Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Raymond Brown's Assessment Of The Infancy Narratives (Part 1)

One of the most influential scholarly works on the infancy narratives in modern times is Raymond Brown's The Birth Of The Messiah (New York, New York: Doubleday, 1999). It was originally published in 1977, and an expanded edition was released in 1993. Brown, who died in 1998, was somewhat liberal, but he wasn't an anti-supernaturalist, and he agreed with conservatives on some significant issues. His work on the infancy narratives is several hundred pages long, more than 700 in the 1993 edition, and it covers many of the relevant issues in a lot of depth. The book is highly useful even for those with a more conservative perspective, but it has a leftward leaning overall.

Critics of traditional Christianity often cite it. Some of you may remember that Newsweek's Jon Meacham based much of his largely negative 2004 article about the infancy narratives on Brown's book. Last Christmas season, John Loftus of Debunking Christianity wrote an article in which he repeated many of Brown's arguments.

I've already discussed some of the problems with Brown's work in this field (here, for example). Many other criticisms could be added.

As modern Biblical scholars often do, Brown underestimates the significance of external evidence. His dismissals of traditional Christian beliefs about the infancy narratives, such as Matthean authorship of the first gospel, are often shallow. He even suggests that the author of the first gospel may have been so ignorant of Jesus' background as to not know whether the "brothers" of Jesus were biological siblings (p. 132). That's a remarkable claim in light of factors such as the earliness of the first gospel and the prominence of Jesus' brothers in early church leadership. He makes many similar claims that assume an unlikely degree of apathy, forgetfulness, and other faults on the part of the early Christians and non-Christian sources.

Brown often neglects patristic evidence relevant to the issues he's considering, although there are many references to the significance of the patristic sources in his 1993 material (pp. 589, 616, 619, 634, 637, 704, 708). He seems to have increasingly accepted the significance of the patristic evidence with the passing of time. My impression is that he assigns more weight to it in his 1993 material than in the 1977 material, and he often does so when responding to critics who are to his left. Much of what he says about the patristic data in his comments in 1993 could be applied to his own conclusions elsewhere. For example:

"Feuillet cannot dismiss so easily as he does the fact that it took close to 1,500 years for an interpreter to have recognized specifically that Luke intended the suggested parentage....First, it is very weak exegetically to contend that an author expressed his central concern so incompetently that his contemporary audience would miss it. That should be resorted to only as a last possibility, for often it serves as a ploy for imposing on a text what it does not say. Second, since the mid-2nd century most readers of the Gospels have had Matt's infancy account, and it has not cast the light on Luke that Schaberg assumes." (pp. 589, 637)

I would recommend that people compare Brown's comments like those above to his assessment of the authorship of the gospels on p. 27 or the genre of the infancy narratives on pp. 199, 562, and 608, for example. Brown is correct in citing patristic evidence against some of his opponents, but that evidence is often highly problematic for his own theories. He cites an article by B. Buby in support of the notion that "in the broad range of patristic interpretations there are views quite harmonious with modern critical positions on the infancy narratives" (p. 634). He says (p. 634) that Buby's article "compares ideas in patristic nativity sermons" to ideas in his (Brown's) book. I haven't read Buby's article, but it's titled "Research on the Biblical Approach and the Method of Exegesis Appearing in the Greek Homiletic Texts of the Late Fourth and Early Fifth Centuries, Emphasizing the Incarnation Especially the Nativity and Mary's Place within It". Apparently, then, the article is about patristic sources from the late fourth and early fifth centuries. That's relatively late. And I'm wary of Brown's characterization of the article as showing patristic "ideas" that are "quite harmonious" with ones like his. I haven't read Buby's article, but I've read thousands of pages of patristic material. None of the earliest fathers saw the infancy narratives in a manner comparable to Brown's liberalism, and the portions of the later fathers I've read are similarly conservative. They may have agreed with Brown in not placing much emphasis on the historicity of some portions of the infancy narratives or in seeing some Old Testament echoes in the infancy accounts, for example, but they could do so without agreeing with Brown's view of the origins and historicity of the narratives.

In addition to underestimating the patristic evidence, Brown often underestimates the early response to the infancy narratives by non-Christian sources. If the narratives were as unhistorical as Brown and other modern scholars claim, then the early enemies of Christianity would have been in a position to know it, often to easily know it. Yet, the evidence we have suggests that the early enemies of Christianity either didn't significantly argue against or corroborated much of what modern critics dispute. Brown will sometimes acknowledge the significance of this fact (for example, n. 318 on p. 703), but not as often as he should. His discussions of subjects such as Jesus' birthplace and the census of Luke 2 neglect some significant evidence from non-Christian sources. When discussing whether Jesus was born in Bethlehem, for example, Brown acknowledges that it would be significant if Origen was correct about non-Christian corroboration of Jesus' birth in that city (p. 514), but he fails to go on to discuss whether it's likely that Origen was correct, and he doesn't even mention some other evidence of non-Christian corroboration elsewhere in Origen and in other sources.

Like so many other modern Biblical scholars, Brown largely argues from highly speculative theories about internal evidence. He often recognizes the speculative nature of his arguments and acknowledges that he doesn't have much reason to be confident about his conclusions. He'll suggest that one part of the infancy narratives may have been derived to a significant extent from one portion of the Old Testament, then he'll appeal to a different portion of the Old Testament to explain another part of the infancy accounts. He'll parallel the patriarch Joseph from the book of Genesis with Jesus' father Joseph (pp. 111-112), then he'll acknowledge that the patriarch could be paralleled with Jesus in another context (n. 32 on p. 112). The prophet Samuel will be compared to John the Baptist, then will be compared to Jesus (pp. 450-451). Brown has to appeal to a wide range of Old Testament sources in his attempt to explain much of the infancy narratives as something other than an effort to convey history. See, for example, the large number of Old Testament figures and events cited on pp. 268-271. On p. 193, we're told about a wide range of possible sources for the material in Matthew 2, including "the combined story of Joseph in Egypt and Moses...the stories of the birth of Abraham, the visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon, and the struggle between Laban and Jacob...the most likely background is offered by the episode centered on Balaam in Num 22-24...The Matthean Herod resembles both the Pharaoh and Balak." After citing such a diverse array of possibilities, Brown assures us that he's omitted any mention of other parallels that are "too tenuous" (n. 40 on p. 193). I prefer his advice elsewhere that "one should be cautious in drawing an identification from such echoes of an OT scene." (p. 344) He argues against the Old Testament parallels drawn by other scholars on the basis that those parallels are inconsistent in some of their details (for example, n. 15 on p. 482 and p. 490), yet many of Brown's proposed parallels are inconsistent.

There have been some relevant changes in Biblical scholarship since Brown wrote his book, especially since the original 1977 edition. Brown's dismissals of eyewitness testimony, for example (p. 27, etc.), are far outweighed by the contrary arguments cited by Richard Bauckham and other scholars. As Paul Eddy and Gregory Boyd document in their recent book The Jesus Legend (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2007), the early Christians probably had more written sources to draw from than critics often assume, and oral tradition would have been more reliable than critics often suggest in an oral culture like ancient Israel. Much of what scholars like Bauckham, Eddy, and Boyd have documented was unknown or widely neglected when Brown published his book. As we'll see in the coming days, however, much of what these scholars have documented is found in some sort of seed form in Brown's work, even if he doesn't apply the principles consistently.

Over the next couple of days, I want to quote some examples of Brown's more conservative conclusions about the infancy narratives. We seem to hear much more about his more liberal conclusions, but he also agreed with conservative scholarship on some points.

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