Monday, February 15, 2021



Form Criticism

     Form Criticism is a method of analysis focused on the individual, self-contained units of material into which gospels may be sub-divided. It identifies the different ‘forms” or subgenres of literature which appear, and it attempts to describe the way in which these forms developed during the period of time in which they were passed along by words of mouth, prior to writing of Gospels themselves.

The Pioneers of Form Criticism in NT

     Hermann Gunkel was the first scholar who applied form critical analysis to the Biblical studies in his research on Genesis.[1] By 1920, a trio of German scholars namely K. L. Schmidt,[2] M. Debelius[3] and R. Bultman[4] pioneered in the field of form criticism in NT.  At first the English-speaking world was relatively skeptical of this new discipline. But by 1930’s & 1940’s, in great Britain, V. Taylor and R. H. Lightfoot were cautiously appropriating and advocating many form critical principles in their work.

Why Form Criticism

     The main reasons for form criticism are:[5] (a) The weakness of source criticism. Although form criticism is not an alternative for, but a supplement to, source criticism, it owed much of its origin to certain basic weaknesses in current source-critical speculations. (b) Form criticism resulted from the challenge to the historicity of the Marcan account of Jesus. Form critics examined the framework of Mark more thoroughly and concluded that the gospel is chronologically and also geographically unreliable. (c) Another reason for the form criticism was the desire to modernize the gospels. Much of the material in the canonical gospels which are quite outdated by modern scientific knowledge gave birth to the movement for restating the gospel in concepts acceptable to the modern mind.  (d) A further cause for form criticism was the urge to place the literary materials in the gospels in their historical situation, i. e. the Sitz-im-Leben, or life-situation.

Assumptions of the Form Critics

     The fundamental assumption that makes form criticism both necessary and possible is that the tradition consists basically of individual sayings and narratives joined together in the Gospels by the work of the editors. One body of material is seen as an exception to the rule that there were no connected narratives of the life of Jesus in the earliest period. The exception is the Passion narrative. [6] The tradition served the needs and purposes of the church.[7]  The original form of the traditions may be recovered by studying the laws of the tradition.

Method of Form Criticism

     In order to apply the form critical method, critics first define the boundaries of the biblical text, to study it on its own. This means isolating an individual literary unit from its surrounding context.  Second, once a text is separated into its component parts, the form critic identifies the genre of the specific literary unit under consideration based on its form and content. Third, the identification of the genre leads us to an understanding of the text’s original setting (Sitz im Leben), or the situation in which it was used prior to its inclusion in the Bible.[8]  Form criticism is, in fact, not attempting to understand the historical setting of the author, but rather, the social situation in which the text was used.

Merits and Demerits

     The historical skepticism that characterizes many of the prominent form critics has given the reputation of attacking the historicity of the gospels. No form critical hypotheses are justified which ignore the presence of eyewitnesses during the oral period.  As V. Taylor puts it, if the form critics argument is correct, then all the disciples must have been translated to heaven after the resurrection.[9] The Form critic claim that the early church did not distinguish the earthly Jesus from the risen Lord and thus felt free to place on the lips of the earthly Jesus sayings uttered by early Christian prophets is unjustified. As Norman Perrin puts it, “The modern distinction between historical Jesus and risen Lord is quite foreign to the early church.”[10] Many form critics are guilty of underestimating the degree of the importance of memorization in first-century Jewish society, and we are justified in thinking that this provides a sufficient basis for the careful and accurate oral transmission of gospel material. As Birger Gerhardsson pointed out the transmission process would have been akin to the transmission of the rabbinic traditions, in which both written materials and careful memorization would have played key roles.[11] 

            Some of the assumptions on which form criticism is based appear to be valid: there was indeed a period of mainly oral transmission of the gospel material, much of it likely in small units; there probably was a tendency for this material to take on certain standard forms; and the early church might have influenced the way this material was handed down. However, it is probable that more of the gospel material existed from very early periods in written form as Luke stated in 1:1-4 and that much of the rest of it may already have been connected together into larger literary units.[12] Alan Millard has rightly pointed out that writing was quite common in Herodian Palestine and that there were many precedents for the recording in writing of a religious teacher’s sayings.[13]

[1] Hermann Gunkel, The Legends of Genesis: The Biblical Saga and History (trans. W. H. Carruth; New York:  Schocken, 1964).

[2] In his work “The Frame Work of the Story of Jesus,” Schmidt carefully studied the entire Synoptic tradition from the perspective of the framework that the Gospel writers gave to the life of Jesus. He also gave some helpful suggestions as to the nature and origin of the individual units making up the Synoptic tradition. Schmidt argues that the Synoptic are Mosaic like collections of the short episodes from the life of Jesus which are linked by a series of bridge passages provides chronology, geography and movements of life of Jesus from the earthly ministry to his arrest. He also describes a stage between oral transmissions and gospel writings in which similar kinds of forms existed in collections.

