Monday, February 15, 2021



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.


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