The Revd Dr A. A. Macintosh and others write:
PROFESSOR John Emerton, who died on 12 September, aged 87, was born in London. He studied at Corpus Christi College in Oxford, where he was awarded a first-class Honours degree in theology in 1950, and an MA in 1954, which was incorporated in Cambridge the following year. He was awarded a Bachelor of Divinity degree from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, in 1960, and a DD from St John’s College, Cambridge, in 1973. Edinburgh University awarded him an honorary DD in 1977.
After ordination training at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, Emerton was ordained deacon in 1952, and priest the following year. He served his title at Birmingham Cathedral, while Assistant Lecturer in Theology at Birmingham University. He then took up the position of Lecturer in Hebrew and Aramaic at Durham University in 1953.
He was a Lecturer in Divinity at the University of Cambridge from 1955 to 1962, and then returned to Oxford, to become Reader in Semitic Philology, and take up a fellowship at St Peter’s College. In 1968, he moved back to Cambridge, to take up the Regius Professorship of Hebrew, and he became a Fellow at St John’s College in 1970.
Emerton was devoted to St John’s. He gave large support to the work of the chapel, and regularly assisted the official clergy with its services until 2003. He was particularly at home as a celebrant and preacher at the early communion service on Sunday mornings during term time.
He dined frequently, and entertained many colleagues and friends as his guests at the high table. Wine circles were a favoured scene for his social relaxation, and vintage port was his chosen devotion. In this connection, he served a term as President of the College Wine and Food Society.
Other notable posts included membership of the Editorial Board of Vetus Testamentum for more than 25 years; serving as Secretary and later President of the International Organization for the Study of the Old Testament; serving as President of the Society for Old Testament Study in 1979; and being Hon. Canon of St George’s Cathedral, Jerusalem, since 1984.
He also held several visiting professorships around the world. Awards received during his career included the Burkitt Medal for Biblical Studies, from the British Academy, in 1991.
An outstanding scholar in Hebrew and the Old Testament, Professor Emerton made significant contributions to the topic of wisdom in the Old Testament, the Apocrypha, and the ancient Near East, notably in his edition of The Peshitta of the Wisdom of Solomon, published in 1959. He wrote on a wide range of subjects concerning the language and literature of the Old and New Testaments, such as The Old Testament in Syriac: Song of Songs in 1966, and contributed enormously to the study of Ugaritic literature and Semitic philosophy.
Emerton regarded his vocation to the priesthood as a fundamental aspect of his identity, though the nature of his academic career precluded his performing many of the functions of that calling. Yet his assiduous care of his many research students proved for him to be an important and particular aspect of ministry. He was granted permission to officiate in Ely diocese in 1998.
His greatest contribution to the Church of England was his chairmanship of the panel of scholars who produced The Liturgical Psalter, published in 1976-77 (as The Psalms: A new translation for worship), and incorporated in the Alternative Service Book of 1980. The version was widely praised, and described as the “best and most accurate rendering of the Psalter in modern English”. Although it was replaced by the Synod in 2000, it remains in print as The Cambridge Liturgical Psalter, and is still a version approved for use by the Church.
Professor Emerton is survived by his wife, Dr Norma Emerton, and three children.