Raymond Brown on Understanding and Teaching Complicated Historical Issues

Raymond E. Brown SS, was a Catholic priest and Bible scholar, known for his Introduction to the New Testament, his volumes in the Anchor Bible Commentary series, and other academic and semi-popular works. He also wrote a popular book called 101 Questions on the Bible which has some really great stuff. As you might expect from the title, he presents this in Q&A format.

Several questions address the nature of scripture and genre, but also how to teach and preach passages where there is a large difference between scholarly understanding and popular traditions. (Virtually all the italics are mine.)


…Sometimes, because [teachers] fear scandal, some would say that it is better to treat a nonhistorical narrative as history and thus cause no problem. That is a dangerous misconception. God’s truth should be served by nothing less than the best of human perception, and we endanger acceptance of divine truth when we teach anybody something that by our best scholarly standards is thought to be false. Sooner or later, those who hear the preacher treating Jonah as if it were history, or the first chapters of Genesis as if they were science, will come to realize the falsity of that presentation and, as a consequence, may reject the inspired divine truth contained in those chapters [i.e. throwing out the baby with the bathwater]. In treating any passage of Scripture one need not raise problems that the audience has no way of understanding or of suspecting; but a discreet silence about extremely complicated issues is not the same as teaching or preaching something thought to be false.

In preaching the infancy narratives (as distinct from giving a course in a university) I do not go into all the complications of historicity. But neither do I explicitly or implicitly suggest that all the incidents therein are history and must be believed. We probably need to be careful about underestimating the sophistication of the audience. I wonder if one were speaking to a fifth grade grammar school class about the star that rose in the East and came toward Jerusalem and came to settle over Bethlehem, would there not already be on the lips of the children a question as to whether all this happened, or is it “just a story.” The challenge to the teacher or preacher may be to walk a middle line between affirming that all this happened literally and suggesting that it is just a story. It is a story in which God’s inspired truth is communicated to us….

Brown then addresses the slippery slope argument which often comes up when talking about non-historical or quasi-historical genres.

…. If one treats that as symbolic or parabolic, where do we stop? Was there an Abraham, or a Moses, or a David, or a Jeremiah? It seems to me that by departing from the literal history of the Bible you have opened a can of worms.

There is no doubt that a totally literal approach is simpler; but in life there are cans of worms and the totally simple answer often  doesn’t work. Let me remind you of a common experience: after having read home-improvement manuals, those trying to fix the plumbing or the electricity sometimes find themselves utterly frustrated and have to call in the technicians. When they explain to the plumber or the electrician what they did, and complain that it should have worked because this is what they read in the manual, the answer is often: “Ah, but this is a more complicated situation because of these factors which you did not think about.” Somehow we can be brought to accept that plumbing, and electricity, and a thousand other aspects of life may be complicated; but we are innately annoyed that the dealings between God and the human race are complicated.

Suppose I were to ask you whether you really think that Washington cut down the cherry tree, or threw a coin across the Potomac, or slept in all the houses in which he is supposed to have bivouacked, you might answer, “Well, I think some of that is legend.” How would you then reply if I said to you, “Well, if you begin doubting those things about Washington, how do you know that Lincoln led the Union to victory over the Confederacy, or that Teddy Roosevelt presided over the building of the Panama Canal?” You would soon be forced to recognize that there are different bodies of evidence for different claims and that at times stories about some people are told with a certain legendary atmosphere whereas stories about others are unadornedly factual.

The same has to be recognized in the stories associated with the great biblical characters. King Arthur, King William the Conqueror (responsible for the Norman invasion of England), and Queen Elizabeth II are all monarchs associated with British history; but the quality of what we know about each runs the gamut from allegory with some historical details in the case of Arthur, to a general but often not specific history in the case of William the Conqueror, and finally to the ability to construct almost a day-by-day account of the activities of Elizabeth II.

So also, the stories pertinent to Abraham have a general historical setting; but he is presented as the father of two peoples, Israel and Ishmael (the Arabs), so there is a somewhat allegorical character to the story. The story of Moses is part of a national epic in which the achievements of the individual and the history of a people are blended. Parts of the story of David probably stem from a court biographer who lived in that period of history and wrote fairly factually. There is history in all three narratives, but varying amounts of history and of detail. That may be a can of worms, but we have a similar can of worms in regard to American history or British history or any other history. We shall have to put up with our annoyance that God has not spared the history of Israel from the same vicissitudes that have afflicted the histories of other nations.

 Raymond Edward Brown, 101 Questions on the Bible (New York; Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1990).

In other words, history and literature are complex. The Ensign has addressed the complexities of history at least twice, discussed here. And there are some great intros elsewhere, like this and this, both of which I own, but am in process of reading.

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2 thoughts on “Raymond Brown on Understanding and Teaching Complicated Historical Issues

  1. I love all of Brown’s books, especially his magnum opus, “The Birth of the Messiah.” It is an excellent reference for studying the infancy narratives. And his shorter works—”An Adult Christ at Christmas” and “A Coming Christ in Advent” provide a nice distillation of his theological analysis of Luke 1&2 and Matthew 1&2.

    But exercise extreme caution when suggesting to an LDS audience that there may have been no ambulatory star, massacre of the innocents, flight into Egypt, or choir of angels. You have a better chance of convincing a five-year old that there is no Santa Claus and the emotional reaction of both will be quite similar. This comes as no surprise given the extreme literalistic approach of church manuals over the years, along with general authorities who insist that the Jonah story is historical, among other things.


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