Remembering and Honoring Norman K. Gottwald


Published 15 March 2022

Norman Gottwald reads from the Song of Deborah, May 2021

CLBSJ is so very sorry to share that pioneering Hebrew Bible scholar and CLBSJ co-founder Norman Gottwald passed away on Friday, March 11, 2022. A Baptist minister, husband and father, Norman is best known for applying socio-historical methods to unpack the class context of the emergence of ancient Israel. He has been deeply involved in anti-war and social justice organizing since the 1960s. His persistent, proactive efforts to make biblical scholarship relevant for social justice organizing, and vice versa, forms the visionary substrate for CLBSJ.

Image: Norman Gottwald reads from the Song of Deborah during his scholar-activist encounter with Rabbi Michael Feinberg, May 2021.

Our deepest condolences go out to Laura and his whole family. A remotely accessible memorial service will be held on August 6, 2022 — details will be made available soon.

Norman was a friend, mentor and inspiration to so many. If Norman touched your life, we invite you to send a tribute to clbsjorg@gmail.com. We will compile and publish these tributes here as we receive them. We will also use this page to gather audio-visual archives of Norman’s scholarship and teaching (scroll down). If you have any to share, please send these as well!

We also invite you to help us carry forward the vision that Norman sparked by donating to the Norman Gottwald Memorial Fund. For details visit clbsj.org/donate.

Obituary

Rev. Dr. Norman Karol Gottwald, renowned pioneer in the use of the social-scientific method in biblical studies, passed away peacefully at his home surrounded by his family on March 11, 2022. He was 95.

Dr. Gottwald was an original thinker and pioneer in applying cutting edge socio-historical and anthropological tools to better understand the Hebrew Bible. He taught, traveled, lectured and wrote prolifically over six decades, producing multiple scholarly works that were groundbreaking in their approach to biblical interpretation. His most significant work, The Tribes of Yahweh: A Sociology of the Religion of Liberated Israel, 1250-1050 B.C.E. (1979), explores the class dynamics at the root of ancient Israel’s emergence.

Dr. Gottwald was born in 1926 to Norman and Carol Gottwald in Chicago, Illinois. He spent his childhood in Chicago, then moved to Ontario, California, where he graduated high school. He then attended Eastern Baptist Seminary in Philadelphia where he met and married a fellow student, Barbara Wright. He went on to receive an A.B. from Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1949, an M.Div. from Union Theological Seminary in 1951, and a Ph.D. in biblical literature from Columbia University in 1953.

Dr. Gottwald served in ministry at the First Baptist Church in Englewood, New Jersey, from 1952–53, then began his teaching career at Columbia University from 1953–1955. He then moved to Newton Center, Massachusetts, where he taught at Andover Newton Theological School for a decade. During this time he and Barbara had two daughters, Sharon and Lise. In 1966 they moved to Berkeley, California, for a joint appointment with Berkeley Baptist Divinity School (now Berkeley School of Theology) and Graduate Theological Union, where he taught until 1973 and 1982, respectively. He then returned to New York City to teach at New York Theological Seminary from 1980 to 1994, where he met and married his second wife, Laura Lagerquist.

Dr. Gottwald served as President of the Society of Biblical Literature in 1992. In 1996 he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters degree by the University of Sheffield in England. He served on the editorial boards of Biblical Interpretation and Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies and Radical Religion. He lectured widely in England, Switzerland, Israel, South Africa, New Zealand, Korea, Colombia, Chile, and Brazil as well as throughout Canada and the United States, on the relevance of biblical society, economics, and ethics for contemporary life. As South Africa was emerging from apartheid, he was visiting professor at the University of Cape Town.

“Gottwald almost single-handedly established social-scientific research on the Bible as a viable and promising enterprise,” Roland Boer wrote in 2011, and (re)discovered ways that “prophetic and Marxist critiques overlapped with one another.” “The various phases of his scholarship are inseparable from his experiences of activism of more than half a century,” he added; “his political commitments and activism informed his scholarship and vice versa.”

An epoch-changing thinker, Norman was also a democratic scholar and populist who made his material, both published and unpublished, available to students and non-academics. A movement-builder and a mentor, he sought out conversation with colleagues around the world, collaborated on numerous projects, lent support to aspiring scholars, and generously helped many younger writers get published. He often taught continuing education classes for clergy and laity, as well as at non-traditional spaces such as the Word & World Peoples’ School. He was a frequent guest preacher in many pulpits, including his beloved home congregation, the First Baptist Church of Berkeley.

In 2008, Gottwald began meeting in the San Francisco Bay area with two former colleagues in biblical studies—the late John H. Elliott (University of San Francisco), Herman Waetjen (San Francisco Theological Seminary)—and other supporters to investigate donating their respective libraries to establish a popular library for faith-based people in social movements. He was proud to help establish in 2011 the Center and Library for the Bible and Social Justice (clbsj.org) in Stony Point, NY. Gottwald promoted CLBSJ’s vision to connect biblical scholars and social justice activists through a research library and educational programs, and to develop an empowering use of the Bible for enacting social justice today. He and Laura volunteered and resided at Stony Point Center for several years as members of a multifaith experiment called the Community of Living Traditions.

Dr. Gottwald was known for his intellectual curiosity and sharp mind. His heart for justice led him to encourage, embrace, and support people from all segments of society with a special interest in the marginalized, and he was in his later years a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. He considered his greatest accomplishments to be raising his daughters and his contributions to the understanding and study of the Bible as a tool for social justice.

Dr. Gottwald is survived by his wife of thirty three years, Laura, his daughters Lise Teilmann (Gary), Sharon Pillsbury (Roger), seven grandchildren and six great grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held on August 6, 2022 in Berkeley, CA. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the Norman Gottwald Memorial Fund at the Center and Library for the Bible and Social Justice; see details at clbsj.org/donate.

Sharon Pillsbury, Laura Gottwald, Amy Dalton, Ched Myers and Nicholas Johnson contributed to this obituary.

Published Remembrances:

Tributes:

From Laurel Dykstra:

Norman Gottwald was a brilliant man with a powerful love of justice who lived a long life. I am incredibly grateful for the way that his biblical scholarship changed the way that I and many of us read Hebrew Scriptures, but I am equally grateful for the glimpses of the real person that I got to experience through Word and World Schools and the Center and Library for the Bible and Social Justice: Norm and colleagues learning to navigate reply all on emails. Norm walking students through the book-packed guest room that was his home library, gesturing to a wall of shelves and shrugging, “these shelves are my publications.” Norm showing off Laura’s quilts. Feminist colleagues (of various ideologies) challenging my selections our Top 100 Books on the Bible and Justice list, when they were in fact Norm’s. An earnest and unasked-for explanation of how the tall masked man caught on film flipping a (police?) car during the Berkeley Free Speech Movement actions could not have been him. Norm’s giraffe-like pirouette from the chorus of a liturgical dance interpretation of the woman who anointed Jesus. Norm compiling a list of prophets who resist modern empires. Safe home Norm, may you rest in peace and rise in power.

From Ludwig Beethoven J. Noya:

Encountering Prof. Gottwald’s work on social class in my intro class to Hebrew Bible is like finding a treasure. Prof. Gottwald provided me with a language to a concept that I’ve been suspicious of for a long time but have no language to express or talk about. Indeed, the social class analysis in the Hebrew Bible could not be separated from Prof. Gottwald’s name.

Since December, I have collaborated with Prof. Matthew Coomber in planning a panel to commemorate Prof. Gottwald’s 30 years of Presidential Class at the upcoming Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in Denver, CO. Several respected scholars have been invited and have confirmed their participation, with the hope of Prof. Gottwald’s presence as well. The panelists are looking forward to the panel to celebrate a scholar whose work and kind personality have been an inspiration.

The panel, however, will certainly be different without Prof. Gottwald’s presence. But I believe his ethos, courage, and a strong commitment to social justice will surely present. May his memory be a blessing.

