Professor William McKane

Distinguished Old Testament scholar
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The Independent Online

William McKane, biblical scholar: born Dundee 18 February 1921; ordained a minister of the Original Secession Church 1949; Assistant in Hebrew, Glasgow University 1953-56, Lecturer in Hebrew 1956-65, Senior Lecturer 1965-68; Professor of Hebrew and Oriental Languages, St Andrews University 1968-90 (Emeritus), Dean, Faculty of Divinity 1973-77, Principal, St Mary's College 1982-86; FBA 1980; FRSE 1984; married 1952 Agnes Howie (three sons, two daughters); died St Andrews 4 September 2004.

William McKane was Professor Emeritus of Hebrew and Oriental Languages in St Andrews University.

Characteristically, he was working on his latest project, a commentary on the book of Job, in which he had reached chapter 33, up until the day before his death. Such single-minded commitment marked his career throughout and enabled him to bring to completion several large volumes of commentary on the Hebrew Bible, including two in the prestigious International Critical Commentary series which had defeated earlier generations of scholars, besides many other smaller monographs, collections of essays, articles and reviews.

Recognition of his distinction came not only in Britain, through the award of the Doctor of Letters degree by Glasgow University, an honorary degree from Edinburgh University, Fellowship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Fellowship of the British Academy and the award of its Burkitt Medal, but also from abroad, with Corresponding Membership of the Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen and Fellowship in the National Humanities Center, North Carolina.

It was not through privilege or any easy route that McKane rose to the top of his profession. He came of tough native Scottish stock from the city of Dundee. Although clearly of promising scholastic ability - he was dux of his year - he left school at the age of 15, intending a career in business. Another formative influence, however, was his local church in Dundee, a congregation of the Original Secession Church, one of the straiter sects of Scottish Presbyterianism (in whose reunion with the Church of Scotland McKane himself was later to play a role).

It was to the ministry of this church that the young McKane felt drawn and accordingly set about gaining the necessary qualifications for university entry by study at night school. The outbreak of the Second World War further delayed these ambitions and it was not until demobilisation from the RAF that at the beginning of 1946 McKane entered the Arts Faculty in St Andrews University.

There he read for a degree in English and Philosophy, congenial studies that developed traits strongly reflected in his works. He continually strove for elegance of expression and precision in thought; it is no accident that it is the philosophical strand in the Old Testament, the Wisdom literature, Proverbs and Job in particular, that became a major focus of his publications.

He was also preparing for ordination in his church. Concurrently with tenure of his pastoral charge, in Kilwinning in Ayrshire, he continued academic studies, now in Glasgow University, where he took a further undergraduate degree in the demanding discipline of Semitic Languages (Classical Hebrew and Arabic). On successful completion of that degree, he was appointed to an Assistantship in the Hebrew Department in Glasgow, where he went on to complete a PhD in Old Testament.

In Glasgow, McKane served a valuable apprenticeship in the crafts of his profession and made steady progress in his career, rising first to Lecturer, then to Senior Lecturer. He laid down skills as an exegete and expositor in his early publications, Samuel (1963) in the Torch Bible commentaries (a congenial extension to his PhD thesis: "The Old Israelite Community and the Rise of the Monarchy") and Tracts for the Times: Ruth, Esther, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (1965).

Capitalising on both his Arabic studies and his interest in philosophy, he published a translation of book 33 of the "Revival of the Religious Sciences" by the 11th-12th century Islamic philosopher and mystic al-Ghazali (Al-Ghazali's Book of Fear and Hope, 1962). He edited several volumes of the Transactions of the Glasgow University Oriental Society.

From this period also arose McKane's first major work, Prophets and Wise Men (1965), which in a sense laid down the two-fold framework of his subsequent career. In this book he drew a sharp distinction, which he later somewhat modified, between the rationality and empiricism of the sages of ancient Israel and the charismatic intuitions of the prophets. This paved the way for his major study Proverbs:a new approach (1970), published not long after his return to St Andrews in 1968 as Professor.

This work, in which he fully explored the internationalism of the Israelite sages, did much to reinstate the study of Wisdom which had fallen into some neglect under the influence of the "salvation history" approach to Old Testament theology. It undoubtedly secured his reputation as an international scholar of note.

But his work on the prophet Jeremiah (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Jeremiah), in two large volumes published in 1986 and 1996, will perhaps be his most enduring legacy. In these volumes, McKane's skills achieve their ultimate expression: the rigorously high standards of scholarship he set himself and constantly strove to attain; his meticulous assembling of evidence from the ancient versions and the medieval commentaries; his innovative and influential theory of the "rolling canon"; his balanced presentation of different possibilities of interpretation.

Ancillary to that work was a profound interest in the history of scholarship which he brought to fruition in his Selected Christian Hebraists, 1988, spanning the early church, medieval and the modern periods. Ever versatile, he also turned his hand to Pentateuchal studies in his Studies in the Patriarchal Narratives (1979); in essay after essay, some gathered in his collection A Late Harvest (1995), he displayed a rigour of thought challenging even to the most intrepid reader. Indefatigable, McKane produced a further commentary on the prophets, Micah, in 1998.

Deeply committed scholar and researcher as he was, McKane's was a rounded and engaging personality. As an undergraduate at St Andrews, he was awarded a Blue in association football. Both in Glasgow and St Andrews, he played in the university staff cricket team, continuing on into his sixties. He was excellent company, especially in small groups, a raconteur with a keen sense of humour. As academic, he played a full part in his profession, serving as president, and subsequently as foreign secretary, of the Society for Old Testament Study. He did not shirk the responsibilities of administration, serving periods in St Andrews both as Dean of the Faculty of Divinity and as Principal of St Mary's College, where he demonstrated his characteristic no-nonsense level-headedness and sobriety of judgement.

McKane is survived by Agnes, his wife of more than fifty years, who devoted herself tirelessly to his support, and by their three sons and two daughters.

William Johnstone