On the Greatness of Joseph Fitzmyer (Skinner)

FitzToday I was reading a student’s exegetical paper on Luke’s “Sermon on the Plain,” and the student in question cited Joe Fitzymer’s Luke commentary (from the Anchor Bible series) numerous times. At one point in the paper the student wrote, “I agree with Fitzmyer that…..,” to which I wrote in all caps in the margin, THAT’S USUALLY A GOOD THING TO DO.” Most of my students are 19 or 20 years old and likely have no idea who Joseph Fitzmyer is or the impact he had on the field of biblical studies for the better part of five decades. Here’s a fun exercise: if you are sitting in an office or in a theological library right now, pick up a few random titles on the New Testament published in the past 50 years, then go to the index. There’s a good chance you will see, “Fitzmyer, J. A.” at least once, probably more than once.

When I was beginning my doctoral studies at Catholic University, Fitzmyer was just about to retire. I had the privilege of interacting with him on a number of occasions and was always impressed by the sharpness of his intellect. Few scholars can boast the range of expertise that Fitzmyer displayed for so many years: Dead Sea Scrolls, Aramaic, Pauline theology, the Gospels, all elements of Roman Catholic biblical studies, and the list could continue.

Sadly, for health reasons Fitzmyer has not been writing over the past 7 to 8 years, and I’m afraid that many students currently pursuing research in our field may not know or appreciate his legacy. I once heard Dale Allison say in a lecture: “Some of the old books are still pretty good, while some of the new books are surprisingly bad.” In the spirit of that quotation, I felt like celebrating a scholar whose work is, “still pretty good.” I’d appreciate it if you’d celebrate along with me.

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7 thoughts on “On the Greatness of Joseph Fitzmyer (Skinner)

  1. Enough of all this sycophancy. Nijay, your last post links to a piece in which you rightly said that students should be encouraged to think for themselves. Yet here you encourage them to hang on Fitzmyer’s every word! You make NT studies into a celebrity sport in which a small number of “big names” get all the attention. The danger with this is that such people, including Fitzmyer, tend to be NT generalists (for that his how they become famous) and are not experts in the specialist sub-disciplines. Nijay, there is far too much sycophancy in your blog posts, and it is unhelpful. Encourage us to think for ourselves!

    • Thanks for the reply, fellowsrichard, but let me make a few clarifying points. First, this is not Nijay but Chris (as evidenced by the label [Skinner] after the title of the post). Second, this was not “sycophancy” as you describe it, but rather a reflection on my own experience with a truly great biblical scholar in light of my own students’ interaction with his scholarship. I think you run the risk of being understood as ignorant of the discipline of NT studies by suggesting that Fitzmyer was known as a “generalist.” If you take the time to read Fitz’s work on the Dead Sea Scrolls, Aramaic, or any of his outstanding commentaries, you will soon come to realize that he was (and is) recognized for being a giant in our field….a true specialist in multiple different ways. What you can’t know is that this thread was also shared on Facebook, where numerous people with specific experiences with Fitz chimed in to express their agreement with what I had written, lauding his teaching acumen and scholarly production. I commend to you one (or more) of his writings so that you can see that this celebratory post is assuredly NOT an example of sycophancy. I would also add that teaching students to think for themselves is a hallmark of my teaching (as any of my students would quickly tell you). My comment in the margin of my student’s paper was tongue-in-cheek and something I later explained to him. I’m afraid you misread my post and the intent behind my comments.

      • Chris, someone who is a “specialist in multiple ways” is not really a specialist, is he? Anyway, my point is not about whether Fitzmyer’s work is or is not high quality (though I do have some concerns about his handling of onomastics). My point is that there is too much commending of famous people, particularly on this blog. It’s OK to do it occasionally, if one is very selective (as I trust you are). If one extols the greatness of multiple authors then one runs into the problem that those authors disagree with each other on both minor and major issues. They can’t all be right, can they? One’s commendation then loses value. Yes, I over-reacted to your post because of my mistaken assumption that it came from Nijay (who has commended scholars many times already), and I certainly have no problem believing that you and Nijay teach your students to think for themselves.

        There is no need to take offence, Nijay. I am just trying to be honest. My comments are really in admiration of the sentiments that you expressed in your last post.

        I have found that much (most) of the cutting edge work (in my areas of interest) is in lesser-known works by lesser-known authors, and I try to bring such works to people’s attention on my blog.

  2. Sorry, I have just realized that this blog post came from Christopher, not Nijay. My third sentence applies to Christopher, but my last sentence applies to Nijay.

    • Richard – you have crossed what I consider to be a quite standard line of academic etiquette. Unless you can find a more respectful way to state a concern, I suggest you blog about your concerns with me on your own blog where you have the internet-granted right to say whatever you want in whatever way you want.

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