Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

An Introduction to the New Testament
By Raymond E. Brown
DoubleDay. 878 pages, $42.50

Those unaware of the constantly changing state of biblical scholarship might suppose that introducing such a little book ought to be a relatively straightforward task, but there is no end to the writing of Introductions to the New Testament. Since the pioneering effort by W. D. Michaelis in 1750, the Introduction has been a standard item in the scholarly repertoire, serving both as an assistance to readers–– and––just as often––as an opportunity for intellectually ambitious scholars to make a statement on the canonical collection as a whole.

Raymond Brown followed his massive and influential studies on the birth and death of the Messiah for the Anchor Bible Reference Library with this substantial Introduction in the same series. It turned out, sadly, to be his valedictory work: Father Brown died unexpectedly of a heart attack in early August. Given that fact, as well as Fr. Brown’s eminence within the New Testament guild both for his substantive contributions and for his symbolic role as one of the first Roman Catholic scholars to reach full assimilation within a field long dominated by Protestants, this publication deserves particular attention. Readers of this review should know that I am also the author of a large introduction to the New Testament and weigh my remarks accordingly. If this circumstance might tempt me to make comparisons, it also surely helps me better understand the peculiar challenges involved in constructing this sort of book.

The difficulties begin with deciding what sort of Introduction to write. Brown did not produce the standard college textbook with its historical narrative and predictable popularization. Nor did he write an academic handbook with prose only fellow academics could crack. He instead combined the elements of the classic Einleitung (which emphasizes factual information and scholarly debates) with a user-friendly style and format.

Brown’s intended readers are theological students, pastors, and committed laypeople. This is not an easy audience, for it comes to the subject with some knowledge but often also with misinformation, bias, and a resistance to instruction. Brown does a particularly good job of identifying and clarifying the issues such readers bring to the New Testament; his style and his choice of issues for discussion alike are obviously shaped by a fundamentally pastoral concern. Fr. Brown was always very much in the service of the Church; it will startle only those unfamiliar with his previous work to learn that this volume––touching repeatedly on the knottiest and most controversial questions of Christian origins––bears the Imprimatur and Nihil Obstat.

Another classic feature of Brown’s Introduction is its focus on the canonical writings of the New Testament, rather than on the history of early Christianity and its literature. (In one way or another, of course, both topics necessarily intrude, and Brown’s strategy here may not be entirely successful. More on this below.) The book does offer useful appendices summarizing “Jewish and Christian Writings Pertinent to the New Testament” and “The Historical Jesus,” but otherwise, the compositions of the New Testament itself remain steadily in view.

Part 1 takes up such “Preliminaries for Understanding the New Testament” as text, canon, and methods of interpretation, as well as two chapters devoted to the political, social, religious, and philosophical world in which the writings were composed. Parts 2-4 treat of the compositions themselves, beginning with “The Gospels and Related Works,” moving through the “Pauline Letters” and ending with “The Other New Testament Writings.” These broad groupings are fairly standard and commonsensical, although one might wonder why the three letters of John are included with the narrative compositions (Gospels and Acts) rather than with the other Epistles.

The book offers general framing essays in appropriate places. Before the treatment of the specific Gospels, for example, there is a lengthy and useful essay on the Gospels in general, and the Synoptics in particular. Before dealing with Paul’s undisputed letters Fr. Brown provides an essay on New Testament Letters as well as an appreciative sketch of Paul’s life, thought, and character. Before considering the disputed Pauline letters, he takes up the issues posed by pseudonymity. And the beginning of the book features “data that will be of service” throughout the volume, such as abbreviations, general information about the Bible (including the virtues and failings of contemporary translations), chronologies, and maps.

The treatment of the respective New Testament compositions follows a standard pattern. Chapters devoted to the Gospels begin with a “General Analysis of the Message,” which amounts to a content summary according to the narrative sequence. A consideration of various critical issues follows, such as the Gospel’s use of sources, the identity of the author and readers, and the date”the usual questions considered “introductory.” There then follow a series of “Issues and Problems for Reflection.” These are sometimes of a highly technical character (for example, questions of text criticism), and other times engage broad interpretive or pastoral issues (in Matthew’s Gospel, for example, the Virgin Birth and the role of Peter). A similar sequence is followed with the epistles, though with an added section called “Background” that tries to locate the letter in its historical circumstances.

