The Death of Norman R. Petersen, Jr.

To the Williams community,

I write to honor the memory of Norman R. Petersen, Jr., Washington Gladden Professor of Religion, Emeritus, who passed away on March 26 at the age of 90.

Born in Chicago in 1933, Norman lived in several places as a child (when asked to name his hometown for his Williams faculty bio, his answer was: “too many”). He served in the U.S. Army from 1952 to 1954, attaining the rank of sergeant before returning to his studies. An admirer of the New York School of Abstract Expressionism, he then earned a B.F.A. in painting and graphic arts from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. He was also fascinated by religion, literature and history. So it was back to school once more, first at Boston University’s School of Theology and then at Harvard’s Divinity School, where he earned a second Bachelor’s degree, this one in sacred theology, and a Ph.D. in New Testament and Christian Origins, with a dissertation entitled, “The Literary Problematic of the Apocryphon of John.”

The thesis marked Norman’s scholarly interest in the historical and literary evolution of theological texts. He taught in related areas at Wellesley College for six years, and then moved to Williams in 1969, quickly establishing himself as a deeply thoughtful scholar and instructor.

Norman’s research looked at the New Testament from a literary perspective. His publications on the subject included, Literary Criticism for New Testament Critics, The Gospel of John and the Sociology of Light: Language and Characterization in the Fourth Gospel and Rediscovering Paul: Philemon and the Sociology of Paul’s Narrative World. Rediscovering Paul was honored with the American Academy of Religion’s award for excellence in analytical-descriptive studies and the Biblical Archaeology Society’s award for best scholarly book on the New Testament and early Christian history.

In his introduction to that work, Norman described his motivation for writing the book, in terms that capture the spirit of his scholarship more generally:

I wanted to find a social being named Paul whom I had lost behind the veils of theological criticism and comparative studies. For me the former had reduced Paul to an itinerant if not an armchair church intellectual, and the latter had dissolved his image into a kaleidoscope of “parallels.”

At a time when the literature in New Testament studies was largely divided between sociological analysis and literary criticism, a prominent reviewer of Norman’s work (PDF) described him as “almost alone in having made himself thoroughly at home in both camps” and called his interdisciplinary mastery of the primary and secondary literatures “remarkable.”

Meanwhile, Norman consulted for the MacMillan publishing house on their book acquisitions in Biblical studies. He was also deeply involved in the Society for Biblical Literature as a member of their Research and Publication Committee and the editorial board for their Journal of Biblical Literature, and as co-founder and associate editor of SEMEIA, the Society’s experimental journal in Biblical studies, published from 1974 until 2002.

In the classroom, meanwhile, Norman was earning the devotion of his students in insightful, far-ranging courses including The Jewish Bible, The Many Forms of Jesus, Jesus and the Gospel Tradition and Issues in the Study of Religion. He gave a popular faculty lecture titled “Biblical Criticism as Literary Criticism,” and in 1979 taught an NEH-funded seminar, “The Bible as Literature,” at Indiana University. He also served several terms as acting chair of the Departments of Religion and of Anthropology, and later as chair of Religion.

In 1979 Williams honored Norman’s contributions with the Washington Gladden Professorship of Religion, a position he held into his emeritus years. As some of you will know, in addition to authoring our alma mater, “The Mountains,” Washington Gladden, Class of 1859, was renowned as the father of the social gospel, a progressive religious and social movement devoted to addressing poverty, suffering and injustice.

Off campus, Norman served as an elected member and, later, chair of the Mount Greylock Regional High School Committee during the early 1980s.

Following his retirement in 1996, Norman returned to painting. In his artist’s statement he cited the influence of renowned forebears, Philip Guston and Franz Klein. Like Guston and Klein, he eschewed use of the term “abstract expressionism” to describe his style, which he said was “neither abstract nor expressionist.” “Rather,” he said, “the images that appear on the canvas are the result of an ongoing dialogue that entails the constant rotation of the canvas after each stroke or passage.” He regularly exhibited his work in galleries across New England and in nationwide, juried shows. He was also a lover of opera and of nature, and counted Big Bend National Park in Texas among his favorite hiking spots.

Norman Petersen, Jr., is survived by his wife of 68 years Antoinette (Toni) DeRosa Petersen and children Kristen; Mark (Louisa); and Jobi Cates (Tom Cates), as well as grandchildren Shayna Farmelant; Andrew, Owen and Walt Petersen; Soren Dorr and Rowen Cates. He is also survived by his brother Richard (Donna) and niece AnneMarie.

The family’s obituary invites donations in Norman’s memory to Arbor Acres, Winston-Salem, NC, where he and Toni lived and were cared for in their retirement. A private family service will be held at a later date.

Our thoughts go out to Norman’s loved ones, friends and former colleagues.