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Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Brown's Birth Of The Messiah . . . Revisited

by Michael E. Giesler


A critique of the assumptions behind Raymond Brown's 1977 analysis of the infancy narratives, which called their historicity into question.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review


16 - 24

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, February 2001

Though this book (Raymond Brown, Birth of the Messiah, New York City, 1977, 594 pp.) has already been reviewed many times, it is worth revisiting for the purpose of understanding it more clearly. Father Brown (may he rest in peace) has had a great influence on Catholic seminaries and biblical studies in the United States. He may have been quite sincere in his studies and efforts, and doubtless he had great empirical erudition, but I do think that questionable assumptions and implications remain in his book — particularly those that cast doubt on the historical value of the infancy narratives in the gospels of Saints Matthew and Luke.

The book is obviously the result of long and extensive research, with sources that mostly come from authors of the historical-critical school over the last 100 years. His analysis of the annunciation patterns in Matthew and Luke is presented with detail, along with his various textual and linguistic commentaries. Towards the beginning he explains that one of his purposes in analyzing the infancy narratives is to defend them against the "rationalistic scoffing" (p. 25) of those who see little value in them because they deny their historical character. While he too doubts their historical character, he adapts — knowingly or unknowingly — a method similar to that of Rudolf Bultmann, who wished to defend the gospels in general against mockery by using the process of "de-mythologizing": the attempt to separate what was historical in the gospels from what was mythical. Brown uses the concept of "theologizing," that is, he is of the opinion that while we cannot know the historical certainty of the infancy narratives, we can identify their Christology — which is the main message of the evangelists.

He takes for granted that no one of the evangelists was an "eyewitness" (p. 27), therefore discounting the traditional view that Matthew and John were the final authors of their gospels. This idea is bolstered by his view (standard among many modern critical scholars) that Matthew and Luke were written in the 80s or 90s, thus allowing a number of years to go by so that traditions could be developed about Christ's life that would not be dependent on strict history. His main thesis is that in the infancy narratives Matthew and Luke are above all theologians, who wrote their accounts in the light of a post-resurrectional theology of Christ. He was the Messiah of the Old Testament and the Son of God — and therefore his conception and childhood had to be marvelous. This view distinguishes them from Mark and John, who tell us nothing about the birth and childhood of Christ.

His methodology is the strict application of the historical-critical method, as he states in footnote 2 of the Introduction. In his presentations, at least initially, he does not take into account later statements of the Magisterium or the Fathers of the Church, but restricts himself to the texts at hand, or ancient documents from secular or Jewish sources such as the dead sea scrolls. He obviously thinks that this is the scientific and empirical way to do Scripture studies, and that it is truly ecumenical as well. Only later in his analysis does he consider Magisterial statements, in a somewhat secondary way. For this reason he frankly admits that he sees "no reason why a Catholic's understanding of what Matthew and Luke meant in their infancy narratives should be different from a Protestant's" (p. 9).

Brown brings the same dichotomy — separating the texts from their traditional comprehension in the Catholic Church — to the study of the gospel texts themselves. Rather than trying to see unity between Matthew and Luke, or between them and the other evangelists, he frequently emphasizes division or non-coherence — for instance between Matthew's and Luke's genealogies, or the apparent ignorance of Matthew for the story in Luke's gospel and vice-versa, or the different accounts of the holy family's return to Nazareth. He frequently brings up Mark's text about Jesus' relatives and Mary (Mark 3:21, 31), which he thinks shows them to be outside of the circle of Jesus' followers. Because of these perceived tensions, he questions the historicity of the infancy narratives — thereby reinforcing his central vision of their theological message and design.

