BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION: There are Weaknesses with Redaction Criticism But Are There Any Strengths?

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DEFENDING OLD TESTAMENT AUTHORSHIP Agabus Cover BIBLICAL CRITICISM
Barry Hofstetter is an instructor of Latin at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy. Previously: he North American Reformed Seminary and The American Academy. He Studied M.Div. and Th.M. at Westminster Theological Seminary. Graduated in 1991

In order to understand redaction criticism, Redaktionsgeschichte, it is necessary to understand its predecessors, form and tradition criticism, and source criticism. And yes, there is reader-response and narrative criticism, as well as rhetorical criticism and feminist criticism too. Please refer to the appropriate links above and below in this article for a more complete understanding. 

EDWARD D. ANDREWS NOTE: I am very good online friends with Barry Hofstetter. But we cannot agree on everything. Before beginning this article, know that I personally earnestly disagree with much of what Hofstetter has to say as to the benefits or strengths of redaction criticism. I have added the last paragraph of this article that lays out why I disagree and the dangers of any form of higher criticism (Biblical Criticism). In this article are many other forms of Biblical Criticism that will shine a bright light on these dangers. Redaction criticism is no different. Thus, in the end, I offer you why this form is dangerous and if you want to take a deeper dive, please read these other articles. Some are by myself and others are by leading conservative evangelical scholars like Dr. F. David Farnell of the Master’s Seminary, Dr. Thomas Howe of Southern Evangelical Seminary, and Dr. Thomas Marshall of Liberty University. You might be asking yourself, “If it is so dangerous why should I read this article?” There are two reasons I highly encourage you to read it. (1) Hofstetter does lat out many of the dangers of delving into Redaction Criticism. (2) You can see for yourself how Hofstetter is good at persuading you the reader that some aspects of Redaction Criticism are beneficial and that there are strengths to Redaction Criticism before you get to mt last paragraph at the end that is a wakeup call screaming of the dangers of all higher criticism methods, including Redaction Criticism. Also, we have an entire section of our blog with many more articles on this subject. See here!

But here let me simply note that the main impulse for these was to find the original source materials for the biblical texts, both oral and written, before later additions accreted. One major result of this activity was that individual texts identified as early or original source material were completely decontextualized (considered in isolation from the context), forcing the critic to speculate on a context in which the saying or text would actually make sense, if the critic were even inclined to do so since the meaning of the text was not an important consideration in these procedures. This had the effect of tearing the Bible apart. I am not going here to discuss the dubious nature of form and source criticism, but “by their fruits, you shall know them.” Once the critic has identified his source material, what then? Form and source criticism simply does not explain the text as it stands.

This is the historical matrix from which redaction criticism arose. As a specific methodology, it is first articulated in the writings of three mid-20th century German New Testament scholars, Gunther Bornkamm, in his work on Matthew, Hanz Conzellmann on Luke-Acts, and Willi Marxsen on the gospel of Mark, who actually coined the term “redaction criticism” (or rather, the original German as given above).[1]

Mosaic Authorship HOW RELIABLE ARE THE GOSPELS

Redaction criticism is one attempt to answer this problem.  Redaction refers simply to editing a text.[2] Redaction critics assume that a final redactor (or redactors, although most redaction critics posit a singular final redactor for each text), i.e., editor/s, assembled the text from the source materials available, not simply assembling it, however, but creatively reworking it in various ways. Unlike form and source criticism which has no concern whatsoever for the meaning of the text in its final context, the redaction critic understands that no text was produced in a vacuum or written for purely academic or arbitrary reasons. The redactor had a specific purpose in his use of the materials and a specific audience in mind for producing his text. The redaction critic perforce assumes the validity of other forms of criticism, if for no other reason that in order to distinguish redactional activity from traditionally preserved material one must have a sense for the traditional material, but the focus is on the method and motivation of the redactor in composing the text. Since the biblical documents are clearly theological in nature, the redaction critic usually assumes that the redactor’s motivation is theological. There are particular ideas that the redactor perceives as important to communicate to his target audience.  A major purpose of redaction criticism is to determine the theological motivation behind the redactor’s editing of the text.  The primary question that redaction criticism asks is “What does the text in the form that we have it indicate about the theology of the redactor?”  Other purposes include determining the redactor’s purpose in writing and the historical/social context which gave rise to his document, often referred to by the German Sitz im Leben. There are in fact three Sitze im Leben, the original utterance of the saying/tradition (if an authentic saying of Jesus), the use and or production of that saying/tradition in the community, and the situation in which the redactor/writer produced his final work.

