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

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Wikipedia/Grayme

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.

Wansbrough worked virtually single-handed for seven years to revise the translation from the original languages and to update the introductions and notes. Several books needed a completely new translation, and even the “almost perfect” books might need a couple of thousand changes. Changes from the French notes had to be run by the Director of the French School, and often required an epic struggle

The New Jerusalem Bible is used in the liturgy of much of the English-speaking world, as well as being an excellent resource for biblical study at all levels.

In 1991 Wansbrough became a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, a group comprised of 24 prominent biblical scholars from around the world who each served 10-year terms. Raymond Brown was from the United States, and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was the chair. “Ratzinger didn’t micro-manage the meetings; instead, he listened carefully”; said Wansbrough. “On the whole he was very reticent; but, when he did speak, his penetrating insights could move the whole discussion. There was one meeting when he and I raised our hands at approximately the same time. As I prepared to listen, Ratzinger said, ‘Let Henry speak first.’ Another time I asked, ‘Will the Cardinal make a statement?’ He took my request very seriously, prefacing his remarks with ‘Henry asked me to make a statement.’” In those 10 years the Commission made two important 5-year studies, the first at the request of Pope John Paul II before his visit to the Holy Land, The Jewish People and its Holy Scripture in the Christian Bible, the second, The Bible and Morality.

An important advance in Catholic biblical scholarship in the past 50 years has been the attitude of the Church toward Protestant scholars. In the 1953 EnglishCatholic Commentary on Holy Scripture a cautionary asterisk marked out the names of Protestant scholars. For the second edition Wansbrough persuaded the editors to remove this warning, arguing that Catholic readers were adult enough to make their own assessment in the joint enterprise of the search for biblical truth. “We can learn from one another,” he insists.  

For 14 years Wansbrough was Master of St. Benet’s Hall in Oxford, combining this with a full load of teaching and a stint as Chairman of the university’s Theology Faculty. But he is not one to stay in the ivory tower of the academy. In Great Britain, Religious Studies is one of the subjects that is examined in secular schools. There are state examinations at the age of 16 and 18. In the high school classes he teaches, students complete intensive and scholarly papers on the Gospel of Mark and other biblical subjects, often going on, as lay men and women, to study Theology at college and beyond. This study is combined with leading student groups in the Benedictine practice of lectio divina, in which a scriptural passage is read, meditated and shared, and then applied to one’s life. He has also for many years taught for part of each year in various African seminaries, principally in Zimbabwe, where his Abbey has a daughter-house. He told me that the thirst there for biblical knowledge among both clergy and laity was an enduring inspiration.

One of Wansbrough’s most recent scholarly books, The Use and Abuse of the Bible, “shows how the Bible is open to history, how it is relevant to events in the world. It shows how the Bible has been both used and understood in different ways, as well as abused, in different historical periods.” The book has received excellent critical reviews from scholars around the world. Dom Henry’s great hope is that biblical scholarship will contribute to bringing different Christian traditions together. “The Bible is foundational to every Christian tradition, and the joint study of its riches must contribute to the unity for which Christ prayed.” His next book, already in the press, will be Introducing the New Testament.

William Van Ornumis professor of psychology at Marist College and director of research and development/grants at American Mental Health Foundation in New York City. He studied theology and scripture at DePaul University.

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