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From Washington to Jerusalem: Personal Reflections on a Year to Remember

30 August 2013

About one year ago, on 31 August 2012, the Huffington Post published an article of mine. The topic was the marginalization of women in the Bible. Little did I know then that the article would alter the course of my life. The article was the standard fare, heavily anchored in the actual content of the Hebrew Bible, with some reference to the Greek New Testament as well. And within the article, I was careful to note that there were some voices in the text of the Bible that attempted to push back against patriarchy. And I also noted that patriarchy was the norm not only in the Bible, but also within the ancient Near Eastern world in general. The Bible, therefore, was largely reflecting a predominant worldview of ancient times. The article concluded by affirming that the marginalization of women was a tragically common viewpoint and practice in the ancient world and that this viewpoint and practice is not something that should be perpetuated in the modern world. That is, the recognition of the importance of gender equality is a must. It’s probably important for me to mention, in the interest of full disclosure, that the subject of gender equality is not simply an academic tenet of mine. It’s personal. I have three daughters. I would like to believe that if I had three sons, I would feel just as strongly about gender equality. I think that I would and I hope that I would. But I must admit that when I think about this subject, the first thing that comes to my mind are my three marvelous daughters, no longer little girls, but confident and educated and broad-minded young women. Gender equality is part of their bone and marrow. And it is part of mine.

The weeks prior to the appearance of my Huffington Post article had been difficult. My mother had not been feeling well during the early summer of 2012 and tests revealed that she had cancer. The physicians could not localize it. Our entire family was very concerned, as are all families when heart-wrenching news like this comes down the pike. And it was so startling. My mother had always been one of the healthiest people I know, so strong, so active, so vibrant. During my youth, she had always worked the night shift at the local hospital, tending to patients day in and day out, month in and month out. And each morning, as she returned home from the hospital, she would often stay up, rather than attempting to sleep, preferring to continue to work throughout the day. Then, after dinner in the evening, she would sleep for a few hours and then return to the hospital each night to work with patients. She did this year after year. And my father modeled the same sort of hard work and kindness to all. And so when my brother phoned to tell me that our mother had cancer it seemed surreal, entirely impossible. Not mom. And at the same time, in terms of bad news, the financial situation at Emmanuel had continued to worsen during the weeks of the summer of 2012, with the faculty being notified by email that the situation was very serious. Not a few faculty members believed that the institution might not survive. I didn’t communicate much about Emmanuel’s financial woes to our daughters, believing that the news about their grandmother was enough. And I continued my normal schedule during the summer, doing some editorial work for Maarav, writing some, and delivering papers at the University of Michigan and at Brigham Young University.

On Labor Day weekend of 2012, we traveled to Michigan. My mother’s physician had scheduled exploratory surgery for mid-September. I wanted to see my mother. We walked the Mackinac Bridge on Labor Day, as we have often done and then drove to my parents’ home. The Huffington Post article had just appeared a few days prior to this. My mother and father were pleased with the article and they were proud of me. But they had noticed that Emmanuel’s Church Historian had been castigating me on facebook for the article. They were worried about this. I told them that I would not respond to him and that they should not worry about this. But I could see that they were. Although neither of my parents had the opportunity to go to college, they have tried to read most everything I have written. This has always meant so much to me, knowing that they were interested and supportive. And I was raised in a home in which religious dogmatism was absent. My parents are Christian, as am I, but narrowness about religion was not part of their world, nor mine. They have always focused most heavily on living kindly and justly. They have been great models. Needless to say, they had a hard time understanding the Church Historian’s desire to criticize the content of the article or the venue. Well, after a few hours, we said our goodbyes on the afternoon of Labor Day, and drove back home to Tennessee, arriving early the next morning. There was much on my mind. But I have always loved to teach and so I was still looking forward to getting back into the classroom for the Fall 2012 semester at Emmanuel.

A few days later, my phone rang. I couldn’t take the call at that moment. He left a message. It was someone I didn’t know. He said that he had found a German Shorthair and my name and number were on the collar. He’s been hit by a car, the young man said. It’s pretty bad. My heart sunk. Having grown up in rural Michigan, I have always loved dogs. And I had bred a litter of pups some two years earlier, and Tristan, the young German Shorthair, was mine. And I had trained him, and he drank from my bowl and slept in my bed. He was such a winsome and wonderful dog and he had carved a niche into my heart like no other dog had. After he was trained, I gave him to one of our daughters and she loved him as much as is humanly possible. He had been with her the whole time she was going through her master’s in Occupational Therapy. There was just something about that dog, his smile, his mannerisms. But Tristan was lighting fast…I should have named him Blitz…and in a heartbeat, he had gotten into the road. We rushed him to the University of Tennessee Veterinary Hospital. He was in very bad shape, but it looked like he would pull through the surgery, never quite the same, but still, he was going to make it, the Vet said. We were relieved. The days were long.

A couple days later, Emmanuel’s president sent me an e-mail. The first line of the e-mail said “Dr. Rollston, You may be aware that there have been some serious concerns expressed as a result of your Huffington Post blog.” He requested a meeting on September 19, with Emmanuel’s Dean and Emmanuel’s New Testament Professor present. I replied by indicating that I would be able to meet and I also requested that he put any concerns in writing. I was aware, of course, that Emmanuel’s Church Historian was very disturbed by the content of the article. The Church Historian’s father had been a famous trustee at Emmanuel and so I took the e-mail from Emmanuel’s President rather seriously. But I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. A few years earlier, I had been criticized for a public lecture of mine at Emmanuel. Among other things mentioned as a criticism was the fact that I had stated in the lecture that the canonical gospels were anonymous. “Beauford Bryant” (a long-time Professor of New Testament at Emmanuel), one of the attendees declared “would roll over in his grave if he had heard someone from Emmanuel say that.” I had also suggested in the lecture, to the students who would soon be ministers and educators, that we have a religious obligation “to speak truth to power,” to be salt and light in the world. And I was critiqued for this as well, as the critic stated that I had drawn the term “speaking truth to power” from the Carey Campaign and that I was being political. Truth be told, Beauford Bryant was my teacher of New Testament and in his classes he also affirmed the anonymity of the canonical gospels. And the term “speak truth to power” was an expression I knew from the civil rights battles of the 1960s. I still have the e-mails with these sorts of criticisms, which I was given by those in power at Emmanuel, several days after the lecture. But this time, things were different, as the criticisms were coming especially from a fellow faculty member, the Church Historian, and in a very public way, social media. I was apprehensive, concerned.

On September 19th, the meeting occurred. Emmanuel’s President read me a written statement. It all seemed so formal, which is the way I think it was intended. Within his statement, the President indicated that some students had told him that my critical Introduction to the Old Testament course had created faith crises for them. My approach to courses has always been a “Bible in Context” sort of approach, and I have always used historical-critical approaches to the text, just as they had been used when I took the critical Introduction to the Old Testament under Robert Owens (during my time as an Emmanuel student). I have always believed that a sympathetic but honest approach to the Bible is best. It is the way that I had taught for a decade at Emmanuel. But as the President was reading his statement, I sensed that times had changed. And he also stated in his written statement that Emmanuel had (and this is a direct quote) “some potentially significant donors (one of whom is capable of regular gifts in the 6-figure range) who refuse to support Emmanuel because they regard your influence as detrimental to students….they will not support the school so long as you are teaching here.” Just a few weeks before this, Emmanuel’s (then) Dean had written a letter of recommendation for me for a fellowship. Within his letter he had written (and this is a direct quote), “As the Dean I am privy to the evaluations that students submit for their courses. Dr. Rollston regularly scores in the high to highest percentile in our curriculum. One of his courses is Old Testament Introduction, which is the first class that many students enroll in. As such, the class is usually our largest. Students report that this class changed their ways of thinking and dealing with the biblical text.” Within that letter, the Dean had also written that “Emmanuel is a small seminary, probably not widely known in higher education. Dr. Rollston has done more to build our reputation among other schools than any professor we have had for a number of years.” But none of this mattered now. The President continued reading his statement, he focused in heavily on my Huffington Post article. He reprimanded me for the content of the article and for writing it on a “secular website,” the Huffington Post. After finishing the reading of his statement, the President said: “You are going to have to resign or be fired.” I was quite taken aback. I did not see that coming. The President then said that on Friday (i.e., just two days later), the “Area Chairs” (Emmanuel’s faculty council) would meet to decide my fate, but the President made it clear that, regardless of the decision of the Area Chairs, he was moving forward with my termination. I had gone into that meeting with the thought that I would be told not to write for the Huffington Post again. I walked to my office quite stunned and saddened, not really knowing what to think. Emmanuel had no statement of faith which faculty were required to sign. And Emmanuel’s faculty handbook contained a strong statement on Academic Freedom, pulled verbatim from the American Association of University Professors. But, at the end of the day, none of that seemed to matter at all.