BIBLICAL CRITICISM: Reader-Response and Narrative Criticism

What then are the strengths and weaknesses of redaction criticism?  The main strength is that it does recognize the text as a final product with actual meaning. The redactor in effect becomes the author of the text, and the text is seen in terms of the unity provided by that author, and not as simply a collection of independent sayings/traditions loosely strung together. It recognizes that a text is not produced by a community, but that the redactor/author has produced a work of his own that must be seen as a literary production in its own right. 

The main weakness is that redaction critics lack a solid foundation to determine traditional material from redactional activity. If the distinctions cannot be made, then then it becomes practically impossible to identify the redactional activity, and so no valid conclusions based on the distinction are possible. Additonal strengths and weaknesses will be discussed below in relation to these.

The Synoptic Gospels In Early Christianity: Why Is the Preferred Choice the Testimony to the Priority of the Gospel of Matthew?

Redaction criticism originally arose from the study of the synoptic gospels and the variations between them. Anyone who has read the gospels and attempted to compare them notices that there are differences between various accounts. These differences may include the specific details with regard to the same account in the gospels, differences in actual content, differences in chronology, and differences in wording that are nevertheless felt by the reader to be synonymous in meaning. Each gospel writer also includes material not shared by the other authors. The relationship between the three synoptics, Matthew, Mark, and Luke is often called “The Synoptic Problem.”[3] Many modern scholars assume that Mark wrote first and that Matthew and Luke both followed Mark, but added special material according to their own purpose in writing.[4] It is the way in which each author changes the material along with the added material that especially interests the redaction critic as he attempts to determine each author’s specific theological purpose.

What Is the Synoptic Problem of Matthew, Mark, and Luke and What is the Hypothetical So-Called Q Document?

It should be clear by now that redaction criticism is a literary category. It cannot really address the authenticity or the historicity of the text. This is inherent in the procedure itself, which examines how the changes are made in order to determine the message the gospel redactor wishes to communicate. This also tends to highlight one of the difficulties mentioned above. For example, both Matthew and Luke include special material not recorded by Mark, and these are “gold” in that they give significant insight into the overall theological approach of the writers. But the origin of these pericopae cannot be determined by redaction criticism. The redaction critic recognizes that this must be determined by form and source criticism. Some redaction critics may assume that the writer or the early church made up the passage. Others may assume that it is authentic, and why not? The question is really irrelevant to redaction criticism as a methodology.

At this point, let me introduce an example of how a redaction critic might examine a particular text from the gospels to make all this a bit more concrete, followed by some additional critical observations on the nature of redaction criticism.

THE CREATION DAYS OF GENESIS gift of prophecy

The cleansing of the temple is of special interest if for no other reason, that it occurs in all four gospels. For our purposes here we will assume Marcan priority (but I have some comments on that subject below), and we will primarily examine Mark’s account in contrast to Matthew and Luke. I am again simplifying and only highlighting a few of the possibilities, primarily because I can only give an idea of what is possible with redaction criticism due to the nature of this article, and also because I am restricted to the English text. I am also omitting the comparison with John for the same reasons. The translation is the ESV.

Mat 21:12-13

Mar 11:15-17

Luke 19:45-46

And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.”

 

And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. and he was teaching them and saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”

 

And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold, saying to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a den of robbers.”

 

We are focusing only on the differences between these texts, while a full redactional analysis would also examine the context of the passages, since the placement of the pericope, the order of events between the three evangelists, is also very important. What we first notice here is that the Marcan account is certainly the longest, 88 words in our English text, as opposed to 56 for Matthew and a paltry 36 for Luke. All three evangelists include the basic elements of the story, and conclude with the citation from Isa 56:7 and Jer 17:11, which could be accounted as evidence for the authenticity of the text from the strictly source-critical viewpoint.[5] Matthew and Luke, however, have seriously abbreviated the Marcan account. They have eliminated the details of the description, Matthew partially and Luke entirely, and both have completely omitted “and he was teaching them and saying to them.” Matthew and Luke also omit “for all nations.” What might we conclude from these variations?

