Remembering John H. Hayes: Feb 6, 1934-July 11, 2013

MRB August 7, 2013 4

“The righteous man knows the needs of his animals…” (Proverbs 12:10)


A well-known Hasidic saying states that God created humanity because he loves stories. If this is so, John H. Hayes must have delighted the Holy One like no other. John loved stories: sagas of the lives of famous and less-than-famous biblical scholars, tales of his previous students and colleagues, chronicles of his animals and their lives together. To be with John was to be hearing stories. But John’s were not merely entertaining; they were formative. Seeing the world through his eyes, in light of his anecdotes, shaped his students and friends in all manner of ways.

Nothing is more appropriate to mark his passing than the telling of stories. Collected below are a series of remembrances from his students, colleagues, and friends. For those who know John Hayes best through his academic work, we hope to share something more with you about a life well lived.

We invite you to share your stories as well.

Phillip M. Sherman
Contributing Editor, MRB

John Hayes’s scholarship has had an important and wide-ranging influence on scholars and students in the field of Hebrew Bible study for more than five decades. Hayes began life as the seventh of eight children born into an Alabama sharecropper’s home in 1934. Seventy-three years later, he retired in 2007 as the Franklin N. Parker Professor of Old Testament at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. In the intervening years, he served Baptist congregations in three states, earned degrees from three institutions, taught at two universities, published over forty books and numerous scholarly articles, and even operated a small beef-cattle farm in rural Alabama … [Hayes] exemplified a scholar who is willing to move outside of and challenge the mainstream of scholarship, nudging his field toward greater self reflection … Hayes’s work [also] models a thick and embedded approach to the critical study of ancient Israelite history, prophets, and law … [His works] consistently, often comprehensively, place the topic being considered within the long-view of the history of interpretation, both ancient and modern, Christian and Jewish, and otherwise … In every case, however, Hayes’s work in these studies encourages both present and future scholars to be candid and courageous, to undertake their task with a healthy, gadflylike skepticism toward taken-for-granted settlements and consensuses … [Moreover,] one senses a kind of good humor that characterized Hayes’s career as a scholar and teacher. This good humor is a spirit that refuses to take any concept or convention – including one’s own, sometimes innovative and daring, proposals – as unquestionable “givens” that stand apart from the human, social, and intellectual influences that shaped them. Surely this kind of good humor and broad perspective is a happy byproduct of a life lived in settings as wide-ranging as an academic classroom and a sharecropper’s field, a university faculty and a rural beef-cattle farm.

Brad Kelle, Point Loma Nazarene University

Excerpt from John H. Hayes, Interpreting Ancient Israelite History, Prophecy, and Law (Edited and Introduced by Brad E. Kelle; Eugene: Cascade, 2013), pp. xi-xxii.


John H. Hayes

“The righteous man knows the needs of his animals…” (Proverbs 12:10)

Today we gather to celebrate the remarkable life of John Hayes, an internationally renowned Old Testament scholar, an unforgettably engaging  – and entertaining  – teacher, devoted churchman, a loyal and steadfast friend, and loving brother, uncle, cousin, and father.

It is entirely appropriate that we do so at this place, Five Points Baptist Church in Five Points, Alabama, the town in which John graduated from high school, and adjacent to the church cemetery where his parents are buried. This is also the church that John attended and where he regularly taught Sunday school class and occasionally preached. It is also appropriate that we gather at this time  – 10 o’clock on Sunday morning, when John would ordinarily be teaching the Bible class, as he did last Sunday.

We all feel a tremendous sense of loss. Although we knew him in different ways and were able to share in different parts of his life, we all experienced him as a someone larger-than-life who not only made an indelible impression on us but also changed us. No matter how we knew him nor which part of his rich, multifaceted life we were able to share in, we all realized that to know John Hayes was a life-changing experience.

Sometimes a person enters our life who transforms our black-and-white existence into full, living color. John was such a person.

He was a colorful character who used colorful language and told colorful stories – sometimes slightly off color – and by adding color wherever he went, made our lives more colorful.

Talking with John you sometimes thought that he had stepped out of a Faulkner novel. Sitting there in his Dickeys khaki pants, his open-collar shirt covered with food and tobacco stains, wearing a camouflage cap, he would talk about Spinoza, Maimonides, or some aspect of medieval exegesis. The longer I knew him the more I realized that he was an enigmatic, deeply complicated man. He used to say that none of us is a single self but a combination of different selves, one of which happens to be on display at any given time. It was self-description, of course. And even his manner of death seem scripted  – lying unconscious in a pasture on his farm with his cattle grazing nearby.

Although John led a colorful life, the colors of his life were not always bright reds, yellows, blues, and greens. He had his fair share  – no, more than his fair share  – of dark grays and deep purples. But because he had experienced the full spectrum of life’s colors, he could talk about life  – and write about it  – with unusual depth and intensity. And this he did, both in his scholarly works written for specialists and non-specialists and in his more popular ‘Possum book and his novel Abanda, the semi-autobiographical account of his share-cropper upbringing in 1940s Alabama.

John grew up in a world in which color carried additional layers of meaning, and in which color defined human worth. But from that world, as vividly reported in his novel Abanda, John somehow emerged color-blind. And true to his southern, liberal values, and also sensitized by the moral vision of the eighth-century prophets, John was enraged by racial discrimination and the social injustices that accompanied it. All of this is amply attested in the numerous columns he wrote over the years in the local newspapers. Today he was remembered in a sermon by Peter Trudinger, one of his Australian students, who recalled John’s efforts to clothe African American children in rural Alabama and to rescue stray animals.

I knew John for over thirty years as a colleague at Candler School of Theology. We taught courses together and wrote several books together, and after he retired, when he returned to Candler he regarded my office as his own office. For the hour or so John was on campus, I would be sitting behind my own desk, surrounded by my library, realizing that I was a guest in John’s office. This meant that I have seen him regularly ever since he retired.

It is impossible, of course, and unnecessary really, to rehearse his many accomplishments today. They are a matter of public record and well known to most everyone here. But it is worth stating for the record that he was an accomplished Old Testament scholar who, through his lifetime of scholarly research and writing, became a highly respected, internationally recognized scholar known for his seminal, provocative ideas and ground-breaking work. As in other aspects of his life, his ideas were often controversial, calling into question the scholarly consensus that had developed over several decades, if not centuries. For six years, 1977–1982, he served as editor of the prestigious Journal of Biblical Literature. Through his prodigious record of research and teaching, he helped to secure Emory’s reputation as one of the major centers for Hebrew Bible and Old Testament study both nationally and internationally, an enviable position it still maintains today. In this capacity he helped attract a steady stream of highly gifted doctoral students, and over his career directed twenty-five PhD dissertations. Through these students, who hold teaching positions in colleges, universities, and seminaries throughout North America and beyond, his scholarly influence – and his personal influence – continues.

