August 3, 2009

Raymond Westbrook, 62, authority on ancient Near East law

Raymond Westbrook

Raymond Westbrook

Raymond Westbrook, the W.W. Spence Professor in Semitic Languages in the Department of Near Eastern Studies in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, died on July 23 in London following a long battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 62.

Westbrook, who came to Johns Hopkins in 1987, was considered the leading authority on ancient Near Eastern legal traditions, and he made important contributions to the study of early Greek and Roman law. He conceived and edited the monumental two-volume History of Ancient Near Eastern Law (2003), writing himself more than 200 of its 1,200 pages, and making significant contributions to many more.

Westbrook was uniquely equipped for his field of study, according to his colleague Jerrold Cooper, the W.W. Spence Professor Emeritus of Semitic Languages.

Raised in Southend-on-Sea, England, Westbrook read law at Oxford and earned a master’s degree in law at Hebrew University, Jerusalem. He next did graduate work in Assyriology at Yale, but his studies there were cut short by the untimely death of his dissertation adviser, 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. Next, making good use of his mastery of five European languages, he spent four years as head of the English Translation Section of the European Community’s supreme audit body in Luxembourg, all the while working on his dissertation with the special encouragement of  Claus Wilcke at the University of Munich. Yale awarded him a doctorate in 1982, and from 1983 to 1987 he was a lecturer at the Hebrew University, with joint appointments in the Faculty of Law and Department of Biblical Studies..

“Ray’s initial training in the law gave him privileged insight into ancient legal systems,” Cooper said. “Understanding that his circumstances were rather special, 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 that Westbrook organized to these ends were published as Amarna Diplomacy: The Beginnings of International Relations, with Raymond Cohen, in 2000; Security for Debt in Ancient Near Eastern Law, with Egyptologist Richard Jasnow, a colleague at Johns Hopkins, in 2001; and Isaiah’s Vision of Peace in Biblical and Modern International Relations: Swords into Plowshares, also with Cohen, in 2008. As a scholar of 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 Deborah Lyons, in 2005.

At Johns Hopkins, Westbrook taught courses in Akkadian, Sumerian and Hittite, especially legal and diplomatic texts, and taught courses in Roman law for the Classics Department. 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. Westbrook also was a past director of the Leonard and Helen R. Stulman Jewish Studies Program. In 2000, undergraduates honored him with the Johns Hopkins Student Council Excellence in Teaching Award.

“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,” Cooper said. “He spent much time mentoring junior faculty and bringing needy graduate students up to speed in, say, Greek or German.”

Known by friends and colleagues as a brilliant conversationalist and a terrific storyteller, Westbrook also wrote children’s stories whose hero, Rabbi Binyamin, with the help of Akbar the mouse, would defeat evil wherever it surfaced. Initially written for his sons, the tales drew on themes from the Bible and Jewish tradition. Westbrook didn’t publish the stories, but they enjoyed wide circulation among his friends and family.

While fighting cancer, Westbrook found solace in his scholarship, Cooper said.

“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 working,” Cooper said. “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.”

Westbrook’s final monograph, Everyday Law in Biblical Israel: An Introduction (with B. Wells) is in press. A two-volume collection of his articles, Law From the Tigris to the Tiber, will appear later this year, in conjunction with a session dedicated to his work at the Society of Biblical Literature meeting in New Orleans.

He is survived by his wife, Henie, and his sons, Harry and Hasdai.