Redaction criticism

"Redaction" is a technical term much used in biblical studies to refer to the process of editing which gave us the finished form of most of our biblical books - assuming that they are made up of pre-existing sources, as implied by source criticism. The redactor, like the authors of the original sources, is normally anonymous, but it may be possible to discover quite a lot about this person by studying how the underlying material has been reshaped in turning it into a finished book. In the 1970s and 1980s it was redaction criticism, the study of the biblical redactors, that many thought promised most in biblical studies. It is probably the predominant approach in many German theology faculties. If source critics study the underlying materials in the biblical books, and form critics explain how they developed over the years in preaching, teaching, and worship, redaction critics have the task of explaining the intentions of those who assembled the material to make our existing books. These people, after all, are the nearest thing most biblical books have to an "author." Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, whether or not they were really called by those names, are the people from whose hands we now receive the Bible, and their work consisted very largely of putting together material that already existed in written or oral form (cf. Bornkamm, Barth, and Held 1982).

In Old Testament studies it was widely felt that redaction criticism was more "constructive" than the other methods we have examined so far, because it put back together what the other "criticisms" had taken apart. Source critics had discovered, for example, that the book of Isaiah consisted of three originally discrete sections (1-39, 40-55, 56-66) coming from three different periods (and each in itself already composite). But redaction critics began to be interested in how the book finally came together to make the finished whole we now encounter when we open a Bible (cf. Conrad 1991). This was widely felt to be a worthy aim, which overcame the rather "negative" effect of earlier types of criticism. In the case of the Gospels, a redaction-critical approach was interested in the distinctive theology of each Gospel as a work in its own right, not simply as the repository of older tradition. It noticed, for example, that it is Luke that contains much of the teaching of Jesus on God's mercy toward humankind - the parables of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan - and Matthew who talks most of the Last Judgment, including most of the references to "wailing and gnashing of teeth." Instead of treating the Gospels as a uniform quarry for stories and sayings of Jesus, redaction critics saw each Gospel as having its own distinctive profile.

Redaction criticism had an important influence on all the churches through a new Sunday lectionary compiled in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, in the Catholic Church, but in due course adopted, with a few modifications, by many churches world-wide as the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL). Here each Gospel is read through in order week by week and so heard as a whole in its own right, rather than as in the old system where passages were selected from different Gospels: thus there is a year of Matthew, a year of Mark, a year of Luke (John is mostly read in Lent and Eastertide each year). In the original Catholic version, Old Testament passages were chosen to match the Gospel reading for the day, but even that is modified in the RCL so that for much of the year Old Testament passages also are read in order. This is done to respect the books from which they are taken as texts in their own right, rather than treating them as collections of useful extracts.

Thus redaction criticism has been widely seen as a return to the kind of respect for the Bible that the more "destructive" work of source and form critics had called in question. As we shall see in surveying more recent trends, there has been a widespread feeling that biblical criticism had become over-critical and unhelpful to most Bible readers, who are, after all, interested in the Bible as a book of faith rather than out of antiquarian concerns. The high value placed by many on redaction criticism is perhaps symptomatic of that feeling.

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