Leroy Waterman

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Leroy Waterman (July 4, 1875 – May 9, 1972) was a professor of Oriental Languages and Literature at the University of Michigan, an archaeologist of the Middle East, an Old Testament scholar, a translator of the Revised Standard Version Old Testament, and a proponent of a distinctive interpretation of the Christian faith.


He was born in Pierpont, Ohio, July 4, 1875, receiving his early education in the public schools of Pierpont and at the New Lyme Institute in New Lyme, OH. He graduated from Hillsdale College with a BA in 1898 and BD in 1900, and then studied at Oxford (1900-02), the University of Berlin (1906-07), and the University of Chicago, where he received a PhD in 1912. Waterman taught Hebrew language and literature at the Divinity School of Hillsdale College from 1902 to 1910 and taught as a fellow at the University of Chicago from 1910 to 1912. He became professor of Old Testament and the history of religion at Meadville (PA) Theological School in 1913, and two years later joined the University of Michigan as head of the Department of Semitics, which became the Department of Oriental Languages and Literatures and is now the Near Eastern Studies Department. He remained at Michigan until his retirement as professor emeritus in 1945. Waterman married Mabelle Alice Walrath in 1906, and they had two children: Dorothea Lydia and Donald Leroy. The Watermans were long-time members of the First Baptist Church of Ann Arbor.

A distinguished Biblical scholar, during the years 1922-27 Waterman was one of five members of the translation committee of the University of Chicago that produced "The Bible: An American Translation," sometimes called the “Chicago Bible.” From 1938-52 he was one of 31 scholars appointed by the National Council of Churches of Christ in America to the committee which produced the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, of which the New testament appeared in 1946 and the Old Testament in 1952. He served as the annual professor at the American School of Oriental Research in Baghdad, Iraq in 1928-29, and from 1928 to 1931 was director of a Mesopotamian archaeological expedition at Tel-Umar, twenty-five miles south of Baghdad, which was sponsored by the University of Michigan, the Toledo (OH) Museum of Art, and the Cleveland Art Museum. Waterman began the excavation of the ancient city of Seleucia on the Tigris, having located the site through his study of ancient documents and the use of aerial photographs. The results were published in the "Preliminary Report Upon the Excavations at Tel Umar, Iraq" (University of Michigan Press 1931) and the "Second Preliminary Report" (1933). Waterman was also director of a University of Michigan archaeological expedition at Sepphoris, near Nazareth, during the summer of 1931. These results were published in the "Preliminary Report of the University of Michigan at Sepphoris, Palestine" (University, of Michigan Press, 1931). Additional scholarly work included editing volume XIV of R.F. Harper's "Assyrian and Babylonian Letters" (1912), translating "Some Koujunjik Letters and Related Texts" (1912), "Business Documents of the Hammurabi Period" (1916), and "The Royal Correspondence of the Assyrian Empire" (four vol. 1930).

Professor Waterman was a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science; the American Oriental Society, 1915 (life member, annual president 1936); National Association of Biblical Instructors, 1915; Royal Asiatic Society; Society of Biblical Literature and Exegesis (president, 1946); Society for Old Testament Study; Research Club of the University of Michigan; the University Club of Ann Arbor; and the Michigan Council of Churches and Christian Education, (president, 1937-42). He received an honorary D. Litt. degree from Hillsdale College in 1925 and an Honorary D.D. degree from Butler University in 1961. Waterman also lectured for the University of Michigan Extension Service in Detroit, Grand Rapids, and Ann Arbor during the period of 1945-65, and was a teacher of Bible courses at the First Baptist and the First Methodist churches in Ann Arbor. Active in public teaching to the time of his passing, he died in Ann Arbor, MI on May 9, 1972.

Public Religious Writings[edit]

During his long life Waterman was particularly interested in communicating to the general public his understanding of the role Christianity should play in world society, and his views could perhaps be considered more "progressive" than those of many of his time. In a series of six books that were both scholarly and directly concerned with the meaning of religion for the conduct of life, he put forward what he considered to be a positive and constructive understanding of Jesus' true message and its Old Testament background. Always concerned about the lack of communication between scholars who studied the Old and New Testaments, these six books together constitute an argument for and an elaboration of two major claims. According to Waterman;

I. In the Old Testament there is a largely unappreciated "prophetic" or "ethical" religious stratum that pointed toward a universalistic view of God's love and care for all peoples, regardless of tribal or national affiliation. Advocated by a group of prophets ranging from Amos to the author of Jonah, who together "constitute one of the most remarkable and significant groups of thinkers that humanity has ever produced," this stratum was distinct from, and opposed to, the dominant "nationalistic" or "priestly" stratum of the Old Testament that was centered on Israel as God's special chosen people, a series of dramatic interventions of God into their national history, and on a priestly cult with blood sacrifice for the atonement of sin.

II. Jesus was not only aware of this "ethical" or "prophetic" stratum but he explicitly made it the foundation of his own teaching of an earthly "reign of God" that was based on loving interpersonal relationships and which was within the immediate reach of those to whom he spoke, open to all regardless of national or tribal identity. Although Jesus' message was misunderstood and obscured by the messianic and eschatological mindsets of the New Testament writers generally and by the apostle Paul in particular, the content and origins of that message can still be discerned by careful analysis of the Old and New Testament documents, and it has the potential to form the basis of a worldwide religious community of all humanity.

In these works Waterman himself appears as a forerunner of a non-apocalyptic view of a human Jesus, somewhat similar to that promoted more recently by advocates such as John Shelby Spong, Marcus Borg, and those associated with the Jesus Seminar. However, Waterman placed much greater emphasis on the continuity of the anti-sacrificial teachings of the Old Testament ethical prophets with the public ministry of Jesus, and thereby envisioned a fully biblical religion that included both the Old and New Testaments but which was a distinct alternative to traditional Judaism and to Pauline and creedal Christianity.


The major source for Waterman materials is the Waterman Papers at the Bentley Historical Library of the University of Michigan. More complete citation of his professional books and papers can be found online in the catalogs of the University of Michigan Libraries. His scholarly-popular books on Jesus' message and its Old Testament background are out of print, but can be found on used book searches.

1930-36 Royal Correspondence of the Assyrian Empire. 4 vols. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press).

1943 - Religion Faces the World Crisis: A Study of the Religious Aspects and Motivations of Civilization (Ann Arbor: George Wahr).

1952 - The Religion of Jesus: Christianity's Unclaimed Heritage of Prophetic Religion (New York: Harper and Brothers).

1955 - The Historical Jesus: Hope of Mankind (New York: Exposition Press).

1959 - Forerunners of Jesus (New York: Philosophical Library).

1963 - Religion's Role in Tomorrow's World: A Challenging Summons to Current Christianity (New York: American Press).

1969 - The Christian Objective [A summary booklet] (Ann Arbor: Ann Arbor Publishers).