[3] In his work “From Tradition to Gospel-1919,” Dibelius was the first to apply form criticism to the Synoptic tradition. His purpose was to explain by reconstruction and analysis “the origin of the tradition about Jesus, and thus to penetrate into a period previous to that in which our Gospels and their written sources were recorded” and “to make clear the intention and real interest of the earliest tradition.” His main concern was with the narrative material of the Gospels, and he finds three major categories of narrative material in addition to the passion narrative: paradigms, tales, and legends [Martin Dibelius, From Tradition to Gospel (trans. Bertram Lee Woolf, New York: Scribner’s, 1935), iii, 25, 70, 82, 104, 108, 246, 271].

[4] Bultmann’s work “The History of the Synoptic Traditions-1921,” appeared two years after that of Dibelius, with the purpose of “discovering what the original units of the synoptic were, both sayings and stories, to try to establish what their historical setting was, whether they belonged to a primary or secondary tradition or whether they were the product of editorial activity” [Rudolf Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition (trans. John Marsh; New York: Harper, 1963), 2–5, 145-47, 155, 205, 240, 245].

      Bultmann provides a detailed analysis of all the Synoptic material within the two general divisions of (1) the discourses of Jesus and (2) the narrative material. The discourses of Jesus are divided into two main groups: apothegms and dominical sayings; but Bultmann also gives a separate treatment of “I sayings” and parables although by content they belong to the dominical sayings. The narrative materials are also divided into two major groups: miracle stories and historical narratives and legends. For   him the Gospels are the early Christian Theology rather than the historical data of the life of Jesus [Rudolf Bultmann, “The Study of the Synoptic Gospels,” in Form Criticism: Two Essays on New Testament Research (Ed. and trans. Frederick G. Grant; New York: Harper, 1962), 55-56].

[5] Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, (USA: Intervarsity Press.1990), 209-213.

[6] It is argued that the earliest Passion story is not the Marcan story. Both Dibelius and Bultmann hold that the Marcan story is the end result of a very early process of transmission of tradition and that even in the earliest Passion story that we can reconstruct we do not have pure history [Edgar V. McKnight, “Form Criticism and New Testament Interpretation” in Method and meaning: essays on New Testament Interpretation in Honor of Harold W. Attridge, edited by Andrew B. McGowan and Kent Harold Richards (Atlanta: SBL, 2011), 23].

[7] This assumption is vital for Dibelius since he follows a constructive method and reconstructs the history of the Synoptic tradition from a study of the early Christian community. Even though Bultmann follows an analytical method that begins with the text instead of the church, he admits that he cannot “dispense with a provisional picture of the primitive community and its history, which has to be turned into a clear and articulated picture in the course of [his] inquiries.” He divided the early Christianity into two basic phases: Palestinian Christianity and Hellenistic Christianity (Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition, 5). 

      Dibelius sees the Christian movement as originating with the Aramaic-speaking Palestinian circle of Jesus, of course. Then comes a pre-Pauline Hellenistic Christianity in close proximity to Judaism. These pre-Pauline Christian churches were in Greek-speaking regions such as Antioch and Damascus and grew out of Jewish churches without making a logical break with Judaism. Still later comes the Pauline church, which is much less closely related to Judaism. Dibelius declares that the Synoptic tradition did not acquire its form in The Aramaic-speaking Palestinian church or in the later Pauline church. The tradition acquired its form in the pre-Pauline Hellenistic churches closely associated with Judaism (Dibelius, From Tradition to Gospel, 25).

[8] Joshua T. James, Reading Glasses: Form Criticism,, accessed on 07/11/2020.

[9] Vincent Taylor, The Formation of the Gospel Tradition (London: Macmillan, 1935), 41-43; See also Richard Bauckham, “The Eyewitnesses and the Gospel Traditions,” JSHJ 1 (2003), 28–60.

[10] Norman Perrin, Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus (London: SCM, 1967), 27.

[11] Birger Gerhardsson, Memory and Manuscript: Oral Tradition and Written Transmission in Rabbinic Judaism and Early

    Christianity (Lund: Gleerup, 1964), 196.

[12] C. H. Dodd, proposes that from the beginning, the pattern of early Christian preaching had imposed a certain  pattern in the gospel material (“The Framework of the Gospel Narrative,” ExpTim 43 [1932]: 396–400).

[13] Alan Millard, Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus (New York: University Press, 2000), 89. 



Bultmann, R. “The Study of the Synoptic Gospels.” In Form Criticism: Two Essays on New Testament Research. Edited and Translated by  Frederick G. Grant. New York: Harper, 1962.

Bultmann, R. History of the Synoptic Tradition. Translated by John Marsh. New York: Harper, 1963.

Dibelius, M. From Tradition to Gospel. Translated by Bertram Lee Woolf. New York: Scribner’s, 1935.

Dodd, C. H. “The Framework of the Gospel Narrative.” ExpTim 43 (1932): 396–400.

