Professor Michael Prior

Controversial priest and theologian who was an outspoken supporter of Palestinian rights

Michael Prior was a Vincentian priest, a scripture scholar, a liberation theologian, peace activist and supporter of Palestinian rights. He was one of the more colourful and controversial figures in the Catholic Church in Britain, and a trenchant and outspoken critic of Israel and of Zionism.

Michael Prior, priest, scholar and activist: born Cork 15 March 1942; ordained priest 1969; Senior Lecturer in Theology and Religious Studies, St Mary's College, Strawberry Hill 1977-97, Head of Department 1987-97, Principal Lecturer 1997-2002, Senior Research Fellow 2002-04, Professor of New Testament Studies 2004; died Osterley, Middlesex 21 July 2004.

Michael Prior was a Vincentian priest, a scripture scholar, a liberation theologian, peace activist and supporter of Palestinian rights. He was one of the more colourful and controversial figures in the Catholic Church in Britain, and a trenchant and outspoken critic of Israel and of Zionism.

Born in Cork in 1942, Prior joined the Congregation of the Mission on leaving school and took a degree in Physics at University College Dublin, completing his theological studies in 1969. After ordination he studied Semitic Languages, gaining his Licentiate in Sacred Scripture in Rome in 1972.

After two years as a schoolmaster in Coventry, he became Lecturer in Theology and Religious Studies at St Mary's College, Strawberry Hill, later a college of Surrey University, 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.

In his pursuit of biblical scholarship he contributed Paul the Letter-writer and the Second Letter to Timothy (1989) and served as chair of the Catholic Biblical Association of Great Britain. However, Prior became dedicated to the proposition that scholarship could also be politically committed, an approach reflected in his Jesus the Liberator: Nazareth Liberation Theology (Luke 4.16-30) (1995).

This commitment found earlier expression in his campaigning for the rights of travelling people but time spent in the Holy Land led him to become an enthusiastic advocate of the Palestinian cause and in 1982 he became co-founder and chair of Living Stones, an ecumenical organisation promoting links between Christians in the Holy Land and in Britain.

He was convinced that much Western biblical scholarship encouraged active or passive collusion in the oppression of the Palestinian people, and his The Bible and Colonialism: a moral critique (1997) examined the way in which the biblical narrative of the Exodus from Egypt and the Conquest of Canaan had been deployed to justify colonialism in Latin America, South Africa and, of course, Palestine.

Prior's scholarly interest later shifted to the historical evaluation of Zionism. His Zionism and the State of Israel: a moral inquiry (1999) developed a moral critique of Zionism, underlining its secular roots and the relatively recent character of support for Zionism by religious Jewry. He also argued that the expulsion of the Palestinians, far from being a consequence of the Nazi Holocaust or of the fortunes of war in 1948, had been planned by the founding fathers of Zionism from the beginning. In a climate where many liberal commentators sought to combine concern for the Palestinians with support for Israel, Prior insisted on the "original sin" of 1948 (as against the fashionable theory that depicted Israel as "falling from grace" subsequent to the occupation of the territories in 1967).

His stance often brought opposition and in 2002, the Jesuit Holy Cross College in Massachusetts withdrew a lecture invitation. Fortunately Prior thrived on opposition and, knowing them to be unfair, he shrugged off accusations of anti-Semitism. The day before his death he expressed the hope of establishing a forum for Jewish-Christian dialogue that would not exclude anti-Zionist Jews and Christians.

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.

He could engage in an argument with relish and the determination of a dog with a bone and, although he sometimes practised his polemical skills on his friends, he reserved the full treatment for those he regarded as purveyors of injustice or humbug. Prior was the quintessential Irish rebel and enabled many to understand better why Britain no longer rules all of Ireland.

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!"

Duncan Macpherson



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