Peter Machinist on Retirement, Biblical Studies, and Jewish Identity

February 24, 2016
Peter Machinist
Peter Machinist retired at the end of the fall 2015 semester. / Photo: Steve Gilbert

This past fall, after 24 years, Peter Machinist retired from full-time teaching as the Hancock Professor of Hebrew and other Oriental Languages at Harvard University, serving as faculty both in the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations department and at Harvard Divinity School.

Machinist received his AB from Harvard and his PhD from Yale, and took over the chair from his own mentor and undergraduate thesis adviser, Dr. Frank Moore Cross.

As he prepares for the next phase of academic life, HDS communications sat down with Machinist in his office in the Harvard Semitic Museum to talk about the trajectory of his career, how Harvard has changed since he was a student in the early '60s, and why biblical studies is such a hard field to pin down.

HDS: This fall, you taught two courses, one on Bible reception history and one on law in biblical society. Why were these your final courses to teach?

PM: It's a good question. For the reception history course, there was a degree of symmetry, as it was one of the courses I taught in my first year here, so this allowed me a degree of closure. It's a course I have taught many times. I hadn't offered in a few years, and I felt there were some students who should have the chance to take it, because it provided a kind of overview of the field.

The law course I've taught only once before, a couple of years ago. But since law is such a fundamental part of what the Bible is, I felt there ought to be a course on it in biblical studies.

HDS: It seems Bible courses often focus on the narrative portions, the stories. But the Bible is also a law book, and that gets less attention.

PM: Yes, exactly. But the laws are encased in narratives, and the relationships between the two are one of the topics we discussed a lot in the course.

HDS: As a doctoral student at Yale University, you really trained as an Assyriologist. But now, in looking at much of your research, it seems pretty focused on the Bible. Does that reflect a shift in your interests over time?

PM: Only to some degree. I regard myself in many ways as a historian of the ancient Near East, with two centers of attention: one on ancient Israel and the other on Mesopotamia, and if push comes to shove I would say my attention on Mesopotamia is directed more to Assyria than to Babylonia, but you can't divide these things too sharply.

I first got interested in Assyriology through the Hebrew Bible. As an undergraduate here at Harvard, where I concentrated in the Near Eastern Languages department, I did read independently about and was involved in courses on Mesopotamia, but my focus was largely on the Hebrew Bible. I studied Hebrew and Greek, but didn't do any work in the Mesopotamian languages, Akkadian and Sumerian, until graduate school, where I put my attention on Assyriology.

While at Yale, I really didn't do much formal work in biblical studies. But I always continued to read in the field of Bible, and I taught, as a graduate assistant at Yale, Biblical Hebrew. Through reading and talking with colleagues and building on the undergraduate work I had done at Harvard, I kept up my interest in the biblical side of things. And as I did so, my subsequent teaching and my writing and research began to turn more to the Hebrew Bible, and not just strictly Mesopotamia. Nonetheless, I have continued to write on Mesopotamia and then on topics that have brought together Mesopotamia and Israel. From time to time I still have taught Akkadian here at Harvard, including last spring where I did a course on the Gilgamesh epic.

HDS: There is so much written in Akkadian and Sumerian! It shocked me when I first realized that. 

PM: Oh, yes. Even with all the disruptions in the Middle East now, and the sharp reduction in excavations there, the amount of unpublished material already in the major museums of the world in Akkadian and Sumerian is enough to keep people busy for the next couple of centuries.

HDS: It seems like language study has been a really important part of your work.

PM: Definitely. You have to be able to understand and evaluate the ancient evidence in the original.

HDS: Language skills are often the hardest obstacle for students in ancient fields. You say you got into this field through the Bible. When did that interest start?

PM: I got fascinated with all of this in high school. I went to a boarding school, a private high school, and a number of things happened to me there. First, I realized I did not have the mathematical aptitude to become a nuclear physicist. I grew up in the '50s, when the physicists were the intellectual elite. The most brilliant of them were multilingual, some of them later moved into the life sciences, and I wanted to be one of them. But in high school I was quickly disabused of that notion.

