Fr Brendan McConvery CSsR lectures in Sacred Scripture at St Patrick’s College Maynoooth
Fr Jerome Murphy-Connor OP who died in Jerusalem on November 11, 2013, was one of the best-known New Testament scholars in the English-speaking Catholic world. Born in Cork on April 10, 1935, James Murphy-O’Connor was educated at Christian Brothers College, Cork, and Castleknock College, Dublin. When he entered the Dominicans in 1953, he took the religious name of Jerome.
The novice probably never suspected how the name of the great biblical scholar would shape the contours of his future life. Having completed his studies, he was ordained in 1960 and went for further studies at the University of Fribourg, in Switzerland, where he took a doctorate in theology in 1962 with a thesis on the preaching of St Paul. It was published two years later as Paul on Preaching (1964).
Specialised biblical studies followed at the French Archaeological and Biblical School in Jerusalem (better known by its short French title as the Ecole Biblique) in 1963. It was to be his home base for the rest of his life.
The young Irishman’s promise as a scholar was spotted by his mentor, Pierre Benoit. Fr Benoit was one of the team that had produced the original edition of the Jerusalem Bible (1956). This marked a new departure in Catholic biblical translation. Not only was it a fresh translation into modern languages of the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek text, it was also provided with solid introductions and explanatory notes that opened the Bible to the generation of Vatican II. The English edition appeared 10 years later. Having completed his degrees in scripture, Fr Jerome was encouraged to spend the next two years as a “wandering scholar,” sitting at the feet of some of the best-known German Protestant scholars in the areas of Pauline Studies and the emerging literature on the Dead Sea Scrolls. On his return to Jerusalem, he was appointed lecturer and then Professor of New Testament (1972).
Jerry, as he is known from the popular abbreviation of his religious name, is probably best-known for two works, Paul – A Critical Life (1996) and The Holy Land. An Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700, which has gone through five editions since its appearance in 1980 and not counting the translations into German, French, Polish, Italian and Spanish. He would make no claim to being an archaeologist, but the Ecole was a pioneering institute in making archaeology an indispensible instrument for the study of the Bible and so it became part of the DNA of everyone who studied there.
When Jerry arrived, the house’s major archaeological project was still, as it had been since 1947, the translation and study of the Dead Sea Scrolls under the guidance of the Dominican Fr Roland de Vaux (1903-1971), leader of the archaeological excavations at Qumran where the scrolls had been discovered. Shortly after his return to Jerusalem, Jerry edited his first collection of essays by international specialists on Paul and Qumran (1968).
Jerry could often be provocative and he enjoyed a good argument. His Paul: A Critical Life was both critical and provocative. It put shape on the life of Paul and using the dual New Testament source of Acts and Paul’s own letters, it brought him to life as a figure of extraordinary dedication, energy and imagination but also one who could also be irascible and incredibly thin-skinned. Not all the reviewers were impressed by his use of the theories on the composition history of Acts developed by some of his Ecole colleagues. Much better received perhaps were his shorter studies of how the archaeological remains of Corinth (1983) and Ephesus (2008) contributed to an understanding of these letters.
The Holy Land guide has proved to be a rugged survivor. Now over 30 years in existence and constantly updated, I bought the first edition for my first visit to the Holy Land as a postgraduate student the year it appeared. I have most of the other editions, except those I loaned and which were never returned. All of them annotated, stained and dog-eared from being pulled in and out of a backpack. The guide started life on the move. For many years, Jerry had led Sunday walks for members of the UN and diplomatic corps stationed in Jerusalem. He was always the ideal guide for any high-level visitor to the Holy City or visiting film-crew.
In the course of his academic career, Murphy-O’Connor accumulated four honorary doctorates (from Villanova, Notre Dame, Graduate Theological Union of Berkely and National University of Ireland), as well as the degree of Master of Sacred Theology, the highest in-house distinction of the Dominican Order.
Apart from the works mentioned here, his bibliography includes about another dozen titles, mostly on aspects of Paul and over 150 articles that range widely over the whole NT, not to mention contributions to multivolume commentaries and dictionaries. He was also an assiduous book-reviewer, especially for the Revue Biblique, the house journal of the Ecole. He would take a pile of books as they arrived in the library and work through them until all were reviewed, often at length, sometimes wittily but always perceptively. In his spare time, he edited the English edition of the school’s newsletter, Lettre de Jerusalem, usually wittier and more gossipy than the French original.
After an academic year of teaching and writing in the sometimes harsh climate, and often politically tense atmosphere of Jerusalem, no one would have begrudged Jerry a few months to recharge the batteries in his beloved West Cork. His summers were spent for the most part, however, teaching summer courses in the United States, Ireland, Australia and elsewhere. He joked that he ‘did it for the money’ – not for his own use, but to support the Ecole that made comparatively little money from student fees but spared little in keeping the library up to date. Then it was West Cork, visits to some of his Irish Dominican brethren and back to Jerusalem in time to begin the new academic year. A few years ago, Jerry fell ill but he tried to keep teaching as long as he could. He died last week. He is mourned by his immediate family, Fr Kerry, a priest of the Diocese of Cork, his brother Brian and sister Shiela and his cousin, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor.
The website of the Ecole announcing his death quoted one of the antiphons for the ancient office of St Martin of Tours on whose day he died. It is a fitting memorial to Friar Jerome:
“O beatum virum, cujus anima paradisum possidet! Unde exsultant angeli, laetantur archangeli, chorus sanctorum proclamat, turba virginum invitat: Mane nobiscum in aeternum! – O blessed man whose soul possesses paradise! On whose account the angels exalt, the archangels rejoice, the choir of saints proclaims, the crowd of virgins invites: Stay with us forever.”