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Who Am I?


John Van Seters

I am a second generation Dutch-Canadian, one of 6 siblings. My parents were immigrants from the Netherlands. I was born in Hamilton, but I grew up in Toronto and went to Huron St. Public School in the Annex. We then moved out to Willowdale in North York and I attended Earl Haig Collegiate. I was raised in a devout Calvinistic family that was active in the Presbyterian Church. So with an interest in biblical studies, I chose a college program in Near Eastern studies at U of T that was heavily weighted in Hebrew and Greek and ancient history.

I did well enough in my 4-yr honours program at U of T that I was awarded a scholarship to Yale University for Graduate work in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. After my MA year I took a degree in theology at Princeton Seminary. During this time I married an American girl, Elizabeth, whom I had met while at Yale, and we had our first child, Peter.

         I returned to Yale and finished my doctoral studies in the fall of 1964, and between October of 64 and June of 65 I spent my time in the Middle East with my family on a research fellowship given to me by Yale University.

After graduation I took a position at WLU in a two-man Near Eastern Studies department, and spent 2 yrs teaching here. During that time Yale Univ. Press published my dissertation and it was well received. In 1967 I accepted a position in Boston at Andover-Newton Seminary as professor of Old Testament and taught there for 3 yrs. In 1970 I was offered a position at U of T in my old department of undergrad days, and I took it. I had 7 great years there.

I published my second book, which gained some notoriety, such that I was offered an endowed chair in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and I accepted. I was there for the next 23 years, until my retirement in 2000. Ten of those years I spent as chairman of the department.  

During my years there, I published 5 more books, one of them winning two national book awards. I received a number of research fellowships, which enabled me to spend a year as visiting fellow at Oxford, a year in Cambridge, and half a year in Leuven, Belgium. This gave my wife and I a lot of time to travel about the UK and Europe.

I also visited and gave public lectures at many of the major universities throughout the UK, Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia. The result of these experiences is that we have a very wide circle of friends throughout the UK and Europe.

         Shortly after I moved to Chapel Hill, I joined up with a former colleague from U of T and his archaeological expedition, as associate director, at a site in North Eastern Egypt in 1978 and 1981. It was both a very productive expedition and a fascinating experience. When I retired in 2000, we returned to Canada and chose to live in Waterloo. During this period I have tried to remain active in my field and have published 3 more books.

         By now you will have guessed that I am an academic. But let me pick out one period from my career that was quite decisive in shaping who I am today. I said earlier that after I finished my doctoral dissertation, I spent 7 months, from October to May, in the Middle East, the homeland of the ancient civilizations that I had been studying. I booked passage on a Dutch freighter from New York to Beirut, with my wife and our 3 yr old son. From Beirut we set out by overland taxi, travelling by way of Damascus and Amman, Jordan, to East Jerusalem. This was 1964, before the ‘67 war so all of the West Bank was part of the Kingdom of Jordan. Jerusalem was divided, with the old city under Jordan’s control.

         We lived in Jerusalem at the American School of Archaeological Research with a number of other scholars and their families. From this location we could make field trips without any hindrance all over the West Bank and Jordan, either by vehicles at the school, or the 3 of us could go on our own by local bus, to Hebron or Jericho, whenever we liked.

I also had the use of the finest research facilities in my field at the Dominican Ecole Biblique. The other families connected with the School had children Peter’s age and the little boys with their mothers loved to go down to the Old City and explore the Suq.



  In January my wife, son and I made a trip to sunny Egypt. In addition to seeing the sites, such as the pyramids, the Cairo zoo, the museum, etc., I spent several days doing research in the Delta region north of Cairo, travelling to archaeological sites which had been important to me in my doctoral work.

This was the time of Ramadan, which meant that you could buy little to eat during the day. But I remembered that one of the passengers on the ship across the Atlantic, a medical doctor, was from this region and so I called him up. He invited me to his place after sun-down and laid out a feast.

         When I got back to Cairo, I visited with some Egyptian scholars, who shared my academic interests. My wife and I also contacted another Egyptian family that we had met on our voyage across the Atlantic and had a great time with them.

Even though Nasser was the president of Egypt, and politically at loggerheads with the West, the hospitality that we received there from so many new Egyptian friends, most of them Moslem, was quite overwhelming. 

 After returning to East Jerusalem, I was involved in an archaeological dig with the U of Penn expedition in the Jordan valley for 8 weeks. After a few weeks following the dig and other adventures (including a trip to Petra with my wife and another couple, in which we had the whole place virtually to ourselves), we left East Jerusalem in mid-May and crossed over into Israel.

We did some touring around Israel with friends, then took a flight from Israel to Athens and did a wonderful bus tour of Greece. Then we flew from Athens to Rome. There were met up with a couple of priests who were friends of some scholars at the American School, and they gave us a marvellous tour of Rome. Then we went by train from Rome to Lausanne and Basel, and then on to the Netherlands where we made the rounds of a number of my uncles and aunts. From there we crossed the North Sea to London and the British museum. Finally we flew home, by way of Iceland, to New York. We were now broke. We had spent the enormous sum of $5,000 for those 7 months abroad.

         That year was a transformation. My Yale professors knew what such an experience would do for me. They gave me the chance with some funds and more or less said, “OK let’s see what you can do with it.” All the planning, all the trips and arrangements my wife and I had to make ourselves: how to get there, where to live or stay, what to do, whom to meet. And we did. The result was a tremendous wealth of experiences and a completely new understanding of the world that shaped the rest of my life. 

 That is who I am.

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