A few hours later that same day, my daughter phoned me, crying. The University of Tennessee had phoned her. Tristan, the German Shorthair, had taken a turn for the worst. We needed to go there. Before leaving for the University of Tennessee Veterinary Hospital, I went to our neighbor’s house to tell them that Tristan’s situation very bad. They have always been like family to us and I wanted them to know, so that they could phone our daughter. While in their foyer, I broke down into tears. I told them everything…about my mother’s cancer and her upcoming exploratory surgery and about the meeting that morning with Emmanuel’s President. They were tremendous, kind, supportive, as always. I left their home and drove to the University of Tennessee. We were able to see Tristan, but it was clear that the infection had begun to take over. It could not be controlled. They told us that he would need to be put to sleep. During the course of the next few hours, we said our tearful goodbyes to this precious German Shorthaired Pointer, and held him as life ebbed from his broken body. The drive home was the most somber and difficult of my life. Tristan was truly a member of the family and he was so young and now he was gone. Although I have always tried to be very open with my daughters, I did not have the heart to tell them about the meeting that morning with Emmanuel’s President. I wanted to spare them that news for as long as I could. After all, our oldest daughter was to be married in just three months, our middle daughter had just lost her beloved Tristan, and our youngest daughter was in her first semester of medical school…and on top of this, their grandmother had cancer, and was slated for exploratory surgery the next day to see if it could be localized. The surgery occurred. It was a Thursday. I was teaching an evening class at Emmanuel, Wisdom Literature. That evening, as I began to lecture, I had told the class that my mother was having surgery and that if my brother phoned me, I would need to take the call. He did phone. I took the call in the hallway. “Chris, they found the cancer. It is stage four.”

I cancelled the remainder of the class, pulled myself together and began to drive home. I have never been more discouraged, more demoralized, on so many levels, as I was at that time. As I was driving home, my phone rang. By this point, I was almost afraid to answer the phone, fearing that some more bad news was coming. I pulled off on the side of the road. On the phone was Heather Parker. She was at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, writing her dissertation. She had been a student of mine at Emmanuel. She knew that the Area Chairs would be meeting the following day to discuss the President’s ultimatum and my fate. She said, “Where can we meet you?” I replied “What? I can’t really hear you because of the road noise.” She said again, “Where can we meet you?” I said, “I’m afraid I can’t hear you very well. It sounded like you said ‘where can we meet you?’” She said, “I did say that.” Adam and I are driving into Johnson City from Baltimore and we’re almost to your house. Can we meet you there?” I was stunned. Adam Bean was also an Emmanuel alum and was at Johns Hopkins as well. Unbeknownst to me, Heather and Adam had been sitting in the Eisenhower Library at Johns Hopkins that morning and they were concerned about me. My research assistant at the time, Jack Weinbender had told Adam about the situation at Emmanuel and Heather and Adam wanted to be with me on Friday, when the Area Chairs met. So they had driven from Maryland to Tennessee to camp out in my office on Friday. Heather said, “It’s not just us. Adrienne Armes is coming over from Duke and will be here late tonight. She will be at your office tomorrow morning as well.” I don’t remember much about what we conversed about that Thursday evening at my house, but I remember that their presence was terribly consoling.

The next morning , camped out in my office were Adam, Heather, Adrienne, and my research assistant Jack. The coffee was brewing and someone had brought donuts as well. I know a lot about the events that occurred that morning in the meeting of the Area Chairs. Jason Bembry was representing the Old Testament Area (I had been the Area Chair of Old Testament for a number of years, but when Jason was promoted to full professor, he and I decided that it would be nice for him to be the Area Chair for the next term of two or three years) and he made a passionate defense of me and he was supported strongly by Samuel Kip Elolia, a senior theologian and the Area Chair for Theology at Emmanuel. Emmanuel’s Church Historian led the charge, but Jason and Kip stood firmly. Although not part of that meeting, Miriam Perkins strongly supported me as well. In fact, these three stood firmly with me through it all, even now, though everything is “water under the bridge” at this point.

As news of everything rippled through Emmanuel and Johns Hopkins, I phoned my beloved Doktorvater, Kyle McCarter. Kyle has always fulfilled the meaning of that beautiful German term….I could never ask for more from a teacher and friend. But Kyle was convinced that it was important for me to get a lawyer. Other senior scholars in the field echoed those same sentiments. Up to that point, I had never actually had a lawyer in my life. During the coming weeks, the painful saga continued. But I continued to teach my classes, putting everything I had into them, just as I had always done. And I attended and presented at the annual meetings of the American Schools of Oriental Research and the Society of Biblical Literature in November 2012. During the entire fall semester, and beyond, Emmanuel students and alums rallied around me. Ned Greene, an Emmanuel alum came and camped out in my office during his fall break at the University of Wisconsin, where he is a doctoral student now. Emmanuel alumnus Josh Covey came and spent three weeks at our house in order to help me renovate the kitchen entirely, new cupboards, new counter, new ceramic tile, new plumbing. And Jason Bembry rewired the kitchen. I felt that the house needed to be ready to go on the market. And former Emmanuel student Thom Stark wrote a methodologically sophisticated, cogent, and spirited defense of my Huffington Post article, and still other Emmanuel alums started a letter-writing campaign, with the hopes of swaying the Emmanuel Administration. And colleagues in the field sent letters to Emmanuel’s President and Dean, asking them to reverse course. And an army of bloggers took to the web to defend me, with the brilliant and indefatigable Robert Cargill leading the way. Kent Richards, the former Executive Director of the Society of Biblical Literature, provided wise counsel and encouragement. And Andrew Vaughn, the Executive Director of the American Schools of Oriental Research, wrote a letter of support for me to Emmanuel’s President and Dean. The American Association of University Professors wrote a letter to Emmanuel’s Dean and President, stating that my Huffington Post article was protected speech. And “Inside Higher Education” did an expose of Emmanuel’s actions. But the handwriting was on the wall. There was no way for me to stay, tenured though I was. My goal through it all ultimately became survival. Each day, I would tell myself that I just needed to put one foot in front of the other and to teach my courses. My research and writing basically ceased. The stress of it all was enormous.

