An Introduction to the New Testament, by Raymond E. Brown (Doubleday, 878 pp.; $42.50, hardcover). Reviewed by Michael J. Gorman, professor of New Testament and dean of the Ecumenical Institute of Theology at Saint Mary's Seminary and University in Baltimore. He is the author of Abortion and the Early Church (InterVarsity).

Of the making of books introducing the New Testament there is no end; some 25 sit on the shelves of my office, many more in the seminary library. Each is helpful and useful in its own way, and a few have become classics, issued in several editions over decades; KŸmmel and Guthrie, for instance, are household names in New Testament circles because of their New Testament introductions.

Fr. Raymond Brown, S.S. (Society of Saint Sulpice, or Sulpicians, whose members primarily direct and teach in Roman Catholic seminaries worldwide), is already a household name not only in the field of New Testament studies but in religious and academic circles more broadly. Father Brown, Auburn Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at Union Theological Seminary in New York, is best known for his work on the Johannine literature—especially the classic two-volume Anchor Bible commentary on the Gospel of John and a study of the Johannine community (The Community of the Beloved Disciple)—and for his exhaustive studies, The Birth of the Messiah and The Death of the Messiah. He began his illustrious career at Saint Mary's Seminary and University in Baltimore, the Sulpician institution that I serve, teaching courses like those I now teach in his shadow.

A monument and a foundation

As anyone familiar with Brown's earlier writings would expect, his Introduction is a comprehensive, clear, balanced, ecumenical, and centrist work that leads the reader through the New Testament documents in their historical context. Brown has the credentials to write for the "scholarly majority" in the field of New Testament at the close of the twentieth century, and his "consensus" approach to basic issues does in fact reflect the positions of many specialists in the field.

It comes as no surprise, then, that numerous scholars—Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish—endorse the volume with very high praise, as inscribed on the book's dust jacket. What we have here is a synthesis of the results of biblical scholarship in this century and a starting place for the century to come. This Introduction is both a monument and a foundation.

The plan of the book is clear and simple. Following a few opening comments, chronological tables, and maps, Part 1 covers the "preliminaries" for understanding the New Testament: its nature and origin (including canon); methods of interpretation; manuscripts; and the political, social, religious, and philosophical worlds of the New Testament. Parts 2-4 deal with the Gospels and related works (Acts, epistles of John); the Pauline letters and the other NT writings. Each NT book has a chapter devoted to it, ranging in length from about 50 pages each for the Gospels and Acts to 20 or 25 pages for longer letters and 10 or fewer for shorter ones.

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Appendixes on the historical Jesus and on relevant noncanonical Jewish and Christian writings, as well as indexes to authors cited (23 pages) and topics, conclude the volume. Each chapter has an ample bibliography and footnotes, so that students and scholars can follow up on topics of interest. The student (formal or informal) is, in fact, Brown's primary intended audience.

An especially helpful and appealing aspect of the chapters in Parts 2-4 is the (usually) first and main section of each chapter, entitled "general analysis of the message." This section, occasionally encompassing more than half of the chapter, provides a "mini-commentary" on the entire book in question. While some other NT introductions also do this, none to my knowledge is as thorough or as engaged with other scholars (in the notes) as Brown's.

The rest of each chapter is devoted to more traditional introductory issues (date, authorship, community, etc.), which are also summarized in a neat one-page chart early in the chapter, and to "issues and problems for reflection." This section, concluding each chapter, briefly addresses a handful of particularly significant critical, textual, theological, and even spiritual and pastoral topics raised by each writing. In this section we get a glimpse into the mind of Raymond Brown: of all the issues raised by a writing, which ones really matter to him?

A work of such scholarly breadth and depth has many excellent features, some of which have already been mentioned. I wish especially to highlight three: clarity and readability; attention to theological and spiritual concerns; and engagement with diverse religious and scholarly perspectives.

Clarity and readability

Among the book's chief virtues are its clarity and readability. Unfortunately, many scholars cannot write well for the educated, interested laity or the busy pastor; Raymond Brown can and does. I have used the book as the main text in an introductory master's-level New Testament course for laypeople. Carefully studying the entire New Testament while reading a 900-page introduction at the same time is a daunting task. All of my students, however, praised the book's readability, even when they found the quantity of reading overwhelming. (Other colleagues in the field have used it, with greater ease, for courses on the Gospels or the Synoptics.) For the layperson or minister who wants a clear "lay-of-the-land" regarding any NT book or the NT as a whole—whether for the first time or as a refresher course—this book is a gem.

