Friday, November 10, 2006

The Presuppositions of a Bible Scholar

Here is the paper on Fr. Raymond Brown that I mentioned in my earlier post. Before I provide it I must first say a few things. I don't really like this paper. In fact, I hesitate to even post it. I feel that it is very superficial and that it raises too many questions without providing enough answers. For example, my professor wrote the following questions in response to my paper:
  • [in response to the end of paragraph 4] Does McCarthy base his view on the conclusion(s) of Brown's work or on the presuppositions of the work, which are or may be the same as Dibelius? Are all of Dibelius's conclusions wrong?
  • [in response to the end of paragraph 6] Since these are questions of a historical nature, are they inherently wrong? If not, what puts these questions into proper perspective?
  • [in response to paragraphs 7 and 8] Yes, but yet again, these are conclusions. What are Brown's presuppositions? You raise only the problem of doubt. But there is a difference between theological doubt and reasonable doubt.
  • [in response to the end of paragraph 8] Why not begin with wedge driven between faith and reason?
Basically, he marked all over it, but, for some reason, he still gave me an "A." He even wrote "Nice analysis!" at the top. Maybe I'll ask him what from my paper merited such a grade. Anyway, just know that, as the writer of this paper, I am aware of the possible criticisms that could be lofted against it and that I hardly present this as the final say on Brown's hermeneutics.

Pax Christi,
- - -
The Presuppositions of a Bible Scholar

Fr. Raymond Brown is certainly a most maligned individual. Fr. Richard Gilsdorf called him "a major contribution to the befogged wasteland of an 'American Church,' progressively alienated from its divinely constituted center."1 After making some brief rebuttals to what Brown saw as contradictions in Scripture, Fr. William G. Most called him "an unperceptive interpreter."2 In his address at the Conference on the Bible and the Church, Msgr. George A. Kelly, who wrote The New Biblical Theorists in 1983 as a critique of Brown and scholars like him, summarizes the stances of a few more of Brown's critics:
In the world beyond journalism, Fr. Brown did acquire his own share of scholarly critics, but he paid them no mind. Msgr. Jerome Quinn, at one time (1980) the only U.S. member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, disagreed with Brown's views on the ordination of women. Paulist Neil McEleney, a 1979 President of the Catholic Biblical Association, considered Brown's view of Mary's role in Christ's life as "minimalist." John McKenzie, S.J., author of the impressive Dictionary of the Bible, thought that Brown hedged his controversial conclusions with the appearance of objectivity, while marshaling his evidence in favor of the position to which he was committed. Dennis McCarthy, S.J., a professor at the Biblicum in Rome, suggested (1979) that Brown operated out of a "squirrel cage," i.e. he ran round and round in circles, always returning to the same place — doubt.3
You judge a tree by its fruit, and many of Brown's critics firmly believe that the fruit of his scholarship is a loss of faith in the historicity of the Gospels and in many of the truths that the Church has always professed. However, the intention of this paper is not to address the validity of Brown's conclusions, nor is it to judge the impact of his efforts. I am interested here only with his presuppositions. What theories, philosophies, and understandings inform his approach to Scripture? From what methodological basis does he derive the various conclusions about Scripture that have caused so many scholars (and Christians not so scholarly) to respond to him so forcefully? To answer these questions, I will draw primarily from Brown's own defense of his philosophical and methodological approach as articulated in his address at the Ratzinger Conference on Bible and Church.4

Inherent in my own purpose for this paper is the presupposition that every interpreter brings his own pre-conceived understandings of Scripture (and really of the world itself) to the text when he sets out to interpret it. Otherwise, there would be no point in attempting to discover a set of beliefs that informs Brown’s interpretive method. Brown agrees with this a priori condition. In the Addendum to his address, he recounts how one of the lessons he and his fellow classmates learned from his principal teacher in Biblical studies was that "their task was to become aware of their own presuppositions with the goal that these might not become total prejudices, distorting evidence rather than accepting it."5 He later adds that "As we look for a new way to make the Bible and its 'story of the dealings of the Triune God with his people and his world' typologically applicable to the present, we must be aware in this as in all exegesis of our own presuppositions and the likely limitations of our results."6

