Celebrating John W. Rogerson



Photo credit: Vivienne Rowett


I was greatly saddened to learn of the death of Professor John W. Rogerson, who died Tuesday morning, September 4, of a heart attack in Sheffield, UK. Professor Rogerson was one of the great Old Testament scholars of his generation, as well as being an exceptional individual, loyal and devout churchman, excellent supervisor, and superb academic administrator.

John Rogerson was born in 1935 in London, was in the British armed forces where he worked in intelligence (he learned Russian during the Cold War), earned degrees from the Universities of Manchester (undergraduate and D.D.) and Oxford, and then studied in Israel with Chaim Rabin, studying both linguistics and social-scientific approaches to the Bible. He also became an Anglican priest and later canon of the Sheffield Cathedral.

John became a lecturer in Old Testament at the University of Durham in 1964 and then Professor of Old Testament and Head of Department at the University of Sheffield in 1979. At Sheffield, Rogerson was responsible for molding the Department of Biblical Studies into the premier department in biblical studies in the English-speaking world, a position it maintained from the early 1980s to the mid/late 1990s. John formally retired in 1996, although he continued to work in support of higher education, scholarship, and the church, including regular preaching at his local church.

John published in a number of different scholarly areas, to each one of which he made a distinctive contribution. He was perhaps best-known as a social anthropologist, with his first major work being a 1970 article on corporate personality—a key work in decimating the traditional Old Testament corporate personality myth of such figures as Wheeler Robinson—and then a book on myth published in 1974. What began as this relatively small volume soon turned into a flowing stream of major publications. John did not publish the largest quantity of Old Testament scholarship, but, more significantly, he produced important scholarship, something that few other scholars are able to claim to the degree that he did. His book on Anthropology and the Old Testament (1979) pushes his work in this area further. His Bible atlas (1989) is still arguably the best one that has been published, reflecting his frequent student trips to Israel as he led—literally from the front, as he was a tremendous walker with whom few could keep up (as I can attest)—an entourage of students around the land (he also knew modern Hebrew and Arabic).

John was a great student of the history of scholarship, and as a result he wrote a number of important works in this area. These include his book on Old Testament Criticism in the Nineteenth Century, focusing on both Germany and England (1984), an intellectual biography of Wilhelm de Wette in 1992 (which I edited for Sheffield Academic Press, while I was their Senior Academic Editor), and a book on the biblical criticism of F. D. Maurice and William Robertson Smith (including The Gifford Lectures of 1994). John was fluent in German and was one of the few non-German scholars able to write the work on de Wette, much of whose work has not been translated into English. I have been greatly influenced by Professor Rogerson’s desire to embody ideas in the people who hold them as living memorials.

unspecifiedI met Professor Rogerson when I went to Sheffield in 1983 to study for the PhD. He helped to orchestrate my studying jointly in both Biblical Studies and Linguistics, and then when I was left needing a supervisor in biblical studies in 1986 he assumed that responsibility. Even though he had not devoted his academic career to linguistics, he had studied linguistics with Rabin and had a fine grasp of the major issues. More importantly, as he said when welcoming me under his supervision, “I know what makes a good thesis,” and this experience ensured his excellent guidance. I looked forward to our times together when we met either in Sheffield or in Cambridge, where I went to live to finish my degree.

John carved out his own, independent path in biblical studies, not being lured into the usual and repetitious paths others followed. At Manchester, he had studied with a number of well-known scholars, including H. H. Rowley. I remember John mentioning that he had learned from Rowley what not to do in Old Testament scholarship, Rowley’s work, he thought, being weighed down far too much by footnote references to the thought of others. John’s work was known for its innovation, elegance, and economy of referencing so that only what was necessary and not more was included. At Oxford, John studied with G. R. Driver, whom he contrasted with his father S. R. Driver, being frustrated with and rejecting the younger Driver’s over-eager penchant for finding explanations of difficult linguistic matters in cognate languages at the expense of the Hebrew text. John, however, was no simple literalist. His emphasis was always upon an informed interpretation of the text, whether in his views on the early chapters of Genesis (in his Old Testament Guide to Genesis 1-11) or in his view of Old Testament ethics, drawing upon anthropology, social history, Theodor Adorno, Jürgen Habermas, or other contemporary thinkers of whom he was knowledgeable.

Relatively early in his career (1977), John co-authored with John McKay (University of Hull) a still valuable three-volume commentary on the Psalms. He told me at one point that he would not write another Old Testament commentary until the guild changed the way that it did commentaries, by which I understood him to mean it produced narrowly conceived historical-critical commentaries that gather the accumulated knowledge of the past, especially the comments of previous scholars. The guild hasn’t changed, and John didn’t write another commentary of this sort, to the shame of biblical studies and its continuing emphasis upon the pedestrian repetition (at length) of what is already known, rather than looking to new methods and approaches. I listened to what he said, and wish others had also. There is no need for new commentaries that do not attempt something substantially different from those going before them.

John wrote many other important books and articles, including several useful and successful textbooks, and he also edited a number of reference works, in which he invited some of his former students to participate, from which I benefited. One of his long-term goals was to write an Old Testament theology, which he finally published in 2009. Many were surprised that this arguably culminating work was not massive in size. I was not. John had his perspective on Old Testament theology—influenced by the question of what it means to be human, ethical concerns, and related anthropological interests—and that is what he emphasized, rather than dragging his readers through the tired thoughts of others. We can all both be thankful for his approach to scholarship and learn much from it.

In the course of his career, John earned many of the usual recognitions of a scholar of his caliber, although I don’t remember him ever talking about them. He was president of the Society for Old Testament Studies and was given several honorary doctorates in recognition of his scholarship (two of them from German universities). He was also given a Festschrift by his colleagues, entitled The Bible in Human Society (1995), a fitting title representing the juncture of his concerns. However, I will always remember him with great respect and fondness for his personable humanness. This is not because he was my co-supervisor (although I am exceptionally grateful for that), but because he modeled and exemplified so many important values not just for my career but for my vocation and my life. He was able to flourish as a person while productively balancing his scholarly, administrative, and ecclesial responsibilities, along with being an excellent teacher, friend, and guide to students.

In the passing of Professor John W. Rogerson the world of scholarship, as well as the church, has lost one of its towering giants who worked valiantly in the cause of biblical studies, and I don’t think that he will ever be replaced.

— Stanley E. Porter

3 thoughts on “Celebrating John W. Rogerson

  1. This is a lovely celebration of the man I recognise in the words: as you came, I left, having studied ‘bibs’ and learned biblical Hebrew from John over the previous 3 years.
    I remember a serious man, clearly very intelligent and uncommon breadth of academic interest and accomplishment.
    He would greet his students in the corridor by their full name, showing me the person-centred approach that I appreciated.
    The study trip to ‘Ha-arets’ was great fun, and we all learned a lot from him. One highlight was the visit to the Palestinian school where he demonstrated the difference between his view of contemporary Christian songs and those of us from Christian Union circles, suggesting ‘Count your blessings’ where we opted for something a bit more like ‘Bind us together!
    I also recall the students’ tea with the prof, at his house, where we also met Mrs Rogerson.


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