The Rev. R. E. Brown, 70, priest, authority on Gospel of St. John

August 12, 1998|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

In the world of biblical scholarship, the Rev. Raymond E. Brown was a pioneer in Roman Catholic scripture studies who was perhaps the world's foremost authority on the Gospel of St. John.

But to those who knew him personally, he was a man of simple piety and a teacher who could translate profound biblical truths into language that anyone could understand.

Father Brown, who taught from 1959 to 1971 at St. Mary's Seminary and University in Roland Park, died Saturday of a heart attack in Redwood City, Calif., near where he lived in retirement. He was 70.

Father Brown was in Baltimore last month when plans were unveiled for a library expansion at St. Mary's that will include the Raymond E. Brown Center for Johannine Studies. The center will house the scholar's extensive library.

"He's the best teacher I ever had in my life and probably the best teacher anyone could ever have had," said the Rev. Robert F. Leavitt, president and rector of St. Mary's, who was Father Brown's student from 1964 to 1968. "Yet, he had the capacity to make the most difficult things seem obvious and clear."

Cardinal William H. Keeler said Father Brown was "much appreciated, not only by scholars, but by the bishops across the United States, because of the clear and truly inspiring way he could teach about the word of God."

Father Brown was one of the first Catholic scholars in the United States to use the historical-critical method to study the Bible. Applying the methods of historians to the Bible was common in Protestant scholarship, but was not encouraged among Catholics until Pope Pius XII issued his encyclical (a letter containing church teaching), Divino Afflante Spiritu, in 1943.

"That was in midst of the war, when the minds of most people were occupied with things other than the interpretation of the Bible," said the Rev. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., another highly esteemed Scripture scholar who teaches at Catholic University in Washington. "It took practically a decade before it had an effect in this country."

Father Brown was born on May 22, 1928, in New York City. His family moved to Florida in 1943, where he was ordained a priest in 1953 for the Diocese of St. Augustine after attending seminaries in Washington, Rome and Baltimore. Father Brown was later released by his bishop to join the Society of St. Sulpice, a group of priests who teach in seminaries.

After his ordination, Father Brown, along with Father Fitzmyer, .. attended Johns Hopkins University in the mid-1950s to study under William Foxwell Albright, the renowned biblical archaeologist and ancient Near East scholar. Father Brown earned his doctorate in semitic languages from Hopkins in 1958.

"When we studied at Hopkins, we sat in classes with Protestant and Jewish students," Father Fitzmyer said, an extremely rare occurrence for Catholic priests.

Father Brown began teaching at St. Mary's Seminary in 1959. Father Leavitt remembers not only his scholarship, but also his quiet piety. He would often walk the halls reciting his rosary, but unlike many, always kept the beads in his pocket, Father Leavitt said.

Father Brown is best known for his work on the Gospel of St. John. He wrote the groundbreaking "A Gospel According to John," published in successive volumes in 1966 and 1970, as part of the influential Anchor Bible series. With Father Fitzmyer and the Rev. Roland Murphy, Father Brown was co-editor of the "Jerome Biblical Commentary" in 1968, with a revision in 1990. He also published "The Birth of the Messiah" in 1977, which dealt with the historical basis for the infancy stories of Jesus, and "The Death of the Messiah" in 1994. Most recently, his "An Introduction to the New Testament" was published last year.

In 1971, he went to Union Theological Seminary in New York, and became its first tenured Catholic professor. He retired in from there in 1990.

"His courses, especially those on the Gospel of John, often drew the largest number of students of any course, filling the classroom to overflowing," said Phyllis Trible, who was a colleague of Father Brown's at Union. "His chapel sermons always focused on biblical texts, eloquently combining scholarship and faith. His erudition never obscured his clarity and simplicity."

Father Brown was not without his critics. His statements, in lectures and in publications, on the inability to positively establish historically the virginal conception by Mary drew criticism. He was attacked in conservative Catholic newspapers and had protesters at some of his lectures.

Father Brown also was active in the World Council of Churches and participated in the international Methodist/Roman Catholic Dialogue and the national Lutheran/Roman Catholic Dialogue.

Cardinal Keeler will celebrate a Mass of Christian burial for Father Brown on Monday at Our Lady of the Angels Roman Catholic Church, 711 Maiden Choice Lane, in Catonsville.

Father Brown is survived by a brother, Robert J. Brown, of Harrisburg, Pa.

Pub date: 8/12/98

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