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Faculty of Divinity

Jim, seated, wearing a white shirt, smiles at the camera. Behind, springtime foliage can be seen through the windows.

In tribute to our much loved colleague, we are inviting his friends, colleagues, and students to share their memories of this devoted teacher, this superbly erudite scholar, and this warm and compassionate man.

If you have a memory to share, please email it to us at so that we can add it to this page.


Professor James K. Aitken, 1968-2023

Jim came to Cambridge from Durham in the early 1990s, having previously completed an MA in Durham’s Department of Classics (a study of Euripides’ choral odes) while also studying Biblical Hebrew in the Department of Theology. He attained his doctorate from the Faculty of Divinity in 1995, “Studies in the Hebrew and Greek text of Ben Sira with special reference to the future”.

Over the years that followed, Jim undertook postdoctoral and teaching engagements at Fitzwilliam College, at the University of Reading, and at the Centre for the Study of Jewish-Christian Relations (now part of the Woolf Institute). Working closely with Graham Davies (Cambridge) and Tessa Rajak (Reading), Jim carried out groundbreaking digital database work to advance scholarly understanding of Ancient Hebrew and Septuagint Greek. This led to the publication of his monograph The Semantics of Blessing and Cursing in Ancient Hebrew (2007).

Jim took up his post as a University Teaching Officer in 2009, rapidly establishing a reputation as one of the leading scholars of the Septuagint and Second Temple Judaism. In 2014 he published a second monograph, No Stone Unturned: Greek Inscriptions and Septuagint Vocabulary, which demonstrated the importance of attending to inscriptional evidence as well as papyri for understanding the Greek of the Septuagint. His editorial labours included the T&T Clark Companion to the the Septuagint (2015) and Biblical Greek in Context (2015), as well as volumes on Ben Sira, the evil inclination in early Judaism and Christianity, and the city in the Hebrew Bible. His international reputation was recognised in his appointment to give the prestigious Grinfield Lectures in Oxford in 2021–22. Following his tenure as Chair of the Faculty (2019–2022), Jim was on sabbatical this year, working on various book projects, including his next monograph, In Praise of Literalism: The Septuagint, Creativity and the Hebrew Turn.

Jim suffered a heart attack on Friday 31 March, and was taken to the Royal Papworth Hospital in Cambridge. It was there that he died, on 7 April, in the early hours of the morning, with his family and fiancée at his side. The world has lost a superb scholar, and those who knew him have lost a good friend, but we extend our condolences most of all to his family and fiancée, for whom his passing is such a grievous loss.


A Man of Gracious and Ingenuous Curiosity Energized by Humor

When I arrived at the end of August of 2021 – as a Visiting Scholar in the Faculty of Divinity – the campus was near-empty.  Jim made sure to reach out to invite me for tea and to discuss my upcoming sabbatical year.  He then invited me to the first post-COVID faculty garden party the following week, and was a warm colleague throughout the year.  We delighted in hosting him for dinner one night where the conversation ranged from the chance purchase by his mother of a Hebrew grammar book that led toward some of his intellectual projects, through the complex relationships and pathways of life in Cambridge, to the pleasures of the BBC thriller Vienna Blood.  Jim was fun and Jim was sincere.  To meet with Jim was a chance to exhale.  We are shocked and saddened by the news of his passing.  We remain warmed by the kindness of his congeniality.

- Glen Milstein

Visiting Scholar, Faculty of Divinity

and Andrea Casson

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Jim and a group of his students in Bratislava, Slovenia




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An outstanding scholar with a remarkable range

Jim was a wonderful colleague and incredibly supportive not only to his own students but also to those of others, including mine. I particularly recall two fresh-faced Birmingham PhD students at a conference in Cambridge telling me that Jim Aitken had spontaneously invited them to dinner at Fitzwilliam. As well as an outstanding scholar with a remarkable range, Jim was great fun during downtime including at late-night gatherings of the Society for Old Testament Study. I vicariously enjoyed following his sabbatical travelogue on Facebook, most recently from Lausanne, and was looking forward to catching up soon. The last time I spent with Jim was over a quiet beer and nuts watching a big football match with opportunities to cover our plans post-leadership and current projects. My thoughts are with his family, friends and colleagues, especially in Cambridge.

- Charlotte Hempel (she/her)

Professor of Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Judaism

Head of the School of Philosophy, Theology and Religion

University of Birmingham

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He had a deadpan wit that was delivered with a twinkle in his eye

Jim was kind and never stuffy. He line-managed me during my sabbatical at the Faculty of Divinity and was supportive of my ambition to train to be a counsellor, finding the funds to pay for a course and requesting regular updates when we met. He was a champion of learning, unfailingly encouraging & keen to share his knowledge. He was a good listener and always got to the nub of the issue, whether it was a mundane or lofty matter. That he was extraordinarily clever is without doubt, but he never used his intellect to diminish others. He had a deadpan wit that was delivered with a twinkle in his eye, ensuring that everyone could be in on the joke. I’m so shocked & sad he’s gone. My heart goes out to his loved ones, who will feel his loss most of all. Go well Jim.

