Review: The Birth of the Messiah

The Birth of the Messiah, Raymond E. Brown. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1979 (Link is to 2nd edition, published in 1999 by Yale University Press).

Summary: An academic commentary on the Birth Narratives in Matthew and Luke.

This has been on my shelves a long time, a library copy picked up at a sale many years ago. More recently, it has been joined by Brown’s two volume The Death of the Messiah. I decided for Advent this year, it would be a good time to finally dive into this magisterial commentary by Brown

The commentary consists of an overall introduction, introductions to Matthew and Luke’s account respectively, and then commentary, running section by section of each narrative. This includes Brown’s own translation of the text, notes on the text, including textual variants, and commentary. In addition to overall bibliographies, Brown offers a bibliography for each section. He also includes a number of appendices on the genealogies, the Birth at Bethlehem, virginal conception and the charge of illegitimacy, the census, and midsrash.

I will offer here some overall highlights, rather than a lengthy discussion of a lengthy commentary. First of all, it is Brown’s theory that the infancy narratives came last in the formation of the gospels, the passion narratives being first, and then the ministry narratives. One of the big questions is why these narratives are so different and Brown would chalk this up to the theology of each evangelist, which he develops in the commentaries.

First, with Matthew, he emphasizes how Matthew shows Jesus to be Son of God and son of David, fulfilling Old Testament prophecies, key for a Jewish-Christian audience. We see this in the genealogy, the five Old Testament texts which Brown would suggest may have been interpolated into an earlier pre-Matthean tradition, particularly Isaiah 7:14, which he deals with at length, as well as the visits of Magi, Herod’s attempt to kill him, and the flight to Egypt, a kind of recapitulation of Israel’s history. I was also struck with the thread of Joseph’s implicit obedience throughout. Joseph shines for this brief moment, and then slips from the scene.

The commentary on Luke focuses the transitional character of the infancy narratives, even as Acts 1-2 focuses on the transition from the ministry of Jesus to the church. The annunciation stories echo those of the births of Samuel and Samson, upon whom the Spirit dwelt. At the visit of Mary, who had conceived by the Holy Spirit, to Elizabeth, John, in utero, testifies to the coming of Jesus as Elizabeth speaks in the fullness of the Spirit. This anticipates the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. Brown also gives extensive attention to the parallel annunciations, birth narratives, and subsequent hymns. He also offers intriguing ideas about the connections of Simeon and Anna to the anawim and the Essene sect at Qumran. He observes the intensification of each of these for Jesus, showing how John is the lesser forerunner we will encounter in the following chapters.

The work reflects the historical, form, and source criticism of Brown’s time. Brown moderates some of the radical skepticism that would question the historicity of these events. Most notably, he defends the virgin conception (but not necessarily birth) of Jesus and the Davidic descent, but considers the claims of a Bethlehem birth weaker (despite this being a commonality of the two accounts), and believes Luke was in error about a census under Quirinius. He would not consider such passages such as the Magnificat as ipsissima verba of Mary, being skeptical that testimony could have come through Mary or her family to Luke.

While Brown, in this work, is more skeptical about the historicity of various aspects of these narratives than I am, it is wonderful to read with this scholar who has read scripture so closely. Having written narratives of local history, drawing on various sources, I am more sympathetic than I once was to his exploration of how Matthew and Luke composed these narratives. But I suspect that no two people who studied what I wrote could dissect the sources in the same way. There is a speculative element of this and I am more appreciative of the rhetorical criticism that looks at the final form of a work and its theological purpose. I think this is where Brown seems to be on the most solid ground.

My review is based on the first edition of this work. A revised edition was published in 1999, a year after his death. I have not had the chance to compare the two and to see if Brown’s views changed on any matters. At very least, it may reflect more current scholarship. This is well worth obtaining for any who expect to preach on these texts and offered rich devotional reflection for me.

2 thoughts on “Review: The Birth of the Messiah

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: January 2022 | Bob on Books

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