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Saul Levin: Guide to the Bible

A man of many languages

Professor Emeritus Saul Levin

Distinguished Professor Emeritus Saul Levin may have retired in 1999, after 38 years on the Binghamton University faculty, but retirement has not cooled his passion for scholarship or slowed his scholarly productivity. Last fall, SUNY Press published an extensively revised edition of his Guide to the Bible, a highly acclaimed book first published in 1987. In over 500 pages of text, Professor Levin draws on his expertise in ancient languages and cultures to help readers better understand and appreciate the language and context of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament. The volume is a scholarly tour de force that offers, as one reviewer commented, "a wealth of insights and interpretations" of a text "uniquely influential in world history."

A Love of Languages

Levin always had a talent for languages. At the age of four he taught himself to read. At eight he taught himself French by reading a cousin's college textbook. "Reading French, I found, was no harder than English," he says. Before high school he was studying his older brother's Latin books and reading Caesar's Gallic War in its original language.

Levin finished high school a few months early and took the intervening months before classes began at the University of Chicago to learn German and Spanish. He thought he would major in French or Romance languages, but as a sophomore, a classmate showed him her Greek textbook and he was immediately hooked.

"Just by looking at it, I was attracted to it," he says.

His instructor, David Grene, who would go on to co-found the influential Committee on Social Thought that included T. S. Elliot, Saul Bellow and two more Nobel Prize winners, put his students through a rigorous study regimen to quickly distill out the best minds.

"He rushed through the essentials of Greek grammar in eight weeks," Levin says. "He didn't care that he was losing students, and in the second quarter there were only two of us left." The survivors were reading Plato's dialogue Crito, Death of Socrates and Symposium — "we listened in on Athenians talking to each other."

Grene convinced Levin to major in Greek, assuring him he had a distinguished future as a scholar. In the first semester of his senior year he studied Sanskrit alongside graduate students and was the only one willing to continue into winter. He was learning Avestan and Old Persian.

An Army Can't Slow Him Down

Upon graduation in 1942, Levin entered the army, where he was fittingly assigned to the Signal Corps in Virginia. But while his colleagues were deciphering intercepted coded messages, he was interpreting diplomatic cables in ordinary Spanish. The easy work left him plenty of time to continue his studies.

"For my spare time, I took along the entire Odyssey in Greek," Levin wrote in a 2004 autobiographical story published by the Linguistic Association of Canada and the United States (LACUS). "I started by memorizing the first two hundred lines; it took me five or six months to read through the rest of it."

Because Levin could type, he was reassigned to Algeria, where the Allied Forces were chasing German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel around the desert. But by the time he arrived in 1943, the German and Italian armies had surrendered North Africa. So he spent his days operating a teletype and his spare time learning Arabic through French textbooks.

Soon the Allies were in Italy and the Signal Corps moved to Caserta, north of Naples. Levin got his hands on a tourist's guide to Italian and learned the language, taking weekly lessons from a former schoolteacher.

"A visit to Florence was my last memorable experience before I was eligible for discharge," he writes. "I drank in the beauties of the Renaissance and talked to interesting strangers in their own language."

The Big Discovery

Almost as soon as Levin returned home in 1946, he was appointed to the Society of Fellows at Harvard University. The fellowship stipulated that Levin could attend any course he wished for three years, but they couldn't be counted toward a Harvard degree. While in Cambridge he started going to synagogue and became intrigued by Hebrew. "I wanted to understand the service at least as well as I understood the Latin literature of the Catholics," he says. So he took Hebrew classes, a step that has influenced all of his subsequent research and eventually led to A Guide to the Bible.

While studying at Harvard, Levin was writing his dissertation, sending a chapter at a time to the classics department at the University of Chicago. At the end of his fellowship, he sat for the final written and oral examination in Chicago and was awarded his PhD in 1949, skipping his master's. The university hired him as a professor the very next semester.

In his first year as a teacher, Levin translated Aelius Aristides's Greek To Rome and published it. Soon afterward, a more august Hellenist professor who spent a career translating Aristides and was about to publish his own translation held off until he could compare his version with Levin's.

"He decided not to change anything," Levin says. "And the main difference he found was that my style was too colloquial for his academic taste."