- Charity Green

Former CIP Administrator

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He welcomed me with such kindness and gentleness

Jim was my DoS in my first year of studies in 2010, covering for Corpus Christi’s Dr Anna Williams. He welcomed me with such kindness and gentleness, judging correctly that I was feeling completely out of my depth in this new world. He had been part of the interview process, and remembered me from that time when we came to meet in my first Michaelmas term, when I was struggling to adjust to Cambridge life. This small and simple act of kindness meant a great deal to me in those early days, and the handful of Corpus students (all five of us!) studying theology regarded him with high esteem during his time as our DoS.

Although a philologist, he handled my reluctance to apply myself to Koine Greek admirably, and we had good discussions about my progress (or lack of) in that subject, as well as my struggles with the Philosophy of Religion course. He encouraged me to look at my loves for ancient and mediaeval history (if not their languages) and how I might best develop those interests as I went into my second year and beyond. He pushed me gently to do better, reminded me why I had applied in the first place and, unbeknownst to him, helped me stick it out on the course when the imposter syndrome got a bit too much.

In my final year he tutored me in the Old Testament paper. Having not studied any OT in first or second year, he gave me some excellent recommendations for my summer reading and I came to love that paper as a highlight of my time at Cambridge for the sheer fun of it. In his hands, the vastness of the world of the OT became something to be enjoyed rather than endured, my lack of Hebrew a mere obstacle rather than a major barrier, and the beauty of the texts something to behold and treasure. It was a reminder of the delight to be found in knowledge discovered, and the rewards of studying that go beyond the Tripos.

He was a wonderful teacher and supporter, and I will always remember him as one of the few professors who saw past the stubborn defiant teenager out of her depth, and saw the person who just longed to learn and belong in a community of learning.

My sincere condolences are extended to his colleagues, friends and especially to his family. He is remembered with much fondness.

- Emily Sinclair (nee Alldritt)

m2010, Corpus Christi

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A towering authority in his fields

Sometimes the good things in life come unplanned. In 2021, I applied to work with Nathan, but he was on sabbatical that year - so he commended a colleague as my MPhil supervisor. Being a complete newbie to Septuagint and Second Temple studies, my first contact with Jim was as 'makeshift supervisor'.

Soon after, my disappointment morphed into fear as I realized that this Jim was not only chair of faculty, but also a towering authority in his fields. Yet, on my first meeting with him, he was kind and encouraging - despite my fumbling attempts to impress him with 'knowledge' that I shall be embarrassed to ever repeat.

But Jim was never one to boast, although he certainly was qualified to. When I suggested working on textual variants of Hosea for my first essay, he remarked that he didn’t know a thing about Hosea. This must have been the only lie he told me. I have since learnt that such professions of ignorance from him are to be taken with a pillar of salt.

There were more lessons in humility as I constantly interacted with him as my supervisor. At one meeting, he wanted to quickly check up a verse - which I saw him do in English. I said, tongue-in-cheek, “I thought an expert like you would check up verses in Hebrew and Greek!” He gracefully and unabashedly replied, “Well, English is always faster.”

Although I was only his ‘makeshift’ student, he spent way more time with me than was required. We transacted over ten drafts for that first essay, with countless “what do you mean by…?” comments that reddened each page. Jim was diligently and selflessly scrubbing me hard, even though I would be someone else’s PhD candidate.

After I completed my MPhil last summer, Jim remained interested in my academic progress and offered to meet informally to discuss my PhD work - although now this is no longer a possibility. I am forever indebted to him for shaping me in that formative MPhil year, and it was my privilege to have come under his tutelage. Cambridge OT/HB is much poorer without him - both academically and humanly.

- Daniel Lee

NOTAF Candidate, University of Cambridge

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We are all the worse off for having lost him all too suddenly and too soon

I first got to know Jim informally when he was part of the Semantics of Ancient Hebrew Database project in Cambridge, led by my then Faculty colleague Graham Davies.  I arrived in the Faculty in 1995 which is when that project began, so in that sense I have known Jim during the whole 28 years I have held a post in the Faculty.   When he left to go to Reading in 2001, he was still a presence around the place – and we used to joke that he couldn’t keep away!  He was soon back to hold a temporary position teaching Hebrew and Aramaic, followed by his two years as Academic Director at the Woolf Institute.  When William Horbury retired in 2009, Jim was an obvious successor to be appointed a University Teaching Officer (UTO) and I remember being part of the interview panel when he presented an extremely good lecture using Powerpoint (which was more of a rarity in those days). 

So, then there were the three of us who were UTOs in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible (OT/HB) – Graham Davies, Jim and myself and we worked very well together, with complementary skills and interests.  When Graham’s retirement was on the horizon, it was Jim who suggested to me that we might like, with Brian Mastin, to form an editorial team of three to edit a Festschrift volume for Graham, which we did.  It was a lot of work and we managed, largely through Jim’s excellent contacts with colleagues around the world, to put together a fine volume of 37 contributors, plus a summary of Graham’s work by John Emerton.  It was also Jim who came up with the title (he was always good at thinking up interesting titles for papers and books) – On Stone and Scroll – which nicely conveyed the fact that this book covered archaeological matters, and literary and textual issues along the lines of Graham’s interests.  When I think about it now, the breadth matches Jim’s considerable range of interests too – the Septuagint rather than archaeology perhaps, but he always seemed to know a good amount about topics quite far removed from his own!  The Festschrift came out in 2011, and not long after that Graham retired. 

For a time, there was just the two of us keeping the subject area afloat and we were discussing whether we would have to cut down our offerings.  I remember a ‘crisis meeting’ that we held to discuss these matters, but in the very pleasant surroundings of the Orchard tearooms at Grantchester sitting in the time-honoured way on deck chairs in the garden – Jim certainly knew how to make an enjoyable occasion out of a difficult discussion!   But luckily the funding was found and we soon had a new colleague in Nathan MacDonald, again forming a friendly threesome who also worked well together in a very collegial spirit.  Particularly memorable were our lunches at the hotel by the river that has changed its name many times, but used to be called the Garden House Hotel.  I remember fondly those ‘working lunches’, usually on a balmy summer’s day, chatting about all sorts of things notwithstanding a tiny bit of ‘work’. 

In all the time I knew him, I never heard Jim say a bad word about anybody – he was always generous in his time for people and in his opinions of them.  He was good at interpersonal relations, as came out particularly when he became Faculty Chair in 2019, having to handle difficult internal problems in the Faculty and the unexpected consequences of a global pandemic for our teaching and working conditions.  But Jim took everything in his stride and was good at solving problems, always remaining unflappable and calm in any crisis.  He was very sociable, often entertaining me and others at Fitzwilliam and we held a number of our Tyrwhitt dinners there.  I remember in particular a wine tasting evening where we enjoyed three vintages of the same wine with each course, and his expertise as a long-standing member of the Fitzwilliam wine committee was on display, but also his collegial spirit.    

He was always very easy to talk to and comfortable to be with – he had no ‘side’ or agenda.  Our interests in OT/HB studies were quite far apart – although he had done considerable work on the Septuagint of Ecclesiastes, one of the wisdom books.  But nonetheless we occasionally collaborated in a lecture or two – I remember sparring with him in front of undergraduates about whether creation or covenant was the key motif of Old Testament theology for one of our third-year papers.  He enjoyed the cut and thrust of debate, but always had a look on his face that said that this was academic ‘fun’ rather than serious disagreement. 

One is always left with regrets when someone passes away too soon.  When he had his first heart attack I will never forget the relief we all felt when he got through it and seemingly without any lasting damage.  I remember the day I saw him again following his spell in hospital and recuperation, which happened to be at an OT/HB seminar, and he gave me a radiant smile and we greeted each other with a big hug.  When I heard this time, years later, that he had suffered another heart attack, I was hoping and praying that this would be the case again, that he would recover and be back to normal again, but sadly and tragically this was not so.  I remember occasionally asking him if he had to do anything special to protect himself from the chance of another attack and he said that he had been told to get on and live a normal life.  And he certainly did that – he worked hard, travelled around the world to conferences and enjoyed many friends and good dinners.  He also kept fit – the last time I saw him, he was cycling down the road near my house as I was getting out of my car and we had a lovely chat and spoke about getting together again socially soon. 

As he was on a well-deserved sabbatical I had been trying to keep my distance, to give him space to work.  At the end of Michaelmas term, I invited him and all our OT/HB graduate students to a party which was a happy occasion.  But I had not seen as much of him as usual in recent months.  That seems strange now in the light of what has happened, and is a regret, but then no one expected this.  His early departure from us is particularly sad in the light of his recent engagement to and plans for the future with Diana. 

Losing him as a colleague is a huge gap for us all in the Faculty, and for our present OT/HB threesome and for me individually too.  I still cannot quite take in the fact that I will never more see his friendly, smiling face and learn from his considerable wisdom.  He wore his scholarship lightly, but was extremely talented as a researcher, lecturer and teacher and was widely admired and loved by his students, particularly his extensive numbers of graduate students, and by his colleagues.  In our edited book we wrote of Graham’s distinction as a scholar and of knowing him ‘as fellow scholar, as colleague, as teacher, as supervisor and, unanimously, as friend’.  I think the same can be said of Jim and we are all the worse off for having lost him all too suddenly and too soon.  I will forever cherish his friendship and be grateful for the chance of working with him for so many happy years.  RIP Jim, we will sorely miss you!

