In memory of James K. Aitken

Dr. Chris Fresh, Dr Marieke Dhont, and Dr. James Aitkin Dr. Chris Fresh, Dr Marieke Dhont, and Dr. James Aitkin after the review panel of John Lee's book on the Greek Pentateuch.

It broke our hearts when the news came of Jim’s death. A few of our contributors and friends have gathered some of our thoughts together in our grief to remember Jim, his life, scholarship, mentorship, and dear friendship. Here, we remember our friend. Jim suffered a heart attack on Friday 31 March, 2023 and he passed away on April 7th, just a week later at a hospital in Cambridge. Below are reflections from Chris Fresch, Tyler Horton, and Michael & Rachel Aubrey.

The Cambridge Divinity School has published remembrances from others, including our contributors Travis Wright and Andrew Keenan, who had been current doctoral students under Jim: In memoriam James K. Aitken. William Ross has also written a touching remembrance: In Memoriam: James K. Aitken (1968-2023). Additionally, Simon Gathercole has written a wonderful piece about Jim’s life and career and the great impact he has had on so many: Professor James Aitken (1968-2023).

A day of grief and many tears.

A day of grief and many tears. The news of Jim ‘James’ Aitken‘s passing is nothing short of devastating. Jim was my PhD supervisor at Cambridge. In that time and since, he has been a dear friend and mentor. He supported me, encouraged me, and challenged me to be a better scholar. He was a delightful and good person.

Every November at the SBL conference, he and I would make a point to grab at least one meal or drink together to catch up on life and chat about whatever was on our minds. This was always a highlight of the conference for me. This past November in Denver, we got together for a couple of beers right after my paper presentation. He encouraged me in my work and offered suggestions for how to make it better. We shared recent life developments (there was much to catch up on since we hadn’t seen each other recently owing to COVID). We talked about our research projects and the current state of scholarship in our fields. We discussed our goals for our joint project (a graded reader of Greek documentary papyri), which we both were excited about but also were having trouble finding time for! Jim told me about his current PhD students, their progress, and their ideas. He was so proud of them and their work. He was also looking forward to a large number of incoming PhD students. He said there were too many applicants and he’d probably have to turn some down, but he was so interested in each of their proposals.

He didn’t like the beer he ordered (he let me try it … it was disgusting), but, ever the Englishman, he just pushed it away and said nothing more. I called a bartender over and explained the situation. They offered Jim a new beer free of charge, which he gladly accepted. After the bartender left, Jim said, “Thank you … You really ARE an American!” We laughed and continued to talk, eat, and drink for a couple of hours before parting ways.

I think I ran into Jim again before the end of the conference, but that evening at the pub is the last interaction I remember, and it was the last substantive conversation we enjoyed together.

And now he’s gone. I will be in San Antonio for SBL this year, and I am already in the throes of lament that our custom will not continue, that I will not see him. His absence is and will be so deeply felt.

Jim was a wonderful human. He was brilliant, a true scholar who was second to none. As many have attested and will attest, he was ineffably kind and generous. Particularly when it came to younger scholars and students, Jim would give his time to listen and encourage, a trait I admired greatly and seek to imitate.

Most of all, he was my friend, and I miss him dearly. The world is not the same today as it was yesterday. May Jim rest in peace.

—Christopher J. Fresch, Lecturer in Biblical Languages and Old Testament at Bible College of South Australia

Jim was a wonderful man and fantastic scholar.

Jim was a wonderful man and fantastic scholar. Knowing that I miss his voice in my life in so many ways, I decided to read through his works and started with “Fat Eglon,” which I’ll admit I had not read until now.

There is so much that we loved about Jim here. For a start, the article is perfectly titled. Jim was very thoughtful about this kind of thing and recently led us (the students he was supervising) through a whole session on how to write good titles. He even admitted that he considered Fat Eglon to be some of his best work in title-writing!

Jim was always careful in his writing and his tone is characteristically on point. You know that the issues matter but it’s also a lot of fun to read. The article puts pressure on the tendency to read ancient text on modern terms and shows how our tools (the lexicons in particular) can lead us astray when used uncritically. As ever, he finds the right questions to ask: “Given the cultural determinedness of the meaning of fat, it is not immediately apparent whether a stigma would have been attached to being fat in ancient Israel. Indeed, it is also not apparent whether people would have been seen as fat at all.” 

