This week the well-known Biblical scholar, Jerome (Jerry) Murphy-O’Connor, professor of the New Testament at the École Biblique et Archéologique Française de Jérusalem passed away. He was especially interested in the life of the Apostle Paul.
He was one of those rare scholars who, while appreciating both the study of the NT text and that of archaeology, kept a balanced view of the value of each field. In a recent interview by Jill Duchess of Hamilton and published in the Catholic Herald, he said:
“The light shed by archaeology on the New Testament is indirect – and with varying degrees of clarity.” “Generally, archaeology can do no more than fill in the backgrounds against which the drama of evangelisation was played out.”
However, his intimate acquaintance with the dizzying amount of archaeological discoveries made in recent years caused him to reflect:
“New Testament archaeology, he insisted, should not be written off. Far from it. It may not have substantiated any facts about Jesus himself, but it has illuminated the material culture of the first century in which Jesus and his disciples lived. The vast array of sites from which piles of potsherds, coins, walls, floors, and bones have been found have added a tangible reality to many aspects to day-to-day life in Palestine. Citing some of the geographical and cultural details which have been unearthed, Fr Jerry said: “We know, for instance, where Jesus was baptised, the sort of room in which he lived in Capernaum and the type of boat from which he preached. We can trace the paths he walked.”
“Details of the actual towns and locations mentioned in the gospels – Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Nazareth, Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan, Capernaum, Bethsaida, Magdala, Jericho and Bethany – are now firmly established on maps.”
Although he was a Dominican priest, archaeology made him critical of some of the so-called “Holy Places”. For instance, he did not believe the 14 Stations of the Cross to be authentic. And despite the fact that he believed that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre preserved the correct traditional location of the tomb in which Jesus was buried, his description of a visit to the present-day church in his popular book The Holy Land, an Archaeological Guide from the Earliest Times to 1700, Oxford University Press (Second Edition, 1986, p.43), contained the following memorable words:
“One expects the central shrine of Christendom to stand out in majestic isolation, but anonymous buildings cling to it like barnacles. One looks for numinous light, but it is dark and cramped. One hopes for peace, but the ear is assailed by a cacaphony of warring chants. One desires holiness, only to encounter a jealous possessiveness: the six groups of occupants – Latin Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Armenians, Syrians, Copts, Ethiopians – watch one another suspiciously for any infringement of rights. The frailty of man is nowhere more apparent than here; it epitomizes the human condition. The empty that come to be filled will leave desolate.”
Jerry often led tours for the expat community living in Jerusalem, one of which, Kathleen who shares Jerry’s citizenship, became my wife. We both knew him well. He asked me to make illustrations for The Times Atlas of the Bible (Harper in the USA), of which he was the NT editor. I visited him many times in his room in the serene École Biblique (where the basilica was sometimes referred to by English speaking wags who attended church service there, as “the Cold and Bleak”) while researching the Temple Mount. In the Preface of my book The Quest, Revealing the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, I wrote:
“The valuable comments and suggestions by Jerome Murphy O’Connor, O.P., Professor of the New Testament at École Biblique et Archéologique Française in Jerusalem, during the later stages of my research into the architectural development of the Temple Mount, were most helpful.”
In Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, Jerusalem has lost a great scholar and passionate lover of the Holy City.