Gerhardsson, Birger. Memory and Manuscript: Oral Tradition and Written Tradition in Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity. Translated by Eric J. Sharpo. Lund: Gleeup, 1961.

Gerhardsson, Birger. Memory and Manuscript: Oral Tradition and Written Transmission in Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity. Lund: Gleerup, 1964.

Gunkel, Hermann. The Legends of Genesis: The Biblical Saga and History. Translated by W. H. Carruth. New York:  Schocken, 1964.

Guthrie, Donald. New Testament Introduction. USA: Intervarsity Press.1990.

McKnight, E. V. “Form Criticism and New Testament Interpretation.” In Method and Meaning: Essays on New Testament Interpretation in Honor of Harold W. Attridge. edited by Andrew B. McGowan and Kent Harold Richards. Atlanta: SBL, 2011. 20-40.

Millard, Alan. Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus. New York: University Press, 2000.

Perrin, Norman. Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus. London: SCM, 1967.

Taylor, Vincent. The Formation of the Gospel Tradition. London: Macmillan, 1935.




Redaction Criticism

    Redaction Criticism is concerned with studying the theological motivation of an author as this is revealed in the collection, arrangement, editing, and modification of traditional material, and in the composition of new material or the creation of new forms within the traditions of early Christianity.[1] The term “Redaktionsgeschichte,”was coined by Willi Marxsen which may be translated either “redaction history” or “redaction criticism.”[2] R. H. Stein points out that the evangelists have not simply collected traditions and sources and pasted them together. They have added their own modifications to those traditions, and in doing so, they have brought their own particular emphases to the story of Jesus.[3]

The Main Proponent of Redaction Criticism

     It as an identifiable discipline did not develop until the 1950s. Three German critics were the pioneers in the field.

Günther Bornkamm: Bornkamm and two of his students initiated redaction critical study of Matthew titled as Tradition and Interpretation in Matthew. [4] The most striking example of this subject in this volume is Bornkamm’s analysis of the stilling of the storm in Matt 8:23–27, in which he sought to, uncover Matthew’s theological point by comparing his account with Mark and Luke. Mark and Luke present the story in a biographical context as a nature miracle (Mark 4:35–41; Luke 8:22–25). Matthew takes the nature miracle out of that context and places it in a series of healing miracles that present the “Messiah of deed” after the Sermon on the Mount, the presentation of the “Messiah of word.”[5] As is the case with all other methods, the practice of redaction criticism involves a subjective dimension.

Hans Conzelmann: In his ‘The Theology of Luke,’ Conzelmann analysis the theological standpoint of Luke.[6] He argues that the evangelist imposed a threefold periodization of salvation history on the gospel material: the time of Israel, the time of Jesus, and the time of the church. In doing so, according to Conzelmann, Luke provided a basis for a continuing role of the Christian community in history, thereby defusing early Christian disappointment about the delay of the parousia, namely, the failure of Jesus to return as soon as expected.[7]

Willi Marxsen: Marxsen’s redaction-critical study of Mark[8] appeared after Conzelmann’s study on Luke. He notes that Conzelmann considered the first phase, the collection of traditional material, to extend to and include the Gospel of Mark.[9] Marxsen argues, on the contrary, that the tendency of the anonymous oral tradition is toward multiplicity and diversity. It uses a saw, as it were, to cut the unity of the person and significance of Jesus into bits, into different forms with different purposes. The unity achieved by the Evangelists, first of all by Mark, is of a completely different kind from that which gave rise to the oral tradition. This literary unity implies the work of an individual, an author who works to achieve a particular goal.[10]

He chose the name “redaction criticism” or “editorial criticism” for two reasons. There was a consensus at the time that the Evangelists were (at least) “editors.” The general term would not prejudge the outcome of the method. He commented that, strictly speaking, “redaction criticism” is not a method. It is rather the bringing together of a variety of methods for the purpose of studying the editorial work of the Evangelists.[11] The focus of this “method” should be, not primarily on the “stuff,” but on the “framework” of the Gospel.[12]

The Methodology of Redaction Criticism

     Redaction criticism is primarily interested in investigating how authors used their sources and their unique theological contribution to their sources. The initial criteria are provided by the small units and their diverse formal construction, as well as their aims and horizons. On the basis of these initial criteria, further criteria of given and constructed units can be distinguished. The examination of their relationship to each other indicates a further point of difference. This yields information about whether it is a case of compositional intentions or merely unconnected juxtapositions. In the case of self-sufficient units (‘traditions’), questions are asked about the nature of their editing (enlarged or framed through an addition or additions).[13] The redactional or editorial activity of the synoptic evangelists can be seen in following ways: (a) The material they have chosen to include and exclude (b) The arrangement of the material (c) The “seams” that the evangelist uses to stitch his tradition together (d) Additions to the material (e) Omission of material and (f) Change of wording.

