Noted Bible scholar David Daube dies

Hailed on two continents as one of the world's foremost biblical scholars, David Daube dedicated his life to bridging the gulf between Judaism and Christianity.

He was so renowned that he moved to San Francisco from England in the 1960s to escape celebrity.

Daube died of pneumonia Feb. 24 in Pleasant Hill. He was 90.

The late professor emeritus of law at U.C. Berkeley is best known for his scholarship of Roman law, biblical criticism and Jewish perspectives on the Christian Bible. Yet even those colleagues who knew him best are in his death learning new facets of a man who they say exemplified genius and mastery of so many subjects.

Daube changed the way Christian scholars regarded Jesus and developed new insights on Shakespeare, medical ethics, suicide, Arthurian legend and nursery rhymes.

He was also known to hobnob with a wide array of people from the royalty of England and dignitaries of India to the down-and-out of San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood.

"He was larger than life," said his wife of 13 years, Helen Margolis Smelser Daube.

It was Daube's life rather than his death that prompted faculty at U.C. Berkeley to assemble a Web page of obituaries and eulogies from newspapers and university newsletters around the globe.

"David was one of the greatest legal scholars in the world, and that is no exaggeration," Robert Cole, a professor emeritus of law at U.C. Berkeley, told the university's Daily Californian.

Wrote a Cambridge colleague: "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. He saw what others saw, but could produce thoughts that no one had ever thought before."

Daube's scholarship was rooted in a classical education of Talmud, German, French, Latin, ancient Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic, which began in his youth. Born and raised an Orthodox Jew in Freiburg, Germany, he learned Shakespeare's English before modern English, his wife said.

Daube left Germany for England in 1933 after studying Roman law under private tutelage and receiving in Gottingen his first doctorate in Old Testament law. He received a second doctorate in Roman law from Cambridge University and, later, a master's degree from Oxford.

He was able to return to Germany briefly in 1936 to arrange for his family and others to escape the virulent anti-Semitism that accompanied Hitler's rise. He was elected the same year to his first teaching fellowship at Caius College in Cambridge.

Daube rose through the ranks at Cambridge and went on to teach at Oxford. He became widely published and renowned for his expertise in Roman and biblical law.

Wrote a reporter in London's Independent, "Daube…often concealed his scholarship under a light, sometimes almost flippant, style. An anonymous article in the Oxford magazine, on the origins of Humpty Dumpty as an engine used at the Siege of Gloucester was widely acclaimed.

"He became known as a brilliant and entertaining teacher who brought the law of ancient Rome to life; undergraduates who would otherwise have had no interest in Roman law long remembered his lectures."

Having grown disenchanted with restrictive policies at Oxford and weary of the pomp and circumstance characteristic of British academic circles, Daube relocated to the United States as a professor of Roman and Hebraic law at U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law. He remained there until his retirement in 1981.

His numerous legacies include:

*Original scholarship surrounding his discovery of talmudic perspectives in the Christian Bible. Because of Daube's knowledge of Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus, he was asked to assist a New Testament scholar at Cambridge. Daube also produced new insights on the society in which Jesus lived.

*Oxford leaders under Daube's influence established the Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies to continue the tradition of Jewish scholarship that was nearly destroyed in continental Europe.

*Two volumes of his collected academic works, "Talmudic Law" and "New Testament Judaism," will be published jointly by Oxford and U.C. Berkeley.

Daube maintained his ties to Orthodoxy by observing kashrut and Shabbat. But he struggled most of his life to reconcile the neshama (soul) of his childhood Jewish community with his philosophical views of enlightenment.

Smelser Daube said her husband was a direct descendent on his mother's side of Maharam, the famed 15th-to-16th-century Italian rabbi who headed the Padua yeshiva. Born Meir B. Isaac Katzenellenbogen, Maharam is remembered for his scholarly wisdom, leadership and ban of kabbalistic study.

Daube rebelled to a certain degree from the family's Jewish history, but in the end dedicated himself to Jewish scholarship after Hitler nearly obliterated it.

Nevertheless, he discarded much of his Jewish practice when he moved to the Bay Area. He also abandoned the three-piece suit of his Oxford days, grew his hair long and adopted some local linguistic styles. He was known to champion Berkeley students involved in the counterculture of the 1960s.

Daube never affiliated with any local congregation or other Jewish group, but was known to give an occasional public lecture on Jewish topics, Smelser Daube said.

At Boalt, she said, Daube was treated like "a historic monument."

Because of his ability to relate with all kinds, from the person sitting next to him on MUNI to world leaders, the most unexpected people would greet him by name on the street, said his wife who was with him at such times. He held court at North Beach's Cafe Trieste.

Daube maintained his international relations and academic work through his final years, even when he was forced to move from San Francisco into a convalescent home in Pleasant Hill.

Speaking of both Daube and Jewish scholar Isaiah Berlin, who also taught at Oxford, Smelser Daube called the pair, "the last of a species. We will never again have these kinds of human beings, who know all the classical languages as a child."

Like Einstein, she said, "they were from the same part of Germany and had that particular German-cultured genius. They were Renaissance men.

"You can't produce a David Daube in a couple generations, where you have a [rare] combination of genetics, collective unconscious, Jewish identity and family history."

In addition to Smelser Daube, who lives in San Francisco, Daube is survived by sons Jonathan Maharam Daube of Connecticut; Benjamin Daube of Toronto; and Michael Daube of Perth, Australia; two adult step-children, Tina Smelser and Eric Smelser, both of San Francisco; and six grandchildren.

Services were held at Congregation B'nai Tikvah in Walnut Creek.

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.