THE NEW EDITIONNew Testament Essays
Legacy of Raymond E. BrownRonald D. Witherup, S.S.
When this set of essays was first published in 1965, Roman Catholic biblical scholarship was on the verge of breaking into the mainstream scholarly discussion that had largely been dominated by Protestant scholars since the nineteenth century. Raymond E. Brown, S.S., was at the center of this new development and was already being hailed as one of the leading American Catholic biblical scholars. Renowned for his ability to address scholars and nonprofessionals alike, these fourteen essays illustrate what a fresh new outlook on biblical study had arrived on the scene.
Reissuing this collection more than forty years after its initial appearance is warranted for three reasons. First, they provide eloquent testimony to the impact Brown made on New Testament scholarship in the middle of the twentieth century. Among people interested in modern biblical scholarship, both Catholic and non-Catholic, Brown’s became a household name, someone to be reckoned with if you wanted to know more about the Bible. Second, these essays are an excellent example of the application of the historical critical method, an essentially modern scientific study of the Bible. As such, they continue to show the ongoing contribution that method can make to our comprehension of the Bible. Finally, these essays foreshadowed some of the issues that would linger into the twenty-first century.
This introduction has three goals: to present a synopsis of the life of the world-renowned biblical scholar Raymond E. Brown, S.S.; to offer a brief assessment of this collection of his early essays; and to offer some thoughts on where New Testament studies have gone since these essays originally appeared.
Raymond Edward Brown was born on May 22, 1928, in the Bronx, New York City, one of two sons born to Reuben H. and Loretta (Sullivan) Brown.1 He began his education in the Bronx, but his family relocated to Miami Shores, Florida, in 1944, where he completed high school.
He entered St. Charles College in Catonsville, Maryland, in 1945—a college seminary program run by the Society of St. Sulpice (the Sulpicians), the community of diocesan priest-educators he later joined (thus, the initials S.S.). Already a prodigious academic talent, Brown entered an
accelerated program of study and transferred to the Catholic University of America in 1946, where he became a Basselin Scholar and obtained both a B.A. (1948) and M.A. (1949) in philosophy. He then began advanced seminary studies at the Gregorian University in Rome (1949–50) but at the request of his bishop returned to the States the following year to complete studies for the priesthood at St. Mary’s Seminary & University in Baltimore, Maryland.
The oldest Roman Catholic seminary in the country, St. Mary’s was founded by the Sulpicians in 1791 at the invitation of Bishop John Carroll, the first Catholic bishop in the United States. There Brown completed his theological training for the priesthood, obtaining Bachelor of Sacred Theology (S.T.B., 1951) and Licentiate in Sacred Theology (S.T.L., 1953) degrees. He was ordained a priest on May 23, 1953, for the Diocese of St. Augustine (Florida) but was immediately released to the Sulpicians, since he was attracted to biblical studies and had become a Sulpician candidate in 1951. He entered the Society formally in 1955.
From a historical perspective, one should keep in mind when reading these essays that Brown entered Catholic biblical studies when it was in its infancy, a little over a decade after Pope Pius XII had issued a groundbreaking encyclical letter in 1943, titled Divino Affl ante Spiritu,
which gave Catholic biblical scholars the green light to pursue their academic research publicly, something that had been pursued discreetly in the background for years. This allowed them to enter into wider scholarly discussions. The encyclical urged Catholic scholars to utilize every linguistic, archaeological, and literary tool available to enhance a contemporary understanding of the Bible, freeing these methods of study from the cloud of suspicion that had previously surrounded them.
Although Brown was not the only Sulpician biblical scholar to be engaged in signifi cant research projects, his unique abilities were quickly recognized and his name became associated with the historical-critical approach that was to dominate the latter half of the twentieth century.
After joining the Sulpicians, Brown was assigned to teach at St. Charles Seminary in Catonsville. This appointment also allowed him to complete a doctorate in sacred theology at St. Mary’s Seminary & University (S.T.D.,1955) and to begin doctoral studies in Semitic languages at Johns Hopkins University, where he became a student of the world-renowned scholar William Foxwell Albright, known then as “the dean of biblical archaeologists.” Albright was recognized as the world’s leading expert on archaeology and the religion of ancient Israel, and he also understood the potential that archaeology held for expanding our understanding of the Bible. He trained a generation of important scholars, among them Raymond Brown.
