16 November 2013

Cork-born priest with international
reputation in Biblical scholarship

■ Fr Jerome Murphy-O’Connor: Jerusalem, where he taught in the École Biblique, was his intellectual and personal home

Patrick Comerford

The Irish Times carries the following obituary on the top of the ‘Obituaries’ page, page 14, this morning [Saturday 16 November 2013]:

Cork-born priest who became leading Biblical scholar


Born: April 10th, 1935
Died: November 11th, 2013

The Revd Dr Jerome Murphy-O’Connor OP, who has died in Jerusalem aged 78, was a Cork-born Dominican theologian who earned international esteem as a Biblical scholar and a travel writer. He was a leading authority on St Paul and professor of New Testament at the École Biblique in Jerusalem.

He was born James (Jim) Murphy-O’Connor, the eldest of four children of Kerry Murphy-O’Connor and Mary McCrohan. The family was well known for its contributions to Irish rugby. Three of his uncles and his brother were parish priests in Cork; his cousin, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, was Archbishop of Westminster (2000-2009), and at least two other members of the family had been bishops in the 19th century.

The young James Murphy-O’Connor was educated at the Christian Brothers’ College and Castleknock College, Dublin, where he decided to become a Dominican priest. He entered the Dominican novitiate in Cork in September 1953, relinquishing his baptismal name, James, in favour of Jerome, in honour of the translator of the Vulgate Bible and patron saint of biblical studies.

He studied philosophy in Cork for a year before studying at the Dominican house in Tallaght and at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland. He was ordained a priest in 1960. His work on preaching in the life of Saint Paul developed into a thesis for which he was awarded a doctorate in theology (ThD) at Fribourg in 1962. He then studied in Rome, researched the Dead Sea Scrolls in Heidelberg and New Testament theology in Tübingen.

Professor in Jerusalem

In 1963, he went to the École Biblique in Jerusalem, an international centre founded by French Dominicans in 1890, becoming professor of New Testament there in 1972. Jerusalem remained his intellectual and personal home for the next four decades. His best-known book, The Holy Land, An Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700, was translated into several languages, ran to five editions and has become the standard guidebook to the region. Paul: His Story (2004), attained similar success and acclaim, while St Paul’s Ephesus: Texts and Archaeology (2008) also became a standard guide.

He regularly contributed to television panels and documentaries. He was a visiting professor at several American universities and at the Milltown Institute, Dublin, among other institutions.

Known to his friends as Jerry, he was described this week by a former colleague as “probably the most original Irish New Testament scholar of his generation”. He loved nothing more than uttering an iconoclastic remark and waiting for the reaction. A well-known story tells of an elderly nun at one of his Irish lectures asking whether the “brothers of Jesus” in the Gospel were his actual brothers. “Yes, sister,” he answered. “Any more questions?” A stormy debate ensued.

On one lecture, he spoke to a group of pilgrim priests in the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem of how Christ was faced with a quick walk from there to the top of the Mount of Olives and escape; that for him was the real “Temptation in the Garden”.

Lifelong rugby follower
He received honorary degrees in the US and Australia, but particularly treasured the doctorate of literature conferred in 2002 by the National University of Ireland in University College Cork. He maintained a lifelong interest in the fortunes of Irish rugby.

In 2000, he contributed to a special series in The Irish Times edited by Patsy McGarry. His feature later became a chapter in Christianity (2001), alongside contributions from Hans Küng, Desmond Tutu, Mary Robinson and other international figures. One of his last publications is a contribution to the Dublin-based Dominican journal Doctrine and Life.

He is survived by his brothers, Archdeacon Kerry Murphy O’Connor, parish priest of Turner’s Cross, Cork, and Brian Murphy O’Connor, and his sister, Mrs Sheila Daly.

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