A useful “Summary of Basic Information” begins each chapter devoted to a composition. Conversation with scholarship takes place both within the text and in sometimes extensive footnotes. Bibliographies at the end of each chapter are selective: only English titles are included (a reasonable limitation), books are preferred to articles because of greater accessibility, and positive recommendations among commentaries and studies are indicated by the use of boldface.

Raymond Brown’s usual strengths are abundantly displayed here. Two in particular deserve comment. First, he was a great explainer. Give him a problem of virtually any sort and he would expound its causes, delineate its features, and clarify the arguments for one side and the other as well as any scholar has ever done. Those who are aware of the number and complexity of the issues he dealt with here will be the most appreciative. Second, he was always fair and considerate in his exposition of controverted questions. He thought of himself as a centrist, and whenever possible sought out the reasonable compromise between extremes. Although critical of attempts to make of Q more than a descriptive category, for example, this Introduction is thoroughly at home within the “Two-Source” solution to the Synoptic Problem. On any issue, the reader gets to hear both sides. Fr. Brown’s own cards are always in clear view on the table. He admits, for example, to presenting and siding with “the majority view” of scholars in virtually every case. The only place where his patience appears slightly strained is in response to the contemporary predilection for apocryphal literature, particularly among some historical Jesus questers. If one goal of an introduction is to inform responsibly, then Brown’s effort is successful.

Despite the significant accomplishment represented by this volume, it has some noteworthy deficiencies. The first is chronic to all serious scholarship that seeks also to be accessible to a wider readership than an increasingly self-involved guild, namely, inconsistency in level of discourse. As noted, Brown (and undoubtedly also his editors) went to considerable lengths to make the volume useful to the ordinary reader. And Brown’s style here generally makes up in clarity what it lacks in verve. But there are places where the citation of authors and scholarly allusions threaten to overwhelm both the reader and the point being discussed. Brown was not immune to the scholarly vice of looking over his shoulder at his professional colleagues even as he addressed the crowd. The pastors, seminarians, and parishioners whom Brown intended to be his target readers will have to struggle through some of these discussions.

Another weakness of the book is the flip-side of its scrupulous reporting of opinions. One wishes Fr. Brown would have used his enormous learning and influence to nudge the conversation more assertively. Sometimes the majority is wrong. If scholars of Brown’s stature are unwilling to declare themselves in opposition to the majority, then the situation will never change. I have in mind here above all Brown’s unwillingness to decide for the Pauline authorship of 2 Thessalonians despite the arguments the book offers in its favor and the weakness of the arguments against it. Here is a case where he could have helped make the majority.

I mentioned earlier that Brown’s decision to focus on the writings was a good one. But his avoidance of a more thorough and sustained consideration of the symbolic world out of which the writings emerged has two consequences. One is that readers are less likely to appreciate the ways in which the worlds of Judaism and Hellenism both shaped and were reshaped by this new literature. The other is that readers are given virtually no sense of the question that most requires asking if the New Testament writings are to be understood at all, namely, what experiences and convictions moved these ancient writers so to engage and reshape their symbolic worlds?

Brown’s strength here is in explaining rather than interpreting. Readers receive reliable information but are given little direction on how to engage the New Testament writings as literary compositions. Although Brown occasionally mentions literary and rhetorical analysis, his appreciation is distant indeed. His analyses of content tend to be flat, with little notice given to the texture of the respective writings. He discusses genre, to be sure, but such discussions affect his readings in no discernible fashion. Brown gives his readers too little sense of the experiences and convictions that generated the writings and too little appreciation of the specific contours of the compositions that expressed and interpreted such experiences and convictions.

In sum, Fr. Brown’s final scholarly offering is a reliable and extremely useful compendium of information about the New Testament that can function as a resource both for the general reader and for the professional. The last major Roman Catholic introduction to the New Testament was by Alfred Wikenhauser in 1960; the breadth of learning and ecumenical spirit in this much more than adequate successor make it worth the consideration of all students of Scripture.

Luke Timothy Johnson is Robert W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. His Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation (Fortress, 1986) will soon appear in a second edition.