Behind the Text: Redaction Criticism

“…it is now generally recognized that the Evangelists were not merely ‘scissors and paste men.’ On the contrary, the ‘scissors’ were manipulated by a theological had and the ‘paste’ was impregnated with a particular theology.” Robert Stein, Robert Stein, Gospels and Tradition: Studies on Redaction Criticism of the Synoptic Gospels (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1991), 22.

While Redaction Criticism describes the original Sitz im Leben (life setting) of a saying in the life of Jesus, it is more concerned with the life-setting of the Gospel writer. Redaction criticism reads the gospels in two different directions. Assuming that Matthew and Luke used Mark, why does Matthew present a pericope in one way, Luke in another?  What is Matthew’s unique theological point of view? A redaction critic reads horizontally, comparing two or three identical stories or sayings in order to examine the differences between the gospel writers. They also read vertically within the one Gospel in order to discover that writer’s themes and theological priorities. Rather than focus on the community that “created” the stories, Redaction critics recognize that authors created the gospels as we read them from sources.

Cut and Paste BibleRedaction Criticism makes some assumptions that may compromise the whole system. First,  Redaction Criticism must assume literary dependence, virtually always Markan Priority, the existence of Q, etc.  If these assumptions are false, then questions like “how did Matthew use Mark” are meaningless.

Second, since the assumption of Markan priority is a given in Redaction criticism, the question of Mark’s sources is almost impossible to answer. It is impossible to “do redaction criticism” on Mark, since we do not have enough data to examine.

Third, and most problematic, Redaction Criticism spends more time explaining parallels and non-parallels, and less time explaining what the text actually says. A commentary on Matthew that only seeks to explain Matthew’s redactional method may not be particularly interesting to someone wanting to know what Jesus said!

A simple yet controversial example is the Sermon on the Mount.  Most scholars now agree that the material in Matthew 5-7 comes from a sayings source (Q), and that Matthew created the “sermon” by thematically linking the teachings of Jesus, beginning with “he began to teach” and ending with “they were all amazed.”

A redaction critic might say that the Sermon on the Mount itself never really took place a historical event. An evangelical version of Redaction criticism might say Jesus’ words are authentic and Jesus often taught like this, but setting is contrived by Matthew. The Gospel writer has created a section of the teaching of Jesus (in contrast to the next two chapters, the miracles of Jesus, which end in a similar pronouncement). The other of the five discourses in Matthew (chap. 10, 13, 18, 24-25) were “constructed” in a similar way. Jesus really said these things but in various other contexts and not necessarily on a single occasion as present by the Editor Matthew.

The value in redaction criticism is in the horizontal reading – If Matthew used Mark, why did he re-state the text in the way that he did?  Why did Luke move the event / saying to another location in the life of Jesus?  The value of the themes and motifs that the writers work is enormous, giving a real insight into the meaning of a given text. Or is it possible any “real insight” into the Gospel writer’s method is imaginary, based on the reader’s presuppositions?

18 thoughts on “Behind the Text: Redaction Criticism

  1. It seems to me that a lot of these critical study’s forget about the concept of Inspiration, i.e. the Holy Spirit bringing to remembrance the works and words of Christ during his ministry, and through the writers own vernacular and personality the inspired truth comes forth in written form. Literally “God Breathed.”

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    • Thanks Russ, this is true. I almost always end my discussion of the way the Gospels came together with “under the guidance of the Holy Spirit” or similar phrase. IMHO, that is a fact from original writing to preservation and even canonization. (Also, glad to know you are reading!)

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  2. Answering to your question at the end of the post is that we will probably never know why Matthew re-states his version compared to Mark, and why Luke moved the Sermon on the Mount to a different location. My best guess to all of this would have to be more of looking at each different book more vertically than horizontal. If we look at each different Gospel, each different Gospel has a different style of writing to them. Like the book of John is more theological than the other Gospels. Strauss says, “It was for a purpose that the Holy Spirit inspired four Gospels, rather than one, and each has a role to play in the life of the church” (Strauss 62). So going back to your questions, maybe Matthew wanted his own style of writing than Mark did, and maybe the reason Luke moved it was because it didn’t fit just right were the others were. I believe that we should take and read the Gospels more vertical than horizontal.

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  3. Redaction criticism can bring out many questions by comparing and contrasting the content of each gospel in a horizontal reading style. This means that bits and pieces of the entire gospel story are studied and compared to others. I think there are some things that we can learn by reading horizontally, but it also leaves a lot of purpose that is overlooked. Just taking one piece of scripture as it is can be extremely beneficial, but without knowing the entire context of it, there is a chance that the true message won’t be understood. When questions come up like: “Why did Mark restate the text in the way that he did from Matthew?” I think the answer is in the context of the entire book. Although Matthew tells of the same stories of Jesus as Mark did, the exact purpose of the book isn’t the same for each gospel. There are different styles of writing which I think is so we can understand different perspectives that could influence us in different ways. I feel that this fact shows that no matter how it is experienced, written or spoken, that Jesus is our Lord and Savior in every situation. I am a firm believer that everything in the bible is written for a real true purpose. Since scripture is inspired by God, everything good that comes from it is because of God. 2 Timothy 3:16 says, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness”. So even if someone assumes that the “insight” is imaginary based on the reader’s presuppositions, could this be inspired from God instead of some imaginary thought?

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  4. Redaction criticism is a new concept and therefore a radical idea/perspective for me to inherit. Specifically the Gospels, how are we supposed to literally interpret the text based off the idea that the Gospels were built off one another? There are many run offs from this particular text that can allow us to be distracted or as Phillip J. Long states in his article it, “spends more time explaining parallels and non-parallels, and less time explaining what the text actually says.” (P. Long, Behind the Text: Redaction Criticism) A continual parallel to the text, this allows the reader to observe and question the Gospels on an entirely different level. Does this practice allow Christians, instead of healthy questioning, to doubt the authenticity of the Gospels more? After all, it does state that the word is God breathed and writings are inspired by the Holy Spirit (2 Pt. 1:21, 2 Tim. 3:16). But let’s face it, were all skeptics on some level and redaction criticism, although necessary in some circumstances, blurs the line once again between being a biblical scholar and a Jesus-following Christian. Where is that line?

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  5. I find it equally important to note, like Russell L. Barber that the inspiration of the Holy Spirit is crucial to consider when looking at the writing of the Gospels. That being said, let’s take a step back and also look at the fact that the Gospel writers themselves were not perfect and thus would vary in the writing that they did. For instance, Strauss notes, as an example that, “Luke places great emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of Jesus and in the early church. It is not surprising, therefore, that after the account of the descent of the Spirit on Jesus at his baptism, Luke adds that Jesus was ‘full of the Spirit’ when we was tempted by Satan in the wilderness” (62). It’s also interesting to consider that redaction criticism looks less at how it was written and more at how it was edited (Strauss, 61). Like above, each Gospel writer had a specific purpose or conviction for writing their book a certain way. Does this mean that there is error because of the differences? Not at all, instead the varied styles (to me personally) open up the Gospels and make them so much more real. That fact, along with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is what makes the Word of God “living and active.” So considering whether or not it is beneficial or harmful to the Gospels that they used other sources or each other for information, I find that the use of other sources is most beneficial to their portrayal of the events and sayings of Jesus with their own, Holy Spirit-given purposes and convictions. How much better we can understand the Bible because of the uniqueness of each Gospel.

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  6. It seems as though there will always be controversy when redaction criticism is involved. Although we pursue to understand the context of the Gospels as best we can, I don’t think we will ever truly know why each author had some differences, and some similarities. Could we take in to consideration, the differences in personalities between Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? It could be, that each author said something a little bit differently because they felt that their way could be better understood than the last? When focusing on true meaning of the Gospels, it is easy to forget about the authenticity of it. It is important that as Christians, we are continuing to pursue viable evidence of Jesus’ sovereignty and the work of the Holy Spirit through each Gospel writer.

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  7. I believe that redaction criticism can be an extremely useful tool. As was pointed out in the original post, “Redaction Criticism spends more time explaining parallels and non-parallels, and less time explaining what the text actually says” (Long, Behind the Text: Redaction Criticism). Practically, this means that, at best, redaction criticism helps us understand the sources and purposes behind the authors, and not so much the events themselves. Still, this is a valid goal.

    If we assume (and I admit that I do) that the events recorded in the Gospels actually happened in real life, in a real place and over a specific period of time, then the only thing that should vary the text from Gospel writer to Gospel writer would be the source of information from which the writer drew and the writer’s own purpose in editing and compiling the information. The resulting works could be thus compared and dissected to discern the commonality between sources and the individuality in purpose. Redaction criticism seeks to do just that.

    In reading your post, I too was prompted along the same lines as Kim and Russell, that we need to keep in mind the influence of the Holy Spirit on the New Testament writers. This, however, is an example of the difficulty that the would-be student of the Scriptures faces each time he wills to look at the Word in a new way: he must acknowledge his own presuppositions without relying on them.

    As Christians who believe in the inerrancy and inspiration of the Bible (2 Tim. 3:16), we are quick to run to the Holy Spirit as the source of Scripture and disregard the human vessels used in the process. That being the case, we would not be faithful students of the Word if we were not willing to dig deeper in an effort to understand Scripture more accurately. It is important that we take time to understand the men through whom God chose to reveal His gospel story. “It is recognized today that each Gospel writer is an author and a theologian in his own right” (Strauss, p. 60). Redaction criticism helps us to realize and appreciate the human element in such a divine book.

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  8. I agree with Kimberly that maybe the best way to look at the gospels in vertically not horizontally. We always try to look at it horizontally because we are trying to piece together one story. Although it is one story, it was witnessed by different people, and viewed differently. Some people may have seen events or parts that others may not have seen. Mathew may have used Mark because he was familiar with his writings but the others probably didn’t know that others had also written down these events. If all the writers of the gospels had sat down together, discussed what happened, and then made one collaborative version of the gospels then that would have been great but it didn’t happen that way. We aren’t going to be able to understand the gaps and differences in the gospels but we need to stand firm in the knowledge that we know to be true and not worry about the small details. The small details are always what trip people up and cause indifferences; they may be the cause of different denominations even. “First, all that we are and do as Christians is based upon the one-off unique achievement of Jesus,” (Wright 53). We can all agree on the main focus of the gospels- Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection, and that is good enough for me.

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  9. Ultimately, we should be looking at what the words are saying, and what the different texts mean. It seams Redaction Criticism is such a focus on comparing the different texts and explaining how they are similar or not similar, and almost looking right over the words themselves. I see Luke used this as well, but P. Long said that it, “spends more time explaining parallels and non-parallels, and less time explaining what the text actually says.” (P. Long, Behind the Text: Redaction Criticism). That quote is what i was focusing on. It seems as though people are over thinking things. Everything has to go deeper, or there must be another meaning to what this passage is saying. I agree with Kimberly, and with Megan agreeing with Kimberly, about how this needs to be vertical. If we believe, and i know i believe, that the Bible is the inspired word of God, than every time we question a part of the Bible, and its authenticity, we question Gods ability to keep His book the way He intended it to be.

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  10. I tend to disagree with some of the students who discount redaction criticism as important to studying the Gospels. Of course, it spends a lot of time reviewing parallels, and of course we should recognize that ultimately “all Scripture is God-breathed” (2 Tim 3:16), but the Gospels, and specifically the Synoptics, are the only books in the Bible that give us multiple perspectives on the same story. God did not give us four accounts of the Exodus or Creation, but He did inspire four different accounts of Jesus’ life. Is it then fair to say that maybe God gave us four perspectives so that we could compare them (their “parallels and non-parallels”) in order to learn more about who Jesus was?

    There is probably danger in over-thinking Scripture and, specifically in our case, the Gospels. But there is also definitely danger in under-thinking Scripture. To blindly believe what the Bible says without proper study is irresponsible because it allows us to bring in our own presuppositions and apply them onto the text. God inspired four accounts of the story of Jesus. Let’s use every method we can to understand them better.

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      • Thanks for your consistency. Unfortunately, I have not seen any post for few days now. I hope all is well. Or am I having issues with blog connection? Let me know, please. Mike

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    • Underthinking is a more serious problem IMHO, since most who do not think very deeply about the Scripture have no idea they are being so shallow! Sadly, they probably think they are more spiritual because they are not over-analyzing things and accepting it by faith. (Obviously that does not apply to people in this discussion…!)

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  11. I really appreciate the things Eric had to say about not “over-thinking” or “under-thinking” Scripture, and I totally agree that there is a reason that God gave of FOUR Gospels and not just one. I think that point that any discussion on criticism needs to come to is that, whatever we may find, the importance of the book is not negated. It seems that with redaction criticism, it would be easy to throw out Matthew and Luke, since they both (assumedly) used Mark and are therefore copies of the original. (No one knows what to do with John, though.) However, there is great benefit in looking at any story from different viewpoints. Orson Scott Card, one of my favorite authors, actually took advantage of this idea and wrote an entire series based on the same story as Ender’s Game, but told from one of the other character’s point of view. If it was that beneficial for a sci-fi author to give different views of the same story, ought we not seek the benefits of INSPIRED Scripture told from the viewpoints of four of Jesus’ first followers? It is important to remember that the story in each Gospel is, in the grand scheme, the same. The reason the details change from person to person is two-fold. First, they are different people. (Pretty simple.) Second, “it is recognized today that each Gospel writer is an author and a theologian in his own right” (Strauss, p. 60). Each of these men had a separate agenda of what message they wanted to get across with their Gospel. But, even in that, the message of all four is the same: God sent His son to this earth to walk, minister, heal, teach, and die as a man, and then to rise again that the sins of the world might be forgiven.

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