Do we live in the age of Robert C. Hill?

Few will ever have heard of Robert Charles Hill, sometime professor at an Australian Catholic university.  Indeed his name was unfamiliar to me also, until the last few weeks.  But in that time I have been looking for translations of ancient biblical commentaries.  And anyone who does so will swiftly realise the debt that we all owe to him.

Dr Hill passed away in 2007.  But the translations he made are everywhere.  I myself recently obtained the three volume Commentary on Isaiah by Cyril of Alexandria: translated from Greek into English by none other than Robert C. Hill.  In fact the translation stops at Isaiah 50, leaving the remainder untranslated.  It sounds as if the publisher – Holy Cross – has no plans to commission a translation of the remainder, which is a pity.  Someone should do it.

He also translated Theodoret on the minor prophets, Jerome on Jeremiah, and a host of other works.  I wish that I had known him.

I thought that I would give thanks for what he did – which has eased my life considerably recently – by writing this post, and reproducing some of the already scanty material online about him. After all, translations hang around for centuries.  They get used by generations as yet unborn and unthought of.  In future ages, will people ask, “Did he live at the same time as Robert C. Hill”?  Maybe they will.

The following obituary appeared here at the University of Sydney site.   This is the only obituary known to me that mentions his translation work.  If ever I saw an ephemeral link, that is one; and indeed it is already inaccessible on mobiles, and the photo is missing.  So I thought that I would reproduce what is left here.

Charles Hill: A Church Scholar and Teacher

Dr Charles Hill (BA ’58, MA ’68) 1947 – 2007

Dr Robert Peter (Charles) Hill, who was one of Australia’s leading Patristic scholars, died recently in his home in the Lower Blue Mountains after a short illness.

He lectured in theology and Biblical Studies in both undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in the School of Theology at Australian Catholic University, and in the postgraduate programme of the School of Divinity at the University of Sydney. Among his many biblical books were The Scriptures Jesus Knew: A Guide to the Old Testament (1994) and Jesus and the Mystery of Christ: An Extended Christology (1993).

He gave regular papers at the International Association for Patristics Studies (IAPS) at their four-yearly conference in Oxford as well as at the annual conference of the North American Patristic Society (NAPS) at Loyola University, Chicago – thus helping to fly the flag of Australian scholarship on the international scene. Within Australia he was a member and past-president of the Australian Catholic Biblical Association. Among his many academic qualifications were a Licence in Sacred Scripture (LSS) from the Biblicum and a doctorate in theology (STD) from the Angelicum in Rome.

Born in Auckland, New Zealand, he came to Australia in 1947 and, after completing high school he trained as a Christian Brother at Strathfield, and then completed an MA at the University of Sydney. During this latter degree he studied Greek – a skill he nurtured throughout his life (with Hebrew and Latin) and which enabled him to pursue his translation of the Greek Fathers. He spent some years in Rome where he studied and acquired professional qualifications. He left the Christian Brothers in 1980 and joined the staff at Australian Catholic University as a fulltime lecturer. In 1986 he married Marie Deveridge and settled in the Lower Blue Mountains.

Not only was he involved in regular teacher education, but he also has a solid record of involvement in catechetics, particularly in the ongoing training of catechists who teach in government schools. After twenty-five years of such involvement he was awarded the Papal Cross (Croce pro Ecclesia et Pontifice) in 2003.

He retired from Australian Catholic University in 1993 and spent the next fourteen years in translating the works of many Greek Fathers from Greek into English. During this time his workload was prodigious: he produced twenty-seven volumes of translations, introductions, and commentaries on leading Church Fathers. He initially concentrated on St John Chrysostom, translating his Homilies on Genesis 1-67, on the Pslams, Old Testament Homilies, commentaries on the Sages, and then some of the works of Theodoret of Cyrrhus (Psalms, Commentary on the Prophets, The Question of the Octateuch, Commentary on the Song of Songs), then Theodore of Mopsuestia (Commentary of the Twelve Prophets) and Diodore of Tarsus. His latest book, which came out days before his death, was Of Prophets and Poets: Antioch Fathers on the Bible (2007).

The Holy Cross Orthodox Press in Brookline, Massachusetts, USA, published many of his books; others were published through The Catholic University of America Press and the Pontifical Biblical Institute Press, Rome. He was finally honoured in 2007 by the Greek Orthodox School of Theology at Holy Cross, with the award of the Three Hierarchs Medal. He is the first layperson to receive this award for his “superb patristic translations” and his contributions “to global scholarship”. His writings did much to promote good Orthodox-Catholic relationships. His expertise in matters patristic represented a lifetime of professional dedication, and he will be missed by scholars and all those who read the Church Fathers.

