Father Raymond Brown (1928-1998) was perhaps the greatest biblical scholar (certainly the greatest among Catholics) of the 20th century. As he did in his masterful book on the infancy narratives (The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (The Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library)), in this book (which received both the Nihil Obstat and the Imprimatur), he turns his keen analytical reasoning to the gospel accounts of Jesus' passion.
Brown describes the primary aim of this book as "to explain in detail what the evangelists intended and conveyed to their audiences by their narratives of the passion and death of Jesus," adding, "I do not think of the evangelists themselves as eyewitnesses of the passion; nor do I think that eyewitness memories of Jesus came down to the evangelists without considerable reshaping and development. Yet as we move back from the gospel narratives to Jesus himself, ultimately there were eyewitnesses and eyewitnesses who were in a position to know the broad lines of Jesus' passion." He candidly admits that "I can scarcely reconstruct how a book of mine published twenty years ago was composed. Therefore, I, for one, cannot hope to reconstruct with great exactitude the interrelationships of the Synoptic Gospels."
The book is filled with Brown's insightful comments: e.g., "Scholars have come to realize that one cannot dismiss Jesus' miracles simply on modern rationalist grounds, for the oldest traditions show him as a healer."; "early Christians had a tradition that before he died Jesus struggled in prayer about his fate."
Brown notes that "We are never told the specific Roman crime for which Pilate gave over Jesus to crucifixion (whether or not he believed Jesus was guilty," and that "Jesus cannot be classified simply as a political revolutionary. He was a troublesome religious figure and was treated as such." He suggests that "Something done and/or said by Jesus prognostic of Temple/sanctuary destruction was at least a partial cause of the Sanhedrin's decision that led to his death."
After reviewing various "medical" accounts of the crucifixion, Brown concludes, "In my judgment the major defect of most of the studies I have reported on thus far is that they were written by doctors who did not stick to their trade and let a literalist understanding of the Gospel accounts influence their judgments on the physical cause of the death of Jesus."
However, many of Brown's conclusions are fairly traditional: e.g., "That Jesus was buried is historically certain ... That the burial was done by Joseph of Arimathea is very probable," and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre "has the best claim to have been the burial place hewn out of rock into which a pious Sanhedrist placed the corpse of the crucified Jesus." He rejects, however, the historicity of Matthew's account of the guards at the tomb, and says that "my judgment is that the various attempts to reconcile the chronological discrepancies between the Synoptics and John are implausible, unnecessary, and misleading. The two Gospel traditions have given us irreconcilable chronological notices. Logically, then, neither or only one set of notices can be historical."
This a very challenging, minutely detailed, and quite enlightening review of all aspects of the death of Jesus, and will be ESSENTIAL READING for anyone interested in the life of Jesus, Catholic biblical studies, and studies of the gospels in general.