In October 2003 I was part of a scholarly meeting that honored the memory and accomplishments of Raymond E. Brown, S.S. It was entitled “An International Conference on the Gospel of John: Life in Abundance,” and held at St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore, where Brown studied, taught for many years and wrote his famous commentary on John’s Gospel. The conference had as its goal, according to its organizer, John R. Donahue, S.J., “not to enter into direct dialogue with Raymond E. Brown’s extensive writings, but to continue further study of the Gospel of John, which had been his life’s work.” The sessions were very lively and interesting, and many said that in every way it was among the best academic conferences they had ever attended. The proceedings of that conference have now been made available in a volume edited by Donahue and published by Liturgical Press under the title Life in Abundance: Studies of John’s Gospel in Tribute to Raymond E. Brown, S.S. (313p, paper, $29.95, 0184630111).
Brown (1928-98) was one the most prominent and influential biblical scholars and theological educators of the 20th century. Born in New York City, he was ordained a Catholic priest in 1953 for the Diocese of Saint Augustine (Florida) and in 1955 became a full member of the Society of Saint Sulpice, a group of Catholic priests whose primary ministry is theological education. He studied under William Foxwell Albright at Johns Hopkins University from 1954 to 1958, and became one of the first biblical scholars to use the Dead Sea scrolls in his doctoral dissertation (1958) on the concept of “mystery” in Judaism and early Christianity.
From 1959 to 1971 Brown served as professor of Sacred Scriptures at Saint Mary’s Seminary and University. From 1971 to 1990 he taught biblical studies at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where he was named professor emeritus upon his retirement. His remaining years he devoted to research, writing and lecturing, while residing at Saint Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, Calif. Brown died unexpectedly from a heart attack in Redwood City, Calif., on Aug. 8, 1998, and was buried in the Sulpician cemetery in Catonsville, Md.
Brown was a prodigious writer. He was the author of almost 50 books, 200 articles (several in America) and more than 100 scholarly book reviews. Several of his larger works are regarded as classics in the biblical field. The Birth of the Messiah (1977; rev. ed. 1993) highlighted the influence of Old Testament texts on the New Testament infancy narratives. The Death of the Messiah (1994) presented detailed literary and historical analyses of the texts that make up the Gospel passion narratives. His Introduction to the New Testament (1997) provides a discussion of each book’s historical setting, content and theological significance. Brown also served as co-editor of, and a major contributor to, The Jerome Biblical Commentary (1968) and The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (1990).
Although he wrote on many topics in the biblical field, his name will always be associated with the Johannine writings. In his two-volume Anchor Bible commentary, The Gospel According to John (1966, 1970), Brown used that Gospel’s historical setting in Judaism and early Christianity to illumine its literary and theological riches. In The Community of the Beloved Disciple (1979), he attempted to reconstruct the history of the Johannine community (its “life, loves, and hates”) reflected in John’s Gospel and letters. His massive Anchor Bible commentary on The Epistles of John (1982) sought to situate those letters in the ongoing history of the Johannine community. One of his last publications was a short, popular work entitled A Retreat With John the Evangelist: That You May Have Life (1998). His final scholarly project turned out to be the revision of his two-volume commentary on John’s Gospel. The work that he had begun has been completed and edited by Francis J. Moloney, and published as An Introduction to the Gospel of John (2003).
