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Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament (1997)

Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament (1997)

This book is an introductory textbook on the New Testament, most suitable for a seminary-level introductory course. Since it is an introductory text, the book does not have any real thesis; its goal is to present the material that has already been produced, rather than to argue anything new. It is organized into four parts with two appendices. Part I deals with “Preliminaries for Understanding the New Testament”; Part II is an overview of the Gospels and NT books related to the Gospels (Acts and the Johannine Epistles); Part III covers the Pauline epistles (including the deutero-Paulines); Part IV deals with “the other New Testament writings” (Hebrews, the Petrine Epistles, Jude, and Revelation). Appendix 1 is an overview of historical Jesus research from 1780 to the present; Appendix 2 is a survey of “Jewish and Christian Writings Pertinent to the NT.”

Part I consists of five chapters. Chapter 1 contains a brief description of what the term “New Testament” implies (it implies that the NT literature is the sequel to, and fulfillment of, the literature in the Hebrew Bible), followed by an overview of early Christian book production and dissemination, and the history of the development of the canon.

Chapter 2 deals with “How to Read the New Testament.” The first part of the chapter is a sprint through eleven different ways that scholars have approached the text of the NT, from textual criticism (also the subject of the very brief chapter 3) to historical criticism, to narrative criticism, to advocacy criticism (e.g. Liberationist or Feminist hermeneutics); Brown concludes by emphasizing how the true meaning of the text cannot be derived through just one hermeneutic, but must come from the results of several kinds of hermeneutics operating together. The chapter also discusses issues of biblical inspiration, divine revelation, and deriving meaning from the NT (whether looking for authorial intent, the meaning to the original audience, and/or the meaning within the canon).

Chapters 4 and 5 are useful chapters on the political, social, and ideological environments in which the NT was composed. In terms of politics, Brown covers the period from Alexander the Great on through the Bar Kokhba revolt. For the social environment, he focuses on what life was like for Jews and Christians in pagan cities, Greco-Roman class structure and social hierarchy, and education in the Greco-Roman world. Regarding Jewish religious thought, Brown first discusses the importance of the Maccabean revolt; next, he introduces the Essenes, Sadducees, and—more in depth—the Pharisees, discussing how Jesus related to each of these groups; then, finally, giving brief mention to the Jewish literature composed after the 1st century (namely the Mishnah, Tosefta, Targumim, and Talmudim—sources that, he argues, are problematic when used in the study of the NT, because they were composed later—sometimes much later—than anything in the NT). Next, Brown surveys non-Jewish religious thought (namely, classical myth, emperor worship, mystery cults, and cults deriving from the religions of countries east of Rome), then non-Jewish philosophies (e.g., Cynicism, Epicureanism) and the interesting cases of Philo and of Gnostic thought, which combined Jewish and Hellenistic religio-philosophical categories.

Part II covers the Gospels and related literature, namely Acts and the Johannine Epistles. This part begins (chapter 6) with an overview of what “Gospels” are, including a discussion of the semantic range of euangelion (“good news,” “gospel”) and its usage among 1st– and 2nd-century Christian authors. Next, Brown chronicles the development of “Gospel” as a literary genre, showing that it has parallels to biographies in the Hebrew Bible and to Greco-Roman biographies, combined with a healthy amount of creativity on the parts of the Gospel authors. Here Brown distinguishes between the actual Jesus (the man Jesus, a religious figure who lived in Palestine in the 1st century CE, of whom we have no contemporary accounts), the historical Jesus (a scholarly construct based on critical analysis of the Gospels) and the Gospel Jesus (the literary figure[s] of Jesus, as portrayed by the authors of the Gospels). Brown cautions that, even though the presentation of a Gospel Jesus is shaped by the Gospel author’s rhetorical goals, the Gospels contain at least some eyewitness testimony of the actual Jesus, and so are more useful for talking about the actual Jesus than are reconstructions of the historical Jesus. Next, this chapter sets forth “three stages of Gospel formation” (107): 1) The ministry of the actual Jesus during the first third of the 1st century; 2) The apostles’ preaching about Jesus (the kerygma) during the second third of the 1st century; 3) The written Gospels, which were composed during the last third of the 1st century. Finally, a decent amount of the chapter is devoted to the Synoptic Problem and the existence of Q.

The discussion of the books of the NT begins with chapter 7, which covers the Gospel of Mark. The chapters that discuss the NT books directly (as opposed to informational chapters, like the above) more or less follow the same outline: an introductory paragraph, followed by a “General Analysis of the Message” (ranging from a few pages in the shorter Epistles to a miniature commentary for the Gospels); then discussions of authorship, composition, the community in which the book was composed/to which it was addressed, and the date of writing; then “Issues and Problems for Reflection” (dealing mostly with interpretive problems and ways to apply the text to the modern world—a section that would be useful as part of a seminary-level introductory course on the NT); and finally a brief bibliography for the book.

