Frank Moore Cross: An Appreciation


By Jonathan Rosenbaum

Frank Moore Cross, a giant in the field of biblical studies and the ancient Near East, passed away at the age of 91 on October 17,2012. In a field rich with polymaths, Professor Cross stood at the pinnacle for his seminal scholarship, pedagogic devotion, professional leadership, personal warmth and humor, and intellectual accessibility. His ongoing influence on the scholarship of Israelite history, the Dead Sea Scrolls, literary forms, text criticism, Northwest Semitic paleography, orthography, and epigraphy, and typographical methodology attest to the brilliance of his analyses.

The eponymous son of a Presbyterian minister, Frank Moore Cross received a B.A. from Maryville College (1942) and then followed his father’s path, earning a Bachelor of Divinity from McCormick Theological Seminary (1946). Impressed by his father’s words that the pulpit made the pursuit of scholarship difficult, he pursued doctoral studies under William F. Albright, completing his Ph.D. in 1950. Even among Albright’s coterie of gifted graduate students, Cross distinguished himself. With a dual dissertation, he and David Noel Freedman documented early Hebrew orthography and the archaic aspects of Hebrew poetry. By comparing Hebrew poetry to Northwest Semitic inscriptions, Cross and Freedman were able to propose and defend the dating of Hebrew poetry.

Scholars quickly recognized Cross’s precocity and by 1953, at the age of 32, he received an appointment to the International Committee for Editing the Dead Sea Scrolls. His myriad contributions to the study of the Dead Sea Scrolls appear in volumes from the beginning of his academic career to his later years (The Ancient Library of Qumran and Modern Biblical Studies [1958] and Qumran Cave 4: Genesis to Number [1994]) and in numerous articles.

In 1957, Cross was appointed Hancock Professor of Hebrew and Other Oriental Languages, Harvard’s third oldest chair. For 35 years until becoming emeritus, he crafted a career that contributed to the scholarly endeavor as few have. In 1973 he produced Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, his magnum opus, whose depth and breadth continue to influence the scholarly understanding of the Hebrew Bible. By applying the fruits of Near Eastern archaeology and epigraphy to biblical studies, Cross produced creative and original proposals for understanding the origins of Israelite religion, the development of the biblical canon, and meticulous approaches for reconstructing the history of biblical events. In this tome and in its later continuation, From Epic to Canon: History and Literature in Ancient Israel (1998), he was never cowed by scholarly fads, including attempts to undermine in part or whole the historicity of biblical texts. Simultaneously, he was no literalist. Rather, he applied rigorous, critical methodologies to reconstructing ancient Israel, reaching his conclusions as the data dictated. As his student, P. Kyle McCarter, stated in his preface to Eretz Israel, volume 26, a Festschrift dedicated to Professor Cross (his third), though a gentleman in every sense, Frank Moore Cross did not suffer fools gladly. He eschewed the gratuitous negation of history or its politicization.

Each of Cross’s books and monographs was an outgrowth of years of previous scholarly activity. Indeed, most were compilations of his earlier scholarship that he then incorporated into a larger, more revealing patterns. By the time of his passing, he had published some 300 works, primarily scholarly articles. Many of those publications endure as essential resources for reference and citation, remaining standard works decades after their first appearance.

A key illustration of this persistent impact can be seen in his studies of epigraphy and paleography. As an epigrapher of Canaanite, Aramaic, Hebrew, Phoenician, Punic, Edomite, Moabite, and Ammonite, he deciphered and annotated numerous inscriptions and placed them in an historical context that his broad control of the primary evidence and secondary literature of the ancient Near East and Mediterranean society allowed him to see. As paleographer, he spanned the entire corpus of Northwest Semitic from the emergence of alphabetic script. With his rigorous methodology, he established numerous interlocking paleographic typologies that allowed difficult inscriptions, some of doubtful provenance, to be located in historically defensible periods.  This work not only facilitated the dating of numerous epigraphs, but also provided a foundation on which to identify forgeries. His article, “The Development of the Jewish Scripts” (1961) remains the basis for the chronology of Qumran and his Leaves from an Epigrapher’s Notebook (2003) demonstrates the breadth of his output.