John’s reputation as a seminary teacher is another key ingredient of his remarkable life. During his thirty-five years of teaching at Candler, John taught hundreds of ministerial students. While his courses were considered among the most rigorous at Candler, students loved his teaching and remembered him fondly as an engaging, witty teacher who liked to pepper his lectures with homespun wisdom and memorable illustrations. They quickly learned that his lectures were entertaining but not mere entertainment. Having served as a minister in churches in numerous settings, John brought pastoral sensibilities to his seminary courses. He taught ministerial students to be close readers of the Bible, to be cautious in what they claimed about the Bible, and to reexamine the assumptions they brought to their reading of the Bible. Students also remember how John fed them. He regularly brought boxes of Moon Pies to class and dispensed them freely, knowing that for some students this was their introduction to a fine southern tradition.

It was mainly in this academic context that I knew John, although I occasionally visited him on the farm. From these many experiences with him, several images linger.

First, the image of John at his desk in Bishop’s Hall – John the scholar. John’s office had two metal desks that sat back to back. They were piled high with papers, stacks of books, and assorted files. The walls were lined with filing cabinets and bookcases, over which additional bookshelves extending to the ceiling had been installed. An aluminum extension ladder, which an Emory worker had left behind, gave access to the highest shelves. John typically sat at his desk with a writing pad in front of him and No. 2 pencils nearby. Never having learned to type, much less use a computer, John often bragged that his No. 2 pencil was his word processor! His office door was always open, with a constant flow of students, colleagues, and passersby coming and going. Sometimes one or two of his research assistants would be sitting at the desk across from John working on one of his research projects. And yet, amid all this chaos, this din of noise and ceaseless flow of traffic, John would talk with students, consult with colleagues, answer the phone – and write. It seemed that even when you were talking with him, he was writing, or half-writing. That square foot of his desktop was a sacred scribal space that was always active. If ever there was “a scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven” who “brought out of his treasure what was old and new,” it was John Hayes.

This habit of perpetual activity helps explain his prodigious literary output – over forty books and scores of scholarly articles.

Forty – we should let that register. Some of his books were popular books for non-specialists, others were co-written, but most were singly written. And some of his books were truly ground-breaking. Scores of scholarly books are published every year but only a thimbleful end up moving the needle of scholarly opinion. But the Hayes-Miller history of Israelite and Judean history redefined that important aspect of Old Testament studies. When it first appeared, it was controversial because it challenged the scholarly consensus that had been in place for decades. But over the last thirty or so years scholarly opinion has moved toward the Hayes-Miller view. That’s a stratospheric achievement.

At that desk, John helped over two dozen doctoral students define their research topic, think through their research, and write their dissertations. John could listen to a student who brought a confusing amalgam of ideas to his office and somehow help them identity the one or two truly important ideas, and then help them move their research and writing along until it became a completed dissertation. One of John’s special gifts was his ability to resurrect a dissertation that others had given up on.

Two things stand out about this scholarly workshop. First, the stacks of books, papers, and files reflected his multiple interests and his incredible ability to multitask. John rarely, if ever, had only one project going. Somehow he attended to many things at once, or, more correctly, to many people at once, giving them just the amount of attention they needed to keep going. That mass of organized chaos also reflected the breadth of John’s scholarly interests. Far from being a narrow specialist he was a well-read generalist whose knowledge was vast and deep.

Second, his door was always open. That open office door symbolized John’s openness and selfless generosity. As busy as he was, he was always available. The open door is also a reminder of his many scholarly collaborations. Several of John’s books were co-authored, which usually meant that he had invited a junior colleague, like myself, or a recent graduate student, to write a book with him, which meant that we were allowed to benefit from having our name on the same title page with this world-renowned scholar. The open door was really a symbol of John’s open heart.

Another image is John on his feet, lecturing – John the teacher. I can still see John holding forth in Room 301 of Bishops Hall. My office was at the other end of the hall, and when I would hear rollicking laughter coming from that end of the hall, I knew that John (or Bill Mallard) was lecturing. His textbook was the Old Testament, and he gave his lectures with his distinct southern drawl. In Candler’s curriculum, seminary students take two semesters of Old Testament Interpretation in their first year. For many of them, this is their first experience with critical study of the Bible, and it sometimes has an unnerving effect. John handled this pedagogical challenge with unusual effectiveness. His wit enabled him to disarm students who suspected that he was out to undermine their faith. He was also able to show students that reading the Bible could be enjoyable, especially if you knew what some of the metaphors really meant. But through it all he would manage to lead his students through the text and through the maze of scholarly theories about the text, and they would come out on the other side wearing T-shirts that read, “I survived Hayes’s OT course.”

One reason he was such an engaging teacher was his uncanny ability, not just to recall his own life experiences, but also to reflect on them with his probing intellect and to use his fertile imagination and gifts of spoken and written speech to describe these experiences in unforgettable language.

When John expounded the biblical text, whether it was the book of Leviticus, the Psalter, or one of the Old Testament prophets, he somehow managed to connect the text with life experience. For one thing, he knew that biblical texts had typically arisen out of intense life experiences, whether moments of high celebration or moments of deep despair, and he had the rare ability to capture that experiential dimension of the text so that students and readers would not simply hear the text explained but also feel the emotions, even re-live the experiences of those ancient priests, prophets, sages, and scribes; and not just be affected or impressed by what they heard or read, but also changed by it. Hearing John lecture, we all felt enlightened. We knew more than we did before. But our understanding of life, in its many complexities, was deepened. We were, if not better people, at least, more fully human, because our understanding of life was richer and deeper.

John also taught his students to be more fully engaged readers of the Bible, not just to read the lines but also to read between the lines; to ask what’s being said in the text, but also what’s being said behind the text, or even what’s not being said in the text. Knowing our tendency to make the Bible say what we want it to say, John would insist on letting the Bible speak for itself in all of its rawness and ambiguity, but also in its clarity; to speak to us in its richness. Because of his own experience as a preacher and pastor, John knew the many ways the Bible can be misread and misused, even abused, as well as the many evils that have occurred in the name of the Bible. So, he taught ministerial students to be critical readers, to think about how they preached and taught from the Bible, and when speaking about the Bible, to be careful about what they said; to consider the impact their sermons would have on people’s lives; and to ponder the consequences, even the unintended consequences, of their sermons. Knowing that the meaning of the text may not lie on the surface, or even just beneath the surface, but somewhere deeper, in places hard to find, John invited us to travel with him to those deeper caves of understanding, and he entertained us every step of the way.

A third image is John in overalls wearing a John Deere cap, walking in the pasture – John the farmer.

John grew up on a farm not far from here, but rather than spending his life trying to escape the farm, he returned to the farm even before he retired, and after he retired took up farming full-time. In a sense, though, John never really left the farm. Farm life informed his teaching and writing. His knowledge of animals and farm life gave him eyes to see the meaning of many passages in Leviticus that city dwellers could never see. As his students can attest, John’s illustrations were often not only down to earth but also downright earthy. When I was academic dean, I occasionally had to deal with student complaints about the earthiness of John’s language.

John’s love for the farm also helps explain his unusual relationship to dirt. Dirt was something he clutched in his hands, wore on his shirt, and deposited in his car. For me, dirt was something to be washed off; for John, dirt was a badge of honor.

It was on the farm that John’s love of animals was most visible. He not only owned cattle, but he also named them. He would pat them, talk to them, and call them by name. And if you were a really close friend, he would name one of his cows after you. I never received that high honor.

