Scholar explores meaning of Gospels' variant accounts of the death of Jesus

March 27, 1994|By New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- It is what may well be the most famous case of capital punishment in history -- the execution of Jesus. To most Christians, the story is a familiar one, a blend of the accounts found in the four Gospels. But those accounts differ in striking ways.

Did Jesus, for example, say from the cross: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" as Mark and Matthew have it? Did he plead: "Father, forgive them," as Luke recalls? Or did he proclaim: "It is finished," as John relates?

For 10 years, the Rev. Raymond E. Brown, a renowned biblical scholar, has scrutinized every word and detail, every parallel and discrepancy in the so-called Passion narratives of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Now, in a work likely to profoundly influence the way Christians think about the Passion narratives, he shows how they are artfully constructed variations on a "core of memory" about Jesus' last days.

In the decades before the Gospels took their written form, he says, the core was shaped and reshaped through preaching, scriptural reflection, theological argument and the dynamics of storytelling itself.

The result was four perspectives on Jesus' death, each of which gives that death a new meaning. Father Brown argues that the narratives' differences should be celebrated and their meanings sought in their particular turns of phrase, narrative devices and allusions to past Scripture.

Father Brown's findings have just appeared in a huge two-volume work, "The Death of the Messiah" (Doubleday). Unlike some recent studies of the historical Jesus, this one does not trumpet a scholarly breakthrough that overturns traditional beliefs.

"If we ever make Christian faith totally dependent on the latest scholarly interpretation of a text, it could change each week," said Father Brown, a Roman Catholic priest who received a doctorate in Semitic languages from the Johns Hopkins University and taught at St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore.

Still, he is determined that his views should touch the lives of people in the pews.

That seemed to be happening at the West Side Presbyterian Church, in Ridgewood, N.J., where he recently gave a series of Lenten talks.

"I came here almost hostile to the Gospel writers," said Robert Brown, a musician, novelist, and writer of biography and history who lives in Chappaqua, N.Y. "I saw the evangelists as reporters slanting the story."

But now, after hearing Father Brown, he says he has changed his mind. "The scholarship isn't destroying the Gospels," said Mr. Brown, who is not related to the priest. "It fortified them."

Nonetheless, Father Brown's views are likely to jolt Christians who have forgotten that the four Gospel accounts, while reporting the same train of events, and often employing almost identical language, differ in many specifics. In addition to three versions of Jesus' last words on the cross, they offer varied descriptions of his arrest, trials, death and burial.

In popular renditions of the Gospels -- in Easter pageants and movies, for example -- Christians tend to blend the accounts of Jesus' death into a single story. They dismiss the discrepancies as minor and lump together episodes that occur in one Gospel but not in the others, like Judas hanging himself and Pilate washing his hands (only in Matthew), or Jesus' promise of paradise to the good thief (only in Luke).

By contrast, Father Brown highlights these variations, probing them for the particular message each Gospel tried to convey and the particular Messiah each Gospel tried to depict. They are these:

* The Jesus of Mark and, to a lesser extent, of Matthew, is abandoned by his disciples and faces his fate in solitary agony. Before his arrest, he prays almost abjectly that he be spared the bitter cup of death. His plea is met with heavenly silence, a silence still felt in the dying prayer: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" The account, probably arising from an early, persecuted Christian community like the one in Nero's Rome, prepares Christians for the likelihood of suffering and betrayal by some among them; even their master and his closest disciples passed through those bitter depths.

* Luke's Jesus, however, is consoled by an angel while praying over his coming ordeal. This Jesus is a healing, forgiving figure, -- always in communion with his Father, not forsaken by his followers. Jesus' prayer on the cross, "Father, forgive them," appears only in Luke.

* John's Jesus is a figure of heavenly power. He does not pray to be spared his death but declares it the very purpose that he has come. "The cup the Father has given me -- am I not to drink it?" He is in control of events, triumphant on the cross.

Father Brown, 65, retains just a trace of his Bronx, N.Y., roots in his voice. In addition to his doctorate in Semitic languages, he has advanced degrees in theology and philosophy and worked on the Dead Sea Scrolls in Jerusalem before teaching in Catholic and Protestant seminaries. He has taught at Union Theological Seminary, a nondenominational Protestant institution in New York.

Father Brown is also the author of "The Birth of the Messiah," a kind of twin to "The Death of the Messiah," published in 1977 by Doubleday. The earlier book is a similarly painstaking analysis of the Gospel stories, filled with conflicting genealogies, angels, magi and a mysterious star surrounding Jesus' birth.

Those narratives, he argued, were profound theological statements about Jesus, a truth missed when believers treated them as literal history or as sentimental legends.

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