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John J. Pilch Jr., biblical scholar and author, dies

Students and readers influenced by Dr. Pilch's vast understanding of the Bible were said to have been "Pilched

John J. Pilch Jr., a biblical scholar and author who lived in Catonsville, died July 22 at St. Agnes Hospital of heart disease. He was 79.

"He was an extraordinary man and very gifted. He thoroughly knew the Scriptures and loved teaching them" said the Rev. William J. Watters, the pastor of St. Ignatius Roman Catholic Church from 1991 to 2005.

"He led several sessions with our parishioners, and they loved them, because he took the Scriptures and made them live," Father Watters said. "He was a very down-to-earth scholar who liked to engage people. He was not a put-off person."

"Many of his publications reflect his primary interest in biblical anthropology — as he expressed it to me, 'an understanding of the basic Mediterranean concepts [to provide] appropriate scenarios for imagining what one is reading in the Bible,'" said Dr. M. Isabelle Macgregor, a longtime friend and companion who is medical director of Roland Park Place in Baltimore.

The son of John J. Pilch Sr., a blue-collar worker, and Anna Mary Wypych, a New York Bell Telephone Co. clerk, John Joseph Pilch Jr. was born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y.

After graduating in 1954 from St. Anthony of Padua College Preparatory School in Watkins Glen, N.Y., he entered the Franciscan order at Lake Geneva, Wis., and a year later professed his vows.

He began his college studies at St. Francis College in Burlington, Wis., where he majored in medieval philosophy. After graduating summa cum laude in 1959, he began his theological studies at Christ the Theological Seminary in West Chicago, Ill.

Dr. Pilch was ordained a priest in 1963 and remained at the seminary an additional year, writing and conducting research.

"Thus, early in his career he skillfully juggled scholarly research with an ability to communicate practical insights for daily living to the stereotypical 'person in the pew,'" wrote Dr. Macgregor in a profile of Dr. Pilch.

After his ordination, he taught French, Spanish and English at Bishop Neuman High School in Philadelphia, and later taught French at his alma mater, St. Francis College.

He began studying for his master's degree at Marquette University and from 1968 to 1969 studied Greek and Hebrew at St. Louis University. He returned to Marquette, where he earned a master's degree in theology and his doctorate in 1972.

Dr. Pilch left his order in 1975.

"This decision was made after some years of discernment," Dr. Macgregor wrote in the profile. "The obligations of celibacy were not the reason for his decision. For him, this was the will of God at this time in his life."

In 1975, Dr. Pilch married Jean Peters and they lived in Milwaukee until moving in 1988 to Baltimore. Mrs. Pilch, who had a master's degree in religious education, worked in the Archdiocesan Office of Christian Formation in Baltimore. She was also the author of 10 books.

She died in 1997.

While living in Milwaukee, Dr. Pilch was assistant professor in the department of presentative medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin from 1974 to 1988, where his focus was medical anthropology.

He joined the theology department at Georgetown University in 1993, teaching an introductory course in biblical literature.

While carrying out a busy teaching load, Dr. Pilch was also researching and writing books.

"He wanted to ... to improve preaching — and was successful, as judged by the response to his nine small volumes of 'The Cultural World of Jesus: Sunday by Sunday, Cycle C,' preserving insights in the Roman Lectionary readings for Sundays, which have gained worldwide recognition," Dr. Macgregor said.

While Dr. Pilch concluded his career at Georgetown in 2011, he accepted a part-time teaching position with the Odyssey program at the Johns Hopkins University.

In addition to "The Cultural World of Jesus: Sunday by Sunday, Cycle C," some of his 41 books included "The Cultural World of Jesus Christ: Sunday by Sunday, Cycle A," "The Cultural World of the Apostles: The Second Reading, Sunday by Sunday, Year C," "The Cultural World of the Prophets: The First Reading and the Responsorial Psalm, Sunday by Sunday, Year C" and "A Cultural Handbook to the Bible."

"Pilch believes it is essential to understand the social and cultural milieu of the first-century Mediterranean world to comprehend Jesus' actions and message," according to a 1999 profile in The Baltimore Sun. In the interview for that profile, Dr. Pilch said a mistake made by many people was to project "contemporary reality onto that ancient Mediterranean world."

"People who use sociology to analyze the Bible end up telling you what someone would have looked like if he or she was an American," he said. "The nature of the science of anthropology is you're making comparisons between societies or cultures. To do that, you need some sort of comparative tools, and that's what anthropology offers you."

Many of his students and readers found a greater understanding of the Bible — and called the experience being "Pilched."

"He was a wonderful human being and easy to be with," said Father Watters. "He was always good company. He attended the 10:30 a.m. Mass and enjoyed talking to people at the hospitality hour and was interested in so many issues."

Dr. Macgregor said that while Dr. Pilch enjoyed success as an author, "it was my view ... that his first love was teaching, Beyond the fun, banter and stories he relayed, there was the teaching, and that was the most important thing."

Dr. Pilch enjoyed music and he sang with the Baltimore Opera Company chorus, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra chorus, Municipal Opera Company and the Baltimore Choral Arts Society.

A memorial Mass will be offered at 1 p.m. Aug. 27 at St. Ignatius, 740 N. Calvert St.

In addition to Dr. Macgregor, he is survived by several cousins.

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