- Katharine Dell

Professor of Old Testament Literature and Theology, Faculty of Divinity

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I shall miss his eloquent silence

Now that you have departed to the other side, dear Jim


No longer can I email or phone you at my slightest whim,


Even when the spaces are silent and the times are grim


And the cup of life with the weight of sorrow doth brim,


Your gentle presence on the tablet of my mind you did imprint


Even through all your Herculean labours on the vast Septuagint,


Impelled by the radiant spirit of the love of language


You prodigiously pored over many an enigmatic page,


If people would learn from you to pay attention to the word


They might seek the path of peace and surrender the sword,  


Thus we remain on this side as pilgrims on all our multiple quests for meaning,


May you continue to inspire us with your smile – wise, gracious, and beaming!


- Ankur Barua

Senior Lecturer in Hindu Studies

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The Faculty will not be the same without him

As the Faculty’s Postdoc representative, I often worked with Jim on early career scholars' matters, and he was always supportive, encouraging, and subtly cheerful. Despite being an eminent scholar, Jim still was very much aware of fundamental practicalities that can impact one’s life as an academic at an early stage. During the pandemic, he showed much understanding of my situation as a mother working from home with a toddler who used me as a climbing frame while I was trying to write. And I vividly remember a warm summer’s day when the faculty was empty and I, hosting a conference, was suddenly struck by the pangs of an onsetting migraine. Walking the quiet corridors, knocking on doors in the hope of finding someone whom I might bother for painkillers, I finally ended up at Jim’s office. Jim immediately interrupted his work to help me on my quest for paracetamol. While we were not successful in finding any painkillers (one of the conference speakers eventually did), Jim managed to break the chain of pain and stress with humour. With a whimsical smile, he offered me a whole package of antidiarrheal medication: "Might this help?" Making me laugh somehow eased the pain and gave me the strength to go on with my tasks.
With gratitude I will hold on to this memory of Jim, for he was not only a brilliant scholar but also an outstanding example of how to keep a stoic, yet caring and humorous attitude amidst all kinds of academic challenges. The Faculty will not be the same without him. My deep condolences to his family and his loved ones.

- Hjördis Becker-Lindenthal

Affiliated lecturer, former Leverhulme Early Career Fellow

Faculty of Divinity

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He was an exceptionally gifted and well prepared doctoral candidate,

Jim originally arrived in Cambridge (where Fitzwilliam became his College) from Durham in the autumn of 1991 and I first met him soon after that. He came to work for a PhD on the Hebrew and Greek texts of Ben Sira/Ecclesiasticus (the University Library holds the largest collection of Hebrew mss of this book and the first ones to be (re-)discovered) under the ideal supervision of Professor Nicholas de Lange. But Nicholas was to begin sabbatical leave in the following term and I was appointed as James's interim supervisor from January to September 1992, despite my very limited knowledge of Ben Sira! Fortunately James's brilliance as a student carried him through and set him well on his way to higher things. We met to plan and discuss his work roughly every month and it very quickly became clear that he was an exceptionally gifted and well prepared doctoral candidate, with a strong knowledge of the relevant ancient languages. In discussion he worked out a promising thesis plan which was accepted by the Faculty as his initial research topic: 'Time in Ben Sira'.

We must have kept in touch after my formal duties ended, as I was lucky enough to have him do various pieces of (paid) work for me for several years. One result was, I remember, using him and recommending him to others as a language supervisor for undergraduates! (It turned out very well - he was already a fine teacher.) Another was that, a little later, when I was organising and running the 1995 IOSOT Congress in Cambridge, he was my chief assistant and he did that very well too. But of course the big decision, which was very easy, was to take him on as the first and for most of the time the only full-time research associate for the Cambridge 'centre' of the international Semantics of Ancient Hebrew Database project from 1995 to 2001.  We had guidance from the Chairman of the project in Leiden but basically we were working out a lot of it on our own and James had exactly the right palette of talents for that task, especially of course his confidence in handling all the major Ancient Versions. I am sure that for Jim as well as for me it was a real learning experience too, as we also had to learn the linguistic theory which the Dutch viewed as an essential part of the project! And at various meetings we got to meet a range of important European scholars. 

Fortunately when our first funding money ran out, some of Jim's talents commended him to the directors of a joint Southampton-Reading Jewish Studies project on Septuagintal vocabulary and that became his livelihood for the next few years. But he kept on with unfinished business for SAHD and eventually this produced the huge masterly volume on Words for Blessing and Cursing that he wrote himself. At that point Dr. Alison Gray came along and worked for SAHD for a time on new funding and she and he became with me the team that kept the project going, in a much diminished form, into recent years. When I retired from involvement in the project in 2018, James became the director of Hebrew semantics work in Cambridge. 

