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Obituary: The Rev Raymond E. Brown

He was once asked by a friend why he carried an attache case. He replied, `If you don't carry one, people think you don't know anything'
RAYMOND BROWN was perhaps the foremost English-speaking Catholic biblical scholar. The author of some 40 books in his long career, he was regarded as occupying the centre ground in the field of biblical studies and developed a reputation for being rigorous in his writings.

He was best known for his work on St John's Gospel, writing the groundbreaking The Gospel According to John, published in two volumes in 1966 and 1970 as part of the interdenominational Anchor Bible series. With Father Joseph Fitzmyer and Father Roland Murphy, he was co-editor of The Jerome Biblical Commentary which first appeared 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.

Many of his books are long, but whether they were scholarly or popular he was equally keen to see them read by scholars and laypeople. Despite running to 956 pages, his An Introduction to the New Testament published last year was, he said, "introductory, and therefore not written for fellow scholars". Aware that many of his works were published at prohibitive prices, he pressured his publishers to release them as paperbacks to make them more affordable and accessible to the general public.

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 letter Divino Afflante Spiritu in 1943. It took at least a decade for such study to take root in the United States. Pius XII remained one of Brown's heroes.

Born in New York City, Brown moved with his family to Florida in 1943. After attending seminaries in Washington, Rome and Baltimore he returned to Florida in 1953 for his ordination as a priest in the diocese of St Augustine. Brown joined the Society of St Sulpice, a group of priests dedicated to teaching in seminaries. Indeed, his teaching commitments would leave him little time for pastoral work. Brown baptised just four babies in 45 years of priesthood.

After ordination, he attended Johns Hopkins University to study under William Foxwell Albright, the renowned biblical archaeologist and ancient Near East scholar, gaining his doctorate in Semitic languages in 1958. At Johns Hopkins Brown shared classes with Protestant and Jewish students, something then unusual for Catholic priests.

As a fellow at the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem in 1958-59 he worked on the Dead Sea Scrolls, collaborating in the preparation of a concordance of the unpublished texts. He returned to the United States in 1959 to teach at St Mary's Seminary in Baltimore, where he remained until 1971. During the 1963 session of the Second Vatican Council, he served as an expert adviser to Bishop Joseph Hurley.

In 1971, Brown became Auburn Professor of Biblical Studies at Union Theological Seminary, an interdenominational Protestant college in New York, its first tenured Catholic professor. He remained there until retirement in 1990, when he moved to the Sulpician seminary at Menlo Park in California.

Despite his well-received books, it was lecturing that brought out all Brown's gifts, his tall figure at the lectern dominating the room and holding the audience spellbound. "His erudition never obscured his clarity and simplicity," one of his colleagues recalled. His courses at Union Seminary several times had to be moved to larger rooms to accommodate all who signed up. He was a conscientious supervisor and keen to foster the talents of his doctoral students, especially female students who did not have much encouragement at that time.

He lectured all round the world, in London most recently at the beginning of the year, and his diary was booked up five years in advance. He was once asked by a long-standing friend why he carried an attache case, since he never used texts or notes during lectures. He replied, "Because if you don't carry one of these cases, people think you don't know anything."

Brown was active in numerous scholarly bodies and was at various times president of the Catholic Biblical Association of America, the Society of Biblical Literature and the International Society of New Testament Studies. From 1972 to 1978 and again from 1996 until his death he was a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission at the Vatican. He was also active in the World Council of Churches, where for 25 years he was a member of the Faith and Order Commission, and participated in the international Methodist/ Roman Catholic Dialogue and the Lutheran/Roman Catholic Dialogue in the United States.

His academic achievements were recognised by honorary doctorates from 24 universities, including those of Edinburgh and Glasgow.

But he was not without his critics. His inaugural lecture at Union Seminary in 1971 had questioned whether it is possible to prove historically Mary's virginal conception of Jesus, views further expounded in a subsequent book. He was attacked in conservative Catholic newspapers and protesters disrupted some of his lectures. But he retained the support of the Vatican and the American bishops.

Father Brown was a simple man who had little care for his position or for money (most was handed on to the Society of St Sulpice). Although serious about his work he had a lively sense of humour in private.

In the wake of his books on the birth of Christ and the death of Christ, he was constantly asked if he was planning a trilogy, to conclude with a book on the resurrection. Responding with "mock indignation", he always replied emphatically that he had no such plans. "I would rather explore that area face to face."

Raymond Edward Brown, priest and biblical scholar: born New York 22 May 1928; ordained priest 1953; Professor of Biblical Studies, Union Theological Seminary, New York 1971-90; died Redwood City, California 8 August 1998.