Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Uncritical Use of Redaction Criticism

I'm currently reading Darrell Bock and Robert L. Webb, Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus (WUNT 247; Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 2009). This is a must-own for any one serious about Jesus research. The book is full of articles by leading scholars on various crucial events in the Gospels, e.g., the baptism of Jesus, the Triumphal Entry, the Last Supper, the so-called "trial" before Caiaphas and the Jewish council, etc.

As much as I'm loving it, I do have some minor criticisms. In this post I want to mention one of them. I'll be developing what I present here in future papers, but I would love to get some feedback from any other scholars out there.

In a few places the authors in this monograph seem to fall prey to a presuppositional view which I think is utterly mistaken and wrong-headed. What is that view? To sum it up, here it is: scholars seem to conclude that material consistent with the narrative or theological interests of redactors constitutes evidence against authenticity. Going on, scholars seem to assume that redactional activity represents evidence of in authenticity. Indeed, this line of thought appears rather commonly in historical Jesus work.

It seems to appear in Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus as well. Take for example Craig Blomberg. He writes:

“Jesus’ compassion for outcasts of many different kinds―women, lepers, other sick persons, Samaritans, Gentiles, and the poor―forms of a major emphasis within Luke’s writing. So we cannot argue that the specific pericopae of Jesus’ meals with sinners in this Gospel fail to fit the Evangelist’s redactional tendencies. But there are plenty of other signs of authenticity.”[1]
It seems here that the assumption is that material that coincides with Luke’s larger narrative interests must be seen as historically suspect.

But why?

Clearly it is entirely possible―I think even probable!―that “redactors” included authentic material in their editorial work.

In fact, this very point is made by Robert Webb in the introductory essay to this compilation of essays:

“Often in historical Jesus studies, if something is identified as redactional material contributed by a Gospel author, it is usually discounted as not being historical with reference to Jesus. In many cases this may be appropriate, but sometimes it is applied in a heavy-handed manner that misses the point.”[2]
Indeed, Mr. Q himself, John S. Kloppenborg, makes this point: “It is indeed possible, indeed probable, that some of the materials from the secondary compositional phase are dominical or at least very old, and that some of the formative elements are, from the standpoint of authenticity or tradition-history, relatively young.”[3]

Likewise, Gundry explains, “. . . artistic composition does not imply lack of traditional data, for artists often use raw materials given to them rather than spinning material out of their own heads.”[4]

Kloppenborg goes on to make a point that I wish I could put into a frame and give to all of my graduate students: “Tradition-history is not convertible with literary history.”[5] Kloppenborg makes the point plainly in another work on Q: “It should be stressed that the assignment of a set of sayings to the framing [of Q] implies nothing about their ultimate tradition-historical provenance or their authenticity; it is a literary observation.”[6]

The point is often overlooked, especially among those still convinced by the Q theory―i.e., what is from Q is largely assumed to be historical, but what is seen as stemming from the redactional activity of Matthew and Luke is not.

Such an approach however is hugely problematic! Even in his work on Q Kloppenborg cautions:
“Redaction criticism, in particular the ground-breaking work of Werner Kelber (1983), should also have taught us that the choice of genre and the organizational patterns employed by the written Gospels are the choices of the authors involved; they cannot be used as indices by which to characterize the historical Jesus. The literary choice to feature sapiential and prophetic sayings and to ignore the miracle and passion traditions tells us in the first place about Q, not about the historical Jesus. It renders evidence of the persons who collected and framed its sayings. Their interests must be probed and their techniques analyzed. . . . To be sure, Q is an important source for the historical Jesus, but it is only one of several. It is neither complete nor is it unalloyed.”[7]
So let’s get it clear: we must decouple the questions of redaction history and historicity. Indeed, whatever one thinks about his conclusions about dating the New Testament documents, John A.T. Robinson’s discussion of the uncritical use of redaction criticism ought to receive more attention than it has.[8]

So now let me ask: what do you think?