I don't think that the book proves one of its main assumptions, namely, that the oldest preaching about Christ concerned his death and resurrection, then his ministry, then only later his childhood. If the Greek Matthew draws content from the lost original in Aramaic, and from Mark (as many modern scholars believe), why couldn't the Mathaean infancy narrative have been in the Aramaic original? Or in an ancient Q source (Q, short for the German Quelle, meaning "source": in this case referring to a collection of words or discourses that the evangelists had before them)? Or why couldn't the tradition of the virgin birth have been transmitted very early in the Jerusalem community by Mary and others — and only later recorded by Luke? In other words, there is no reason to imply that the virginal conception was simply a Christological statement of later times. Because of its intimate, less public nature it makes sense that the virginal conception would not have formed the primary part of early Christian preaching at first (as exemplified in Acts 10: 34-43); but later on, with greater reflection on Scripture, and with the entry of more women into the Church, it was recorded and included more in apostolic preaching since it presented the complete message about Christ, God and man.

I believe that his questioning of the historicity of many passages is itself problematic. For instance, he questions the historicity of the Annunciation to Mary because of the stereo-typical literary form used (p. 296). Yet he himself admits that there is not much more choice than to describe an angel's appearance in certain ways. I would also say that the fact that the Lucan annunciation is like other angelic messages in the Old Testament supports its historicity, rather than puts it into doubt. God truly intervenes in history through his messengers, and the biblical form for describing these interventions is more or less constant. The same could be said of Old Testament persons or events that are fulfilled in the New. The author looks at these only in terms of literary sources, not as real persons or events who prefigure others, as the Fathers of the Church looked at them. It is true, as Brown points out, that there is a resemblance between the birth of Moses, savior of his people, and Jesus the Messiah — insofar as there is an evil ruler involved (Pharaoh in Moses' case, Herod in Jesus' case, both of whom destroy children) — but this does not mean that Matthew's account of Herod's murder of the children is a literary invention. It simply means that corrupt kings act in a similar way throughout history, and the innocent often suffer. The same could be said of the Balaam-Magi correspondence to which the author refers frequently. The Magi are not a pious literary development because they have some similarity to Old Testament Balaam, the foreigner who blesses Israel and who speaks of a star coming forth from Jacob, or a scepter from Israel (Num. 24:17); rather, one could truly assert that the Magi historically represent the fulfillment of the Balaam event. In other words, it is clear that mere literary similarity does not mean fabrication, or a reason for questioning the historicity of an event.

Brown also makes much of a presumed first century Haggadic midrash (a Jewish commentary on the Old Testament that embellishes texts for the moral edification of the people) which speaks of the Pharoah having a dream that predicts the birth of Moses. Apart from the fact that the nature of midrash in the first century A.D. is still quite unknown ( it is really a rabbinical technique from 2nd century A.D. onwards), and though it is pure speculation if Matthew had any access to this text, he suggests a connection of this midrash with Matthew's account of the dreams of Joseph and Herod's knowledge of the Messiah's birth, along with the dreams that the Old Testament Joseph had. Again, rather than considering these hypotheses as casting doubt on the historical value of Matthew's texts on Joseph's dreams, one could positively interpret them as affirming the way God communicates with Joseph the foster father of Jesus, just as he would communicate the future to the Joseph son of Jacob in the Old Testament. As for midrashic documents in the first century which speak of supernatural dreams, they are neither an argument for or against the historical character of Joseph's dreams in Matthew's account.

The author is continually looking for sources or traditions (whether pre-Mathaean or pre-Lucan), to the point that the reader gets the impression that the infancy narratives are a mere literary artifice. At some points the desire to find a previous source goes beyond common sense. On page 106 for instance he interprets that the two dreams that Joseph had are indications of two "pre-Mathaean sources" — one for each dream, as well as one for each geographical destination to which Joseph is directed. But the evident and most straight-forward approach is that Matthew recorded two dreams because his source (written or verbal) described two dreams in the first place. There is no need to hypothesize about the existence of more sources, though it may appear more scholarly and sophisticated to do so. He does make a valid point, I think, in showing that the Scriptural formula citations have a certain literary form that could be more Mathaean, and therefore could have been added to a pre-existing narrative.