His relentless curiosity is also here on display. On the one hand, how does someone come to write an article on the supposed ‘fatness’ of Eglon? Not an article on this narrative as a whole, or on conceptualizations of the human body in ancient Israel, but just on what it meant that Eglon is called ‘fat.’ Jim had a keen eye for the details and an ability to see through our settled interpretations. On the other hand, the range of material that he deals with in the article is an indication of the breadth of his own interests. Reading widely was always a key piece of advice that he gave to his students. 

Finally, the article is about the need to take the Bible as we have it. Whether you believe these texts were given to humanity in moments of supernatural revelation or not, what we have today is a collection of texts which form a broad tradition. It was crucial to Jim’s work to take as much of that tradition into account as he could, with the Septuagint often as the focal-point. It is fitting that he closes an article about the Hebrew Bible story of Ehud and Eglon by commending the Septuagint: 

“One problem for us is the inadequacy of the glosses in dictionaries to convey the nuances of the Hebrew and we can easily misunderstand words that have a different cultural signification of our own. The Septuagint was more sensitive to this problem, and can be our guide.”

Of course we mourn the loss of Jim himself so much more than the loss of an academic, but he put a great deal of himself into his work. Those of us who were lucky enough to be his students will try to live in the wisdom he passed onto us and to emulate his generous and insightful scholarship as best as we can.

Tyler Horton, Cambridge Divinity PhD student, SIM International

The last time we saw Jim

The last time we saw Jim was in the midst of the final IOSCS session at SBL in 2022. During the Q&A after one paper, we were pleasantly surprised when Jim asked his question of the PhD student presenting. The exchange was all encouragement to her. At the end we, as linguists, were delighted to hear Jim urge her to consider what Construction Grammar might contribute to her ongoing work. Jim encouraging someone to read linguistics was not something he would have done many years before when we first met him and such things seemed to him suspect. But Jim’s curiosity and and constant pursuit of knowledge meant he was willing to engage new methods of analysis that might offer insights that were previously elusive.

Sadly, beyond that moment, we had all been so busy that we weren’t able to find a time to connect over conference week in Denver. We mourn that we will never be able to sit down for another drink with him, hear his perspective, talk about books or research, and laugh together.

Back in 2019, he had extended an invitation to us to do PhD work with him. Since we wanted to do linguistics, he added that it did not need to be Septuagint studies—we could, “research whatever we wanted.” He said: “It would be an exchange of ideas. I would learn from you and you would learn from me.” In that moment we were in the midst of joining Wycliffe Bible Translators to begin our work in biblical language linguistics with SIL International and PhD decisions felt far into the future and we set that conversation aside for a later date that would never come.

We first met Jim because of friends like Chris Fresch and Will Ross (both of whom studied with him) and the conferences they worked to organize at Tyndale House in Cambridge. Jim’s participation meant good engagement and discussion after papers. He noted in our paper on ἐκ and ἀπό that our corpus for analysis was only the Greek Deuterocanon and the New Testament and wondered whether a distinction we made between the two prepositions in temporal constructions would hold in the papyri (it does). He always had his eye on quality evidence and an expanded corpus that included documentary texts.

That conference in 2017 was the last time that both of us (Rachel and Michael) had to sit down for food and a drink with him. But it is also one of our most valued memories of him. The Greek Prepositions Workshop was over. As many attendees headed home, those of us left went to a pub for dinner—The Prince Regent. Jim bought our first round of drinks. He asked Rachel what she wanted. The first thing that came to mind was a cider. The memory stays in Rachel’s mind because he soon returned to the table with a concern: they had no ciders on tap and had just one in a can. He wanted to make sure this wouldn’t be a disappointment. His sense of care was as great as his generosity.

We stayed for hours conversing, discussing language, ancient texts, and whatever else came to mind. Through the evening, the members of our party thinned until it was just the three of us: Jim, Mike, Rachel. By the time we left, it might have only been because they were closing. And so we would have parted ways, us to our AirBnB and Jim to his home. But was 11 or 12PM. He wanted to be assured our of safe arrival, but also perhaps in order to continue our engaging conversation. And so he walked with us for 30 minutes in the night of the city and in the opposite direction of his home. We parted ways near the River Cam.

Jim was the kindest man. Many will remember him for his scholarship and they certainly should and as Tyler says above, they probably know more of him as a person than they realize when they read his work. The field has lost one of its sharpest minds too many years early. But those who knew him will remember him as much, if not more for his kindness and generosity, his care for others, and his attention to people who might otherwise be ignored.

—Rachel E. Aubrey & Michael G. Aubrey, Linguistics & Biblical Language Research, SIL International