Stories of John with his animals are legendary, but one of my favorites is the time he was pulled over by a policeman on a back country road near his house. Someone driving behind him had seen his car weaving back and forth across the highway, and certain that he was drunk, called the cops to report him. When the cop stopped John to see if he had had too much to drink, John explained that his car was weaving around because he had his left hand on the steering wheel and was using his right hand to scratch the belly of his dog who was sitting in the passenger’s seat.

Lester Shepherd reminded me of the times when his grandchildren would visit the farm, and John would insist that they go fishing with him. He trained them to kiss the fish and then return them to their homes. He would demonstrate this, but instead of kissing the fish, John would kiss the back of his hand instead of the fish. But the kids would take him literally because it appeared to them that he was kissing the slimy fish. From then on, they would always kiss the fish, and John would remind them, “Kiss and release,” chuckling every single time. In John’s world, every fish deserved to be kissed and set free.

The image of John the farmer also extended to Atlanta. When John drove to Atlanta, he brought the farm with him – literally, a good bit of his farm covered the floorboard and seats of his car. He would park – illegally – in the front of the Theology School, unload tomatoes by the box, peanuts by the toesack, and shelled pecans neatly bagged, and roam the hallways dispensing these goodies. On those occasions we were delighted to see Farmer John coming to town.

You’ve probably noticed the common theme of these three images – John at his desk writing and talking with students and colleagues; John standing in the classroom lecturing on the Old Testament; and John the farmer strolling the pastures with his dogs. The John we see in all three settings is a generous, open-hearted man, kind and gentle – generous with his time, his knowledge, his humor, and his genuine humanity. What he had, he shared, whether it was his ideas, his friendship, his farm, or freshly shelled pecans. And thanks to his incurable writer’s itch, his knowledge, thoughts, and insights will be shared with interested readers for a long time to come.

I conclude by complying with one of John’s wishes. The only request he made about his funeral service was that the concluding paragraphs of his ‘Possum book be read. We let John, then, have the last word:

Let’s try and make the most of our existence. Let’s give it our best, appreciate its every moment, and enjoy it to the fullest. Let’s live with honesty and integrity so we won’t stagger through the twilight of our days with a heart clogged with remorse. We should live life by what is right, not by what we can keep out of sight.

When we leave life behind, may we be able to do so with no regret and no apology. May we leave our space uncluttered for the next occupant, with little or no trace of our personal trash.

And when on our day the sun has set, let us pray that the darkness be not long delayed, that short will be that evening journey into night. And may that night kiss us softly on the cheek, and embrace us tenderly in its keep.

Carl Holladay, Candler School of Theology
Delivered July 14, 2013

One could always expect from any encounter with John to receive an enthusiastic invitation to engage his latest reflections on a particularly intractable issue in biblical scholarship, whether it was the formation of the Pentateuch, the dating of a text from First Isaiah, or the meaning of a certain psalm. John would always remind his graduate students that it is one thing to critique a prevailing theory; it was another thing entirely to develop and defend your own. John reveled in the latter. In any conversation with John, you invariably got caught up in his ruminations as they seemed to develop right before your very eyes. John’s excitement was infectious. His audacity in questioning the consensus sometimes verged on the outrageous. But it invariably helped us wide-eyed graduate students to begin to think outside the box of accepted scholarship.

As I was considering graduate schools, I was warned by others not to get “seduced” by Emory’s program. Once visiting the campus, I realized that it was John they were talking about. John was something of a one-man revolution, and it was easy to get swept up by his brilliant ideas, whether they had to do with historical reconstruction, the theological nuances of Temple ritual, or simply homespun wisdom. Before you knew it, you were enlisted into another of John’s great projects. And it was testimony to his generous, collaborative spirit that several of his graduate students ended up co-authoring various studies with him.

John had a consuming passion for history, and it was that passion that informed nearly every facet of his wide-ranging scholarship: the history of ancient Israel, history of biblical interpretation (including reception history), the ritual theology of Leviticus, form criticism and the Psalms, and the discipline of exegesis, to name a few. John was a consummate story teller, hence his latest venture into novel writing. He was an avid Bible teacher outside the classroom. He had a standing invitation at First Presbyterian Church in Atlanta (John was Baptist) to teach an adult class any time and on any topic.

It would be an understatement to say that John was not your typical biblical scholar. His idiosyncrasies were many, whether it was chewing tobacco (and using a spittoon in the corner of his office), regularly beating graduate students on the racket ball court, cracking jokes in the middle of a scholarly debate, or proudly reporting on how his cows were doing on the farm (each of which were named). He was a farmer. He was also a scholar’s scholar: his knowledge of the field was encyclopedic, and his wise counsel in improving an argument was priceless. John was always generous with his time; his office was always open, although you usually had to fight to find an available seat to join in on the conversation. More than a scholarly extrovert (which itself is rare), John was a brilliant and generous conversation partner on any topic, biblical or otherwise. He was a true mentor.

William Brown, Columbia Theological Seminary

They pay you more at the wrong end of your career.

One day John was out in his barn and surprised a hive of yellow jackets. They started swarming him, and as he was trying to swat them away, he knocked his glasses into the hay. Without his glasses and while being stung repeatedly on his arms and face by the yellow jackets, he couldn’t find them. So he gave up, somehow drove back to his other house with no glasses, then found his reading glasses. He used these to drive to Atlanta the next day. In class we were all a bit incredulous, asking how he made it in with no distance vision (this was pre-cataract surgery). He said, “I know the way.” We said, “John, we aren’t worried about you getting lost – it’s the other cars!” He didn’t seem concerned. He said he didn’t want to spray the yellow jackets: “They’re just insects, doing what they do. That’s no reason to kill them.” That’s quintessential John – respect for all living things, even the yellow jackets, even when his face and arms were still swollen from their stings.

Of course, there are many other things to admire about John, and probably the most influential for my own career were his broad interests (he used to say, “I’m bi-testamental,”), his willingness to stake out unusual positions, and his recognition that it was OK to change your mind later on. While some scholars I talked to said to be very careful about publishing something that might haunt you the rest of your career, John would say, when confronted with some idea from early in his career which he no longer held, “Oh, I wrote that in my infancy.” It is very freeing and makes scholarship an adventure and not a burden.

He gave me the mantra for my dissertation, “It doesn’t have to be your magnum opus; you just don’t want to embarrass yourself,” which allowed me to finish in a reasonable time frame. I’m very grateful to have been John’s Doktorkind: he allowed me to pursue my own ideas, which were somewhat out of his areas of specialty (gender theory) and was an advocate for me when it counted. He understood scholarship, but also how it fit into a broader life.

Then, of course, there is his last gift, which is the endless store of stories we have to tell. Many hours of my classes have been filled with stories of John, and they bring everyone great joy. Besides the stories themselves, it is a reminder to me as a teacher to feel free to be myself, in all my humanity, so that maybe students will gain some pleasure in telling stories about me. Not that they will be as good as John’s, but it is a gift to pass on.

Susan Haddox, Mount Union University

A whole lot of biblical scholars are driving backwards down the Damascus Road…

John H. Hayes was, as we all know, a brilliant scholar. He held in his mind an incredible wealth of history and scholarship that was constantly at his fingertips; he seemed to have total recall even of the page numbers of precise quotes buried in books he had read decades ago. The world has lost an immense amount of knowledge with his passing. As Leopold Senghor says: “Un vieillard qui meurt est une bibliothèque qui brûle.” And with John, it is a library larger than Woodruff and Pitts combined that we have lost.