On page 346 he states that it is "pre-critical and naive" to say that Mary actually spoke the words of the Magnificat. Apart from the fact that this would mean that the Church's preaching tradition has been "naive" for the past 1950 years, there is no reason to suspect that a holy woman, who must have reflected on Scripture before and was moved by the Holy Spirit, could not have uttered the words of the Magnificat (or at least their substantial content) particularly in the grace-filled context of a visit to her cousin Elizabeth. And the same could be said of the canticles of Zechariah and Simeon. Though in footnote 22 he states the possibility of an intervention of the Holy Spirit in the saying of these canticles, he gives no further attention to it and proceeds to the theory that he favors more: that Luke took the verses from a different source, or added some of his own. (On page 352 he states that Luke makes Mary the spokesperson for a group of "anawim" — pious Christian Jews who had been marginated or were waiting for a spiritual liberation. This theory is based on some literary similarities with Jewish documents of the time, and may indeed show one of Luke's sources, but it should not be used to put into doubt the historical value of the canticle itself).

In similar fashion, he holds that Mary's words at the Annunciation, "Behold the Handmaid" are really Luke's retrojection of Mary's character as known through the accounts of Christ's ministry (p. 318). In other words we do not know for certain if she really said them, but she could have said them given her later comportment. The same in his opinion would apply to her words "I do not know man"; rather than being her own words, they are the projection of Luke's Christology, which highlights the fact of God's role in the conception of Christ (p. 308). According to Brown then, Luke was not primarily interested in giving Mary's words, as he was in showing that God was the cause of Christ's conception, not a man.

On page 413 he states that Luke has a "confused memory" about the date of the census at Jesus' birth. Though it is true that we have no outside record of a census under Quirinius in the dates most likely for Christ's birth (6 to 3 B.C.), there is no reason to suspect Luke of inaccuracy. History does not record all the census that Augustus ordered during his reign, and perhaps there was a series of minor census that preceded the big census that is known to have taken place under Quirinius in the years 6-9 A.D. One such census could have taken place at Bethlehem. If this were the case, why could not Luke affirm that the 6 to 3 B.C. census took place "under" Quirinius, in the sense of preceding him? There is also evidence that Quirinius could have been co-governor with Saturninus in the year 6 B.C. (see R. Ginns, St. Luke's Gospel, n. 749b in A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, Orchard, Sutcliffe, Thomas Nelson & Sons, New York, 1953).

Whatever the answer to this question, we must keep in mind that historical events in Scripture are not recorded in an exact chronological way, as in a modern textbook. The author's rather stringent view of biblical history can also be seen on page 513 when he states that "only the second chapters of the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke support Bethlehem as the birthplace of Jesus." The logical question arises: isn't that enough? If the hagiographers are truly inspired by God, and give no indication that their words are non-historical, or that they are products of a later Christological conception or historicized "theologoumenon," as Brown puts it on page 513, why suspect the historical value of their accounts?

Regarding the very important issue of the virginal conception, he deals with its historicity in a problematic and questioning way, not denying it but implying that belief in it may have come about more as a result of a "post-resurrectional" theology in the Christian community — and stating that biblically at least we cannot attest to its reality. On page 527 he affirms that "the scientifically controllable biblical evidence leaves the question of the historicity of the virginal conception unresolved." By "scientifically controllable" he means a tradition of identifiable witnesses not in conflict with other traditions (footnote 26a, p. 527). The problem with this line of thinking is that none of the gospel accounts have "identifiable witnesses," in the modern technical sense of the word, other than the writers themselves; with Brown's scientific controls one could question almost any of the events or facts narrated in the gospels. Unfortunately he rejects as naive or pre-critical the idea of a direct historical testimony coming from Mary or Joseph, or from Jesus' family members. He stresses the fact that no other hagiographer refers to it outside of Matthew and Luke, and that later documents of the Church about it may have been referring more to Christ's humanity than to the biological way he was conceived. But all of this kind of thinking is very minimalist, and misses the clear intent of Matthew's and Luke's gospels, along with the testimony given in the traditions of the Church from the beginning about the virginal conception. It is not "naive" to take the testimony of two evangelists as historical, especially when it is not denied by the other evangelists, and has formed part of the historical magisterium of the Church in a consistent way.