There is much more I could write about, including his time as a temporary Lecturer in the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, all of which would explain why he became an obvious successor to William Horbury in 2009 - an exceptionally hard act to follow! But with my retirement from the College and the Faculty just as he was becoming a Fellow of the one and a UTO in the other, my contacts with him inevitably became more intermittent and others are better placed to describe his splendid contributions from then on. For myself I was just delighted to observe from a greater distance just how well the promise which he had showed in those earlier years was wonderfully fulfilled subsequently. It is such a shame that the end came far too soon when he still had so much to offer and complete.

- Graham Davies

Emeritus Professor of Old Testament Studies in the University of Cambridge

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I valued every conversation with him

I had the privilege of sharing an office with Jim for the academic year 1997-8 as the two of us were the only Cambridge postdocs working on the Semantics of Ancient Hebrew Database. We enjoyed many conversations then and ever since.

We shared many academic interests, but Jim had something more to offer than technical interests. He was not only a careful reader of ancient texts, but an equally careful reader of people. That helped him to be a great and caring supervisor and also to be a very enjoyable colleague to be around. He was charming, witty, kind, self-effacing and constructively frank, especially when it came to academic matters. I valued every conversation with him.

I am sad to have lost him and also sad when I think of the future that might have been. The last thing we did together was interview potential PhD students, eager for the opportunity to work with Jim. That’s gone, but a legacy of Jim’s inspiration remains, and I personally intend to spend more time with his publications in the near future

- Peter Williams

Principal, Tyndale House

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My partner in dialogue

I was privileged to call Professor Jim 'James' Aitken my partner in dialogue for many years. He was an academic genius and whilst our views on Jewish-Christian dialogue at times diverged and at others converged we remained friends throughout. He always spoke from a sound academic basis, with warmth and our best chats came with a beer.

Given his life’s work around text and the Hebrew Bible we shared a love of getting to the truth including accuracy in translation. He once told me that he worked six months on discovering the meaning of the word ‘Derekh’. I retorted that he should have phoned me six months earlier and I’d have told him it meant the way / the path … shocked for a moment he broke into laughter… today, my poor students get Jim’s version.

He always seemed happiest at Cambridge though for a short while we were at another place together. For years, we served on the Young international Council of Christians and Jews … forming the Theological Forum which would argue about salvation, dialogue and the meaning of life well past the time the official sessions ended… usually until 3am in a pub in Heppenheim

I shall miss Jim’s rendition of hymns that chimed out in the town square there in Heppenheim and the countless breakfasts at the Goldener Engel and lunches at Buberhaus.

Over the latter years we chatted more on Facebook but it’s one of those nights that I feel a part of my life has vanished… and way before his time. I shall cherish and hold onto the memories.

That he’s passed away between Passover and Easter seems apt somehow…

Farewell my friend… until we argue at the bar waiting for us on the other side…

- Rabbi Alex Goldberg

Dean of Religious Life and Belief

University of Surrey

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Very supportive, with great common sense and a gentle sense of humour

Jim was so supportive during my time working at the Divinity Faculty Library. He didn't have an easy job negotiating differing demands during lockdown, but I always felt that his thinking was rooted in great common sense. It fills me with great sadness that I haven't been in touch with him since leaving Cambridge, and now will never be able to communicate with him again. We sometimes talked about everyday things, and in particular I remember him talking of his dislike of 'Maultaschen'! I had always wanted to find out more about this, but...

The Faculty has lost a long-standing and really great member of staff. I'm thinking of all those I still remember from my time at Divinity, and wish that you - as well as his family, of course - will find time to work through this shocking loss. I will miss a world where Jim is not a living contributor any more.

 - Clemens Gresser

Former Divinity Faculty Librarian

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He gave me deep and thought-provoking insights

I must say that I did not know Prof. James Aitken very well. As a matter of fact, unfortunately I was not one of his students in Cambridge but I had the wonderful opportunity and privilege of meeting him last July during my stay in Cambridge last year as a French lectrice at Pembroke College. And of course before meeting him I had extensively read his brilliant works, especially 'No Stone Unturned', a book that keeps inspiring me, since Jewish epitaphs are my research topic at the moment.

I was introduced to him by Prof. Tim Whitmarsh who thought it would be most useful to me, both from an intellectual and human point of view, to be able to have a meeting with Prof. Aitken. My master’s dissertation deals with epitaphs from the Jewish catacombs of Rome and Prof. Aitken, who knew my supervisors at the ENS in Paris, was not only the most prominent current scholar on Septuagint studies but also combined a unique expertise on Jewish epigraphy that I could appreciate during our brief but memorable meeting. And Prof. Whitmarsh was absolutely right: Prof. Aitken was incredibly available and generous, to the point of inviting me for lunch at Fitzwilliam, so that we could discuss my research topic and projects. I remember how supportive and interested in my hypotheses and my French academic background - very different from the warm atmosphere in Cambridge - he was. He gave me deep and thought-provoking insights that still have a considerable impact on my current research and my PhD proposals in France. He even encouraged me to apply for programmes so that I could go back to Cambridge, as a Visiting student this time, and enjoy more Cambridge life and he told me he would be glad to meet me again in Cambridge… Sadly this will never happen but his kind words will always remain engraved in my memory.

