Saturday, October 27, 2012


Master of His Subject

Cyrus Gordon, quoted in Leonard Greenspoon, Max Leopold Margolis: A Scholar's Scholar (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1987), pp. 34-35:
My most effective teacher was a martinet—Max Margolis. He was a thorough craftsman and a master of his subject. He was a biblical philologian, working on the Septuagint. His knowledge of the Old Testament text was phenomenal. He expected all his students to recognize any oral quotation from Scripture and identify it by book and chapter. If he fired a three- or four-word Hebrew quotation at a student and the student failed to identify it, he promptly told the student, 'Go to hell!' and went around the room telling each student that failed to recognize the source the same thing, sometimes varying it with 'There is room for you, too.'

After being reviled before the class a number of times for not spotting his Hebrew citations, I asked him after class one day how I might improve my familiarity with the Hebrew text. He told me to read as much of the Hebrew Bible as I could make time for each day, starting with Genesis 1:1 and reading straight through to the end of the Old Testament. I did this and noticed how many more citations I was progressively able to locate in class.

When I finished the final chapter of Chronicles, I reported to Professor Margolis to tell him the good news. He replied with a faint smile, 'Now begin over again.' I never forgot the moral; mastery comes only through familiarity with the subject matter. He scorned the kind of scholarship that depends on dictionaries, concordances, and other reference books. There is a place for such books (and his library contained them), but a master has to have the basic knowledge of his field in his head. He used to say, 'When you buy a loaf of bread in the grocery store, you do not tell the clerk that you have money in the bank; you have to lay a coin on the counter. In the same way, no scholar should think that he does not have to know his basic material by heart because he can look it up in concordances and indices. Money in the bank does not take the place of ready cash in the pocket.'
Hat tip: Ian Jackson.

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