In speaking of the evangelists' sources he immediately discounts that the Matthaen infancy narrative could have come from Joseph and that the Lucan infancy narrative came from Mary (p. 525). He argues that the "Matthaean and Lucan annunciation accounts are developed variants of a pre-Gospel annunciation tradition"(p. 525). But if this were so, what could impede that this pre-Gospel annunciation tradition was itself based on real historical events, and that Mary and the friends and relatives of Joseph — if he was deceased at the time of Matthew's original Aramaic account — could have been the sources for the Gospel? I think that many of Brown's puzzles about the origins of the infancy narratives could be resolved with more emphasis on the original Matthaean Aramaic text; this is the obvious source for the information about Joseph, which Matthew the apostle and evangelist could have gathered from Jesus himself or from those who knew Joseph, and which was later translated into the Greek Matthew. He also excludes rather summarily James the cousin of Jesus as a good source of family traditions, connecting him too quickly with the apocryphal gospel that bears his name (p. 33), and thus doubting his possible testimony.

When Luke wrote his gospel he was working with a different tradition, a Marian tradition which was just as early as the Joseph tradition, and did have the context of the Anawim, or that group of prayerful and just Jews awaiting redemption. Why doesn't Luke show more knowledge of Matthew's infancy account? Either because it was written after Matthew's account, and therefore it was not needed to give a complete account of Jesus' childhood, or because Luke had his own unique evangelizing message (which was based on Jerusalem and the events there), and the trip to Egypt would not be needed. The fact that Luke does not mention the slaughter of the innocents or the trip to Egypt does not put these into doubt, nor does the fact that Matthew does not mention Mary's annunciation or visitation put those in doubt. It could well be that these intimate events were revealed by Mary after Matthew wrote his early account in Aramaic (according to one tradition Mary went to heaven around the year 50, enough time for her to reveal to the apostles or to the holy women these intimate events of Christ's conception and birth).

In general his arguments are not convincing. He works always within the realm of speculation — a necessary condition for him since he questions that the infancy narratives were founded on eye-witness reports; therefore his major activity is one of nuance and distinction. It is neither a positive affirmation, nor a well-proven denial. The reader is continually left in a kind of exegetical limbo about the real meaning of the events of Christ's infancy; the one sure thing, according to the author, is the theology woven into it by Matthew and Luke.

As it stands Brown's book has underlying assumptions that make it hard to be used by a Roman Catholic who wants to see the infancy narratives in an integral way, connected with the traditions and practices of the Church. In great part this difficulty comes from Brown's initial premise: that the Bible itself can be studied as an end in itself, in only a historical-critical way, without reference to a greater context or truth. This is an unreal starting point, almost like isolating a cell of the body without its reference to the body in general. The books of the Bible were obviously written within a tradition, and for a tradition — and this must always be kept in mind. In the words of Dei Verbum: "Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church. It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture, and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God's wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others" (n. 10). And again: ". . . since Holy Scripture Scripture must be read and interpreted in the same spirit in which it was written, no less serious attention must be given to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture if the meaning of the Sacred texts is to be correctly worked out. The living tradition of the whole Church must be taken into account along with the harmony which exists between elements of the faith" (n. 12).

Secondly, he continually argues that Matthew and Luke were more theologians than historians in the infancy narratives, and that their texts may not be based on eye-witness accounts. This view is not proven, except by inference or innuendo, and for every point that he brings up in question of historicity, another could be produced that affirms it. For instance, the fact that only Matthew speaks of the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem leads him to question the historicity of the account, but the knowledge of the character of King Herod affirms it. In the same way there is no reason to infer that the presence of shepherds in Luke's account is a symbolism or midrashic reflection on Old Testament texts (see pp. 420-423), when it is just as reasonable to consider that there were actually shepherds in the vicinity of Bethlehem tending their flocks when Jesus was born — most likely in the springtime, as many scholars believe.