I remember we also talked about non-related topics, such as classical music, art, Italy, French literature (mostly Balzac) and even Ludwig Wittgenstein’s life in Cambridge with some of his colleagues who were sitting with us at the High Table. I really enjoyed our lunch together - not only because of ‘Jim’’s impressive and broad knowledge of any kind of subject but also because of his great sense of empathy and benevolence. He was one of those people who know how to make one feel comfortable. Being quite shy and not really a great conversationalist, especially while having to talk extensively in a foreign language in an informal discussion, I really appreciated his human qualities, he really made me feel at ease. I actually picked up many British idioms in this conversation that I still use whenever I have to entertain English native speakers.

For all those reasons, despite not really knowing him very well, it was such a terrible shock to me when I heard about his passing and I felt I had to write to you in order to pay tribute to the wonderful, worldwide known scholar but also the great man he was. A person who was able to give around two hours in his busy schedule to spend time with a foreign student discussing her research topic and introducing her to other fellows and his own PhD students.

I am most indebted and grateful to him for his kindness and support. I know he will continue living in his family, his friends and in the many colleagues and students he inspired and touched, even in a brief meeting. May his memory be for a blessing and may his soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life.

- Marie-Laure Rebora

Graduate student at the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Paris

Former French Lectrice at Pembroke College

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He listened to the whole person 

I still remember the little dance of joy I performed outside Liverpool Street station in London, after Jim had called to offer me a job with the Cambridge Interfaith Programme. He took his time to focus on me, making me feel appreciated and important. I thought about that moment later; he must have known how his words would resonate with an early-career academic stuck in a series of fixed-term jobs. He even pronounced my unwieldy last name perfectly, which is no small endeavour! To extend the welcome further, he invited me to lunch in his college. All I could ask about his work is whether giraffes are really kosher (the topic of an article he wrote, which I could understand as an anthropologist). Jim, however, had read my book already and asked meaningful, informed questions about my work. Then and after, his support was not simply a matter of collegiality; when speaking to you, he listened to the whole person. His bright presence, reassuring leadership and academic imagination led us through difficult times, including the Covid pandemic. Throughout, he worked to make the Faculty of Divinity a more inclusive space. The epitome of a kind scholar and colleague, Jim will be remembered by many of us, not just for his monumental contributions to academia, but also for the small things and otherwise invisible acts of kindness. I will miss him. May he rest in peace. 

 - Dr Safet HadžiMuhamedović

Teaching Associate in Anthropology of Religion, Faculty of Divinity

Bye-Fellow and Acting Director of Studies, Fitzwilliam College  

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We are forever indebted to you for all you have given to us

It has been hard for me to come to grips with the reality that Jim is gone. Jim was one of the best scholars, mentors, and friends I could have asked for. He was so gentle, kind, generous, and humble. I still remember the first time I met him. Not only did he allow me to ask all my silly questions, but he took them seriously and spent a lot of time with me. This continued as he became my PhD supervisor. He always allowed his students to ask whatever questions they had in working through their research and gave them as much time as they needed to answer. It wasn’t only in formal settings that Jim did these things either - he was always eager to spend time with us, whether at the pub or a bonfire.

Jim taught us so much about what it meant to be a scholar. He always encouraged us to be kind and generous but also rigorous, patient, and clear. This meant that he never pressured his students to publish or present. He thought that you should only do those things when/if you were ready. This meant that everything had to be meticulously and seriously considered before putting yourself out there. These qualities are so easily seen in Jim’s own work. The careful, considered, and precise nature of his scholarship is what made his work so persuasive and impactful.

I will be forever shaped by the way that Jim saw humanity in the text and scholarship. The texts he was so concerned with were not just ancient archaeological artefacts to him. They represented real people, and this always made papyri group, which he led, so much fun. It was often where Jim’s brilliance was truly on display. Since humans are complex, so are the texts they produce and this ought to warrant an approach to reading texts that considers those many complexities. But Jim also treated scholars the same way. He insisted on maintaining the humanity of other scholars and refused to reduce them down to “views” or “approaches.” It was very important to Jim that his students were always generous and kind in how they engaged with other scholars.

Jim, I am tremendously privileged and proud to have called you my Doktorvater. We are forever indebted to you for all you have given to us. We will never be able to fill your shoes. You have left a massive gap. However, we will do our very best to carry on the legacy you set forward, with as much humour as possible. You will be profoundly missed Jim.

