Suffice to say that this two-volume work is the definitive English treatment of Biblical scholarship on the Passion Narratives. Prescinding a moment from the sacred matter of the study, one has to be impressed with the author's command of Biblical scholarship in several contemporary languages, not to mention the intricacies of ancient Greek, Latin, and Aramaic. He is well versed in the history of Biblical scholarship dating to Jerome and Augustine. Father Brown knows his academic peers, their methodologies, emphases, and biases. He is blunt in his praises and criticisms of others working the field. This work is a tribute to Father Brown's single-minded devotion to his field.
The first volume of 900 pages treats of the Gethsemanae events through the condemnation of Christ by Pilate. Brown poses the existence of one or possibly a few distinct and original oral Passion accounts. The Last Supper and the Resurrection accounts are both excluded from this study, as the author believes that the meal with the Twelve and the mysterious empty tomb/apparition accounts come from other distinct early Christian sources. The style is considerably more expository than inspirational, though for such a highly technical work the narrative flow is quite adequate. A reader with little time or theological background might do well to read Father Brown's "A Crucified Christ in Holy Week," a 70-page reflection on the author's study of the Passion.
Father Brown's work continues the tradition of "redaction criticism" of the New Testament, perhaps the predominant methodology of the past half-century. Redaction criticism contrasts the four stories of the Christ by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John to discern a particular philosophy or theology of Christ unique to that author or his community. The Matthean Christ, for example, emerges as the New Moses; the Markan Christ as the unique prophet of a new age of forgiveness, etc. There is some subtle development of redaction conclusions in the work at hand. Father Brown does not believe it is possible to identify the Gospel authors with certainty. From a historical vantage point, the best one can say is that the nuclei of the Gospel accounts, including the Passion tradition[s], originated in early Christian circles, somewhere between 30-60 A.D. Father Brown's work tends to smooth or ameliorate what had been sharply defined boundaries between the evangelists. He tends throughout his treatment to pair Mark and Matthew, in gentle opposition to Luke. He even makes attempts to find common ground in Mark and John, something my professors of the early 1970's rarely attempted.
Father Brown puts more energy into finding bridges between the Gospel narratives and Hebrew Scripture accounts. Thus he underscores the remarkable cohesion of the Christian tradition of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemanae and the story of David's flight from Jerusalem in 2 Samuel 15ff. If the reader takes the time to examine the 2 Samuel text, the parallels are uncanny. The roots of the Judas character, a covey of conspirators, and a mental/spiritual agony on the Mount of Olives are compiled there. In fact, there are even traces of Jesus' warnings to the Apostles in 2 Samuel 15:14-15. The author concludes that the death of Jesus can be understood only in the context of Jewish history, and that the primitive oral account or accounts of the Passion were formulated with considerable influence from the Hebrew Scripture.
The centerpiece of this volume is the judicial action against Jesus. Father Brown establishes that the Sanhedrin owned its maximum responsibility for Jesus' fate, and that likewise Pilate owned his maximum responsibility as well. It was not the Romans who initiated charges against Jesus. Politically speaking, Roman-Jewish relations were as tranquil as they had ever been or ever would be. Any idea that Jesus was prosecuted for political subversion is dismantled. Pilate's condemnation was an unusual but not unheard of acquiescence to the wishes of the Sanhedrin.
On the contrary, Jesus died for religious reasons, specifically issues of Jewish theology and practice. The Sanhedrin did not wish to crucify Jesus for doing kindly deeds or attracting crowds. Rather, it was Jesus' powerful rebuke of the contemporary practice of temple-based Jewish life and worship that placed a cross upon the shoulders of the Christ. There is a progression of prophetic criticism from Jesus' lips of legalism, ritualism, casuistry, exclusivity, and spiritual malaise in all four Gospel biographies. Earlier in Jesus' ministry the rebukes seemed to hold forth the hope that current Jewish practice could be reformed. But on the eve of Passover, Jesus' prediction that he himself could destroy the Temple and raise it in three days constituted wholesale blasphemy as heard by Jewish elders. For as Father Brown implies, Jewish leaders who heard this declaration understood it more clearly than later Christians who interpreted it metaphorically. [Recall Matthew's remark that at the moment of his death the curtain of the Holy of Holies-the heart of the cult-was rent from top to bottom.] Jesus was indeed testifying that the Temple cult was dead. Obviously, this kind of thinking and preaching was untenable and demanded the strongest of responses.
Father Brown has never in his lengthy career felt restrained by Jewish sensitivities to water down his belief that the Sanhedrin is primarily responsible for Jesus' death. But neither has any scholar of my acquaintance gone to greater pains to underscore the existential nature of Jesus' condemnation: it was this Sanhedrin, at this point in time, in this political environment that condemned Jesus. The author sharply condemns any broader generalizations of an anti-Semitic nature. It is true, however, that the author's works on the community of the Evangelist John tend to elaborate sufferings of later Christian communities at the hands of their former Jewish comrades in faith. Does this point of view influence Father Brown's treatment of the Sanhedrin in this work? Good scholars may argue this point, but no one can disagree that Father Brown has done his homework. In spades.