Of course, there were also things he could not ever seem to remember – my name, for one, and where in his overstuffed and tobacco-stained office he had put anything and everything that he needed at the moment. But there was one thing he was never at a loss for: his wit. John could turn a phrase with the best of them. His razor-sharp sense of humor was with him to the end – and through his colleagues and friends, who endlessly repeat his sayings, jokes, and neologisms, it remains with us still. I will never forget the time he stood up at a Graduate School function to welcome new students and, instead of introducing himself as all the other professors did, launched into an impromptu comedic monologue about how he was not actually John H. Hayes, but rather a cardboard cutout with audio-animatronic voice enhancement intended to deflect attention from the fact that the real John H. Hayes was involved in foreign espionage in a faraway land until the end of the semester. When he finished, he sat back down, in between the Dean and myself, and calmly went back to eating his lunch. Such was every day with John.

John also lived a life that seemed too amazing and charmed and strange to be true. As the son of a sharecropper, he worked hard for everything he ever had, but he chose to keep working on his farm in Alabama, caring for his beloved cows and then commuting to Atlanta, until the day he died. He famously got his job at Emory by simply showing up and assuming that he worked there, surreptitiously moving from a desk in the basement hallway into a recently vacated office in Bishops Hall. And one got the sense that every day was an adventure. My first day of classes in the PhD program at Emory, we students were eagerly waiting for a half hour or so for John to arrive so that we could begin our “History of Israel” course. When John finally arrived, he blurted out, “Sorry I’m late. I was working on the farm this morning and left the brake off my tractor, I got out to feed the cows, and then I thought I saw my neighbor coming over to me on his tractor, so I tipped my hat and said ‘Hello!’ but then I realized it was my own tractor coming down the hill trying to take my head off, because I forgot to put on the brake. Had to jump out of the way, and it ended up in the pond. I left it there because I was too embarrassed to ask any of my neighbors for a tow. The guys at the seed store will never let me live that down. Anybody want a Moon Pie?” And then he tossed a box of Moon Pies on the floor, pulled out an empty coke bottle and spit some tobacco into it, looked around the room and said, “So what do you all think about Moses?”

John left us with many quips, many stories, many books and articles, many theories, many laughs and many memories of his deep generosity and kindness. I’ve probably told more anecdotes about John Hayes than anyone else I’ve ever met. It’s terribly saddening to think that there will be no more new stories about John. But may the wealth of his work and his play that he left us be long remembered in the lives of his colleagues, students and friends.

Brennan Breed, Columbia Theological Seminary

When I take the elevator to the 3rd floor of Bishops Hall instead of the stairs, I cut my lecture preparation time in half!

I worked for two years as John’s research assistant while I was a master’s student. I’m sure I was all but useless to him because I was so inexperienced but he kept me on because he was kind and he took an interest in me, for which I will always be grateful.

John was an ethical and attentive teacher and a very fine scholar. His insight into the Hebrew Bible was deep, in part because he knew what it was to live out in the dust of the farm, to care for the calves and watch over their mothers. He stood out in the academy, which is so much more homogenous than we like to think, because of that identity as a cattle farmer from Alabama, something he never lost and never tried to hide.

I recall one day when I was in John’s office printing out his email – an essential task as he never touched the computer – and a woman in a smart skirt suit came to the door, half-obscured as it was by a large filing cabinet in the hallway. She stared wide-eyed at the space overrun by books and papers and blinked before asking to see Dr. Hayes. I told her he was in class but would be back soon, so she took a seat.

She shifted uncomfortably in the straight chair and asked me if I’d ever taken a course from him. She was from a company that recorded great lectures and did I think he was a great lecturer? Thankfully, it wasn’t long before John returned from class. He was wearing that sort of vaguely filthy button down shirt he always wore, with one tail trying to work itself loose. His gray hair flopped across his forehead. He had a Hebrew Bible tucked under one arm and he was carrying a coffee cup, which would seem ordinary enough if you didn’t know he was carrying it around so he could spit tobacco into it.

She startled when he rounded the corner and shot me a look that said, “this can’t be … ?” and I grinned and nodded. She stood up hastily, head and shoulders taller than him in her heels, and tried to shake his hand as her prepared speech came flooding out. He walked right past her to his desk and sat down, invited her to sit, and said, simply, “Okay. What, now?” and they fell to talking.

I love how unexpected he was but what stays with me is how lightly he wore that. He didn’t interrogate his identity. He just lived it. He didn’t even think to try to impress this woman. He wasn’t flattered or humbled by her offer. He wasn’t excited or annoyed. He didn’t fuss over his shirt or his hair. He made no apologies because he had nothing to prove. I loved him for that because it gave me hope. If excellence could look like a cattle farmer from Alabama, maybe it could look like me, too, if I work hard and steady at it. May he rest peacefully and live forever in the minds and hearts of his student.

Annie Bullock, Regents School of Austin

Let’s say you’re in a dark alley in the middle of the night and someone puts a knife in your back and says, ‘Was it Hezekiah’s reform or Josiah’s?’ What would you say?

Most will remember John H. Hayes as an historian of ancient Israel – and rightly so, given the central role his A History of Ancient Israel and Judah, has played in the development of the field. (John coauthored that book that book with Max Miller, and it was commonly known as “Miller and Hayes.” John liked to note that the two had also published a previous collection of essays called Israelite and Judean History, abbreviated IJH. “It stands for ‘I, John Hayes,’” he would say. “I really pulled one over on Max with that one!”)

But what many may not know is that John was also a great lover of the history of biblical interpretation, even before reception history gained a prominent place in the field. Of all of his scholarly accomplishments, John was as proud of his Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation as of anything else he ever produced. He claimed not only to have written the several essays in the DBI signed by him, but also numerous others that the assigned authors “just couldn’t get right.” He wrote important pieces on the history of interpretation for the Mercer Dictionary of the Bible and for the New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, and he made significant contributions to Magne Saebo’s magisterial HB/OT. When he died, John was finishing a book on interpretation history, which he hoped would make a major contribution to the field.

John had an encyclopedic knowledge of biblical interpretation, and he often spoke of its major figures as though they were his old friends. He liked to call Theodore of Mopsuestia “Teddy the Mop” or tell about how Charles Blount “blew his brains out because they wouldn’t let him marry his dead wife’s sister, poor fella.” He particularly reveled in discovering little-known figures or events from the history of interpretation and bringing them to light. (“Nobody much talked about ole Hugh Farmer before I wrote about him in the DBI.”) He speculated that the challenges to the authority of the Bible waged by the English Deists were fueled by the opening of coffee houses in England beginning in Oxford in 1650. He noted how major developments in the development of critical biblical interpretation came in punctuated moments: the 1670s (Spinoza, Simon), 1753 (Lowth, Astruc), and 1835 (Strauss, Reuss), and he insisted that by 1835 all of the major issues that would occupy biblical criticism into the 1950’s had already been articulated.