The only thing that sustained me was the many kind and generous letters from students, former students, and colleagues around the world. To this day, I still re-read some of those letters and notes. And there were other positive developments. I think that it was sometime in October that Eric Cline contacted me. Eric and I have known each other for almost twenty years now. Eric said, “Chris, I’m going to try to get you a Visiting Professorship for the spring semester, if you are interested.” I said, “I am very interested. If you can put that together, I will happily accept.” By this point, I could see that my days at Emmanuel were very numbered. And Eric has always been a miracle worker and because of his influence and actions, George Washington University offered me a Visiting Professorship for the Spring 2013. Not long after Eric’s initial contact, Oded Lipschits contacted me to say that he thought Tel Aviv University could put together a Visiting Professorship for the Spring 2013 as well. He noted that I had much support at the University. Because Eric had contacted me first, I ended up accepting the offer from George Washington, my resignation from Emmanuel being final on December 31, 2012. To this day, and forever, I shall be grateful to Tel Aviv University and to George Washington University. I could never ask for better friends. The day that I announced publically that I would be teaching at George Washington for the Spring 2013 semester, Matthew and Sarah Wilson contacted me and said that they would like for me to stay in their guest room for the semester, such a generous act by two dear friends formerly from Emmanuel. During the spring semester at George Washington, I taught two courses, “Dead Sea Scrolls” and “Gods and Goddesses of the Ancient Near East.” It was a blissful and restorative period, with the students, faculty, and staff at George Washington being simply marvelous to work with. For that semester, I shall always be so very thankful. Thankful beyond words. And as the academic year concluded, I traveled to Jerusalem and presented a paper at the Institute for Advanced Studies of Hebrew University, making some new friends and meeting up with some old friends. Upon my return from Jerusalem, our family traveled to northern Michigan, as the Yencich Family offered the use of their cabin on a lake for a week, arranged in large part by Danny Yencich, a wonderful, bright, and generous Emmanuel alumnus…who has now moved on to do a doctorate at the University of Denver and Illiff. So, as the semester concluded, I had, and have, a deep sense of gratitude. The many acts of kindness of so very many…it was all quite overwhelming.

And during the Spring 2013 semester, I was notified that I had been selected for a National Endowment for the Humanities Research Fellowship at the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem. I am so grateful for this opportunity. As I write this, I am preparing to leave tomorrow morning. During my time there I will be conducting research for a monograph on the subject of “Royal Assassination in the Ancient Near East,” focusing on Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Hittites, and the Hebrew Bible. I have long wanted to be able to spend a substantial block of time at the Albright and so I am very much looking forward to being there, from September through January. I am also finalizing a book manuscript on the history of textual forgeries from antiquity through the present, a continuation of a subject I have been working on for some time. The preliminary title is “Forging History.” And a volume I am editing entitled “Enemies and Friends of the State: Ancient Prophecy in Context” (Eisenbrauns) will soon be going to the publisher. And, of course, my work with Maarav continues as well.

So, as I attempt to be philosophical about this past year, I suppose that I am still fortunate. Our oldest daughter walked down the aisle in December 2012, with her mother, my wife, at her side (rather than me walking her down the aisle…this was my daughter’s idea, quite fitting at so many levels) and I performed the wedding. She is an ESL Teacher in an Elementary Ed School in Nashville. We are so proud of her. Our youngest daughter is now in her second year of medical school, having survived the first year so very nicely. She will be a fine physician. Of this I am certain. And not long ago, our middle daughter found a marvelous Chesapeake Bay Retriever, a source of joy and laughter for all. This daughter is now a full-fledged Occupational Therapist in North Carolina. I am so happy for her. And, although my mother shall never again walk without assistance, her jovial attitude and passion for life continue to be her hallmarks. At this juncture, I am not entirely certain about the distant future or the place at which I will teach for the long term, but I am content, at peace. And I am in preliminary conversation with some fine institutions, so there may be reason for at least some optimism. And at this very moment, I look forward to traveling to, and living for a time in, a city which has long been dear to me. This year in Jerusalem. Yes, this year in Jerusalem.