I May Have Been Too Hard on Raymond Brown
Contrary to Newsweek's claim, Brown supports the virgin birth

In the blog I wrote yesterday about the latest news stories from Newsweek and Time trashing the account of the nativity, I quoted the following from Newsweek:

"Yet almost nothing in Luke's story stands up to close historical scrutiny; [Father Raymond] Brown[, author of Birth of the Messiah] finds it "dubious on almost every score."

I followed up this quote by quoting from an article from a Catholic author that questioned Father Brown's approach to scripture. Well, a friend of mine wrote and defended Father Brown, and I wanted to post what he said. After quoting the same portion of the Newsweek article I quote above, he said:

This is a misrepresentation of what Raymond Brown said in his massive work The Birth of The Messiah in which he is quoted entirely out of context. For example, Brown tells us that he considers the historicity of the virgin conception to have good supporting evidence.

"On purely exegetical grounds (in his 1976 edition of BBM) "I came to the conclusion that the scientifically controllable biblical evidence leaves historicity of the viginal conception unresloved"; yet there was better evidence for historicity than against." (R. Brown, BBB, 1993, pg. 698)

Considering Brown defends the histority of the MOST CONTENTIOUS PIECE IN THE ENTIRE INFANCY NARRATIVE, I think that his name is being both poorly used, and even trashed unfairly, by his critics. Moreover, the nuances of the arguments contained in a work that is over 700 pages long are missed entirely in an effort to make easy points on straw men building.

As to Brown's acceptance that Matthew and John were not written by eyewitnesses, this is true of GMatt (and it is certainly not a radical view, not to mention I believe that GMatt was not written by an eyewitness), but in the case of GJohn, Brown's argument is much more subtle and nuanced (AGAIN!!!), and includes an acceptance that much of GJohn was authored by an eyewitness, though not one of the Twelve.

Thus, I just wanted to mention my concern here, and to register a defence for the great work of this wonderful, and quite orthodox, Biblical scholar.

While I disagree with my friend about the identities of the authors of Matthew and John (I think that the evidence is sufficient to reasonably conclude that the two Apostles were, in fact, the authors), I found it interesting that even though Father Brown rejects Apostolic authorship, he found the account of the virgin birth to be more likely than not based on the evidence. Assuming my friend is right (and I have no reason to question him), I wonder how it is that Newsweek should highlight the idea that the account is "dubious" rather than the fact that there is "better evidence" for its historicity than against it.

Actually, I don't wonder at all. I feel pretty confident that I know.


Nomad said…
I was the one that sent this email off to BK, largely because I have been deeply troubled by the flack that Fr. Brown has taken from his many critics (both Protestant and Catholic) for being so "conservative" in his conclusions. Basically, Brown's methodology demanded that that his conclusions go only as far as the evidence would take him. By this he would then classify the probable historicity of events described in the bible on a range from "very dubious" to "near certain" with numerous gradations in between. This presentation did not mean that a dubious event was not true, or even that we should not believe it was true, only that the scientifically controllable evidence supporting it was weak.

This methodology has been adopted by numerous great Catholic scholars, including Fr. Joseph Fitzmeyer and Fr. J.P. Meier, among others, and it is one that I (and yes, I am also a Catholic) subscribe to as well. The fact that these scholars typically consider the Scriptural evidence alone (meaning that they rarely give much weight, IN THEIR SCHOLARLY REPORT, to the beliefs of the Early Fathers) often drives Catholic critics, like Fr. Giesler, crazy, and leads to numerous unwarrented attacks. And with Biblical literalists and fundamentalists, the charge of heresy is common simply because Brown & Co. reject such an hermeneutical approach to the Scriptures.

Now, all of that said, I am not making these charges against BK. I do consider him to be a friend, and though we disagree on many things, we do agree on many more, and especially on the critical issues of the day, both secular and theological. What I saw in his post was, however, characteristic of what I see from people who quote from sources critical of Brown, but may not be fully aquainted with the nuances of his full argument, leading them to a false impression of what Brown actually said. Thus, my letter to him.

I hope that this has helped to clarify matters.

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