What is Redaction Criticism?

by Matt Slick

Redaction Criticism of the Bible is the theory that different copyists and commentators of the early biblical writings embellished and altered the biblical texts throughout early Jewish and Christian history to make them appear more miraculous, inspirational, and legitimate.  An example of redaction theory would be the claim that Old Testament prophecies were modified by redactors after the fact to make them appear as miraculous prophecies.  Redaction criticism reduces the quality of the biblical record, casts strong doubt on its inspiration, and implies that the Bible is not trustworthy as a historical document.

Originally, redaction criticism was restricted to the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), but it has been applied to other areas of scripture.  Norman Perrin in his book "What is Redaction Criticism?" states, "The prime requisite for redaction criticism is the ability to trace the form and content of material used by the author concerned or in some way to determine the nature and extent of his activity in collecting and creating, as well as in arranging, editing, and composing."1

Redaction Criticism began in Germany in the early 1700's with Hermann Reimarus, who was a professor of Oriental languages in Hamburg.  He was a deist who wrote extensively against Christianity.  He proposed that Jesus was a failure, and that the disciples altered their stories in an attempt to make Jesus appear messianic and miraculous.

Redaction criticism was then taken up by David Friedrich Strauss (1808-74) who attempted to show that the gospels were altered, were the expression of myth, and cannot be construed as historical.  His main contribution to redaction criticism was the idea that Mark was used as a source document by Matthew and Luke.2

Wilhelm Wrede (1859-1906) was the next major proponent of redaction criticism who attempted to show that the historical narratives of Mark were not reliable.

Some Evidence and Answers for Redaction

Some evidence offered to support biblical redaction is that the ending of Deuteronomy (Chapter 34) records Moses' death though it was not Moses who wrote it; the arrangement of the Psalms into five sections is the work of a compiler; and that the Book of Chronicles states it is based on prior writings (1 Chron. 9:1; 27:24; 29:29; 2 Chron. 9:29; 13:22; 6:11; 20:34; 25:26; 27:7; 28:26; 32:32; 33:19; 35:27; 36:8).3 There are other alleged evidences, but these will suffice.

Though there are accounts of biblical writers arranging or commenting on events, this does not discount the authenticity or reliability of the biblical documents.  It is commonly accepted in conservative scholarly circles that Joshua probably wrote the ending of Deuteronomy.  This does not invalidate the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch.  Likewise, simply arranging material, such as the Psalms, into categories does not affect its inspiration, authenticity, or reliability at all.  And, citing other sources for factual reference likewise in no way reduces the inspiration of the book of Chronicles or the Bible as a whole.  The inspired writer simply used other books, which were not inspired though accurate, in his compilation of the biblical record.

Another twist in redaction criticism is the proposition that there were inspired redactors.  That is, those people who compiled and commented on biblical passages were themselves inspired.  But this contradicts the doctrine that the original writings were inspired.  After all, if the original writings were inspired, there would be no need for altering the text.  It further implies that what is said in scripture is not trustworthy.  The gospels, for example, would not then really contain Jesus' words but only the words of redactors who wanted to embellish and/or modify "myth stories" into what was apparently more spiritual and inspirational.  With this, deception is implied since the biblical documents claim authenticity and accuracy.

Though it is not within the scope of this paper, redaction criticism is refuted by the evidence of the reliability of the historic documents (dealt with in Textual Criticism), the fact that the prophecies were indeed made and fulfilled, and that the Bible is archaeologically accurate.  Due to the science of Textual Criticism, the original texts of the Bible can be reconstructed with a great deal of accuracy, their prophetic nature verified, and their inspiration maintained.

  • 1. Perrin, Norman, What is Redaction Criticism? Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969, p. 2.
  • 2. Ibid., p. 4-5.
  • 3. Geisler, Norman. Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1999, p. 636.

 

 

 

 
 
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