At about that time, a second thing intervened, and that was Latin. I took Latin for three years. And at the end of my freshman year in high school, my parents took my sister and me to Europe, and we visited the Roman city of Pompeii. To see a city come back like that, literally from the dead, as the archeology at the site allowed, was just an overwhelming experience. And I said: this is for me. 

And then the third element came in at roughly the same time. I was one of the relatively few Jewish students at my school, and my non-Jewish friends often asked me what Judaism was all about. In trying to compose an answer, I found myself going back to origins, and thus to the Bible and the ensuing Second Temple period. That kind of antiquity complemented the work I was doing in Latin, and by the end of my sophomore year the Latin and the Jewish issue began to fuse, and I said again: this is for me.

HDS: And then you started working with Frank Cross already in your freshman year. How did you meet him?

PM: Well, what happened was he came to an event at Harvard Hillel—I don't think it was an Oneg Shabbat; it may have been another occasion on the weekend. Anyway, he spoke about ancient Hebrew poetry, biblical texts like the Shirat Dvorah (the Song of Deborah) or the Shirat HaYam (the Song of the Sea). And I didn't know anything about the scholarship he was talking about: the ways in which it was possible linguistically, and therefore technically, to know that these were the oldest pieces of writing in Hebrew that we have, and from knowing that you could learn all sorts of things about ancient Israel.

That you could do this, that you could take these poems not merely as entertaining stories, but as subjects amenable to the kind of rigorous intellectual study that is supposedly what university education is all about, this showed me that the Bible does indeed belong in a university setting, and that it requires, just like any discipline, certain professional skills and can be judged by certain technical standards. I came to see that professional biblical studies do not have to depend on what community or religion you might come from.

All of this just blew me away. I was, to repeat, a freshman at the time—it was my first semester. This was really when I got into contact with the Bible as a serious intellectual project. When I heard Cross talk about archaic Hebrew poetry, I knew this was it for me. This was what I wanted to pursue.

HDS: The Bible became something respectable?

PM: That's right. It is something you don't have to be embarrassed about studying at Harvard or anywhere.

HDS: So you started taking courses in the NELC department?

PM: Yes, in my second freshman semester, but before that, indeed not long after I heard Prof. Cross' talk at Hillel, I went to see him at his office. I tried to impress him with what knowledge I had accumulated, and I managed to mispronounce the name of practically every scholar I had come across. And then we moved to the subject of the Dead Sea Scrolls, on which he had become one of the really major experts. I told Cross that I had been reading two books on the scrolls by the Yale scholar, Millar Burrows, and he gently replied, did I perhaps know that he himself had published a book on the scrolls? Then, I said something that in hindsight I still don't know how I possessed the temerity and stupidity to say, namely, "Yes, I heard about your book, but I figured that having read these other two books it was enough for now." He took it very kindly, but I still can't believe I said that, all the more so because his book was, in fact, one of the seminal studies of the scrolls.

HDS: You took over the position from Dr. Cross in 1992, and you are the first non-Protestant, indeed non-Christian, to hold your academic chair since its establishment in 1764. Did that feel significant?

PM: I suppose it was in a way. The main thrust of academic biblical scholarship over the last several centuries in Europe and North America was Protestant. Even though there were major Catholic and Jewish figures involved, they did not as a group come to play an important role until the twentieth century, and then, more after World War II. So the Hancock position, with its ties to Harvard Divinity School as well as to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, mirrored the broader scholarly picture. My appointment came at a time when non-Protestant Christians, Jews, and non-religious scholars were finally becoming equal partners with their Protestant colleagues.

Let me add a personal note. I grew up in a Reform Jewish community. The original deed for the Hancock Chair specified that the holder had to be of "the Protestant Reformed Religion." Although such a restriction was judged no longer valid by the time my appointment was considered, still, in a bit of whimsy, some in the appointments committee asked whether the problem could be avoided simply by dropping the –ed from Reformed, since, after all, I came from a Reform background!

