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Benoit, Pierre


Bible scholar, archaeologist, and editor; b. Aug. 3, 1906; d. Jerusalem, April 23, 1987. Maurice Benoit entered the dominican Order in 1924 and received the religious name Pierre. At the conclusion of his studies at the Collège Théologique des Dominicains, Kain, Belgium, he was awarded the Lectorate in Theology (1932), and was assigned to the École Biblique et Archéologique Française, Jerusalem.

After earning his Licentiate in Sacred Scripture in 1933, he began a teaching career that was to span half a century. He taught the New Testament until he reached retirement age in 1976, but he continued his famous course on the topography of Jerusalem until he was incapacitated by cancer in the spring of 1984. He served as the director of the École Biblique (196572) and as the editor of the Revue Biblique (195368).

In recognition of his scientific contributions, pope paul vi appointed him to the pontifical biblical com mission (197287), and the French government made him first a Chevalier (1959) then an Officer de la Légion d'Honneur (1974). The Catholic Biblical Association of America (1964) and the Society of Biblical Literature (1963) elected him to honorary life membership, and the universities of Munich (1972) and Durham (1977) awarded him honorary doctorates. A founding member of the Society for New Testament Studies, he was its first Roman Catholic president (196263).

Benoit played a key role in the conception and execution of the pioneering Bible de Jérusalem, the first modern Roman Catholic Bible to be translated from the original languages. The layout invited the reader to approach it as literature, and the detailed notes constituted a critical and theological commentary accessible to nonspecialists. In addition to acting as New Testament editor, he translated and annotated the Gospel of Matthew and the four Captivity Epistles, on which he was a noted authority. He actively collaborated with Dom Henry Wansbrough, OSB, on the completely revised second edition of the Jerusalem Bible.

Having had the good fortune to begin his career at a time when scholars could still be polymaths, and with such wide-ranging geniuses as M.-J. lagrange, L.-H. Vincent, F.-M. Abel, and W. F. albright to guide and inspire him, Benoit developed an abiding interest in archaeology, although he never considered himself an excavator. Well aware of the archaeologist's preference for the trowel rather than the typewriter (about 90 percent of the material excavated in Palestine has never been published), in 1954 he instituted the "Chronique archéologique" in the Revue Biblique in order to provide reports on current excavations.

Jerusalem Archaeology. His own specialty was the archaeology of jerusalem, which he knew in a detail that is unlikely ever to be surpassed. His principal concern was the light that topography could throw on the biblical text. His major contribution was to demonstrate that during the trial of Jesus, Pontius Pilate must have resided in the palace at the present Jaffa Gate rather than in the Antonia Fortress on the other side of the city. Since the Antonia Fortress is the starting-point of the traditional Via Dolorosa, his study created a certain stir when it was first published in 1952.

In what is unusual for one so committed to text and monument, Benoit also did significant work in speculative theology. Invited to annotate the treatise on prophecy for a French version of the Summa Theologica of St. thomas aquinas (1947), he produced a series of studies that developed a sophisticated concept of biblical inspiration. He limited inerrancy to what is formally taught by the sacred writers, and thus opened the way to critical investigation of historical details. This combination of exegetical expertise and speculative creativity won him nomination as a theological expert for the last two sessions of vatican ii (196365), where he contributed to the formulation of the conciliar documents on divine revelation, the Church, religious freedom, and non-Christian religions.

Dead Sea Scrolls. Benoit edited the Greek and Latin documents found in the caves of the Wadi Murabbaat. After the death of Roland de Vaux, OP, in 1971, he assumed the general editorship of the unpublished fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls during a very difficult period. Dilatory scholars had put the project disastrously behind schedule, and complaint was mounting. In addition, as a result of the invasion of East Jerusalem in 1967, the Israelis had physical possession of the scrolls, which belonged to Jordan. By adroit diplomacy Benoit won the consent of both governments to continue the publication, and thereafter spent many exhausting hours trying to persuade recalcitrant editors to finalize their commitments. In the year before he died he facilitated the transfer of the general editorship to Prof. John Strugnell of Harvard University.

A very productive scholar, Benoit wrote articles on theology, archeology, and exegesis that when collected filled four volumes. His gifts of great erudition, theological insight, and historical judgment were to a great extent frustrated by a perfectionism that made large-scale projects impossible. He employed yoga exercises to keep himself extremely fit, and on field trips in his seventies could outwalk students a third of his age. A model religious, he made exacting demands on himself and found his only recreation in listening to classical music and playing the organ. His austerity and self-discipline often gave an impression of coldness, but behind the facade was a warm and generous personality, whose helpfulness to his students and colleagues was the norm. They learned from him a rigor of method, a clarity of thought, and a commitment to truth that came to represent a lived ideal of scholarly integrity.

Bibliography: p. benoit, Somme théologique de saint Thomas d'Aquin; La prophétie. 2a2ae, questions 171178 (Paris 1947); Eng. Prophecy and Inspiration. A Commentary on the Summa Theologica IIII, Questions 171178 (New York 1961); Exégèse et théologie I-II (Paris 1961) III (Paris 1968) IV (Paris 1982); Eng. Jesus and the Gospel. A Translation of Selected Articles from Exégèse et Théologie I (London 1973) II (London 1974); Synopse des quatre évangiles en français, avec parallèles des Apocryphes et des Pères, with m.-e. boismard (Paris 1965); Passion et résurrection du Seigneur (Paris 1966); Eng. The Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ (London 1969).

[j. murphy-o'connor]

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