Wilfrid Harrington, a Dominican priest who is a professor of Scripture at the Dominican House of Studies in Dublin and visiting lecturer at the Church of Ireland Theological College in Dublin, is widely regarded as the “dean” of Catholic biblical studies in Ireland. Through his many books and articles and his vast experience as a teacher and lecturer, he has brought the best of technical scholarship to a wide audience. His very large body of work provides an excellent example to be imitated in both style and context. It is always learned, personally engaged, clearly and concisely written, positive and constructive and theologically sensitive and relevant.
His latest volume seeks to illustrate the authentic humanity of Jesus by highlighting Jesus’ characteristically human traits. He regards this as important (indeed as “the astounding truth at the heart of Christianity”) because it is in the human Jesus that we meet God. This is not another speculative book about the quest of the historical Jesus. Rather, it is an attempt to synthesize what the four Gospels say about Jesus in the light of modern critical scholarship. It gives particular attention to Mark’s Gospel because it is the earliest Gospel, and because Mark’s Jesus is the most human.
After considering Jesus’ early life in Nazareth, Harrington discusses his association with John the Baptist and Jesus’ own career as prophet, teacher and healer, as well as his death on the cross. Then he treats those persons for whom Jesus showed special concern: the poor, women, children, sinners and social outcasts. Next, in what is by far the longest chapter and the heart of the book, he deals with the human traits or characteristics of Jesus in the following areas: faith, testing, love, prayer, religion, compassion, forgiveness, nature, humor, exasperation, anger and fear. Then he reflects on the various reactions that the human Jesus evoked: acceptance, opposition and rejection. And he concludes with observations on Jesus at his most vulnerably human in the Gethsemane episode, in what sense Jesus was and was not a failure, and the cross as God’s own definition of what it is to be human.
I am often asked for recommendations of books that get at the “real” Jesus, are learned and scholarly but not overly technical, and are generally orthodox in their theology while being challenging personally and theologically. This is that kind of book. Besides his prodigious knowledge of the Bible, Harrington brings out clearly the value of taking seriously the humanity of Jesus. He describes Jesus as having come as a human being into our human history to tell us of the goodness of God—the Deus humanissimus, the God bent on the salvation of humankind. And he sees Jesus on the cross as showing us that we are truly human when we accept our humanity, when we face the fact that we are not masters of our fate. In the Cross God defined the human being as a creature that he as creator might be wholly with us, as parent with child.
Now in his mid-80s, Harrington by his writing and teaching remains not only one of Ireland’s national treasures but also a teacher for all who seek to enter into the world of the New Testament. Though our paths have seldom crossed, we share a surname and common roots in the Beara Peninsula of Ireland. Also, each of us has contributed a volume to a series edited by the other. But even more important to me has been the example of learning, industry and fidelity shown by Wilfrid Harrington in making available to God’s people the best in contemporary biblical scholarship and so helping our Catholic Church become more explicitly and profoundly biblical.