Young Christians AN ENCOURAGING THOUGHT_01

I would suggest that the descriptive differences, the details Mark includes, provide a depth of reading to the experience which highlights Jesus’ prophetic activity in his judgment on the temple. The anti-temple theme is particularly pronounced in Mark, although it is not absent certainly in either Matthew or Luke, and to include these details highlights the force of the judgment that Jesus brings to bear at this point. For Matthew and Luke the anti-temple theme is not as pronounced, and the details are omitted. Similarly with the detail of Jesus’ teaching and saying. To add “saying” is a fairly common tautology in Mark, but to point out that Jesus was teaching them emphasizes again Jesus role as the bearer hereof prophetic judgment. It is the role of the prophet both to explicate and to apply the word of God.

Mark includes that the temple is to be a house of prayer “for all nations.” This is particularly significant in that this activity is certainly taking place in the Court of the Gentiles, the only area in which Gentiles could in any sense participate in the true worship of God. It is thus a poignant reminder of the failure of the temple’s purpose as symbolizing that Israel was to be a light to all the nations of the world. One of Mark’s themes is that the gospel is for all the nations and that the Gentiles are now included as part of God’s plan. Matthew and Luke also obviously include that theme, but Mark’s inclusion of the phrase here highlights it in a unique way.

APOSTOLIC FATHERS Lightfoot APOSTOLIC FATHERS

This is very abbreviated but hopefully gives a picture of the kind of details for which redaction critics look in order to accomplish their goals. With all this in mind, I wish now to include a list of criticisms of redaction criticism, largely (but not entirely) adapted from Carson. [6] Carson points out that his list is neither exhaustive nor original, and mine is even less so since I omitting some of the more technical criticisms. I will then conclude with a few comments on the value of redaction criticism for the conservative Evangelical.

  • The nature of the procedure is highly subjective. I personally felt this as I was writing my brief analysis of the temple cleansing passage above. A great deal depends on the presuppositions one brings to the text in determining how the redaction activity contributes to our understanding. I assumed Marcan priority simply as a convenience, but there are scholars who argue convincingly for what is sometimes known as the Griesbach hypothesis (after the scholar who first clearly articulated it) that Matthew was actually the first Gospel. How would that affect a full blown analysis of the pericopae? If I assume Matthew was an eyewitness, that has a major influence as well on the evaluation of his use of his sources. Would the special material he introduces be from an oral or written source, or is if from his own personal recollection?
  • Carson points out that studies of oral tradition, particularly from the Maori civilization of New Zealand (and I might add some studies of oral tradition from Africa) involve centuries of development. However, the NT documents were written much closer to the actual events, at a time when there were still living witnesses of those events. Luke tells us his methodology at the beginning of his gospel, a methodology that includes both eyewitness accounts and written documents. This really changes the definition of tradition and thus has serious methodological consequences for how we view redaction. The interpretation of an event in living memory is significantly different from the transformation of or the invention from a long held tradition.
  • Differences in wording might be significant but might not always reflect redactional activity. It could reflect the fact that Jesus may have given his teaching on more than one occasion and himself used different wording on those occasions. It could reflect different recollections on the part of the writers or their sources. For example, Mark’s expansive description of the temple account above might not reflect any theological emphasis, but simply be indicative of his style (and in fact, Mark tends to be consistently more verbose than either Matthew or Luke).
  • This is true of all forms of higher criticism, but our presuppositions concerning the nature of the Bible have significant implications for the way in which we seek to understand how the word was actually written. The redaction critic who assumes the higher critical premise that the Bible is a purely human production has not regard to for the truth of the text and has no problem seeing redactional activity as a creative means of altering the text to fit the circumstances of his own Sitz im Leben. The actual conclusions reached by such a redaction critic may be quite different from what a conservative Christian scholar might reach, even using similar approach, at least at the “mechanical” methodological level.
  • Redaction critics are often much too concerned with the slightest change in the text. As pointed out above, these are literary productions (on one level), and differ greatly in style and vocabulary usage, but these differences are the kind of differences one might expect between different authors. No one person uses the language quite the same as another (try comparing the various articles in this issue, and you’ll see some significant differences in style and vocabulary). Not every redaction therefore may be invested with theological significance – saying it a different way may have simply sounded better to the writer, or may have been felt to be more communicative of the same truth to a different audience.
BIBLE DIFFICULTIES

