History of SOTS


[by John Rogerson, written 1992 for the 75th anniversary of SOTS. For a recent history of the society from 1917-2017 see: Eryl W. Davies, ‘The Society for Old Testament Study, 1917–2017’. Pages 25-70 SOTS at 100: Centennial Essays of the Society for Old Testament Study. Edited by John Jarick. London: Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 2017]


The Society for Old Testament Study has always made a point of observing its anniversaries. At Keble College, Oxford, in September 1938 it held its ‘Coming of Age Meeting’, while the meetings at the George Hotel, Bangor, in July 1949 and at King’s College Hostel, London, in January 1950 were designated the ‘’Silver Jubilee of Summer Meetings’ and ‘The Jubilee Meeting’ respectively. The most elaborate celebrations so far were held in 1967 to observe the Society’s jubilee. A dinner at the St Ermin’s Hotel, Westminster, in January included a number of invited distinguished guests, and at this meeting, and the Summer Meeting in York, papers by Past Presidents of the Society were a prominent feature of the programmes. An archaeological tour to Israel and Jordan in the summer of 1966 was a fitting prelude to the jubilee year. Other anniversaries, to be marked more modestly, were the 50th Summer Meeting at Neuadd Rathbone, Bangor in July 1974 and the 50th Winter Meeting at Halliday Hall in January 1975.

The Society has now reached another landmark, and in 1992 celebrates its 75th year. As part of the celebrations its Committee has commissioned a short account of the Society’s history. This will be the third such history, its predecessors being those by G. Henton Davies in 1950 and D. R. Ap-Thomas in 1967. In preparing the present account, I have consulted these works, and also G. W. Anderson’s article in VT, xviii (1967). 1 have also made extensive use of the Society’s archives in Bangor, and 1 wish to express my appreciation for the assistance given by the archivist Mr Tomos Roberts.

Anyone who reviews the history of the Society cannot fall to be impressed by the enormous debt that it owes to Welsh scholars and to scholars who worked at some time in Wales. Not only was the idea of forming an Old Testament Society first mooted at an examiners’ meeting in Wales in 19 16, but the letter signed by six scholars that was sent to potential members in 1916 invited responses to T. H. Robinson in Cardiff. From its foundation in 1917 to the retirement as Home Secretary of D. R. Ap-Thomas in 1972, the Society was served in its most demanding offices by the following scholars who were Welsh or who worked at some time in Wales: T. H. Robinson (sole Secretary 1917-27; joint Secretary 1927-46), C. R. North (joint Secretary 1927-48 and Treasurer 1951-57), G. Henton Davies (Home Secretary 1946-60 and Foreign Secretary 1961-63), H. H. Rowley (Book List Editor 1946-56 and Foreign Secretary 1946-60), D. R. Ap-Thomas (Publications Sales Secretary 1953-60 and Home Secretary 1961-72), I. Blythin (Hospitality Secretary 1962-69). That the Society’s archives should be located in Wales is most appropriate. What follows is a thematic rather than a chronological reflection on the past 75 years, with the Agenda set by recurring and present concerns of the Society.

The Society’s Name

During discussion of a paper in 1984 on the term ‘Old Testament’ some of those present were surprised to learn that the Society has, or had, a Hebrew name: hevrat lomede tanakh. This name is inscribed on the wooden case that houses the Presidential Bible, and it was used regularly until 1952. on the front page of programmes for meetings and editions of the Society’s rules. In December 1952 the Committee discussed some suggestions for altering the Hebrew name. It was felt that tanakh should not be retained although it is not clear whether miqra’ or kitve haqodesh was preferable. Nouns derived from the stems hqr and drsh were preferred to lomede. The decision seems to have been that the matter should be deferred and that the Hebrew name should not be used. There, apparently, the matter rests, except that when E. Ullendorff wrote a congratulatory address in Hebrew to the jubilee President, Archbishop F. D. Coggan, he devised the much more elegant name hahevrah lemehqar bamiqra’.


