David Daube was born on 8 February 1909 in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany, and died in California on 24 February 1999. His contribution to the academic cultures of Germany, Britain, and the United States this century is unsurpassed. In Freiburg the great Romanist Otto Lenel inspired Daube's interest in Roman Law which he pursued in Göttingen. There Daube also began to apply modern critical methods of study to the Bible. He had come from a strict orthodox home and a teacher at his synagogue, on learning about his exposure to biblical criticism, said to him, 'If you must do it, do it like a surgeon who has to operate on his father'. He passed the doctoral examination in Göttingen with the highest honours on a biblical legal topic (although the page in the University records inscribing his achievement was later to be expunged).
In 1933 Lenel sent Daube to England where he became a research fellow at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. He proceeded to a second doctorate in Roman Law under William Warwick Buckland. In England he acted on behalf of his own family and other German Jewish refugees and arranged for them to escape to Britain from Nazi tyranny. The British interned him (like other German aliens) in the Isle of Man. Lord McNair (who was responsible for drafting legislation for the Nuremberg trials--to which Daube was opposed--and who became President of the World Court in the Hague) obtained his release. Lacking documents, however, Daube found himself re-arrested immediately and taken to a London jail where he was placed in a cell with three Nazi spies awaiting execution. McNair had arranged to meet Daube coming off the boat at Liverpool, and when Daube did not show up, had the ship searched. The search proved fruitless and McNair had Daube declared missing, presumably drowned at sea.
Daube taught law at Cambridge for a number of years. During this time he made the acquaintance of C. H. Dodd, the New Testament scholar, who invited Daube to participate in his famous seminar because Daube knew Aramaic and the Talmud. The involvement proved a momentous one. Over the next five decades Daube was to produce work on the New Testament that was revolutionary. Mining Talmudic literature with a sharpness of focus and an extraordinary degree of sophistication, he showed that the ideas and institutions of the New Testament belonged to a thoroughly Jewish setting and could not be understood without the perspective provided by the Talmud.
In the early fifties Daube held his first Chair as Professor of Jurisprudence at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. From Aberdeen he came to Oxford to take up the Regius Chair of Civil Law and a Fellowship at All Souls College. During this period, 1955-70, his reputation as a foremost humanist of the law took him to many different parts of the world, especially to the United States, where from 1970 onwards he established himself permanently in Berkeley as the Director of the Robbins Hebraic and Roman Law Collection and Professor of Law at the University of California. He did not forget, however, his attachment to Oxford and to his native Germany. From its inception he became a regular Visiting Professor of History at the University of Constanz in Germany. There at grand lunches he would entertain, at his own expense, the high and the low, mixing them in a way that was not exactly customary in German academic circles, but awakening in a new generation of Germans a consciousness of the grievous loss of scholars of Daube's calibre because of the Hitler years.
His attachment to Oxford came in the form of his enthusiasm for the efforts of David Patterson to found a Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies that would continue the tradition of outstanding scholarship on Jewish history and culture in continental Europe. Being steeped in the work of Bacher, for example, Daube himself owed so much to this tradition. Patterson's historic efforts, in turn, were inspired by what Daube stood for. He saw in Daube the example of scholarship that was unstuffy, that revelled in conversations about ideas, that was free of parochialism, and that inspired young minds to seek out the sophisticated world of Bible and Talmud.
Daube combined the lightest of touches with the soundest of scholarship, had a teasing side to him, a rebellious and subversive side, and, being a wonderfully acute observer of the human scene of all times and places, always strove to come up with original judgments. He was enormously erudite, sometimes, to be sure, using his learning to conceal when he could not come up with an original view of some matter, but most marked of all was his capacity to be truly novel in his thinking. He saw what others saw, but could produce thoughts that no one had ever thought before. His massive scholarship in so many areas, in Biblical, Greek, Roman, and Talmudic law and literature, testifies time and again to his marvellous originality.
The Oxford Centre made Isaiah Berlin and David Daube its first Honorary Fellows and, with the Robbins Collection, is a sponsor of the publication of his Collected Works, one volume on Talmudic Law being already published and two volumes on New Testament Judaism being in Press. In preparation are other volumes on Biblical Law, and a volume that will include what he called Varia, on Shakespeare, medical ethics, suicide, Arthurian legend, and nursery rhymes, to cite but a few examples of his contributions to so many areas of knowledge. Daube once said of a late colleague at Berkeley that 'he was the glory of our law school'. For many friends and admirers, whether in Britain, Germany, Israel, or the United States, Daube was the glory of any institution he graced.
(Calum Carmichael, 2 /3/1999)