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It is also encyclopedic. Indeed, it may function just as well as a reference book (it is part of the Anchor Bible Reference Library), something to which one can turn again and again for clear presentations about New Testament topics. As some of the endorsements claim, this may indeed be the book to buy if one is only going to own one scholarly volume on the New Testament.

For some potential readers, this Introduction will necessarily function more as an encyclopedia than as a book to read cover-to-cover. Although there are some helpful charts scattered throughout the volume, it is not excessively reader friendly, especially when compared to other NT introductions on the market. There is no color and no photography, and the text is dense and traditional in appearance. Were it not for Brown's engaging writing, this format might have proven deadly.

Theological and spiritual concerns

A surprising and very welcome feature of this introduction is Brown's attention to the theological and spiritual dimension of his topic. This has been, again unfortunately, something of a rarity in New Testament scholarship. Too often, especially in introductions, the material is presented only as (largely irrelevant) historical data ("like pages of an ancient telephone book," according to one former student). Brown's interest in the religious dimension of the text comes through in three ways.

First, he devotes part of an introductory chapter to questions of revelation and inspiration. After surveying modern methods of biblical study ("criticisms"), he anticipates the reader's question: How does this historical approach correlate with a belief in the divine inspiration of the Scriptures? Brown's own approach is "centrist," rejecting both a literalist inerrancy, on the one hand, and a refusal to acknowledge inspiration or allow it to be considered in scholarly discussions of the New Testament, on the other. He attributes inspiration to all of Scripture, not just certain parts, and quotes with approval (as one might expect) the Second Vatican Council's appealing understanding of inerrancy and inspiration: "The books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching firmly, faithfully, and without error that truth which God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation." Brown finds the guiding hand of the Spirit in the production of the NT writings, and this allows him to acknowledge cheerfully the diverse, fully human conditions in and through which the writings came into existence, as well as their power to speak today.

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Second, Brown deliberately draws attention to texts and themes in the NT writings that have provoked, and still provoke, differing interpretations and thus differing beliefs and practices in the Christian churches. For instance, he comments on the difficulties in reconstructing the function of deacons and elders in the various Pauline communities whose letters mention those offices, and in understanding the precise significance of actual or possible references to "sacraments" in both Gospels and letters.

Third, Brown dares to probe (with questions or comments) controversial and otherwise significant topics raised by NT texts. Regarding Paul's view of homosexual relations, for example, he argues that Paul condemned all sexual activity outside marriage and that "Paul and indeed, Jesus himself, walking among us in our times, would not be frightened by being considered sexually and politically 'incorrect' " (p. 530). In his discussion of Philippians, Brown tacitly criticizes selfish "upward mobility" and raises questions about the meaning of "taking the form of a servant" and anticipating the resurrection of the dead today.

Throughout the book, Brown reveals himself as a scholar who actually believes in his subject—the content of the NT writings. A theme of the book is the wisdom and plausibility of New Testament affirmations (i.e., Christian orthodoxy) in the face of modern challenges to them. He (usually gently) affirms the resurrection of the body, the "existence of an intelligent principle of evil" (the Devil, p. 746), and other dimensions of the New Testament that many scholars either shun or dismiss. Not Brown.

Ecumenical engagement

A third strength of Brown's Introduction is that it is thoroughly ecumenical and inclusive of diverse perspectives. This strength appears in two ways. First, Brown interacts with, and clearly respects, scholars of all denominational and theological traditions. As both he and Princeton's Bruce Metzger have independently said at recent public events at Saint Mary's Seminary and University, biblical studies has made great contributions to ecumenical understanding in this century. Readers of CHRISTIANITY TODAY will be happy to see that Brown's one or two favorite commentaries for each NT book include works by the late Robert Guelich (Mark), Dallas Seminary's Darrell Bock (Luke), the late F. F. Bruce (Acts), Wheaton's Gerald Hawthorne (Philippians), Regent's Gordon Fee (1 Corinthians), James Dunn (Romans), Andrew Lincoln (Ephesians), William Lane (Hebrews), and Richard Bauckham (2 Peter and Jude). Many of these works are part of the highly respected and thoroughly evangelical Word Biblical Commentary series. Indeed, Brown's favorite commentary series appear to be the Anchor Bible and the Word sets.

