Monday, May 23, 2011

What About Those Rumors that Morton Smith Burned His Papers Just Before He Died?

Many people find it suspicious that Smith instructed his executors to destroy his personal papers after his death. Smith was not particularly interested in personal history, and wanted to be remembered for his academic work. In fact, Smith likely got the idea from his friend and respected colleague, Elias Bickerman. Read the first paragraph of Smith's necrology of Bickerman—he seemed to have respected Bickerman’s decision. More than that, it was actually Smith who Bickerman instructed to go through his personal papers and destroy them. In addition to Bickerman, Smith’s other close friend and colleague Judah Goldin instructed his papers be handled the same way. What is interesting, is that all three men didn’t destroy their papers themselves, they left it to an executor to go through their papers and preserve anything that their executor believed should be preserved as historical. When Smith died, a team of three colleagues went through his academic and personal papers, preserving and archiving some, and destroying the rest.

Not quite so dramatic as it is usually presented by the conspiracy theorists

From Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research, Vol. 50 (1983), pp. xvxviii


Elias J. Bickerman's death at the age of 85, in Jerusalem, on Aug. 31, 1981, deprived the Academy of one of its most widely learned and widely famous members, a great scholar who wished to be remembered only for his scholarship. He therefore directed that his private papers be burned without being read. Of the little information about his early life, the most reliable seems that from the brief autobiographies written by his father, Joseph, and his brother, Jacob, and published by the latter under the title Two Bikermans (Vantage Press, New York, 1975). These correct some details of the data in Who's Who, to which Elias Bickermann customarily referred those who asked about his career, and on which I therefore relied when writing the memorial notice for Gnomon (1982.223 f.).

The corrected account runs as follows:

He was born in Kishinev in the Ukraine on July 1, 1897, his mother's name being Sarah (nee Margulis). During the first year of his life the family moved to Odessa where, in October 98 (old style), his brother was born. His father, in his thirties, was a tutor and, later, gymnasium teacher, who not only supported his family, but also put himself through the university and became so well known for his political pamphlets that he was able in 1905 to go on to St. Petersburg and a brilliant career as a journalist. He became one of the leading writers for the newspaper Den ("The Day") and, briefly, its financial manager. Thus, he could send his sons to good private gymnasia (preparatory schools) from which Elias went on to the University of St. Petersburg in 1915 and there became a pupil of Rostovtzeff, later his friend and collaborator. He also entered the Russian army officers' training school at Peterhof, from which in 1917, shortly before the Bolshevik revolution, he was sent as officer to a regiment near the Persian frontier. When the regiment was disbanded he became involved in Tatar-Armenian fighting at Baku, was wounded and briefly hospitalized, but got home just in time to be drafted for the Red Army. Rescued by typhus, he was confined for some months to a hospital in Nikolaev (S. Ukraine) and thence transferred to St. Petersburg, where a job in a navy office enabled him to remain and complete his studies at the University by 1921. In that year his brother, too, was certified to have completed his university studies (in biology and chemistry) - degrees had been abolished as undemocratic. These certifications obtained, the family fled to Berlin; there, in 1922, Elias was accepted as a student at the University and Jacob found a place at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute.

From this time on the career of Elias Bickerman is known chiefly from his publications (a bibliography in preparation already lists a dozen books and a hundred articles and reviews) and from his academic degrees, positions, and honors. His doctoral work was done under Wilcken, his Ph.D. thesis being Das Edikt des Kaisers Caracalla in P. Giss. 40 (1926); his Habilitationsschrift became "Beitrage zur Antiken Urkundengeschichte I-III", Archiv fur Papyrusforschung, VIII-IX.  These studies led to his classic article, "Chronologie", in the Gercke-Norden Einleitung in die Altertumswissenschaft 111.5,1933. Along with these appeared a series of distinguished articles on problems of Greco-Roman history (especially chronology) and religion. At the same time, however, he published another series of equally distinguished articles on the Judeo-Christian tradition, beginning with "Das Messiasgeheimnis und die Komposition des Markusevangeliums", ZntW 22,1923,122-40, and having as its climax during this Berlin period his Realencyclopadie article, "Makkabaerbiicher I-III" (XIV.1.779-800). The importance of his publications was
recognized by his appointment in 1929 as Privat-Dozent at the University, where he remained till 1933.

During this period, too, he and his father were active in White Russian circles, opposing the Bolsheviks. When the Nazis came to power in 1933 Bickerman went to France, where his reputation was such that he was at once appointed Charge de Cours at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes, of which he became an Eleve diplome in 1938. In 1937 he became also Charge de recherches at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, a position he held until 1942. At the fall of Paris in 1940 he fled to Marseilles whence, shortly before or after the fall of the Vichy government, he escaped to New York. (His Who's Who summary reads "Came to the United States, 1942, naturalized, 1948", but B. Bar Kokhba, in Cathedra, 1981/2, says he stayed in Marseilles until 1943.) While in France, in spite of the turmoil around him, he continued to pour out articles of the highest quality twenty-five in ten years - and these in both of his chosen fields. Moreover, he produced in this period his two greatest books, the revolutionary Der Gott der Makkabder, Berlin, 1937, and the magisterial Institutions des Seleucides, Paris, 1938. (His German publications of this period are still signed "Bickermann", his French, "Bikerman"; his brother retained throughout life the spelling "Bikerman".)

Arriving in the United States, Bickerman (as he now became) was at first attached to the Ecole Libre in New York and the New School for Social Research, then, in 1946, became a research fellow at the Jewish Theological Seminary. A Guggenheim fellowship in 1950 and a short stay at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles were succeeded by his appointment in 1952 as Professor of Ancient History at Columbia. After his retirement in 1967 he became Professor Emeritus, spent a year at the Institute for Advanced Study, and then resumed his research fellowship at the Jewish Theological Seminary where, except for a year at the Institute for Advanced Study of the Hebrew University, he remained until his death.

His American period saw no decline in the quality of his articles; indeed, he seems to have turned to these in preference to books, for his most important books in these years - From Ezra to the Last of the Maccabees, 1962, and Four Strange Books of the Bible, 1967 - were collections of papers. As retirement from Columbia approached, however, he began revisioh and collection of his earlier works. Chronology of the Ancient World appeared in 1968 (the Who's Who date, 1967, is incorrect) and has since gone through several translations and revisions; two volumes of his papers, also revised, appeared as Studies in Jewish and Christian History I and II (1976 and 1980), a third is now at the printer's; revision of Institutions des
Seleucides was under way.

The insecurity of his early and middle years was replaced by the tranquility of his long old age. His health was in general excellent and he retained not only his extraordinary range of knowledge, but also his gift for analysis, for detecting neglected problems and proposing original solutions, which made so many of his works turning points for the study of the topics they treated - witness his recent article, "Darius I, Pseudo-Smerdis, and the Magi", Athenaeum (Pavia), n.s. 56,1978,239-261, which puts the discussion of the magi on a new footing. His achievements were recognized by many prizes and honorary degrees, and by memberships in this Academy, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the British Academy. Winters of research in New York were followed annually by summers in Europe and-the Near East to visit his many friends on both sides of the "iron curtain" and of the Arab-Israeli boundaries. The range of his friendships was no less amazing than that of his knowledge, for his kindness was no less amazing than his intelligence. Proverbs 10.7 can be revised: the remembrance of a wise man is a blessing.

Columbia University MORTON SMITH

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