- Andrew T. Keenan

PhD Candidate, Jesus College

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His door was always open

It was with great sadness that staff and students learned of the recent death of Jim Aitken.  Jim was appointed Academic Director of the Centre for the Study of Jewish-Christian Relations (CJCR was forerunner of the Woolf Institute) in 2007.  

 Even before then he had been a CJCR tutor and had contributed to the teaching programme. I remember discussing the idea of establishing a Centre back in 1998.  Jim was always interested in the practice as well as the study of Jewish-Christian Relations, being active in the local branch of the Council of Christians and Jews.

 At the CJCR Jim was known for devoting time to help younger scholars navigate the challenges of their studies, especially overseas students, and his door was always open.  He was a fine scholar in his own right and it was not a surprise that he was appointed to the Divinity Faculty a few years later.  

Jim will always be remembered fondly and his contribution in the early years of the Woolf Institute will be remembered with gratitude.  May Jim’s memory be for a blessing.

- Ed Kessler

Founder President of the Woolf Institute    

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He was an accomplished linguist, text-critic, exegete, and historian

I had the good fortune to have Jim as a colleague for ten years, though we had known each other long before I arrived in the faculty in 2013. Much has been said about his academic abilities, and every word is true. He was an accomplished linguist, text-critic, exegete, and historian. There were few areas in biblical studies where he was not deeply read.

In every respect, he was a scholar’s scholar: a lover of learning for its own sake. We had very similar views about what was good – and bad – in contemporary scholarship, and there was nothing more fun than dissecting a conference or paper with him. He treated the ancient texts with great seriousness, but was realistic about how marginal they were to most other people. Where others can be unduly earnest about how much their own discipline should be noted by others, he simply infected students with his enthusiasm for the subject. He regularly lectured for more hours than was required of him, and ran additional reading groups, passing on his love of the literature of early Judaism and the languages it was written in.

His learning was combined with a decency and kindness. I still cannot work out how he could be so deeply learned and be so generous with his time. Talking with him was an easy thing to do. Some of my best memories of him are chatting with him into the small hours, nursing a drink and thinking about scholarship and projects. He also had a quick wit. So much of what he wrote was as essays and I remember pointing out to him that many of the reviews highlighted his essays as the outstanding contributions to a volume. “The worst thing is”, I said, “I’ve got essays in some of those volumes”. Where many others might have made an appreciative comment about my own writing, he broke into a smile: “Well, that figures”. For me that sums Jim up. He didn’t think you should take yourself too seriously; he could see the funny side of things. But he loved his research and felt no need to be apologetic about it or trying to be the very best scholar he could be.

Now that he's gone, I realize that having him as a colleague was the best thing about being in Cambridge.

- Nathan MacDonald

Professor of the Interpretation of the Old Testament

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I know I owe Jim everything

I will remember Jim as the first scholar who was actually kind to me. I wrote him with an embarrassing piece of writing inquiring about a PhD, and instead of shaming me, he invited me to join him at the Society of Biblical Literature where we chatted for nearly three hours. Thinking back now, I must have made every possible mistake in the book, and he thought nothing of it. This was the relationship Jim had with his postgraduate students. He was kind, gentle (where needed), and benevolent. I will never forget arriving in Cambridge my first term and finding that Jim was happy to spend a Friday night with his postgraduate students. That amazed me, and it still does. Jim wanted to spend time with his students. We weren't a bother to him. He was an excellent supervisor. Wherever my career may lead after Cambridge, I know I owe Jim everything.

My last communication with Jim was an email dated March 30th –– the day before his heart attack. His last words to me were, “Even without advanced linguistic skills, just thinking of the Septuagint as a real language would make a big difference to the field.” A perfect sentence capturing so much of what Jim stood for as a scholar. I will miss him dearly. ἔρρωσο.

- Travis Wright

PhD Candidate, Fitzwilliam College

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Jim was a wonderful scholar, and a gifted editor

I was deeply saddened, and shocked, to hear the news of Jim's passing. I remember many happy lunches, and drinks at conferences in various locations, including - most recently - at the SBL in Denver last November. Jim was a wonderful scholar, and a gifted editor. His Companion to the Septuagint was a work of many years, which provided the biblical studies community with an invaluable reference work of the highest quality. We would often joke about how long the volume was taking to be completed... but it was very much worth the wait, and Jim's attention to every tiny detail of the project was admirable. I deeply valued Jim's advice on countless projects, whether in formal reader reviews or informal chats over a pint. We were looking forward to publishing his ICC on Judith one day, but this was very much a long-term plan that he had not begun active work on. Nonetheless, Jim was a key conversation partner when we decided to broaden the ICC to cover 'the Apocrypha'. I shall miss Jim's presence in biblical studies deeply, and will miss having a pint with him at conferences. My deepest condolences to his family and loved ones. - Dominic Mattos, T&T Clark. 

