Speiser, Ephraim Avigdor

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SPEISER, EPHRAIM AVIGDOR (1902–1965), U.S. Orientalist and archaeologist. Born in Skalat, Galicia, Speiser emigrated to the United States (1920). In 1926–27 he surveyed northern Iraq, discovering Tepe Gawra, whose excavation, along with that of the adjacent Tell Billa, he directed during 1930–32 and 1936–37. In 1927 Speiser taught comparative Semitics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. From 1928 to the end of his life he lectured in Semitic languages and literatures at the University of Pennsylvania. During World War ii, Speiser served as the chief of the Near East section of the Research and Analysis Branch of the Office of Strategic Services. From 1955 he was a key member of the translation committee of the Jewish Publication Society of America that produced a new English version of the Torah (1962).

Speiser was one of the pioneers in the discovery of the *Hurrians and their culture. He clarified the scope and significance of the Hurrian component in Western Asia during the second millennium b.c.e. and investigated the structure of their language in the still standard Introduction to Hurrian (1941). In The United States and the Near East (1947, 19502) he illuminated the modern problems of the region by his expert knowledge of its long history. Speiser's philological and synthetic studies in Mesopotamian civilization displayed its values, with emphasis upon the centrality of law and the influence of Mesopotamian legal conceptions on peripheral peoples, including Israel. During the last decade of his life he devoted much time to the origin of Israel's history and faith. He regarded these as both a reflex of, and a critical reaction to, the Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures from which Israel emerged. His biblical research culminated in the volume on Genesis in the Anchor Bible (1964).

Speiser's scholarly, humanistic, and professional distinction was nationally recognized. He was a president of the American Oriental Society, a member of the American Philosophical Society, and a fellow of the American Academy for Jewish Research.


D.D. Finkelstein and M. Greenberg (eds.), Oriental and Biblical Studies: Collected Writings of E.A. Speiser (1967), 587–616; J.B. Pritchard et al. in: basor, 79 (1965), 2–7; M. Greenberg, in: jaos, 88 (1968), 1–2.

[Moshe Greenberg]