A Gentle Hawk

My wife and I deeply regret that we cannot be with you to honour the memory of

David Daube and to express our deepest sympathy with his family. We are with you in


The first time I saw David Daube was in the Lightfoot Room of the Old Divinity

School, Cambridge: it was at the famous New Testament Seminar conducted by

Professor C.H. Dodd. The year was 1942 when I was beginning research on Paul under

Dodd’s supervision. He had invited me to join the Seminar – a great honour. I was not

allowed to sit at the table along with the faculty members, but obscurely at the side of the

room, on a solitary chair. At the far end of the table, I almost immediately noticed one

member more animated and articulate than the others, who were more elderly, rather

reserved, austere and taciturn. This member stood out. He had jet-black hair and, in

particular, hawklike eyes, which burned with fiery intensity: it was David Daube. Ever

since, that first impression of him as a hawk always recurs: he was nothing if not intense.

He was intense as a supervisor. For many years he supervised my research. He

never once failed to return on time each chapter I submitted. His range of reference to

primary texts and secondary literature in many languages was extraordinary and yet,

somehow, he did not overwhelm and numb one by his brilliance, but, as the Mishnah puts

it, he was not only a sponge but also a sifter who made things intelligible. He ferreted out

the meaning of ancient texts to bring out treasures old and new. Similarly his

conscientiousness in reading, scrutinizing and commenting on what I wrote was not only

very humbling but always stimulating and illuminating. In all his work, written and oral,

ever since, over almost sixty years, I found the same meticulous, scrupulous,

conscientious intense attention to detail and creativity in interpretation.

His intensity invaded his religious life. When I first knew him, his Orthodoxy

was unmistakable and even extreme. In later years, he explained that in the forties, when

we first met; he had quite deliberately and publicly emphasized his Orthodoxy

to indicate his solidarity with the Jews who were suffering under Hitler – no half

measures for him. He was proud that he was on Hitler’s notorious Black list. He

identified himself wholly with his own people.

But intensely Orthodox as he was, he seldom allowed his religious

beliefs to impinge on our academic discussions. Only on two occasions did this happen.

He once asked me what I considered to be the absolutely essential belief in both Judaism

and Christianity without which they both could not exist and persist and we agreed that is

the belief in the Reality of God. The other occasion was when we discussed the

Eucharist in St. Paul’s 1 Corinthians and I suggested that the language of the Eucharist

might be taken to imply the universalism of the Christian Gospel. At this point he

abruptly and sharply stopped the discussion – the matter was of such intense sensitivity

for him.

This almost violent rejection of my suggestion points to another paradoxical

aspect of his intensity – his great largesse and anxiety that Jews and Christians and others

should be open to each other in real dialogue. His intensity was not exclusive but

wrapped in an extraordinary sensitivity – warmth and often whimsical humour that

made him accessible to all. His generous entertainment of all sorts of people was

fabulous and became proverbial.

No where have I seen it recorded that in the early 1940’s, when the Second

World war was still raging, he tried to establish a regular dialogue between Jews and

Christians in the Synagogue at Cambridge. It was to be a Dialogue, not a Disputation

after the medieval manner, -- a genuine dialogue. In the first meeting David spoke on

Judaism and I on Christianity. It was said that it was the first such meeting at Cambridge

since the Middle Ages, but circumstances proved too much for the Dialogue to continue.

Here the image of the hawk breaks down: it must be qualified by a paradoxical

gentleness. It is the complexity in David that made him so magical. It is not

surprising then that it was this most Jewish of scholars, who taught us that Christianity, is

a New Testament Judaism -- a strikingly pregnant phrase that he invented and which

sums up best perhaps his legacy and the near revolution that he introduced into New

Testament studies.

Finally, I quote for David from his beloved Jewish Prayer Book, a short prayer

entitled: "On seeing a sage distinguished for his Knowledge of the Torah:

Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God,

King of the Universe, who hast imparted

Of this wisdom [the love of the Torah] to those that revere thee

And the following prayer entitled:

"On seeing Wise Men distinguished for their knowledge"

"Blessed are thou, Oh Lord our God, King of the Universe,

who hast given thy wisdom to mortals."

David Daube knew Torah and Wisdom, Piety and Knowledge. In this he was

blessed of God, and remains blessed in our memories.


W.D. Davies

Emeritus Professor, Duke University

April 2000