At the age of 18, he entered the Jesuit Novitiate in Wernersville, Pennsylvania, to begin the long course of studies leading to ordination as a Jesuit priest. This traditional preparation involved heavy emphasis on the Classical languages and literature, as well as philosophy and theology, and he received master’s degrees in all of these areas. He completed his formal theological studies at a Jesuit school of theology in Egenhoven, Belgium, where he was ordained a Jesuit priest (1951) and completed a Licentiate in Sacred Theology (S.T.L.).
By the mid-20th century, Catholic Scripture scholars were studying at major secular universities—despite resistance to critical studies of the Bible by Vatican authorities. In 1953, Fitzmyer began the direct preparation for a lifetime of Scripture study at Johns Hopkins University under the renowned Biblical scholar and archaeologist William Foxwell Albright (1892–1971), where he received his Ph.D. in 1956 with a dissertation on the Aramaic texts found in Egypt. He then matriculated at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, where he received a Licentiate in Sacred Scripture (S.S.L.). After receiving a fellowship at the American School of Oriental Research (ASOR) in Jerusalem, he joined a team at the Palestine Archaeological Museum in East Jerusalem—now called the Rockefeller Museum—and worked in preparing a concordance to the Dead Sea Scrolls.
He published 50 books, including major commentaries on the Biblical Books of Luke, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians and Philemon (all in the Anchor Bible Series) and on the Book of Tobit (Commentaries on Early Jewish Literature), as well as equally significant works on the Dead Sea Scrolls and on Aramaic texts. The commentaries are signature examples of the value of historical criticism, which Fitzmyer and his colleagues, especially the late Raymond E. Brown, S.S., formerly of the Union Theological Seminary (UTS) in New York City, constantly explained and defended. Fitzmyer served as editor of The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, The Journal of Biblical Literature and New Testament Studies. He was also one of the founders of The Jerome Biblical Commentary and a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission. His long career involved participation in the National and International Ecumenical Dialogs, and he received honorary doctorates from 11 U.S. universities and from Lunds University (Sweden) and St. Andrews University (Scotland).
For 46 years, he was a dedicated teacher and mentor at a number of institutions, principally Woodstock College in Maryland, the University of Chicago, Fordham University and the Catholic University of America (1976–2004). He contributed to the education of many young people, priests and laymen alike, Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants. And he was respected by his many Jewish colleagues. He remained living at the Jesuit Community of Georgetown University, where he continued his research with a final publication, a major revision and translation of Ernst Vogt’s A Lexicon of Biblical Aramaic: Clarified by Ancient Documents (Rome: Gregorian Biblical Press, 2011), when he went into full retirement at Manresa Hall in 2011.
Just as his scholarship was thorough, significant and lasting, his legacy will not be short-lived.
Strata: “Milestones: Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J. (1920–2016)” by John R. Donahue originally appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
John R. Donahue, S.J. is the Raymond E. Brown Distinguished Professor of New Testament Studies (emeritus) at St. Mary’s Seminary and University, Baltimore, MD.
Below, watch BAR Editor Hershel Shanks interview Joseph Fitzmyer about the Dead Sea Scrolls in 2010.