From Marian Ronan:

I enrolled at New York Theological Seminary in 1984. The co-author of one of my books, Hal Taussig, told me explicitly to go there to study with Norman. I did four or five four-credit courses with him and it deeply influenced my thinking. When I began my doctoral studies in Religion at Temple in 1992, my future dissertation advisor, Laura Levitt, after reading several of my papers, came up to me and said, “Where did you learn all this stuff?!” I responded, “From Norman, of course.” Thank you, Norman, from me and from all who were shaped by your amazing scholarship. Marian Ronan Research Professor of Catholic Studies New York Theological Seminary

From Van Kalbach:

I wanted to write as one who knew Norman during the year he taught at Bryn Mawr College outside Philadelphia. I was touched by Norman’s friendship and genuineness. A couple years ago I exchanged a letter with Norman and, unsurprisingly, even after such a long time, he was interested and kind. I remember him and value my having known him. Van Kalbach Malvern, PA

From Gale Yee:

I was very saddened when I heard the news that Norman Gottwald passed away on March 11th. Norm’s outstanding and provocative work in the social sciences and the Hebrew Bible was very informative and influential for my own research. I remember fondly when he, Roland Boer, Erin Runions, Dick Horsley, and I made a road trip from Cambridge, MA to a college in Eastern Mass for a conference on Marxist interpretation of the bible. He graciously wrote a nice blurb for my book Poor Banished Children of Eve: Woman as Evil in the Hebrew Bible. I invited me to contribute my library to the Library for Bible and Social Justice, when I am ready to part with it. Norm’s work will continue to be a lasting influence on my own writing. May he rest in peace with the ancestors. Gale A. Yee, Ph.D., D.D. (hon) Nancy W. King Professor of Biblical Studies emerita Episcopal Divinity School 余蓮秀 勇 勇

From Wes Howard-Brook:

Without the groundbreaking work of Norman Gottwald,the Bible might well have remained imprisoned much longer within imperial modes of interpretation. But Norman’s bold, courageous, intelligent and passionate foray into the connections between biblical texts and real social, political and economic struggles of the marginalized for dignity and justice opened up a path for many of us to journey upon. I can certainly testify that without his work, I might still be a government attorney, rather than what I am today. Thanks be to God for the life and work of St. Norman!

From Dick Hasbany:

I knew Norman to be a kind and encouraging friend who supported the work of establishing the CLBSJ in the most concrete, hands-on ways. His respect and encouragement were expressions of how he worked in the world. His passing is a great loss. My love to Laura, and thanks to Amy for her devotion to CLBSJ and the mission that was so important to Norm.

From R. Douglas Bendall:

My first acquaintance with Norman was when I took the O.T. class at E.T.S.S.W. Seminary in Austin. We used Norman’s text A Light to the Nations as the main textbook. There was another well-known text suggested as well. However, class members recognized Norman’s text to be far better than the alternative and asked that Norman’s be the only one used. The request was accepted.

I still remember reading the preface to Norman’s book. He spoke of the fact that however one reads the O.T., it is “profoundly conceived”. That core idea has remained in my mind ever since.

Following my disastrous first year of parish ministry, when I came to experience the institutional Church as very different from what I expected, I made the decision to return to graduate school to rethink my faith and commitment to the Church. When I learned that Norman was at the GTU, I decided to study in Berkeley. At the time, Dr. John Knox was my mentor. I visited John at his home and spoke with him about my choice of graduate schools. I told John I wanted to study with Norman, but my area of specialization was to be Process Theology. My issue was that I had no idea if the GTU had a Process theologian. John said (I can still hear his voice), “Why don’t you just go to Berkeley; you will find someone there.” I took John’s advice and learned when I arrived with my family that Bernie Loomer, who is credited with naming the field of Process Theology, was there.

Among my first classes was a seminar with Norman who had just returned from a year in Israel to do research on what became The Tribes of Yahweh. Thus, I was in the first class that was blessed to hear Norman’s ideas on the origins of Ancient Israel. During the course of the semester, I noticed that Norman was using his research notes as the basis for his lectures.