On the day before he died, John and I were talking about the history of interpretation project he was working. He was reflecting on the fact that Erasmus had insisted that interpreters of the Bible should know Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, even though it appears that Erasmus himself never had much facility with Hebrew. He asked me to find the passages in the Methodus where Erasmus talks about original languages and send them to him for his book.

Then, before we hung up, John told me a story about the cows he raises on his farm. He said: “You know, most people when their cows stop producing calves send them to the butcher. I always call mine over and say to them, ‘Since you’ve stopped producing calves, you have two choices. You can either go to the butcher and be ground into hamburger meat, or you can stay here on the farm with me until you die of old age.’ For some reason they always say, ‘Option 2! Option 2!’ And so now I’m the only farmer in the county who is running a geriatric home for cows.”

The next day John was found unconscious in his pasture, and he died later that night surrounded by his family. I like to think that John spent the last moments of life doing two of his favorite things: thinking about biblical interpretation and talking to his geriatric cattle.

Robert Williamson, Jr. Hendrix College

You can tell whether a student will publish by the way they drive.

As a young and raw doctoral student, I had no idea what my interests were. I ended at Emory because of the generous fellowship the university awarded me. My first real encounter with John Hayes was not entirely positive. It was at the opening semester departmental party at the home of Martin Buss. I ended talking with John and he asked what my academic interests were. I told him that I have not identified specific interests but I am very interested in Semitic languages and would like to be able to pick up a few more of the languages. He immediately brushed me off and told me that that was not what the Old Testament program was about and I should have gone elsewhere. I felt dismissed and swore at that time that I would never work with him!

I eventually gravitated toward historical issues and ended up doing advanced Akkadian, reading neo-Assyrian texts, with John. It was through a process that I ended with John as my doktorvater. He guided my interests and never pushed me in the direction of his own interests. John allowed me to argue with him and even admitted when his perspective was incorrect.

My family and I grew close to John over the years. Once we invited him and his wife Sarah over for dinner. Unfortunately, that same day our older daughter had a severe asthma attacked and was hospitalized. My wife Val and I could not bring ourselves to call John up to cancel the dinner. So, we decided that she would stay with our daughter at the hospital. I spent that afternoon getting dinner ready and waited and waited and waited. John and Sarah were no show! It was around 9:00 pm that I got a call from John letting me know that he had just remembered the dinner invitation was for today, not tomorrow! I told them to come tomorrow and Val and I cooked a new meal. There had been many times that John and I had recalled this incident and laughed about it.

Once our older daughter was stung by a bee while we were going to campus. Somehow, we had the sense to go to John’s office for help. John immediately chewed some tobacco and put it on the sting. What a great pain reliever it was and our daughter has never forgotten that experience.

I used to play racquetball with John and Paul Hooker. We would literally try to “kill” each other in the racquetball court. John would often charged Paul for hogging the court, while he himself was even more the “hogger”! We sure had fun hitting the ball at each other rather than against the wall!

I left Emory to take up my first teaching position in 1991. I remember the day when we were about to leave for our long trip to Berkeley, California. We stopped by Bishops Hall to say goodbye to John. John gave each of us a long big hug and said, “I love you!” I was taken aback as this was the first time I heard these words from John. I responded, “I love you too!” What moved me the most in that experience was seeing tears rolling down his eyes, a side of him I had never seen before. When I drove away, I was sobbing because I knew I was going to miss him. He had become a father figure for me and my family.

I had not finished my dissertation when I took my first teaching job. I invited John out to Berkeley to teach a summer class in 1993. John spent two weeks with us. He would teach his class in the morning and I would write my dissertation. In the afternoon he would read whatever I had written and gave me instant feedback. It was that kind of dedication to his students that enabled me to complete my dissertation. More than anyone else, I owe my career to him and have sought to emulate him in the way I work with my own students.

Over the years, I would call John and check in with him once every few months, especially on his birthday. I had visited him on his farm a number of times. My last visit with him was last October. We had a couple of meals together and fed his “girls,” picked pecans, and fed the fish. It had become customary each time we talked on the phone or on each visit to his farm for John to say, “I love you!” and I would say back to him, “I love you, John!” He has left an indelible mark on my life and my career. I will miss my doktorvater, teacher, mentor, and friend forever!

Jeffrey Kuan, Claremont School of Theology

Don’t you want to just punch Job?!?

John was one of those tremendous, larger than life teachers who seemed to have his own gravitational pull. But unlike many who reach his level of acclaim, John was a grounded fellow – a farmer with dirt under his nails who would bring moon pies to his students and chew tobacco during class. He taught History of Biblical Interpretation with tremendous love and an almost alarming level of attention to many, many people, movements, and groups that I have never heard of in any other context. He treated those scholars – every one of them, whether they had made a significant “dent” in the field or not – like an old friend and conversation partner, and he had to know their story in order to make it an interesting conversation. John helped me to understand the importance of engaging biblical scholars and authors as human beings with their own life narrative, their own struggles, and their own complicated reasons for thinking as they do. But unlike many others who make a similar point, John never took this realization as an opportunity to discount the potential for truth in what a person said – he never treated life circumstances as “bias.” On the contrary, for John, there was no truth other than the truth that is grounded in life. This applied to everything from understanding reader-response theory (“you still can’t read Leviticus and get directions to Buford”) to understanding exactly which parts of the animals are being described in Leviticus. It is quite a different thing to study Leviticus with someone who raises cattle!

John treated his students in their full humanity, too, and taught me to be more observant of my own characteristics as a scholar of the human persuasion. “When do you do your best writing, your best thinking?” he would ask. I remember thinking it was a strange question to ask during seminar time, when I expected questions about the reading. “Remember your answer to this question. It will never change.” It may sound like a small thing, but as my own life narrative has become more complicated and I have had more personal demands on my time, this self-knowledge has been invaluable.

John was a man of seemingly ceaseless questions and ideas – a professor who explicitly offered up at least a dissertation topic a month. Who’s going to write a Jewish theology of the OT? Who is going to re-date J based on all of these passages in Isaiah? The Hebrew Bible was John’s oyster, and after all of his years of study and his many, many books, he never grew tired of it.

I am honored and humbled to have learned with John Hayes. May his memory be a great blessing.

Amy C. Robertson, Congregation Bet Haverim, Atlanta

Many years ago, John was my Doktorvater. Unlike the pattern often followed by others, he did not pressure me to engage in his research agenda or even restrict me to his methodologies. Being the open-minded scholar that many of you have mentioned, John took me under his tutelage and encouraged me to pursue my own research. I have been forever grateful.

I have noticed a lacuna in the John stories. John was not just an entertaining speaker, he liked to entertain himself at the expense of the audience as well. Although I do not recall the specifics of any one incident, I remember a repeated plot-line of John’s presentations at SBL meetings, a plot-line that others of you might remember. John would present a “paper” by memory, not even looking down at notes.

But – and I assume this was deliberate – he would leave one hole in his argument. Then, when someone raised the issue, his eyes would light up and he would say something like, “Oh, yes, but we all recall the Akkadian text of X which states blah blah blah and covers that issue.” I will miss him.

Rodney Duke, Appalachian State University

When I retired, they hired two people to replace me…the Dalai Lama and Salman Rushdie.

