Deacon Duncan Macpherson, M.A., D.Min
   
 
 

Michael Prior Tenth Anniversary Lecture

 
‘Remembering Michael Prior: Life, Legacy & (Loose) Ends'

 

 

 

Professor Michael Prior Controversial priest and theologian, an outspoken supporter of Palestinian rights

 

 

 

Remembering Michael Prior: Life

Born: Cork (Ireland) 15.3.1942.
 Infant School (St Vincent's), Primary and Secondary School (Our Lady's Mount, North Monastery) in Cork.
1960-61: Vincentian Community, Dublin
1961-64: Philosophy, with Distinction (Dublin)
1961-65: B.Sc. Honours (Experimental Physics [Major] and Mathematics [Minor]), University College, Dublin
1965-68: B.D. (cum laude), Angelicum  University, Rome
1968-69: Vincentian Seminary, Arklow Holy Cross College, Clonliffe, Dublin 1969: Ordained Priest


1969-70: Goethe Institut Diploma (Dublin, and Prien, Germany)  Oriental Languages Department, University College, Dublin
1970-72 Licence in Sacred Scripture (L.S.S.) (magna cum laude) Pontifical Biblical Institute, Rome (1972: Study Tour of Israel and Occupied Territories)
1972-75: Director of Students & Master of Novices in Vincentian Seminary & Visiting Lecturer in Biblical Studies in All Hallows College, Dublin, Mater Dei Institute, Dublin & Carysfort College, Dublin
1975-77: Teacher and Chaplain in Bishop Ullathorne School, Coventry
1977-87: St Mary's College: Lecturer/Senior Lecturer        (1983-4: Sabbatical in the Jerusalem)
1987-97:  Head of Department of Theology and Religious Studies 
1996-97 Visiting Professor of Theology in Bethlehem University & Scholar-in-Residence in Tantur Ecumenical Institute, Jerusalem)
2001: Chair of Holy Land Research Project, St Mary's
2002: Senior Research Fellow in Holy Land Studies
2004: Professor of Bible and Theology
Died Osterley (England) 21.6. 2004

Prior will be remembered for his unique combination of kindness and his belligerent sense of fun. Once, when challenged to state his religion by an Israeli soldier, he answered humorously: "Well I was Zoroastrian, but I lapsed." On another occasion, when arrested on a peace march in Jericho, he was told that he was allowed one telephone call and replied that he wanted to ring the Pope.

 

His attitude to death, too, was typically Irish and Catholic. He was a man of substantial build and once responded to kindly expressions of concern over the advisability of jogging with the reply, "Well, if I die, at least I'll die healthy!"

After two years as a schoolmaster in Coventry, he became Lecturer in Theology and Religious Studies at St Mary's College, Strawberry Hill, in 1977. Prior gained his doctorate from London University in 1985 and became head of department in 1987. Apart from a sabbatical year in Jerusalem and a year as Visiting Professor of Theology in the University of Bethlehem, he spent the remaining years at St Mary's.

 

One of my first memories of the RS course is Michael starting a Monday morning scripture lecture, by singing "My father was a wandering Aramaean…" accompanying himself on the guitar.. I thought to myself at the time, this was a wonderfully novel way of teaching the Old Testament. Mark Brennan

 

 

Remembering Michael Prior: Legacy

Major Publications
1989 Paul the Letter Writer and the Second Letter to Timothy.
1995 Jesus the Liberator. Nazareth Liberation Theology (Luke 4.16-30)
1997 The Bible and Colonialism. A Moral Critique.
1999 Zionism and the State of Israel: A Moral Inquiry

1989 Paul the Letter Writer and the Second Letter to Timothy was judged to be 'a work of great originality, and a remarkable achievement' (Jerome Murphy-O'Connor), arguing for a radical change in understanding Paul as a letter-writer, pioneering the implications of co-authorship and secretarial assistance. It insisted on respecting the unique epistolary context of each of the ‘Pastoral Epistles’, and demonstrated that Second Timothy was quite distinct from the other two, and that it was a genuinely Pauline letter, for which he argued a novel provenance and occasion.

1995 Jesus the Liberator. Nazareth Liberation Theology (Luke 4.16-30)

The first full monograph on Luke 4.16-30, in it he pleaded for a movement beyond the dominant historical-critical method, stressing the need for a liberation reader-criticism of the Gospel, and suggesting the contemporary political challenge of Jesus' teaching. Reviewed in eight international journals, his interpretation was influential in liberation theology circles and at the interface between biblical scholarship and contemporary society, as well as within the strictly biblical academy.

[Three Key Elements of Latin American Liberation Theology

1. The Preferential Option for the Poor
Luke 4 and Matthew 5-7

2.  praxis-- union of theory and practice proposed both by Karl Marx and by Jesus Christ.

Philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it
----Karl Marx Theses on Feuerbach XI

Not every one that said to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that does the will of my Father which is in heaven
----Matthew 7:21

3. The Exodus paradigm

The God of Exodus is the God of history and of political liberation more than he is the God of nature.
Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation]

 

 

 


'...exposes the problematic of having texts which advocate genocide as a divine mandate in a sacred book. Focusing on the reception of the Bible, it provides evidence from three regions and periods of how it has been used to legitimise oppression. It invites both the biblical academy and Church/Synagogue circles to set their houses in order, and articulate ethical criteria by which genocidal dispositions may not be accorded a privileged place as part of a sacred text.' 2002

Modern application
'... the degree to which a thoroughly Zionised Judaism infects the so-called Jewish-Christian dialogue—which I prefer to designate ‘a monologue in two voices’—is a matter of grave concern. I am perturbed that concurrence with a Zionist reading of Jewish history—that Jews everywhere, and at all times, wanted to re-establish a nation state in Palestine (with no concern for the indigenous population), etc.—is virtually a component of the credo of the dialogue. In that fabricated scenario, the planned, and systematically executed dislocation of the Palestinian population, far from incurring the wrath of post-colonial liberalism, becomes an object of honour, and even religious significance. While most Jews world-wide—there are notable exceptions—allow themselves to be deluded by such perspectives, I see no reason why Christians should. '(MP.2000)


'Discusses the more theological aspects of Zionism. Although Political Zionism was secular, and in many respects a revolt against Judaism, I demonstrate the central role of the Bible as allegedly providing ideological support for it, both in the past and today. Yet, the biblical academy has not addressed the question. I consider that the public accountability of the discipline, as well as personal moral responsibilities, obliges exegetes to engage in such issues.'

Memorial Volumes:

A Living Stone: Michael Prior CM (Essays and Addresses, edited with a biographical introduction by Duncan Macpherson) Living Stones, London, 2006

Remembering Michael Prior: Ten Years On

(Selected Essays and Addresses, edited with an introduction by Duncan Macpherson), Living Stones, London, 2014
2013

(‘The Bible, in its land tradition, is part of the problem, but the Bible also, in its Gospel message, is part of the solution—provided that people such as Macpherson and ourselves take up Michael Prior’s challenge.’ Professor Gregory Heille OP, New Blackfriars, Volume 88, Issue 1016: 503-504)


Michael’s concerns can be put under 4 headings:
1. The future of the Living Stones--the Christian communities of the Holy Land and the wider Middle East

2. The Scriptures as good news of freedom for the oppressed--the teaching of Jesus as the manifesto of a Theology of Liberation.

3. The Scriptures as the bad news of oppression, providing religious sanction for colonialist ideology in general and for Zionist ideology in particular

4. A critique of Zionism as the primary obstacle to peace and justice in the Holy Land

 

1. The future of the Living Stones--the Christian communities of the Holy Land and the wider Middle East

‘Every year Christians from the United Kingdom go to the Holy Land to visit the places associated with the life of Jesus. They visit what remains of ancient churches which mark significant events. Regrettably, few contact the Christian communities there and yet these communities represent our closest links with the earliest Christian Churches... these Christians have experienced a continual struggle for religious identity and survival. In modern times their lives have been affected by the setting up of the State of Israel and by successive Arab-Israeli conflicts. Surprisingly, many British pilgrims are unaware of the existence of these Christians, or of their problems....' Michael Prior 1987

 

The Holy Land, or, in political terms, the State of Israel and the Occupied Territories of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, as a focus of ethical and moral investigation, is virtually a no-go area in biblical studies or Christian theology. Academic scholarship is virtually silent on the ethical and moral aspects of the question. I consider it a moral imperative to challenge that silence, and to invite an enquiry into the question, which will respect the noble values of religion, and humankind’s concern that human beings treat each other justly at least, if not indeed, with reverence. 1994 Newman Lecture

 

 

2.  The Scriptures as good news of freedom for the oppressed--the teaching of Jesus as the manifesto of a Theology of Liberation.

'The Exodus account of liberation from oppression, and the Christian celebration of resurrection found a sympathetic resonance in my heart, which at that time had been fed on a rich diet of Irish Republicanism...'(MP 1994)
'Theology is constantly tempted to ignore history in favour of eternity, and to confine the salvation which the Gospel offers to the private and individual dimension. The Lucan text is an obvious one for developing a theology of liberation. One of the lessons taught by the practitioners of liberation theology is that experience (praxis) is the primary element in theologizing. Exegesis of a text dealing with the evangelizing of the poor should begin with the personal experience of the poor. (MP 1996)

