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One of the Most Important Catholic Biblical Scholars You’ve Never Heard Of


William Van Ornum - published on 06/03/14

But you’ve almost definitely read his work before...

What does a world-famous scripture scholar do after returning from a biblical conference in South Africa? Are there texts to revisit, linguistic dictionaries to consult, or rare books to return to their home in the monastery library? Not exactly.

Last week, Dom Henry Wansbrough, OSB, was pushing a lawn mower on the grounds of Ampleforth Abbey in England after a long plane trip.  He regularly runs four or five miles. Decades ago, as captain of the rugby team at Ampleforth College, Fr. Henry commanded players on the nearby field. The football coach was Basil Hume, later Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster. Now nearly 80, he continues to be intellectually, physically, and spiritually sound, writing copiously and teaching both university and high school.

He was raised in a household where eminent literary and artistic figures were frequent visitors. Guests might include Hilaire Belloc and Fr. Ronald Knox, a brilliant Oxford scholar who translated the Bible. Equally it might be General Lord Ismay, Churchill’s chief military advisor in World War II, or General Freyburg, winner of the VC, the highest honour for bravery in the British Empire. “There was a constant stream of interesting guests. If my sister and I were good, we were allowed to wait at the tables. It was fascinating to listen to the conversations.” On the walls were family portraits by John Sargent and Edward Burne-Jones. Drawing-room recitals might be given by international musicians. “My grandparents would have nothing in the house that was not worthy of being in a museum,” he said.

Schooling was at the high school of the monastery where he later became a monk, in a green and fertile valley in the North of England. “We started Latin at 10, and by 14 I had read the Acts of the Apostles in Greek” Later, when he was examined in Latin for his Roman biblical degree he amused himself by introducing classical Latin literary figures which he knew would be beyond his examiners. However, before this, he had taken two degrees at Oxford, where he was examined by C.S. Lewis. ‘It was a challenging interview,’ he recalled. ‘He questioned me about Homer, and later I had to send him references to support my argument. Sadly, in my callow youth, I threw away his reply!”

With a classical background the transition to biblical studies flowed easily. It was helped by the gift of a Hebrew Bible from a friend. “I was fascinated by that lovely language, and an old monk taught me the basics.” At theology school in Fribourg (Switzerland) he teamed up with another student to arrange lessons from a local rabbi. These were the exciting years of Vatican II, and he found time to edit a student newspaper on the progress of the Council, receiving bulletins direct from the Vatican Press Office. He was briefly summoned to Rome, where he acted as a link between English and German hierarchies.

These studies were crowned by a year at the French biblical school in Jerusalem. “I recall a brilliant seminar on the synoptic problem. We worked in four or five language-groups, and had 2 weeks to write our papers. These were then circulated and argued out between the groups. It was the greatest learning experience of my life.” Vacations were spent touring biblical sites of the Near East on a Vespa motor-scooter.

The first important product of all this learning was an invitation to edit a new edition of The Jerusalem Bible. The Bible de Jérusalem was begun in 1946 to sum up the new biblical discoveries after four decades of stalemate in Catholic biblical studies after the modernist crisis of 1906. The English edition appeared in 1966, but by 1978 a new edition was needed.

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