HDS: Biblical studies is a funny field, because unlike other academic subjects, there is a much broader group of people who seriously study it, and the consequences of such study are religiously relevant. Do you think that affects the way people approach it?  

PM: The Bible is a cultural icon for many different communities, and even for those who are not believers it has been a kind of backbone or foundation for the way they have looked at the world. The Bible is an interesting problem in this regard. Because it is a cultural icon, everybody feels as if it's a common property and it should be accessible—and I can't disagree with them! It is common property, and it should be accessible!

But, on the other hand, as you well know, you can study the Bible on many different levels. You can read it as a group of stories that you first learned in grade school—and some of it functions that way: some are intended to be wonder stories, like those of Elijah and Elisha. But obviously there is another level on which the Bible functions: as a very deeply structured and historically conditioned attempt to grapple with the reality that the biblical authors saw all around them. To appreciate that requires study and training.

HDS: Do you think of yourself as a religious person?

PM: I'm not a particularly observant person, I have to say. My religious identity is historical. That's who I am as a person; that's who I am as a Jew: I'm a historical Jew—a Jew whose identity is through the historical Jewish people. Theologically, I am not so certain about things, and I think this uncertainty is true even of people of faith—there will often, maybe always, be a struggle with doubt if you read such people carefully enough. I grew up, as I've said, in a Reform Jewish background. So there were various gaps in traditional Jewish learning that I've been trying to fill in ever since, and I will never completely do that. But I was and remain certainly alive to my Jewish identity, and my folks were as well.

HDS: It sounds like textual study has most inspired you on a personal level. Does that seem true?

PM: Yes. Judaism is a text-soaked tradition, and I feel myself part of that.

HDS: So what are the plans now that you are retiring?

PM: I would like to be able to give talks, do some teaching, an occasional course, if that's possible: I would like to leave that open for myself. I'm interested in a lot of things. I love to read biographies; it's a kind of licensed voyeurism. I used to play tennis, not anymore; I'm not an athlete. I love music, although I am a passive participant, since I am no musician. My wife, though, has started studying the clarinet recently, and so music has always been part of our lives. That will continue. I tend to read a lot of things, especially history and social sciences, but I don't read much fiction. That will be a project, to start reading more fiction. Lastly, I hope my wife and I will have more of a chance to see our children and to travel.

HDS: Any last advice or wisdom for students considering further study?

PM: The advice I give my doctoral students comes usually at the beginning, when they're thinking about whether they want to come into a field like this. And it is: you have to do something that you have a passion for. Otherwise, there are too many disincentives. Getting a job in a field like this isn't easy. I've been very fortunate; I've had some talent too, but also a lot of luck.

Of course, you do have to have some talent for the field you want to enter, but you must have the passion, or to put it in Jeremiah's words, the fire in your belly, so that you can go on even when it is frustrating and painful to do so. If you don't get a job, okay, but you should give yourself time to find that out. And if you don't, the talents you would have acquired are transferrable to other professions, to other work.

HDS: This is a field where people are suspicious of passion, at times.

PM: I mean, there are different kinds of passions. Passion doesn't have to mean wild, uncontrolled, orgiastic behavior. It can be that. But I mean it as something where, if you ask me who I am, what my identity is, part of my answer—a fundamental part—will involve what I do. So I'd like to think of this retirement not as a total break—now I am going to become a bank robber or something—but as a continuation, in a different format, of what I've been doing.

HDS: Was there ever an option to not be a professor?

PM: As far back as I can think, I've wanted to teach. The question was what.

HDS: And how do you teach?

PM: I feel very strongly that particularly the graduate students—but the undergraduates are also part of this—have to know something about the field they are getting into, and that means learning the stories of those who have worked in the field before them. And they will add to the stories; and if you don't tell these stories, then you are not part of the shalshelet (the chain of tradition). We're all links in this big chain, and everybody has something to contribute. And that’s the way I teach.