Anson F. Rainey (1930–2011)

Anson F. Rainey, Israel’s leading historical geographer of the land of the Bible and a master of cuneiform languages such as Akkadian and Ugaritic, as well as ancient Egyptian (hieroglyphic and hieratic), to say nothing of Hebrew and Arabic, succumbed to pancreatic cancer on February 19. He was 81.

Anson also participated in a dozen different archaeological excavations, from volunteer to area supervisor and was often a member of the core staff. One obituary accurately described him as “one of the last of the titans.”

His scholarly output was prodigious. His résumé includes 12 books, 112 scholarly articles, 48 chapters in books and 24 encyclopedia articles.

His last book, The Sacred Bridge (coauthored with Steven Notley who wrote the chapters on the New Testament [Jerusalem: Carta, 2006] ), purports to be a Biblical atlas, but it is actually a compendium of scholarship unsurpassed in the genre. It is accurately described on the book’s cover as providing “comprehensive Near Eastern background to Biblical history.” The only defect in the book is that the type is too small. I once complained of this to publisher Emanuel Hausman, who explained that this was the only way he could get it all into 450 oversize pages.

Born in Dallas, Texas, Anson is almost certainly the only graduate of Brown Academy of the Ozarks in Sulfur Springs, Arkansas, to become a full professor at Tel Aviv University. Anson also taught at other institutions of higher learning in Israel and around the world from California to Korea.

After completing a master’s degree at the California Baptist Theological Seminary and then receiving a Ph.D. from Brandeis (among other advanced degrees), in 1960 Anson continued his studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He ultimately settled in Israel and in 1980 converted to Judaism.

His major lifelong project was the collation of the Amarna letters, more than 350 cuneiform tablets from the 14th century B.C.E. consisting of correspondence to and from Egyptian pharaohs. Anson traveled all over the world—London, Oxford, Berlin, New York, Chicago, Cairo—making hand copies of the cuneiform script. Anson claimed to be the only man who had read all of the Amarna tablets in the original from the tablets themselves. His edition of the tablets is almost complete and Bill Schniedewind of the University of California, Los Angeles, and Anson’s wife Zipora have undertaken to finish the project.

Anson Rainey was a cantankerous man with strong feelings. One obituary called him “a force of nature.” My tribute to him will preserve some of this side of him, as he would have liked.

Yohanan Aharoni and Yigael Yadin were archaeological giants of a previous generation who were often at loggerheads. Aharoni was Anson’s mentor. And there was never a more devoted acolyte. Anson produced the English translation of Aharoni’s Hebrew book, The Land of the Bible: A Historical Geography. After Aharoni’s death, Anson wrote an enlarged, revised and updated edition. As much as he admired Aharoni, so much did Anson abhor Yadin. Anson could speak at length in disparaging terms about Yadin.

Not long before he died, Anson sent me a letter he wanted to make sure we would publish. He was outraged that Bill Dever said and David Ussishkin had implied that Anson was not an archaeologist. In their view, Anson was a great historical geographer and linguist—but not an archaeologist. Anson was furious. And he expressed himself furiously in the letter he sent me. “As usual, Bill [Dever] speaks to something he knows nothing about,” wrote Anson. As for Ussishkin, “He pronounces dictums that are none of his business.” Anson claimed he had more archaeological experience than either Dever or Ussishkin.

On more substantive matters, Anson Rainey was locked in battle with another BAR author, Egyptologist Orly Goldwasser, who had recently written a wildly popular article in BAR on how the alphabet was invented at a desolate mining site in the Sinai (Serabit el-Khadem) by illiterate Semitic miners.* Nonsense, maintained Anson. The reason we have only these crude inscriptions on rock and pottery is that they are the only examples of this early alphabetic writing to have survived. The hundreds, if not thousands, of examples from urban centers have not survived because they were written on papyrus. Moreover, the leader of the Asiatic miners left a stela in hieroglyphic, albeit written poorly, which proved that the head Semitic miner at the site could indeed write hieroglyphic.

I was looking forward to watching this debate unfold, but now it has been shut down—the silence of death.

BAR publisher Susan Laden and I were in Israel for a few days in late January. We took advantage of the opportunity to visit Anson in the hospital in Petah Tikvah. When we walked in, he looked almost comatose. But we began talking about things that were important to him and he became perkier and perkier. Then archaeologist Eilat Mazar walked in and he brightened up still more. By the time we left, he was telling us dirty jokes based on the etymology of names.

In the Bible, God’s personal name is often represented by four Hebrew letters, YHWH, referred to in scholarly literature as the tetragrammaton and spelled “Yahweh.” How the tetragrammaton was pronounced is a matter of some debate, a debate in which Anson participated. He often joked that when he died and went to heaven, the first thing he was going to do was ask God how he pronounced his name. Now he knows.—H.S.



* Orly Goldwasser, “How the Alphabet Was Born from Hieroglyphs,” BAR, March/April 2010.

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