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Introducing Redaction Criticism

The methodological break-through after form criticism was Redaktionsgeschichte (redaction history) or redaction criticism. While building on form critical insights about the forms of the oral traditions and their function in the various Sitze im Leben (situations in life) of the early Christ congregations, it reacted against the minimalistic view of the evangelists as mere editors collecting prior traditions like pearls on a string. Morna Hooker has a memorable rebuttal: “It will not, I hope, be regarded as a sexist remark if I suggest that only a man could have used the phrase ‘like pearls on a string’ to suggest a haphazard arrangement of material. Any woman would have spotted the flaw at once in the analogy:  pearls need to be carefully selected and graded. And gradually it has dawned on New Testament scholars that this is precisely what the evangelists have done with their material” (The Message of Mark [1983], p. 3). Redaction critics treat the evangelists as authors and theologians in their own right and seek their distinct contribution in editing and shaping the pre-Gospel oral traditions into a new Gospel narrative.

Though anticipated by W. Wrede or R. H. Lightfoot, it was Gunther Bornkamm (Tradition & Interpretation in Matthew [1948]), Hans Conzelmann (The Theology of St. Luke, [1954]), and Willi Marxsen (Mark the Evangelist [1956]) who opened the floodgates. It is easier to spot Matthew’s and Luke’s redactional interests by what they add to or omit from Mark’s Gospel or how they edit Markan texts. Unfortunately, we do not have the sources for either the Gospels of Mark or John to be able to precisely pinpoint how they have redacted their traditions. Several older commentators on John’s Gospel have speculated that the evangelist was working with sources (e.g. the prologue about the logos or Word, a signs source, a discourses source, a Passion Narrative) and that later editors also shaped the final version of the Gospel and added the epilogue of chapter 21, while a number of more recent commentators have rejected source critical analysis of John’s Gospel in favour of studying the final literary form. I will look at the issues with Markan redaction criticism in more detail below.

Premier evangelical scholar Robert Stein’s article “What is Redaktionsgeschicht” JBL 88.1 (1969): 45-56 (online at Biblical Studies.org) notes what redaction critics look for when they sift Mark’s editorial contribution from pre-Markan sources: seams (form critics assumed the traditions were handed down as independent units which Mark attached together with artificial seams), interpretative comments, summaries, modification of material, selection of material, omission of material, arrangement of material, introduction (Mark’s prologue), conclusion (original ending at 16:1-8), favorite vocabulary, and Christological titles (p. 53). However, the method has been sharply criticized by C. Clifton Black in The Disciples according to Mark: Markan Redaction in Current Debate (JSNTS 27; Sheffield: JSOT Press; Sheffield Academic Press, 1989) that I reviewed for RBL.

Some Features in Mark’s Gospel that Redaction Critics have Noted

  • Asides: at certain points Mark explicitly steps in to address the reader to translate Aramaic terms (Mark 3:17; 5:41; 7:11, 34;  15:22, 34), explain Jewish customs (7:3-4, 19c; 15:42), or to clarify the obscure (13:14b).
  • εὐθύς (immediately) or  καὶ εὐθὺς (and immediately): look up Mark 1:16-45 in a more literal translation at www.biblegateway.com to see how much Mark transitions between actions or scenes with “(and) immediately.” This heightens the dramatic action right from the start of Jesus’ ministry, in line with other hyperbolic language (e.g., the fame of John the Baptizer or Jesus spreads everywhere or to all in chapter 1 or “all” Jews wash their hands in 7:3 or Jesus drove out “all” the traders from the Temple and shut down the cult in 11:16, 18), or indicates the rough style of Mark that will be refined by Matthew and Luke. A useful article online that cautions against over-reading Mark’s conjunctions is by Rodney Decker, “Temporal Deixis of the Greek Verb in the Gospel of Mark with Reference to Verbal Aspect.”
  • Intercalation or Markan sandwiches: Mark often interrupts one story by seemingly inserting another unrelated story, following a pattern A1 (story one) – B (new story) – A2 (completion of story one), but in a way that they seem to mutually interpret one another. This technique of intercalation, or Markan sandwiches, has been identified most prominently at Mark 3:20–35; 5:21–43; 6:7–30; 11:12–22; 14:1–11; 14:1-11, 14:53-72. Jesus raising the 12 year old (cf. 5:42) daughter of the synagogue ruler Jairus is interrupted by the healing of the woman suffering from haemorrhages for 12 years, so Mark may want to teach something about faith by juxtaposing these two stories together and the female characters may also symbolize the restoration of Israel (e.g., 12 tribes). The framing of Jesus prophetic denouncement in the Temple with the cursing of the fig-tree and its subsequent withering forms a commentary on what will happen to the fruitless Temple (11:12-22). The efforts of Jesus’ own kin (hoi par autou or “those with him) to restrain him and Jesus’ redefinition of his family as those who do God’s will frames the section on blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, so rejecting Jesus as crazy is equivalent to the scribal accusation that he is possessed by Beelzebub.  If interested further, see James R. Edwards, Markan Sandwiches: The Significance of Interpolations in Markan NarrativesNovTest 31 (1989): 193-216.
  • Odd gar (for) explanations: Mark is fond of is the use is gar-clauses in making explanatory asides in the narrative (21 times) and there is discussion of the Greek conjunction gar (for) at the online Biblical Greek Forum. For a few examples that seem oddly misplaced, 1:16 seems redundant in explaining why Peter and Andrew cast their fishing nets into the lake “for they were fishermen,” 5:42 has a dead girl get up and walk “for she was twelve years of age,” 6:52 has the troubling concession that the disciples did not understand what Jesus had done with the loaves “for their hearts were hardened,” or 11:13 describes why the fig tree was barren “for it was not the season for figs” which makes it seem unfair that it is cursed. If interested further, see C. H. Bird, “Some Gar Clauses in St. Mark’s Gospel” JTS 4 (1953): 171-187; Robert H. Fowler, Let the Reader Understand, 92.
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