October 7, 1998




Scholar for the church: Raymond E. Brown, 1928-98. (tribute to late priest and biblical scholar)

Author/s: Phyllis Trible 
Issue: Oct 7, 1998

THE DEATH OF Raymond E. Brown, S.S., on August 8, 1998, in Redwood City, California, came as a thief in the night--unexpected, unwanted and unwelcomed. It robbed him of a life full of writing, research, teaching, travel and play. It robbed the Christian community of a giant and a genius who did justice, loved mercy and walked humbly with his God.

As news of his sudden death spread, two words reverberated in the telling: shock and loss. Nothing had prepared us for this event, even though in hindsight we may think we detect traces of the last enemy creeping toward him. There was the pain in his back that months of physical therapy had not alleviated. And there was the announcement he made only a month before, on a visit to his alma mater, St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore, of two gifts. One was monetary; the other, the promise that upon his death this Sulpician Seminary, where he had also taught, would receive all his Johannine research materials. Did he know, without knowing, that the number of his days on earth were drawing to a close, that he would be restricted to the biblical three score years and ten (Ps. 90:10)?

To the contrary, he teemed with life. He anticipated all sorts of events: opera under the stars in Santa Fe later in the summer; celebration of a 50th wedding anniversary for a beloved family in California this fall; and a trip to Sicily next spring with friends. Ecclesiastical and scholarly commitments stretched over five years. They included serving on the Pontifical Biblical Commission in Rome, delivering the keynote address at the Religious Education Congress in Los Angeles this coming February, and inaugurating the new divinity school at Wake Forest University next fall. Another research project was under way. Though he and his editor at Double Day maintained confidence, word now seeps out that he planned to update his monumental commentaries on the Gospel of John. Raymond Brown affirmed life, not death. As the shock of his death lingers, the loss of his life intensifies.

I first met Ray in 1969. Only 41 at the time, he had already published, three years earlier (1966), volume one of his Anchor Bible Commentary on the Gospel of John, and he had completed volume two, to be published in 1970. In the context of biblical scholarship, where the writing of a single commentary often culminates the work of a lifetime, one was tempted to think of the 12-year-old Jesus whose teachers were amazed at his understanding and his answers (Luke 2:47). The occasion was the opening of the Ecumenical Institute at Wake Forest University. It fostered dialogue between Roman Catholics and Protestants, particularly Southern Baptists (the classical, not the current, variety). Ray was a principal speaker, an instance of his lifelong commitment to ecumenical relations. During that event word came that The Jerome Biblical Commentary (1968), edited by Brown alongside Joseph Fitzmyer, S.J., and Roland Murphy, O.Carm., had received the National Catholic Book Award for 1969. If participants at the conference stood in awe of the young scholar in their midst, he deflected the attention. Raymond Brown did not bear witness to himself.

Copyright 1998 The Christian Century -- October 7, 1998