The founders of the Society were established scholars or teachers of the Old Testament, and during the Society’s first years, the concern was to increase its size by recruiting members of similar standing. It was not until 1914 that qualifications for future members were discussed. In July of that year it was agreed that new members should fulfil one of the following conditions: (a) have published contributions to the study of the Old Testament (b) occupy a recognized teaching post giving instruction in Old Testament (c) have a university degree or a diploma including the study of the Old Testament in Hebrew. Over the years, this written law has been elaborated by oral tradition and modified in writing. A perusal of the archives reveals that condition (c) has become the most important factor, although candidates for membership must also be committed to the teaching or study of the Old Testament. Condition (b) was modified in 1956 so that ‘suitably qualified scripture specialists in grammar or other schools’ could be admitted to membership. At the Winter Meeting in 1946 it was agreed that candidates could not be considered for membership if they were present as guests at the meeting where their admission was being discussed. Another tradition required the deferral of consideration of candidates in statu pupillari. This status applied also to those who were completing a higher degree, and led, on one occasion, to the observation that a candidate who held a university teaching post was, in a sense, in statu pupillari.

The membership of scholars not resident in the British Isles became an issue early in the Society’s existence, and the Winter Meetings of 1930 and 1937 approved the admission of such scholars. However, it was not until 1949 that Associate Membership was instituted. The immediately preceding years had seen the rejection of a number of proposals for membership on the grounds that those proposed were not resident in the British Isles. Ordinary membership was now available to British citizens whether resident at home or abroad; Associate membership was for non-British citizens. A later modification added citizens of the Irish Republic to those eligible for Ordinary membership. The latest revision makes residence, not citizenship, the decisive criterion. With the prospect of closer political union in Europe, the question of categories of membership looks set to become an issue once again.

Life membership by payment of a lump sum was first considered in 1939, and introduced in 1947, although not mentioned in the revised rules of 1950 (it was mentioned in the 1957 rules). In 1952, not for the last time, Life Members were asked to make a financial contribution to help the Society through a difficult financial period. Those who first suggested introducing Life Membership noted that the actuarial calculations would be tricky, and so it has proved. Consequently, the possibility of compounding for Life Membership was abolished in 1974, although it is pleasant to note that Life Members have frequently and generously responded to appeals for support, the most recent occasion being in 1990. It still remains possible for the Society to elect a member to Life Membership, although it seems that only three members have been accorded this honour in the Society’s history.

Honorary membership was introduced in 1917 and restricted to a total of 12. In 1949 the total was increased to 15, and in 1953 it was increased to its present 20.

With the rise in membership after the war, the question of limiting numbers in order to contain the mounting pressure upon the officers was first raised in 1955. In 1960 the committee decided that the number of ordinary members should be fixed at 350. A formula was later devised for deciding how many new members could be elected. This was the number of losses in any one year (deaths and resignations) plus ten. However, the vacancies have mostly exceeded the proposals and the formula is no longer used. Membership stands today at 345 ordinary, 111 associate, and 18 honorary members.


Members are familiar with two meetings a year, except for those occasions when a joint meeting in Holland or Belgium adds a third. This has been the overwhelmingly predominant, but not the sole pattern. Beginning in 1924 the Society organized a number of Summer Schools in collaboration with King’s College, London, and the Church Tutorial Classes Association (CTCA). These Summer Schools took place in September. A photograph taken by Eileen de Ward during the Summer School of 14-19 September 1925 shows 31 participants. A note from Baroness de Ward indicates that most of the 15 female members pictured were members of CTCA. At various times it has been suggested that the Society should hold only one meeting each year, and in 1948 there was no Winter Meeting because of lack of support. However, the pattern of two meetings has been maintained for most of the Society’s history, with the exception of the war years. The 1927 Summer Meeting at Keble College, Oxford, was an international Meeting. In 1970, a series of triennial meetings with the Dutch (now Dutch and Flemish) Old Testament Society was inaugurated. A feature of these meetings has been that the papers delivered have usually been published in Oudtestamentische Studiën. Other departures from the normal pattern of meetings include the meeting held in Rome in April 1952 at the Pontifical Biblical Institute, that held at the Century Plaza Hotel, Los Angeles in September 1972 as part of the programme of the International Congress of Learned Societies in the Field of Religion, and the two archaeological visits to the Holy Land in 1966 and 1979.