Although it was somewhat unusual for a Roman Catholic (and a priest) to study at a secular university, the Sulpicians were interested in the best possible training for their members who would be teaching in major seminaries around the world. At that time, the Catholic Church’s openness to other Christian denominations was growing, and Brown was able to benefi t from this development by studying with such a well-known scholar. Brown finished his dissertation (Ph.D. in Semitic languages) in 1958, writing on the Semitic background of the term “mystery” in the New Testament, a work that demonstrated his longstanding interest in combining Near Eastern and Old Testament studies with the study of the New Testament. (This influence is readily visible in New Testament Essays,
for example when he discusses the Dead Sea Scrolls in relation to Church organization or to the Johannine literature.)
Later, Brown also completed a licentiate in sacred scripture from the Pontifical Biblical commission in Rome (S.S.L., 1963), to round out his biblical education from a Catholic perspective, where he had obtained an earlier baccalaureate in sacred scripture (S.S.B., 1959). At the end of his doctoral studies at Johns Hopkins, Brown was fortunate to be invited to work on the Dead Sea Scrolls at the American School of Oriental Research (ASOR) in Jerusalem from 1958–59, where he helped create a preliminary concordance of those remarkable documents.
Discovered in 1947 in caves near the Dead Sea by a shepherd boy out tending his fl ock, these scrolls later became the focus of much intrigue and scholarly debate. Brown quickly recognized their importance as providing, if not direct infl uence on the New Testament, at least some of the crucial environment surrounding the teachings of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth and the traditions about them found in the New Testament. After this fruitful sojourn in the Middle East, which broadened his background and personal knowledge of the Holy Land, Brown returned to teach at his alma mater, St. Mary’s Seminary & University in Baltimore, until 1971.
By that time, Brown had gained an international scholarly reputation because of the appearance of his monumental two-volume commentary on John’s Gospel in the Anchor Bible Commentary series (1966, 1970) that had been begun by his Johns Hopkins mentor, William F. Albright.
In fact, Brown’s two volumes virtually redirected the nature of that commentary series and raised the bar signifi cantly on both the quality and extent of the scholarship expected. With the permission of his Sulpician superiors, Brown moved to New York to accept a joint professorship at the Jesuit Woodstock College and Union Theological Seminary (1971–74). When Woodstock closed, he took a full-time position at Union, where he taught for twenty years, until his early retirement in 1990 as Auburn Distinguished Professor of Biblical Studies. He then took up residence at the Sulpician-run St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, California, in order to continue his research and writing. He lived there until his untimely death by cardiac arrest on August 8, 1998, having been the author of some forty-seven books and hundreds of articles and book reviews.
Although he made his name in Johannine studies, Brown’s interest extended into many other areas, including Christology and ecclesiology of the New Testament, biblical hermeneutics, inspiration, fundamentalism, and biblical preaching in the liturgical life of the Church. It is also noteworthy that Brown educated some significant young scholars who themselves went on to make important scholarly contributions (e.g., Craig Koester and Marion Soards, to name just two).
AN ASSESSMENT OF NEW TESTAMENT ESSAYS
Why reissue these essays more than ten years after the author’s death and more than forty years after their appearance in a collected format? Two immediate reasons come to mind. First, the name of Raymond E. Brown continues to be recognized around the world as exemplary of a quality of Catholic biblical scholarship in the twentieth century that has enduring value for the ages. His ability to explore the biblical writings of both Testaments, as well as important extra-biblical materials such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, in great detail yet in a way that appealed beyond
the scholarly world to the general public, was unsurpassed in his day. When the Essays
first appeared, one (non-Catholic) commentator noted how remarkable it was for a scholar not yet forty years old to have reached such a level of achievement.
Brown’s prolific and innovative scholarship was already evident. His interpretations, observations, and questions especially in the Johannine literature set the agenda for much of Johannine scholarship for the next forty years. No scholar could avoid grappling with Brown’s positions, even if one disagreed with specific viewpoints or hypotheses.
His New Testament Essays
also gives rich testimony to the efficacy of Catholic biblical studies, especially after Vatican Council II (1962–65), which awakened in Catholics an unquenchable thirst to explore the Bible. This ecumenical council of the world’s Catholic bishops (and invited non-Catholic observers), called by the elderly Pope John XXIII in an unexpected move, produced an important Church constitution on divine revelation, titled Dei Verbum,
which reinforced the modern, scientific study of the Bible already promoted by Pope Pius XII in Divino Aff ante Spiritu.
