A Scholar’s Life: Remembering the work of Daniel J. Harrington

Photo courtesy of Boston College

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.


Personal Setting

Fr. Harrington begins many of his books with a brief note about his social location. For example, in Jesus: A Historical Portrait he says:

I write as a Roman Catholic priest, a Jesuit and a professor of New Testament since 1971. In my academic work I have taken special interest in the Dead Sea Scrolls and other Jewish texts from the time of Jesus. As editor of New Testament Abstracts I see all the books and articles published in the field.

There is a suspicion about such remarks because the author seems to protest too much. But I am suspicious of this hermeneutic of suspicion and prefer to see in this and other statements the real Dan Harrington. He was a man who: 

• valued history as indispensable for illuminating the biblical text, especially the history of Second Temple Judaism;
• always respected of the opinions of others, even when he disagreed with them;
• interpreted the New Testament in light of Judaism in order to build bridges between Christians and Jews;
• approached the text in light of the Vatican II’s “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation”;
• sought to convey the relevance of contemporary scholarship for the believing community;
• informed his preaching with scholarship, and his scholarship with a view to preaching.
It is in light of this sketch of Father Harrington’s social location that I consider three aspects of his scholarly work: chronicler, editor and interpreter.

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.

His work for NTA enabled him to write books like The New Testament: A Bibliography; Sirach Research Since 1965; What Are They Saying About Mark?; What Are They Saying About the Letter to the Hebrews?; and Witnesses to the Word: New Testament Studies Since Vatican II.

In Witnesses to the Word Harrington identifies six major developments in New Testament studies since Vatican II: 1) how the “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation” provides a framework for understanding the nature of the Bible in Catholic thinking; 2) how the study of the Dead Sea Scrolls has enriched and changed our perception about Jews and Judaism in Jesus’ time; 3) how the third quest for the historical Jesus has restored Jesus to his Jewish roots and his place within Judaism; 4) how scholars have sought to describe in what sense the Evangelists may be regarded as authors and clarified the complex process by which the Gospels came into being; 5) how new perspectives on Paul and Judaism grew out of the general reassessment of Second Temple Judaism that was inspired by the discovery of the Qumran scrolls; and 6) how there has been a renewal of interest in the Roman Empire as a historical setting for the New Testament.

The manner in which Father Harrington was able to tell us the story of what was happening derived its authority from the man who was telling the story. For while many have read deeply in the field, few read the field more completely and insightfully.

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, Fr. Harrington showed himself to be the good, the selfless and the 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.

It was Father Harrington’s vision and editorial hand that made this possible. The series he envisioned was “intended for biblical professionals, graduate students, theologians, clergy, and religious educators.” Its goal was “to provide sound critical analysis without any loss of sensitivity to religious meaning.” Fr. Harrington writes in his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, “This series is therefore catholic in two senses of the word: inclusive in its methods and perspectives, and shaped by the context of the Catholic tradition.” The theological and exegetical quality of this series has made it immensely popular with scholars and students and inspired others to produce similar series, imitation being the best form of praise. While it was the individual authors who wrote the works, it was Father Harrington who recruited and encouraged them. Most important, it was he who edited their work to ensure that the series would remain uniform in quality and goal.

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. Father Harrington had a lifelong interest in the period in Jewish history from the return from exile in 537 B.C. to the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in A.D. 70. It was during this period of Second Temple Judaism that the following writings were produced: the apocrypha or deutero-canonical books, which are part of the Catholic and Orthodox Old Testament canon; the Old Testament pseudipigrapha, religious writings that did not make it into the Old Testament; and the Dead Sea scrolls, which Father Harrington esteemed as the most important biblical find of our time. His interest in this period began with his Harvard dissertation, “Text and Biblical Text in Pseudo-Philo’s Antiquitatum Biblicarum.” It continued in his work on the critical edition of Philo’s Biblical Antiquities for the prestigious “Sources Chrétiennes”series, and in his work on the text “4QInstruction” from the Dead Sea scrolls.

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. For example, in Jesus: A Historical Portrait, Harrington draws our attention to writings as diverse as Daniel, 1 Enoch, the Assumption of Moses and the Rule of the Community to show that in the Jewish writings of Jesus’ time “there was no uniform description of the events accompanying the full coming of God’s kingdom.” 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.” Throughout his academic career, then, Father Harrington pointed to the Jewishness of Jesus and Paul, a fact that was neglected in some circles of New Testament studies.