From its beginnings the Society almost invariably held its Winter Meeting at the King’s College Hostel in Vincent Square, London. This arrangement lasted until 1969 when the Society became too big to be contained there. In 1972 the Winter Meeting moved to another of the hostels of King’s College, that at Halliday Hall on Clapham Common. This former pre-war hotel in which most of the rooms had an individual bathroom and toilet became a firm favourite with many members after the reading of papers was shifted from the cold and echoey ballroom to the warm and intimate library. Nineteen consecutive meetings were held at Halliday Hall, until the prospective sale of this hostel required the Society to look elsewhere. At the time of writing it has not yet established a new permanent venue for its Winter Meetings. The tradition that the Summer Meeting is held at a venue of the President’s choice has continued.

The Book List

One of the Society’s most visible contributions to Old Testament scholarship is the Book List. The decision to produce a Book List was taken in 1932, and a small committee convened by C. R.. North was appointed. This committee produced the Book List from 1933 to 1940. The committee was reappointed in 1946 with H. H.. Rowley as convenor, and it was under Rowley that the publication was transformed into what we know today, and the post of Book List Editor came into being. The first Book List to be described as ‘printed for private circulation’ is the 1939 edition, and it was in 1950 that the question of advertising the Book List through trade channels was first raised. On that occasion, it was decided to retain the private character of the Book List, and in 1953 a request from a publisher to advertise in it was rejected. In 1954 the post of Book List Sales Secretary was created. This enabled the private nature of the Book List to be retained, while being available to non-members. This has remained the pattern, although the Society has discussed alternative arrangements on several occasions and is now on the verge of marketing the Book List in North America. In 1958 the rubric ‘printed for private circulation’ became ‘printed for the Society’. In 1982 the Book List received an ISBN number and in 1990 an ISSN number. Cumulative volumes of the Book List were published in 1957, 1967, and 1975 and at the time of writing negotiations are being conducted with a view to making past numbers of the Book List available through microfilms. In the 1950 History of the Society, G. Henton Davies noted that it was usual to devote one of the sessions at the Summer Meeting to a discussion of the Book List.

The cost of production of the Book List has been a matter of major concern on many occasions, and there is no doubt that Book List Editors and Sales Secretaries have devoted time and energy to the Book List beyond the call of duty. The Society is more deeply indebted to them than anyone can realize, If present discussions lead to the Book List being marketed and distributed in North America by an established publisher, this will not only open a new chapter in its distinguished history, it will solve some of the Society’s financial problems, and ensure that the Book List Editor is more adequately resourced.


In addition to producing the Book List, the Society has sponsored and been involved in a number of other projects. Indeed, before the war, the Book List was a minor aspect of the Society’s involvement with publishing. In 1920 it was decided to produce, in co-operation with SPCK, a series entitled Texts for Students. At the same time, discussions with the Adult School Movement led to a series of translations of Old Testament books into colloquial English for use in schools. In July 1921 it was reported that 2,000 copies of Amos had been sold, that Joel was complete and Jeremiah nearly ready. When bulletins began to be published, regular statistics of sales of these texts were provided. In 1939, the last year for which reliable figures were available, it was recorded that 41,000 copies of the adult school translations had been sold. Another initiative with schools in mind was the production of a scripture bibliography, of which 4,000 copies were printed in 1926 and a second edition was produced in 1937. In 1929, the need for a new history of the Hebrews was noted by the Society and this resulted in the collaboration of W. O. E. Oesterley and T. H. Robinson to produce their History of Israel. Another important project promoted by the Society was the Clarendon Old Testament, whose production was first discussed in 1923. Discussions about the need for a companion for the Revised Version of the Bible, which began in 1922 and continued through the 1930s, led to the publication in 1939 of A Companion to the Bible edited by T. W. Manson.

