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The Chair of Hebrew in Edinburgh University's Faculty of Divinity was created in 1642. Its first occupant Julius Conradus Otto was the first academic from mainland Europe to be elected to an Edinburgh chair and is the earliest-known person of Jewish origin to have lived in Scotland.

Foundation of the Chair

The Chair of Hebrew and Oriental Languages was the second Professorship founded in Edinburgh University after the Chair of Divinity in 1620. Hebrew had hitherto been taught in a somewhat perfunctory fashion. Under the then prevalent Regenting System, students were given a basic grounding in Hebrew Grammar during their third year of studies. In 1628 the obligation to read Divinity students a weekly lesson in the Hebrew language was listed as one of the duties of the Professor of Divinity. In 1642, however, Alexander Henderson (c1583–1646), the Rector of Edinburgh University, was the prime mover in a nationwide campaign to raise academic standards through an influx of talent from abroad. He played a key role in instigating a resolution of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland calling on Scottish universities to seek abroad for able professors. In the same year, Henderson persuaded the Town Council of Edinburgh to introduce the specialized teaching of Hebrew into the University, and to employ a foreign scholar.

The Council’s choice fell upon Julius Conradus Otto, described as ‘a learned Jew’, but about whom biographical sources vary considerably. Most historians identify him with the scholar Naphtali Margolioth, born in Vienna in 1562. Margolioth converted to Christianity in 1603, changed his name to Julius Conradus Otto, and became Professor of Hebrew at Altdorf, Germany. He later reverted to Judaism. George F. Black argues, however, that the holder of the Edinburgh Chair was a son of Margolioth, who assumed the same Christian name as his father.

17th Century

In the decades following Otto's death, Hebrew became an increasingly neglected subject. Few theology students attended Hebrew classes, as there was no requirement to do so in order to be licensed as a Church of Scotland minister. Nor did the Professor demand fees from those who did. As a result the post gradually came to be seen as little more than a sinecure. The Chair also suffered more than any other during the religious and dynastic upheavals of the late 17th century, with two professors being dismissed on account of their views.

Otto was succeeded in the Chair in 1656 by Alexander Dickson (b. 1628), son of David Dickson, the Professor of Divinity. Dickson was removed from the post in 1679, after refusing to sign the Oaths of Supremacy and Allegiance which demanded that he recognize Episcopalianism as the true form of church government. He was replaced by Alexander Amedeus, a Florentine Jew, of whom little is known and who had demitted the post by 1681. His successor, Alexander Douglas (d. 1692) was expelled from the University by a Committee of Visitation in 1690, when, along with the Principal, the Professor of Divinity, and two regents, he refused to take the Oath of Allegiance to the newly crowned King William III. (See Purge of Episcopalian and Jacobite Staff, 1690.)

The Chair enjoyed little more fortune over the next decade. After lying dormant for two years, it was briefly occupied by Patrick Sinclair who died in 1694. He was succeeded by Alexander Rule, son of Principal Gilbert Rule (c1629-1701), who resigned on account of 'insanity' in 1701. At this point, however, under the reforming Principal William Carstares (1649-1715), efforts were made to revitalize the teaching of Hebrew. In 1702, it was stipulated that all Philosophy students should study Hebrew, and the requirement for prospective church ministers to have studied Hebrew was more strictly enforced.

18th Century

Hebrew teaching is said to have improved considerably under Rule's conscientious successor John Goodall. After his death in 1719, however, it entered into another slow decline. First James Crawford (1682-1731) jointly held the Chairs of Hebrew and Chemistry, devoting most of his energies to the latter. He was succeeded in 1731 by William Dawson (d. 1753), an essentially political appointment who appears to have done little teaching.

The prestige of the Chair was greatly enhanced in 1751 by the appointment of Leyden-educated James Robertson (1714-1795), described by University historian Sir Alexander Grant as 'the first really qualified Professor who held the Chair'. There was by now a much greater appreciation among prospective ministers of the benefits of studying Hebrew, and such was Robertson's academic reputation that Edinburgh's Divinity students actively lobbied for his appointment. Roger L. Emerson has suggested that another point in Robertson's favour was his ability to teach Arabic and Persian, both of which were attractive to students interested in joining the East India Company. Known as 'Rabbi Robertson', he occupied the chair for over four decades, during which he also served as University Librarian, preparing the first alphabetical catalogue of the books.

Robertson's successor George Husband Baird (1761-1840) only occupied the Chair for a few months before being appointed Principal of the University. His place was taken by William Moodie (1759-1812), Minister of St Andrew's Church, Edinburgh. Like Robertson, Moodie could teach Arabic and Persian, but a further point in his favour was his preaching against French Revolutionaries and their Scottish sympathizers.

19th Century

Moodie's death in 1812 saw the appointment of Alexander Murray (1775-1813), the autodidact son of a shepherd and a prodigiously gifted linguist. Tragically, the demands of teaching placed too much strain on Murray's delicate health, and he died within months of taking up the post. Murray's successor was Alexander Brunton (1772-1854), the urbane minister of the Tron Kirk, Edinburgh, and husband of the novelist Mary Brunton. Brunton published Extracts from the Old Testament with Sketches of Hebrew and Chaldee Grammar (1814) and Outlines of Persian Grammar (1822). Like Robertson before him, he combined the Chair of Hebrew with the post of University Librarian.

