Delbert Roy Hillers, 66, scholar of Near East, Old Testament studies

September 27, 1999|By Kurt Streeter | Kurt Streeter,SUN STAFF

Delbert Roy Hillers, an eminent Old Testament and ancient Near Eastern language scholar, died Saturday of cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital. The longtime Johns Hopkins professor, admired for soft-spoken humility, keen intellect and zest for life, was 66.

Dr. Hillers' scholarship of the Old Testament and the ancient languages of that period, particularly Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus, is considered among the most important in the field of biblical studies.

Dr. Hillers had a reputation on the Hopkins campus, where he taught from 1963 to 1994, as one of the finest teachers at the university.

"He was a pre-eminent scholar, but he was also known as a wonderful professor," said Jerrold S. Cooper, professor of Near Eastern Studies at Hopkins. "He was shy, but he would get through to his students and they were very, very loyal. His style was demanding and rigorous but also nurturing."

One of his attributes, friends said, was his ability to break away from scholarly work. In addition to his love for literature, poetry, ballet and opera, he was a gourmet cook and a part-time athlete, competing in badminton, golf and competitive running events. He taught reading to inmates at the Baltimore City Detention Center.

Dr. Hillers was born in South Dakota and raised in the Midwest. After studying at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Mo., where he was ordained as a Lutheran minister, he moved to Baltimore in 1957 to pursue graduate work at Hopkins. He met Patricia Mays Turnbaugh that year and the two married in 1958.

Dr. Hillers entered Johns Hopkins' Near Eastern Studies Department and became a student of the late William F. Albright, considered the most important figure in ancient Near Eastern archaeology. Dr. Hillers graduated Phi Beta Kappa and earned his doctorate in 1963. He chaired the Near Eastern studies department from 1964 to 1970 and again from 1976 to 1979.

The author of scores of articles on the subject of ancient languages, archaeology of the Near East and the Old and New Testament, Dr. Hillers wrote five books that helped provide new understanding in his field of study.

One of his most important books, published in 1969 and still used in college classrooms, was "Covenant: The History of a Biblical Idea."

"It is a key source that people still turn to," noted Barry Gittlin, professor of biblical and archaeological studies at Baltimore Hebrew University. Another important work was "Lamentations," an in-depth study of the Old Testament that was part of the Anchor Bible studies series read by scholars and lay people.

Though diagnosed with cancer three years ago, friends and family said Dr. Hillers never slowed down. Retired from teaching, he devoted much of his last years to a continuing study of Aramaic, particularly the form of the language spoken in the city of Palmyra from 200 B.C. to A.D. 500. Throughout this summer, Dr. Hillers was preparing articles and planning trips to Syria, where he was involved in an archaeological dig to uncover artifacts from Palmyra.

"My father was a true Renaissance man," said Samuel Hillers, 37.

Aside from his study of ancient languages, he was fluent in German and Italian. "How many Americans would spend their spare time reading Thomas Mann in German, just for the kick of it?" said Dr. Cooper. "That's an indication of how amazing his interests were outside of his scholarship."

In addition to his wife, Dr. Hillers is survived by his daughter, Eve Hillers Waring of Springfield, Va.; his son, Samuel Thomas Hillers of Boston; four sisters, Margaret Paul of Davenport, Iowa, Ruth Scherschligt of Sioux Falls, S.D., Wilma Simmons of Fairfield Bay, Ark., and Betty Thurston of Ithaca, N.Y.

Funeral services will be held at 10 a.m. Wednesday at First English Lutheran Church, Charles and 39th streets.

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