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.
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.
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.