This constitution continues to guide modern Catholic biblical studies, although there remain controversies about its interpretation.
Brown’s essays carved out a path that enabled Catholic scholars to participate in the wider scholarly enterprise in ways that were still loyal to the Catholic perspective, even though some disagreements would inevitably ensue.
Rereading these essays after decades does nothing to diminish this assessment of their value. On the contrary, the insights they contain continue to inspire and to direct the attentive reader toward incisive observations about biblical texts easily forgotten or overlooked. Moreover, some topics treated in the essays (e.g., the Bible and ecumenism; unity and diversity in New Testament ecclesiology) Brown went on to explore at greater length in popular books intended for educated lay people that enticed readers to want to know more about the Bible and how it could speak to
people today.8 New Testament Essays
is thus an early “window” into Brown’s mind and the ideas that would later make a far greater impact on the life of the Church in the post–Vatican II era.
A second reason for their republication is the witness they bear to a distinctive time in the history of the Catholic Church when serious battles were still being fought over the value of modern, scientific study of the Bible, which up to that point had been primarily the legacy of Protestant biblical exegesis. Indeed, Father Brown was a quintessential practitioner of the historical-critical method, actually a collection of methods that emphasized “objective” scientific study of Scripture based upon modern linguistic, archaeological, and literary tools. Among others at the time, like
his famous colleagues Joseph A. Fitzmyer and Roland E. Murphy, with whom Brown edited the fi rst Catholic one volume Bible commentary in English, Brown ardently defended the use of this approach to professional biblical studies in contrast to earlier methods that had assumed the literal historicity of all the biblical materials and emphasized allegorical and spiritual readings of the Bible over historical ones.
Paradoxically, this discussion is being revisited today, as multiple dissatisfactions (some of them valid) with the historical-critical method have arisen and as a desire to return to a more spiritually oriented patristic reading of the Scriptures has resurfaced.
Beyond reflecting the use of new scholarly methods for increased understanding of Scripture, New Testament Essays
also provides eloquent testimony to many other developments in the Catholic faith during this unique period of Catholic history. Mirroring the larger emergence of ecumenical dialogue, for example, Part One, titled “Biblical Research Today and Its Ecumenical Possibilities,” contains three essays that explain why the historical-critical approach to the Bible, which was relatively new for Catholics at that time, helped to promote ecumenical discussion and cooperation.
The Bible provided the common ground that had previously been elusive, especially in discussions between Protestants and Catholics. Brown was at the forefront of these developments. His meticulous scholarship, done faithfully from a Catholic perspective, enabled him to bridge ecumenical gaps and to foster tolerance among diverse Christian denominations.
Methodologically, it should be emphasized that Brown’s scholarly approach was generally considered to be judicious and as objective as possible. He was extremely professional in the way he applied scholarly methods to delicate topics. He was not averse to raising serious questions about historicity in the New Testament, when necessary, as is illustrated by his essay “The Problem of Historicity in John,” where his conclusions respect both
the theology and possible historical underpinnings contained in the Gospel accounts of the Last Supper.
Although some lay critics eventually became alarmed at some of his scholarly conclusions, which they deemed excessive and antispiritual, and some even went as far as to protest his public lectures, Brown never let this stop him from applying his scholarly tools in a steady and even-handed manner. He remained loyal to the Catholic tradition and was twice appointed to the Pontifical Biblical Commission itself, but he also recognized the complexity of the biblical materials and felt that the Church had nothing to fear from a proper, professional application of scholarly methods to New Testament study.
One obvious result of his judicious approach to such delicate questions was the popularity that his works achieved in short order. He was able to take complex topics and make them understandable in ways that most educated, nonprofessional readers felt made sense. They could also see that he was not interested in simply dismantling the historical foundations of the New Testament. He searched for the truth behind the New Testament traditions.
Brown was also adept at applying insights from pre-critical biblical interpretation, such as the church fathers, but he acknowledged the inherent limitations of their pre-scientific vantage point. In general, one can say that New Testament Essays
displays Brown’s characteristic prudence and sound judgment that became the hallmark of his exegetical method.
DEVELOPMENTS IN NEW TESTAMENT STUDIES
When a new edition of New Testament Essays
was being considered, a question arose as to whether the bibliography and the footnotes should be updated, as would normally be done when reissuing an update of one’s own scholarly work. In this instance, however, this procedure was neither possible nor desirable. Father Brown is no longer available to do such a task, and more important, the essays have their own integrity, though time-conditioned, that should be preserved.
This fact, however, does not mean that New Testament studies have not advanced in the last forty years. To the contrary, many scholarly developments are apparent, and Brown’s later writings, both popular and scholarly, demonstrate some of these advances clearly. These particular essays were some of his early work, but many of them can validly be considered “classics,” such as “The Pater Noster as an Eschatological Prayer,” “John and the Synoptic Gospels: A Comparison,” or “The Johannine Sacramentary.”
As exemplary pieces of historical-critical study, these can hardly be improved upon. They stand as sentinels, looking both backward to the early days of modern Catholic exegesis and forward to the contemporary issues confronting Catholic New Testament study. Yet New Testament scholarship has continued to evolve. At the risk of oversimplification, I point to three key areas where advances have gone beyond what these essays represent. 1. An Explosion of Methods
Methodology is the most obvious area of significant change. Recent years have seen a virtual explosion of methods in New Testament studies. Brown restricted himself to the historical-critical method. This approach emphasized the search for bedrock history in the Bible, sometimes expressing an excessive historical skepticism about the truth of the Bible’s tales. It tended also to be preoccupied with source questions and how the oral, written, and redacted traditions of the Bible had changed over time, sometimes obscuring the actual events purportedly recounted in the
Bible. Brown represents a high point of this type of study, judiciously applied.
But many new methods and approaches to New Testament study have evolved that go far beyond such historical-critical preoccupations, such as narrative criticism, structuralism, rhetorical criticism, social-scientific criticism, psychoanalytic methods, feminist, liberationist, various ethnic hermeneutics (African, Latino, etc.), and all sorts of postmodern approaches that “deconstruct” the text and that insist there is no such thing as objective interpretation of any text.
Each of these methods or hermeneutical stances has strengths and weaknesses, but there is no uniform method for New Testament study. Up until his death, and as can be seen in his last major work, An Introduction to the New Testament,
Brown kept abreast of these developments, but he had no interest in implementing them himself.14 Not all of these new methods, of course, yield a lasting contribution. Some methods will fall by the wayside. Few may have the monumental impact of the historical-critical method, which even the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s document has referred to as “indispensable” (§.A). 2. Patristic and Medieval Exegesis
A concomitant second development, largely because of dissatisfaction with the excessively historical orientation and historical skepticism of the historical-critical method, and because many fi nd it too dry to contribute to their faith perspective, there is a trend to rediscover the value of pre-critical Patristic and medieval exegesis. Interestingly, this movement is evident in both Catholic and Protestant circles. Increasingly more medieval and Patristic resources are available in modern English translations, and some new commentary series have emphasized a much broader approach to biblical interpretation than was evident in the last half of the twentieth century.
Brown would likely have been wary of this development, especially if it were to signal a rejection of any historical interests and methods in biblical studies. He would warn against a historically naïve pre-critical view that, if left without any objective controls, could promote all sorts of fanciful interpretations with little or no basis in the text.
Many of Brown’s works demonstrate that he was conversant especially with Patristic literature. One can find quotations from Augustine, Jerome, Origen, John Chrysostom, and so on, but his historical-critical orientation was unequivocal. Yet one should not forget that Brown’s works were so popular and continue to garner attention precisely because, even decades after their first appearance, people do not find them fruitless and unimaginative. Rather, many readers find Brown’s insights lively and intriguing, not at all opposed to a spiritual understanding of the text.
Reading Brown’s exposition of John’s Gospel, for instance, is never simply
a narrow search for historical bedrock. Brown had a gift for ferreting out in his technical exegesis diverse understandings of the Bible that could nourish people and entice them to delve more deeply in the text. This is part of the legacy of these Essays. 3. The State of Ecumenism
A third development concerns the ecumenical scene. One of the great advances from the Second Vatican Council was the explosion of ecumenical (and interfaith) dialogues. Hundreds of years of differences between Protestants and Catholics began to be reevaluated. Study of the Bible was front and center in this extraordinary historical development. And Raymond Brown himself was in the thick of it all, especially in the course of his twenty years on the faculty of an interdenominational seminary like Union Theological Seminary in New York.
