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. He was a Roman Catholic. 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. Devoid of bias. 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. As a devout Catholic, Brown most definitely believed in the supernatural. Therefore, the popular apologist charge that the majority of NT scholars are biased against the supernatural cannot be made against the work of Raymond Brown.
Book review continues:
My primary goal is to offer solid understanding of the meaning intended and conveyed by the evangelist themselves in the 1st cent. and thus to supply material for reflective interpretation of the passion by the readers themselves.
…In insisting that it is both possible and important to know the ancient message, I have consistently used the two verbs “intend” and “convey”. This is an attempt to do justice to a complex situation. The importance of “convey” is relatively obvious. The evangelists certainly knew more of the Christian tradition about Jesus than they chose to convey in their Gospels; John 21:25 affirms that. Therefore we should maintain a certain distrust of negative arguments from silence, as if failure to write meant the failure to know. Yet exegesis [critical explanation or interpretation of a text, especially of scripture] can expound only what the evangelists conveyed in writing. The rest is speculation.
A more delicate issue is the relationship between what the written words convey and what the evangelists intended. There is a span of possibilities: According to the skill of the writer, a writing may convey what the author wished it to convey, or something less, or the opposite, or something other than the author wished or foresaw. …I shall have to alert readers to instances where what the words seem to convey may not be what the author intended.
…One may well object, “How can a modern interpreter know that ancient authors intended something different from what their words convey?” Sometimes the only key is in other passages. For example Luke does not report a scourging of Jesus by Roman soldiers as do Mark/Matt; accordingly the antecedent of the “they” in 23:26 who led Jesus away to be crucified is grammatically “the chief priests and the rulers and the people” of 23:13. Many commentators would read this passage as a deliberate Lucan attempt to make the Jews the agents of the crucifixion and to exculpate the Romans. Yet careless use of antecedents is not infrequent in writing. Indeed, Luke is something of a careless editor: In omitting the Roman scourging, he has not noticed that Jesus’ own prophecy that he would be scourged (18:33) now remains unfulfilled. Moreover, Luke eventually makes clear that there were (Roman) soldiers involved in the crucifixion (23:26), and elsewhere he indicates that the Gentiles killed Jesus (18:32-33; cf. Acts 4:25-27). Thus the grammatical sense of what Luke wrote very likely was not what he intended to convey. The commentator must take that difference into account.
Nevertheless, one should resort only rarely to such interpretation distinguishing between what was written and what was intended. Too often commentators detect contradictions in the Gospel narratives and assume that the writer could not have been responsible for the text as it now stands or that the writer combined diverse sources without recognizing that they were irreconcilable. Such a solution is not impossible, but probabilities lie in another direction: The account as it now stands made sense to someone in antiquity, and so what seems contradictory to modern interpreters may not be really contradictory.
Gary: The above excerpt may be boring to many of my readers, but to me, this is a fascinating discussion. Remember, I grew up a fundamentalist, KJV-only, strict, biblical inerrantist: In this world view, there are no errors in the Bible. None. God is the ultimate author and editor of the Bible and God does not make mistakes. God may have used the style and tone of the individual writers of the Gospels in writing his Holy Word, but God most definitely did not allow any human error to creep in.
So the idea that Luke, the traveling companion of Paul, the God-filled and God-inspired author of one of the Gospels of the Good News of Jesus Christ, was a “careless editor” is unimaginable. God is the final editor of the Bible and God would not have made the sloppy omission of having Jesus prophesy his scourging by the Romans in an earlier part of the gospel…and then fail to mention that it had occurred during his later passion account. God also would not have made the grammatical error that would infer that it was the Jews who led Jesus away to be crucified when it was really the Romans.
To a strict inerrantist, these discrepancies are very troubling.
But most Christians are not strict inerrantists. So what is the big deal?
Well, we shall see as we continue the review of Brown’s book. Here is what I will be looking at: Just how much error do we allow to be present in the Gospels before we consider them to be unreliable historical sources? They may be amazing pieces of ancient literature, but is their sufficient accuracy in the historicity presented in the Gospels for us to accept as historical fact that a man who lived almost 2,000 years ago really did come back from the dead, in a superhero-like body, and now sits on a golden throne on the edge of the universe as the omnipotent, eternal, King of Heaven and Earth?