Former Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland;
Born: March 30, 1927; Died: September 22, 2012.
Professor Robert Davidson, who has died at the age of 85, had the distinction not only of being Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, but also having taught in all four of the ancient Scottish universities.
He was born in Markinch in Fife and educated throughout the years of the Second World War at Bell Baxter School in Cupar. In 1945 he went to the University of St Andrews where he took a first class honours MA in classics and then studied divinity at St Mary's College, where he graduated BD with distinction. In 1953, just a year after graduating, he was appointed lecturer in biblical studies at the University of Aberdeen, and ordained by the Presbytery of Aberdeen in 1956.
His first book, The Bible Speaks, which reflected the general courses he had taught until then, was published in 1959, and the following year he returned to St Andrews as lecturer in Hebrew and Old Testament studies. St Mary's College, home of the divinity faculty, was unique in that although students for the ministry were trained there, it had no church college alongside it, and so was able to concentrate on scholarship without over concern for ministerial formation. However Robert Davidson was someone who was always a churchman as well as a university lecturer.
In 1967 he moved to New College in Edinburgh as lecturer and two years later was appointed senior lecturer. In 1972 he was appointed to the chair of Old Testament Language and Literature in the University of Glasgow. His later colleague and friend Robert Carroll once commented somewhat chauvinistically: "Thus by an inexorably upward journey through the ancient universities of Scotland, Robert arrived at last in the land and graced that chair until his retirement in 1991."
Robert Davidson was a brilliant teacher. A former student wrote that "his gentle delivery and one-handed juggling with chalk in time with the flow of his ideas did not disguise the thread of determination like steel bracing that ran through his approach to his work. There was no doubting what he really thought and aimed to transmit."
More books were published on The Old Testament (1964), Biblical Criticism (1970), commentaries on Jeremiah, the Song of Songs and Lamentations, and in 1983 what was arguably his most influential book, The Courage To Doubt. By careful examination of the witness of Old Testament writers, this was a passionate expression of how constant and absolute certainty is not part of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and that, as Tennyson put it: there is more faith in honest doubt than in half the creeds.
In 1990, Glasgow was European City of Culture, and the year also marked the 300th anniversary of the last occasion the General Assembly met in Glasgow and re-established Presbyterianism in Scotland in 1690. It was expected that someone with connections to the city would be elected Moderator of the General Assembly, and many had assumed the minister of Glasgow Cathedral, Dr William Morris, would be chosen. But the nomination went to Robert Davidson. He chaired the General Assembly with firmness and grace and was a delightful guest in congregations, presbyteries and abroad. His reputation as a host in the Moderator's then residence in Edinburgh's Charlotte Square was marked, not always with pleasure, by the entire absence of alcohol!
After his moderatorial year and his retirement from his chair in 1991, Robert Davidson chaired a number of General Assembly committees and commissions. He spent a year as interim secretary of the Church's Board of Education and in 2003 a commission he chaired into "the theology of land and covenant" examined the use of biblical evidence in the claims to land of both Israelis and Palestinians. Always sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, he promoted what became known as "alternative pilgrimages" to the Holy Land.These visited Jewish settlements and Palestinian refugee camps.
Robert Davidson was someone of great personal warmth. Some of his former students produced their own tribute to him, Words At Work, published in 1994, to join the 1992 academic symposium in his honour, Test As Pretext: Essays In Honour Of Robert Davidson. He is survived by his wife Elizabeth, four sons and three daughters.
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