The best known publications for the Society have been the series of collected essays which began with A. S. Peake’s The People and the Book (1915) and continued with Old Testament Essays (1927, papers read at the Oxford meeting), Record and Revelation (1938), The Old Testament and Modern Study (1950), Documents from Old Testament Times (1958), Archaeology and Old Testament Study (1967), Peoples of Old Testament Times (1973), Tradition and Interpretation (1979), and The World of Ancient Israel: Sociological, Anthropological and Political Perspectives (1989). The Society also sponsored a series of monographs entitled Old Testament Studies between 1935 and 1956. Another monograph series was edited by J. A. Emerton between 1970 and 1984, and in 1985 it was agreed that the Society should be associated with the series of Old Testament Study Guides published by Sheffield Academic Press under the editorship of R. N. Whybray.

Projects which were mooted and never succeeded are not without interest. In 1920 the officers of the Society discussed with SCM Press the possibility of producing a new English version of the Old Testament. Also discussed was the translation of J, E, and P as separate documents in their own right. In 1921 the desirability of a new critical edition of the Masoretic Text was considered, while in 1925 it was agreed to ask the University Presses to issue an inexpensive edition of the Revised Version of the Apocrypha. On another occasion there was discussion about producing a selection of Hebrew readings. The new translation of the Old Testament was abandoned with the publication of Moffatt’s translation, and a new edition of the Hebrew Bible was later prepared by a member of the Society, N. H. Snaith. An interesting possibility that was considered was that of re-issuing the Revised Version Old Testament with some of the marginal readings in the text. A Sub-Committee of the Society would select these readings.

The Old Testament in Schools

G. Henton Davies wrote in his 1950 Short History that, during its formative years, the Society ‘took a great interest in the teaching of the Old Testament in schools’. We have already noted the Society’s published bibliography for teachers as well as the translations of individual books of the Old Testament. There were also the summer schools organized jointly with the Church Tutorial Classes Association. An important initiative was an approach in 1930 to the London, Northern and Welsh Examination Boards, requesting that scripture be included among the subjects that could be taken in the matriculation examinations. In 1938, the Society welcomed the publication of the Spens Report, which stressed the importance of religious education in schools of every type and the provision of properly-qualified teachers.

In the post-war period the teaching of the Old Testament in schools featured less prominently. A session was devoted to ‘the Old Testament and the new RE’ at the Summer Meeting 1975, and another was entitled ‘Profitable for Teaching? The Old Testament in Schools Today’ at the Summer Meeting 1983. In 1984 two members brought to the Society’s attention a survey they had carried out of university departments and theological and higher education colleges; it had inquired about the place of the Old Testament in their syllabuses, and whether RE ‘A’ level was preferred as a qualification for entry. This was followed up at the Winter Meeting 1985 by a discussion of a draft ‘A’ level syllabus.

Communications with Members

An important feature of the Society is that it keeps its members fully informed of its proceedings. Today, this is done by the annual Bulletin. In the earliest years of the Society, there was no such Bulletin. However, lists of publications by members were compiled by the Secretary, and sent out to members in 1918 and 1919. The Minutes of the Society for 1921 include a list of publications of members, and it would appear that these were read out at meetings. A motion that they be no longer read out was approved and implemented in 1946. From the Summer Meeting 1930 two reports were sent annually to members, and these included lists of publications of members as well as the names of members. Indeed, the practice of including the list of members’ publications continued until 1951. Given that all universities are to be obliged to make an annual return of publications in all departments, the Society can pride itself on being a leader in the field. It is interesting that, during the war years when there were no meetings, information sheets continued to be sent to members giving such news as was available. The present practice of sending out a single annual Bulletin dates from 1955.

