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on February 16, 2011
This book differs from the majority of Ray Brown's work in that it is far more brief than most of the other books he has authored. Unlike "The Birth of the Messiah" and "The Death of the Messiah" or his "Introduction to the New Testament," "The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection" is only 130 pages and can be read in a reasonable period of time. The body of the work is concise; he has limited this work to two topics, but his expertise and thoroughness in outlining these two volatile topics is nothing short of his usual exhaustive research. Not only does he speak of his own stance on these issues, he thoroughly scours the current and past academic community, and their accompanying ideas, critiquing each for helpful input or erroneous conclusions.
As usual, Ray Brown clearly knows where the Catholic line in the sand has been drawn and although he doesn't step past it, he recognizes far more than most traditional Catholics would dare consider, given the high visibility of these two issues. And his brilliance allows him to see that both conservatives and liberals can and will take him to task for the conclusions he draws. Other current theologians, both Protestant and Catholic, believe there is ample evidence out there that points toward a modern understanding of the issues, (and that this evidence ought to engender some change in official church teaching) but Brown, who clearly knows all the evidence, won't quite go there. In other words, Brown allows for the fact that "it could have happened another way" and because it is the mandate of the theologian to "inform" the magesterium to the best of his/her ability utilizing the resources (and sources) as best they can, Brown will not presume to encroach upon the official teaching body of the Church and the Spiritual tradition that accompanies it.
This is a good book for anyone who wants a shortened version of the scholarly debate that stretches back as far as the early second century. It's easy to see why Ray Brown is revered as one of the most influential 20th century theologians.
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on June 10, 2014
This is concise and efficient examination of two question central to Catholic theology: (a) Was Jesus conceived of a Virgin? and (b) Was Jesus resurrected bodily? The book is slim - about 133 pages - but the pages are filled with information, as Brown goes to work surveying the available information and scholarly consensus to analyze the various issues that surround these questions.

Brown's agenda is pursue the issues in a scholarly and objective manner. He does not assume the truth of the Catholic position ab initio as part of his scholarship, but argues cogently that Catholicism is not well-served by anything less than an adherence to the best traditions of objective scholarship. As a faithful Catholic, I had no problems with his approach, and I found nothing in his text or conclusions that was in the least bit threatening to my adherence to either the doctrine of the Virgin Birth - or, more specifically, the Virgin Conception (since as Father Brown points out, the Virgin Birth extends to the less well-known doctrine that the Blessed Virgin Mary remained virginally intact after the birth of Jesus) - or the Resurrection.

The book is really two monographs with an epilogue that summarizes Brown's conclusions. The short length of the book makes this book a less daunting book to read than either Brown's The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (The Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library) or The Death of the Messiah: From Gethsemane to the Grave (2 Vol. Boxed Set). In addition, Brown seems to be less technical in his language than in either of his major works. All of that makes this book a good entry point for readers of Brown.

In the section on the Virginal Conception, Brown surveys the arguments pro and con for the historicity of the Virginal Conception (the "VC.") This meens that Brown looks at arguments and data that support the VC, as well as those that point in the other direction. This is important because one runs into opportunistic quoters of Brown who will argue that Brown (or the Catholic Church) do not accept the VC by quoting the con arguments and ignoring the pro ones. For example, critics of the VC will quote Brown's comments that the infancy accounts are of "dubious" historical value, but ignore Brown's observation that the VC is correlated with the claim of Jesus' Davidic descent, which is not without some historical support::

>>>But Burger does not really solve the objection to his thesis raised by the fact that James, the brother of the Lord, was known widely in the Chritian world and lived into the 60's. The popular thesis of his "brother's" Davidic descent must have circulated in James' lifetime and could scarcely not have reached his ears. Can we posit James' acquiescence in such a fictional affirmation abut the family ancestry? Would not others who knew the family and, expecially, his Jewish opponents have raised some objection? Paul makes his own creedal statements about Jesus' Davidic descent (Rom 1:3); he knew James and he was scarcely indifferent about questions of family origin (Rom 11:1; Philip 3:5.)(p. 55, no. 87.)<<<<

Brown points out that the appearance of VC narratives in the separate traditions of Luke and Matthew points to an origination of a belief in the VC prior than the time that either text was written. If that was the case, is it likely that those stories were unknown to James and that he would have been silent to such stories.

