Prof. Nahum M. Sarna, z"l
March 27, 1923-June 23, 2005
As a boy, Nahum M. Sarna was introduced to Bible stories by his father, who read to him every Sabbath from ''Bible Readings with My Children."
He grew up to become one of a new generation of biblical scholars who took the words of God and put them into the hands of science.
''He was one of the leading scholars of the Bible in the 20th century," Jehuda Reinharz, president of Brandeis University, said yesterday.
Dr. Sarna, 82, a former Newton resident, died Thursday in Boca Raton, Fla.
An articulate, soft-spoken man, Dr. Sarna taught at Brandeis for 20 years.
''He was extremely learned and witty," said Reinharz, who once took a class that Dr. Sarna taught. ''He was always well prepared and his lectures were very clear and precise."
Dr. Sarna loved a good pun and peppered his lectures with them, as well as with witty asides. He also wrote many papers for scholarly journals.
''It is the nature of the enterprise that a scholar's life work is mostly dispersed in learned journals and is, in the main, not accessible to the intelligent and interested nonscholar," Dr. Sarna wrote in the preface to his book, ''Studies in Biblical Interpretation."
But he made sure his work was accessible to the public, writing several books, including ''Understanding Genesis," ''Exploring Exodus," and ''Songs of the Heart: An Introduction to the Book of Psalms. "
''His 'Understanding Genesis' is a staple for everyone in the field, both scholars and laymen," said Reinharz. ''I suppose you could say it's a best seller. It's been in print for 35 years."
Dr. Sarna was born in England and never lost his pronounced accent. He earned bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of London. He received his rabbinical ordination at Jews' College in London and earned a doctorate in biblical studies and Semitic languages at Dropsie College in Philadelphia.
He taught at Gratz College in Philadelphia from 1951 to 1957, and was the librarian at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York before joining the faculty at Brandeis University in 1965. He retired from Brandeis in 1985, and until recently had taught at Florida Atlantic University.
An expert on Genesis, Exodus, Psalms, and Job, Dr. Sarna was long associated with the Jewish Publication Society, the oldest publisher of Jewish books in the English language. He was the editor and translator of its version of the Bible, first published in 1985.
Dr. Sarna's research took advantage of the latest scientific and archaeological findings.
''He was very important in the transition in Jewish biblical scholarship from rabbinical seminaries to academia," Ellen Frankel, chief executive officer and editor in chief of the Jewish Publication Society, said yesterday. During this transition, which took place over the last half-century, scholars began considering the literary, historical, and archeological context of Biblical writing, instead of looking at it from a purely religious perspective.
''He wrote some incredibly erudite studies for academia, but also had a strong commitment to students and lay readers," said Frankel.
Dr. Sarna leaves his wife of 58 years, Helen (Horowitz); two sons, Jonathan of Newton and David of Teaneck, N.J.; a sister, Aviva Segal of Israel; and five grandchildren.
A funeral was held yesterday at Brandeis University. Burial was in Beth El Cemetery in West Roxbury.