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Raymond E. Brown, S.S., and Catholic Exegesis in the Twentieth Century: A Retrospective

From: U.S. Catholic Historian
Volume 31, Number 4, Fall 2013
pp. 1-26 | 10.1353/cht.2013.0020

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This article was begun on the fifteenth anniversary of the death of Sulpician Father Raymond E. Brown, S.S. (1928–1998), who died suddenly on August 8, 1998, in Menlo Park, California at the age of seventy. Without doubt Brown ranks among the foremost twentieth-century Catholic exegetes. In an oft-quoted article, Time magazine called him “probably the premier Catholic Scripture scholar in the U.S.”1 This article assesses why such a judgment is warranted and explains the context and impact of Brown’s scholarship, not only in the U.S. and in the Catholic Church, but also worldwide and in ecumenical settings. The article comprises five sections. After a brief biographical sketch, an overview of Brown’s legacy, an explanation of his exegetical method, and review of controversies surrounding his work, I conclude with an assessment of his major contributions to Catholic exegesis in the twentieth century.


Raymond Edward Brown was born on May 22, 1928, in the Bronx, New York City.2 His parents Reuben H. and Loretta (Sullivan) Brown also had one other son, Robert. Brown began his education in the Bronx, but his family relocated to Miami Shores, Florida in 1944, where he completed high school. He entered St. Charles College in Catonsville, Maryland in 1945, a minor seminary program of the Society of St. Sulpice, where he first encountered the community of priests he later joined.3

Already a prodigious academic talent, Brown entered an accelerated program of studies and transferred to the Catholic University of America, in Washington, D.C., in 1946, where he became a Basselin Scholar at the university’s Theological College, obtaining a B.A. (1948) and M.A. (1949) in philosophy.4 He then began advanced seminary studies at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome (1949–1950), with residence at the Belgian College, probably to learn French and Italian. At the request of his ordinary, Archbishop Joseph Hurley (1894–1967) of St. Augustine, Florida, he returned to the U.S. the following year to complete studies for the priesthood at St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore, Maryland.5 There Brown completed his theological training for priesthood, obtaining S.T.B. (1951) and S.T.L. (1953) degrees. He was ordained a priest on May 23, 1953, for the Diocese of St. Augustine, Florida.

The unforeseen outcome of recalling Brown to the U.S. would have tremendous implications for Brown and the future of Catholic Biblical scholarship, for as a result he entered the field of scriptural studies. The rigid seminary curricula in those days and the differences between the Roman and American systems of education made his transfer difficult. Because of changing seminaries, he got out of sequence in course work and had missed some introductory Bible courses. A professor told him to study Old Testament on his own, and he would then test him. Brown describes what happened next:

Well, he didn’t tell me how much to study, so I started reading the Old Testament and studying. I was fortunate enough to be able to read French and Italian and some German, so that actually I was reading better books than were available in English. And when I took the exam, he was highly complimentary. He virtually told me, “I didn’t mean you had to know that much.” He asked me whether I was interested in the Bible. I said it was the most interesting thing I had ever done in my life; it was fascinating. (I had always wanted to teach....) The professor said, “We do need teachers in Bible.”6

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Raymond E. Brown, circa 1953, near the time of his priestly ordination for the Diocese of St. Augustine, Florida (Courtesy of the Archives of the Associated Sulpicians of the U.S., Associated Archives at St. Mary’s Seminary & University).

Following his ordination, Brown was released to the Society of St. Sulpice and assigned to teach at St. Charles College, in Catonsville, Maryland, a Sulpician minor seminary. 7 This position allowed him to complete a doctoral degree in theology (S.T.D.) at St. Mary’s Seminary and University in 1955 and to begin doctoral studies in...

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