After the keynote address at the conference by Archbishop Terrence T. Prendergast, S.J., of Halifax, on the church’s great challenge—proclaiming God’s word in the new millennium—Life in Abundance presents essays by Francis J. Moloney, S.D.B., on the Gospel of John—Brown’s legacy and beyond (with a response by R. Alan Culpepper); Dwight Moody Smith on the future of Johannine studies; Robert Kysar on the whence and whither of the Johannine community (with a response by Hans-Josef Klauck, O.F.M); Burton L. Visotzky on methodological considerations in the study of John’s interaction with first-century Judaism (with a response by Adele Reinhartz); Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., on Qumran literature and the Johannine writings (with a response by Daniel J. Harrington, S.J.); Craig R. Koester on the death of Jesus and the human condition—exploring the theology of John’s Gospel (with a response by Gail R. O’Day); Sandra M. Schneiders, I.H.M., on the resurrection (of the body) in the Fourth Gospel (with a response by Donald Senior, C.P.); Robert F. Leavitt, S.S., on Brown and Paul Ricoeur on the surplus of meaning (with a response by Francis Schüssler Fiorenza); and Ronald D. Witherup, S.S., on the incarnate Word revealed—Brown’s pastoral writings. Also included are a biography of Brown and a bibliography of his publications (by Witherup and Michael L. Barré), and personal tributes by Phyllis Trible and John R. Donahue, S.J.
Although engaging in dialogue with Brown’s writings was not the purpose of the conference, it proved impossible to avoid this entirely, because his writings have in large part defined Johannine research for almost 40 years. The printed papers will help readers grasp what made this conference so rich and memorable: the symbiosis of the scholar and the texts to which he devoted so much thought and energy. His longtime colleague and friend, Phyllis Trible, aptly described Brown as “the twentieth century embodiment of John” (p. 296). This volume is important for what it tells us about current Johannine scholarship and about Brown the scholar and priest.
The scholars presenting papers and responses on John’s Gospel were an ecumenical group consisting of Catholics, Protestants and Jews. All were effusive in their praise of Brown as a scholar and a person. In fact, almost everyone began with an ancecdote that brought out various features in their relationships with Brown. Some had studied John’s Gospel under Brown’s tutelage, and several others confessed that they became immersed in Johannine research from reading Brown’s books. Many have now written their own.
One of the goals of this academic conference, however, was to discern where current Johannine scholarship has gone beyond Brown. Whereas Brown spent a good deal of time and energy in reconstructing the community behind the Johannine community (historical criticism), recent Johannine interpreters have focused on the text as it now stands (narrative criticism) and on how the text has been and is now received (reader-response criticism). Moreover, there are growing doubts about the verifiability of the historical hypotheses that Brown and J. Louis Martyn developed in their reconstructions of the Johannine community. While those reconstructions have brought the Johannine texts alive, they involve the exegete in a kind of hermeneutical circle whose foundations seem increasingly weak to some.
The papers by the Jewish contributors, Burton Visotzky and Adele Reinhartz, offer especially vigorous challenges to using the references to the expulsion of Jesus’ followers from the synagogue as a firm foundation for understanding the circumstances of the Gospel’s composition and its disparaging references to “the Jews.”
There are also some questions that remain unanswered. While Fitzmyer’s demonstration of the many parallels between the Qumran and Johannine texts is certainly persuasive, the precise point of contact between the two traditions is still elusive. And the suggestion by Schneiders that the anthropology of Jesus’ resurrected body in John’s Gospel reflects that of the Wisdom of Solomon further complicates the Gospel’s history-of-religions background. The theological high point of the volume comes with Koester’s paper on the Johannine interpretation of Jesus’ death (“Jesus died to make God’s love known”) and O’Day’s response (“Jesus lived to make God’s love known”). The issue here is whether the incarnation or the passion is the focus of Johannine theology.
There was more to Brown than Johannine research. His early interest in the “fuller sense” of Scripture has been confirmed by recent developments in philosophical hermeneutics. His exegesis of the Bible was always undertaken in the service of the church, and his biblical-theological writings are remarkable for their breadth of interests and pastoral applicability. What seems to have motivated all his work was a strong sense of God’s sovereignty and a desire to serve the people of God.
The 31-page bibliography of Brown’s publications is noteworthy not only for its magnitude but also for including references to the many translations of his books into various languages, from Italian and Spanish to Korean. When Brown died in 1998, I wrote a short appreciation of him subtitled “A Teacher for Us All” (Am., 8/29/88).
Even in death Brown continues to teach more and more people all over the world.