Old Testament Journal

Probably no item of business has occupied the Society more persistently than the suggestion that it should publish or sponsor an Old Testament journal. The matter was first raised with Cambridge University Press in July 1919, and a quarterly journal of Old Testament and Semitic Studies was proposed. This project foundered because of the costs involved, and it was suggested that an Old Testament supplement to an established journal such as those of the Society of Apocrypha or the Manchester Egyptian and Oriental Society should be explored, Again, there was no positive outcome. In 1926 The Expositor ceased to be published. In noting its demise, the Society considered (a) The publication of a new journal (b) The modification of an existing one (c) The publication of an annual volume. No headway seems to have been made. Seven years passed before a new proposal was made. This was that a Journal of Semitic Philology should be published by the Society in conjunction with the British Academy and the Royal Asiatic Society. Two years later it became clear that there was no prospect of success on this front, and the officers were requested to see if a quarterly or half-yearly journal of Old Testament research could be launched. In January 1936 they reported negatively.

The matter seems to have rested here until the summer of 1969, when it was reported that the Publications Advisory Committee ‘had been considering in some detail the possibility of the Society successfully launching a journal of its own’. The Society’s Minutes record no sequel to the statement. Instead, they disclose that, at the Winter Meeting in 1971, the Publications Advisory Committee reported that it had considered a suggestion for launching a review journal but had felt unable to take positive steps. What perhaps is the closing chapter to this story occurred at the Summer Meeting 1976, when D. J. A. Clines informed members of the founding of the Journal for the Study of the Old Testament. The Society wished it every success and assisted its launch by circulating an invitation to subscription to all members.


Only one member has had the honour of being elected twice to the Presidency of the Society. This was T. H. Robinson, who was President in 1928 and 1946, and this was in recognition of his unequalled service to the Society. However, a glance at the list of past Presidents suggests that G. R. Driver and H. Loewe were re-elected as Presidents in 1938 and 1940 respectively. This is not so. Driver was elected as President for 1937, but was unable to attend the meetings because of illness. He was thus re-appointed for 1938. The person elected as President for 1940 was G. A. Cooke, but he died before taking office, and H. Loewe, the President for 1939, was asked to continue until the end of 1940. Sadly, he died in the Autumn of 1940, and H. W.. Robinson became Acting President from 1941-45.

An interesting note in the Report of the 16th Summer Meeting (1934) concerns a proposal to alter the level of the Sea of Galilee in the interests of a large electrical installation. The Society approved the vetoing of the scheme by the High Commissioner for Palestine, and ’empowered the Committee to take such immediate action as may be desirable if the scheme should be revived at any time in the future’.

This brief account of the Society’s history cannot conclude without mentioning the debt owed by the Society to its printers, W. S. Maney & Son of Leeds. Maney’s connection with the Society goes back to the days of C. R. North, and successive Home Secretaries, Book List Editors, and Publications Sales Secretaries have benefitted from the personal attention and devotion to the Society on the part of Mr Stan Maney and Mr Derek Brown and their staff.


The hopes of the three scholars who first suggested the formation of an Old Testament Society at the Examiners’ Meeting in Wales in 1916 (T. H. Robinson, T. Witton Davies, and W. H. Bennett) have been realized beyond what they could have imagined. It is impossible to think how Old Testament Studies in Britain would have developed without the formation of the Society for Old Testament Study. It has brought together on a regular basis scholars and others deeply interested in the Old Testament who would not otherwise have had the chance to meet each other. It has enabled younger scholars to meet established scholars, it has provided the opportunity for established and younger scholars to exchange information and receive mutual criticism, and it has encouraged and supported publications which have had a profound influence upon Old Testament Studies in Britain and beyond. It is to be hoped that this reflection upon the Society’s past will encourage and inspire its members during their work in the next 25 years as the Society makes its way towards its centenary in 2017.