Now, as stated above, there is much more, and for the reader who wants to investigate it further, I suggest following up on the footnotes in this article for additional reading. Does this mean that redaction criticism has nothing to teach us as conservatives who believe in the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible? Not at all, and as is often the case, it’s a matter of determining the wheat from the chaff. Redaction criticism has reminded us that the biblical authors are individuals through whom the Spirit spoke, but individuals nonetheless who had their own particular outlook and emphases, and had unique contributions to make.  The gospel writers theologies are not identical to one another, though there is certainly a tremendous amount of overlap, but even the same truth is not always expressed in the same way, and seeing the uniqueness of each writer’s handling of that truth gives us, as readers who have access to all four gospels, a better and deeper comprehension of that truth. Redaction criticism, even if sometimes too involved with detail, has taught us to be sensitive to these differences and to pay attention to the details to determine which ones really are theologically significant.

9781949586121 BIBLE DIFFICULTIES THE NEW TESTAMENT DOCUMENTS

In closing, let me point out that there have been a number of evangelical scholars who have garnered some of the insights of redaction criticism in ways that are helpful in understanding better the text. An early pioneer in this was the N.B. Stonehouse, who, writing concurrent with the German scholars cited above, used much of the same method without ever identifying it as redaction criticism.[7] A more recent example is John Nolland’s commentary on Matthew in the New International Greek Testament Commentary series.[8]

Grammatical-Historical Versus Historical-Critical

Edward D. Andrews also asks, “What then are the strengths and weaknesses of redaction criticism?” There are no strengthens in any of the criticism types, including redaction criticism, period. It is a glass of poisoned water with there being 70% poison and 30% water if you are lucky. Thinking that there are some benefits to these criticisms of biblical criticism (formerly higher criticism) is a fool’s errand and a slippery slope. The mindset of “it’s a matter of determining the wheat from the chaff” is not the path to take. We have a conservative evangelical method of interpretation, the Historical-Grammatical Method. With redaction criticism and all other criticisms of higher criticism, The Bible student unknowingly starts out in the short end of the swimming pool, and the next thing you know, he is drowning in the deep end of the higher criticism pool by dissecting the Word of God into the word of man, and a jumbled word at that.

The Flaws of the Historical-Critical Method of Biblical Interpretation

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[1] Simon J. Kistemaker, The Gospels in Current Study (Grand Rapids, Baker, 1972), p. 51-52. I have restricted my observations in this article solely to NT studies.

[2] For the purposes of this article, I am simplifying what in the scholarly literature is quite an extensive discussion concerning the precise definition of what redaction criticism really is or should be.  I am actually including under one heading what some scholars feel should be distinguished. D.A. Carson, in his essay “Redaction Criticism” in Collected Writings on Scripture (Wheaton, Crossway, 2010), p. 151-153 has some excellent comments on this.

[3] For more detail, see the article on the Synoptic Problem in this issue.

[4] Often a very hypothetical document known as Q (from the German Quelle, “source”) is posited. I say highly hypothetical because it is solely reconstructed based on subjective criteria advanced by various scholars – no such document actually exists.

What Is the Synoptic Problem of Matthew, Mark, and Luke and What is the Hypothetical So-Called Q Document?

[5] A number of scholars, however, dispute the historicity of the text based on its unlikelihood, i.e., that the temple police would have intervened or moneychangers would have fought back.  Here just note that this is a very subjective objection.

[6] Carson, p. 156-163

[7] N.B. Stonehouse, Origins of the Synoptic Gospels, (London: Tyndale Press, 1964).

[8] John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2005).

vv

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