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Biblical Archaeology Review 46:5, Winter 2020

Strata: Milestones: Thomas O. Lambdin: Polyglot Professor of Ancient Languages

By John Huehnergard

Thomas Oden Lambdin was born October 31, 1927, in Frederick, Maryland. He was one of four brothers, whom he often, conveniently, referred to as “my older brother,” “my twin brother,” and “my younger brother.” And, of course, it was not lost on him that his name came from the common Semitic noun taw’am, meaning “twin.”

After serving in the U.S. Army and being stationed in Guam, Lambdin received his B.A. degree from Franklin and Marshall College in 1948. For his doctorate, he studied under William F. Albright and Frank R. Blake at Johns Hopkins University. He received the Ph.D. in 1952—with a dissertation on Egyptian Loanwords and Transcriptions in the Ancient Semitic Languages, the aim of which was to establish a firm foundation for the pronunciation of ancient Egyptian. Lambdin’s expertise ranged from ancient Egyptian history to aspects of comparative Semitic grammar. He also contributed an important translation of the Coptic Gospel of Thomas in The Nag Hammadi Library in English (edited by J.M. Robinson, 1977).

After completing his doctorate, Lambdin stayed at Hopkins for eight years, as the successor of his teacher Blake. In 1960, he moved to Harvard University, where he was named Professor of Semitic Philology. He took early retirement from Harvard in 1983, at the age of 55, telling the Harvard student newspaper, “I have been overachieving since first grade, and I want to work at my own pace.” And, indeed, Lambdin’s teaching schedule was always formidable. In 1975–1976, for example, he taught year-long courses in Biblical Hebrew, Classical Ethiopic, Coptic, and Comparative Semitic Grammar; a semester of Egyptian history; and—informally but with full preparation—year-long advanced reading courses in Middle Egyptian and Ethiopic.

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