Many have already recalled here aspects of John’s personality that shaped us as teachers, scholars, and human beings. He was unfailingly generous with his time, his farm, his ideas, and even his money – for years John brought extra cash to SBL in case a grad student needed it. He used humor and Moon Pies as his aides as he taught us to think critically about the Bible. His dirty shirts reminded us that scholarship need not be our only vocation, that there was time to write books and teach seminars and still manage a two and a half hour commute and a farm (or menagerie, if you will).

In addition to these qualities, I will remember John as someone who very successfully absorbed massive amounts of information about several sub-fields of Hebrew Bible studies and, more importantly I think, never doubted that we could do the same. His History of Interpretation course had a book list so long that he only provided it in thirds to keep our stress down. If he read a paper or a chapter draft, it likely came back with as many new sources scribbled in the margins as had originally been cited. He rattled off dozens of scholarly opinions about every verse or fact being discussed as if he had just had casual conversations with the scholars themselves. So we learned to not only read but to read broadly, read everything, and remember everything, and to recognize that as scholars we were adding our voices to a conversation that, as he taught us, had been going on since before what we know as the Bible existed.

After some deliberation, I’ve decided that the rest of what I’d like to remember about John can best be summed up by describing a typical office visit while I was writing my dissertation. I had a baby then, and it seemed that every semester my afternoon babysitters could come on the exact days John stayed in Alabama, so I always had the baby with me when we met. (One of the times I heard John laugh the hardest is when, after several semesters of trying to coordinate my childcare schedule with his Atlanta trips, I sarcastically noted how fantastic I found the entire situation. I have never figured out why that tickled him so much.) The dialogue here may be a composite of several visits, but the variety of subjects covered and the rapid-fire exchange is entirely authentic.

[I enter, managing to push the stroller about 4 inches past the door frame of John’s office, grab baby out, wedge myself around stroller, desks, papers, books, a research assistant, and into John’s line of sight.]

John, “Hey.” [Directed at me.] “HEY!” [Directed at baby.] “He still pee when you take off his diaper?”
“Well, you know he’s smart then. He knows it’s not natural to pee in his pants. You giving him water?”
“No John, we’re not supposed to do that. Only breast milk and formula.”
“That’s ridiculous. There’s not a baby animal in the world that doesn’t drink water. When you going to the library?”
“Tomorrow. My sitter comes tomorrow.”
“Good. Now, Barstad has an article in a recent issue of Transeuphratene. It may or may not be helpful, but on about the third or fourth page, left-hand side, halfway down, he has a footnote that mentions some Italian’s article on history. Reckon we could get a copy?”
“Uh, probably, what’s the article? Barstad? And the other one you want me to get?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Transeuphratene, down on the bottom shelf on the top floor on the right-hand side of the periodical room at Pitts.”
“You going to SBL? If you see Stephanie at Westminster John Knox tell her I said hello and that my calf Stephanie is doing just fine.”
“Are you not going?”
“Oh, I don’t know. You know I can’t see anything in airports and such anymore.”
[I don’t bother to ask how he sees on highways and such anymore.]
“But Gerstenberger is stopping by for a few days beforehand and Peter afterwards.”
“Good. Well, I’m almost finished with that chapter. I’ll have it to you next week.”
“All right then. Steve still mad about the car?”
[Steve is my husband, a lawyer. When we had last gone to the farm, Steve returned to our car to find several dogs on top of it. Steve was not mad, merely amused, but until my son learned to kiss a catfish it was John’s favorite funny memory of my family.]
“Furious. He’s planning to sue.”
[John cracks up. Probably adds some witticism about lawyers that I can’t remember.]
“All right then. Bye.” [Directed at me.] “BYE! BYE! BYE!” [Directed at the baby.]
“Bye, John.”

Megan Bishop Moore

Whenever I said Aristotle, I meant Paul…unless I meant Aristotle.

I saw the news about John last week, and it just dropped me hard into my chair, and I’ve been thinking about it all week. I haven’t seen or spoken with John since I left Atlanta, but he’s been a constant presence as I’ve been teaching and working since then. Like many of you, I think about him all the time, and probably for the same reasons that everyone else does: because behind all of the charm, wit, humor, and down-home folksiness (not to mention an extraordinary mind and dedication to his craft), John was one of the most human people I have ever known. That’s not because John was “earthy” and gave the appearance of unpretension. I’ve known plenty of people who can play those folksy roles, and some do it as deliberately as academics can affect their tweed jackets with arm patches (though let it be said for the record that I personally love tweed jackets with arm patches). But John really was unpretentious. Being both a farmer and scholar never seemed to be costumes that he was putting on, but fundamental parts of who he was as a human being, and I don’t know that it would ever have occurred to him that he should be or act any differently than he was. Anyone trying to figure out how to evaluate what “vanity” means in Ecclesiastes would probably have been best served by ditching the comparative Semitics lexica and simply getting to know John, because his whole life seemed to be the opposite of it.

Along with the lack of vanity (and probably the motivator for his unique unpretension), he also had warmth and kindness that I have rarely seen equaled in anyone else I’ve known, and certainly never surpassed. I have many specific remembrances of John but one instance stands out for me.

John had taken a few grad students out for some pizza, and while chatting about a variety of things, it came up that he had voted in the recent election for a presidential candidate who was distinctly unpopular among the rest of his church congregation, and had taken a little grief for that. (I won’t say who he said he voted for, but it rhymes with “berry.”) That launched us into a small discussion of the relationship between the church and the political world, and someone mentioned that it was his understanding of John’s church tradition that, in general, one’s individual conscience was supposed to be the ultimate arbiter of interactions between a person and the outside world. (That conscience might be guided church teachings, but those teachings could not dictate political or social outcomes.) John said immediately, “Yes, but that was in the old church. That was before we discovered The Truth.”

That small statement has always encapsulated John for me. In addition to the humor, the quick wit, the little self-deprecation, and the incredible ability to see straight to the nub of a problem and grasp in a few pithy words what would take others pages of explication, John never seemed to let the weight of others’ opinions push him into doing something that didn’t agree with his own conscience, or that violated his own sense of decency and kindness. Nor did he rail or inveigh against people who arrived at stances different than his own, as long as their positions and actions were arrived at through the genuine application of their best selves and abilities to the question at hand. (He was not, however, necessarily shy about expressing himself when he felt that another’s opinions were incorrect.) And he never appeared to be weighed down by a weight of opinion against him, as long as he had assured himself that his stance was the best one that he was able to see his way to. All of these traits were ultimately guided by his own understanding of human limitation. John always telegraphed to me his assumption that we do only the best that we can do, that our answers are always somehow incomplete, imperfect, and provisional, but that they are nevertheless our answers, and should be respected not for their resounding rightness and finality (which they cannot by nature possess), but for their sincerity (when they are sincere) and their attempt to approach a solution that can never fully be attained.

Along with everything else that I’ll take with me from John’s life, I’ve always tried to carry this piece with me, and put it into practice when I remember it and when I have the courage to do so. So thanks for that, John, and so many other things that you gave to me. Save a little Moon Pie for me.

