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The Reverend Raymond Edward Brown, S.S. (May 22, 1928 – August 8, 1998), was an American Roman Catholic priest, a member of the Sulpician Fathers and a prominent Biblical scholar of his era. He was regarded as a specialist concerning the hypothetical ‘Johannine community’, which he speculated contributed to the authorship of the Gospel of John, and he also wrote influential studies on the birth and death of Jesus. Brown was professor emeritus at the Protestant Union Theological Seminary (UTS) in New York, where he taught for 29 years. He was the first Roman Catholic professor to gain tenure there, where he earned a reputation as a superior lecturer.
Brown was one of the first Roman Catholic scholars to apply historical-critical analysis to the Bible. As Biblical criticism developed in the 19th century, the Roman Catholic Church opposed this scholarship and essentially forbade it in 1893. In 1943, however, the Church issued guidelines by which Catholic scholars could investigate the Bible historically. Brown called this encyclical the "Magna Carta of biblical progress." Vatican II further supported higher criticism, which, Brown felt, vindicated his approach.
Brown remains controversial among traditionalist Catholics because of their claim that he denied the inerrancy of the whole of Scripture and cast doubt on the historical accuracy of numerous articles of the Catholic faith. Some conservatives were angered at his questioning of whether the virginal conception of Jesus could be proven historically. He was regarded as occupying the center ground in the field of biblical studies, opposing the literalism found among many fundamentalist Christians while not carrying his conclusions as far as many other scholars.
Born in New York, the son of Robert H. Brown and Loretta Brown, Raymond studied at The Catholic University of America where he received a BA in 1948 and MA in 1949 as a Basselin scholar. In 1951 he joined the scholarly Society of Saint-Sulpice following his STB from St. Mary's Seminary and University. In 1953 he was ordained a priest in the diocese of St. Augustine, Florida. He earned a Ph.D. at the Johns Hopkins University where one of his advisors was Professor William F. Albright.
Brown was appointed in 1972 to the Pontifical Biblical Commission and again in 1996. He was the Auburn Distinguished Professor of Biblical Studies at the Protestant Union Theological Seminary in New York where he taught from 1971 to 1990, when he became professor emeritus. He served as president of the Catholic Biblical Association, the Society of Biblical Literature (1976-7) and the Society of New Testament Studies (1986-7). He was a Roman Catholic priest in the diocese of Baltimore, Maryland. Widely regarded as one of America's preeminent biblical scholars, Brown was awarded 24 honorary doctoral degrees by universities in the USA and Europe, many from Protestant institutions.
He died at St. Patrick's Seminary, Menlo Park, California. Cardinal Mahony hailed him as "the most distinguished and renowned Catholic biblical scholar to emerge in this country ever" and his death, the cardinal said, was "a great loss to the Church."
Brown was one of the first Catholic scholars in the United States to use the historical-critical method to study the Bible. In 1943, reversing the approach that had existed since Providentissimus Deus fifty years earlier, Pius XII's encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu expressed approval of historical-critical methods. For Brown, this was a "Magna Carta for biblical progress". In 1965, at the Second Vatican Council, the Church moved further in this direction, adopting the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation Dei Verbum, instead of the conservative schema "On the Sources of Revelation" that originally had been submitted. While it stated that Scripture teaches "solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation," Brown points out the ambiguity of this statement, which opened the way for a new interpretation of inerrancy by shifting from a literal interpretation of the text towards a focus on "the extent to which it conforms to the salvific purpose of God". He saw this as the Church 'turning the corner' on inerrancy, while adopting a face-saving wording: "the Roman Catholic Church does not change her official stance in a blunt way. Past statements are not rejected but are requoted with praise and then reinterpreted at the same time. ... What was really going on was an attempt gracefully to retain what was salvageable from the past and to move in a new direction at the same time". While the document cited the two earlier encyclicals, it was clear to observers that much had changed. The Second Vatican Council, one scholar observed, “raised biblical exegesis from the status of second-class citizenship to which it had been reduced among Catholics by an overreaction to the Protestant claim for its autonomy”.
In a detailed 1965 article in the journal Theological Studies examining whether Jesus was ever called "God" in the New Testament, Brown concluded that "Even the fourth Gospel never portrays Jesus as saying specifically that he is God" and "there is no reason to think that Jesus was called God in the earliest layers of New Testament tradition." He argued that, "Gradually, in the development of Christian thought God was understood to be a broader term. It was seen that God had revealed so much of Himself in Jesus that God had to be able to include both Father and Son."
Thirty years later, Brown revisited the issue in an introductory text for the general public, writing that in "three reasonably clear instances in the NT [Hebrews 1:8-9, John 1:1, 20:28] and in five instances that have probability, Jesus is called God", a usage Brown regarded as a natural development of early references to Jesus as "Lord".
The Gospel of John is in two sections, which Brown labelled the "Book of Signs" and the "Book of Glory." The Book of Signs recounts Jesus' public miracles, which are called signs. The Book of Glory comprises Jesus' private teaching to his disciples, his crucifixion, and his resurrection.
Brown identifies three layers of text in John: 1) an initial version Brown considers based on personal experience of Jesus; 2) a structured literary creation by the evangelist which draws upon additional sources; and 3) the edited version that readers know today (Brown 1979).
Brown has been described as “the premier Johannine scholar in the English-speaking world”. Terrence T. Prendergast stated that “for nearly 40 years Father Brown caught the entire church up into the excitement and new possibilities of scriptural scholarship." Much of Brown's work was given a Nihil obstat and an Imprimatur (the "nihil obstat" is a statement by an official reviewer, appointed by a bishop, that "nothing stands in the way" of a book being given an imprimatur; the "imprimatur," which must normally be issued by a bishop of the diocese of publication, is the official endorsement — "let it be printed" — that a book contains nothing damaging to Catholic faith and morals). Brown was the expert appointed to review and provide the nihil obstat for The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, the standard basic reference book for Catholic Biblical studies, of which he was one of the editors and to which he himself contributed, as did dozens of other Catholic scholars.
Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, who has written presenting the infancy narratives and John’s Gospel as historically reliable, was personally complimentary of Brown and his scholarship, and has been quoted as saying he "would be very happy if we had many exegetes like Father Brown".
Brown's work was controversial among traditionalists who objected to the elements of his work that they regarded as casting doubt on the historical accuracy of numerous articles of the Catholic faith. His critics included Cardinal Lawrence Shehan and Father Richard W. Gilsdorf, who described Brown's work as "a major contribution to the befogged wasteland of an 'American Church' progressively alienated from its divinely constituted center.”
Other writers, critical of historical Christian claims about Jesus, have criticized Brown for excessive caution, for what they saw as his unwillingness to acknowledge the radical implications of the critical methods he was using. Literary critic Frank Kermode, in his review of The Birth of the Messiah, accused Brown of being too eager to secure the imprimatur of the Roman Catholic Church; Jesus scholar Géza Vermes has described Brown as "the primary example of the position of having your cake and eating it'."
His total of 25 books on biblical subjects include: