He had begun his college education at Mars Hill College which was only a junior college at the time. He told me that he studied Greek six days a week starting at 7.30 am. After the entry of the United States into World War II, he had served in the US Navy during the whole of the war from 1941-45.
After the war's end, he received his B.A. from the University of North Carolina in 1947 and went on to receive his Master of Divinity (he completed the three year program in two years) and Doctor of Theology degrees from Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Even though he received his graduate degrees from Union, he had also studied at Columbia University having desired to learn the Assyro-Babylonian languages. He also studied for a year at the University of Basel (Switzerland) where he studied under Walter Eichrodt and the renowned Karl Barth. At Union, he had enjoyed Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich as instructors. He had also gotten to take seminars and become acquainted with the likes of James Muihlenberg, Abraham Heschel and Martin Buber. Towering giants in religious studies all.
He was offered an instructor position at Andover Newton Theological Seminary while working on his doctoral dissertation (which was over 600 pages and was a phenomenology of religion approach to understanding religion in the ancient world). All the while he continued to study at Harvard under another giant in Old Testament Studies, Robert Pfeiffer. Still he was piling on the ancient languages. He had also been one of the first students of a newly discovered language called Ugaritic which was a Canaanite dialect and would open new understanding of problem texts in the Hebrew Bible.
This was one of the first things he told me as his student: "The first duty of the scholar is to get languages." He was right, of course, because no advice ever served me better in my academic career. I remember sitting in his office as I studied Hebrew and Aramaic with him. Sometimes I would arrive at his office to find him on the phone with Samuel Terrien or Jaroslav Pelikan or Bruce Metzger. I would eavesdrop and hear him discussing the work-in-progress on the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible or something equally fascinating and awe-inspiring. While trying to appear as though my attention were elsewhere, I would browse his bookshelves and see books and facsimile pages of Hebrew, Classical Ethiopic (Ge'ez), Chaldee, Koine Greek, Syriac in addition to all the modern languages like French, German, Italian, and on and on. It was a world I wanted to enter desperately. I wanted Jeremiah to speak to me in his own language. I wanted to know what Paul was truly saying and not have to depend on a translator whom I did not know. I had heard Caesar speaking in Latin but I wanted to hear what Jesus would have sounded like in Aramaic. Professor Harrelson held the passport to that world for me.
Harrelson stayed at Andover Newton for four years until he was offered a phenomenal opportunity. He was asked to be Dean of the University of Chicago Divinity School. The same position that would later be held by the likes of Paul Tillich and Paul Ricoeur. "But," Harrelson says, "they wanted a Baptist to be dean and a professor of Old Testament and I was both. So when Chicago calls..." The amazing thing is that he was only 35 years of age. Ironically, Harrelson had applied to two graduate schools in 1947; Chicago and Union. Chicago never answered him back. Now he was the dean of the school that had ignored him and he remained there from 1955-60. In 1959, he published his book Jeremiah; Prophet to the Nations.
His scholarship was made evident immediately. In 1962 he contributed several articles to
The Interpreters' Dictionary of the Bible, a standard reference work for scholars and students. In 1964, Holt, Rinehart and Winston published Harrelson's book Interpreting the Old Testament. It was such an important work. It showed him to be a scholar so in touch with history. It wasn't just history, however, that informed his
thinking and his scholarship. Of equal importance to him were literature and the arts. The work was a cultural understanding of religion. This was what drew me to study with Walter Harrelson in the first place.
In 1967, Harrelson was offered the job of Dean of the Divinity School at Vanderbilt. He agreed as long as it did not cut into his teaching or research. It did not and as a result, his next major writing, From Fertility Cult to Worship was published in 1969
(Doubleday) in which he dealt with Israelite worship in the context of worship among the peoples surrounding Israel. Again, culture and history always supplied the context for his study of the primary target.
He served for eight years as dean until 1975. In 1975, he was granted status as Distinguished professor of Old Testament. He retained this status until his retirement from Vanderbilt in 1990.
Furthermore, he opened a dialogue between Judaism and Christianity that was important and compelling. He offered a prophetic rebuke of Christian triumphalism and created an understanding of the compatibility of the Hebrew Bible's Ten Commandments and the New Testament's Two Commandments of Loving God and Loving Neighbor. In fact, he went on to point out that the Ten are the means of implementing the Two.
I had never read anything like that! Of course, I was only 20 years old when I read it, so I hadn't really read much of anything by that time. But in August of 1981, I would enter the graduate school at Vanderbilt University and all of that would drastically change. Professor Harrelson became my adviser, even though I only had an Old Testament minor. History of Christian Thought was my major field.
I'll admit, he was also strong and determined about what it takes to make it in the academic world. And he certainly had a sense of proper procedure in scholarship and in academic process.
One of my friends (I would really love to tell you his name but I don't want to embarrass him all over again after these 30 years) had finished his coursework and was ready to begin preparation for his qualifying exams. [I should tell you that the procedure for a Ph.D was that you completed two years of coursework, followed by the successful completion of a series of qualifying exams in preparation for the submitting of a dissertation abstract and the ultimate writing, submission and acceptance of that dissertation followed by an oral defense of the dissertation.] Now usually one would take several months to prepare for those mind-numbing qualifying exams.
There we were, several of us in the refectory of the Divinity School/Graduate Department of Religion, having lunch and our friend staggers into the hall, ashen-faced and almost trembling. "What's wrong?" we all asked, almost in unison. "I...I...I just came form Harrelson's office," he began.
None of us could ever recall a bad meeting with "Uncle Walter." So, why was he so shaken?
"I went into his office," he began again,"and I told him that I would take my take my qualifying exams in October. He...he just glared at me. Then he said 'Exactly...since...WHEN...do...STUDENTS...tell their PROFESSORS...WHEN they will or will NOT... take their QUALIFYING EXAMS???'"
