During Carol Newsom‘s 39-year career at Candler, she has received honorary doctorates, prestigious research fellowships, and teaching awards. She’s written or edited 15 books and scores of articles, book chapters, translations, encyclopedia articles and reviews. She’s made history as the second woman to hold a tenure-track position at the institution, and as the first female faculty member appointed to a chaired professorship.
Despite this remarkable career, Newsom, who retires this year, still thinks of her vocation in simpler terms: as that of a biblical matchmaker. “I have these students, and I know these great texts, and I am positive that they will fall in love with each other if I introduce them,” says Newsom, the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Old Testament.
Newsom says that watching students fall in love and make connections with the texts is “what makes teaching worthwhile.” As an example, she recounts the time a student told her she’d built a sermon around Haggai 2:1-9, which Newsom admits is not the most common sermon material. “The text itself is about the rebuilding of the Second Temple after the exile, a building that looked rather shabby compared with Solomon’s temple,” says Newsom. “But Haggai insists that even that modest structure may be the place where splendor unexpectedly breaks in. My student was serving as a pastor in an assisted living facility where people had finished their careers, lost some of their vigor and health, and oftentimes their spouses. The life they were looking at often seemed ‘like nothing’ compared to what had been. With this text she showed her congregation how to be open to the possibility that any situation might be the site of transformative joy and the inbreaking of unexpected splendor.”
Amy Chatelaine 20T says Newsom’s teaching style fosters students’ abilities to make meaningful connections with the text. “Up to the final course of her teaching career, Dr. Newsom approached biblical studies with the same inextinguishable sense of wonder, curiosity, and delight as one who was encountering the material for the first time. Her enthusiasm is contagious, and opens her learning partners to anticipate new revelations from both the biblical texts and people we assume we have ‘figured out.'”
Though Newsom maintains the kind of enthusiasm that suggests she’s encountering these sacred texts for the first time, she is, in fact, an expert who has been recognized numerous times for her scholarship. In 2009, she was elected president of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), the world’s largest organization of biblical scholars. She has been an honorary member of Great Britain’s Society for Old Testament Study since 2013. She has received honorary doctorates from Virginia Theological Seminary, the University of Copenhagen, and Birmingham-Southern College. In 2016, she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS), one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious honorary societies and a leading center for independent policy research. Her research fellowships include grants from the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Henry Luce Foundation. Along with her teaching at Candler, Newsom is a senior fellow at Emory’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion and from 2012 to 2014, she served as director of Emory’s Graduate Division of Religion.
Newsom has published extensively, with 76 articles and book chapters, and dozens upon dozens of reference works. She has written 10 books and edited five, including her work as co-editor of the acclaimed Women’s Bible Commentary, now in its third edition, which explores the implications of and challenges long-held assumptions about the Bible’s portrayal of women and other marginalized groups. Her research focuses on the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Wisdom tradition, the book of Daniel, apocalyptic literature, and theology and the environment. She has served on a dozen editorial boards. Joel LeMon, associate professor of Old Testament, calls her “the most consequential scholar of her generation.”
Despite her impressive status as a celebrated scholar, Newsom is just as devoted to her students, as evidenced by honors including the 1998 “On Eagle’s Wings” Teaching Award selected by the Candler graduating class, and the 2009 Emory Williams Distinguished Teaching Award, Emory University’s highest award for teaching.
LeMon says that Newsom’s students often offer the same praise of her: “They say that Carol made them feel that she had all the time in the world for them. Her commitment to each conversation reinforced the value of who they are and what they thought.”
Evan Bassett 24G, who served as Newsom’s research assistant, confirms this sentiment: “To me, one of Carol’s most impressive qualities is her ability to listen well. Carol listens to her students with undivided attention and unwavering curiosity, as if we might say something worth hearing. And indeed, that is the effect: when you have Carol’s attention, it makes you want to say something worth saying. Her voice of wisdom has been a great gift to the Emory community, but as her student, her listening ear has taught me just as much.”
Newsom applies that same skill when working with colleagues. “Over the past 17 years that Carol has been in my life, I’ve been struck by her steadfast commitment to those around her,” says LeMon. “Having her read and respond to your work is to feel the full range of emotions. You know you are in the presence of a person who has extraordinary skills of perception. Like the prophets of old, she is able to see what others cannot see. She can read the world through a unique lens, she is able to observe phenomena and find the hidden structure therein. She is critical and kind, someone who loves you and your ideas, and wants to make you a better thinker.”
Newsom’s former students, many of them now respected scholar/teachers in their own right, have honored her with not one, but two, “Festschrifts”—works published in recognition of a leading academic. The first, published in 2015, is After Exegesis: Feminist Biblical Theology, a book of essays co-edited by former students Patricia K. Tull 96G, A.B. Rhodes Professor Emerita of Old Testament at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary, and Jacqueline E. Lapsley 99G, associate professor of Old Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary. The second is a Festschrift issue of the Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, co-edited by former students Robert Williamson 11G, Brennan Breed 12G, and Davis Hankins 11G. Titled “Writing the Moral Self” (vol. 40:1, September, 2015), the issue responds to Newsom’s 2011 Society of Biblical Literature presidential address on “Models of the Moral Self: Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Judaism.”
While Newsom says it’s hard to pick a favorite moment from her Candler career, she does have a special affection for Cannon Chapel, which she describes as both a “challenging” and an “awe-inspiring” space. “I have always liked the fact that it is a space that only fully comes alive when it is filled with people. When the congregation is there and you look up from the floor, you see people’s heads and shoulders—and they look just like the medieval paintings of the ranks of angels in the heavenly choir.”
She also appreciates the chapel’s hospitality to other faiths, an intentional choice that she was a part of making. She was on the original faculty committee that had to decide whether the cross inside the sanctuary was to be fixed or moveable.
“Obviously, Cannon Chapel is a Christian space, and the cross at the apex of its architecture testifies to that identity. But the question about the fixed or moveable cross had to do with how Candler would engage in hospitality to the Jewish community that wished to use the space for Yom Kippur observances,” she explains. “I was proud that Candler opted to use a moveable cross so that the space could be made welcoming for the Jewish community.”
Candler has continued this tradition of hospitality in its most recent renovations of Cannon Chapel, providing ablution facilities to accommodate Muslims who worship there. “That space that I first saw at its groundbreaking continues to break ground in embodying our Wesleyan sense of ecumenicity. I’m so glad to have been a part of that,” she says.
In her retirement, Newsom will continue to write—she has three books under contract—but she also looks forward to having more time to indulge her lifelong love of “making things.” She has been learning how to spin, weave, and dye yarn, and plans to spend more time in her vegetable garden. Moving beyond biblical matchmaking in the classroom, she is now free to be a maker of a different kind.
Watch Newsom’s 2015 lecture during Candler’s Centennial “Prophetic Voices” academic conference on “God’s Creation and the Care of the Earth.”