, A Scholar's Odyssey (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2000).

4. C.H. Gordon, Forgotten Scripts, 144.

5. J. A. Montgomery, Aramaic Incantation Texts from Nippur (Philadelphia: University Museum, 1913).

6. J. H. Greenberg, Languages of Africa (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1963); and J. H. Greenberg, Language in the Americas (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987).

7. M. Joos, The Five Clocks (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1967).

8. S. D. Sperling, Students of the Covenant: A History of Jewish Biblical Scholarship in North America (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1992), 78.

9. See especially C. H. Gordon, The Common Background of Greek and Hebrew Civilizations (New York: W. W. Norton, 1965), 102, 111, 125, 223.

10. The ending of the tale of Wenamon is not extant, but everyone agrees that by story's end the hero clearly returned home to Egypt. This conclusion is self-evident since the tale is narrated in first person.

Citation: Gary A. Rendsburg, " Cyrus H. Gordon, the First American-Born, American-Trained Jewish Bible Scholar to Accede to a University Position," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Dec 2004]. Online:


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