Similarly, Brown points out that that the famous Septuagint text of Isaiah 7:14 that the "Virgin shall conceive" was not the basis of the VC story:

>>>"But we have no evidence that in Alexandrian Judaism the LXX of Isa 7:14 was understood to predict a virginal conception, since it need no more than that the girl who is now a virgin will ultimately conceive (in a natural way). Moreover, it is dubious that Isa 7:14 was the origin of Matthew's tradition of a virginal conception; elsewhere, including chapter 2, it is Matthew's custom to add fulfillment or formula citations to existing traditiosn. And, indeed, there is no proof that Isa 7:14 played any major role in shaping the Lucan account of the virginal conception."(p. 64.)<<<

So, where did the idea of the VC come from?

Brown discounts the idea of pagan influence for the reason that the famous examples involve physical intercourse with something. (p. 62.) Brown does mention a "few seeming exceptions," but these seeming exceptions involve intercourse of some kind or "epiphany celebrations." (p. 62, n. 104.)

Nonetheless, for every argument there is a counter-argument, and Brown concludes that the "totality of the scientifically controllable evidence leaves an unresolved problem."

This is a passage that gets a lot of use for the anti-VC advocates, but one thing about Brown is that one must pay very close attention to his actual language. Brown is economical with words and he really means his qualification. So, Brown is not saying that he agrees that the VC is not supportable; instead, he is saying that based on the "scientifically controllable evidence" - i.e., the evidence we can test - we don't have a definitive answer.

In the Epilogue, Brown explains:

>>>Nor do I think that modern biblical study favors abandoning the idea of virginal conception, although the situation here is more ambiguous because of the very limited NT evidence and the need of more examination in the context of ecumenical scholarship. Scripturally I judge that it is harder to explain the tradition about the virginal conception by positing theological creation than by positing fact. (p. 132.) <<<<

In the section on the Bodily Resurrection, Brown also surveys the scholarship and makes some interesting observations about the nature of Christ's Resurrected body and whether our language can truly describe it. Brown also points out that while the post-resurrection appearances can not be harmonized, the likely explanation may be a composite of several earlier traditions. (p. 109, n. 182.) Brown suggests that the most reasonable way to read the post-Resurrection appearances is that the appearances started in Galilee and continued in Jerusalem. (p. 109 - 110.)

Brown also addresses the issue of the Empty Tomb. It is interesting in light of Bart Ehrman's claim in his recent How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee that he recently discovered that Roman burial practices would have prevented an individual or honorable burial of Jesus, that in 1973 Brown raises - and promptly discounts - Ehrman's argument:

>>>>A few adventurous scholars have suggested that the very idea that the body of Jesus could not be found sprang from the impossibility of correctly identifying his body ina common burial ground. However, an almost insuperable obstacle to such theorizing is raised by the person of Joseph of Arimathea who appears in all four Gospels. It is virtually certain that he was not a figment of Christian imagination, that he was remembered precisely because he had a prominent role in the burial of Jesus, and thus there was someone who knew exactly where Jesus was buried. (p. 114.)<<<

Take that, Bart.

Brown points out that Joseph of Arimathea was part of the Sanhedrin and so part of the "Jewish rulers" who took Jesus down from "the tree and laid him in a tomb." (Acts 13:29; p. 114.)

Brown ultimately concludes that "current scientific methods continue to favor the idea of a bodily resurrection" (p. 132), albeit with the useful correction that it was not a "physical resuscitation." (Id.)

There is a lot in here that might offend people of a more "fundamentalist" bent. For example, Brown thinks that a lot of the infancy story is theological infilling. He also thinks that the angels at the tomb were a classic Jewish literary trope to provide information to the reader, as opposed to there actually having been angels at the tomb. Nonetheless, the Christian faith does not stand or fall on those details, and he might well be right, or he might be wrong, but on the core doctrines of Catholic Christian doctrine, there is nothing in this book that is not orthodox.
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on April 11, 2007
Whatever the reader's convictions this book is an opportunity to reflect on two very sensitive topics for Christian faith. The author tackles them carefully and yet constructively. The book was authorized by those who are in charge of maintaining Roman Catholic tradition and yet it opens interesting perspectives to the reader who is not necessarily always satisfied with ready-made and non-negotiable formulations of what one should believe.

