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?

13 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.”

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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. 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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  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.

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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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  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.

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  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…!)

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  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.

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  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.

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