In 1951 Levin accepted a post in the classics department at Washington University in St. Louis, but he soon returned to Chicago for a year to peruse its voluminous libraries after he earned a Ford Foundation Faculty Fellowship. One day while writing notes, the similarities within Homeric Greek and Biblical Hebrew struck him hard. "The discovery opened the way for me, for the rest of my life, into the prehistoric connections between the Indo-European and the Semitic phyla," he says.

When he first studied Hebrew at Harvard, Levin had deep misgivings about the universally accepted grammar established more than 100 years before by Benjamin Davidson. But this discovery "drove me to the conclusion that an entire tradition of Hebrew and Semitic grammar, reaching down to Davidson, was dead-wrong in analyzing the vowels."

No one had made the connection before and it became Levin's primary research project. He spent most of his free time for five years writing The Indo-European and Semitic Languages, An Exploration of Structural Similarities Related to Accent, Especially in Greek, Sanskrit, and Hebrew. Then, before he published it, he wrote The Linear B Decipherment Controversy Re-examined.

Harpur Pulls Out the Best

In 1961, Levin not only found a publisher for both books in SUNY, but a new place to conduct research and teach when former University of Chicago instructor S. Stewart Gordon recruited him to Harpur.

"Being at Harpur College brought out the best in me," he says. "I took a year's leave from Washington University to join the faculty at Harpur College. But I had no reason to return."

Harpur combined Latin, Greek and Russian into one department, with Levin as the chair, but because he wasn't familiar with Russian, he felt awkward. "So I studied a beginner's grammar, and my colleagues helped me through difficulties," he says. "Later I read with pleasure a short story by Pushkin and one by Tolstoy — looking up hundreds of words in the dictionary."

At Harpur he also studied Arabic when it was added to the curriculum and hieroglyphic Egyptian with Professor Gerald Kadish, whose "knowledge was such that he had hardly one rival or two in the entire world," Levin says. But the fundamental structure of the language perplexed Levin, making it one of the only languages he never got the hang of.

"That was great fun," Kadish recalls. "I think Egyptian bothered him a little bit because it doesn't have the scrupulous rules and delineation of verb forms that Greek and Latin have. But he learned enough Egyptian for it to be useful in his work. It was a little vague from his point of view. There are 13 verb forms that look alike, and Levin found that a little bit annoying," Kadish laughs.

Over his half-century career as a teacher and researcher, Levin touched innumerable lives and had incredible successes. A couple of his most memorable students were a nun, who told him they would meet again in heaven, and Jordan Greenwald '82, who "was the best of all. He had it in him to go further than I had done." But he died just eight years after leaving Binghamton University.

Over the myriad publications and honors he's received throughout his career, Levin considers his promotion to distinguished professor, the highest rank a SUNY professor can attain, as one of the pinnacles.

"Phil Piaker, a professor of accounting at Harpur College, knew my scholarly work from our conversations after services at Temple Israel, where we were both members," Levin says. "He was determined that I should be recognized as a distinguished professor. He said that one researcher who did not have a research assistant and who also taught classes still produced as much research as three scholars."

Still Involved, Still Publishing

Though Levin retired 10 years ago, he and Ruth, his wife of 60 years, still support the University that gave them so much, establishing the Saul and Ruth Levin Fund, which supports students of Greek, Latin and other languages, and the Levin Assistantship Fund, which supports a graduate assistantship in classical and Near East studies.

And Levin continues his scholarly works, recently revising A Guide to the Bible, one of three books he has published on Hebrew and the Bible. Levin says the Fernand Braudel Center's Publications Officer Kelly Pueschel was essential to his research after he was disabled by a stroke, allowing him to continue with his publications. Her dedication to A Guide to the Bible was crucial to completion of the manuscript and preparation of it for publication.

The seeds of the book were planted the first year Levin arrived at Harpur, when he took over teaching a Bible course from a retiring professor. He handed out his lectures and dedicated class time to discussion. Every year he'd revise his lectures, integrating the ideas explored by the previous class.

Even though Levin taught a Bible class, he doesn't consider himself a typical Bible scholar because he was never steeped in any specific scholarly tradition. The result is a scholarly, yet accessible and fresh examination of the Bible's many stories by someone who understands the original language very well, but has few preconceived notions. Levin reads the Bible like he reads Shakespeare, paying attention to the words that are actually written and not to what a long line of interpreters say are written.

"I have not been indoctrinated into a particular interpretation of the text," he says. "I started as a linguist, reading what was actually written."

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Last Updated: 3/1/17