A Scholar’s Life

Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., was one of the great treasures of American Catholic biblical scholarship. For nearly half a century, he was the premier chronicler of what was happening in biblical studies in this country and abroad. As a teacher, author, editor and preacher, he was the embodiment of the kind of biblical scholar the Second Vatican Council envisioned in its “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation.”

In addition to being one of the leading voices in American Catholic scholarship, he was, in the view of his colleagues, the embodiment of the word of God that he studied, taught and proclaimed. Gentle and respectful, humble and unassuming, he taught us by the example of his life as well as by his teaching and scholarship.


Dedicated Chronicler

The bibliography of Father Harrington’s work takes up 49 pages. The first entry is dated 1961, when he published a piece in the Classical Bulletin. Like all bibliographies, it includes his books (more than 50), scholarly articles, essays in collected works and numerous book reviews. What it does not include is his contribution to New Testament Abstracts, of which he was the editor since 1972 and to which he contributed about 50,000 abstracts of scholarly articles and 25,000 book notices.

Whereas most other bibliographical tools simply list the titles of the articles and books written in the field, the distinctive contribution of NTA is the concise and informative summaries it provides for every book and article, enabling scholars and graduate students to decide what to pursue in their research. The task of assembling this project three times a year, every year, would overwhelm most people. But for Father Harrington it was a labor of love by which he served the scholarly community and chronicled what was happening.

Skilled Editor

Surely the most thankless task of scholarship is the work of the editor, and yet it is one of the most indispensable. The good editor gives unity and vision to the work of others. The selfless editor helps others to be their best. The generous editor is a master teacher who enables other scholars to do their work. As the editor of the 18 volumes of the “Sacra Pagina” series, Father Harrington showed himself to be the good, selfless and generous editor who enabled others to produce their best work.

To understand the scope of Father Harrington’s achievement, it is important to remember the historical situation in which this series was published. Although English-speaking Catholics had produced a number of popular commentary series on the New Testament, they had not yet produced a scholarly series like those published by their Catholic counterparts in Europe and their Protestant colleagues in this country. This changed with the publication of the “Sacra Pagina” series, which remains the best commentary series on the New Testament by Catholic scholars in the English-speaking world.

Insightful Interpreter

Daniel Harrington’s work as a chronicler and editor would have consumed the lifetime of any other scholar. But in addition to his achievements as chronicler and editor, he was an insightful interpreter of sacred Scripture, who argued the following theses.

1. Second Temple Judaism is the proper matrix for understanding Jesus and Paul, and early Christianity. In his books and articles on Jesus, Paul and the early church, Father Harrington repeatedly returns to the writings of Second Temple Judaism to clarify the biblical text. Judiciously employing a historical-critical approach and insisting on the incarnational nature of the Christian faith, he maintains that knowledge of the writings of this period is indispensable for interpreting the New Testament. In presenting the new perspective on Paul, he affirms that “without denying Paul’s cosmopolitan credentials the new perspective on Paul emphasizes his identity as a Jew living shortly before the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.”

2. The New Testament is not anti-Jewish. Father Harrington’s reading of the New Testament within the context of Second Temple Judaism convinced him that the New Testament is not anti-Jewish, even though it has often been used in that way. Father Harrington’s commentary on Matthew presents a detailed exegetical interpretation of the Gospel in light of Second Temple Judaism. His book The Synoptic Gospels Set Free makes his technical work accessible to a wider audience. He argues that while certain texts have fostered anti-Jewish sentiments, the Gospels themselves are not anti-Jewish. After all, the Gospels are Jewish books in the sense that their authors were Jewish by birth; their main character was a first-century Jew; their narratives are set in the land of Israel; and they are unintelligible apart from the Scriptures of Israel. To free the Synoptic Gospels from being read in an anti-Jewish way, Harrington reads them in their first-century Jewish context. He examines texts from the Synoptic Gospels occurring in the Roman Catholic Sunday Lectionary that might be understood as anti-Jewish. By attending to the Jewish matrix of these texts, he presents a positive approach “toward reducing the anti-Jewish potential in certain Gospel texts.” He was convinced that “the more we study the Gospels in their original Jewish contexts, the less we view them as anti-Jewish and the more we appreciate their richness and allow the word of God within them to speak to us.”

3.The New Testament conveys a theological meaning. The most pressing issue in biblical studies today is the relationship between history and theology. Whereas some would turn biblical studies into a historical discipline, and others would read the New Testament as a timeless theological tract cut off from its historical setting, Father Harrington finds the right balance between history and theology. On the one hand, he insists on the incarnational nature of Christianity, which requires the use of a historical-critical approach. On the other, he insisted on the need to interpret these texts as writings intended for the nourishment and growth of the Christian community to which he preached every week.

I have, I hope, highlighted the most important elements of Father Harrington’s work as a scholar, a priest, a Jesuit and a believer in Jesus Christ. He chronicled what we have been doing these past 50 years and made possible the most important commentary series on the New Testament produced by English-speaking Catholics. He taught us to interpret the New Testament in the light of Second Temple Judaism and instructed us to read the New Testament without being anti-Jewish. He savored the theological meaning of its text. In sum, he taught us how to read the word of God.

The full version of this article can be read here.

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