Father Joseph Fitzmyer, S.J., died peacefully this morning at Manresa Hall, Merion Station, Pa. He was 96. Father Fitzmyer was a leading Catholic biblical scholar, and we asked several scholars influenced by his life and work to offer their remembrances.
I never studied with Joseph Fitzmyer, S.J., but the times I was in the same room with him, at meetings of the Catholic Biblical Association, for instance, his gravitas was palpable. If a question needed answering, you turned to Father Fitzmyer. He was a giant of biblical scholarship. No qualifiers need apply. He was not a giant of Catholic biblical scholarship, not a giant of 20th-century biblical scholarship, just a giant of biblical scholarship.
Father Fitzmyer was, of course, a member of that first wave of Catholic biblical scholars whose scholarship had to be taken seriously by the academy at large because of its rigorous historical critical grounding and his scholarship was read and is read by scholars all over the world today. He was also dedicated to reading the texts as a Catholic biblical scholar, and he never ceased paying attention to the theological concerns of the text or his own place as a scholar within the church.
I first came across his work as an undergraduate at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto, and to my professors he already loomed as a legendary figure. You can imagine how he seemed to me. My encounter with his scholarship did not diminish his reputation but grounded it solidly from that day to today. Given my frequent use of The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, it is fair to say that not a day goes by that I do not consult his scholarship. But this is not the end of it. I use his commentaries on Luke and Acts from the Anchor Bible Commentary series regularly.
Indeed, these are only some of his major works, all of which are still in use and respected by current scholars, long after other scholars’ works have fallen out of fashion. One of the reasons has to do with his careful, thorough and judicious scholarship: You know that if Fitzmyer wrote it you might not agree with it, but it is grounded in a careful sifting of the available evidence and a discerning judgment of the data. He was also a master of the ancient languages, and his work remains a goldmine of linguistic nuggets.
Fitzmyer also did work on the Aramaic and the Semitic background of the New Testament, work that has fallen out of favor among New Testament scholars, but which is still worth consulting even today. In addition, he did early work on the Dead Sea Scrolls. In an academic career that spanned almost 50 years, perhaps it is no surprise that he produced so much work, but “much work” does not always lead to “quality work.”
All of Fitzmyer’s work was quality work, which is precisely why he stands as a giant of biblical scholarship. All of his scholarship was dedicated to understanding the Bible more thoroughly and completely. He has gone to his well-deserved rest, may he rest in peace, but his scholarship will live on because of his precision and dedication to making the Bible come alive for all who encounter it.
John W. Martens is a professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minn. Twitter: @BibleJunkies.