Cross’s contributions to the field did not end with his own publications. A member of numerous editorial boards, he served as president of both the Society of Biblical Literature and ASOR (1974-1976). During his long career, he directed Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem (now the Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology) and the Harvard Semitic Museum, was annual professor of the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, and directed or co-directed three archaeological excavations and surveys.

By itself, such scholarship and service would confirm the greatness of any academic career, but scholarship was simply the underpinning of Frank Moore Cross’s contribution. During his years at Harvard, he directed more than 100 doctoral dissertations, an achievement in the humanities that is rare if not unique. In an academic era when many prolific scholars regarded teaching as a necessary burden, Professor Cross enthusiastically developed a pedagogical methodology designed to benefit his students. As one of them, I saw firsthand the elegance of his approach.

Unlike some of the Academy’s elite, he treated his students as equals. Whether in private conferences or Harvard’s Hebrew 200 seminar at which graduate students were expected to produce publishable papers, he would respectfully solicit opinions from students, challenging them gently but firmly to defend their positions, always regarding them as colleagues to be. We knew that we were just beginning our careers, but the combination of his collegial recognition and confidence in us made us want to strive above all to deserve the accolade he willingly gave us on credit.

He did not presume that his views were correct. He encouraged debate and dissent from his students, often urging them to differ with him in print.

He was intellectually generous. On numerous occasions, when he saw a topic worthy of inquiry, he would mention it to a student who then pursued it to scholarly renown. When asked to take co-authorship or other acknowledgment, he would decline, preferring that his students receive the reward.

Completing the Ph.D. with Professor Cross (despite his invitation, like so many others I could never call him “Frank”) was only the beginning. Despite his arduous research schedule, teaching load, leadership of professional societies, and devotion to his family, he was always available. A letter describing a proposal for explicating an epigraph would invariably receive a prompt and painstaking reply. When even in midcareer, we needed advice about next steps, we always knew we could turn to him.

Some will understandably see the passing of Frank Moore Cross as the close of an era, but in fact, no end is in sight. In an academic career spanning more than six decades, Cross laid the foundation for future scholarship of the ancient Near East, the Hebrew Bible, and ancient Israel. The numerous scholars around the world who continue to study his works, whether in English, German, or Japanese, though they never studied with him in person, will help advance the field to which he devoted his life. The more than 100 scholars who wrote their dissertations under his guidance have now taught numerous students of their own who in turn have taken their places in the Academy and have trained new generations. With his passing thus, Cross leaves students, grandstudents, and great-grandstudents, intellectual peers devoted to critical scholarship and its application to reconstructing the civilization of the ancient Near East.

Frank Moore Cross took special pride in his family. His beloved Elizabeth Ann, herself of blessed memory, and their three daughters, may they live and be well, were the foci of his life. Many of his students can remember the special pleasure of accepting invitations to their home where each guest was greeted with the warmth and wit that characterized both husband and wife. Professor Cross’s daughters and their families are his personal legacy while all who are ennobled by his scholarship, whether students, colleagues, or readers, will also remain his intellectual and spiritual children. His words will thus endure and through his inspiration, future scholarship will emerge from the minds of those not yet born who will nevertheless consider themselves his heirs.

יהי זכרו ברוך  May his memory ever be for a blessing.

 Jonathan Rosenbaum is President Emeritus of Gratz College and Professor Emeritus of Jewish Studies there.  He is also a Visiting Scholar at University of Pennsylvania.



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6 thoughts on “Frank Moore Cross: An Appreciation

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  4. Thank you, Jonathan. Your paragraphs about how Professor Cross treated his students capture my experience beautifully and completely. He graced our lives personally and professionally.

  5. Although it ought not to matter, but it does in America, I am African- American and I too am a southern. Dr. Cross treated me as if my opinion mattered as I dared to bring race into the discussion of Old Testament he never blinked. When I began claiming that the Old Testament is filled with people of color. He smiled and said, “Miriam the sister of Moses was struck with leprosy for her sinfulness. That is, her skin was turned white as snow.” He smiled, again and said, “ her curse was satisfactory.” He never tried to make me feel unwelcomed or stupid. Dr. Cross took time to walk and talk with me as a first year Master’s of Theological Studies student. Often it is the little things that people do that suggest who they are. I am grateful to have gotten and opportunity to study with such a giant in the field of Biblical Archeology.

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