Into the Great Beyond

It is a sobering moment when one of your advisors shuffles off the mortal coil. Just a year after my master’s degree, Harrell Beck, my program advisor passed away amid a flurry of unusual happenings. Just a few years back, Simon Parker, his colleague and an Ugaritologist who befriended me, also slipped into the netherworld. I just received the obituary of John C. L. Gibson, my doctoral advisor from Edinburgh, reminding me that my obvious concerns with death and religion in this blog have a very practical application. We all have to face it sometime, and hopefully our legacy will be a good one.

Professor Gibson was best known for his revision of outdated but valuable reference materials. His work as a Semitic linguist was highly regarded, but he didn’t wander too far from convention. As a clergyman in the Scottish Kirk, he had natural constraints. He also had a clever way of turning a phrase. Late in my time at Edinburgh University, I started to keep a list of his aphorisms. If I’d started earlier I might have some more nuggets to lay out here, but I thought it a fitting tribute to a fine gentleman scholar who always took a dram with his breakfast to pass along a few of his choice quotes in this post. You’ll have to do your best to imagine the Scottish burr —

“Don’t lead with your chin” (this was in the context of taking on academic debate).

“Skullduggery is just around the corner in archaeology.”

“Archaeologists and epigraphers shoot each other on sight” (this was in reference to Ebla).

“In Job the daring word is often the right one.”

“If you want to stand against him, do so. But get your armor on first!” (This remark came after I challenged a time-honored thesis by the late James Barr, while he was still early.)

“Every word in Arabic refers to a part of a camel as well as something else.”

“Inscriptions like Ajrud, they’re a nuisance; they shouldn’t be there.” (Kuntillet Ajrud is the site of one of the famous “Yahweh and his Asherah” inscriptions.)

“Who is Asherah and what is she doing here with Yahweh?” (In the same conversation as the previous comment.)

“Turning pages is a major activity of scholarship.”

There were, of course, many more. Professor Gibson will always remain a large part of my Edinburgh experience. Sitting in his pipe-smoke during one of my sessions, I noticed he had no computer. “Ach, aye, they offered me one, but I wouldna used it,” he explained. He didn’t even own a typewriter. In my mind, his passing is like the passing of old school scholarship itself.

J. C. L. Gibson, a cipher, and Nicolas Wyatt

J. C. L. Gibson, a cipher, and Nicolas Wyatt

3 thoughts on “Into the Great Beyond

    • Steve Wiggins

      Yes, James — it was nearly a year ago. Either my channels of communication are very slow or I’m getting forgetful! I had an alumni magazine from Edinburgh yesterday with his obituary and I was pretty sure it was the first I’d heard of it. He was quite an influence on me, but I’ve been out of the academic loop for a while now. Thanks for checking up!


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