A Play in Four Acts
The Death of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Passion Narratives in the Four Gospels
Raymond E. Brown
(Anchor Bible Reference Library; New York: Doubleday, 1994) 1,630 pp., 2 vols., $37.50 each; $75 boxed set
Already hailed as a “classic,” this two-volume commentary has long been anticipated. Its appearance has caused no little stir in churchly as well as in scholarly circles—and in the mass media. With a work of this magnitude and profundity, reviewers—and I include myself—may refrain from their cavils and simply attempt to capture the tone and tenor of the work.
Brown provides a detailed analysis of the story of Jesus’ passion. This story is told in a dramatic narrative in four acts, with each act (except the third) divided into two scenes. Beginning with the arrest of Jesus in Gethsemane, the story tells of Jesus’ encounters with the Jewish authorities (trial, mockery, denials by Peter, Judas) and the Roman governor Pilate, and of Jesus’ crucifixion, death and burial.
Brown focuses on each successive episode of the Passion Narrative as depicted in all four Gospels without losing sight of the Passion Narrative as rehearsed in each Gospel. But he acknowledges the virtual impossibility of giving equal attention to the individual Gospels and to the overall narrative.
Valuable accoutrements accompany Brown’s analysis of the Passion Narrative. Toward the beginning of his commentary, Brown provides the reader with a comprehensive general bibliography, which he subsequently enhances with sectional bibliographies. To help the reader cope with a wealth of information, Brown places 14 illustrative tables at strategic points throughout the commentary, and in nine appendixes at the end he discusses at greater length topics such as “Dating the Crucifixion” and “The Sacrifice of Isaac and the Passion.” Following the appendixes are indexes of authors, subjects and passages, and to round things out, an index containing consecutive and literal translations of the Passion Narrative as found in each of the four Gospels. Such plenitude makes glad the hearts of scholars and students.
To peruse Brown’s commentary with insight, however, the reader must have a firm grasp of the hermeneutical and historical perspectives that inform it. Both hermeneutically and historically, Brown contends against two major fronts. The one front comprises those scholars who argue that, at bottom, the Passion Narrative is rooted in the disciples’ post-Easter “faith,” which Christian narrators subsequently explicated and embellished by means of stories fabricated on the basis of imagery and passages drawn from the Old Testament. Against this front, Brown stoutly maintains that, as one moves back from the Gospel narratives to Jesus himself, one must reckon with eye-and-ear witnesses who were in a position to know the broad outlines of Jesus’ passion. The Passion Narrative therefore is grounded in raw historical data that were gradually developed into a narrative recounting the story of Jesus from arrest through burial.
The other major front against which Brown contends is the opposite of the first: those who insist that the only value of the Passion Narrative today is its relevance to contemporary life. But Brown insists that the meaning current audiences take from the Passion Narrative must be related to the meaning intended by the first-century evangelists. The upshot is that the primary goal Brown sets for his commentary is that of explaining in detail “what the evangelists intended and conveyed to their audiences” through their narratives of Jesus’ passion and death. While taking a stand against these two types of scholars, Brown cautions the reader against misconstruing his commentary: It is neither an effort to delineate what the Passion Narrative is to mean for people today, nor a contribution to the “quest” for the historical Jesus, nor an attempt to show how Jesus’ death was broadly perceived by early Christianity. Instead, Brown aims to explicate the meaning of Jesus’ passion and 015death as grasped by the evangelists and conveyed in narrative to their audiences.
Because Brown addresses virtually every question that has been raised about the Passion Narrative, I am at a loss to summarize the vast results of his commentary. To capture something of its flavor, however, suffice it to note the intent that Brown ascribes to each of the Gospel Passion Narratives: Whereas Jesus is presented in the Passion Narratives of both Mark and Matthew as the Messiah Son of God who dies abandoned by his followers and facing his destiny alone, in Luke’s Passion Narrative Jesus’ death is that of an innocent prophet and martyr; in John’s Passion Narrative, Jesus is the triumphant Son of Man who has come down from heaven, lays down his life and is, on his cross, lifted up in exaltation to his Father.
Brown’s commentary is a magnificent accomplishment. One can only urge the reader, whether priest, pastor, scholar or student, to read it and to permit it to cast bright light on one’s comprehension of that narrative that tells kerygmatically and dramatically of Jesus’ passion and death.
Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation
Bruce M. Metzger
(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993) 112 pp., $6.95
This book examines the last book of the Christian Bible in the context of its own time and as it has been used by various Christian churches over the years. Although Metzger is writing for “mainstream” readers, rather than for those conservative Protestant Christians who look to Revelation for clues regarding the expected end of days, he provides useful descriptions of three influential theories that depend largely on material in Revelation: postmillennialism, premillennialism and amillennialism.
The book’s short introduction discusses the Book of Revelation’s authorship, date of composition, use of symbolic language and literary genre. The discussion of authorship is ambivalent: whereas in the introduction Metzger suggests that we cannot know who wrote Revelation, he later seems to identify the author as John, the son of Zebedee, keeping to the traditional attribution (see Revelation 1:1).