Thirdly, and most importantly in my opinion, is his view of what can be a true literary form in the New Testament. On page 534 he states that "any intelligent attempt to combine an acceptance of inspiration with an acceptance of biblical criticism must lead to the recognition that there are in the Bible fiction, parable, and folklore, as well as history." Certainly parable and history are in the Bible, but the existence of fiction and folklore must be carefully proven, and if they do exist, they should be understood correctly. First of all, we should not forget the intrinsic connection between word and event which is at the very core of God's revelation to mankind. (The creation, the passover, the miracles of Jesus, the sacraments all involve both an event and a word that causes or elucidates it; this is the way that God chooses to reveal himself in history). If an interpreter thinks that there can be a literary form in the bible that is historical in appearance only, or that there could be a salvific word in the bible (such as the angel's announcement to Mary) without a true salvific event connected to it, he must examine his conclusion carefully because he could be introducing an element into Scripture which contradicts the simplicity and truthfulness of God the divine Author. In the words of Pope Pius XII in the encyclical Humani Generis: "[W]hatever of the popular narrations have been inserted into the Sacred Scripture must in no way be considered on a par with myths or other such things, which are more productions of an extravagant imagination than that of striving for that truth and simplicity which in the Sacred Books, also of the Old Testament, is so apparent . . ." (EB, n. 618). And Pope Benedict XV also warned about interpreting history in the Bible only in a figurative way (enc. Spiritus Paraclitus, n. 458).

This caution about the proper understanding of salvation history applies not only to the infancy narratives, but to the entire New Testament, including the miracles and especially the death and resurrection of Christ. Brown is careful never to use the word "myth" in his book, but his continual emphasis on Christology, and post-resurrectional retrojections have the result of casting the gospel narratives into a quasi-mythical light.

The author has no difficulty in stating that the evangelists probably used midrashic techniques, though he is careful to state that their works are not midrash, that is, mere commentaries on the Old Testament (pp. 560-561) and that they composed their gospels using a mixture of Old Testament stories, materials from Jewish traditions (as seen in Qumram documents and others), some historical events (very hard to verify), and creative imagination. But at this point we can legitimately ask him (and ourselves): is this type of literary form truly biblical, and does it fulfill what the Second Vatican Council meant when it said that Scripture faithfully records "what Jesus Christ, while living among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation"? To that he might answer that history is only one literary form, and the Holy Spirit could use many others, including fiction, folklore, or the creative imagination of the author. In defending this idea he states on page 562, "the acceptability of this approach involves a recognition that there are ways other than history by which a people can be instructed. I have little hope that those for whom history is the only biblical genre will be open to such an approach." But I think that he is begging the question here, since more traditional scholars have always recognized non-historical genres, such as allegory, poetry, parables, etc. Of course they would agree that God can instruct people with non-historical literary forms, and that such forms are also inspired, but this in no way should weaken the credibility of the great texts referring to salvation history.

Is there any evidence that the infancy narratives were ever considered to be a pious reflection, or a "historicized theologoumenon," that is, "the historicizing of what was originally a theological statement" in Brown's own words (p. 505)? Do any of the early Fathers of the Church reflect this view, or any of the documents of the ordinary magisterium, or the preaching to the people of God throughout the centuries? It seems very far-fetched to say that the Holy Spirit could have allowed the Church to be in the dark about the infancy narratives for so many centuries, or have allowed the piety of the people to be nourished on a mere theological-literary artifice but that now with the advent of historical-literary criticism "the real truth" about the infancy narratives has been discovered. Of course Brown would not claim to be giving the "real truth" about the texts — only a scholarly disquisition upon them. But the underlying message of his book remains the same: namely, we cannot know if these events really took place.