Merits and Demerits of Redaction Criticism

     Redaction criticism depends for its validity on our ability to distinguish tradition and redaction. We must have a rather clear idea about the sources that a given evangelist has used before we can begin speaking about his modifications to those sources. The difficulty of isolating “redaction” has led some to suggest a more cautious approach that focuses on thematic studies within a gospel.[14] Redaction critics often assume that all the changes an evangelist makes to his tradition are theologically motivated. Many no doubt are; but many others, and particularly minor changes affecting one or two words, are stylistic in nature. In other cases, even major additions may be due not to theological concerns but to historical interest. We cannot omit simple historical purposes from the intentions of the evangelists. Redaction criticism is often pursued in such a way that the historical trustworthiness of the gospel material is called into question. It is not so much that redaction criticism seeks to prove the unhistorical nature of the changes introduced by the evangelists. Rather, many redaction critics assume that the evangelists would have little concern about it. So typical is the anti-historical bias of many of the best-known redaction critics that redaction criticism, like form criticism, has earned for itself the reputation of being a method that attacks the historical reliability of the gospels.[15]

            Pursued properly, redaction criticism has several positive elements. By focusing on the final, authorial stage in the production of the gospels, it offers immediate help to the interpreter and theologian. This discipline reminds us that the evangelists wrote with more than (though not less than) historical interest. They were preachers and teachers, concerned to apply the truths of Jesus’ life and teaching to specific communities in their own day. This theological purpose of the evangelists has sometimes been missed, with a consequent loss of appreciation for the significance and application of the history that the evangelists narrate.[16]Redaction criticism recognizes the multiplicity of the gospels. The story of Jesus has come to us, not in one super-gospel, but in four gospels, each with its own distinct and important contribution to make to our understanding of Jesus. “Jesus is such a gigantic figure that we need all four portraits to discern him,”[17]and redaction criticism helps us to appreciate the artistry and meaning of each of those portraits.

End Notes

[1] Norman Perrin, What Is Redaction Criticism?  (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969), 1.

[2] Adela Yarbro Collins, “Redaction Criticism in Theory and Practice,” in Method and meaning: essays on New Testament Interpretation in Honor of Harold W. Attridge, ed. by Andrew B. McGowan and Kent Harold Richards (Atlanta: SBL, 2011), 59.

[3] Cf. R. H. Stein, “What Is Redaktionsgeschichte?” JBL 88 (1969), 45–56.

[4] In the introduction they accept the consensus that the first three Evangelists “were, in the first place, collectors and editors of traditions handed on to them.” At the same time, the Synoptic Gospels “are documents expressing a definite, though in each case very different theology.” Since the means employed by the Evangelists in conveying their theologies are modest, there is often recognizable tension between “their handling of the tradition and the theological views it is made to serve.” Nevertheless, by editing, construction, selection, inclusion and omission, and by characteristic treatment of traditional material, they show themselves to be “by no means mere collectors and handers-on of the tradition” [G. Bornkamm, Gerhard Barth, and Heinz J. Held, Tradition and Interpretation in Matthew – Eng. ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1963), 6, 12, 30, 31.

[5] In Matthew the story is still a vivid account of a miracle, yet a new motive is brought out. The Evangelist places the story before two sayings of Jesus about discipleship (Matt 8:19-22). Both are concerned with “following” (akolouthein) Jesus. The simple statement (only in Matthew) that the disciples “followed” (ēkolouthēsan) Jesus into the boat is given a deeper and figurative meaning in this context. Bornkamm shows by a number of observations that Matthew has not only handed on the story but has interpreted it in terms of discipleship with reference to “the little ship of the Church.” The story has become “a kerygmatic paradigm of the danger and glory of discipleship.”[ Günther Bornkamm, “The Stilling of the Storm in Matthew”, in Tradition and Interpretation,  ed. by Bornkamm, Barth, and Held (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1963), 53, 55, 57].

[6] Although Conzelmann did not use the term “redaction criticism,” he declared in the introduction:

The first phase in the collection of the traditional material (up to the composition of Mark’s Gospel and the Q sayings) has been clarified by Form Criticism. Now a second phase has to be distinguished, in which the kerygma is not simply transmitted and received, but itself becomes the subject of reflection. This is what happens with Luke. This new stage is seen both in the critical attitude to tradition as well as in the positive formation of a new picture of history out of those already current, like stones used as parts of a new mosaic [H. Conzelmann, The Theology of St Luke (New York: Harper & Row, 1960), 12].

[7] In part 1 of the book, Conzelmann discusses the geographical elements in Luke, indicating their distinctive significance by constant comparisons with Mark and Matthew.

   Part 2 of the book is devoted to Luke’s eschatology. On this subject, Conzelmann concluded that, “The main motif in the recasting to which Luke subjects his source [Mark], proves to be the delay of the Parousia, which leads to a comprehensive consideration of the nature and course of the Last Things” (Conzelmann, The Theology of St Luke, 131-132).

