Dominican Fr Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, acknowledged as one of the world’s foremost scholars of the New Testament, particularly the writings of St Paul, died in the early hours of Monday in Jerusalem, a city where he had spent more than 45 years of his life. He was 78.
Fr Gregory Carroll, provincial of the Irish Dominicans, described Fr Murphy-O’Connor – a cousin of Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor – as a man who “never forgot his roots” and as “a colossus” in the world of Scripture study.
“He loved nothing more than coming back to West Cork to spend time with his family and always made sure to visit his Dominican brothers while he was in Ireland, too,” Fr Carroll said.
Born in Cork, Ireland, in 1935, he entered the Irish province of the Dominican order in September 1953 and was ordained a priest July 10, 1960. Born James, he chose “Jerome” as his name in religious life – an apt choice since St Jerome is the patron of students of the Bible.
Fr Murphy-O’Connor received his doctorate from the University of Fribourg, Switzerland in 1962, and a year later began doing research on the Dead Sea Scrolls at the universities of Heidelberg and Tubingen, Germany.
From there, he went to Jerusalem to the Dominican-run Ecole Biblique, the French Biblical and Archaeological School of Jerusalem, which was to become his religious, scholarly and personal home for the rest of his life. He was appointed professor of the New Testament there in 1972.
He wrote a highly acclaimed guide to the Holy Land, which was published in 1980 and translated into numerous languages; and he was as comfortable leading pilgrims around the Holy Land as he was in the lecture hall.
Fellow biblical scholars paid tribute to Fr Murphy-O’Connor. “Not only was he a fine scholar, but he was also a kind-spirited, sweet-natured and generous human being, who always had time for people,” said Mark Goodacre, professor of New Testament and Christian origins at Duke University, Durham, NC.
He was a “gifted writer, whose prose was always lucid and lively,” Goodacre added. “His scholarly insights were fascinating, even surprising, like his suggestion that St Paul’s wife died in a house fire, or that the Galatians may well have had extraordinarily large moustaches.”
James F McGrath, the Clarence L Goodwin chair in New Testament language and literature at Butler University, Indianapolis, described Father Murphy-O’Connor as “a remarkably insightful scholar, capable of being very traditional and/or very creative in trying to make the best possible sense of the evidence.”
Fr Murphy-O’Connor was frequently in demand as a guest lecturer at universities around the world. However, he never lost the sense that the Scriptures should be accessible to all, and he revelled in contributing articles to newspapers and magazines as well as being a panelist on radio and television programmes. Fr Murphy-O’Connor is to be buried in the Holy Land today.
In 2012 Father Murphy-O’Connor gave an interview to The Catholic Herald, which is posted here.