3. The Scriptures as the bad news of oppression, providing religious sanction for colonialist ideology in general and for Zionist ideology in particular
Whereas one looks to the Bible for strength and liberation, it is being used by some Christians and Jews in a way which offers Palestinians slavery rather than freedom, injustice rather than justice, and death to their national and political life ....Conventional Liberation Theologies, like all theologies, look to the Bible for their underpinning. It is not difficult to discern within the Hebrew Scriptures a whole range of themes which fit the concept of liberation very comfortably (e.g., liberation from oppression in Egypt, Babylon, etc.). However, does God, who is on the side of the oppressed Israelites, and who frees them from Egypt, remain on their side when they become the oppressor? The Promised Land did have an indigenous population. (MP. 1995)
4. A critique of Zionism as the primary obstacle to peace and justice in the Holy Land
'..As I pass by the checkpoint between Bethlehem and Jerusalem twice a day, with all of the privileges of being a foreigner, I boil with anger at the humiliation, degradation, and oppression which the colonizing enterprise of Zionism has inflicted on the people of this region.' (MP. Midnight Mass 1996)
Virtually the entire religious leadership of Jews in nineteenth century Eastern Europe considered Theodor Herzl, the creator of Zionism, and his creed, to be anathema. Britain’s Chief Rabbi considered his programme to be an ‘egregious blunder’ and an ‘absolutely mischievous project...'there is a fundamental moral problem at the core of the Zionist project which no amount of special pleading, or pretence to innocence, can sidestep: it is the determination to establish a state for Jews at the expense of the indigenous Arabs.' (MP.2004)


‘Remembering Michael Prior: (Loose) Ends'

1. The Living Stones
‘The future of humanity depends so much on what will happen in the Middle East region.' MP 1987
2004-14 in the Middle East
Michael’s scepticism about the 'peace map' and the two state solution justified.
      Expansion of Israeli settlements
     

 

Gaza conflicts of 2005-6, 2012 and 2014

  •  

 

2 Predictions of disastrous consequences of invasion of Iraq in 2003 justified.

3. Since then, false optimism generated by 'the Arab Spring' of 2011 has given way to civil wars, new dictatorships, sectarian and tribal bloodletting across much of the Arab world.

 

 

 

Christian Emigration 2204-14
Nearly half émigré Palestinians in London from Christian families.
Three-quarters of Bethlehem Christians live abroad and more Jerusalem Christians in Sydney, Australia than in Jerusalem.
Reasons for emigration:
Political, social and economic. However in 1987 Michael had been able to claim with some justice that Muslim extremism was not a factor. This is now less true: Rising Muslim fundamentalism, a trend across the Middle East, concerns some. But most cite Israeli occupation as the prime cause of emigration and the decline of their community.' Palestinian Authority's religious affairs ministry, 2013
This trend means category of endangered 'Living Stones'  widened beyond Christian communities of Israel-Palestine.
Iraq and Syria
2/3s of Iraq's Christians are now refugees. The same is now true of Syria's Christians.

Three Key Elements of Latin American Liberation Theology
1. The Preferential Option for the Poor
Luke 4 and Matthew 5-7
2. praxis-- union of theory and practice proposed: Philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.  ----Karl Marx
Not every one that said to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that does the will of my Father which is in heaven ----Matthew 7:21
3. The Exodus paradigm--The God of Exodus is the God of history and of political liberation more than he is the God of nature.Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation

Michael came late to writing about Liberation Theology after allegedly Marxist elements had been condemned by the CDF in 1984 and 1986. His first essays offering a liberationist interpretation of Luke 4 and the Sermon on the Mount coincided with destruction of the Berlin Wall (1989) and publication of Jesus the Liberator and The Bible and Colonialism. Both post-dated collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Paradoxically the collapse of the old Marxist left had a knock-on effect on the New Left. The Left generally has been in decline since the 90s   although this has been partly reversed since the financial crisis of 2007. Similarly the teachings of Pope Francis suggest that the epitaph for Liberation Theology may have been premature).
Michael was never a student of Marxist theory and he did not consciously either espouse or oppose Marxist critical theory. He was however greatly influenced by Post-colonial theory. And his writing on the religious and theological praxis of colonialism and neo-colonialism deserve to rank him as an innovative exponent of it.   

 

Manifestly, while the promised land of the narrative indeed flowed with milk and honey, it had no lack of indigenous peoples.
Which brings us back to:--
4. Problems of Biblical Inspiration
'The Bible makes great religious sense... In the joys and sorrows of the biblical characters, in their bursts of enthusiasm and sighs of desperation, in their sense of closeness to, and separation from God and his love we see some of our own life experience. The words which encouraged, corrected, or threatened them can speak powerfully to us also, because their source is the Spirit of God who speaks in intensely human terms to each generation of believers.'1987
Contrast:
'...in the light of the double problematic of the land traditions of the Bible—their projection of genocide as being divinely mandated, and their deleterious use in favour of oppressive colonialism—perhaps every copy of the Bible should contain a health warning: ‘Reading this Book may Damage Somebody Else’s Health.’2004

Often I am asked: How do you as a Catholic priest and biblical scholar explain to an ordinary believer the Yahweh-sanctioned ethnic-cleansing mandated in some of the narrative of the Old Testament? Is not this also the Word of God? Such questions have forced themselves on me in a particular way as a result of my contact with the Holy Land.

