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Seventy-eight years on the New Testament beat
In the fall of 1962, nearly a decade before he was ordained as a Jesuit priest, Daniel J. Harrington, SJ, professor of New Testament at the School of Theology and Ministry (STM), made his first contribution to New Testament Abstracts (NTA). It was the summary of an article published in Latin in the Italian theological journal Antonianum, and it dealt with Acts 15, which records the controversy over whether followers of Jesus needed to be circumcised and adhere to other Jewish laws.
Published three times a year at book length, NTA is described by many scholars as the most widely consulted New Testament journal in the world, annually providing close to 3,000 concise summaries of academic articles and books bearing on the subject. Today, nearly all of the abstracts are by Harrington, who assumed the editorship in 1972, and his co-editor, Christopher R. Matthews, a research professor at STM who joined him in 1986 while in the midst of earning a Harvard doctorate in New Testament and Christian origins. Their connecting offices on the second floor of STM’s building, on the Brighton Campus, can resemble the sports desk at a metropolitan daily newspaper, the two men typing furiously at keyboards with piles of copy on their desks, occasionally getting up from their chairs to talk over a point. On a late-summer morning, Harrington and Matthews had each cranked out roughly half a dozen abstracts of between 100 and 250 words—including one about the “theology of martyrdom” in the Dead Sea Scrolls (Harrington) and one about Greek translations of the Psalms (Matthews)—prior to a 10:30 interview for this article.
There are surprisingly few bookcases or stacks of journals in the office suite. The academic publishings delivered from all over the world are ransacked by the two editors upon arrival. After their contents are culled, the publications do not linger in the office but instead are quickly sent over to the STM Library. Consequently, the library has what Harrington describes as easily “one of the best New Testament collections in the world,” with some 170 active journal titles.
Part of Harrington’s daily routine has been to walk a few minutes over to the library and pick up any periodicals that are mailed there (most of the 500 journals surveyed go directly to the NTA). But Harrington, who is struggling with a serious illness, tilted his head toward Matthews in a joint interview and smiled—”He does most of the walking now.”
Harrington and Matthews edit each other’s work, and both have their specialties. As Harrington explained, he tends to reach for the articles about biblical interpretation, biblical theology, and the Jewish setting of the New Testament; he also has a particular interest in the Gospel of Matthew. Matthews gravitates toward articles that center on the exegesis of particular texts, especially the letters of Paul and Luke’s Acts of the Apostles; the development of early Christianity; and the Gnostic Gospels (which are considered apocryphal texts). Harrington, when asked if he ever considers panning a piece, says, “No. Absolutely not.” Some authors, he says, “hang themselves” with their unsound theses.
Harrington and Matthews keep writing until they have at least 600 article abstracts (sometimes 750) and about 300 book notices. They sort the summaries into categories such as “biblical theology” and “NT World” (which includes studies of ancient Jewish, Roman, and Greek communities around New Testament times) and email the entries to “our friends in Denver,” as Harrington calls the husband and wife team of Maurya Horgan and Paul Kobelski. The couple, both equipped with doctorates in biblical studies, own HK Scriptorium, a small design, editing, and typesetting company that seems to have cornered the U.S. market in producing biblical journals.
From Denver, final proofs are emailed to a printing house in Michigan, which churns out copies for the journal’s 1,400 subscribers, mostly libraries and Scripture scholars, in more than 70 countries. In addition, 300 institutions—ranging from Yale University to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary—subscribe to New Testament Abstracts Online. It is a database of archived summaries updated once a year, jointly sponsored by Boston College and the American Theological Library Association.
Although read by scholars of many faiths and no faith, NTA has been a Jesuit enterprise from the start. It was founded in 1956 at Weston Jesuit School of Theology (then in Weston, Massachusetts), where the young Harrington trained.
Harrington kept a hand in NTA even as he went off to Harvard (still as a Jesuit in formation) in 1965, for his doctoral studies of ancient Near Eastern languages. There, the Jesuit prepared for his area of specialization: the Jewish background of the New Testament, particularly the six centuries leading up to Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem’s Second Temple, in 70 c.e. Harrington also formed a lasting friendship with his Harvard mentor, the illustrious John Strugnell, well-known for his part in piecing together and translating the Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in 1947 in the Judean Desert. A little more than two decades later, Strugnell suffered a nervous breakdown, and Harrington stepped in to help decipher some of the last unpublished texts and fragments of the scrolls.
