Raymond Brown and Centrist Exegesis

Today I found my way into Raymond Brown’s Death of the Messiah and the space between historiography, narrative analysis and tradition criticism.  This is the place where you can accept the stories as they are, dabble (critically) in how it might have all really happened, and aim your findings for men and women of the church who want to know how these stories hit the original readers and why history and narrative analysis matters to them.  Many Catholic scholars find a wonderful place of vocation in this space, and it’s not a no-man’s land between these methods. You just have to be not afraid of ten thousand men, as the Psalmist says.

I was struck at Joseph Fitzmyer’s 1998 eulogy for Brown where he recounted the many trials that Brown endured for being a Catholic biblical scholar of the 20th Century.  Though I am not Catholic, and while I disagree with some conclusions made by the best Catholic biblical scholars, I admire the helpful centrism that many of them achieve, and am eager to know more about what factors help them take the “literal” sense of the Bible seriously while also caring deeply for its role in the lives of people of faith today.

If you don’t know about it already, check out the memorial website constructed about Fr. Brown, which includes a trove of links and video clips.

Here’s a great section of his conclusion to his little companion book, “A Crucified Christ in Holy Week“:

When these different passion narratives are read side-by-side, one should not be upset by the contrast or ask which view of Jesus is more correct: the Marcan Jesus who plumbs the depths of abandonment only to be vindicated; the Lucan Jesus who worries about others and gently dispenses forgiveness; or the Johannine Jesus who reigns victoriously from the cross in control of all that happens. All three are given to us by the inspiring Spirit, and no one of them exhausts the meaning of Jesus. It is as if one walks around a large diamond to look at it from three different angles. A true picture of the whole emerges only because the viewpoints are different. In presenting two diverse views of the crucified Jesus every Holy Week, one on Palm/Passion Sunday, one on Good Friday, the Church is bearing witness to that truth and making it possible for people with very different spiritual needs to find meaning in the cross. There are moments in the lives of most Christians when they need desperately to cry out with the Marcan/Matthean Jesus, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and to find, as Jesus did, that despite human appearances God is listening and can reverse tragedy. At other moments, meaning in suffering may be linked to being able to say with the Lucan Jesus, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” and being able to entrust oneself confidently to God’s hands. There are still other moments where with Johannine faith we must see that suffering and evil have no real power over God’s Son or over those whom he enables to become God’s children. To choose one portrayal of the crucified Jesus in a manner that would exclude the other portrayals or to harmonize all the Gospel portrayals into one would deprive the cross of much of its meaning. It is important that some be able to see the head bowed in dejection, while others observe the arms outstretched in forgiveness, and still others perceive in the title on the cross the proclamation of a reigning king.” Brown A Crucified Christ in Holy Week, 70-71.


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