As you may recall, Norman was quite politically engaged in political protests in Berkeley at the time. I became involved also. Norman came up with the idea of creating a news publication on political activism in Berkeley. He suggested naming it “The Threefold Cord” from a text in Proverbs. We offered [for free] copies of occasional issues for a few years to students and anyone else who was interested in what we had to say. I recall making the suggestion that theological education needs to be re-conceived. Norman agreed and together we formed the Alternative Seminary Caucus at the GTU and invited seminary and graduate students to join us. Charles McCoy at PSR also joined us as a valued member of the faculty and our organization. We worked on this project for 3 or 4 years. My special role was to develop the curriculum for the new alternative seminary we envisioned.

After receiving my doctorate at the GTU, I carried the vision of the Alternative Seminary in my mind from 1977 to 1995 when the Lord called me to “begin the school.” I was called to found The Newark School of Theology in Newark, NJ. Norman gave the main inaugural address at its opening convocation in September 1997.

Over the years Norman was a teacher, “fellow traveler”, mentor, colleague, and friend. He has played a most important role in the course of my life. But, of course, more than anything Norman has played a leading role in the recovery of the political significance of Ancient Israel for the development of a Global Civilization.

I remember how it was that Norman lost his tenured position at the Berkeley Baptist Seminary because of his ‘controversial’ theology and political activism. Norman paid dearly for his commitment both to scholarly integrity and his politics. Fortunately, he found a good home and academic position at NYTS.

Norman has been my model for intellectual and scholarly integrity for my whole career as a teacher, inner-city minister, and theological educator. He was one of the best thinkers I have ever known. Among his many gifts, I value most his gifts as a historian. I know of no one, apart from Dr. John Knox, who equals Norman in the quality of his historical scholarship.

Above all, Norman was a good friend. But he was also my leading example of a person of courage and integrity. I shall always remember him and honor his memory. The world is the better for his life, his work, and his example of a life well-lived.

Amy said in her announcement that she visited Norman and Laura in Berkeley shortly before Norman’s passing. She mentioned that Norman was planning to write a book on the prophets. It seems to me–and I believe–Norman has by his life, courage, and love entered into Eternal Life with Christ. I imagine him conversing with the Hebrew prophets whom he studied and wrote about in his lifetime in this world.

From Ched Myers:

It is well established, and richly reflected in the tributes on this page, that few biblical scholars have had Norman Gottwald’s impact. He both inspired and supported people and social movements around the world to reread sacred texts through the lens of justice. More than any other single work, his epoch-turning 1979 study of the origins of Israel as a tribal confederacy dragged the field of biblical studies into the already vibrant world of liberation and political theology, while also helping secure the ascendancy of both literary and sociological approaches in the field. His academic publications were legion, his reach broad.

Less recognized, however, is the way in which Norm’s life and work modeled a truly populist scholarship. If his prose was dense and rich, his demeanor was hospitable and his teaching style radically democratic and curious. He also went out of his way to befriend and mentor younger colleagues, a gift that changed the course of my life. I never had the pleasure of being a student of Norm’s, though as an undergraduate at U.C. Berkeley I crashed some lectures he was giving at the GTU (not only did he welcome rather than scolding us for sneaking in; I was astonished at how freely Norm shared unpublished drafts of his work with whoever asked). Here, I thought, was a true “movement” scholar. His professional migration to NYTS further confirmed his commitment to work with change agents as well as academia.

In 1985 I sent Norm a manuscript of my attempt to adopt his socio-literary approach in a commentary on Mark’s gospel. He had no reason to take the time and effort to skim, much less read through carefully, this tome from an unknown 30 year old uninterested in doctoral work. Yet he did, and warmly invited me to come discuss it with him in New York. Sitting with him was a turning point in my life as a non-traditional scholar; not only did he “see” me, but took it upon himself to advocate for its publication with Orbis Books. Binding the Strong Man simply would not have been published without his support.

After his retirement I was delighted that Norm took keen interest in our Word & World People’s School experiment, and he taught and participated robustly at several of our week-long gatherings—surely a labor of love! It is now legendary among those who were with us in Rochester, NY in 2004 how then-78 year old Norman not only took a class in body prayer and liturgical dance, but performed at the closing worship with the group (all women).