[8] In the introduction to his book, Marxsen contrasts the form-critical and the redaction-critical approach to Mark. He questions Bultmann’s conclusion that the composition of the Gospels “brings nothing new in principle but only completes the process that was already begun by the earliest oral tradition.” He argued that the form critics paid insufficient attention to the way in which the Evangelists appropriated tradition in composing their Gospels. The “form criticism of the individual units of tradition” needs to be complemented by a “form criticism of the work as a whole.” In order to avoid confusion, he proposed that the latter effort be called “redaction criticism” [W. Marxsen, Mark the Evangelist: Studies on the Redaction History of the Gospel (Nashville: Abingdon, 1969), 8-9].

[9] Marxsen, Mark the Evangelist, 8.

[10] Marxsen, Mark the Evangelist, 9.

[11] Marxsen, Mark the Evangelist, 10-11.

[12] The latter should be understood broadly, that is, to include the itinerary, the editorial scenes created for the older material, and the reshaping of the wording of that material, insofar as it can be determined. This “framework” should not then simply be declared “unhistorical” as the form critics often did. Rather, one should seek to define the social setting of such editorial work. This is the third “social setting” to be sought, the first being the life of the historical Jesus and the second the situation of the early community. The social situation of the Evangelists should not be conceived too narrowly, for example, as a local community. The emphasis should be on what is typical of the Evangelist’s “community,” on its views or perceptions, its time, perhaps also its makeup.

     In his concluding remarks, Marxsen emphasizes the importance of the endings of the Gospels for understanding their primary conceptions and aims. He interprets the orientation to Galilee in Mark 16:1–8 as signifying the imminent return of Jesus to Galilee, that is, the parousia. Finally, he characterizes Mark as a theologian, entirely of his own “coinage,” standing between Paul and the anonymous oral tradition, on the one hand, and the later Evangelists, on the other. In his view, it may be too much to claim that he is “the theological center of the New Testament,” but he certainly deserves greater attention (Marxsen, Mark the Evangelist, 12-16, 142, 147)

[13] The assembling and designation of criteria is not sufficient for a redaction-critical evaluation. The function that can be read from them goes further. Information about this is given by the structures into which the individual elements determined by form criticism have been edited. If these structures are now examined in connection with the putting together of the parts of the text through redaction, it becomes apparent ‘that not only each unit, but also each composition, stratum and redaction indicates a structure.’ The whole structure presents itself either as unique or refers to parallels. In the latter case it is possible, as in form criticism, to look for fixed expressions which possibly belong to a genre. Out of the complete structure it is further possible to discern the aim or an intention. ‘With them it is possible to determine the Sitze im Leben (basis in reality) of the compositions and redactions, and their authors and redactors.

[14] See Randall K. T. Tan, “Recent Developments in Redaction Criticism: From Investigation of Textual Prehistory Back to Historical-Grammatical Exegesis?” JETS 44 (2001): 599–614.

[15] For a detailed discussion see Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (Downers Grove: IVP, 1987), 35–43, 113–52.

[16] D. A. Carson & D. J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, (Michigan: Zondervan, 2005), 112.

[17] Leon Morris, Studies in the Fourth Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969), 107.


Barton, John. “Redaction Criticism (OT).” In Anchor Bible Dictionary.  Vol. 5. Edited by D. N. Freedman. New York: Doubleday, 1992. 644–47.

 Black, Carl Clifton. “Disciples according to Mark: Markan Redaction in Current Debate.” JSOT Sup 27. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1989.

Blomberg,  Craig. The Historical Reliability of the Gospels. Downers Grove: IVP, 1987.

Bornkamm, Günther “The Stilling of the Storm in Matthew.” In Tradition and Interpretation. Edited by Bornkamm, Barth, and Held. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1963.

 Conzelmann, Hans. The Theology of St Luke. New York: Harper & Row, 1960.

K. T. Tan, Randall. “Recent Developments in Redaction Criticism: From Investigation of Textual Prehistory Back to Historical-Grammatical Exegesis?” JETS 44 (2001): 599–614.

 Marxsen, Willi. Mark the Evangelist: Studies on the Redaction History of the Gospel. Nashville: Abingdon, 1969.

Morris, Leon. Studies in the Fourth Gospel. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969

Perrin, Norman. What Is Redaction Criticism? Philadelphia: Fortress, 1969.

Stein, R. H. “What Is Redaktionsgeschichte?” JBL 88 (1969): 45–56.

Taylor, Vincent. The Gospel according to Mark. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1966.

Yarbro Collins, Adela. Mark: A Commentary.  Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007.




Source Criticism

     In its simplest manifestation, source criticism is the study of a text with an effort to determine the sources used by the text’s author. The decisive evidence for the use of sources in the New Testament lies in the New Testament documents themselves. In some cases the alleged sources consist of other texts that are available to us, while in others the possible sources are hypothetical.  

