On October 31, 1999, in Augsburg, Germany, Catholic and Lutheran representatives signed a “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.”1 The document represented a major step in healing divisions that reached back 482 years, when on the same day in 1517, Martin Luther posted his ninety-five theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany. Cardinal Edward Cassidy on behalf of the Catholic Church and Bishop Christian Krause of the Lutheran World Federation signed the joint declaration, the fruit of thirty-five years of national and international dialogues. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J. (1920–), a leading New Testament biblical scholar who had worked for nearly three decades in Lutheran-Catholic dialogues, provided an essential contribution.2
Fitzmyer was born on November 4, 1920 in Philadelphia. He fondly remembers his early years. The Sisters of St. Joseph of Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania taught him in elementary school, and the Jesuits did so later at St. Joseph’s Preparatory School in Philadelphia.3 His traditional and rigorous education paved the way for his future scholarship. In high school, he studied Latin four years, Greek three years, and French two years. He graduated from “the Prep” with high honors. As a high school student, he was drawn to the Society of Jesus. On July 30, 1938, he entered the novitiate [End Page 63] at Wernersville, Pennsylvania. After two years of novitiate, he began “juniorate” and embarked on a plan of studies dating back to the Society of Jesus’ earliest days: a year of Latin and Greek poetry (including reading the Odyssey and Iliad in Greek) and a second year reading the works of Cicero and Demosthenes (again in the original languages).
A major turning point in his life occurred at the Jesuit seminary in West Baden, Indiana, where he received his bachelor’s degree in 1943 and master’s degree in philosophy and classics in 1945. In those years, a “prefect of studies” directed a Jesuit’s intellectual training. Jesuit formation often excluded initiative and dialogue with one’s superiors. In an interview with the prefect, Fitzmyer said that having master’s degrees in classics and philosophy, he wished to study psychology. The prefect replied simply: “Mister Fitzmyer, we are putting you into Scripture”—an area virtually ignored in his previous years of Jesuit formation.
At Gonzaga High School in Washington, D.C., Fitzmyer began practicing the art of teaching, equipping him with a skill utilized until retiring from the classroom in 2004. From 1945 to 1948 he taught Latin, Greek, and German, drawing on instruction his German grandmother provided him at an early age. After the first year of teaching, during summer vacation, he taught himself Hebrew and read the Bible’s first two books, Genesis and Exodus, in their original language. [End Page 64]
Between 1948 and 1952, Fitzmyer studied theology in Weston, Massachusetts; Woodstock, Maryland (where he became a faculty member); and Egenhoven, Belgium. On August 15, 1951, while in Belgium, Bishop Emile De Smedt, later a significant figure at the Second Vatican Council (1962– 1965), ordained him a priest. Fitzmyer studied theology, Aramaic, and Akkadian at the University of Louvain, and spent a year of Jesuit formation in Münster, Germany.
By mid-twentieth century, Catholic Scripture scholars studied at major secular universities with the best faculties. In 1953, Fitzmyer began direct preparation for a lifetime of Scripture study at the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, almost ten years after his prefect first directed him to pursue this focus. Highly advanced in modern methods of biblical scholarship, Johns Hopkins provided him and his colleagues with the training necessary for path-breaking research and writing. He studied under renowned biblical scholar and archeologist William Foxwell Albright (1892–1971), who mentored other major international scholars in biblical and ancient near eastern...
Lutheran Bishop Christian Krause, president of the Lutheran World Federation, and Cardinal Edward Cassidy, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, sign the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” on October 31, 1999, in Augsburg, Germany (AP Photo/Diether Endlicher).
Pp. xii, 153 . New York/Mahwah, NJ : Paulist Press , 2008 , $18.95 .
This volume reprints a selection of Fitzmyer's essays from 1961 to 2004, with some updating of footnotes and cross-referencing but otherwise leaving them largely unchanged. In a patient manner, Fitzmyer defends ‘historical-critical method’ against the attacks of largely what he calls ‘ultra-conservative’ Catholics, generally in close dialogue with the text of one or another official church pronouncement. In this respect the key documents in view are 1943's Divino afflante Spiritu, from which develops the whole tradition which this book has in view, Vatican II's Dei verbum, the 1964 document Instructio de historica Evangeliorum veritate (‘Instruction on the Historical Truth of the Gospels’), and in some later pieces, the Biblical Commission's 1993 document, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church. The last two chapters extend slightly more widely, one covering the ‘senses of Scripture’ (four-fold here: literal, spiritual, fuller, and accommodated), and one being a combination of two shorter pieces celebrating the life and achievements of Raymond Brown SS, who died in 1998 after a celebrated (and sometimes controversial) career as a Catholic NT scholar.
What is perhaps most interesting about the result of putting all these articles together is that Fitzmyer's ‘defence’ of historical-critical method is almost entirely mounted against those for whom it appears as a threat to established church doctrine. In so far as examples are given of specific points of controversy, they typically relate to such topics as the propriety of form-criticism, or how to handle such well-known flashpoints as the virgin birth or bodily resurrection, though these topics are not discussed in any detail. A fundamental sub-text is the question of scholarly freedom to investigate the text of scripture without doctrinal prejudgment being forced upon recalcitrant texts. Of course Fitzmyer has no difficulty showing that such prejudgment can often be too strong, flying in the face of the text as we have it, or misapplied with undue confidence beyond its useful boundaries. But one cannot help but feel that this ‘defence’ is really heavily dependent upon this particular (contingent) set of historical factors relating to specific moments in the 20th century reception (within Catholicism) of certain aspects of scholarship. In the key chapter which actually tries to give an apologia for historical-critical method, a great deal is left underdeveloped, with confident affirmations that ‘properly oriented’ use of the method will lead in due course to spiritual affirmation and the upbuilding of the church. Now in one sense this is fine: that scripture should play a constructive role in theology and church life is a claim too often underplayed in some circles. But in another sense the evidence of the practice of historical-critical method is a lot more diverse than one might guess from Fitzmyer's defence, and ironically (though this is noted in passing herein) the 1993 document in particular arrived at a time when a great many non-Catholic interpreters were beginning to wonder if an undue hegemony of historical-critical method was actually the cause of some problems rather than their resolution. And on that wider front, this defence has almost nothing to say to those whose criticism comes from the method's being too conservative. Of course, some of these chapters go back to the 1960's and clearly do not reflect such concerns as postmodern epistemology (entirely absent in this book), but it is odd that none of the more recent chapters really grapple with this either. The method is asserted to be neutral in itself, with no discussion, but much more could be said. It is also notable that ‘method’ in the singular is predominant throughout, rather than the range of methods more often noted under the ‘historical-critical’ rubric.
All in all these are pieces of their time, helpful as a historical document relating to various turns along the path of Catholic biblical scholarship in the mid 20th century. As a contribution to ongoing debates regarding the proper role of critical and historical scholarship in the wider economy of the church's reading scripture they are underdeveloped, well-intentioned certainly, but unlikely to persuade those for whom the canons of critical scholarship are a given without that being self-evidently a force for good.