Timothy Scott Clark

 I have plenty of reminiscences about John. John was a “character” and he loved to be one. I remember, for instance, when we first met and on the spot have our first academic conversation – how can I ever forget that? I remember events that cannot but raise a smile. Of course, I remember often John’s humor and his colorful language. I remember even some kind of ‘hymn to John’ that some undergraduates wrote and which he showed me. (Sadly I do not have a copy of it.) I remember his teaching and how much he cared for students and I remember numerous examples that attest to that. How can one forget any of that? (Of course, I am well aware of how much his example as a teacher influenced my own teaching and I often thought about it and talked with him about it. But I am just one of many, many for whom this is true.) I remember our yearly non-academic, friend to friend, heart to heart conversations, particularly in later years. Again, how can I ever forget them But at this moment I would like to focus not on this or that minor story, but on a crucial set of attributes of John, his humanness, his kindness, his caring. What a great human being he was!

Ehud Ben Zvi, University of Alberta

For some time now, I’ve been trying to figure out how to express the ways that John shaped me both as a scholar and as a “regular” person. I’ve started and restarted this post many times; I just can’t seem to get it right. My “problem” is that unlike many of you, John didn’t have the kind of direct impact, subject-wise, that shaped the direction of my scholarly career. In fact, while I was at Emory, some of the things that John would mock in his inimitably hilarious way (postmodernist approaches to the bible, trauma theory) were the very things that interested me most! And now, almost a decade into my own academic career, I’ve completely left Hebrew Bible studies altogether, teaching Religion and Culture at a liberal arts college where my professional life centers around the quality of my teaching rather than the production of the kind original research that John esteemed so highly.

But John shaped me deeply, make no mistake. I learned from him lessons so much more profound than what the hell the “protubeeance of the liver” is or why the year 1835 was the most important year in the history of Hebrew Bible interpretation. He taught me, first of all, to simply be myself. In a profession where so many are desperate to project the appearance of the scholarly and erudite, John was unapologetically himself: tobacco stained shirt, spit cup, Alabama drawl, farmer, animal lover, generous and kind to a fault – everything we’ve been remembering these last few days. Be who you are; don’t waste time with “scholarly airs”; let the quality of your work speak for itself. That’s who John was; that’s who I try to be.

Second, John taught me to love my students, always and without fail. Like the “be who you are” lesson, this one cuts against the grain of our profession where irritation and impatience with those we teach can easily become our default mode. But not with John. He loved us, cared about our lives, and was generous with us in so many different ways, most of them unconnected to our “formal” education. During the crucial years of our own development – scholarly and otherwise – he invited us to be with him, to share his life with him, to love him. What a gift! And what a lesson in pedagogy!

Thanks, John, for teaching me the truly important lessons of a teacher. As best I can, I try to pass on your wisdom to future generations.

Dan Matthewson, Wofford College

I met John the first time I visited Emory, and he coached me through the application process, telling me not to worry about admission at all. I remember later hearing from one of my classmates that the first time she saw him, he was wandering in and out of a seminary class she was taking, and she thought he was the janitor.

One thing I came to admire early on was John’s bold originality in thinking through historical evidence and coming up with new theories. Whether they eventually came to be generally accepted or not, they always stimulated thought. I realized quickly that there are some scholars (like me) who have to secure ten kinds of support for one assertion, and others, like John, who are unafraid to step forward and risk being wrong.

I had been an English major, and was attracted to literary methods. I was surprised to find A History of Ancient Israel and Judah, co-written with Max Miller, the most stimulating and refreshing book of my first semester. After traveling to Jerusalem with Max I wanted to write a paper about the historical interconnections of its primary holy sites. But I found myself stymied. Over a beer at one of our many watering hole gatherings I was telling John what I was working on, and said, “I think I know how to make a literary argument. But what constitutes a historical argument for something?” He didn’t miss a beat. “Bravado,” he said.

Like many, I know John loved his farm and his animals. When I die, I hope to go as he did, doing what I love best.

Trish Tull, Louisville Presbyterian Seminary

The day after you get tenure, start acting senile, so that when you actually become so, no one will notice.

I’ve thought about John every day. I should have told him that. As a brilliant scholar, loving teacher/mentor/father/uncle/farmer, comedian, sage, and humanitarian, John has always seemed to be exactly who he is. He wore a tie to class the first day of the Leviticus seminar and announced to us that he would never do that again. He often bore the physical markings of his whole life when he came to Emory – we’d see traces of dirt and bug bites and tobacco and often, even, food. He talked about scholars’ real lives, our real lives, and his real life. I saw a copy of his CV once that had his three marriages and divorces listed at the top, above his education and work history. He talked with people not only about his work and interests but also his past, messes and all. He named the mistakes he’d made, and he even laughed at many of them. I never saw him “put on airs,” try to impress anybody, or pretend to be anyone he wasn’t. I never saw John bullshit anyone, though I think he had a pretty good bullshit detector (as least whenever I hadn’t read carefully enough before class.) I think it’s fitting that Bill Moyers referred to John’s book as a depository of lessons learned from the “school of hard knocks,” because John never hid those knocks, and he shared so much of the wisdom he gained from them. I feel like in John I got to witness a profoundly authentic human being, and that has served as an inspiration for me repeatedly. In his honor, we should strive to be good at what we do (whether in academia or not), to be humane, to be genuinely loving, and – I think – to be exactly the people we each happen to be, without apologies. Because that’s what John did, and it was amazing.

Beatrice Wallins, Seattle University

The essence of originality is remembering what you read and forgetting where you read it.

I was one of the two dozen doctoral students whose dissertation John directed. John’s intellectual brilliance is a matter of record, and accordingly, he left an indelible mark on my scholarly endeavors. But the mark he left on my heart went much deeper. I want to focus my remembrance on the year I spent living in one of his farm houses in rural Alabama. Toward the end of my third year at Emory, my partner and I had decided to split up. I didn’t want to live with anyone, but housing in Atlanta was expensive and my resources minimal. I had made many excursions to John’s farm with my cohort and so was aware that he had an “extra” house out there. I came up with the crazy scheme of renting his empty home. I had this romantic idea of writing my dissertation in this foreign (to me) bucolic setting.

John agreed and offered me a ridiculously low rent, in addition to which he agreed to pay utilities. I was so poor it seemed reasonable to me at the time, but of course, it was just another example of John’s humble generosity.

A bunch of Emory friends moved me out there in late May, and before they headed back to Atlanta, I remember Jacq Lapsley making me promise I’d come stay at their house at least a couple of nights a month to ensure, I guess, that I didn’t go crazy out there with no one but the cows. But I wasn’t alone. John treated me like a daughter. During my first days there, he took me to the nursery and bought me flowers to brighten up the entrance to my new home, and we planted them together. I mentioned how fun it would be to grow vegetables and he bought me some squash, tomatoes and basil and taught me how to plant and care for them. He checked on me regularly, invited me to church and dinner, asked me to accompany him on his pasture rounds, gave me my own farm tasks, like feeding the chickens and catfish, and collecting eggs. He explained to this urban California girl what tornadoes sounded like and what I should do if one was headed my way. He even taught me to “pull calves.” We spent a lot of time just hanging out in his (“my”) yard talking about the cows, the pasture, the lack of rain, and occasionally, my dissertation. I bought a pair of overalls at the nearby Walmart, so that I could authentically look the part of John’s sidekick.

