Fr Jerome Murphy-O'Connor
A leading biblical scholar who was not afraid to question the Gospels
FR Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, who has died aged 78, was a Dominican priest, a leading authority on biblical archaeology and Professor of New Testament studies at the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem, the oldest Roman Catholic graduate school in the Holy Land.
A first cousin of Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, "Fr Jerry", as he was known, was the author of more than a dozen books and numerous papers on theology and archaeology, including the concise and witty The Holy Land: An Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700. First published in 1980 as part of the Oxford Archaeological Guide series, the book ran to five editions and became a bestseller.
Murphy-O'Connor also distinguished himself as someone who brought archaeological sites in the Holy Land to life, somehow managing to strengthen believers in their faith while challenging some of their most cherished assumptions about the life of Christ where they conflicted with the scholarly evidence.
Thus, for example, he poured cold water on the biblical account of the journey undertaken by Joseph and Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem, pointing out that although St Luke claims that they travelled to take part in a Roman census, Jesus was born in Herod the Great's time, before the Romans took power, and probably about 11 years before the census.
Nor was news of the birth of Jesus spread by angels: "Angelos in Greek means messenger. It is much more likely that Joseph and Mary had friends in the area who were shepherds and they knew of the impending birth from kids shouting to their dads," he explained. Such stories had survived because "people prefer good yarns to the truth".
Murphy-O'Connor also claimed that the modern-day pilgrims who follow Jerusalem's 'Via Dolorosa' – Jesus's journey to the Cross – are probably going the wrong way. The traditional route begins near the city's eastern edge, where the Antonia Fortress once stood; it was more likely that Pilate judged Jesus from a platform in front of what had been Herod's palace, near the Jaffa Gate on the west of the Old City.
Meanwhile, although there was nothing implausible about the general story of the Crucifixion, in Christian iconography some of the details had been "prettied up" in a way which, Murphy-O'Connor felt, downplayed Jesus's essential humanity.
In reality, the Way of the Cross would have led through cramped passages where it was "part of the game" for bystanders to strike at the prisoner's kidneys and genitals. Nor was Calvary the lonely hilltop that is so often depicted, but a stone outcrop at the corner of an abandoned rock quarry.
But the cave where Jesus is said to have been born, and which now lies beneath the main section of Bethlehem's 1,600-year-old Church of the Nativity, was, Murphy-O'Connor believed, probably His true birthplace. Although the New Testament makes no mention of a cave, the fact that the site had none the less been revered since at least the second century gave the strongest indication that it was the actual spot. "It's pre-Constantinian, which means a local tradition,'' Murphy-O'Connor explained. "You're not inventing stuff to make tourists happy, which is what happened in the Byzantine period when you had millions of pilgrims coming here.''
Murphy-O'Connor was sanguine about such commercialism, noting that it had uses for scholarship. For example, what is believed to have been the original tomb of Christ was destroyed by an Egyptian conqueror in 1009, and it is only because of early commercialism that it is known what it looked like. Pilgrims of the 6th century brought back oil from the sacred lamps and water from the Jordan in little silver flasks which were etched with a tiny replica of the tomb. Some are still preserved.
The eldest of four children of a prosperous wine merchant, Fr Jerome was born James Murphy-O'Connor in Cork on April 10, 1935, and educated at the Christian Brothers College in Cork, and at Castleknock College in Dublin, where he decided to train as a Dominican priest.
After graduating, he chose scriptural studies, gaining a doctorate at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland. He was ordained in 1964. He embarked on post-doctoral work on the Dead Sea Scrolls at the universities of Heidelberg and Tubingen. When he arrived at the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem at the age of 28, he continued the work of interpreting the Dead Sea Scrolls and the writings of St Paul. He was appointed Professor of New Testament in 1967.
Tall, heavily built and with a clipped white beard, Murphy-O'Connor had something of the Old Testament prophet about him, and during his 50 years in Jerusalem, he built an international reputation as one of the world's leading biblical scholars.
He lectured around the world and made numerous television appearances, most recently on Channel 4's eight-part Christianity: A History (2009). For many years he led parties of diplomats, UN staff, journalists, priests and sundry ex-pats on weekend hikes around such sites as Qumram, Masada, Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Caesarea – the only stipulations being that participants should not hold Israeli or Arab passports and that they should keep their tour guide supplied with gin and tonic.
Fr Jerry Murphy-O'Connor donated all the royalties from his books to his Dominican institute.
While he lived in Jerusalem until his death, he returned to Cork most summers.