A 50-Year Conversation About the Hebrew Bible

A 50-Year Conversation About the Hebrew Bible

In 1968, three JTS professors helped found the Hebrew Bible Seminar of Columbia University. Moshe Held, who taught at both JTS and Columbia, often lamented the absence of an institution in the New York metropolitan area where those with a professional interest in the Hebrew Bible could get together and “talk shop.” When he heard that Columbia had launched a scholars’ seminar on the New Testament, he had the idea to create a regular forum for Hebrew Bible scholars, as well.

Clearly, the founders were on to something, as the seminar turned 50 last November and continues to meet regularly, according to David Marcus, JTS professor of Bible and Masorah. Marcus and two other JTS faculty members were among 35 scholars from New York and beyond who celebrated the seminar’s anniversary in a program sponsored by JTS’s Office of the Provost. Stephen Garfinkel, associate provost and assistant professor of Bible and Its Interpretation, and Robert Harris, associate professor of Bible and Ancient Semitic Languages, were also on hand.

Since its inception, the seminar has been a cross-denominational and ecumenical gathering. Besides Held, the original founders included H.L. Ginsberg and Yohanan Muffs from JTS, along with Bible scholars from Hebrew Union College and Union Theological Seminary. Since their first gathering in November 1968, seminar members have been meeting about eight times a year—almost monthly during the academic year.

What accounts for the group’s longevity? According to Marcus, it’s been “a fertile place for scholars to test out their ideas,” the vast majority of which, he notes, have subsequently turned into published papers.  In addition, “if a person is the only Bible scholar at their institution, the seminar is where they can find other people who ‘speak their language’,” Marcus said.

Bible scholars from as far away as Princeton, Yale, and the University of Pennsylvania—and of course, JTS and Columbia—continue to attend the seminar. In the 2017-2018 academic year, members presented lectures on subjects including “Jehoram Spills His Guts” and “The Samaritan Pentateuch, a Document in Permanent Evolution.”

At the 50th anniversary evening, Professor David Sperling of Hebrew Union College, and a former JTS adjunct faculty member, gave the keynote address, tracing the history of the seminar with a focus on the contributions of Ginsberg and Held. Other members offered their own reminiscences, as well.

To mark the anniversary, a special booklet has been printed listing every scholar who’s made a presentation to the seminar over the past 50 years. For a digital copy, contact David DeLauro, a PhD candidate in the Gershon Kekst Graduate School and the group’s coordinator, at ddelauro@scholarsgateway.com.