Charles Hill was a committed scholar, a great teacher and a Christian imbued by the bible. He died surrounded by his wife and a close circle of friends at his home in Warrimoo. He leaves his wife, Marie and two brothers, Bill and Brian.

Written by Associate Professor Gideon Goosen, School of Theology, Australian Catholic University

The Sydney Morning Herald wrote as follows:

Scholar promoted good Orthodox-Catholic ties
May 15, 2007

Charles Hill, 1931-2007

CHARLES HILL was one of Australia’s leading biblical and theological scholars. He specialised in the writings of the church fathers during the early Christian centuries known as the Patristic period, a time characterised by the larger-than-life figures of bishops such as Ambrose, Augustine, Basil, Gregory and others, who were multiskilled – great orators, innovative theologians and compassionate pastors.

Hill’s particular favourite was St John Chrysostom (347-407), sometimes known as “the golden mouth”, who was one of the greatest preachers of the age. The Patriarch of Constantinople, he was deposed because he was prepared to forgive sinners more than once.

Not only was he eloquent, he was also a fearless preacher, not slow to castigate heretics, the licentiousness of the imperial court and the idleness and vice of many monks in the city of Constantinople. He had many friends but also many enemies. By today’s standards, his writings would be considered anti-feminist.

Dr Hill, who has died in his home in the Blue Mountains after a short illness, aged 75, shared some of St John Chrysostom’s commitment to scholarship, teaching and faith. Nor was he a great supporter of feminism; when one of his evening students rolled up with a baby on her hip, he was not well pleased.

Robert Peter Hill was born in Auckland, New Zealand, the son of Robert James and Agnes Mary (née Sheehan) Hill. His father, a public trustee, died when his son was eight years old; his mother, of Irish Catholic background and piety, lived to be 75. He lost his only sister, Mary, at a young age.

Hill came to Australia in 1947, aged 16, completed high school and trained as a Christian Brother at Strathfield. The brothers gave him the name Charles, which stuck. He earned a BA and MA at Sydney University, where his courses included Greek – a skill he nurtured throughout his life. In the 1960s, he spent some years in Rome studying and acquiring professional qualifications such as a licence in sacred scripture (LSS) from the Biblicum and a doctorate in theology (STD) from the Angelicum.

He left the Christian Brothers in 1980 and joined the staff at the Australian Catholic University as a full-time lecturer. In 1986 he married Marie Deveridge and settled in the Blue Mountains.

Hill taught at Waverley College, in both undergraduate and postgraduate programs in the Australian Catholic University’s school of theology and in the school of divinity, Sydney University. He also spent many years in teacher education at ACU and will be especially remembered by many mature-aged teachers in Catholic schools who returned to university life and evening classes to complete a master’s qualification. He impressed students with his great scholarship, thoroughness of presentation and attention to details.

As well, Hill was involved in catechetics (religious education), particularly in the continuing training of catechists who teach in government schools. After 25 years of such involvement he was awarded the Papal Cross (Croce pro Ecclesia et Pontifice) in 2003.

He also gave regular papers at international conferences such as the International Association of Patristic Studies, helping to fly the flag of Australian scholarship on the international scene.

Hill retired from the Australian Catholic University in 1993, but spent the next 14 years translating the works of many Greek fathers into English. His workload was prodigious: he produced 27 volumes of translations, introductions and commentaries on leading church fathers. He was finally honoured last month by the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Massachusetts, with the Three Hierarchs Medal, for his “superb patristic translations” and his contributions “to global scholarship”. His writings did much to promote good Orthodox-Catholic relationships.

Hill never bore fools gladly. However, his great ability with the English language could be incisive and his highly developed sense of humour often went unnoticed when delivered with a straight face.

Personally, he was frugal in almost everything, although he enjoyed a good red wine. Bushwalking was a favourite hobby and he knew only one radio station, ABC Classic FM. He was a keen follower of rugby union – and one-time coach – and remained an avid supporter of the All Blacks, although he could not bear the emotional tension of watching them play.

Always self-effacing, Hill asked that no eulogy be given at his funeral. He died surrounded by his wife and a close circle of friends at his home in Warrimoo. He leaves Marie and two brothers, Bill and Brian.