On Brunton's retirement in 1847, the Chair was once more embroiled in religious controversy. In 1843, Brunton's two colleagues in the Faculty of Divinity, Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847), Professor of Divinity, and David Welsh (1793-1845), Professor of Ecclesiastical History, had demitted their posts and played a leading role in the formation of the breakaway Free Church of Scotland. The majority of the Town Council of Edinburgh also joined the breakaway Free Church. In November 1847, in their capacity as patrons of the university, they presented Charles MacDouall (1818-1883) for induction as Professor of Hebrew. MacDouall was a Free Churchman and, as such, had not signed the Westminster Confession of Faith which acknowledged the authority of the Church of Scotland. Strictly speaking, signing the Confession had been a prerequisite for all Professors of the University of Edinburgh since 1690 but, in practice, it was generally only required of members of the Faculty of Theology. Hebrew was a theology chair, however, and on the motion of Principal John Lee (1779-1859), the Senatus Academicus now refused to receive MacDouall as Professor. The Town Council made a legal challenge to the Senatus's stance, but the Law Courts ruled in the Senatus's favour, granting a perpetual interdict against MacDouall. David Liston (1799-1881), a former missionary in India, was appointed in MacDouall's stead.

Following the relatively brief tenures of David Laird Adams (1837-1892) and John Dobie (1859-1894) (killed in a freak train accident), the Chair passed to Archibald Robert Stirling Kennedy (1859-1938) who would occupy it for over four decades, retiring in his 79th year. Kennedy was involved in a number of collaborative ventures with New College, paving the way for its eventual merger with the university following the Universities (Scotland) Act 1932.

20th Century and Beyond

The first holder of the Chair after the merger of the United Free Church College with the Faculty of Divinity, and the subsequent transfer of the Faculty to New College, was Norman Walker Porteous (1898-2003). Porteous was one of the panel of translators of the New English Bible (1970), eventually serving as both Dean of the Faculty of Divinity and Principal of New College. Living to the age of 105, he was also the last surviving British Army officer of the First World War.

One year before Porteous's retirement, the Faculty of Divinity voted to merge the Chair of Hebrew and Oriental (or Semitic) Languages with the Chair of Old Testament Studies, creating a new Chair of Hebrew and Old Testament Studies. The first holder in 1968 was George Wishart Anderson (1913-2002), who, in line with the increasingly ecumenical profile of New College, was a Methodist minister. Anderson prepared a draft translation of a book of the Apocrypha for the New English Bible and helped with the revision of the New English Bible for the Revised English Bible (1989). He also wrote two valuable textbooks: A Critical Introduction to the Old Testament (1959) and The History and Religion of Israel (1966).

Following his retirement in 1982, Anderson was succeeded by John Clark Love Gibson (1930-2008), whose many publications include a three-volume Textbook of Syrian Semitic Inscriptions (1971-82), volumes on Genesis (1981-82) and Job (1983) for the Old Testament Daily Study Bible (of which he was series editor), and Language and Imagery in the Old Testament (1998).

The current holder of the chair is Hans Magnus Barstad (1947- ), previously Professor of Old Testament Studies at the University of Oslo.

Professors of Hebrew

Professors of Hebrew and Oriental Languages

Professors of Hebrew and Old Testament Studies

The Chair was vacant between a) the retirement of George W. Anderson in 1982 and the appointment of John C. L. Gibson in 1987, and b) the retirement of Gibson in 1994 and the appointment of Hans M. Barstad in 2006. In 1995, A. Graeme Auld was awarded a personal chair of Hebrew Bible.

Related Pages


  • George F. Black, 'The Beginnings of the Study of Hebrew in Scotland', in Studies in Jewish Bibliography and Related Subjects: In Memory of A. S. Freidus, ed. Louis Ginzburg (New York: Alexander Kohut Memorial Fund, 1929), pp. 463-78.
  • Alexander Bower, The History of the University of Edinburgh. 3 vols. Edinburgh, 1817-1830.
  • Thomas Craufurd, History of the University of Edinburgh, from 1580 to 1646: To Which is Prefixed the Charter Granted to the College by James VI of Scotland, in 1582 (Edinburgh: Printed by A. Neill & Co., 1808)
  • Andrew Dalzel, History of the University of Edinburgh from its Foundation, 2 vols (Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas, 1862)
  • Roger L. Emerson, Academic Patronage in the Scottish Enlightenment: Glasgow, Edinburgh and St Andrews Universities (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008)
  • J. A. Emerton, 'Anderson, George Wishart (1913–2002)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006)
  • Sir Alexander Grant, The Story of the University of Edinburgh during its First Three Hundred Years, 2 vols (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1884)
  • Esther Mijers, 'The Netherlands, William Carstares, and the Reform of Edinburgh University, 1690-1715', History of Universities, 25.2 (2011), 111-42.
  • David F. Wright and Gary D. Badcock (eds), Disruption to Diversity: Edinburgh Divinity, 1846-1996 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1996)