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David Freedman, Class of 1935

By: Dr. Astrid B. Beck, University of Michigan, Bar Magazine

David Noel Freedman, beloved friend, colleague, mentor, world-class Biblical scholar, human being par excellence, passed away on April 8, 2008, at age 85.

In his academic career that spanned more than 60 years, Freedman was equally a superb teacher, a producer of original research, a foremost editor of critical works and an entrepreneur. He wrote, co-authored, or edited 470 books and articles on Hebrew Bible, New Testament, the Dead Sea Scrolls and archaeology.

Freedman is perhaps best known as the meticulous general editor of the three-pronged Anchor Bible project (New York: Doubleday; now with Yale University Press), which consists of the Anchor Bible Critical Commentaries, the six-volume Anchor Bible Dictionary, and the Anchor Bible Reference Library. He was general editor of the series, which now comprises more than 90 books, for more than 50 years.

Freedman also edited the leading journals of his field: the Journal of Biblical Literature (JBL; 1955–1959), the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research (BASOR; 1974–1978) and Biblical Archaeologist (BA; 1976–1982).

He co-directed the archaeological excavations at the Philistine site of Ashdod from 1962 to 1964 with James Swauger (Carnegie Museum) and Moshe Dothan (Israel Department of Antiquities). These excavations were published only three years later. As director of the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in 1969–1970, and again in 1976–1977, he raised funds and upgraded the building and site into what it is now, renaming it in honor of his mentor, William Foxwell Albright.

In all this, he also served as vice-president of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) from 1970 to 1982, and as President of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) in 1975–1976. He was tireless in his work, in his vivacious interest in the Bible, in its relevancy and beauty of composition, in its applicability to every nuance of our lives, even today.

Born in New York City on May 12, 1922, he was the second child of Beatrice and David Freedman, second-generation Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe. He maintained that his mother named him Noel after the Romantic poet Lord Byron, whose middle name was Noel, because he was such a beautiful baby. His father, David Freedman, became a successful playwright and comedy writer for entertainers like Eddie Cantor, Fanny Brice and Buster Keaton. He suddenly died of heart failure in December 1936. Noel later took his father’s name, David. Young Noel was a child prodigy who graduated from the prestigious Townsend Harris High School in 1935 (at age 13) from UCLA in 1939 (at age 17) from Princeton Seminary in 1944, and from Johns Hopkins University with a Ph.D. under William Foxwell Albright in 1948. In between, he served as pastor of two Presbyterian churches in rural Washington state in 1944–1945. At the end of that year, Albright pressured him to accept his scholarship and return to graduate studies. He married Cornelia Anne Pryor in 1944. She died in 2005.

Freedman completed his Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins in 1948 under William Foxwell Albright by writing two dissertations together with Frank Cross, Jr. They were seminal works on the history of Hebrew spelling and on archaic Biblical poetry, later to be published as The Evolution of Early Hebrew Orthography and Studies in Ancient Yahwistic Poetry.

His first teaching appointment was at Western Theological Seminary (later the Pittsburgh Theological Union) from 1948 to 1965, San Francisco Seminary and the Graduate Theological Union (1965–1971) before he settled into the long, overlapping tenures at the University of Michigan (1971–1992) and the University of California, San Diego (UCSD; 1986–2008). At Michigan, he was director of the Program on Studies in Religion. He was recruited to UCSD by Richard Elliott Friedman, his “namesake,” not a relative; there he held the newly created Endowed Chair in Hebrew Biblical Studies.

On the morning of his last day of life, he was happily teaching his San Diego seminar, in collaboration with Bill Propp, via webcam from his son’s home in Petaluma, California, where he was recuperating from recent surgery. At the close of what was to be his final session with his class, he proposed using the Internet to bring his classroom to 10,000 viewers. This, from a man who didn’t use computers but, as Hershel Shanks said, answered every letter promptly on his typewriter.

I knew him to be a warm, unfailingly generous and compassionate man. He wrote thousands of heartfelt letters of recommendation, each a personal missive; he was never too busy. He wrote joint articles with his students, just as Albright had done, to get them into publication. He provided financial assistance and assistantships of all sorts. He forgave grave insults. Forgiveness, to him, was the essence of Christianity. He could accept teasing. He loved people. He was ever kind. I will miss him more than I can ever say, as will many of you, readers, friends, colleagues, who mourn his passing. Good night, sweet prince.