Elias Joseph Bickerman

Elias Joseph Bickerman (1897-1981) was a secular Russian Jew and a leading scholar of antiquity during his lifetime. He had a strong desire to be known for his scholarship and so he made significant efforts to hide details about his personal life. This has made the construction of a biography all the more difficult. Substantial information has been brought into public light but copious amounts remain obscure.[1]

“The range of his friendships was no less amazing than that of his knowledge, for his kindness was no less amazing than his intelligence.”
Morton Smith (1983)[2, p.xviii]

As far as scholars who have taken it upon themselves to investigate and report on the life of E. J. Bickerman, I think Albert Baumgarten (who was one of Bickerman’s students) has invested the most time and effort. In 2010, after what appears to me to have been about 10 years of research on the topic, Baumgarten published a book with around 370 pages all entirely devoted to Bickerman’s life. This work of Baumgarten’s is by far the most exhaustive biography that I’m aware of for Bickerman.

Bickerman apparently had somewhat of an inferiority complex even into his old age.[1, p.28]

His Chronology of the Ancient World (1968/1980) serves as a fundamental work for the study of chronology and calendars.

“Bickerman was one of the very few scholars whose works are always worth reading, always stimulating, and always important.”
Shaye J. D. Cohen (1984)[3, p.3]

The English Wiki for Bickerman is severely lacking in content but the Swedish Wiki has a fair amount.

Biography

1897, Feb. 14th: He was born in Kishinev and was the firstborn son of Joseph Bikerman (27 Feb. 1867 – 4 Jan. 1942) and Sarah Margulis (27 Jul. 1861 – 2 Mar. 1931), a Jewish couple who married in 1896.[1, p.19] However, Smith (1983) claimed that Bickerman was born not on February 14th but on July 1st.[2, p.xv] A third birthdate of June 1st was given. The confusion comes from Bickerman himself who told some people he was born on June 1st and other people that he was born on July 1st.[1, p.34] I think it’s safe to say that Smith, one of Bickerman’s closest friends and collegues, was given the July 1st birthdate.

1905: At the age of 8, he moved to St. Petersburg, Russia from Odessa, Ukraine.[1, p.19], [3, p.2]

1915: He began attending the University of St. Petersburg and learned under Mikhail Rostovtzeff.[2, p.xv]

1917: He temporarily joined the Russian army.[1, p.19]

c.1918-20: It was sometime around these years that the Russian Civil War was occurring and he joined the Red Army for a short amount of time.[1, p.19]

1921: After enduring the first years of communism in Russia, he and his family were able to escape into Poland.[1, p.20] It was just before he left Russia that he finished his courses at the University of St. Petersburg.[2, p.xvi]

1922, April: He arrived in Weimar Berlin, Germany[1, p.20] and began attending a university there.[2, p.xvi]

1929-1933: He was Privat-Dozent at the university in Berlin.[2, p.xvi] His father and him took an active stance against Bolshevism.[2, p.xvii]

1933: On January 30th, Hitler was appointed führer of the Nazi Party. Due to this, Bickerman sought residency elsewhere. By November, he had established himself in Paris, France, where he lived until 1941.[1, pp.2-3] Shortly after his arrival, he became the Ecole des Hautes Etudes’ Charge de Cours.[2, p.xvii]

1936, July 28th: He married Anita Suzanne Bernstein (13 Apr. 1913 – 9 May 1998).[1, p.21]

1938: He was promoted to be the Ecole des Hautes Etudes’ Eleve diplome.[2, p.xvii]

1938-1942: He was appointed as the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique’s Charge de recherches.[2, p.xvii]

1940, Summer: He was in Paris during the German conquest[1, p.21] and this prompted him to leave for Marseilles. There are conflicting reports on when he left Marseilles. At the earliest he left in 1941, at the latest he left in 1943.[2, p.xvii] Given that I think it’s established he was in the USA by 1942, I don’t think it’s possible that he was still in Marseilles in 1943.

1941, Summer: He moved to Vichy France.[1, p.21]

1942, July 2nd-July 13th: He was travelling to the United States and temporarily resided in Casablanca.[1, p.33]

1942, July 29th: Bickerman moved to Baltimore, Maryland. His trip was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation so that he could come teach at the New School for Social Research, where he taught until 1945.[1, p.21]

1948, Spring: He was a part-time teacher at Columbia University.[1, p.21] It was also around this time that his wife and him became United States citizens.[1, p.22]

1949, Spring: He was a part-time teacher at Columbia University.[1, p.21]

1950: He received a Guggenheim fellowship.[2, p.xvii]

1950-1952: He lived in Los Angeles and was a teacher for The University of Judaism’s Jewish Theological Seminary.[1, p.22]

1952: He moved back to New York and was appointed as Columbia University’s Professor of Ancient History, a position which he held until 1967[1, p.22] when he retired and was appointed as Professor Emeritus.[2, p.xvii]

c.1956: He and his wife got divorced. The exact date for when this occurred is uncertain.[1, p.22] Apparently both parties made noteworthy efforts to eliminate all traces of the marriage.[1, p.23]

1959, January: This is the latest date possible for the start of his relationship with a woman named Maria Altman. They both made efforts to keep their relationship secret. They were together until Bickerman’s death in 1981.[1, p.23]

1967-1968: He was at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study.[1, p.22]

1970: He took a trip back to Russia.[1, p.38]

1977, May: Tubingen University awarded Bickerman the Dr. Leopold Lucas Prize.[1, p.20]

1977, Summer and Fall: He was in Jerusalem and positioned at Hebrew University’s Institute for Advanced Study.[1, p.22]

1981, August 31st: At the age of 84, on his 85th year, he died in Jerusalem, where he was buried.[1, p.2] Smith (1983) reported that Bickerman died at the age of 85.[2, p.xv] I calculated Bickerman’s age at the time of his death to be 84 years, by counting the years, months, and days since his birth. His first birthday was in 1898, his second in 1899 and so on and so forth. Additionally, 1981 minus 1897 equals 84.

Works

1937: The God of the Maccabees (Berlin). This work was originally published in German (as Der Gott der Makkabaer) but an English translation was published in 1979.

1938: Institutions des Seleucides (Paris)

1962: From Ezra to the Last of the Maccabees (New York)

1967: Four Strange Books of the Bible (New York)

1968: Chronology of the Ancient World (New York). In the Preface to his 1968 edition of this work, Bickerman reported that Eduard Norden (one of Bickerman’s teachers) was the person who had originally encouraged him to write it.

1976/1980: Studies in Jewish and Christian History I and II (New York)

1990: The Jews in the Greek Age (Cambridge)

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References:

[1] – Baumgarten, Albert. “Elias Bickerman as a Historian of the Jews: A Twentieth Century Tale” (2010). https://books.google.com/books?id=4KlQKyRnx8IC&source=gbs_navlinks_s. Accessed 29 Jan. 2021.

[2] – Smith, Morton. “Elias J. Bickerman.” Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research, vol. 50, 1983, pp. xv-xviii. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3622685. Accessed 29 Jan. 2021.

[3] – Cohen, Shaye J. D. “Elias J Bickerman: An appreciation” (1 Jan. 1984). https://janes.scholasticahq.com/article/2316-elias-j-bickerman-an-appreciation. Accessed 29 Jan. 2021.

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