Obituary: Professor David Daube

DRIVEN FROM Germany in 1933, David Daube was one of that group of Jewish scholars who introduced new standards of scholarship to the universities of Britain. In an active scholarly career spanning more than six decades, he mastered three distinct fields: he began in biblical and Talmudic law, and Roman law, but his work on the Old Testament and Rabbinic sources led him more and more to the study of the Jewish background to New Testament texts and doctrines. As a victim of anti-Semitism, he saw this as his way of contributing to a greater understanding between Judaism and Christianity.

Daube's interest in Judaism was far from purely academic: he was involved in many Jewish organisations and, until late in life, he strictly observed the Sabbath and the dietary laws; moreover, resistance to oppression is a recurring theme in his writings. Because his work is spread over so many different areas and he wrote no comprehensive treatise in any of them, it is impossible for any one person to survey Daube's contribution as a whole, far less to judge its likely enduring impact. What can be said, however, is that in each of his chosen fields his work was almost always original and often brilliant.

Born in 1909 in the Germany of Wilhelm II, Daube came from an orthodox Jewish background, his mother being Selma Ascher from Nordlingen and his father Jakob Daube, a wine merchant in Freiburg. Despite the First World War and its aftermath, David and his brother, Benjamin, appear to have grown up in fairly comfortable circumstances in Freiburg.

He attended the renowned Berthold-gymnasium there, with short spells in a Swiss private school for orthodox Jews and in Paris. He began his university studies in Freiburg, and came to the attention of Otto Lenel, the founder of the modern study of Roman law and himself of Jewish stock. Although Lenel was then about 80 and had retired some years before, he continued to work and singled out Daube, whom he treated as a personal pupil. Daube liked to recall how he would walk from the family home in Goethestrasse through the leafy streets of residential Freiburg to Lenel's house in Holbeinstrasse, where the two would discuss questions of Roman law. These discussions proved one of the decisive influences in Daube's academic life.

While maintaining his links with Freiburg, Daube studied for his doctorate in Gottingen, where he was taught by Johannes Hempel and the young Wolfgang Kunkel with whom he formed a lifelong friendship. His thesis was on a topic of Old Testament law and earned him his doctorate "mit Auszeichnung" in 1932. When, half a century later, he tried to obtain a copy of the entry in the university records, he was told that the page had been torn out during the Nazi period. The coming to power of Hitler was the turning point in Daube's life. Even before then, he had been alive to the threat which Hitler posed: on one occasion he had gone with a girlfriend to hear him speak and had been struck by the power of his oratory.

In 1933 Lenel lost no time in advising Daube to leave Germany. He gave him a letter of introduction to Professor H.F. Jolowicz in London. Jolowicz in turn sent Daube on to Cambridge, where W.W. Buckland was the Regius Professor of Civil Law. Although the two men were very different and, to begin with, had to converse in French, they got on well together and in later years Daube went out of his way to quote Buckland's views in respectful terms. By 1935 Daube had obtained a PhD from Cambridge for his work on the Roman statute dealing with damage to property. Part of that work was published, as his first article in English, in the Law Quarterly Review in 1936.

He married in 1936 and, happily, before the Second World War he was able to return to Germany and arrange for his family to come to Britain. In due course Daube obtained British nationality, which he retained even after he went to live in America in later years. In 1938 he applied unsuccessfully for the professorship of Civil Law in Edinburgh, but in the same year he was elected to a teaching fellowship at Caius College, Cambridge. Apart from a short spell of internment on the Isle of Man in 1940, Daube held that position until 1946, when he became a University Lecturer in Law. He wrote Studies in Biblical Law (1947) during this period.

After the war he re-established contact with scholars in Germany. In 1951 he was appointed Professor of Jurisprudence at Aberdeen, but he did not stay there long, since he accepted the offer of the Regius Chair of Civil Law in Oxford when it suddenly fell vacant after the death of Jolowicz in 1954. None the less Daube always remained particularly grateful to Aberdeen for having given him his first chair.

When he took up his appointment and his All Souls fellowship in 1955, Daube was pre-eminent in Roman law studies in Britain. He now held the foremost chair. The Oxford of those days, where Roman law was still compulsory not only in Moderations but in Schools, might seem to have been the ideal place for Daube to pursue his career among colleagues who shared his interests. For a while all did indeed go well. Daube was at the height of his powers, producing a stream of readable yet closely reasoned and convincing articles in which he 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 soon 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. As in Aberdeen, he had a number of doctoral students in biblical law and Roman law. On all of his pupils he had an indelible influence. Within the university and beyond he was skilful in securing posts for his proteges.