Gideon Goosen

The Catholic Weekly wrote as follows:

Noted scripture scholar dies, 75
OBITUARY
06/05/2007

ROBERT Charles Hill died, aged 75, at his home in Warrimoo on April 11, 2007, having suffered from cancer for the last twelve months.

Charles was born and educated in Auckland. He came to Australia in 1950 to join the Christian Brothers and graduated from Sydney University with a Master of Arts. He taught at Strathfield and Waverley and worked in the field of catechetical education.

Charles was one of that unique group of men who studied at Jesu Magister in Rome where he took out his licentiate in Religious Education (Lateran) and then his licentiate in Sacred Scripture (Biblicum). Subsequently, he received his Doctorate in Theology at the Angelicum Rome.

After he left the Brothers, Charles entered on a wider apostolate of lecturing on Scripture and Theology at the Australian Catholic University, the University of Sydney (Divinity) and various catechetical groups.

He contributed articles to several biblical journals and entered on the translation and publication of the writings of the Greek Fathers on the Scriptures, particularly the works of St John Chrysostom, 27 books in all, the latest published this year on the Greek Fathers of Antioch in the fourth and fifth centuries. For his work in this field, Charles was this year awarded the Three Hierarchs Medal by the Orthodox Church. He was the first lay person and the first non-Orthodox to be given this honour.

Four years ago, Charles received the Papal Cross (pro Ecclesia et Pontifice) from Cardinal Pell for his significant involvement in catechist programs over 25 years.

Charles was buried from St Finbar’s Church, Glenbrook, where Frs John McSweeney and Max Barrett celebrated the Mass of Christian Burial in the presence of a large gathering of Brothers and parishioners. There was a short eulogy given by Gideon Goosens.

Charles is survived by his wife, Marie, his brothers, William and Brian and his nieces.

“Faithful to God’s Wisdom”, accepting with equanimity whatever his will, Charles has entered the house of the Father to receive the reward of his manifold works, illuminating the Word. RIP.

There have been many who lived and died as Robert C. Hill did.  But to make a translation of an ancient text is to benefit all of us, so long as the English language lasts, or longer, if the original perishes.  This he did.

8 thoughts on “Do we live in the age of Robert C. Hill?

  1. I must say I am a little surprised you didn’t know of Hill and his output, particularly his translations (he figured it wasn’t worth waiting for people to edit texts, may as well translate from the best which we have). But then I suppose, people forget us Antipodeans. Australia has produced some very fine patristics scholars and historians of Late Antiquity.

  2. Auckland is not part of Australia, for those who don’t actually live in thee Antipodes. And no, New Zealand is not a suburb in Antarctica either. Typical Europeans, he’s a New Zealander. He was sixteen when he went “over the ditch”, (across the Tasman see), to Aussie. I’m sure he would politely correct your innocent ignorance, if he was still alive.

  3. We Aussies know our Kiwi brothers well. He completed all his formative education in Australia and he taught at Australian Universities/institutes all his adult life. As far as I know he never lived in New Zealand again.

  4. Thank you for publishing these obituaries. One or other translation by Hill is on my desk almost daily. His studying in Rome (prob. under Dahood?) in ’60s explains the (sometimes jarring) comparison in his notes with “modern” exegesis, but that is a minor fault in his vast contribution of reliable translations.

  5. Of course the thing that made him do all those translations was his preference for ancient interpretations. If he had respected modern ones – I know nothing of these – then he might never have done the work. So I think we can live with that. People have the faults of their virtues, and the virtues of their failings.

    Let’s hope someone does the final volume of Cyril on Isaiah. I was chatting to someone this morning who has published another work of Cyril in English, and was vaguely interested.

  6. Hi IG.

    A couple of conflicting reports.

    Note the Catholic weekly says he crossed the ditch in 1950: “Charles was born and educated in Auckland. He came to Australia in 1950…” But, the Sunday Morning Herald says it 1947: “Robert Peter Hill was born in Auckland, New Zealand, […] Hill came to Australia in 1947, aged 16…” And so does the University of Sydney site: “Born in Auckland, New Zealand, he came to Australia in 1947…”

  7. Hi Edward,
    I didn’t quibble about where he was born. I noted that he was one of many fine Australian patristics scholars. Australia is where he finished school, went to uni, lived, worked, taught, married, made his home and life’s work and where he is buried. He served the church here in Australia too. Members of my family have lived here for 60 years and they don’t call themselves anything but Australian.
    But in any case, it is a lovely tribute by Roger and yes, many, many people will be indebted to him for many years.

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