Norman had originally offered his library to Word & World, which I had to turn down, as we didn’t even have an office! But this began discussions which grew into the collaborative raising of the CLBSJ. It has been truly a blessing to see this dear elder realize his dream of a “peoples’ library.” Elaine and I enjoyed many social times with Laura and Norman, as well as visits to their little Baptist congregation in Berkeley. We thought it courageous of them to move to Stony Point to be scholars in residence with CLBSJ, and I trust members of the Community of Living Traditions will share stories of their robust participation.

The world has lost a scholarly giant; but many of us are also mourning the departure of a beloved friend. May he be dancing with angels. ¡Presente!

From Amy L. Dalton:

I was blessed to be able to visit with Norman a few weeks before he passed. He was vigorous and articulate as ever, holding my hand with a firm grip and sharing with me for a half hour straight a detailed outline of the writing project he was working on – a socio-historical unpacking of the person and political context behind each of the prophetic books. Rather than seeing the prophets only as the recipients of divine intercession, Norman was interested in who they were as leaders and change-makers in their contexts. He felt this sort of nuanced treatment could help us today to clarify how we can be part of continuing the prophetic tradition. I came away from the conversation energized and enthused, my mind filled with thoughts about the implications of his thinking. I had so hoped that he would rally and stay with us for a little longer, long enough at least to push these ideas out!

Although I have had many meaningful interactions with Norman through CLBSJ, the context that allowed us to really get to know each other was an experimental multifaith intentional community called the Community of Living Traditions (CLT), which was also in residence at Stony Point Center for most of the last decade. Norman and Laura joined CLT and moved to Stony Point to be residential members around 2017. I was blessed to have them as my “upstairs neighbors” for four years. As anyone who has done so can attest, joining an intentional community requires a great deal of invisible work including the generation of deep humility on an almost daily basis. I was witness to Norman doing that sort of relational work again and again. Like all of us, Norman sometimes succeeded and sometimes failed at finding his way to deep humility, and I think he would want us to remember his full self, warts and all! But he stayed the course, never wavering in his commitment to the community, even when it was under extreme duress. Through it all, Norman was a thoughtful and determined member, always looking to connect the way we were building CLBSJ to CLT’s mission of creating healthy space for deep understanding across faith traditions. Two memories of his efforts on this front stand out for me: one, when he culled CLBSJ’s collection for relevant titles to resource the study that CLT was doing on Palestine-Israel, and two when he initiated a scholar-activist encounter with fellow community member Sphynx Eben on the ways that anti-colonial diaspora organizing today can learn from and inform our understanding of the biblical narrative.

Norman also spent time sharing with our community about how being a Hebrew Bible scholar and a socialist had shaped his sense of identity as a Christian. He sometimes referred to himself as a “Jewish Christian,” and stated on more than one occasion that if he had not gained the appreciation for the class-struggle origins of the Jewish people that his studies had afforded him, he probably would not have been able to continue to be a Christian. He saw the origins and history of the Jewish people as having world-historical significance, and saw the lessons they navigated as a diverse empire-critical movement as directly relevant to the organizing work going on today. CLBSJ’s September 2018 Seminal Books discussion and our May 2021 Scholar-Activist Encounter (co-sponsored by the Democratic Socialists of America Religion and Socialism Working Group) both draw out these themes.

Norman was deeply troubled by the rise of fundamentalist Christian nationalism, and the explicit antisemitism and racism that are its component parts. He was constantly pushing CLBSJ to undertake rigorous and disciplined work to expose and counter its theological and exegetical deficits. He felt a deep and strong sense of duty to be proactive on this front. CLBSJ’s Lenten Bible Detox Series was animated in part by Norman’s vision for making space to push back against right wing use of the Bible to promote racism, militarism and authoritarianism, and he led our second detox session in 2021 with a study on Deuteronomy 15.

I am continually grateful, humbled and inspired to all the work, ideas and passion that Norman bequeathed to CLBSJ. He once described CLBSJ as a “think tank” to empower creative and participatory work to reclaim the Bible, a vision that I resonate with and take as a challenge. My prayer is that his passing helps to galvanize interest in and commitment to this vision.

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