- Dominic Mattos

Senior Publisher, Biblical Studies / T&T Clark

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Cambridge will be forever thick with memories of him

Jim was an outstanding colleague but, above all, an exceptional friend. From the first time I met him, over thirty years ago, in the early years of our PhDs, up until our last beer together a few days before he was taken ill, he was always the same: not just a scholar driven by an insatiable curiosity about the subjects he dedicated his life to studying, but someone who enjoyed whatever life had to offer him, and especially so when it was shared with others. This last quality makes his death all the harder. It means not only are there important works unwritten and promising students untaught, but there is so much laughter and good company lost. 

Jim was someone who took his academic vocation seriously — and it was a vocation for Jim, not just a job — and he always strived to make contributions in teaching and research that were lasting and transformative. But unlike some, he never took himself too seriously. My first memory of Jim was in the Don’s ‘grotto’ — the custodian’s office in the old Divinity School — where students went to be roundly and warmly taken down a peg or two. It is indicative of Jim’s lack of self-regard, and the enduring value that he placed on the relationships that he forged throughout his life, that until Don’s retirement in 2015, Jim happily spent hours in his company in the new Faculty building too, experiencing much the same friendly treatment. 

Jim’s intellectual interests were extensive and extended well beyond the areas for which he was known. His knowledge of other fields and disciplines never failed to surprise me. It is typical that during my last conversation with him, he asked my opinion about a new book on the historical Jesus that was attracting publicity and which, of course, he had already read, although I, as someone who helps teach the subject in the Faculty, had barely started.  

He also had an almost infinite capacity for the travel and conferences that come with academic life, partly because of the intellectual stimulation such things provide but primarily because of the friendships they can foster. We should not have been surprised that following his first heart attack a few years ago, whilst we anxiously worried about how he was feeling, he would later declare that in his mind he was, in fact, attending yet another enjoyable conference. 

Jim was an extremely kind man. It was often said that if he had not been an academic, he would have made an extremely good priest — humane, thoughtful and with a real pastoral gift. Especially in later years, I found it perplexing how someone who could achieve so much, could have time for so many.

He had a playful, eccentric side too, evident in such things as his passion for Eurovision parties and his ill-judged enthusiasm for karaoke, as well as his habit of making absurd purchases from eBay, including old post boxes and air-plane trolleys, all of which he would insist were a bargain.  

I miss Jim terribly and I always will. Cambridge will be forever thick with memories of him. Although his death is tragic, and painfully premature, coming as it did when he had so much more to give, and when he was looking forward to so much, both intellectually and personally, you do not need his wisdom to predict that what he did will continue to shape the lives and thinking of many for years to come. It was a privilege to have had Jim in my life, and it is something for which, despite the sadness, I will always be grateful.  

- Dr Justin Meggitt 

Senior Lecturer in the Study of Religion

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Patient, thoughtful and caring

As well as being a scholar of international standing, Jim was an excellent administrator. Patient, thoughtful and caring, he saw the Faculty through the difficult Covid years and was a calm, wise and engaged presence on the many formal and informal occasions the School had to gather in those times. His passing is a bitter blow to us all, and he will be sorely missed. 

- Chris Young

Head of the School of Arts and Humanities

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I was slightly star-struck

Jim was my teacher, mentor, and dear friend. I met him at the IOSCS conference in Munich in 2013. At the time I was a young PhD student who knew his written work, and I was slightly star-struck, but Jim turned out to be a genuinely warm and engaging person. We shared a passion for the Greek language and a background as philologists working in the field of biblical studies. He invited me to come to Cambridge as a visiting student, which I did, twice, in 2015 and 2016.

During that time, he shaped my doctoral work in important ways. I owe so much to him. He ended up being the external examiner of my PhD, and subsequently became my postdoctoral supervisor. It has been an honour and a privilege to have worked closely with him for the past five years and to have been able to learn so much from him.

Jim was generous with his time and his insight, had a marvellous breadth of knowledge, and was critical, witty, and kind – a rare combination. He was and will continue to be an inspiration to me. I will miss him dearly.

- Dr Marieke Dhont

Affiliated Lecturer, Faculty of Divinity, and Bye-Fellow of Girton College

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Jim's influence in my life and work is difficult to overstate

As my Docktorvater from 2014-2018, Jim's influence in my life and work is difficult to overstate. I have many fine memories with him that I could share. For instance, 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 absolutely 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, and I realized this was someone I wanted to work with and learn from. We drank coffee and discussed what would eventually become my thesis topic. 

I also 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 after his first heart attack, and I was formally intermitted with the university. Even so, Jim still made time to connect with me by email and video calls 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 my studies. 

I also had the unique privilege of graduating from Cambridge as a member of Fitzwilliam College, which was also Jim's college. As it happened, Jim was the praelector of graduates of the college 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 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.

- William A. Ross

Former doctoral student, now Associate Professor in Old Testament at the Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte NC)

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