I did go a little crazy that year, but it was worth it. I spent nearly every day writing my dissertation, as I envisioned, often with a gin and tonic on my desk to get me through (I hadn’t envisioned that part). Writing was punctuated with forays into the pasture with John to check on birthing cows, or trips to his cousin’s to pick up hay when the grass was getting too thin to support his beloved bovines. During that year, I learned in a way I hadn’t quite understood before what a “deep” human being John was. John would tell stories about his childhood that might seem tragic to most, but he always told them with a chuckle. I suspected the chuckle hid pain, but never self-pity. The amalgam of John’s experiences produced a man who was almost painfully generous. I know it pained me to see him spend what little money he had helping any creature who needed help. I was particularly struck by his devotion to the non-human creatures: One evening we headed out to the pasture to find a missing cow that was supposed to give birth soon. John was worried about her. We found her at the outer reaches of the pasture, barely alive, calf partially born. We pulled the stillborn calf and headed back to the barn in his old truck to bring her water and food. Speeding across the pasture, John pounded the wheel, cursing and crying, and crossing himself several times (he was not Catholic). His primal grief was something directly out of the lament literature he had taught me to love. The cow didn’t make it … and John blamed himself. That’s what I mean by painfully generous.

Right before I moved away for my first academic position, John named a cow after me.

Carleen Mandolfo, Colby College

When do you cite the Targums? When they support your argument.

Everybody’s Pizza. Athens Pizza. Dekalb Farmer’s Market. Emory Faculty Club. The Varsity. Starbucks. These were some of the many places where John Hayes treated me when I worked with him as a doctoral student at Emory. There was also, of course, his farm (where he taught both my girls to fish). Petite Auberge was a special treat (with my wife Shannon). Restaurants at the SBL annual meetings punctuate my memoires: a hole-in-the wall chicken and waffle joint in New Orleans, a romantic Mexican place along the Riverwalk in San Antonio. John treated me. Not only financially, although from his endless well of generosity he insisted (sometimes forcibly) on paying for everything.

Any and every meal with John was a treat because he invariably shared a wealth of information and insight about innumerable topics. Most of these related to biblical scholarship, but he would also remark on history, current political events, David Letterman’s most recent Top Ten List, and even films (he could never get over the scene of George W. Bush reading to the children in Fahrenheit 9/11). I soon realized that the one essential tool at these outings was a pen so that I could write down (on paper or napkins) the bountiful material John so readily and wittily imparted. Such treats more than outweighed the transportation risks (occasionally bodily harm but primarily olfactory) involved in driving in John’s car to these culinary destinations.

Despite never writing on a typewriter or a computer, much of John’s abundant information and insight has fortunately been made available in print. His works on Israelite and Judean History are well known. His handbook on Biblical Exegesis (with Carl Holladay) became a standard in seminaries. Many also know about his work on the history of biblical interpretation. But he also wrote a book on Jesus (From Son of God to Superstar). And he edited a volume on Radical Christianity: The New Theologies in Perspective. He also co-edited a volume on Preaching through the Christian Year. John’s writing was as broad and eclectic as his persona.

John is likely the only biblical scholar who has published a book of meditative reflections (Bill Moyers said reading these earlier would have saved his life) and a semi-autobiographical novel (Abanda). Of immense and special pride to John were the regular letters to the editor he submitted to his local paper in Five Points, Alabama where he took joy in skewering those who misused the Bible for their petty and myopic political agendas.

Yet another gift from John (due as always to his unflagging graciousness) was his invitation to Robert Williamson and me to join him in writing a History of Biblical Interpretation. This project – John’s final publication of which I’m aware – will be a tribute to a scholar, teacher, mentor, and friend. For all readers it will hopefully be a genuine treat.

Matthew S. Rindge, Gonzaga University

John Hayes was a remarkable scholar and mentor. He taught me the craft of scholarship, not only about history and hermeneutics, but more fundamentally how to think rigorously and critically – to question assumptions, arguments, received models and consensus, and to look for what others had missed. John approached scholarly ideas and paradigms like a farmer maintains his machinery: tightening and tweaking what is loose, carefully inspecting each element, and taking it out into the field to listen for anything that doesn’t sound right. I learned from John that scholarship is not just serious. It’s fun. When it came time to index A History of Ancient Israel and Judah, he gathered a group of students into a room, like Tom Sawyer at his picket fence, and spent the afternoon working meticulously through the manuscript with us; I had a good time. A puckish grin, when I or someone else was making a claim with a little too much confidence, often signaled a surgical strike against an unexamined assumption.

John’s office was the local hangout for our circle of Old Testament graduate students. To this day, I don’t know how he got so much work done given our frequent occupation of his office. What made John a master teacher was just this accessibility and hospitality, the creation of a supportive space for the interplay of ideas that had been sparked in the classroom or our research. I was drawn to that space and shaped within it by his energy, hospitality, authenticity, and genuine caring. I mark John’s passing with gratitude for the privilege of learning from him.

L. Daniel Hawk, Ashland Theological Seminary

  • Mary Lou Boice

    What a moving, remarkable tribute to John. Thanks to you all.

  • Yes, Ms Boice, remarkable! I do not know if you were able to go to the funeral at his home church in Five Points, Alabama, where he lays resting with his parents but the same prevailed there. I am so, so sorry if any of his numerous friends missed the experience.

    I was thankful that Carl Holladay gave a lengthy and beautiful tribute. The church was packed with mourners standing in the aisles, some openly weeping, including myself. John represented all that is good in the human spirit and it rubbed off on so many.

    I only knew John for about 4 to 5 years but, boy, what a ride it was. By happenstance, we would ride to “alana” and he would let me talk incessantly about stuff. I have just realized what a true friend he was to all of us fortunates. Reading the many, many tributes has helped me know that I lived in the presence of someone of the most humble genius. I do not believe even Galilee had any as kind and generous as John Haralson Hayes. The stories I have about him are endless, even in the short time I knew him, because I was able to spend a lot of time with him.

    I once helped make a primitive book stand for him because his back bothered him so and he wanted to read from time to time in an erect position. I put some cheap, gold JHH initials on the front of it. His son Johnny let me have it to keep. Thank you Johnny.

    He once explained that I was a Christian Atheist. He was correct and He was my Jesus in the flesh. The great teacher. What a relentless force for good! Fortunately, I will never get over that gentle man.

  • John Snarey

    I laughed and laughed and thought seriously, and thus relived what it was like to be in conversation with John Hayes. Thank you for the remembrances.

  • Barbara Pendergrast

    “First Curse the Dark, Then Light a Candle,” from,
    If You Don’t Like the Possum, Enjoy the Sweet Potatoes, p.58.

    “Cursing the dark gives us, for a time, the ego strength we need to mold the tallow, trim the wick, and locate a match” (p.59).

    In 2005, John Hays recounted the story, through tears, to my OT class of accidentally hitting a black cat in the early dawn hours on his two hour commute to Candler.

    I can go back to notes from our five question quizzes or references from the weekly lectures he gave to obtain facts, but the wisdom he gifted us with through this story lives in me still and calls forth the courage necessary to walk in the dark at times.

    I am grateful that he lives on in the lives of others through his stories. I will always remember him.