The Methods of Source Criticism

     The search for sources is an easier and much less speculative enterprise when the critic has several parallel traditions to analyze. Given such a situation the procedure will be: [1] (a) to note the evidence internal to the documents themselves, i.e. the areas of overlap and the points of difference in the different traditions. So far as internal evidence is concerned, the basic grist to the critic’s mill is the combination of agreement and disagreement in the parallel documents; in the case of the gospels this includes agreement and disagreement in wording, order, contents, style, ideas and theology. (b) To note any relevant external evidence, e.g. the statements of the early church fathers about the writing of the gospels, and (c) to propose and test different possible explanations of the evidence for comprehensiveness and simplicity. Comprehensiveness is important, since simplicity is no virtue if any substantial part of the evidence is not accounted for; but simplicity is also a significant criterion, since almost any theory can be made comprehensive if sufficient modifications and exceptions are allowed.

            Source criticism may be a difficult tasks for the critics where there is only one tradition to work with. But this has not deterred scholars from making the attempt, and there are a number of supposedly tell-tale signs that the critic will look for which may indicate the use of sources. Given such a situation the critics look for possible breaks and dislocations of the sequence in narrative,[2] stylistic inconsistency within a document,[3] theological inconsistency within a particular passage or verse,[4] and historical inconsistencies in a document.[5]

Source Criticism and Synoptic Gospel

     The analysis of the synoptic shows that Mark has 661 verses (vv.); Matt has 1068, and Luke has 1149. Eighty percent of Mark's material is reproduced in Matt and 65 percent in Luke.[6] Matt and Luke have in common (in whole or in part) an approximate 220-235 vv. of non-Marcan material.[7] Since the Synoptic having substantial similarities, questions about their relationships are inevitable.[8] Did all three Gospel writers draw on an earlier text that is no longer extant, or is one of the three a source for the other two, or is some other explanation to be sought?[9]

            The solution to the Synoptic Problem which has commanded most support for some 50 years or more is the Two Source Theory. The two-source hypothesis holds that the similarities and divergences can be accounted for by the postulation of two written sources, one of which was the canonical Mark or an earlier written form of it, and the other a common source used by Matthew and Luke in different ways. This latter source was named Q.[10] Marcan priority[11] was first proposed in the 1830s, apparently independently, by Karl Lachmann and C. G. Wilke, while the full two-source hypothesis was advanced by C. H. Weisse in 1838.  It was given its classic expression in an 1863 monograph by H. J. Holtzmann.[12] The Mark-Q theory may be regarded as the basic element in modern source criticism of the synoptic gospels. But many of the variations between Matthew and Luke are difficult to account for adequately under this theory. B. H. Streeter posited the existence of two other sources in addition to Mark and Q: “M,” the material peculiar to Matthew’s gospel, and “L,” the material peculiar to Luke’s gospel. This “four-source” hypothesis was an attempt to provide a comprehensive explanation of the origin of the gospels through source criticism.[13]

Source Criticism and John’s Gospel

     The assumption that the seven miracle stories of John are derived from a special Sign Source has been widely approved. However, the size of the Signs Source is fiercely debated. Basically there are three possibilities. The first is a minimal solution, according to which the source consisted exclusively of the seven miracle stories and a limited editorial framework (John 2:11–12a; 4:54; 12:37–38; 20:30–31a). The second is a midway solution, according to which the source contained additionally some further materials like the traditional layer of John 1:35–51 and 4:1–42.  Third is a maximal solution: the source additionally contained a Passion narrative so that it was a gospel resembling the Synoptics. In this case, however, John 20:30–31a cannot be claimed as the end of the source‎ and ‎the ‎source ‎itself ‎cannot ‎be ‎labeled “Signs‎ Source” ‎any‎ longer.[14]‎ As‎ far‎ as ‎the ‎theology ‎of ‎the‎ source is concerned, it is difficult to see how this alleged source solved the tension between the miracles which have become much more marvelous (cf. John 11)‎ on ‎the ‎one ‎hand‎ and ‎Jesus’ suffering ‎and‎ death‎ on the other hand.

Source Criticism and Book of Acts

    It is argued that Luke has made use of traditional material in Acts, but there are evidently no continuous sources behind Acts 1–12. All attempts to reconstruct such sources have led to no convincing result. A special problem is posed by the speech of Stephen (Acts 7).[15] The fact that it has been assigned to Stephen may indicate that Luke got to know it as an Antiochene tradition. In relation to Acts 13–28 two sources are discussed: (a) a source of the so-called‎ “we‎ sections” (in‎ Acts 16; 20+21; 27–28), and (b) an itinerary source for the names of the places to which Paul came during his travels.    