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Second, Brown reminds his readers that various parts of the NT speak to the needs of the church and the churches at various points in their existence. For example, the two concluding paragraphs of his section on the canonicity of James deftly but nonjudgmentally explain both Luther's (and Protestantism's) hesitation about the "epistle of straw" and the letter's rehabilitation in the last half of this century, thanks to liberation theology and to a general concern with Christian social ethics, particularly with respect to questions of wealth.

Brown, then, is open to a variety of religious and scholarly perspectives—though not all perspectives. He is suspicious of much supposedly "cutting-edge" scholarship, especially the kind that attracts media attention, finding its adherents idiosyncratic at best and self-aggrandizing at worst. Though he does not explicitly identify all the culpable scholars or schools of thought, he is critical of the well-known Jesus Seminar. On the other hand, in discussing various interpretive approaches to the New Testament, Brown invites his readers to acknowledge with him the valuable contributions made by "advocacy" scholars—non-First World, nonwhite, and nonmale interpreters of the New Testament, particularly those with a liberationist perspective.

Similarly, Brown recognizes the importance of newer methods of NT study, including literary approaches (structuralism and narrative criticism), rhetorical criticism, and "social" criticism (i.e., sociological analysis and social-scientific criticism). For seasoned, expert practitioners of the more traditional methods of twentieth-century scholarship like Brown, simply acknowledging these new approaches is significant, and to Brown's great credit, he clearly intends to take them seriously.

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Where is NT studies heading?

Reading Raymond Brown's Introduction might lead readers to conclude that despite all the bibliographical entries and footnotes, there really is a significant consensus among a great majority of NT scholars, with respect to both method and results in NT study. To some extent, this conclusion is correct.

But behind the consensus that Brown represents lie much more variety and disagreement than one might suspect, particularly regarding the history of Jesus and of early Christianity. The distinctive and controversial views of the "cutting edge" interpreters minimized by Brown probably exercise more influence in NT studies than he cares to admit. (Glancing at the program of the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature should prove my point.)

In reality, NT studies is currently a highly diverse field, with various methods and agendas vying for prominence. Some NT scholars, such as Stephen Fowl of Loyola College in Maryland, would say it is not merely diverse, but "fragmented." Candler School of Theology's Luke Timothy Johnson has gone even further, arguing that the discipline is in crisis. Whether merely diverse, fragmented, or in crisis, NT studies is experiencing the same kind of predicament that all fields of study are undergoing in this postmodern era. Old certainties have collapsed, the possibility of "objective" interpretations is denied, and venerable scholarly methods are supplanted or supplemented. No method or perspective is judged inherently preferable to another.

But if the field of NT studies is diverse, or even fragmented, the variety afforded by our present context can be the occasion for hope, not despair. One reason for hope is that the complex dimensions or "textures" of the Bible require a variety of interpretive approaches, like the proverbial diamond whose beauty can be fully appreciated only from a variety of angles.

Frances Taylor Gench, who teaches at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, calls this new interdisciplinary era a "time of ferment," after which the historical-critical method will not be replaced but enhanced, putting new tools into scholars' pockets.

Gench finds an additional reason for hope in the current diversity, which is not merely varied with respect to method but also with respect to the practitioners. The entrance of women and of ethnic and racial minorities into biblical studies has enriched our reading of the Bible, she says. "People from different social locations bring different questions to the texts and see different things in them," she contends.

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Still another reason for hope is that the postmodern situation allows us, scholars and students alike, to own up to our real (and diverse) purposes in reading the New Testament. For most of us who are confessing Christians, these purposes are spiritual, theological, ethical, and practical.

The media lead us to believe that the "hot" topics in NT study are historical in nature: the historical Jesus, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and so on. In my experience of teaching NT primarily to adults, however, people are primarily interested in responsible interpretation of the text so that it may be heard again as the Word of God for this time. James Brownson, academic dean and professor of New Testament at Western Theological Seminary, points out that a similar preoccupation with the historical Jesus ended the nineteenth century and led to a deluge of work in NT theology at the beginning of the twentieth century. It may well be that the end of this century will also lead us to a healthy outpouring of NT scholarship in the twenty-first century—scholarship that has a theological, missional, and ethical focus. If so, that outpouring could be one not only of scholarship but of the Spirit. And for that, Raymond Brown would be both grateful and, in part, responsible.

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