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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

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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