Chapters 7, 8, 9, and 11 cover the four canonical Gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, respectively). The majority of each chapter is devoted to the “General Analysis of the Message”—which, Brown notes, “almost constitute a minicommentary” (126) on each book. Brown’s conclusions are thoroughly centrist; he places Mark between 68-73 CE, possibly at Rome; Matthew he places around 80-90 CE, probably around Antioch; Luke-Acts at around 85 CE, either in Greece or in Syria; and John to churches in Asia Minor between 80-110 CE. The chapter on John is somewhat expanded compared to the chapters on the other Gospels, owing to Brown’s extensive work on that Gospel; not surprisingly, it is in this chapter that his conclusions differ most from the scholarly norm, though they are still strongly centrist (he argues that the bulk of John was composed somewhere around 80-90 CE by the same person/group that wrote 1 John, with an epilogue added around 100-110 CE by the person/group that wrote 2-3 John).

Chapters 10 and 12-14 deal with Acts and the Johannine Epistles, respectively, showing how they fit with their related books (Luke and John). For Acts, Brown explores whether the book qualifies as “history,” whether by ancient or modern definitions, concluding that it fits suitably within the ancient genre of history. For the Johannine Epistles, Brown reconstructs the community and theological situations in which they were written; 1 John was written after the Gospel of John, when “a division among Johannine Christians had occurred, sparked by different views of Jesus” (383), with one group saying that only belief in Jesus mattered, while another group (the group behind 1 John) said that good deeds were required, in addition to right belief. Second and Third John were also written in the context of schism, though a decade or so after 1 John.

Part III deals with the Pauline corpus, including the deutero-Pauline Epistles. The part begins with three prefatory chapters, covering ancient letter-writing practices (chapter 15; including the typical formal elements of Greco-Roman letters), a brief overview of Paul’s biography and theology (chapter 16), and “An Appreciation of Paul” (chapter 17; designed to help students retain an appreciation of Paul’s life and work even while they study the minutiae of each letter). Next, Brown examines the authentic Pauline Epistles in the order they were written (1 Thess, Gal, Phil, Philmn, 1 Cor, 2 Cor, Rom; chapters 18-24), examining the contexts in which they were written, the situations they address, how they were composed, and where they stand in the development of Paul’s theology. Along the way, he addresses various important topics when they are relevant to the letter at hand (e.g., a discussion of early Christian hymnody in relation to Phil 2:5-11).

The next section (chapters 25-31) deal with the pseudonymous Pauline Epistles. Chapter 25 is a very brief overview of pseudonymity in the ancient world, showing that pseudonymous authorship was fairly common in the ancient world, but acknowledging that it presents problems for interpretation in the NT. In fact, Brown analyzes each of the pseudonymous letters in the NT, including the deutero-Paulines, as if the author named actually wrote the work, since “even if that person did not write the respective work, the claim to his authorization suggests that the emphasis in the writing is related to his image” (706). Chapters 26-28 cover 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, and Ephesians, examining evidence for and against Pauline authorship—and being honest when the evidence is more or less inconclusive, as with Colossians—and providing interpretations both as if Paul wrote the letter and as if it was pseudonymous. Chapters 29-31 cover the Pastorals in the order they were written (Titus, 1 Tim, 2 Tim), discussing the church structure present in the letters, the authorship of the Pastorals, and the implications of pseudonymity on interpreting the letters.

Part IV deals with “The Other New Testament Writings” that have not been covered thus far in the book. He examines the remaining epistles in the order that they were written (Heb, 1 Pet, Jas, Jude, 2 Pet; chapters 32-36), and saves Revelation for last (chapter 37). For Hebrews, Brown discusses the genre and “Thought Milieu” (691) of the book, finding that clear answers are not available for either question. In discussing 1 Peter, Brown gives an overview of the life of the historical Peter—since it is relevant to the author’s perception of the letter—and places the letter in the context of unsystematic but imperially sanctioned persecution of Christians. In treating James, as with 1 Peter, Brown discusses the life of the historical James, then discusses the oft-debated relationship between James and the Pauline Epistles (specifically, because of the relationship between “faith” and “works” in each writer’s thought); Brown also covers the relationship between the books of James and Matthew, and places James between genres, as a combination of Hebrew wisdom literature, Stoic diatribe, and epistle. With Jude, Brown gives the life of the historical Jude and discusses the implications of Jude’s use of non-canonical Scriptures. Interestingly, and slightly problematically, the chapter on Jude is the only chapter on an NT book that does not conclude with discussion topics—Brown remarks, “Jude, however, is a very short work; and today most would not appreciate or find germane its argumentation from Israelite tradition about angels who sinned with women, [etc.] We owe Jude reverence as a book of Sacred Scripture, but its applicability to ordinary life remains a formidable difficulty” (760). Be that as it may, there is much fodder in Jude for reflection on everyday life (such as being modest, not arrogant, in disputes; Jude 9-10). Next, Brown analyzes 2 Peter in terms of the “early Catholic” features that Käsemann saw in the book (769), finding that Käsemann’s analysis is too simplistic. Finally, in discussing Revelation, Brown gives an overview of the genre of apocalyptic, examines the structure and theology of the book, and situates it within Domitian’s persecution of 96 CE.