As usual, two well known questions are raised here about the Scriptures. There is what they say and there is what some people try to make them say in order to justify their point more forcefully.

There is also the nature of the language of the Scriptures : is it literal or symbolic, or a mixture of both ?

Regarding, the virginal conception:

At the beginning there is a problem of translation. In this case a « young woman » in Hebrew was changed into a « virgin » in Greek. In itself, this could be enough to drop the matter altogether, but one should not go too fast. It is indeed interesting to consider that this error may have been inspired in order to reveal a fundamental message. This message is linked to the fact that if Man needs to be saved, it seems obvious that, for that purpose, he will need the help of someone greater than him, namely the help of God ; whether God acts directly or through a Saviour.

And what the text actually means when it says that the Saviour was conceived in the womb of a « virgin » is clearly that man is not at the origin of his own salvation, because the Saviour was not born from the action of a man. This is a simple and elegant message in symbolic language, but it is also highly significant.

The real difficulty arises when one continues to speak of virginity after the birth of Jesus. Such a statement lacks any reference in the gospels, has no useful implications and tends to have a reverse effect on the credibility of the virginal conception, especially if one is not allowed to separate the two notions of virginity before and after the birth of Jesus.

Regarding, the bodily resurrection of Jesus:

Here, we are faced with two contradictory and yet simultaneous messages conveyed by the litteral/symbolic language of the gospels.

The first is that the person who appeared for a certain period of time to a certain number of people is actually Jesus of Nazareth who had been previously crucified. He himself tries to convey this genuinely crucial message, by showing, for example, the scars of his wounds.

The second is that this risen Christ is significantly different from the crucified Jesus. He appears and disappears at will, he is not affected by the presence of walls, nor conditioned by space or time. His closest friends or disciples do not recognize him when he joins them. And when eventually they recognize him, it is no longer as Jesus, but as the Lord.

Definitely, something has changed in him, and Raymond E brown tells us that there are two options which are of importance to each one of us inasmuch as we are, at a certain point in time, going to follow Jesus through this same mysterious resurrection process. The first option is that our body will be completely destroyed and that something altogether new will appear within the framework of a new creation. The second option is that of a transformation. And the virtue of this second option is that our body being part of the person that will live forever after being transformed, retains a genuine value that it would not deserve if it were intended to be permanently discarded.

Raymond E Brown tells us that this second option is the one suggested in the Scriptures by the fact that Jesus did not abandon his body to corruption, but rose bodily from the dead. And as we are going to do the same when our time comes, this has a major impact on the way we should respect and treat our own body.
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on March 2, 2015
An excellent book written by Rev. Brown which pulls no strings discussing two of the most fundamental issues in Christianity. Not an easy read. Rev. Raymond E. Brown demonstrates why he was the greatest Catholic scholar of the New Testament of the 20th Century.
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on May 21, 2014
I found this a very thorough and scholarly study of these two important Christian beliefs. it is not for casual readers.
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on May 10, 2009
This is a classic monograph by one of the premier exegetes of the twentieth century. He applies the historical critical method to the virginal conception (sometimes inaccurately called the virgin birth) and to the bodily resurrection. Brown gives a nuanced, carefully reasoned analysis that will challenge many. If you come away pondering the truths behind these stories, Brown has succeeded.
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on March 19, 2016
The book is a great way to find out how the historical critical method can be utilized to drive one away from any miraculous claim. If you begin with the premise that miracles are not historically verifiable then you will end where you began when it comes to the most important miracles in the scriptures.
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on November 9, 2013
good service...good tho dated read...always find Raymond Brown an interesting and learned author. Read this years ago so wanted to read again.
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on December 30, 2012
Once again, premier scripture scholar Raymond Brown presents two great mysteries of Christianity in a brief work that is accessible to all. Note: If you are a reader who does not wish to be challenged to step outside your comfort zone, this is not the book for you. If you really do not want to understand the myth, mystery and symbolism of Catholic faith life, you will not enjoy this book. This is a volume for aspiring scholars and truth-seekers, not fact-seekers.
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on May 24, 2008
Raymond Brown does his usual superb job of explaining the subject and providing Scriptural and historical support for his presentation, while clarifying misconceptions. This is highly recommended even for those who are not in doctoral programs in Religious Studies.
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