It is true that in 1971, when he wrote the book, he was using the method which the Pontifical Biblical Commission, though no longer an organ of the Magisterium, would later recommend to all Catholic exegetes as a necessary step towards discovering the meaning of the text: the historical critical method (cf. Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, St.Paul Books and Media, Boston, 1993, p. 35). That is, a careful analysis of historical and literary sources is important for determining the human mind of the author — his intention, theological purpose, and audience. The historical critical method has value because of the incarnational nature of revelation, since God chose to reveal his eternal word within the limitations of the human author. But Pope John Paul II in his introduction to the document, and later the PBC itself in various passages, are careful to note that this method needs to be freed from "its philosophical suppositions or those contrary to the truth of our faith" (see p. 20) . These presuppositions, among other things, carry with them the denial of the supernatural in history, and the excessive attention to the human or time-limited element in Scripture. In addition, one must also realize that this method like all human sciences does not determine the literal meaning of a text, but is simply a tool for understanding it (cf. St.Thomas Aquinas, In Boeth. de Trinit., q.2, a.3, ad 1).

The temptation of many critics is to think that their view is the only complete and "scientific" view of a text, whereas in reality it is only the first step for determining its true meaning. The fact of showing certain tensions or apparent rough points between texts (for example between Matthew, Luke, and Mark) can be good insofar as the reader is led to a greater appreciation of sacred tradition, and how it unites and properly focuses different accounts of Christ's life. It also can give a greater understanding of the human author(s) and their limitations, and how God can work through and above those limitations. But if one simply states the limitations or apparent contradictions of biblical writers without trying to show a harmony or unity, one is not really serving the Church or biblical studies. In the words of the 1993 PBC document, "In their work of interpretation, Catholic exegetes must never forget that what they are interpreting is the Word of God. Their common task is not finished when they have simply determined sources, defined forms or explained literary procedures. They arrive at the true goal of their work only when they have explained the meaning of the biblical text as God's word for today" (p.106).

Brown's book does make some positive contributions. He does take into account both the diachronic and synchronic elements of the infancy narratives, presenting some cogent hypotheses about the environments in which certain texts could have been produced (diachronic) and how they could have been incorporated into the final Matthaean and Lucan gospels (synchronic) . He does take into account the role of the community of believers in the writing of sacred texts (see 1993 PBC document, p. 95), at least as far as these texts' historical and literary origin. By demonstrating a more developed Christology in Matthew's and Luke's narratives, and a fuller use of previous literary traditions, the book may provide some clue as to how the Holy Spirit was working in those early years, giving a fuller understanding of the events of Christ's life to the evangelists. Christ himself had said, "The Advocate will teach you all things, and bring to your mind whatever I have said to you" (John 14: 26). The fact that we can see a greater appreciation of the events surrounding Jesus' infancy and boyhood, and of his parents' situation, is a development of the Holy Spirit in the service of the Church. But we must conclude by affirming that this development does not mean that such texts were a literary artifice with uncertain historical foundation, or that they were mere Christological theologoumena, but rather that the evangelists Matthew and Luke were able to see the real events of Christ' life with a greater spiritual and theological penetration.

Over the years I think that Fr. Brown modified some of his views. One of his final works, Introduction to the New Testament (Doubleday, New York, 1997), is meant to be more centrist and does show a greater awareness of essential Catholic teachings. In some texts he even tries to integrate some theories of higher criticism and Catholic teachings — no easy task for a modern Scripture scholar who wants to be accepted by the biblical establishment. For this he is to be commended. He even has a forceful criticism of the excesses of the "Jesus Seminar," with its blatant denial of the historicity of many gospel passages. Yet the content and tone of the book remains strongly historical-critical, and it fails to present a truly unified view of the relationship between higher criticism and the living tradition of the Church. This will need to be the work of the next generation of Scripture scholars, for which some of Fr. Brown's empirical work — properly interpreted and integrated — could provide a basis.

Rev. Michael E. Giesler, a priest of the Prelature of Opus Dei, resides in Chestnut Hill, Mass. He earned his S. T. D. at the University of Navarre, Spain, in 1971. He is the author of a book and several articles on biblical and theological topics. He has also produced a series of audio tapes on Pope John Paul II's Veritatis Splendor. Fr. Giesler is a member of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars and is one of the founders of the Midwest Theological Forum, which is an educational service for diocesan priests located in Chicago.

© Ignatius Press 2001.

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