Bill arrived at Andover Newton in 1971, the same year as I did. He and his family had just moved to Newton from Beirut, Lebanon, where he had been teaching.
Bill was a highly respected Old Testament scholar whose work on Jeremiah is magisterial. He was also the editor of the standard reference work, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament: Based upon the Lexical Work of Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner.
But in addition to writing for the academy Bill had a passionate commitment to teaching pastors and laity in the church. In my first pastorate in rural Maine, Bill came up to teach about Jeremiah to a dozen or so lay folks in a Bible study.
He also wrote a fine little book on Isaiah, which was subtitled “A Bible Study Guide For Lay People.” Both his Jeremiah book from Pilgrim Press and Isaiah: Scroll of a Prophetic Heritage from Eerdmans went out of print, and happily, both have been re-issued by Wipf and Stock. They are both good tools for Bible study.
Two of my favorite books of his are Long Ago God Spoke: How Christians May Hear the Old Testament Today and The Psalms Through Three Thousand Years. They are both highly readable and interesting, and show Bill’s passion for the study of Scripture. Here’s a quote from the former: “It would not be too extreme to say that studying theology is learning how to say the least wrong thing about God.”
I have many memories of Bill, who attended the church where I was a seminarian for three years. He lent us his van for youth group trips. At Andover Newton, where he was known for both his hard grading and his soft heart, he was a kinetic figure, always on the move. He used to say that Jeremiah would sometimes say “You hoo” to him in the wee hours of the morning, and I believe it.
The oral tradition on campus was that he took your paper to the library and checked every citation. One of my friends once said to him, “Professor Holladay, I’m really enjoying studying Hebrew. It’s just the details that I have trouble with.” Bill answered, “The study of a language is the study of details!! If you get the accents wrong in Greek ‘John baptized Jesus in the Jordan’ could become ‘Jesus baptized Jordan in the john!’”
For years he was working on his two-volume commentary on Jeremiah, which was published in the Hermenia series. He worked on it in his study, but when he wanted a break he would come to the reading room at the library and rifle through the New Yorker for the cartoons. When there was an especially good one he had to share it, and would come interrupt you for a laugh. I eventually abandoned the reading room so that I could figure out JEPD.
Martha and I once visited the Holladays at their cabin in rural Northern Vermont, and we went with them to see a demolition derby at a nearby racetrack. I recall sitting there while Bill hooted as one old junk car smashed another, and thinking, “here I am with the world’s foremost Jeremiah scholar watching young men smash old cars into each other.” He was quite unlike anybody else I have ever met. I give thanks for him.
I was blessed to have a number of great teachers at Andover Newton and three of them have died in 2016, Max Stackhouse, Jerry Handspicker, and now Bill. And Andover Newton itself is going through something like death as it leaves its Newton campus and de-camps, in some different form, to New Haven and Yale Divinity School. The generations rise and fall, but the Word of God abides forever.
(Photo courtesy of Andover Newton Theological School, undated)