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. While he develops this point in nearly all his writings, I will focus on his commentary on Matthew in the “Sacra Pagina” series and his volume The Synoptic Gospels Set Free: Preaching Without Anti-Judaism.

At the outset of his commentary, Father Harrington writes: “This commentary on Matthew’s Gospel has been written from a ‘Jewish’ perspective—one that I believe is demanded from the text itself.” The thesis of Harrington’s commentary is that the Gospel of Matthew is one of three responses to the crisis posed by the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, the other two being those found in apocalyptic writings including 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch and the response of the early rabbinic movement.

The apocalyptic movement mourned the loss of the temple and waited for the appearance of the coming age, and the early rabbis found in the Torah the rudiments of a Judaism without Temple or land. In contrast to them, Father Harrington maintains, the Gospel of Matthew attempts to show how “the Jewish tradition is best preserved in a Jewish-Christian context.” Thus the Gospel should be read “as one of several Jewish responses to the destruction of the Jewish temple in A.D. 70.” The vitriolic language in the Gospel, then, is part of an intra-Jewish debate about the future of Judaism in a post-Temple world. While this language has been used to foster anti-Jewish sentiment, Father Harrington insists that a careful historical reading of the text in its Second Temple context shows this was never its intent. The community for which Matthew writes is a Jewish community among Jewish communities contending for the future of Judaism.

Whereas Father Harrington’s commentary on Matthew presents a detailed exegetical interpretation of the Gospel in light of Second Temple Judaism, 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 that occur in the Roman Catholic Sunday Lectionary, which 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.

This delicate balance of interpreting the historical writings of the New Testament theologically is found in all of his books, of which I highlight three here: The Church According to the New Testament and the two volumes he wrote written in conjunction with his colleague James F. Keenan, S.J., Jesus and Virtues Ethics and Paul and Virtue Ethics. The first volume presents a comprehensive overview of how the various New Testament writings present the church and what the church can learn from them today. The last two take up the challenge of Vatican II’s “Decree on Priestly Formation” to make Scripture the soul of theology (No. 16). None of these volumes is a full blown theology of the New Testament, but each shows us how to write a theology in light of the historical setting of the Gospels.

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.

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Alan Mitchell
5 years 2 months ago
What a wonderful tribute you have written, Frank. You really captured Dan in every way. Thank you!
Frank Bergen
5 years 2 months ago
I can only offer an 'Amen!' to Frank Matera's evaluation of Dan's life and work.
Rick Malloy
5 years 1 month ago
Dan Harrington taught us a great deal about the Gospel of Luke in the course on that Gospel at Weston School of Theology in the late 1980s. I sat week after week with 75 others enjoying Dan's concise, clear, challenging and captivating lectures on this or that aspect of Luke's theological vision, or an in-depth explication of a key section of the Gospel. The central reality of Dan was his presence. He was always dignified without being stuffy, erudite without being pedantic, friendly, fair and always the quintessential teacher. One of our companions in the course was a heavy set women, older than most of the students. She told me she felt so intimidated by all the Jesuits in the class, as if we knew that much more than she. She didn't seem to have a lot of self confidence, but she certainly enjoyed Dan's teaching and wisdom, as did we all. One day, this woman raised her hand, and Dan respectfully responded to her. She began, "This may be a stupid question..." Dan gently held up his hand and gently stopped her in mid-question. He warmly smiled and told her, "There are no stupid questions." I don't remember the question she went on to ask. I don't remember Dan's answer. But I did know that day that I was learning from a remarkable human being. I remember thinking, "This is what a Jesuit should be!" Dan, by being himself, communicated, "Look. We all know I know more about the Bible than Jesus. But you may ask any question you like, and I will be glad to answer you, whether you're Joe Fitzmeyer, or a middle aged woman taking your first course in Biblical Studies." He lived to study, learn, teach, write and talk about the Bible, and his passion was to share what he knew with others. Dan hopefully now is in a place where the Red Sox always have winning seasons, and where he can discuss the fine points of biblical scholarship with those who wrote the scriptures. Thanks Dan.


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