Leading Biblical Scholar Frank Moore Cross Dies at 91

Frank Moore Cross - 1980 - News
Frank Moore Cross in 1980

Frank Moore Cross, one of the premier biblical scholars of the past century, died on October 17, 2012, in Rochester, New York. He was 91.

Cross was Hancock Professor of Hebrew and Other Oriental Languages Emeritus at Harvard University, where he taught for 35 years before retiring in 1992.

Born on July 13, 1921, the son and grandson of Protestant ministers, Cross was educated at Maryville College (1942)—where he studied chemistry and philosophy and was a competitive swimmer—and at McCormick Theological Seminary (1946).

He received a doctorate at Johns Hopkins University in 1950. At Hopkins, his mentor was the renowned ancient Near Eastern scholar, William Foxwell Albright, and he quickly became one of Albright's most important pupils. After serving as a junior instructor at Hopkins, he went on to teach at Wellesley College and McCormick Seminary, before coming to Harvard in 1957.

Cross had a broad and deep command of the study of the Hebrew Bible and its multiple historical contexts, and he achieved distinction in several areas of the field. He was an expert in the interpretation of biblical literature, making lasting contributions to the understanding of biblical poetry (particularly its earliest phases), of the compositional development of the great historical narratives of the books of Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah, and of biblical prophecy and apocalyptic.

He was at the forefront of those investigating the history and culture of ancient Israel and of its relationships to the ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean cultures around it. Especially incisive and important was his work on the character and history of ancient Israelite religion, emphasizing its background in and adaptation of beliefs and practices from its Canaanite neighbors and forebears.

Cross was a master of ancient Semitic languages—including Hebrew, Aramaic, Ugaritic, Phoenician, and Punic—and their interrelationships from the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa. In these languages and their inscriptions he achieved special recognition as an epigrapher and paleographer.

As an epigrapher, he was regularly consulted by scholars from all over the world for his uncanny skill at deciphering and making sense of these inscriptions. As a paleographer, he produced meticulous studies of the scripts in which the inscriptions were written, reconstructing the chronological developments of these scripts and thus providing a vastly improved foundation for dating the inscriptions on the basis of the type and character of the script used.

Cross also was a specialist in the textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible. His research on the ancient manuscripts and versions of the Bible yielded new and far-reaching conclusions as to how the biblical text was composed and transmitted.

His study of the scripts of the Dead Sea Scrolls—originally completed in 1958—is still, with only minor adjustments, the essential resource for the analysis and dating of these important texts. Cross was one of the core members of the original team of experts piecing together and deciphering the often fragmentary Scrolls, and he worked on all aspects of them, publishing editions—especially of the biblical manuscripts—and a path-breaking study of the entire Dead Sea Scroll community, The Ancient Library of Qumran, which went through three English editions and one German from 1958 to 1995.

Several features distinguish Cross's scholarship. He had the ability to bring to bear on a particular problem an integrated range of skills, linguistic, literary, historical, archaeological, and philosophical. He was able to move in a fluent dialectic between the painstaking examination of minute details and a vision of the larger issues and structures to which the details could belong.

His communication skills were extraordinary. His explanations were always lucid, if at times complex, and in a chiseled prose that could manage in a few pages what others would need many more to express.

These same features also distinguished Cross's teaching. His courses introducing the Hebrew Bible and on the history of ancient Israelite religion became staples for a large and broad range of students from beginners to advanced. At the doctoral level, students came to him from North America and beyond, and in his three-and-half decades at Harvard he was the primary director of over 100 of them and their dissertations, serving many more as a member of their dissertation committees—a record unsurpassed and probably unequalled internationally in his field.

Cross was a demanding teacher and set the bar high in terms of technical competence and broad, humanistic learning. He also had a remarkable knack for taking his students to the very frontiers of knowledge in the field and imbuing them palpably with the excitement of standing at the brink of new discoveries.

He could at times appear formidable, even fearsome, but beneath the austerity was a warm human being who followed his students' careers long after they had graduated and who loved hearing as much as telling good jokes.

Humor was indeed a deep part of his character, and Mark Twain one of his favorite authors. The gentleness could be found as well in his passion for horticulture, as he was an expert cultivator, especially of orchids.

The honors that come from such a record of achievement were many: seven honorary doctorates from universities in the United States, Canada, and Israel; elections to several scholarly academies, including the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society; the presidencies and directorships of several of the major professional organizations in his field, such as the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Schools of Oriental Research; co-founder and co-chair of the Hermeneia Biblical Commentary Series and editor or editorial board member of other major series and journals; recipient of several major awards for scholarship, including the Percia Schimmel Prize in Archaeology of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, and the Medalia de Honor de la Universidad Complutense of Madrid, Spain; three volumes of studies in his honor (Festschriften) by colleagues and former students, with a fourth in preparation.

After Cross's retirement 1992, he and his wife, Elizabeth (Betty) Anne, who died in 2009, remained at their home in Lexington, Massachusetts, before moving in 2008 to a suburb of Rochester, New York, to be near one of their daughters, Ellen Gindele, and her family.

Cross is survived by three daughters: Susan Summer, Ellen Gindele, and Rachel Cross, and six grandchildren. A memorial service is planned at Harvard University's Memorial Church, Saturday, November 10, at 4 pm, with a reception to follow.

Peter Machinist is Hancock Professor of Hebrew and Other Oriental Languages at Harvard Divinity School and one of Cross's former students.