NT Scholar Raymond Brown: The Authors of the Gospels may or may not have been Jews

Image result for image of the book, The Death of the Messiah

This is an ongoing review of New Testament scholar Raymond Brown’s book, in two volumes, The Death of the Messiah (copyright, 1994).   In the introduction, Brown states that the primary aim of the book is:  to explain in detail what the evangelists intended and conveyed to their audiences by their narratives of the passion and death of Jesus.  Brown states he intends to do this by examining the four gospels in parallel rather than vertically, the historically preferred pattern of study.

Most scholars (liberal and conservative) consider Brown a moderate.  His views were considered compatible with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, an institution not known for a liberal bias under Pope John Paul II, the time period in which this book was written.  I find Raymond Brown’s work to be refreshingly honest.  In my view, Brown has only one agenda:  the truth.  He does not attempt to proselytize the reader to his point of view.  If the evidence supports the traditional Christian position, fine.  If the evidence does not support the traditional Christian position, that is fine too.

I respect and trust Raymond Brown.  That does not mean that his opinion is always correct.  But it does mean, to me, that if Brown says “the majority of scholars hold this or that position”, I trust him to be correct.  And as I have stated in previous posts, I am one of those people who trusts expert opinion.  I believe that one should only go against majority expert opinion if one is an expert himself (herself) on the subject.

Review continues:

The evangelists wrote some nineteen hundred years ago in a social and thought world quite different from our own.  Literalist interpreters of the Bible seem to think that the Gospel texts can be read as if Jesus were addressing himself to audiences today.  In fact, however, Jesus was a Jew of the first third of the 1st cent. who spoke, thought, and acted as such.  From the literature of his time we may acquire some knowledge of this likely mindset, but we cannot understand it in the way we understand our own thought world.  The same would be true of our relationship to the evangelists, although with added difficulties, for we know more of Jesus than we know of them.  For instance, we know with probability that they lived in the last half of the 1st cent., but whether they were Jews or Gentiles we are not sure.

I am judging the Gospel authors from the traces left in the texts they wrote, not from any traditions about their identity.  I see no major reason to think that those who wrote Mark, Matt. and John were not Jews.  The author of Luke knows the Greek Bible well but seemingly not family Jewish customs (in 2:22 he indicates that both parents were purified after the birth of a male child); he might have been a convert to Judaism before coming to believe in Jesus.


(emphasis, Gary’s)


Is it a big deal that “Luke” made a mistake when he said that both Joseph and Mary were purified after the birth of Jesus?  Not to most Christians.   Most Christians believe that it is the message of the Bible that is inerrant, not every word and sentence.  They would chuckle at any skeptic making a fuss over this issue.  But to a strict fundamentalist Christian inerrantist, as I was brought up, this would be a big deal.  God himself is the ultimate author of every word in the Bible.  God does not make mistakes.

As was pointed out in the last post, Brown does not believe that any of the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses nor the associates of eyewitnesses.  His statement above that we cannot know for sure if the authors of the Gospels were Jews or Gentiles is more evidence of this view.


16 thoughts on “NT Scholar Raymond Brown: The Authors of the Gospels may or may not have been Jews

  1. THIS is the part most Christians refuse to accept: From the literature of his time we may acquire some knowledge of this likely mindset, but we cannot understand it in the way we understand our own thought world.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Has Brown mentioned Q yet? Looks like quite a few believe there was one source (now lost) which was heavily borrow by the synoptic gospels. Here’s the cite, but you probably want something more authoritative. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Q_source

    Also, it is surmised that Mark was Peter’s pupil and Peter’s view on events. I like that view because Mark is shortest, most action-packed, like we view Peter. John was written by John, supposedly, but dates don’t really work out (mid 90s? John would have been much older than people usually lived at that time). Luke was associate of Paul, who of course didn’t witness anything. Matthew was an odd tax collector to know the Hebrew Scriptures so well. Interesting that he gives the best xmas story, as he was very, very removed from events.

    Last little factoid: Two, perhaps three, of the disciples were what we now call terrorists, James and John, sons of thunder (a Jewish group against the Romans) and perhaps Judas Iscariot. So … Jesus associated not only with sinners, but terrorists. If you believe what they write is accurate.

    That’s all I know today. Brown is interesting, but odd that he didn’t mention Q, but maybe he did and you didn’t go into detail. My old bible school knowledge is coming in handy today, although I usually use it to debate believers. Not likely to change anyone’s mind, but who knows.


    1. I’m sure Brown will get to “Q” eventually. I am currently on page six of the first volume which is 877 pages long. Volume two is almost as long.

      Whether one is a “terrorist” or a “patriot” depends upon which side you are on. When the Americans rose up against the British in the late eighteenth century, the British considered them rebels, traitors, and terrorists. We Americans, of course, considered ourselves very honorable patriots.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. no way — 877 pages? I hope you will be kind enough to share all the interesting things you find.

        Yes, the definition of terrorist is sketchy. But … it is a good little fact.

        Enjoy your column.


  3. Where does Luke say they were both purified?

    Luke 2.22 says that after the days of HER purification (Mary’s purification) they went to present Jesus.

    where’s the “mistake” here?


    1. Mistake is in the translation. The original was not in English, and translators have often “fixed” the original and shown their own biases. Look at the KJV — very strongly on one side of a religious controversy. Many parts of KJV are translated quite inaccurately which has contributed to continuing religious controversies. Also, we don’t have the original papyri penned by authors, only copies, and who knows what happened in copying.


        1. Great translation problem: Romans 8:1. KJV: There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus who have been called according to his purpose. EXCEPT none of the early texts had “who have been called according to his purpose”. There was a big debate on whether you were saved just by believing, or if you had to be predestined (chosen ahead of time) to be saved. The Bible is very unclear on this. So the KJV translators put in their two cents pro-predestination by adding the last phrase. That phrase completely changes the meaning of the whole book. Funny.


    2. (The authors of the Christian website quoted below state that Luke combined TWO Jewish rituals into one. The question is: Did “Luke” do this on purpose for literary purposes or did he make a mistake out of ignorance? Again, not a big deal for most Christians, but a VERY big deal for inerrantists.)

      Christian Resource Institute: The Law of Moses required the purification of the mother only (Leviticus 12). Neither the father nor the child was required to be purified. Luke’s use of the plural, their purification, implies both Joseph and Mary. Why both?

      Luke apparently combined two different rituals that were originally separate and distinct in the OT. The first is the purification of the mother, as discussed above. The second is the presentation of the firstborn to the Lord (Exodus 13), which was done by both parents. Since Luke combined the two rituals, he included Joseph.

      Mary needed purification even though she was a virgin. A mother became ceremonially unclean at the point of giving birth, not at the point of conceiving. Neither the Law nor Luke suggests that sexual union made a woman unclean. Here is the irony of the incarnation: the birth of this holy Child made his mother become ritually unclean under the Law.

      Joseph and Mary took Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem to present him to the Lord. The Law did not require that the presentation be made at the sanctuary. Luke apparently draws a parallel between the story of Jesus and that of Samuel. Hannah, Samuel’s mother, presented her son to the Lord at the sanctuary (1 Samuel 1:24-28).

      23. The Law required that every firstborn male… be consecrated to the Lord. The firstborn belonged to God for priestly service (Exodus 13:2, 12, 15). This was to be a constant reminder of God’s deliverance of Israel’s firstborn when Egypt’s firstborn perished. However, since the tribe of Levi was chosen to be priests, other firstborn males could be redeemed from priestly service with five shekels (Numbers 18:16). Since Jesus was not redeemed, it meant that he belonged to God just like Samuel.

      24. To offer a sacrifice…: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.” If a mother could not afford a lamb she could offer the less expensive sacrifice of two birds (Leviticus 12:8). Jesus came from a poor family.

      This sacrifice of two birds was to be the mother’s purification ritual after childbirth, not the child’s consecration. Luke has combined the two ceremonies into one.

      link: http://www.crivoice.org/luke2c.html

      Liked by 1 person

      1. What is more disturbing is that “Luke” allegedly received this information directly from eyewitnesses, if we are to believe conservative Christians. The only eyewitnesses to the purification event would have been Mary and Joseph. Joseph was apparently dead or absent when Jesus was older, so Mary would have been the only eyewitness available to the author of the Gospel of Luke. Are we to believe that Mary mistakenly told “Luke” that both she and Joseph went to Jerusalem to be purified after the birth of their male son, Jesus?


        To me this is more evidence that “Luke’s” sources for the stories in his gospel were not eyewitnesses.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. IF the Gospels were written so late, why the lower Christology in them compares to the (supposedly) much earlier letters of Paul?


    1. Paul was a loose canon in some ways since he was not a direct witness and was out wandering the world when some consensus was being gathered in Israel. The gospel authors may not have seen Paul’s work — he was far away in Turkey and Rome. There are other conflicts, such as view of women, which is pretty radical in the gospels, and Paul is much less happy with women’s involvement. From what I’ve read, there was Paul, and there was everybody else.


  5. But later or not, they still recount the events as nothing less than history, and you are faced of the fact of Jesus’ resurrection.

    Don’t forget Tacitus and many ancient historians wrote about events over 100 – 250 years or more from before they lived.


    1. Well, Mark didn’t even include the resurrection originally — added later. The end of Matthew (ascension) was also added later. So … we don’t know what was factual. I’m not sure if that was your original point, or it you were supporting the resurrection story. Consensus evolved rather than being a sign of the consistency of the original documents.


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