What is 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 Bible

Redaction 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?

20 thoughts on “What is 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.”

    • 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!)

  2. 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?

  3. 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.

    • 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

  4. 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.

  5. 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…!)

  6. You have a lot of very interesting and valid points about redaction criticism. One point that I really agree with and appreciate was the point about how redaction criticism spends so much time trying to explain parallels and non-parallels and not enough time explaining what the text actually says. I believe this has a lot to do with what Russell L Barber said about these critical studies forgetting about the concept of inspiration and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. While reading Chapter 2 of our textbook, Four Portraits, One Jesus by Mark L. Strauss, he talked about redaction criticism trying to determine why the Gospels did what they did, why they collected, edited, or ordered the material the way they did. But you made another great point saying it is impossible to do redaction criticism on Mark because there isn’t enough evidence or data to prove where he gathered his information from and that’s where the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit play a huge role in my opinion.

  7. The Holy Spirit brings inspiration to the Gospel writers that help drive their stories. Mark is a great example of redaction criticism because there isn’t enough information. Therefore, how do we know that the statement Matthew uses Mark is true? Although the Gospel writers are going to have their opinion it is very important to understand that the Holy Spirit can take over and guide the writer to explain what truly happened. The Gospel writers were human, meaning they made mistakes, had opinions and feelings with everything that happened throughout their lifetime. With that being said all of these feelings could play a part in how they tell the story. Their story could be completely different than somebody who witnessed it happen, but that is when we as readers trust that the Holy Spirit guided the writer to tell the story correctly.

  8. I find the redaction theory interesting. I think it is a stretch to suggest the Sermon on the Mount never really took place and that Matthew created it using Jesus’ sermons. However, if it is true, I would have questions. Why did Matthew create this setting, and did he create more? What was the purpose of creating this setting? Was the purpose to make the story “more interesting”? Strauss says, “It is recognized today that each gospel writer is an author and a theologian in their own right” (Strauss, 80). Therefore, it is possible that this was simply Matthew’s writing style. One would have to look over his book and find other instances where this is true.
    One question asked in this blog post is, “is it possible any ‘real insight’ into the Gospel writer’s method is imaginary, based on the reader’s presuppositions?” I think this is one question to consider when contemplating this criticism. If this question causes you to doubt and wonder if certain passages are not as written, such as the Sermon on the Mount, then can this take away the credibility of the other chapters? It is important to look at the written evidence of the text. What evidence is given besides the words Matthew uses to introduce and end Jesus’ sermon? This blog post also mentions the source Q. I personally had never heard of this source before this class. If source Q sheds more truth on the Sermon on the Mount, then I could possibly understand this criticism more.

    Strauss, Mark L. Four Portraits, One Jesus: A Survey of Jesus and the Gospels, Zondervan
    Academic, Grand Rapids, MI, 2020.

  9. I find the idea to look in between the synoptic gospels and take a look at the parallels and the differences between each book is fascinating. It’s interesting to examine the books and question who wrote things first, who used who on a source, and who includes things that the others do not. It’s really cool that we have different perspectives and accounts of the same stories, as we are able to get a bigger understanding of what the texts are saying. The way that the authors of the book viewed Jesus and their own personal sitz im leben determine how the books weave together and how they were written as a whole.
    I took a class for a-term this semester in which we took a look into the themes of the new and old testament. Each story and account in the Bible was written and involved 3 main themes in each of the new and old testament. In the old testament, it focused on the land, Israel, and God – and the new testament focused on community, Christ, and new creation. Rather than focusing on the people of the time or the themes of the new testament, we focus on the authors themselves.
    According to Straus, there are 4 themes that call for interdependence within the synoptic gospels. This includes common material, verbal agreement, agreement in order, and identical alterations of the old testament quotes. There are many different theories as to who depended on who and who was first, and we may never truly get the full answer to that. I think its awesome that we have so many accounts and perspectives so we can truly fit the story into a picture and get that much more of the gospel!

  10. Another Bible term I had no prior knowledge about until this week. It is fascinating how much is written and still is being written about the Bible. I mean the “Four Portraits, One Jesus” is probably bigger than the whole New Testament, and it is just about four books! It is fascinating, like Redaction Criticism. Redaction Criticism seeks to build on the foundations of source criticism and form criticism, and focus on”the community situation, use of the sources, and purpose for which each author wrote” (Strauss, p. 81). We know that Matthew, Mark, and Luke are all writing about the “good news”, but how does each author alter their writing? How does learning about these seemingly minor changes enrich the words that we read?

    The danger of Redaction Criticism, as you said, is that we begin to lose track of the true meanings of the passages because we are looking “too far” into them. For example, the Sermon on the Mount never really took place. With this being said, I only see redaction criticism as valid when reading the gospels horizontally. Here, we can see the similarities and differences between the gospels. We can dive deeper into the way Matthew would word a passage the way he and compare it to Luke and so on. The order of the texts or the settings of the texts can also be reasons why you would use Redaction Criticism. The value of knowing why the author is changing the texts is critical in deepening our understanding.

  11. Strauss defines redaction criticisms like this “Redaction criticism seeks to determine the emphases and purposes of the Gospel writers by analyzing how they “redacted,” or edited, their sources to produce our present Gospels.” As mentioned in the blog redaction criticism is mainly focused on the life setting of the gospel writer. I think that it’s interesting that redaction criticism reads the Gospels in two different ways. I also think it’s pretty neat that the reason why the redaction critic reads the Gospels horizontally and vertically is so that they can try and look at the different themes within that certain Gospel. I can see why redaction criticism can stir up some problems. The one issue that stood out to me the most is the most problematic one of course. “Redaction Criticism spends more time explaining parallels and non-parallels, and less time explaining what the text actually says.” (Long) I can see why that would be problematic because the main reason why people read the Bible is to understand the text because the texts and messages that the writer is trying to convey are so important. I agree that the themes in each Gospel and the reason why the authors wrote each Gospel are really important to learn about the true meaning of the texts. Overall I think redaction criticism can be useful when trying to figure out the themes and kinda how the authors went about writing and putting the Gospels together. I can definitely see why there would be some controversy about redaction criticism. Overall I think that any method that can be used to understand the Gospels or Bible more deeply can be beneficial to the right person.

  12. Redaction Criticism is “studying the Evangelists as purposeful editors.” (Strauss, 80). In redaction we see a lot of redaction critics taking a look at the redactors/editors work, while trying to determine why they went and collected, edited, and ordered the material the way that they did. (Strauss, 80). When reading this section of chapter two I immediately thought of today’s times. In the classroom as teachers and students we are “redaction critics.” I say this because we spend a lot of time looking into texts and figuring out why an author may have written what they did or what they are actually trying to say. We do this a lot in writing classes and also in theology classes. When taking the bible study methods of application, we do a lot of figuring out and interpreting what an author from the bible is saying. While reading Strauss, he lists different goals that come from Redaction Criticism. Some of the goals are to determine each author’s purpose in the writing, to identify their Sitz im Leben (Setting in life), and lastly to discern from this redaction the theological emphases of each writer. This helps to dig deeper into the thoughts of these writers. After reading this article we also learn that a redaction critic reads each book horizontally, comparing two or three identical stories or sayings in order to examine the Gospels. (Long). In the end redaction criticism helps with the overall meaning of the gospel.

  13. Redaction Criticism can be dangerous when reading the Gospels because it “spends more time explaining parallels and non-parallels, and less time explaining what the text actually says” (Long). It is important for us to remember that we can be a redaction critic while reading, but we must not move away from the message of the Gospels. It can be important to dive deep into the Gospels and read horizontally and vertically to find the similarities between the Gospels, but we must not forget the message they are trying to convey. Such as Matthew, Mark, and Luke are all writing a very similar Gospel message about the Good News, it can be important for us to see the changes in their writings and try to dig deeper to find the reason for the changes. We as believers must strive to find a deeper meaning to the Gospels and strive for a better understanding which we can do through redaction criticism.

  14. While I deeply sympathize with the desire to compare and contrast the nuances of the Synoptic Gospels with each other, it seems to me that Redaction Criticism is the wrong way to go about it. The method of analyzing the texts to see what the author emphasizes or leaves out is a good critical form, but Redaction takes it too far for me. The part that I struggle with is the almost universally accepted Markan priority. I feel that the evidence for Markan priority is not strong enough. The historical belief claims Matthew came first, and from the information given I’m not sure if there is any historical evidence that the Synoptic Gospels drew information directly from each other. The issue with redaction using Markan priority is that it turns thematic analysis into a game of “which came first the chicken or the egg?”. Strauss says that “… the majority of redaction criticism has focused on how Matthew and Luke used Mark, Q, and their special material” (Strauss, 82). It seems to me that this is all frivolous guess work. The time would be better spent analyzing the actual differences then guessing which difference was maybe, possibly, conceivably, from that guy first. It is obvious that the synoptic writers had a common pool of information to draw from; so why does it matter if they were apart of each other’s information pool or not? Why does it matter who came first?

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