Professor William McKane, academic

The Rev William McKane Emeritus Professor of Hebrew and Oriental Languages

Born: 21 February, 1921, in Dundee Died: 4 September, 2004, in St Andrews

A PROLIFIC and world-class Old Testament scholar and distinguished academic, the Rev Professor William McKane was Emeritus Professor of Hebrew and Oriental Languages at St Andrews University and a former principal of its St Mary’s College.

A graduate of both St Andrews and Glasgow Universities, Prof McKane taught at the latter from 1953 until his appointment to the Chair of Hebrew and Oriental Languages at St Andrews in January of 1968.

He was Dean of the Faculty of Divinity at Scotland’s oldest university from 1973-77 and later went on to succeed Professor James A Whyte, the former Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, as principal of St Mary’s College.

Born in Dundee, he worked as a clerk in the city with H & A Scott and during the Second World War served in the RAF from 1941-45, before beginning what was to be a distinguished academic career.

An honours degree in philosophy and English at St Andrews was followed by another in Semitic languages at Glasgow University where he subsequently graduated PhD in 1956. Licensed by the Northern Presbytery of the United Original Secession Synod, Prof McKane was ordained to Kilwinning in 1949 - where he met his future wife, Agnes - and where he served until 1953, acceding to the Church of Scotland in 1956.

It was while working on his doctorate that he began teaching Hebrew in Glasgow, and became assistant lecturer, lecturer and then senior lecturer before his appointment to the chair in St Andrews.

At Glasgow, he was associated with the extra-mural work of the university and, in particular, played a leading role in the theological course for laymen in Trinity College.

Prof McKane brought great distinction to his old university. He was notably interested in the exegesis of the Hebrew Bible, as anyone who sat under him or read his work will know.

His major publications established him as an international authority in the prophetic literature and the wisdom tradition, while his deep interest in the ancient versions of the Old Testament was reflected in his being elected chairman of the Peshitta (Old Testament in Syriac) project of the International Organisation for the Study of the Old Testament.

In 1965, Prof McKane placed Old Testament scholarship in his debt with the publication of Prophets and Wise Men, and to some extent these themes were carried forward in his later books and articles.

His commentary Proverbs in 1970, his Jeremiah volumes I and II, in 1986-1996, and Micah, in 1998, picked up the themes of wisdom and prophecy and confirmed their author as a scholar of international standing.

However, Prof McKane did not confine himself to the themes of wisdom and prophecy. He published on almost all aspects of Old Testament study from I & II Samuel, in 1966, and Studies in the Patriarchal Narratives, in 1979, to his Selected Christian Hebraists, in 1989, the latter displaying great breadth of learning, dealing as it does with the scholarship of figures as far apart as Origen and Alexander Geddes.

More recently, his A Late Harvest, in 1995, showed a deep interest in Old Testament theology. A dedicated scholar, he was a translation-panel member for the Revised English Bible, and also served on the editorial board of the Zeitschrift fr die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft and a corresponding member of Gttingen Akadamie der Wissenschaften. He contributed many substantial articles to British and European learned journals.

His academic achievements were recognised in the awarding to him of a DLitt from Glasgow University in 1980; a DD from Edinburgh University in 1984; election to a Fellowship of the British Academy in 1980; the awarding of the Burkitt Medal (British Academy) in 1985; the presidency of the Society for Old Testament Study in 1978; a Festschrift on his 65th birthday; and a Fellowship at the National Humanities Centre, North Carolina, 1987-88.

It would be misleading to think that it was "all work and no play" for Prof McKane. While an undergraduate, he collected a "blue" in association football, and played for the St Andrews University staff cricket team until his mid-60s. He also served as captain of the Glasgow University staff cricket club, honorary vice-president of the Glasgow University Cricket XI and president of the Trinity College Athletic Club.

He was a loyal supporter of the university’s 1st XV rugby team, a frequent visitor to Murrayfield, a member of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club in St Andrews and a keen hill-walker.

He is survived by his wife, Agnes, to whom he was married for 52 years, and five grown-up children.