If there was an area where ecumenical discussion could take place in a less controversial and more open spirit, it was in biblical studies. New Testament Essays
represents only the very earliest of these developments, especially in Part One, which is devoted to “ecumenical possibilities.” As a Catholic professor at an interdenominational Protestant seminary, where once sharp dogmatic debates over orthodoxy in the Reformed Tradition had taken place, Brown was in a unique position to contribute to this area. He came to know many Protestant and Jewish scholars on a first-name basis, nationally and internationally, and he was widely admired for his ability to engage in their scholarly dialogue in a calm, objective, and judicious fashion.
His later works expanded his contribution in this area considerably, especially when he participated in Church-sponsored ecumenical discussions that produced significant studies on biblical themes.Those were the halcyon days of ecumenical fervor. Much has cooled on the ecumenical scene since then. Ecumenism has been more in the background in recent years, and there are fewer professional studies done from an overtly ecumenical perspective.
Indeed, in some circles, there are Catholics who find such cross-fertilization of ideas dangerous or who seek to define precisely what constitutes a “Catholic” exegesis. One easily forgets the historical context of Brown’s early years when it was hazardous for Catholics to do biblical exegesis. As he writes in the postscript to his essay “Our New Approach to the Bible”:
“This paper was delivered in 1961 when the modern biblical movement was facing considerable opposition and indeed was fighting for its life. It is a great joy that now a few years later the clouds have lifted and the hopes of the writer for tolerance and acceptance have been granted beyond expectation. . . . Teachers in Rome who were under a cloud of suspicion have been restored to their chairs of biblical studies.”
Curious as it may seem, contemporary Catholic biblical scholarship finds itself revisiting this scenario, not quite so urgently but nonetheless in an environment that, at times, questions the loyalty of some Catholic exegetes to the magisterial teaching of the Church. To complicate matters, the issue of fundamentalism lurks in the background.
Although such a literalistic approach to biblical interpretation is ostensibly rejected as a Catholic method (or, for that matter, as a mainline Protestant approach), there are those who question whether fundamentalist interpretation is really that bad. Brown was quite clear on this point. He maintained that from a modern perspective, the dividing line of interpretation was not primarily Protestant versus Catholic, but between those who accepted modern historical-critical study of the Bible and those who rejected it (essentially, fundamentalists).
One of Brown’s enduring contributions to New Testament study is to demonstrate the value of being open to the diverse interpretations of other Christian experts while being faithful to one’s own Catholic tradition.
These are just three ways New Testament study has evolved since New Testament Essays
appeared, but as with so many modern realities, advances arrive at a fast pace. Readers of this collection should be aware, though, that much of what Brown has written here has stood the test of time and continues to influence scholarly discussions. Heated debates continue to take place about the role of the historical-critical method and other methods, about the nature of the Johannine community and the literature it produced, about the ultimate impact of the Dead Sea Scrolls on our understanding of the New Testament, about unity and diversity in the New Testament view of the Church, and so on. These Essays
are not merely static pillars standing as archaic reminders of a bygone era. They are signposts to many contemporary scholarly discussions.
The reissuing of these essays is thus an opportunity for veterans of the early, post–Vatican II generation of Catholics interested in Bible study to savor once more the fresh insights that came from such critical study of the Bible. It is an occasion to revisit the fervor and excitement of
the 1960s and 70s and to get in touch with why we became excited about Scripture as a force that could shape our lives and the life of the Church. For a new generation interested in Bible study, these same essays provide some much-needed historical perspective, an occasion to get in touch with some of that same enthusiasm of an earlier generation, but with a nuanced understanding of how the work of one dedicated scholar helped to shape the questions of biblical interpretation being discussed today.
These essays do not claim to be the final word on any biblical theme, but they legitimately testify to the greatness of a brilliant exegete who combined the best of scholarly ability with an incredibly pastoral sensitivity that could attract readers to the Bible as the Word of God, bearing a message for all time.
As one who knew Father Brown personally, I believe he might be embarrassed to think of reissuing these essays without substantial revision and updating. His humility and integrity as a scholar might make him cringe. But he might also be proud to know that this early scholarly fruit of his labors in the exegetical vineyard continues to excite and direct people’s questions pertaining to the Bible. He would want us to explore the many new methods arriving on the
scene and to assess their strengths and weaknesses. He would also want us to engage further the role of archaeology on our understanding of the Bible and its environment. And he would want us never to cease being open to the Bible’s ability to make us look at ourselves honestly and not to be afraid to ask questions of the text as they come our way. It is my sincere hope that rereading these essays will reinforce the greatness of this premier Catholic exegete and always will send readers back to the source, back to the study of the sacred text itself, for that is what Brown himself would have wanted.
