The Catholic University of America

Professor Emeritus Fr. Joseph Fitzmeyer, SJ Enters Eternal Life 


Rev. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., died peacefully the morning before Christmas at Manresa Hall, Merion Station, PA. He was 96.


Fitzmyer was admitted to the novitiate of the Maryland Province of the Jesuits in 1938. After completing initial formation in 1940, he was sent to study at Loyola University of Chicago, earning a BA, followed in 1945 by an MA in Greek. He was ordained in 1951 and earned his STL at Louvain in 1952. Fitzmyer then took the unusual step of pursuing further studies outside of Catholic academia, undertaking his PhD at Johns Hopkins University as one of the students of the great American biblical scholar, W. F. Albright, alongside the Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish scholars who would shape the field in the last decades of the twentieth century. Fitzmyer’s 1956 dissertation was on The Syntax of Imperial Aramaic Based on the Documents Found in Egypt. After earning an SSL from the Pontifical Biblical Institute in 1957, he quickly proved himself a major scholar in his own right, being named president of the Catholic Biblical Association already in 1969. A decade later he was president of the Society of Biblical Literature, only the third Catholic to hold this position (John McKenzie was the first in 1966, followed by Fitzmyer’s former classmate Ray Brown in 1977).


Fitzmyer first taught at Woodstock College, from 1958 to 1969. He then taught for two years at the University of Chicago, four at Fordham University, and two at Weston School of Theology, finally making his home at the Catholic University of America in 1976, where he taught for over two more decades and remained emeritus faculty until his death.


A total bibliography of Fitzmyer's works would fill a small book. He was most renowned as a scholar of Luke-Acts, contributing to the Anchor Bible series a two-volume commentary on the Gospel of Luke (1981 and 1985) and a one-volume commentary on Acts (1998) that became classics. They were later joined by commentaries on Romans (1993), Philemon (2000), Tobit (2003), and 1 Corinthians (2008).


Fitzmyer was also a scholar of the Dead Sea Scrolls, in 1971 publishing his translation of the Genesis Apocryphon of Qumran Cave 1 and more than twenty years later publishing sapiential texts from Cave 4. He wrote several volumes to assist others working with the Scrolls, including The Dead Sea Scrolls: major publications and tools for study (1975 and 1990), Responses to 101 Questions on the Dead Sea Scrolls (1992), The Dead Sea Scrolls and Christian Origins (2000), A Guide to the Dead Sea Scrolls and Related Literature (2008), and The Impact of the Dead Sea Scrolls (2009).


Fitzmyer never lost the sense that biblical scholarship should be of service to the Church. Alongside his technical exegesis, he wrote many popular books and articles for the general public. The pastoral dimension of his apostolate, and his own Ignatian Jesuit spirituality, showed forth in books like Spiritual Exercises Based on Paul's Epistle to the Romans (1995). He served on the Pontifical Biblical Commission for more than a decade, from 1984 to 1995, a crucial period that saw the promulgation of Scripture and Christology in 1986 and The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church in 1993. He served in the United States Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue on Justification, contributing his expertise on justification in the New Testament.


Father Fitzmyer was the recipient of no less than three festschrifts -- A Wise and discerning heart in 1986, To Touch the Text in 1989, and in 2011, Celebrating Paul: A festschrift in honor of Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, O.P., and Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J. In 1984, he was awarded the Burkitt Medal by the British Academy, and in 1996, the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America awarded him the Johannes Quasten Award.


A perusal of the internet will reveal dozens of tributes that have poured out in the days since his death from former students, students of students, and others, all of whom see themselves as the proverbial “dwarfs astride the shoulders of giants.” The Church, the academy, and our University have lost a giant, but his impact will endure long into the future.