Source Criticism and the Epistles

 Colossians and Ephesians have very close affinities; and if one assumes that at least Ephesians is Deutero-Pauline (Colossians is probably also Deutero-Pauline), one has to accept a literary dependence.[16] Instances in favor of a direct literary dependence are phrases of Ephesians which can only be explained by assuming that they were taken over from Colossians.[17] Colossians is therefore to be seen as the source adapted by the author of Ephesians and remolded to a great extent. Likewise, the affinities between 2 Peter 2 and Jude 4–13 (2 Peter 2:10–12, 17 with Jude 10, 12–13) are so close that a literary dependence has to be reckoned with: 2 Peter incorporated the shorter Jude; the author of 2 Peter has polished his source in parts and has omitted offensive points, such as the quotation from the apocryphal book of Enoch in Jude 14–15.[18]

Source Criticism and the Book of Revelation

     David E. Aune, R. Bauckham and A. Yarbro Collins, maintain that Revelation shares a common apocalyptic tradition with extra-canonical apocalypses due to the occurrence of formal and thematic similarities in both categories of texts.[19] In the visions of the seven seals and of the seven trumpets there is, in each case, one larger interruption (Revelation 7; 10:1–11, 14). As an explanation for these interruptions, as well as for chapters 12 and 17, the use of sources has been assumed.  It cannot be disputed that the author has made use of very different materials in many cases, but until now not even a limited agreement could be reached concerning the differing proposals. If written sources are to be assumed at all, they are of rather limited size and have been reworked intensively by the author to a degree that a differentiation between sources and orally transmitted traditions is hardly possible.[20]

 Merits and Demerits of Source Criticism

     The Christian’s knowledge of the historical events that are fundamental to his/her faith derives from the New Testament, and so the study of the history of the New Testament documents is ultimately of the greatest relevance to them. It may strengthen their convictions about those events, as also their belief in the inspiration of Scripture; or it may do the opposite. One of the drawbacks of source criticism is of thinking that an author cannot be trusted where no source can be detected. The limitations of the source critic’s methods have been made clear and it cannot be assumed that it will always be possible to identify the use of written sources, still less of oral sources, especially if the author was a competent editor.[21]

            A source critical analysis allows the critic to say something about a writer’s method of writing and also about his particular interests and ideas. Since it will from time to time throw light on what the author or authors intend in a particular passage, source criticism is important for biblical exegesis in general. Difficulties of interpretation, for example, may be cleared up when a document is compared with its source and when it is seen how a tradition is used by different writers; and a source critical analysis is of obvious value to the exegete wishing to make sense of apparently divergent versions of the same tradition and wishing to avoid an arbitrary choice between the versions or an uninformed harmonization.

End Notes

[1] David Wenham, “Source Criticism,” in New Testament Interpretation: Essays on Principles and Methods, ed. I. Howard Marshall (Carlisle: The Paternoster Press, 1977), 140-44.

[2] There are from time to time awkward breaks and apparent dislocations in the narrative sequence which are explicable if it is supposed that the author was trying to weave into a single account material drawn from a number of different sources. The success of the critic’s search for sources via dislocations depends on the original, author’s lack of success in integrating his sources, and will therefore be of little use if the original writer was competent as an editor. It also depends on the critic’s ability to interpret dislocations in the text accurately.

[3] Stylistic inconsistency within a document is a second sign pointing to the possible use of sources. For example, Luke’s birth narratives are very Hebraic; and, although a possible explanation may be that Luke was a versatile author who chose his style to suit his material, it is probably simpler to postulate the use of sources at this point, whether oral or written.

[4] If it can be shown that a particular passage or verse contains theological ideas that are quite untypical of, or better, still contradictory to, the theology of the writer as it is expressed elsewhere, then it may reasonably be argued either that the material is an interpolation or that it is material taken by the author from a source and not properly assimilated.

[5] Historical inconsistencies in a document, for example, doublets, are a fourth possible clue that may indicate that the author is using sources.

[6] R. E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 111.

[7] In both instances so much of the order in which that common material is presented, and so much of the wording in which it is phrased are the same that dependence at the written rather than simply at the oral level has to be posited [C. M. Tuckett, “Synoptic Problem” in ABD vol.6, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 263-64].

[8] But what makes the synoptic problem particularly knotty is the fact that, alongside such exact agreements, there are so many puzzling differences. This combination of agreement and disagreement extends to the larger structure of the gospels as well. All three roughly follow the same order of events, even when there is no clear chronological or historical reason to do so. Each evangelist, however, omits material found in the other two, each contains unique incidents, and some of the events that are found in one or both of the others are put in a different order.

[9] Joseph B. Tyson, “Source Criticism of Acts,” in Method and Meaning: Essays on New Testament Interpretation in Honor of Harold W. Attridge, ed. Andrew B. McGowan and Kent Harold Richards (Atlanta: SBL, 2011), 41.

[10] "Q" is a hypothetical source posited by most scholars to explain what was called the Double Tradition, i.e., agreements (often verbal) between Matt and Luke on material not found in Mark. It is named probably after the German word Quelle, means ‘source. Behind the hypothesis is the plausible assumption that the Matthean evangelist did not know Luke and vice versa, and so they must have had a common source. Many cautions are necessary before Q is reconstructed. The contents are usually estimated at about 220-235 verses or parts of verses. Independently, however, both Matt and Luke omit passages found in Mark; therefore it is plausible that independently they have omitted material that existed in Q. Sometimes only Matt or only Luke will preserve material in Mark; it is also possible that material found only in one of the two Gospels might have existed in Q.  We are not certain of the sequence of material in Q because Matt and Luke do not present it in the same order; nevertheless most reconstructions follow the Lucan order, since it seems that Matt worked Q material into his large sermons (For detailed study cf. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, 116-122; Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, 163-180).