OUR NEW APPROACH TO THE BIBLE
That there is something new afoot in Catholic biblical circles has become obvious to all: to the hierarchy, to theologians, to priests in the ministry, to teachers, and to the ordinary laity. Some are enthusiastic; some are opposed; some are afraid; and some are just confused.
In all the discussion of the “new” biblical movement, however, there is one question that does keep coming up, namely, why a new movement? The Christian Church has been in possession of the Bible for nearly two thousand years. Naturally there are always new insights. But the notion that there can be a new approach to the Bible seems to imply that either the Church has been on the wrong track in the past, or has been neglecting its duty. It is this mistrust of the “newness” of the biblical movement that leads many to suspect that it is just a passing fancy or something worse.
We think that a great deal of confusion can be cleared away by carefully answering this question of newness. We would like to go into the background of the new biblical movement to show why it has come about now and not before. We would like to make it clear that there is no question of any sort of reproach to the Church of the past, for the material that has given rise to the new biblical movement could not possibly have been known before our own time. Rather, the very fact that there is a new biblical movement is a witness to the eternal vitality of the Church and to God’s providential plan for its growth. In short, the newness of the biblical movement is not a dangerous novelty gained by wanton uprooting, but the freshness of organic growth.
The modern Catholic biblical movement is the result of a grafting of the past one hundred years of scientific discovery on to the tree of Christian knowledge. In the past other grafts have been made on this tree; and each time, with proper pruning, the tree has borne ever richer fruit. In the early centuries Greco-Roman culture with its laws, ethics, organization, and philosophical imagery was grafted on to the basic teachings of the Galilean Rabbi; and the result was the flowering of the patristic period. In the Middle Ages there was a graft of Aristotelian philosophy, transmitted through the Arabic commentators; this gave its life to the splendid flowering of Thomism and the revival of the philosophia perennis. In the period of the Renaissance a graft from the new classical and scientific insights flowered in the great theological and spiritual advances of the Counter-Reformation.
So now in the past hundred years there has been a growth in scientific knowledge unparalleled in the history of mankind; and this knowledge, too, has its role to play in the growth of Christianity. The wise men of today must bring their gifts to the God-Man, as did wise men of the past. To turn our backs on this new knowledge of our times and to claim that it has nothing to offer to religion would be a denial of history, and a blasphemous confession that Christianity is dead because it can grow no longer. To fear this new knowledge and to hide from it is a denial of faith, for “the refusal to face facts in the name of piety is not the evidence of faith but of the lack of it.”
The biblical movement is but one phase of the contribution of science to religion, but it is a very active phase. In discussing the scientific origins of the new biblical movement let us consider the contributions made in the past hundred years by language studies, by history, and by archaeology to the growth of biblical knowledge.
First, language studies. It is difficult to realize today that up to one hundred years ago the Bible was really the only firsthand witness to the great civilizations that preceded Greece and Rome. True, there were echoes in the Greek historians (especially in reference to Persia), in Josephus and Eusebius, but they were often badly garbled. The Bible was our chief source of knowledge of the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Aramaeans, and of a host of other kingdoms that bad flourished and died in the ancient Near East, And we must remember that the foreign empires figured in the Bible only incidentally, i.e., as a background for the story of God’s dealings with an insignificant Semitic tribe known as the Benê Israel. This isolation of the Bible presented all sorts of difficulties. Many parts of the historical books remained virtually incomprehensible because of a lack of background. And for the more literary parts of the Bible, e.g., its sapiential poetry, no intelligible standards of comparison had survived from the civilizations contemporary with Israel.
Then the picture changed radically. In the first half of the nineteenth century Champollion deciphered hieroglyph-ics and Rawlinson deciphered (Persian) cuneiform. It took time before these decipherments could he fully used in giving us the grammar and vocabulary of the respective languages, but by the end of the century Egyptian, Babylonian, and Assyrian records could be read accurately. The Bible was no longer alone in its witness to the past.