The book concludes with two appendices. Appendix 1 is a history of the quests for the historical Jesus—a task towards which Brown is highly critical. Appendix 2 is a short catalogue of Jewish and Christian books that are useful for studying the NT; it is functionally a very short version of Craig A. Evans, Ancient Texts for New Testament Studies.


Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII (Anchor Bible 29; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995).

Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI (Anchor Bible 29a; New York: Doubleday, 1970).

Craig A. Evans, Ancient Texts for New Testament Studies: A Guide to the Background Literature (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2005).

Howard Clark Kee, review of Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, JBL 118 (1999): 144-147.

Bruce M. Metzger and Bart D. Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration (4th ed.;  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).


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Greek Wednesday: The Subjunctive & Optative in early Christian Greek, Μὴ γένοιτο in Paul

Continuing in my current obsession with the optative mood, here are some statistics to support the notion that the optative was on the decline in first-century CE koine Greek, followed by a discussion of the optative in Luke and Paul, and the phrase μὴ γένοιτο in Paul and Epictetus.

The New Testament has 17,543 finite verbs. Of these, 1868 are subjunctives and 68 are optatives. In terms of percentages, 10.6% of the finite verbs in the NT are subjunctive, while only 0.388% are optatives. The Apostolic Fathers (not including the Latin sections of both Ignatius’ letter to the Philippians and the Shepherd of Hermas) has 7842 finite verbs, of which 1111 (14.2%) are subjunctive and 50 (0.638%) are optative. I don’t have access to word counts of the classical Greek corpus, but optatives certainly show up more more frequently than 1% of the time there. Thus, it’s very clear that the optative was on the decline in first-century CE Greek.

Within the NT, two authors — Luke and Paul — use the majority of the optatives. Luke has 29 optatives, while Paul has 24. Luke, owing to his more literary style, uses the optative more or less properly; in other words, his usage of the optative accords with its use in classical Greek. (Though he, idiosyncratically, uses εἴη quite frequently). Here are some examples (English is the NRSV):

Luke 1:38 εἶπεν δὲ Μαριάμ· ἰδοὺ ἡ δούλη κυρίου· γένοιτό μοι κατὰ τὸ ῥῆμά σου. καὶ ἀπῆλθεν ἀπ᾿ αὐτῆς ὁ ἄγγελος.

Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Luke 6:11 αὐτοὶ δὲ ἐπλήσθησαν ἀνοίας καὶ διελάλουν πρὸς ἀλλήλους τί ἂν ποιήσαιεν τῷ Ἰησοῦ.

But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.

Acts 17:27 ζητεῖν τὸν θεόν, εἰ ἄρα γε ψηλαφήσειαν αὐτὸν καὶ εὕροιεν, καί γε οὐ μακρὰν ἀπὸ ἑνὸς ἑκάστου ἡμῶν ὑπάρχοντα.

so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us.

In Paul, on the other hand, fully half (12) of his optatives are in Romans alone, and 10 of those are the phrase μὴ γένοιτο (“may it never be,” “by no means,” “God forbid”). Here’s a sampling (again, English is NRSV):

Romans 3:3 τί γάρ; εἰ ἠπίστησάν τινες, μὴ ἡ ἀπιστία αὐτῶν τὴν πίστιν τοῦ θεοῦ καταργήσει; 4 μὴ γένοιτο· γινέσθω δὲ ὁ θεὸς ἀληθής, πᾶς δὲ ἄνθρωπος ψεύστης, καθὼς γέγραπται· ὅπως ἂν δικαιωθῇς ἐν τοῖς λόγοις σου καὶ νικήσεις ἐν τῷ κρίνεσθαί σε.

What if some were unfaithful? Will their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means! Although everyone is a liar, let God be proved true, as it is written, “So that you may be justified in your words, and prevail in your judging.”

Romans 6:15 Τί οὖν; ἁμαρτήσωμεν, ὅτι οὐκ ἐσμὲν ὑπὸ νόμον ἀλλὰ ὑπὸ χάριν; μὴ γένοιτο.

What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!

