Why scholarship trumps archaeology

Dig in Israel

In a recent interview, Father Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, who died this month, argues the pen is mightier than the spade.

- Jill, Duchess of Hamilton, The Catholic Herald

This year marks the 175th anniversary of the beginning of scientific biblical archaeology in the Holy Land. As yet, though, no spade has dug up any stones or scrolls to add facts to the historical Jesus. Nor to his disciples. This was confirmed recently by Fr Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, professor of the New Testament, at the École Biblique et Archéologique Française de Jérusalem.

“The light shed by archaeology on the New Testament is indirect – and with varying degrees of clarity,” he said firmly in his lilting Irish accent. Despite his 50 years in Jerusalem, the Irish tones in his voice remain strong. “Generally,” he said, “archaeology can do no more than fill in the backgrounds against which the drama of evangelisation was played out.”

These words came as a shock to me. The idea of there being no substantial finds at all about the life of Jesus, after nearly two centuries of archaeologists digging down amid the stones and dusty ruins of Jerusalem, Nazareth, Bethlehem and Capernaum, is disappointing to say the least.

Fr Jerry, as he is known, then referred to Jesus himself, adding: “For an understanding of His person and mission we must turn to other sources and disciplines.”

When we met at the beautiful old stone École Biblique on the outskirts of the Old City, he stressed that not too much should be expected from archaeology. “It can never speak as precisely or as specifically as a text,” he said. He spoke with authority. Such is his international standing as an esteemed professor of New Testament studies that academics, professors and researchers from all over the world consult him. No other Catholic priest in Jerusalem is as well known.

"Nor has any other reached his level of scholarly prestige. As well as being a leading authority on St Paul, Fr Jerry has written critically acclaimed books and papers on New Testament studies. His output, though, has not just been limited to academia. His best-selling guide, The Holy Land, an Archaeological Guide (Oxford University Press), which has gone into five editions and sold more than 60,000 print copies, is now selling on Kindle.

Although 78, confined to a wheelchair and reliant on an oxygen machine, Fr Jerry, a handsome man, has retained his good looks, his sense of humour and strict habits of working for long hours each day. Somehow, he also entertains a constant stream of guests. Recently I joined a lunch party hosted by him at the École Biblique with two American biblical scholars. One of them suggested that excavations had verified more about the locations, patriarchs, prophets and kings in the Old Testament than facts in the New Testament. Fr Jerry was somewhat defensive, saying: “Well, the Old Testament covers a much, much longer period, and a much larger area than the New Testament.”

FULL STORY Why scholarship trumps archaeology

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