Professor James Aitken (1968-2023)
Remembered by his Fitzwilliam colleague and friend, Professor Simon Gathercole, Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity, University of Cambridge.
According to Jewish legend, seventy-two scholars translated the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, from Hebrew and Aramaic into Greek. Each worked on the text in solitary confinement, independently of the others, and miraculously they all produced the same translation verbatim. Underneath this legend lies the fact of the the Greek translation of the Old Testament, one of the greatest translation projects of the ancient world. This version is referred to today as the “Septuagint” (from the Latin septuaginta, “seventy”), and this Septuagint was the principal focus of Jim Aitken’s academic work.
James Keltie Aitken was born on 5 September, 1968. As his names suggest, he had Scottish roots: both his parents were Scots who had moved to the Wirral not long prior to Jim’s birth there. He was educated at Birkenhead School, where his Classics master recalls “a most competent pupil with a reserved manner and a quiet sense of humour.” At university, he studied initially in Durham, reading Classics as an undergraduate. He focused there on ancient philosophy, with a thesis on the reflections of (and responses to) Socrates’ teaching in the Greek dramatist Euripides in the fifth century BCE. Jim pursued this interest in Euripides further in a Masters degree. During this year he also began formal study of Hebrew, receiving a MA level certificate in Biblical Hebrew. It was after that that Jim moved to Cambridge, to pursue a PhD under the supervision of Prof. Nicholas de Lange. This time of his doctoral work was also the beginning of his connection with Fitzwilliam College, where he was a student. Appropriately, his thesis focused on both the Hebrew and Greek texts of an important ancient Jewish work, the book of of Ben Sira, and this bilingual study prepared him well for a career of research on the Septuagint. Jim was an avid linguist. I remember in one reading group we hacked through the often challenging Greek of Philo. A contemporary of Jim’s in his PhD days, and now the director of the Cairo Genizah Research Unit in the University Library, recalled to me once that he and Jim had studied Judaeo-Arabic together as students.
Jim held a variety of post-doctoral positions. Immediately after his PhD, he stayed on in Cambridge as part of the Semantics of Ancient Hebrew Database project (1995-2001), led by Fitzwilliam fellow Graham Davies. This involved pioneering work in producing digitised texts, no mean feat in work which often included several different alphabetic scripts. Jim never published his PhD, but his first book, The Semantics of Blessing and Cursing in Ancient Hebrew (2007), arose from his work on this Hebrew database. In 2001 he joined a project, “The Greek Bible in the Graeco-Roman World”, that began his serious study of the Septuagint. This work was based in the Classics department in Reading, under the leadership of the doyenne of Jewish studies Tessa Rajak. Thereafter Jim held a temporary position in Cambridge teaching Hebrew and Aramaic, and for two years was Academic Director of the Centre for the Study of Jewish-Christian Relations (The Woolf Institute) in Cambridge (2007-2009).
It was then – to my great delight – that Jim took up a lectureship in ancient Judaism in Cambridge, in 2009; thereafter he was Reader (2016) and Professor (from 2021) in Hebrew and Early Jewish Studies. During this time, settled in a permanent position, his research could thrive. He produced a second book, an authoritative study of the vocabulary of the Septuagint. But to define Jim’s research principally in terms of his sole-authored books would be a mistake. He was the master of the compact, pithy essay tackling a particular philological problem: at the time of his death he had published 78 such studies, and eight more are forthcoming. These reflected Jim’s wide-ranging interests, including studies of why the giraffe was deemed kosher, the obesity of the biblical villain Eglon, theories of race in antiquity, and an article on ancient medicine published in The Lancet. Jim’s research flourished in particular in collaboration with others. He edited no fewer than eleven collaborative books, often the products of conferences he had organised. Jim was an avid conference-goer, and colleagues often gently ribbed him for his benign addiction to travelling to scholarly gatherings. He was always at the centre of discussions at conferences, where his academic distinction and his clubbable sociability were perfectly combined. A publisher friend of ours recalls discussions with Jim: “I remember many happy lunches, and drinks at conferences in various locations… I deeply valued Jim’s advice on countless projects, whether in formal reader reviews or informal chats over a pint.”
The marriage of intellectual discussion and sociability also attracted Jim to Cambridge college life when he returned to Fitzwilliam as a fellow in January 2011. Jim was always a lively conversation partner at meals: he usually came in for lunch, especially on Fridays for his beloved fish and chips. He threw himself into life in Fitzwilliam, taking on roles including pastoral Tutor and Praelector, presenting students for graduation. His longest tenure in a Fitzwillliam role was in the much-coveted position as a member of the Wine Committee.
Jim’s other great contribution to the field lay in his devoted attention to his numerous doctoral students. He was remarkably tolerant and generous towards students, a fact which stood in some contrast to his often much more severe judgment of those who were supposed to be scholars. I remember an occasion when one of my own PhD students was working on a subject, part of which encroached on an area of Jim’s expertise. I advised my student to ask Jim whether there were any good scholarly treatments of the subject, and warned him that Jim would say that there weren’t. At our next supervision my student reported that my prophecy had proved true. Nevertheless, his PhD students report his remarkable kindness and patience towards them. One has commented, “I will remember Jim as the first scholar who was actually kind to me.” And another: “ I still remember the first time I met him. Not only did he allow me to ask all my silly questions, but he took them seriously and spent a lot of time with me.” Or again: “I was utterly terrified to meet a real Cambridge scholar, but Jim soon put me at ease with his warm personality.”
This attention to individual students was extraordinary given his stature as an international leader in his field, as seen recently, for example, in his appointment to give the prestigious Grinfield Lectures in Oxford in 2021-2022. He undertook these lectures during his recent tenure as Chair of the Faculty Board of Divinity in Cambridge (2019–2022), when he proved himself a very efficient and considerate administrator. This ability was especially evident in his leadership of the Faculty during the recent pandemic, when, as one colleague has put it, “his equanimity, sobriety, and good sense came to the fore, and enabled us all to weather the storm reasonably effectively.”
Jim suffered a heart attack on Friday 31 March, 2023. He died a week later, in the early hours of the morning of 7 April, in the Royal Papworth Hospital in Cambridge. We have lost a fine intellect, and colleagues in Fitzwilliam College, in the Faculty of Divinity, and around the world will miss him greatly. Our thoughts extend especially to his mother, his fiancée Diana, his sister Elizabeth and his brother John, for all of whom his death is such a terrible blow.
The earliest version of the legend about the miraculous translation of the Septuagint, the Epistle of Aristeas from the second century BCE, sets out the characteristics of the translators. They remind one of Jim himself. They are described as “men of the finest character and the highest culture”, and “who had not only acquired proficiency in Jewish literature, but had studied most carefully that of the Greeks as well.” Most apposite of all the descriptions of the translators is the remark: “They possessed a great facility for conferences!”