Romans 11:11 Λέγω οὖν, μὴ ἔπταισαν ἵνα πέσωσιν; μὴ γένοιτο· ἀλλὰ τῷ αὐτῶν παραπτώματι ἡ σωτηρία τοῖς ἔθνεσιν εἰς τὸ παραζηλῶσαι αὐτούς.

So I ask, have they stumbled so as to fall? By no means! But through their stumbling salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous.

In fact, all told, Paul uses the phrase μὴ γένοιτο a whopping 14 times throughout his letters. One other author has a similar high concentration of “μὴ γένοιτο”: Epictetus, and a comparison between him and Paul will be useful.

(Of course, though the two authors use the phrase in similar ways, it is unlikely that either is dependent on the other. Paul couldn’t have read Epictetus, because Epictetus was born in 55 CE, and wasn’t active as a philosopher until near the end of the first century and into the second century, well after Paul had died. However, the similarities between the two are pretty eerie. For instance, Epictetus was a Stoic, and Paul showed sympathies to Stoicism. Epictetus learned philosophy in and originally taught in Rome; the majority of Paul’s μὴ γένοιτο phrases are in his letters to the Romans. Moreover, read these samples from Epictetus’ Discourses and tell me they don’t sound a little bit Pauline in usage (though not necessarily in content).)

1.2.35-36 τί οὖν; ἐπειδὴ ἀφυής εἰμι, ἀποστῶτῆς ἐπιμελείας τούτου ἕνεκα; μὴ γένοιτο. Ἐπίκτητος κρείσσων Σωκράτους οὐκ ἔσται: εἰ δὲ μή, οὐ χείρων, τοῦτό μοι ἱκανόν ἐστιν.

What then, since I am naturally dull, shall I, for this reason, take no pains? I hope not. Epictetus is not superior to Socrates; but if he is not inferior, this is enough for me.

1.8.14-15 τί οὖν; αἴρω τὰς δυνάμεις ταύτας; μὴ γένοιτο: οὐδὲ γὰρ τὴν ὁρατικήν.

What then? Do I take away these faculties which you possess? By no means; for neither do I take away the faculty of seeing.

2.8.1-3 Ὁ θεὸς ὠφέλιμος: ἀλλὰ καὶ τἀγαθὸν ὠφέλιμον. εἰκὸς οὖν, ὅπου ἡ οὐσία τοῦθεοῦ, ἐκεῖ εἶναι καὶ τὴν τοῦ ἀγαθοῦ. τίς οὖν οὐσία θεοῦ; σάρξ; μὴ γένοιτο. ἀγρός; μὴ γένοιτο. φήμη; μὴ γένοιτο. νοῦς, ἐπιστήμη, λόγος ὀρθός. ἐνταῦθα τοίνυν ἁπλῶς ζήτει τὴν οὐσίαν τοῦ ἀγαθοῦ.

God is beneficial. Good is also beneficial. It should seem, then, that where the essence of God is, there too is the essence of good. What then is the essence of God, – flesh? By no means. An estate? By no means. Fame? By no means. Intelligence? Knowledge? Right reason? Certainly. Here, then, without more ado, seek the essence of good.

Okay, so I lapsed into a little bit of a conspiracy theory there. Sorry. However, two similarities really stick out between Epictetus’ and Paul’s uses of the phrase. First, they ask a rhetorical question, which is often introduced by τίς, οὖν, or both. Second, they do not use the phrase with a verbal force (as seen in Classical Greek, e.g. Euripides, Medea 598-599: μή μοι γένοιτο λυπρὸς εὐδαίμων βίος
 / μηδ᾽ ὄλβος ὅστις τὴν ἐμὴν κνίζοι φρένα [“May such a wretched prosperous life never come about for me, / nor wealth of a sort that torments my heart”]), but instead use it simply as a strong means of denial; in other words, they use it as a very strong synonym for the word “no.”

Look, for example, at Romans 3:3-4 and Discourses 2.8.1-3 above. In both cases, μὴ γένοιτο clearly means “by no means!” or “no way!” or “God forbid!” Epictetus counters μὴ γένοιτο with ὀρθός, “certainly.” Thus, it is far more natural for μὴ γένοιτο here to mean “no way!” than for it to mean “may it never be!” Likewise, in Romans 3:3-4, it makes far better sense to read μὴ γένοιτο as “certainly not!” or “God forbid!” Thus, it seems, by the time of late koine Greek in the first and second centuries CE, μὴ γένοιτο had become a set phrase for a strong denial, lacking any verbal content.

So, in sum, the optative was clearly in decline in non-literary Greek by the time of the first and second centuries CE. However, it was preserved in a set phrase of strong denial, μὴ γένοιτο, that served only as a strong synonym for the word “no” but did not actually carry any verbal force.

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