Since Brown uses the historical critical method, some people identify as his presuppositions the very ones that informed the forefathers of the method (and similar methods, such as form criticism and redaction criticism). The idea here is that a particular method of interpreting Scripture cannot be used without simultaneously buying in to the presuppositions out of which it arose. Brown thinks this is unfair, and he distances himself from the philosophies of Martin Dibelius and Rudolf Bultmann that governed the use of the historical critical method when it was first put into practice.7 He states at the beginning of his lecture, "I believe that most theological apprehensions about historical criticism are focused on something past and are not relevant to the moderate and adapted form of criticism that I shall be discussing."8 He believes that he learned the method in an entirely different way than they did.9 Of course, not everyone agrees. For example, Msgr. John F. McCarthy asserts that, at least in Brown's interpretation of Mt 2:22-23, he "follows the lead of Martin Dibelius and Rudolf Bultmann, the two principal founders of the form-criticism of the Gospels."10

Another presupposition of Brown is that the Bible has a meaning both to the immediate audience of the inspired author, and of Christians today.
Because of the human element, one needs scientific, literary, and historical methods to determine what the ancient authors meant when they wrote—that knowledge does not come from revelation. But the meaning of the Bible as the Church's collection of sacred and normative books goes beyond what the authors meant in a particular book. Not only scholarship but also church tradition and teaching enters into the complex issue of what the Bible means to Christians11 (emphasis original).
While this is certainly nothing new, nor is it distinctive to Brown, critics of Brown and of the historical-critical method in general have often accused him and other proponents of this method of creating an impassable abyss between what Scripture meant and what it means.12 Although, on an intellectual level, Brown may acknowledge that Scripture has multiple meanings and that Scripture can speak in new ways to a contemporary audience13, in practice he seems to alienate this meaning from the historical meaning of the text and to put a near solitary emphasis on this historical meaning.14

The hermeneutic that Brown is most accused of harboring is one of suspicion, in which the interpreter approaches Scripture with the preconceived notion that very little of what it relates is historically accurate, what the Church has traditionally believed about Scripture is largely naïve and simplistic, and whatever appears as miraculous in Scripture should be dismissed as mere fable used to express some theological truth or religious imagination. Questions of doubt are constantly raised: Is this miracle really in fact miraculous? Did Jesus really institute all seven sacraments? Was Mary really a perpetual virgin? Is this the real Jesus, or the Jesus of the faith-filled community?

It is easy to see how one could find this hermeneutic of suspicion at the heart of Brown’s interpretive method. After all, he is constantly raising doubts about long-held beliefs of the Church, and constantly coming to conclusions that seem to be contrary to these beliefs. Hints of this appear in his Conference address. For instance, Brown approaches the Biblical text with the firm conviction that "nothing depends on being certain of the personal identity of the biblical authors."15 From there, it is easy to see how Brown can assert, as if it were a given, that "no one of the four evangelists was himself an eyewitness of the ministry of Jesus."16 He also says in his address that he does not think that biblical criticism can prove "that Jesus willed any particular Church structure, or even that the New Testament sanctions one church structure above all others."17

In The Critical Meaning of the Bible, he summarizes a position first presented in his earlier work Priest and Bishop that "an ordained priesthood, a priesthood of altar and never presented as a Christian institution in the NT" and "no member of the Church is called a priest in relation to the Eucharist."18 Regarding the Infancy Narratives, he is particularly "critical": he seems to think that the only truly historical aspect of these narratives is the genealogies and that everything else was constructed by the author to reflect his own Christology.19 Of course, my purpose here is not to address the validity of these conclusions, but only to show that they arise out of a particular presupposition.