But moves were afoot to reform the Oxford Law syllabus by introducing new subjects and eliminating the compulsory Roman law paper in schools. These incipient changes were paralleled by changes in Daube's own life. He was divorced in 1964. He moved into All Souls, where he lived and worked in overheated rooms. He seems to have become progressively disenchanted with Oxford and with what he regarded as restrictions on his freedom. By the mid-1960s he was spending more and more time in America, especially in California with Helen Smelser, whom he was eventually to marry in 1986. He had also bought a flat in Konstanz in southern Germany, where he would spend part of the Easter vacation as a visiting professor.

This unsettled period came to an end in 1970 when Boalt Hall, the Berkeley Law School, offered him positions as Director of the Robbins Hebraic and Roman Law Collections and as Professor-in-Residence. He accepted - and resigned his Oxford chair, just as the changes in the Law syllabus came into effect.

Daube moved to San Francisco and began his new life in a tiny flat in a somewhat rundown area. The climate suited him and the breathing difficulties which had plagued him for many years largely disappeared. An ice-cream in the sun with Helen at Fisherman's Wharf was a pleasant way to relax and, for a long time at least, his relationship with her brought him happiness and new interests, especially in the world of psychoanalysis.

Daube seemed to revel in what he regarded as his new, laid-back, life. Getting up early in the morning, he would greet the down-and-outs on his way through the empty streets to the bus station, where he bought a newspaper - he never watched television or listened to the radio - and caught the bus for the short journey across the Bay Bridge to Berkeley. He would arrive at Boalt Hall well before breakfast, ready for the work of the day.

For many years - and indeed long after he officially retired in 1981 - he faithfully gave courses and lectures on Roman law and other topics. But his main occupation was study and writing in a very small room filled with his books and papers behind the stacks in the law library. Boalt Hall was indeed to remain the focus of his life for as long as he was able to read and to work. Members of the staff and other colleagues did much, discreetly, to support him and, later, to look after him when he had to move into a home.

The key to Daube's work was his massive intellect and learning: in addition to the texts associated with his professional work, he seemed to have read and remembered the whole of classical, German, French and English literature and more besides. This vast store of knowledge underpinned all aspects of his work, for central to that work was close study of texts and minute attention to language and to the nuances of language.

Typically, he would start with a single text, perhaps even an isolated word in a text, and, by revealing a hitherto unsuspected meaning or dimension, he would go on to illuminate a whole area of his chosen subject. For these purposes context was often crucial. In Old Testament studies stress had been placed on the importance of a text's Sitz im Leben (setting in life) and Daube applied that technique, attractively if not always convincingly, to Roman law in Forms of Roman Legislation (1956).

Our knowledge of Roman law comes, for the most part, from the digest which is made up of thousands of extracts from the works of ancient jurists. Lenel, whom Daube revered, had revolutionised its study by identifying the original context of many of these extracts. In the 1950s and 1960s Daube published a series of dazzling papers in which he carried on Lenel's work - only in private would he hint that he might well have improved on it. It can be no coincidence that the best and most substantial of these papers, and arguably his finest article on Roman law, was written in sober academic German and appeared in the Savigny Zeitschrift. It is his monument, to be set beside the master's.

Indeed, Daube remained a quintessentially German scholar. Even after living for decades in the English-speaking world, he had a strong German accent - some surmised that this could hardly be unintentional. In later years, he would seem outwardly to have adopted the relaxed Californian way of life, with long hair, an open-necked shirt and some linguistic usages to match. To the chagrin of some of his colleagues, he professed at least to favour many of the aims of the students in Berkeley and elsewhere in the late 1960s, though he was so skilful at arguing for any point of view that it was often difficult to be sure exactly how strongly he supported a particular cause.

In truth, of course, David Daube was completely different from those students: his life's work had been built on that particular meticulous, disciplined scholarship and Wissenschaft which he had acquired long before in Weimar Germany. He was thus the product of a system of education which has vanished for ever.

Alan Rodger

David Daube, Roman law and Jewish scholar: born Freiburg, Germany 8 February 1909; Fellow, Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge 1938-46; Lecturer in Law, Cambridge University 1946-51; Professor of Jurisprudence, Aberdeen University 1951-55; Regius Professor of Civil Law, Oxford University 1955-70; Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford 1955-70 (Emeritus); FBA 1957; Director, Robbins Hebraic and Roman Law Collections and Professor-in- Residence, School of Law, University of California, Berkeley 1970-81 (Emeritus Professor of Law); twice married (three sons); died Pleasant Hill, California 24 February 1999.

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...