The world of biblical studies and Septuagint scholarship suffered a tremendous loss this past Good Friday, as we learned of the sudden passing of Dr. James K. Aitken, or — as he insisted — just Jim to those who knew him. As others have reported, Jim passed away a few days after what was his second major heart attack. Since then, tributes have already begun to pour in, as expected. Here is mine.
If you have been a reader for any length of time, you will know that Jim was my Doktorvater. That is, he was my research supervisor while I was a doctoral student working in Septuagint lexicography at the University of Cambridge from 2014 to 2018. Unsurprisingly, then, Jim’s influence in my life and work is difficult to overstate. He has featured numerous times in this site in various ways, including this interview that he did for me back in 2015, which has lots of interesting biographical information that is well worth the read.
It’s difficult to know how to write a post like this one and what to say. Jim was widely recognized as an outstanding scholar. His untimely death is a tremendous loss to the field, of course. Rather than focus on that, I thought I would provide some more personal reflections, since Jim was not just a wonderful supervisor for me, but also a good friend.
I have countless memories with him that I will always carry. Here are just a few that came to mind as I wrote:
I remember the first time we met in 2012 at SBL in Chicago. It was 11:30am on a Monday. We had connected via email just a few weeks before and I had no idea what I was doing. I was utterly terrified to meet a real Cambridge scholar, but Jim soon put me at ease with his warm personality. We drank coffee and discussed what would eventually become my thesis topic.
I remember sitting with Jim among a few new acquaintances in a beer garden in Munich in 2013 during my first IOSOT conference. Some there were getting heated over some biblical studies topic or another and I was starting to sweat. But Jim was cool and thoughtful, as ever, although not without his occasional wry comment.
I remember my very first supervision with him in September 2014, once I had arrived in Cambridge. We had come to a new country just a week or two earlier with two kids (one of whom was only two months old) and I was massively overwhelmed with the prospect of what I had gotten myself into. Here are some of the things Jim said in that meeting, which I studiously wrote down:
- Be humble with the evidence. Strong argumentation, yes, but in reality a modest, minor contribution is more convincing than a strong argument that is unconvincing.
- “Perhaps” is a key word. Gentle. The best scholars are subtly modifying the data.
- Read something every day that is not on LXX. Broaden your mind, find unexpected connections.
- Absorb everything, it always will help. Don’t be worried if what you are reading seems or is completely irrelevant. It will come up later.
I remember receiving the news in early January 2015 of his first heart attack and wondering what on earth would happen, not only for Jim, but also for my own work. In due course, Jim recovered and was able to return to supervising after two terms of respite. It was a miracle and we all knew it.
I remember Jim’s constant support and encouragement throughout the academic year that I was away from Cambridge in 2015/2016, when my oldest son was being treated for cancer. Jim had only just begun to get back into the office and I was formally intermitted with the university. But Jim still made time to connect with me by email and video call to discuss things I was reading and thinking about, once that became possible again for me. Without his support, I am not sure I would have continued.
I remember countless conferences in various places around the world, with all manner of discussion and humor over a coffee or pint. There were even some good papers. At one 2016 event in Germany I recall us singing “Yesterday” by The Beatles with a group of biblical scholars while someone played guitar; another time in 2017 I recall sharing a meal of reindeer tartare with Jim at what turned out to be a surprisingly fancy restaurant in Helsinki, Finland.
I remember sharing tea and cake with him on a perfectly English spring day at Tyndale House with my family, in celebration of the publication of my thesis-turned-monograph, just last June.
On it could go, of course.
As I have reflected on my decade of time with Jim, I’ve recognized how special it was that I was able to graduate from the University this time last year. Although I completed my degree in 2018, I did not actually participate in the Cambridge graduation ceremony. That was largely due to the fact that I had a new faculty position to start, then shortly after that a new (fourth) child, then shortly after that the world shut down for two years.
But at last, in May of 2022 I was finally able to return to Cambridge with my family for graduation. As wonderful as that experience usually is, it was particularly rewarding in my case, because Jim and I were both part of Fitzwilliam College. And as it happened, Jim was the praelector of graduates of the college, meaning that he personally oversaw the college graduation that day. As the graduates walked down to the Senate House from college, Jim told me that I was the first — and now I suppose only — of his doctoral students who he also had a part in graduating. As hilarious and awkward as it was to hold his little finger as I received my degree (it’s a Cambridge thing), I will never forget it.
I thought it would be fitting to conclude with an excerpt from the acknowledgements of my 2018 doctoral thesis.
Cambridge is a special place, and not just because of the deep pain and profound joy that has characterized my family’s time here. It is an honor to have lived and worked somewhere with such a rich history, particularly related to biblical scholarship and the Church. I have many to thank for this privilege. First among them all is my supervisor, Jim. Even with all the upheaval, uncertainty, long absences, and regular travel during my program, Jim has constantly provided clarity and guidance. Rarely have I known someone with such a level of mastery in his field who interacts with students with such humility, charity, and humor. That was immediately obvious when some random graduate student messaged Jim in 2013 about finding an obscure article he had written, and Jim responded promptly with helpful commentary, a scanned pdf of the article, and invitation to meet in person. That random student was me. In the years since then, Jim has persistently shaped, challenged, and encouraged my thinking while always demonstrating rigorous scholarship to emulate. Thank you.
I would not be the scholar, researcher, writer, or thinker I am today without Jim. He was an excellent mentor and a wonderful friend. I will miss him.
Will, I’m sad to hear this news. Each of us who has had a great doctoral advisor can appreciate your loss. What a great tribute you’ve given here, though. We’ll be praying for his family.
Heartbreaking. And a beautiful tribute. Thank you for sharing this, and may God’s love surround you and all who love and mourn Jim.
Thanks so much, Will. A lovely tribute indeed. Would that every advisor were like Jim (no jealousy here–I too was blessed with one such).
Peace, perfect peace,
Death troubling us and ours?
Jesus has conquered Death
And all its powers.
A lovely tribute, Will. He was such a wonderful and kind person. I have a fond memory of him vehemently disagreeing with an example I gave in an Oxbridge seminar paper, but he did so in a classically Jim sort of way—gently and disarmingly, and even a touch of joviality. For many years thereafter, he loved reminding me how bad that example was… usually over a beer and with a good laugh. Very sad for all who knew him, but especially for those who, like you, had the privilege of working closely with him. May you continue to honor his legacy through your good work.