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Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J.: Scholar and Teacher of the Word of God

From: U.S. Catholic Historian
Volume 31, Number 4, Fall 2013
pp. 63-83 | 10.1353/cht.2013.0016

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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 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).

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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).

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.

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 studies, including George Ernest Wright (1909–1974), Raymond E. Brown, S.S. (1928–1998), David Noel Freedman (1922–2008), and Frank Moore Cross (1921–2012).

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