Metzger’s analysis of Revelation’s symbolic language, however, is very helpful for the general reader who may find the book’s imagery rather bizarre. Various images represent Christ: In Revelation 5, for example, Christ is described as both the Lion of Judah and as a slain Lamb. In Revelation 19 the author finds yet another image for Christ: the mighty warrior. This series of images suggests different and contrasting roles or meanings of Christ. Unfortunately, Metzger does little to clear up this problem, choosing to deal almost exclusively with the suffering Christ.
Metzger implies that suffering and disaster are the results of human misuse of power. This contradicts the message of the Book of Revelation and other apocalyptic texts in which God alone dispenses judgment and suffering. Many discussions of Revelation have treated the apocalyptic struggle between the forces of good and evil too simplistically. Metzger errs in the opposite direction, seeking overly complex answers to complicated and troubling problems.
The book has other faults as well. Metz-ger is good at describing the structure of the Book of Revelation, but weak in explaining its origin and function. Instead of relating the work to mythologies of other cultures, he writes that it is a product of “the Semitic mind”—an ill-defined generalization. Contrary to the available evidence, he writes that the Roman emperor Domitian (81–96 C.E.) tried to force Christians to participate in Caesar-worship—and he is blatantly wrong in saying that the policy of promoting the emperor cult came from the emperor. That impulse came in large part from the peoples of the East themselves, who recognized Roman military and political achievements and who may have desired to gain advantage through flattery.
This informative though erratic book will probably appeal mainly to those in search of a brief introduction to the most enigmatic book of the Christian Bible.
Countertraditions in the Bible: A Feminist Approach
(Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1992) 240 pp., $29.95 hard, $12.95 paper
Using the disciplines of feminist theory, literary criticism, biblical scholarship and psychoanalysis, Ilana Pardes explores the relationship between the dominant patriarchal discourse of the Bible and what she describes as “counter female voices which attempt to put forth other 016truths.” Not surprisingly, she traces these seemingly dissident voices in texts that often are defined as deviant, such as the Song of Songs.
More insightful, however, are Pardes’s analyses of narratives and subplots whose otherness has been overlooked by traditional biblical exegetes. For example, Pardes reads the Book of Ruth as a revision of a theme that might be called “struggles-between-fathers-in-law-and-sons-in-law.” Throughout the Bible, this conflict usually ends with the victory of the young hero (Jacob over Laban or David over Saul, for example). The Book of Ruth, in an analogous relationship between mother-in-law Naomi and daughter-in-law Ruth, offers another possible (although idealized) development of relations with in-laws. In this text, the in-law turns out to be an appropriate recipient of love, not hostility. In evoking Leah and Rachel as the two co-builders of the house of Israel (Ruth 4:11), the book highlights the brief moments in which the two matriarchs managed to cooperate, calls into question the emphasis frequently put on the rivalry between Leah and Rachel, and emphasizes the scarce representations of relationships between women elsewhere in biblical narratives.
Although Pardes focuses on biblical representations of femininity, she also sketches the ways in which female voices intermingle with other repressed elements in the Bible, primarily polytheistic elements. She analyzes the traces of patriarchal modes of censorship and, in light of the surviving remains, reconstructs the undercurrents that question the “monotheistic repression of femininity.” With the rise of monotheism, Pardes suggests, goddesses were dethroned: “God is one and as such He is male. Divine protection is solely in male hands.” But traces of goddesses can still be found in the Bible. God is the predominant model for saving, but is not the only one. Along with the male deity who freed Israel from Egypt with a “strong hand and outstretched arm” is a partially hidden female paradigm whose origins, according to Pardes, may be traced back to goddesses. Eve’s naming-speech (Genesis 4:1), for example, may be traced to an earlier mythological phase in which mother goddesses were greatly involved in the process of creation, even if in a secondary position, under the auspices of the supreme male deity.
Thus, while the dominant thrust of the Bible is clearly patriarchal, opposing trends continuously challenge the patriarchy. This is most clear in Exodus, where the Egyptian fertility goddess Isis’s role as midwife-mother-sister-wife is “wrenched apart” and divided among Shiprah, Puah, Yocheved, Miriam, Pharaoh’s daughter and Zipporah. Reading through Pardes’s eyes, one can clearly sense the clash between rigorous monotheistic censorship and the powerful thrust of a repressed cultural past, a past which included powerful, popular goddesses.
As many scholars have noted, feminist criticism is at its best when it exposes the problematic presuppositions of given belief systems. By accepting this line of inquiry when reading the Bible, rather than merely patriarchalizing or depatriarchalizing it or accepting comfortable categorizations of the biblical stance on gender issues, unknown reaches of the past may open before us. Pardes reveals “faded figures of female precursors who, through their very otherness, have the striking capacity to add much color and intensity to our own lives.”
A Play in Four Acts
The Death of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Passion Narratives in the Four Gospels