In Memoriam: Raymond Westbrook, 1946-2009

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Raymond Westbrook, W.W. Spence Professor in Semitic Languages at the Johns Hopkins University, died peacefully on July 23, 2009, in London, after a long illness, a few months short of his 63rd birthday. He was a leading authority on ancient Near Eastern legal traditions, and made important contributions to the study of early Greek and Roman law as well. He conceived and edited the monumental two-volume History of Ancient Near Eastern Law (2003), writing himself more than 200 of its 1200 pages, and making significant contributions to many more. A two-volume collection of his articles, Law from the Tigris to the Tiber, was published in conjunction with a session dedicated to his work at the 2009 Society of Biblical Literature meeting in New Orleans.

Raymond Westbrook was raised in Southend-on-Sea, England, and in 1965 went up to Magdalen College, Oxford, to read law. It was there, inspired by the work of G.R. Driver, a fellow of Magdalen, that he became interested in the origins of law in the ancient Near East. He pursued these interests at Hebrew University, Jerusalem, where he studied ancient law with Reuven Yaron and Assyriology with Haim Tadmor and Aaron Shaffer. There, in an Akkadian class, he met his future wife, Henie. He next did graduate work in Assyriology at Yale, but his studies were cut short by the untimely death of his dissertation advisor, J.J. Finkelstein. Called to the Bar of England and Wales in 1976, he practiced briefly, and taught at the Inns of Court School of Law for two years. However, the practice of law proved uninspiring, so, making good use of his mastery of the major European languages, he spent four years as head of the English Translation Section of the European Community’s Court of Auditors in Luxembourg, all the while working on his dissertation with the special encouragement of Prof. Claus Wilcke at the University of Munich. Yale awarded him a Ph.D. in 1982, and his dissertation, Old Babylonian Marriage Law, appeared as AfO Beiheft 23. From 1983-1987 he was a Lecturer at the Hebrew University, with a joint appointment in the Faculty of Law and Department of Biblical Studies.

In 1987, Ray Westbrook accepted a position at the Johns Hopkins University, where he taught courses in Akkadian, Sumerian and Hittite, especially legal and diplomatic texts, in the Near Eastern Studies department, and courses in Roman Law for Classics. His popular undergraduate courses, Law in the Ancient World, and The Origins of Diplomacy, were part of the minor in Ancient Law that he originated and directed. Ray was a marvelous colleague, always eager to cast a critical but encouraging eye over drafts of articles, or to brainstorm on topics of mutual interest. He spent much time mentoring junior faculty, and bringing needy graduate students up to speed in, say, Greek or German.

Ray Westbrook felt that his training in the law gave him special insight into ancient legal systems, and, understanding that his circumstances were rather unusual, he sought to bring legal historians and political scientists together with scholars of the ancient Near East to better comprehend ancient legal and diplomatic documents. The three international conferences he organized to this end were published as Amarna Diplomacy: The Beginnings of International Relations (with R. Cohen, 2000), Security for Debt in Ancient Near Eastern Law(with R. Jasnow, 2001), and Isaiah’s Vision of Peace in Biblical and Modern International Relations: Swords into Plowshares (with R. Cohen, 2008). As a scholar of early Greek and Roman law as well as ancient Near Eastern law, he was also interested in bringing classicists together with ancient Near Eastern specialists, as he did in the conference published as Women and Property in Ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean Societies (with D. Lyons, 2005).

Ray was a brilliant conversationalist, and a master of the extemporaneous address. He also was a terrific story teller. The initial beneficiaries of this talent were his sons, Baruch and Hasdai, who, together with his wife, Henie, survive him, but he eventually wrote up the stories for the benefit of the children of friends and colleagues. Fortunate were those children who heard the stories from Ray himself!

For Ray, the best antidote to the pain and discomfort of the illness and treatments that dominated the last years of his life was to keep on working. We who witnessed his electrifying Iwry Lecture, “Justice in Genesis,” in the fall of 2007, were astonished at his ability to rise to the occasion, actually well above it, in such dire condition. He continued teaching, lecturing and writing almost to the end. His final monograph, Everyday Law in Biblical Israel: an Introduction (with B. Wells), was published posthumously.