Ratzinger sees Martin Dibelius and Rudolph Bultmann to be at the heart this hermeneutic of suspicion, and it is not difficult for him to believe that they are influencing biblical exegetes still today:
It goes without saying that the form-critical works of Dibelius and Bultmann have in the meantime been surpassed and in many respects corrected in their details. But it is likewise true that their basic methodological approaches continue even today to determine the methods and procedures of modern exegesis. Their essential elements underlie more than their own historical and theological judgments and, to be sure, these have widely achieved an authority like unto dogma.20
Characteristic of their method was a definite distrust of anything mysterious or miraculous in nature. "Whatever has to do with cult, cosmos, or mystery must be rejected as a later development."21 Dogma or church doctrine had already appeared "as one of the real impediments to a correct understanding of the Bible itself."22 Generally, anything that is more complex must be a later development. "The more theologically considered and sophisticated a given text is, the more recent it is, and the simpler something is, the easier it is to reckon it original."23

As mentioned earlier, Brown distances himself from the particular philosophies of Dibelius and Bultmann, and presents the American Church as no longer susceptible to such philosophies. Perhaps Ratzinger should get out more! At least, that seems to be what Brown would suggest.24 As to whether or not Brown should be implicated as among those whom the Cardinal rejects, I suppose the matter is still up for debate.25

To be fair, the assessment of Fr. Raymond E. Brown's methodological presuppositions and his impact on modern Biblical scholarship has certainly not been entirely negative. Roger Cardinal Mahoney hailed him as "the most distinguished and renowned Catholic biblical scholar to emerge in this country ever" and his death, the cardinal said, was "a great loss to the Church."26 Mahoney and Bishop Donald W. Trautman of Erie, PA. are described as "effusive in their praise" of Brown.27 He received 24 honorary degrees from various institutions of higher learning, and his Jerome Biblical Commentary is still considered one of the greatest works of American Biblical scholarship ever written.