In 1969, Harrington returned to the Weston School for further theological training and to NTA, which, like the school, had just moved to Cambridge. He served as assistant editor of the journal and worked closely with George MacRae, SJ, then its co-editor. Harrington says he learned from MacRae “how to put together the academic and pastoral” parts of his vocation. And, in fact, since 1971 he has balanced his academic duties with that of celebrant at the 5:00 p.m. Sunday Mass in his birth parish of St. Agnes, in Arlington, Massachusetts. He also has written numerous articles and books for the laity, including Meeting St. Matthew Today, published in 2010 by Loyola Press.
In 2008, Weston became part of Boston College’s new School of Theology and Ministry, which now publishes NTA. Mark Massa, SJ, dean of STM, says that when he travels to European capitals and other places abroad, the theologians he meets might not know of any other biblical journal in the United States, “but they all know what New Testament Abstracts is.” Nobody can read every article and book related to the New Testament, he observes, but a Scripture scholar embarking on a research project can consult NTA and find out, “These are the 10 things I have to read.” In 2009 Boston College awarded Harrington an honorary degree for his scholarship, writing, and role as a teacher.
Harrington and Matthews draft abstracts of articles published in German, French, Spanish, and Italian, as well as English. Matthews says wryly, “Our favorites are Japanese scholars who write in German.” The editors farm out the few summaries of writings in what Harrington refers to as “exotic” languages, such as Swedish and modern Greek.
According to Harrington, the NTA format has varied scarcely over the years. The volumes are divided between periodicals and books and further broken down according to subfield (including one specifically for examinations of the Dead Sea Scrolls). The abstracts are brief, clear, and objective, like this one initialed by Harrington, in the latest edition (Vol. 57, No. 2)—summing up an article in the English Catholic journal New Blackfriars:
After noting the enigmatic character of Mark’s Gospel as a whole, the article focuses on the poor widow and her donation to the Temple in 12:43–44. It considers whether Jesus was praising her and recommending his followers to imitate her generosity, or (what is more likely) drawing attention to the deleterious effects of the Temple as a doomed institution.
While NTA might look essentially the same from year to year—small type, cramped white space, and a table of contents gracing a glossy monotone cover whose color changes with each issue—the subject matter has turned many corners of scholarly fascination. The journal has mirrored, for example, the revival of interest in the historical Jesus (as distinct from the Christ of faith) in the 1990s and, more recently, it has captured the debate over how the New Testament’s writers looked upon the Roman Empire—did they cast Rome as antithetical to Christian faith? And what might be the implications today with respect to the “American Empire” and its culture?
Many of the references would sail clear over the head of a non-specialist, who might be intrigued nonetheless. Here’s an encapsulation of an essay collection, The Julio-Claudian Succession: Reality and Perception of the “Augustinian Model,” published by Brill last year and edited by A.G.G. Gibson:
After Gibson’s 17-page introduction, this volume presents essays by J. Osgood on Suetonius and the succession to Augustus; R. Seager on perceptions of the domus Augusta, a.d. 4–24; C. Vout on Tiberius and the invention of succession; J. Bellemore on the identity of Drusus—the making of a princeps; R. Rees on the lousy reputation of Piso; Gibson on “all things to all men”—Claudius and the politics of a.d. 41; E. Buckley on Nero institiuus—constructing Neronian identity in the ps.-Senecan Octavia; and J. Drinkwater on Nero Caesar and the half-baked principate.
The book summaries (which ocupy 88 small-print pages of the NTA‘s most recent, 237-page edition) do not carry author initials—because Harrington writes every one.
Massa looks upon NTA as the “gold-standard example of doing service to a field of scholarship,” but while many others echo the praise, Harrington speaks more plainly about the commitment. “I just love this stuff,” he says. “I love the Bible. I love scholarship about the Bible. I love preaching about the Bible. It’s what gets me up in the morning.”
Harrington is teaching two fall courses—”Introduction to the New Testament” and “Intermediate [biblical] Greek”—both fully subscribed. What’s more, since 2000 he’s written 21 books for scholarly and general audiences. Still, New Testament Abstracts is, for him, a singular trust. Referencing the slow metastatic cancer that he suffers from, he says, “NTA is the last thing that goes in my life. As long as I can do anything, I’ll be doing this.”
Read more by William Bole