Monday, April 13, 2009

Death of the Messiah

Review of Raymond Brown's The Death of the Messiah
Dennis Ingolfsland

The purpose of Brown’s monumental work was to explain what the Gospel writers intended to teach their audiences about the passion of Jesus (Brown 1994, 4). Brown proceeded on the standard assumption that none of the gospels were written by eyewitnesses (Brown 1994, 4, 14, 753). Contrary to the extreme skepticism of the more radical scholars like Koester and Crossan who tended to deny the connection between the Gospel passion stories and history, Brown held that the passion stories were summaries of earlier Christian preaching (Brown 1994, 13, 15). More specifically, Brown argued against those who saw a radical discontinuity between the historical Jesus and the picture of Jesus presented in the Gospel of Mark. Brown argued that Mark was a good summary of the Jesus tradition with which early Christian churches would have been familiar (Brown 1994, 46-48).

Brown’s primary historical criteria was multiple attestation. Brown argued that the criteria of coherence and embarrassment must be used with caution, and hesitated to use the criteria of discontinuity at all. Brown cautioned, however, that more of the passion narratives were likely to have been historical than historical methods could demonstrate (Brown 1994, 17-19). Although Brown argued for the standard two-source theory of Gospel origins, he cautioned that he couldn’t even reconstruct sources or stages of editing for his own books, much less for those written 2000 years ago (Brown 1994, 40-45).

Brown’s treatment of the passion narratives began with Gethsemane and ended with the burial of Jesus’ body. He chose not to cover the resurrection because the resurrection was not technically a part of the passion, or suffering of Jesus (Brown 1994, 37). Brown divided his presentation into Acts and Scenes, as in a drama. Each scene contained sections entitled Comment and Analysis. Comment explained the gospel passages verse by verse and included textual analysis (Brown 1994, 139). The analysis sections covered the passages as a whole and dealt with issues of historicity (Brown 1994, 24).

According to Brown, Jesus was not called Son of God during his lifetime (Brown 1994, 482-483) and probably did not claim to be the messiah. Some of Jesus’ followers and even some of his opponents may have thought of Jesus in messianic terms, but Jesus himself was probably concerned about popular ideas associated with the term messiah that he rejected (Brown 1994, 476-480).

According to Brown, Jesus position on the temple and law were controversial. Jesus was critical of the temple establishment and said it would be destroyed. He claimed to forgive sins and that his hearers would be judged by God based on their reaction to his proclamation of the kingdom. Jesus also referred to God as his father and to himself as God’s son. Jesus performed healings and other extraordinary deeds (Brown 1994, 545-547).

According to Brown, Jesus possibly interpreted passages like Daniel 7, Psalms 110 and Psalm 80 to mean that God would bring in the kingdom by vindicating a specific person against his enemies. Jesus possibly thought he was that person and if his enemies executed him as they had done to the prophets, God would glorify and vindicate him in the face of his enemies. Early Christians probably picked up on this concept and applied it to more specific aspects of Jesus life (Brown 1994, 514).

Jesus enemies charged Jesus with blasphemy, possibly because he referred to himself as the Son of Man (Brown 1994, 512, 536).[1] Jesus enemies turned him over to the Romans as a would-be king (Brown 1994, 476-480). That Jesus died on the cross was treated as historically certain (Brown 1994, 1088-1096), contrary to radical Jesus scholars such as Funk and Crossan. Brown thought it highly probable that Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea (Brown 1994, 1240).

Brown’s study was careful, extensive and one of the best in the field. Although more of a commentary than a study on the historical Jesus, the background and thorough analysis performed by Brown told his readers more about the historical Jesus than some of the other books devoted entirely to that task. Although Brown was a critical scholar he rejected the conclusions of the radical Jesus scholars. While Brown did not fall into the evangelical camp, many of his conclusions were accepted by evangelical scholars.

Raymond Brown’s published books included: Peter in the New Testament (1973), Mary in the New Testament (1978), Critical Meaning of the Bible (1981), Epistles of John (1982a), New Testament Essays (1982b), Antioch and Rome (1983), Recent Discoveries and the Biblical World (1984a), The Churches the Apostles Left Behind (1984b), Biblical Exegesis and Church Doctrine (1986), New Jerome Bible Commentary (1990a), Responses to 101 Questions on the Bible (1990b), New Jerome Bible Handbook (1992), The Birth of the Messiah (1993), The Death of the Messiah (1994a), Faith and then Future (1984b), The Once and Coming Spirit at Pentacost (1994c), Studies in New Testament Christology (1994d), An Introduction to the New Testament (1997), Christ in the Gospels of the Ordinary Sundays (1998).

[1] On page 535 Brown said that he had argued that it was unlikely that the Son of Man title was ever used of or by Jesus in his lifetime, but on the next page, 536, Brown said that he believed the Son of Man title was used by Jesus himself. It was very tempting to postulate that the commentary was not written by Raymond Brown at all, but was actually a redaction of two earlier sources which were called R for Raymond and B for Brown. One source believed that Jesus called himself the Son of Man and one did not. It was more likely, however, that Dr. Brown changed his mind on the issue as some point and did not fully edit out the sentence asserting that Jesus did not use the Son of Man title for himself.