FELIX CORLEY meets the Dominican Scripture scholar, Fr Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, in his home in the heart of Israel, and finds a man of blunt and often controversial views
the central the central shrine of Christendom to stand out in majestic isolation, but anonymous buildings cling to it like barnacles. One looks for numinous light, but it is dark and cramped. One hopes for peace, but the ear is assailed by a cacophony of warring chants. One desires holiness, only to encountrer a jealous possessiveness. The frailty of humanity is nowhere more apparent than here." Frank, unsentimental and blunt: this is Fr Jerome MurphyO'Connor on the church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the spot where Christ was crucified and buried.
Fr Murphy-O'Connor's celebrated guidebook is now in its third edition, with a fourth already at the publishers. But sitting in his studycum-bedroom at the Ecole Biblique, he recalls how he had to fight hard to get Oxford University Press to allow such a blunt description into the pages of the guide.
"People would be upset," the OUP told him. But he insisted, and is gratified to hear it read out by guides just about to take their tour groups into the Holy Sepulchre.
"I find it impossible to pray there," he admits, "though it is a wonderful monument to the history of the Church." The Holy Sepulchre is shared between seven Christian Churches, with three hold mg ultimate responsibility the Latin Catholics (represented by the Franciscans), the Greek Orthodox and the Armenians. Co-operation has often been sadly lacking, with fights breaking out in the church over access to different sections.
After years of disagreement, the three main groups finally agreed to rebuild the dome. On 2 January the scaffolding that had held up the roof for decades was removed and the new dome unvieled. Golden rays surround a window in the dome.
Fr Murphy-O'Connor is characteristically blunt: "I don't like it much." For his considered view, readers will have to await the fourth edition of the guidebook.
It may be national pride, but Fr Murphy-O'Connor prefers another recentlyrestored golden dome in Jerusalem's Old City that of the Dome of the Rock, the main building in the Muslim complex known in Arabic as Haram esh-Sharif. This is the third holiest Islamic shrine after Mecca and Medina.
"The gilding of the dome was done much cheaper by a firm called Mivan from Belfast, "he says proudly. "They have done mosques all over the world. King Hussein of Jordan paid for this to be done, and they came up with the cheapest quote. And they brought it in on time and under budget." Fr MurphyO'Connor got to know the builders and marvelled at their ingenuity.
• He watched them drying strips of gold with hair-driers before placing them on the panels. The builders even invited him up on top of the Dome during the work, giving him an unrivalled panoramic view of the Old City. Fr Murphy-O'Connor reciprocated by inviting the workers over to the Ecole Biblique for a drink.
The Holy Land guidebook began life in the tours Fr Murphy O'Connor has done for many years for a group of friends. Every weekend he still goes with what he calls the Sunday Group many of them diplomats, United Nations staff or journalists for a hike to one of the many archaeological sites around the country.
Fr Murphy-O'Connor was born in Cork in 1935, the son of a wine merchant. His cousin, Cormac, is the bishop of Arundel and Brighton. "We are a big clerical family, but I knew very clearly I didn't want to be a secular priest. I entered the Domini
cans because that is where we went to church."
After seminary in Ireland he chose Scriptural studies as his field, gaining a doctorate in Fribourg. "Scripture was the only field where new things were being done." He arrived in Jerusalem as a graduate student in 1963, before returning to further studies on the Dead Sea Scrolls in Germany, returning to the Ecole Biblique in 1967 when he was appointed to teach on the Scrolls.
For the first 12 years, he was the only English speaker in the French-run school, which is located a stone's throw outside the walls of the Old City. Now there are students monks, laymen and laywomen from around the world. Fr Murphy-O'Connor has just three hours' teaching a week and can devote the rest of his time to study and writing. "The Ecole Biblique is one of the few places where one can focus in such detail."
Does living in Jerusalem influence his work as an archaeologist and biblical scholar? "Jerusalem prejudices you in favour of history," he says. "You start with a critical bias, while elsewhere people start with a sceptical bias." In particular he scorns the work of "Bibli cal scholars" like the Jesus Seminar, where a group of academics vote on which Biblical passages they feel are authentic. "The Biblical text should be treated as a witness, not as a defendant. The Jesus Seminar people treat the text differently from that of other literature."
Fr Murphy O'Connor's latest work has been on St Paul, among whose letters he definitely prefers 1Corinthians. "All the positive stuff is there it is the best introduction to Paul's thought. Most seminarians' interest is destroyed by teaching from Romans."
Fr Murphy O'Connor has concluded from his study that the reference to "women keeping silent in church" is a later interpolation in the text. "Paul accepted women on fully egalitarian principles. He takes it for granted that women can pray and preach in church. The insertion about keeping silent is awkward and flatly contradicts the rest of chapter 14."
Fr Murphy-O'Connor suggests that the objection to women's ordination is sociological rather than theological.
He is not immune to controversy though. His book Paul: a critical lifewas to his huge surprise heavily covered in the British press
in the wake of a critical review in the Evening Standard Fr Murphy-O'Connor takes it lightly. "The review blamed the book on the Oxford University Press, saying the poor author was badly served by his editors. But my family sat up and took notice of me for the first time, especially when I got a whole page in the Financial Times!"