Everyone erupted into laughter. The procedure was that the professors would inform the student when the qualifying exam would be administered and the student simply had to be ready. After all, schedules had to be coordinated among the various faculty members and there were many other considerations. Our poor friend had also picked the worst possible day to make this blunder since Harrelson had just gotten some news about the translation going on for the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible for which he was Old Testament Committee Chair. He was not happy that day. And our friend walked into a once-in-a-century hurricane.
With all of that, however, he never stopped thinking of his beginnings and his debt to those who had shaped his thinking. He would affectionately refer to "My professor" when speaking of Muihlenberg... or whomever. But for all those great names who taught and influenced him, his highest praise and deepest gratitude went to a woman he called "Aunt Zora." She was his father's sister and she lived down the street from his family but also taught the children's Sunday School class.
She was the one who opened his eyes to what true Biblical scholarship should be. She would say, "Yes, I know that this is in the Bible, but there is something not quite right here." He credits Aunt Zora with teaching him that there are things that we do not understand in the text and so we probably need to know more about what was going on there. He would find out that there are conditioning factors in the text of the Bible. There are language considerations, there is historical conditioning, there are literary elements bound up in the text. There are reasons why The Book of Chronicles and The Book of Kings do not agree regarding the death of King Josiah. There are reasons why The Epistle to the Hebrews misrepresents what was in the Temple.
There are reasons why Ezra-Nehemiah condemns inter-marriage but Ruth welcomes the outsider.
With that kind of un-idolatrous outlook, it allows for a humorous and human understanding of what is written. In his class on The Law in the Old Testament, he commented on the law's prohibition against bestiality by saying, "Now why would they have to include such a law unless it was a problem? But for some poor shepherd boy stuck out in the fields for a month, well I guess those sheep start looking pretty good. So he had to be told not to do it!" He referred to The Song of Songs as "arousing stuff."
And that, my friends, was his whole point--the texts of the Bible have human life at the center. The Hebrew Bible never meant to answer how we got here but to describe our place among the cultures of this world. I think it was that understanding of cultures in dialogue that led to his writing Jews and Christians: A Troubled Family with Rabbi Randall Falk in 1990 and Jews and Christians in Pursuit of Social Justice also with Rabbi Falk in 1996. Both were published by Abingdon Press.
The 1990 publication of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible has been called his crowning achievement by some. He was Vice-Chair of the Translation Committee and Chair of the Old Testament Translation Committee. For me, it was his General Editorship of The New Interpreters' Bible (NRSV) in 2003 that stood at that same level of achievement because it brought together first-rate biblical scholarship and translation into one source. It was truly his doing.
Walter Harrelson retired from Vanderbilt in 1990 and was granted Professor Emeritus status. In 1995, Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina called on him to create a Divinity School for that university. He became Professor of Religion at Wake Forest and when he finished his creation of their Divinity School, they also granted him Professor Emeritus status.
He shaped generations of students and scholars from 1951 to 1990 in his teaching. His influence will continue to be felt by every student who attends Wake Forest University School of Divinity. His unprejudiced and unveiled understanding of the Bible in particular and cultures in general will continue to impress and influence everyone who reads any of his writings and translations.
For me personally, he was a leader against oppression in any of its forms; political or religious. He has resigned in protest when Vanderbilt University had unfairly dismissed an African-American student during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's. He signed a declaration by Roman Catholic and Protestant scholars in 2002 which denounced Christianity's misguided attempts at proselytizing Jews. For this, Harrelson was singled out for attack by the Southern Baptist Convention as Harrelson himself was born and raised Southern Baptist.
He has refused to bow to institutional pressure of any kind; church or university or government. At home as a researcher, translator, and cultural scholar, Professor Harrelson has no reservations about speaking in a prophetic voice. He criticizes religious leadership for failing to see the modern world as it is. For the educated clergy to hold fast to the ethics of a primitive people is "sick" as he calls them. "Sick is the only word to use because they are educated and they know better. So if they hold to these notions of fear and intolerance, then sickness must be the cause because intelligence and reason could never lead to those conclusions."
Even when he speaks so outraged and defiant, he remains a gentleman. His anger was anger against oppression. He spoke for equality and justice and compassion. His words have made him truly admired and respected. He has put his stamp on the world in which we live and in the way we can think, if we choose.
In the midst of everything that brings turmoil, he has his haven. It is his lovely wife Idella. She has always been his place of refuge. I remember a year-end dinner at Vanderbilt. I was sitting by friends and enjoying the evening. Some of the faculty entertained us with speeches or jokes or stories. The most moving moment, and one I can never forget, was when Walter Harrelson, Distinguished Professor, took up the microphone and began to sing to his wife. The song was Mud Pie Days. It was about being old but still feeling the youth they experienced together when they made mud pies as children.
When his career was finished, he returned to his home in a small town in North Carolina; like Gilgamesh returning to Uruk. The return home was not the end as he continues to build on everything he has learned and taught. Like Gilgamesh, he has seen everything and look at what he has done.
I will teach about him who experienced all things,
Anu granted him the
totality of knowledge of all.
He saw the Secret, discovered the Hidden,
He brought information of before the Flood.
He went on a distant
journey, pushing himself to exhaustion,
but then was brought to peace.
~ Gilgamesh, Tablet I ~
Professor Harrelson died on September 5, 2012, at the age of 92. His beloved Idella had already departed.
I had written the above concerning Professor Harrelson six months before he died. This article was included in the obituary section on the web site of the Society of Biblical Literature. I received a kind message from David Harrelson, the professor’s son, which read: “I didn't know half of this about my father. Thank you for your kind words.”