However, the limitations of his approach, and of the historical-critical method in general, cannot be ignored. Cardinal Ratzinger was aware of these limitations, as was the PBC document (cf. I.A.4). At the core of these limitations are some very real presuppositions about knowledge, truth, history, God, and the world. Admittedly, my presentation here only scratches the surface of what could be said regarding the specific presuppositions of Fr. Raymond Brown. The criticism he has received, even after his death, has been quite voluminous, and how he will be viewed by subsequent generations, especially as he compares to Dibelius and Bultmann, remains to be seen. It is perhaps the greatest irony that the one man who studied Scripture with the most critical eye would himself fall under such a fine, and often unrelenting microscope.
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[1] Henry V. King, "Traditional Catholic Scholars Long Opposed Raymond Brown’s Theories" in The Wanderer (The Wanderer Printing Company: September 10, 1998), 1 and 11.
[2] Fr. William G. Most, Free From All Error: Authorship, Inerrancy, Historicity of Scripture, Church Teaching, and Modern Scripture Scholars, Ch. 9.
[3] Mrgr. George A. Kelly, "A Wayward Turn in Biblical Theory," Address at the Conference on the Bible and the Church (November 12, 1999).
[4] Raymond E. Brown, "The Contribution of Historical Biblical Criticism to Ecumenical Church Discussion," in Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: The Ratzinger Conference on Bible and Church, Gen. Ed. Richard John Neuhaus (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), 24-49.
[5] ibid., 45.
[6] ibid., 49.
[7] In the document The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 1993), the Pontifical Biblical Commission states not only that this has been done in modern use of the method, but that the historical-critical method, "when used in an objective manner, implies of itself no a priori" (p. 40).
[8] He adds in the Addendum: "In other words, most of my training as a historical critic was just the opposite of what the Cardinal has described as the philosophy of historical criticism that in his judgment fundamentally flaws the method. All of this causes me to suggest that more frequently we should speak of the philosophy of the practitioners of the method rather than of the philosophy of the method itself" (Brown, "Historical Biblical Criticism and Ecumenical Discussion," 45-46).
[9] ibid., 46.
[10] Msgr. John F. McCarthy, "Regarding the Background of Matthew 2: In answer to the form-critical analysis of Raymond Brown," in Living Tradition (No. 86, March 2000).
[11] Raymond E. Brown, The Critical Meaning of the Bible: How a modern reading of the Bible challenges Christians, the Church, and the churches (New York: Paulist Press, 1981), x.
[12] See Prior’s list of the limits of the historical-critical method in Peter S. Williamson, Catholic Principles for Interpreting Scripture: A study of the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (Rome: Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 2001), 225-226, footnote #9.
[13] "This is not an imperialistic claim that the meaning detectable by historical biblical criticism exhausts the meaning of the sacred text. Jewish and Christian readers of subsequent centuries have read their sacred Scriptures in different contexts from that of the original author and audience and have found meanings appropriate to those new contexts. Well and good;...." (Brown, "Historical Biblical Criticism and Ecumenical Discussion," 27).
[14] The PBC document acknowledges this as a potential hazard of the historical critical method: "Concerned above all to establish the meaning of texts by situating them in their original historical context, this method has at times shown itself insufficiently attentive to the dynamic aspect of meaning and to the possibility that meaning can continue to develop" (PBC, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, 134).
[15] Brown, "Historical Biblical Criticism and Ecumenical Discussion," 25.
[16] Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (New York: Doubleday, 1977), 27.
[17] Brown, "Historical Biblical Criticism and Ecumenical Discussion," 33.
[18] Brown, The Critical Meaning of the Bible, 102.
[19] For such an assessment of Brown’s treatment of the Infancy Narratives, see Msgr. John F. McCarthy, "Regarding the Background of Matthew 2" and M. Robert Mulholland, Jr., "The Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke—Of History, Theology, and Literature."
[20] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, "Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: On the Question of the Foundations and Approaches of Exegesis Today," in Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: The Ratzinger Conference on Bible and Church, Gen. Ed. Richard John Neuhaus (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), 8-9.
[21] ibid., 12.
[22] ibid., 1.
[23] ibid., 10.
[24] "I know that in a few influential positions on the American academic scene the last Bultmannian students are teaching; but for most of the distinguished professors of exegesis in the United States, Bultmann and Dibelius are only components in a much wider scene....Also, on the level of the American Catholic teachers of religion, the situation is different from that in Germany" (Brown, "Historical Biblical Criticism and Ecumenical Discussion," 41).
[25] Brown, commenting on the press conference attended by Ratzinger, is quick to point out that "He encouraged the practitioners of moderate exegesis among whom he generously included me" ("Historical Biblical Criticism and Ecumenical Discussion," 38). Later, he says, "I suspect that little or none of the Cardinal’s criticisms and apprehensions about the over-influence of Enlightenment rationalism could apply to the articles in [the Jerome Biblical Commentary]. However, many a critic of Brown is equally quick to disagree.
[26] Quoted in Henry V. King, "Traditional Catholic Scholars Long Opposed Raymond Brown’s Theories" in The Wanderer (The Wanderer Printing Company: September 10, 1998), 1 and 11.
[27] ibid., 1.


  1. When I was in college, Brown was accepted uncritically as the church's voice on the Bible. Today most people I know in real life have used his approach to the Bible as their standard in reading it. They don't remember the particular class or the particular book or lecture where they heard it, but they have swallowed his approach of "suspicion and automatic disbelief" hook, line and sinker.cmom

  2. Thanks for your piece on Brown.

    My NT Scripture instructor, a Catholic-convert priest who was raised the son of a Baptist preacher and as stalwart in the Faith as I have ever witnessed had what to me was a remarkable take on Brown.

    While lamenting, in a matter-of-fact way, that Brown appeared to have, as you say, lost his faith at the end of his life, he taught us how to read Brown making use of the strengths he brings to the study of Scripture and discarding the weaknesses.

    This requires either enormous, near super-human strength, or faith the size of a mustard seed -- a faith nurtured by such as Dei Verbum and the grace of the sacraments.


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