An Introduction to the New Testament

  • Raymond E. Brown
  • Jan 1, 1998
  • Series: Volume 1 - 1998

Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament [Anchor Bible Reference Library] (New York and London: Doubleday, 1997) $42.50. xxxvii + 878 pp.

Rarely does a new book receive an endorsement from a scholar of the caliber of Bruce Metzger saying, "If a person could own only one book on the New Testament, this is the one to have." Evangelical readers might not agree, but clearly this is a magisterial product by one of the truly great New Testament scholars of our era.

The very first footnote of the Foreword lets us realize that Brown's will not be the typical, dry introduction: "Though I would not expect scholars to learn from the book, I would hope they judge that their beginning students can learn from it. By way of comparison, I judge the Introduction by W. G. Kummel, which is erudite, to be most helpful to scholars, but absolutely deadly for beginning students. I am attempting an introductory volume very different from that" (p. vii, n. 1). While Brown is overly modest--all scholars will learn something from his survey--the rest of his footnote is entirely accurate.

The most distinctive part of Brown's format is that the first major section of each chapter actually surveys the contents and narrative flow of each of the New Testament books in some detail. In our age, in which even entering seminarians cannot uniformly be assumed to have a basic grasp of the content of the Bible in detail, this is a welcome and crucial addition.

Brown also consciously attempts to be centrist in his conclusions, that is, to report what most scholars across the whole criticial spectrum say. Thus when evangelical positions reflect a minority, Brown will not choose them, but neither will he make the Jesus Seminar very happy. In fact, one of two appendixes in the volume deals with the recent quests of the historical Jesus, and some very appropriate critiques of the Jesus Seminar are included. Brown's ample footnotes and bibliography, however, are well abreast of much of the most significant, recent evangelical literature, as well as mainline Protestant, his own Roman Catholic, Jewish, and other perspectives. Even such journals as JETS and BibSac, which are usually ignored by non-evangelical writers, even those aware of some of the more prominent conservative Christian literature, get frequent citing. On p. 660, n. 20, all eight sources cited for the topic of "women in 1 Tim. 2:9-15" were authored by evangelicals!

After a brief introduction to "Useful Information about the Bible as a Whole," Brown treats, in Part 1, the formation of the New Testament, how to read it, its text, the political and social world, and the religious and philosophical world of NT times. Unlike most introductions, he raises explicitly theological questions, including those concerning inspiration and inerrancy and adopts the perspective that "all Scripture is inerrant to the extent that it serves the purpose for which God intended it" (p. 31). He also insists on interpreting the final form of the biblical texts and of recognizing levels of meaning that may go beyond what the original writer consciously intended.

Part Two groups together the Gospels, Acts, and the Johannine Epistles. Brown does not think Matthew, Mark and John wrote the gospels traditionally attributed to them, but believes that, if traditional authorship for the Gospels and Acts is ever likely to be right, it is with the two volumes historically ascribed to Luke. He adopts Markan priority and endorses, in qualified fashion, the Q hypothesis. Unlike many who reflect critical consensus, Brown is open to some level of supernatural activity surrounding Jesus' virginal conception, his miracles and his resurrection. He rejects Wrede's explanation of the Messianic secret and accepts Best's understanding of the pastoral motives and context of Mark's Gospel. Mediating between those who depend on Papias and those who reject him out of hand, Brown suggests that Papias "could be reporting in a dramatized and simplified way that in his writing about Jesus, Mark reorganized and rephrased a content derived from a standard type of preaching that was considered apostolic" (p. 160). His view on Matthew's community is a similar mediating view: "Matthew was addressed to a once stongly Jewish Christian church that had become increasingly Gentile in composition" (p. 213). As for Luke's historical trustworthiness in his two-volume work, Brown is cautiously conservative: Luke wrote in more of a biblical than classical style, but "it is not ridiculous to think that the author might have been a fitting candidate for membership in the brotherhood of Hellenistic historians, even if he would never be made president of the society" (p. 322). Brown's views on the Johannine literature all well known from his previous major works and ably summarized in this introduction, but not to the exclusion of important divergent perspectives.

Part Three turns to the Pauline letters, separated into two categories: undisputed and possibly psuedonymous. The undisputed letters Brown covers in what he believes is their chronological order: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Philippians, Philemon, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Romans. This requires rejecting the large body of evidence that Galatians was written to South Galatia before the apostolic council and assuming that Philippians and Philemon were written from an Ephesian imprisonment. With a fair critical consensus, Brown treats the "deutero-Paulines" in order of increasing likelihood of pseudonymity: 1 Thessalonians, Colossians, Ephesians, and the Pastorals. In this section, while including evangelical scholarship in his notes and bibliography, he interacts with it least. Perhaps the most notable omission is C. Arnold's work (of which he is aware) on Ephesians and Colossians, which indirectly but strongly supports Pauline authorship in the 60s. Part Three also contains helpful introductory material concerning the nature of letter-writing in antiquity and the life and thought of Paul overall.

At a number of points in Brown's work, he reflects distinctly Roman Catholic concerns, while always aware of the broader ecumenical dialogues on the issues at hand. Thus, in the Pauline epistles, he repeatedly points out hints of hierarchy and institutionalization from early on in the life of the church. He suggests that 1 Corinthians, rather than Romans (with all the Reformation-era controversy that swirled around it) may be the most rewarding place for a beginning student of Paul to start. But at the same time he defends positions that the conservative Protestant will applaud: a high Christology dating possibly to the 30s is reflected in the pre-Pauline form of the Philippian hymn, and Paul's ethical injunctions regarding both hetero- and homosexual behavior still remain in force. Nor is Brown averse to including practical applications. In the context of discussing Paul's collection (2 Cor. 8-9), he remarks, "Both psychologically and practically there are few things in life that bind together people and institutions more effectively than sharing their bank accounts" (p. 553).

The final major section of Brown's introduction deals with "the other New Testament writings." In no instance does Brown conclude that the traditional ascriptions of authorship for these books are the most probably correct ones. A little surprisingly, given the generally comprehensive nature of his discussions, he says nothing about the possibility that Heb. 12:4 may indicate a date for Hebrews prior to the Neronic persecution of Christians in Rome in 64, he assumes without discussion (contra most) that the rich persecutors of believers in James 2:5-7 are themselves fellow Christians, and cites with apparent approval the fact that as late as 1944 the Catholic church "condemned even a mitigated form of millenarianism" (p. 802). Otherwise his treatment of Revelation is relatively even-handed, taking appropriate potshots at the hyperliteralist interpretation without ruling out a genuine prophetic dimension to an otherwise highly symbolic work of literature.

In almost every chapter, Brown ends with issues for further reflection. These often involve disputed areas of theology or application, and at times all Brown does is raise questions without even suggesting how he might answer them. A second appendix surveys additional Jewish, Christian and Gnostic literature relevant for interpreting the New Testament. Given the magnitude of the volume and Brown's attempt to include something for everyone from almost every theological or critical perspective, he clearly hopes that the work will be very widely used. But these very distinctives may be "off-putting" for many teachers who are more concerned to limit what they require students to read to more manageable length treatments, especially when so many introductory courses to the New Testament are one semester in length and include "survey" as well as "introduction proper." We can at any rate be very grateful for Brown collecting together in one volume such a compendium of up- to-date scholarship.

Craig L. Blomberg
Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary