In Memoriam: William W. Hallo, expert on ancient Near East

William W. Hallo, the William M. Laffan Professor Emeritus of Assyriology and Babylonian Literature, died on March 27 at the age of 87.

William W. Hallo

Hallo spent his career studying, teaching, and writing about Assyriology, archaeology, biblical studies, Semitic studies, and Babylonian literature. During his 40 years at Yale, he also served as curator of Babylonian Collection at the Yale Library and as master of Morse College 1982–1987.

Born in Kassel, Germany in 1928, Hallo immigrated to the United States with his family in 1940; he completed his elementary and secondary education in New York City. He received his B.A. from Harvard College and continued his studies in the Netherlands through a Fulbright Fellowship at the University of Leiden. There he met and married Edith Pinto, a young Dutch student and holocaust survivor. They later had two children.

Hallo spent 1951–1956 studying at the Oriental Institute with a fellowship from the University of Chicago. At the institute, he studied under Professor I.J. Gelb and completed his master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation.

After earning his Ph.D., Hallo began his work at Hebrew Union College’s Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, where he taught Hebrew, Aramaic, Sumerian, history, literature, and psalms to a generation of graduate students. In 1962, Hallo came to Yale as assistant curator (and later curator) of the Babylonian Collection. At that time, he also became a professor of Assyriology, a subject that he would continue to teach until his retirement in 2002.

Hallo published nearly 200 articles and authored or co-authored a dozen books, some of which include: “The Exaltation of Inanna” (1968), “Sumerian Archival Texts” (1973), “The Tablets of Ebla” (1984), “Heritage: Civilization and the Jews” (two volumes, 1984), “Scripture in Context” (four volumes, 1980-1991), “The Book of the People” (1991), “The Ancient Near East: a History” (second edition, 1998), “Seals and Seal Impressions” (2001), and “The World’s Oldest Literature: Studies in Sumerian Belles-Lettres” (2011).

Hallo also inherited his parents’ life-long interest in Franz Rosenzweig, a major figure in Jewish theology during the 20th century. He translated Rosenzweig’s magnum opus into English as “The Star of Redemption” (1970 ff.) and published a number of other studies in this area.

“Bill Hallo was a great scholar, with multiple strengths,” says his Yale colleague, Eckart Frahm, professor of Assyriology. “He had a vast knowledge of the civilizations of the ancient Near East and the world of the Hebrew Bible, but he also had ideas. His short but brilliant article on the first city in the Bible is a good example. Hallo not only did work on texts, especially Sumerian ones, he also worked on problems. He shaped major debates, most importantly in the area of historiography, and when he claimed that ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt represented ‘the first half of history,’ he coined a phrase that would become an enduring motto in his field.

“On a personal level, I look back with fondness on Bill Hallo welcoming me at Yale when I assumed my position as an assistant professor,” continues Frahm. “Even though he had just retired, he supported me and was available for stimulating conversations. Throughout the years of his retirement, and even after he had become severely ill, he continued to attend lectures and conferences, and remained an important member of the small Assyriological community at Yale. I am very glad that I was able to help him publish his last book, ‘The World’s Oldest Literature: Studies in Sumerian Belles-Lettres,’ a 2009 essay collection that will remain a monument to Bill Hallo’s knowledge, originality, and scholarly dedication.”

Hallo’s wife Edith died in 1994. He is survived by his second wife, Nanette Stahl, curator of Judaica at Yale University Library, whom he married in 1998; his children: Ralph Hallo and Margreet de Lange of Odijk, The Netherlands, and Jacqueline Hallo and David Bunis of Newton, Massachusetts; and six grandchildren, Bram, Daan, Emile, Justine, Nicole, and Jackson.

Memorial contributions may be made to Congregation Mishkan Israel, 785 Ridge Rd., Hamden, CT. 06517; or Congregation Beth El-Keser Israel, 85 Harrison St. New Haven, CT. 06515. 

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