 

Michael considered these answers
1. 'Read the Old Testament in the light of the life and paschal mystery of Christ. In such a perspective, the writings of the Old Testament contain certain ‘imperfect and provisional’ elements, which the divine pedagogy could not eliminate right away. The Bible, then, reflects a considerable moral development, which finds its completion in the New Testament. I do not find this proposal satisfactory.
2. The attempts of the Fathers of the Church to eliminate the scandal ... The allegorical presentation of Joshua leading the people into the land of Canaan as a type of Christ, who leads Christians into the true Promised Land does not impress
3. Excluding it altogether from public use, or excising the most offensive verses. The disjuncture between this censoring of the Word of God and the insistence on the divine provenance of the whole of the Scriptures has not been satisfactorily resolved
4. There is another method which is more amenable to modern sensibilities, one which takes seriously the literary forms of the materials, the circumstances of their composition, and relevant non-literary evidence. According to this view, the fundamental tenet of the Protestant Reformation that the Bible can be understood in a straightforward way must be abandoned. Narratives purporting to describe the past are not necessarily accurate records of it. One must respect the distinctive literary forms within the biblical narrative—legend, fabricated myths of the past, prophecy and apocalyptic, etc.

Moreover, there is virtual unanimity among scholars that the model of tribal conquest as narrated in Joshua 1-12 is unsustainable. Leaving aside the witness of the Bible, we have no evidence that there was a Hebrew conquest.. MP 2000

 

At a lecture at the 2004 conference of Sabeel in Jerusalem Michael repeated his conviction that the biblical scholars needed to “identify the literary character of the biblical narratives” and that in the case of 'the early years being recorded in the Torah, especially about the promise of the land... the narrative 'ought to be recognized as parts of myths and legends.' In the heated exchange that followed Michael is reported as having suggested that the authors of the offending Old Testament texts were 'narrow-minded, xenophobic, militaristic pin-headed bigots' and that the figure of Joshua represented 'the patron saint of ethnic cleansing.' MP 2004

 

 

Comment:
Even if these events never actually happened and God never actually commanded genocide, the fact remains that supposedly inspired texts nevertheless idealise ethnic cleansing and mass murder as the command of God and that subsequent  readers of the texts have invoked the narratives to justify their crimes. (DM)
Journalist Paul Valley considered Michael's minimalist solution to the question as that 'that of classic liberalism...' Defending the liberationist interpretative standpoint, Vallely urges that 'myths can be more useful than facts: "The Promised Land was not given to the Israelites - they had to fight for it, I was once told by a theologian involved in struggle for land among the poor in Brazil. "To them the city states of the Canaanites were symbols of feudal exploitation." It was about class struggle... There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism, said the Marxist Walter Benjamin. Perhaps more hope lies with the words of Gutierrez: "The Promised Land," he said, "is not simply a new country; it is also the gift of a radically different situation."
 Other answers to the problem
Stephen Farris asks:

  • What makes a text contrary?
  • How should such texts be viewed theologically as scripture for the church
  •  What strategies should one use for preaching these texts?

Farris distinguishes between texts that are simply contrary in a culturally relative sense—meaning that they are inimical to the culture that the interpreter comes from—and those that are inimical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
--advocates Schleiermacher’s hermeneutical circle where totality of Scripture is explicated by the parts, and parts by the whole, the parts and whole both necessary for understanding and “the whole is hermeneutically privileged.” Church can adapt significance of each text, including contrary texts, in light of changing circumstances and insights.

 

Juan Luis Segundo:
Key element is social reality of oppression making possible a hermeneutic of suspicion that questions the text as well as those readings of the text which do not serve the interests of liberation.... central motif of Scripture seen as promise of the Messiah who will preach good news to the poor combined with serious resistance to the idolizing of the divisions of the human race. Once this is understood, contrary texts become part of the very human collateral narrative in which the divine message is discerned. Those preachers who use the Bible to justify colonialism or the oppression of those regarded as the modern Canaanites—be they Palestinians, native Americans, Jews or anybody else—have failed to see the biblical narrative in the totality of its message of divine liberation which, in turn, explicates each and every one of its parts.

Whatever Michael might have said about that it at least comes from the heart of what inspired both this life and his scholarship:

Michael Prior

Paul Vallely, The Independent , London,  Saturday 13 December 1997