Tuesday, 2 July 2019

Roland Murphy & Wisdom Literature (1) A short biography of Roland Murphy O.Carm.

Roland Murphy O.Carm. (1917-2002) was the subject of July’s Carmelite Conversation at the Carmelite Library. Fr Roland was an American Carmelite and prolific biblical scholar. His youthful study life began at the critical moment when the Catholic Church had just approved pursuit of the historical critical method in reading the Bible. This huge advance in thinking resulted in a remarkable outpouring of work from Roland Murphy, especially on his favourite subject, the Wisdom Literature of the Hebrew Bible. The Conversation included, for enjoyment and edification, structured readings of parts of his translations and commentaries on Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, and Psalms. Here is the biographical section of the morning’s offerings, prepared by Philip Harvey.

A theological cataloguer becomes familiar with the names of well-known and not-so-well-known theologians. We make it our business to know who’s who, also who they all are, in fact. We describe their books, follow their reviews, and watch out for the latest works. A name that I’ve known for as long as I’ve worked in theology libraries is Roland Murphy, though until this year the only book of his I’d spent time with at length was ‘The Tree of Life’, his enriching overview of the Wisdom Literature of the Hebrew Bible, now in its third and I suspect final edition. Roland Murphy died in 2002 at the biblical age of 85. Those with calculators can tell us that he was therefore born in 1917.

A fellow Carmelite remembers him at seminary at Niagara Falls, Ontario in 1930. Two periods each day were devoted to the study of Latin, where Roland stood out because “invariably he received a mark of 100 on the daily vocabulary test.” (Egan 84) His exceptional gift for language would inform his whole career, as eventually he came to master the modern languages of German, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish; the biblical languages of Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic; and the ancient languages that impact on scriptural composition: Syriac, Akkadian, Arabic, and Ugaritic.

“Coincident with the graduate studies Roland began his twenty-five year career as teacher of Scripture at Whitefriars Hall. This direct contact with a whole generation of Carmelite students was the single most important feature of his influence on the intellectual life of the Carmelites. His achievements and reputation outside the community as university professor, researcher, writer, and editor, gave him a high profile and were a source of pride and admiration among his Carmelite brethren. But the teaching put the man in living contact with the students, where he touched minds and hearts. Here students experienced his contagious enthusiasm for Scripture, his competence as a scholar, his rigorous honesty in both academic and practical matters, his high standards and expectations, and his undeviating commitment to truth. Roland was a giant: physically, mentally, and spiritually. In his religious life he followed the strictior observantia and taught by silent example rather than word.” (Egan 59-60)

Stories abound of his “contagious enthusiasm for Scripture”.

“Roland livened his classes by dramatizing the biblical stories and by taking on the different personages. He was the first in my experience to use the term ‘Yahweh’ for God. It wasn’t long before thestudents pinned on him, outside of class of course, the very title he used for God, ‘Yahweh’.
“When Roland taught the prophets, he could play the prophet as he resoundingly condemned the kings of Israel and Judah, echoing the judgment of Yahweh. He paced back and forth with those giant strides that his six foot four frame permitted. More than once he had to grab the toppling blackboard as he went on his pursuit of God in history. We left class breathless from his physical and psychic energy.
“ I [Peter Hinde, O.Carm.] recall his treatment of Wisdom, the Song of Songs, Ben Sirach, and Ecclesiastes. He delighted in the concrete imagery of wisdom literature: ‘As a door turns on its hinges, so does the sluggard in his bed’ (Proverbs 26:14) He’d scrutinize the room as if looking for an example in the class.” (Egan 68)

Sources vary as to Fr Roland’s height, others saying he was six foot seven. Those of you who have studied the Bible in church or theology school will wonder at his idea of an exam. “Many of his students from the early 60’s remember the final exam in which for the first hour they were told to outline Salvation History from the Garden to candles glowing in the Temple after the Maccabbean revolt. During the second hour of the exam they were to fill in the outline!” (Egan 69-70)

When we look at his works set out before us, we cannot miss that Everest amongst the many peaks, ‘The Jerome Biblical Commentary’, of which he was one of the three editors, as well as major contributor. It was published in 1968 and has served as the first resort, and sometimes alas the last resort, of Catholic theological students ever since. In other words, this is an author whose words reach millions of readers every year, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, even if they have no idea that they are reading Roland Murphy. Some would say that the Jerome Commentary is merely the Annapurna put beside his work as translator of the New American Bible (NAB). The point I am making is that his life was one of concerted and brilliant scholarship. His talent as a teacher was in some ways simply an extension of his extraordinary breadth of working knowledge and unbounded enthusiasm for the Bible. He produced more than 230 books and articles in his life. I have calculated that if we had a reading simply of the titles and publishing details of all those works it would take longer than the hour and a half we have together now.

His career in this respect takes him well beyond the confines of seminary teaching in Washington D.C.As well as Catholic University of America, where he also taught Semitic languages and theology, he studies Arabic at the American Schools of Oriental Research in Jerusalem. He had strong connections with the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, as we would expect. He held important professorial positions, was President of the Catholic Biblical Association and the Society of Biblical Literature of the United States. (Corley)

For 25 years he taught inside Catholic schools of theology, but after the Vatican Council Roland Murphy began dividing time with Protestant schools: the Presbyterians at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, Yale and Princeton Universities, and then for many years with the Methodists at Duke University (Corley). This itself is another historical shift in his life – the ecumenical engagement – that he pursued and led by example. Working with Protestant scholars and students further expanded his worldview and knowledge. They could learn from him and he could learn from them.

We may never learn about all the differences he had with Catholic faculties of theology, though being of independent mind he does seem to have had encounters. For example, he signed a petition in support of more openness about the encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968), explaining that he was not in rebellion against it, just part of the loyal opposition. Biographical writing on Roland Murphy is coy about details of departmental clashes, but his gradual shift to faculties of advanced non-Catholic schools is observable through this period. For biblical studies and Fr Roland this was an expansion of possibilities.   

One story (source now lost) that I have encountered is told by a student at Duke. She was starting her study in Old testament and needed to meet her new teacher, Roland Murphy. Wher can I find him? What does he look like? She was told to look out for a Q-Tip. This expression was new to me so I googled it. In the United States a Q-Tip is a brand of cotton bud. In other words, the person she was looking for had a head of white hair. Which, of course, was true, he was tall and by this time had a white mane of hair. This story appeals to me: someone who has dedicated his life to the study of Wisdom ends up as a Q-Tip.

I wish to make some observations about his writing style. Roland Murphy’s commentaries, his essays and articles, are written in an English that is concise, spare, and direct. This style is in marked contrast to what we consider the attributes of the poetry and Wisdom sayings of the Bible, which are imaginative, ambiguous, multi-layered, daring, even flowery. It is not just that Wisdom Literature is expected to be this way. Fr Roland’s scholarly attention is upon the fact that it is the very nature of this literature. We notice and hear the differences when we read his translations beside his own interpretations. While I have wondered at the seeming contradictions in these styles, I hesitate to make final judgments, or conclude that it is unusual. His concise English style has been cultivated and his normal speaking voice. The style gets to the point, strives for utter clarity of meaning, sets the scene for discussion. I do wonder if it has been influenced by a lifetime reading ancient languages, with their clipped words, invisible particles, and tricky declensions. The Bible wishes to say things in the briefest and surest ways possible – the attention span of people being what it is – and this has affected his written English. I would also draw attention to his mode of translation, which would avoid prosy English in favour of hardline arrangement, even to the point of placing words strictly in the order they appear in the original.

My conclusion to this biography returns to his life as a Carmelite, for throughout his life he always lived with the support and friendship of the Order. It is valuable to hear his confrere Kilian Healy write this. “It is the liturgical life of the [Carmelite] community, the daily recitation of the liturgy of the Hours, and the celebration of the Eucharist that plays an important part in Roland’s life. The Word of God which he studies each day and proclaims in the classroom has become the soul of his prayerful life. In this he is faithful to the Carmelite Rule that exhorts its members: ‘Each one of you is to stay in his own cell or nearby, pondering the Lord’s law day and night and keeping watch at his prayers unless attending to some other duty.’ (ch.7) ‘The sword of the spirit, the Word of God, must abound in your mouths and hearts. Let all you do have the Lord’s Word for accompaniment.’ (ch. 14)” (Egan 67)


Corley, Felix. Fr Roland Murphy, O.Carm. (1917-2002) – Catholic Biblical Scholar. In The Independent newspaper, London, 2002.

Egan, Keith & Craig Morrison (editors). Master of the sacred page : essays and articles in honor of Roland E. Murphy, O.Carm., on the occasion of his eightieth birthday. Carmelite Institute, 1997

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