[11] The basic argument for Marcan priority is that it solves more problems than any other theory. It offers the best explanation for why Matt and Luke so often agree with Mark in order and wording, and allows reasonable surmises for why Matt and Luke differ from Mark when they do so independently. For instance, neither evangelist liked Mark's redundancies, awkward Greek expressions, uncomplimentary presentation of the disciples and Mary, and embarrassing statements about Jesus. When using Mark, both expanded the Marcan accounts in the light of post-resurrection faith (Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, 115; For a more detailed discussion of the Marcan Priority and the issues with it cf. Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, 150-163 )

[12] D. A. Carson & D. J. Moo, An Introduction to the NT, (Michigan: Zondervan, 2005), 94.

[13] In the first place, Streeter strictly limited the source Q to that material which was used by both Matthew and Luke but not Mark. In the second place Streeter called attention to the need for noting the locality from which the different earlier sources originated. Mark was the Roman gospel, Q was probably based on Antioch, M represented a Jerusalem sayings-document and L represented the Caesarean tradition, probably oral in character [B. H. Streeter, The Four Gospels: A Study of Origins (London: Macmillan, 1924)].

[14] Dietrich A. Koch, “Source Criticism, ” in Anchor Bible Dictionary, vols. 6, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 8403.

[15] It interrupts not only the continuity between Acts 6:8–15 and 7:54–60, but it is also not Lukan, as is shown by the comparison with Acts 13:17–25, where Luke develops his own contrasting view of the history of Israel. Moreover, Luke breaks off the rendering of his tradition in Acts 7:48 abruptly (cf. 17:24). It is more difficult to answer the additional question as to whether or not Luke has expanded his source by way of insertions (possibly in 7:35, 37, 42b–43). The rough transition from 7:47 to 7:48 and the possible Lukan insertions point to the use of a written ‎source. ‎The‎ critical ‎review‎ of ‎God’s ‎election ‎and ‎Israel’s ‎disobedience‎ shows‎ that ‎the‎ source‎ shares the Deuteronomistic view of history, although it is probable that it was written by a (Judeo-) Christian author. (Koch, “Source Criticism, ” 8404.

[16] One-third of the vocabulary of Colossians appears also in Ephesians, whereas 73 of the 155 verses of Ephesians have a counterpart in Colossians. (Especially in Eph 2:1–3:19, the affinities to Colossians are very close.) Ephesians presupposes the understanding of important terms like sōma (body), kephalē (head), mystērion (mystery), oikonomia (office), peculiar to Colossians, and develops them further.

[17] See W. G. Kummel, Introduction to the New Testament, trans. H. C. Kee (Nashville: Abingdon, 1975, 340–46, 358–60.

[18] Koch, “Source Criticism,” 8405.

[19] See D. E. Aune, “The Apocalypse of John and Palestinian Jewish Apocalyptic,” in The Pseudepigrapha and Christian Origins: Essays from the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas, eds. Oegema and Charlesworth (New York: T&T Clark, 2008), 169-92; R. Bauckham, Climax of Prophecy (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993), 38-91; A.Y. Collins, “The Political Perspective of the Revelation to John,” JBL 96/ 2 (1977), 241-256.

[20] Koch, “Source Criticism,” 8405.

[21] Wenham, “Source Criticism,” 146.




Brown, R. E.  An Introduction to the New Testament. New York: Doubleday, 1997.

Farmer, W. R. “Modem Developments of Griesbach's Hypothesis.” NTS 23 (1977): 275-295. 

Koch, Dietrich A. “Source Criticism.” In Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vols. 6. Edited by David Noel Freedman. New York: Doubleday, 1992. 8397 -8405.

Kummel, W. G. Introduction to the New Testament. Translated by H. C. Kee. Nashville: Abingdon, 1975.

Kümmel, W. G. The New Testament: The History of the Investigation of Its Problems. New York: Abingdon, 1970.

Robinson, A. T. “The Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen: A Test of Synoptic Relationships.” NTS 21 (1975): 443-461.

 Tuckett, C. M. “Synoptic Problem.” In Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vols. 6. Edited by David Noel Freedman. New York: Doubleday, 1992.  8529-8539.

Tyson, J. B. “Source Criticism of Acts.” In Method and Meaning: Essays on New Testament Interpretation in Honor of H. W. Attridge. Edited by A. B. McGowan and K. H. Richards. Atlanta: SBL, 2011. 41-58.

Wenham, David. “Source Criticism.” In New Testament Interpretation: Essays on Principles and Methods. Edited by I. Howard Marshall. Carlisle: The Paternoster Press, 1977. 139-52.


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