This is an ongoing review of New Testament scholar Raymond Brown’s masterpiece, The Death of the Messiah. Brown is considered a “moderate” by both conservative and liberal scholars. I personally find his work refreshingly honest and free of bias. Brown (deceased) was a devout Roman Catholic whose teachings were acceptable during the papacy of the very conservative pope, John Paul II. Brown, therefore, cannot be (successfully) accused of being an “anti-supernaturalist” skeptic of the traditional Christian supernatural claims within the Bible, and in particular, the supernatural claims within the Gospels.
It is well known that the author of Matthew copied large sections of the Gospel of Mark, sometimes verbatim, when writing his own gospel. Most scholars also believe that Matthew and the author of the Gospel of Luke shared a common (no longer existent) source, identified as “Q”. But what is the source for the material unique to the Gospel of Matthew, such as:
–the episode of Judas hanging himself.
–Pilate’s wife’s dream of a just man.
–Pilate’s washing his hands of the blood of a just man while all the people exclaim, “His blood on us and on our children”.
–the “poetic quatrain”: the earth shakes, the rocks rent, the tombs open, the bodies of saints raised.
–the guards at the tomb story with the Jewish leaders paying off the soldiers to spread a lie “known among the Jews until this day”.
Raymond Brown: I find the special material that Matthew has grouped around the birth [flight to Egypt, believing Gentiles—the magi, a wicked ruler murdering Hebrew/Jewish babies, etc.] and the death of Jesus a consistency that suggests a source, but one of another nature than Mark and Q—a source that reflects popular dramatization through storytelling, much like expanded birth and passion narration ever since [Christmas nativity scene plays, Passion plays].
With regard to the common Synoptic passion narrative I argued that OT allusions or citations did not create the basic passion narrative sequence but helped to fill in the established, skeletal preaching outline. In the instance of the Matthean special [unique] material, however, the OT background may have actually generated the stories, eg., of the manner of Judas’ death.
Gary: Wow! Did you read that, folks! That is a pretty amazing statement!
I had always assumed that “Matthew” simply invented his unique material for theological and literary purposes. Brown believes that this material did not come from Matthew but from a very unique source: the oral stories of the common people—folklore! Brown is not claiming that the entire passion narrative is a product of popular invention, but he does believe that the early Jewish Christians added “meat”, fictitious meat, to the bare-bones skeleton story of the Passion of Jesus when they told and re-told the stories about Jesus.
What does that say for the common conservative Christian claim that the first century Jewish Christians would never have allowed any additions or errors to creep into the Jesus Story??? If Brown’s theory is true, it blows this claim to smithereens! The mere fact that such a respected, moderate, New Testament scholar would even suggest that first century Jews were capable of adding embellishments to their stories and traditions is devastating to the conservative Christian claim that we can be certain that all the events within the Gospels were real historical events because—“first century Jews always scrupulously preserved their oral stories”.
Brown goes on to show how much of the unique material in Matthew’s passion narrative draws upon parallels in the Old Testament (such as the Patriarch Joseph being sold by his brothers for silver, David betrayed by Ahithophel who hanged himself, etc.), just as Matthew’s unique material in his birth narrative draws heavily upon material from the Old Testament (the Patriarch Joseph’s dreams, the birth of Moses, pharaoh’s murder of Hebrew babies). According to Brown, Matthew didn’t invent these stories, the common folk invented these stories, adding these Old Testament based “marvelous, vivid, and imaginative” (Brown) details to the ever-evolving Jesus story, just as Christians today create additional narratives in their Christmas Nativity Scene plays and in their passion plays! Matthew simply wrote this folklore into his gospel account!
Fascinating insight, Mr. Brown.