Recognized this year as a Peter J. Gomes, STB ’68 Distinguished Alumni Honoree, Ephraim Isaac’s sixty-year career includes an almost absurd number of achievements.
As an academic, Isaac, BD ’63, has taught at Princeton—both the university and the seminary—as well as Hunter, Bard, Hebrew University, and, most notably, Harvard, where he received his PhD and was in 1969 the first faculty appointment in the new African and African American Studies Department. In 1999, the University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences established the “Ephraim Isaac Prize for Excellence in African Languages,” particularly appropriate in light of the fact that Isaac is conversant in 17 different tongues.
The study of religion has both inspired and informed Isaac’s prolific efforts as a peacemaker. A co-founder of the Ad Hoc Ethiopian Peace Committee and the Peace and Development Organization, Isaac has worked to end conflicts in the Middle East and Ireland as well as Africa. In 2010, he helped negotiate a cease fire between the Ethiopian government and opposition forces after 25 years of fighting. He was knighted in 2013 by King Carl Gustaf of Sweden for “lifetime service to peace and justice.” No wonder, then, that Isaac is often called “the father of peace” in his homeland of Ethiopia.
“My scholarship is deeply rooted in the study of religion, especially the Hebrew bible and the prophet Isaiah,” he explains. “The verse that inspires me the most, though, is probably Micah 4:3:
He will judge between many peoples
and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.
“That’s the world I’ve tried to create.”
In the true spirit of the Gomes Honors’ 2020 theme of “border crossings,” however, the accomplishment of which Isaac is most proud is neither scholarly nor diplomatic; it’s musical. In 1960-61, as director of the Ethiopian Church Youth Choir, Isaac completed the first translation of Handel’s Messiah into the Amharic language by millions in his country.
“In 1960, I wanted to translate The Messiah and perform it in Ethiopia,” he explains. “It was a Swedish school where I’d studied music. They laughed at me. There weren’t a lot of Ethiopians who had studied this music. I translated it and we performed it with 130 students from all over Ethiopia. Emperor Haile Selassie even invited us to come and perform at the palace.”
While the Gomes Honors may not provide the satisfaction of ending a generation-long cycle of violence—or the thrill of a royal command performance—Isaac says he’s honored and humbled to be recognized by his fellow HDS alumni/ae.
“I’m very grateful,” he says. “Peter Gomes was someone I knew well during my years at Harvard. To be honored with an award in his name and to get recognition from my fellow alumni is highly appreciated.”