The historical contributions of these records we shall discuss later; let us mention here just a few examples of their literary importance. The Egyptian records, for instance, give us a whole body of wisdom literature very close in concept to the wisdom literature of the Bible. In fact, it seems clear that part of the Book of Proverbs was dependent on the sayings of the Egyptian Amen-em-ope, and that there is a close parallel in Psalm 104 to the Egyptian hymn to the sun-god Aton. The Assyro-Babylonian records and those of their forerunners, the Sumerians, have given us even richer material. The Babylonian flood story (ultimately of Sumerian origin) and its hero Utnapishtim are identical in many details with the biblical story of Noah. This shows us that some of the stories of Genesis 1–11 were not the peculiar property of the Hebrews but were drawn, with modifications, from the common traditions of the Near East. The great law codes of the Sumerians and Akkadians (e.g., Hammurabi) have made us realize that the Mosaic code reflected the legal traditions of neighboring peoples.
These nineteenth-century linguistic discoveries were only the first in a series. More recently (1930), the discovery and decipherment of the tablets found at Ugarit have made a tremendous impact on biblical studies. When Abraham and, later Joshua came into the promised land, they found a flourishing civilization, that of the Canaanites. They borrowed the language of this civilization (for Hebrew is just a Canaanite dialect) and many of its customs. But until 1930 we knew of no literary records left by the Canaanites. The decipherment of Ugaritic (ancient Canaanite written in a cuneiform alphabet) made available the poetic myths which dealt with the gods of Canaan. The language itself was of interest; for, more ancient than Hebrew, it gave us the meanings of words and constructions in Hebrew poetry which had long been forgotten. But more than that, this ancient Canaanite poetry was of basically the same form as biblical poetry; and so we now realize that the Hebrews borrowed not only their language but also their poetry and music from the Canaanites. Many expressions of the Psalms appear word for word in the Ugaritic literature, and it seems clear that some of the praises sung of Yahweh were borrowed from those once sung of Baal. None of this is shocking: the God of Israel was a God of history, and the people that learned to worship Him used familiar materials in fashioning their religion, although they infused these materials with an entirely new spirit.
Even more recently than Ugarit, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (1947) has thrown light on the Bible. This is the first large body of Palestinian literature from the period after the Maccabees and before the fall of Jerusalem (c. 130 b.c. to a.d. 68). The Scrolls are useful in giving us an idea of the type of Hebrew and Aramaic being written in the period before and during Jesus’ lifetime. For the standard books of the Hebrew Bible the Scrolls have given us a text almost one thousand years earlier than that hitherto available. For the first time we can see a deuterocanonical book like Tobit and apocryphal books like Jubilees and Enoch in their original Semitic form, without having to depend on Greek and Ethiopic translations.
The linguistic discoveries we have mentioned thus far have affected Old Testament studies (although, as well known, the Dead Sea Scrolls are of importance for New Testament background). But there have been equally important discoveries with regard to the New Testament. True, Greek was well known long before the past one hundred years. Yes, classical Greek, but not New Testament Greek. Indeed, there were scholars who thought New Testament Greek so strange that they suggested that it was a dialect peculiar to the New Testament. It was only at the end of the past century with the discovery of the Greek papyri in Egypt that there were made available some examples of the everyday (koine) Greek spoken in New Testament times. Here were business contracts and letters—the documents of the ordinary man written in the ordinary Greek that he spoke. This Greek, not classical Greek, was the language of the New Testament; and any modern New Testament Greek dictionary shows the great influence of the papyri on New Testament studies.
More recently the discovery of papyri fragments of New Testament books has given us Greek biblical texts hundreds of years earlier than the great codices like Vaticanus. The Rylands fragment of Jn (P52, published in 1935), for instance, dates to a.d. 125–150. The Bodmer papyri of Jn (P66, published in 1956, and P75, published in 1961) give us relatively long texts of the Gospel from the late second century. These papyri discoveries, both in the Gospels and Epistles, are of great importance for studies of the biblical text.
All of these discoveries that we have mentioned belong to the past one hundred years, many to the past few years. The knowledge that they have supplied for interpreting and translating the Bible was not available to earlier centuries. We might remember, by way of comparison, that for the seven hundred years between the time of St. Jerome and that of the School of St. Victor (twelfth century) Hebrew was virtually an unknown language in the Western Church. Hence we can understand how this tremendous increase of linguistic knowledge in the short period of one hundred years has produced a more rapid advance in the biblical field than all of the past centuries put together.
Excerpted from New Testament Essays by Raymond E. Brown. Copyright © 2010 by Raymond E. Brown. Excerpted by permission of Image, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.