[1] Craig Blomberg, “The Authenticity and Significance of Jesus’ Table Fellowship with Sinners,” in Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus, 232.
[2] Webb, “The Historical Enterprise and Historical Jesus Research,” in Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus, 59.
[3] See John S. Kloppenborg, The Formation of Q: Trajectories in Ancient Wisdom Collections (SAC; Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 2000), 244. See “. . . artistic composition does not imply lack of traditional data, for artists often use raw materials given to them rather than spinning material out of their own heads.” See also Meyer, Aims of Jesus, 71–72.
[4] Robert H. Gundry, Mark: A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 723–24. See also Meyer, Aims of Jesus, 71–72.
[5] Kloppenborg, The Formation of Q, 244.
[6] John S. Kloppenborg, “The Formation of Q Revisited: A Response to Richard Horsely,” Society of Biblical Literature 1989 Seminar Papers (ed. D. J. Lull; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989), 206 [204–15].
[7] Excavating Q: The History and Settings of the Sayings Gospel (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 351–52
[8] John A. T. Robinson, The Priority of John (London: SCM Press, 1985; repr., South Humphrey: Meyer Stone Books, 1987 [1985]), 28–33.


Ari said...

I am in agreement with you. I have been working on the Cynic thesis quite heavily and it has really poisoned the well in terms redaction criticism, especially with regard to Q. Sometimes I wonder why those who assume Kloppenborg's stratification didn't take note of his warning in equating literary history with tradition history.

I was going to illustrate this point with many of my Kloppenborg quotes but it appears that you used every single one I have!

Tim Johnson said...

Not a scholar yet, though I plan to pursue an advanced degree after ordination in order to teach at the university level. The one problem I have with much of the scholarship I have started to read is this hermeneutic of distrust and DIScontinuity that most scholars approach the Biblical texts.

I get that we have to reconstruct the writing of the texts because we don't have notarized originals with a documented provenance. What bothers me is that so many who search for the "historical" Jesus automatically throw out any possibility of the supernatural events or inspiration in the texts. This lets them disregard and denigrate the things they don't like.

I also recognize that I don't know everything and that it's possible that God allowed the Gospels to develop in the way these authors describe, but their conclusions always seem to lead to a Jesus that wasn't the Son of God and the Second Person of the Trinity. If that's your conclusion or your purpose, then why are you a Biblical scholar except to disprove to others something you don't believe?

That seems to cast a shadow of doubt on not only your conclusions but also your suppositions you began with. Which begs the quesiton, why should we listen to these kinds of authors?

Thanks Michael for the work you do here. I really have appreciated reading the work you, Brant and John have done here.

Craig Blomberg said...

All of us in the IBR Historical Jesus study group would agree with you that plenty of redactional material is also authentic. We would even argue that we can defend some of that redactional material as authentic on historical grounds alone, without presupposing Christian faith. But if you read Darrell Bock's and Bob Webb's introductory and concluding remarks carefully you'll see that by design we didn't take that more "maximalist" approach in this volume because many critical scholars disagree. We were trying to show that even on their more stringent criteria a good case could be made, historically, for the authenticity of the major contours of the Synoptic tradition that we examined. The true target for your excellent post should thus be scholars like Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg and the numerous others that still rely primarily on the well-known minimalist "criteria of authenticity" in historical Jesus research.

Michael Barber said...


As I wrote on your blog--thanks for stopping by. I am eager to read your critique of the Cynic hypothesis.


Thanks for dropping by. I think you really ought to read Scott Hahn's book on Benedict's approach to the historical-critical method, "Covenant and Communion" (Baker/Brazos, 2009). Benedict has a very balanced, thoughtful critique of the historical critical method; he finds good in it while noting some of problematic tendencies it has been associated with. You ought to check it out--especially if you're thinking of going further into the world of academia.

Michael Barber said...

Craig Blomberg:

Fair enough! I definitely think that approach has value. As readers of this blog know, I have taken a similar approach. I just want to make sure we don't cede too much to skeptics who are likely to remain in their entrenched positions.

Specifically, I doubt that skeptics would be more likely to accept your arguments because you did not echo Kloppenborg's warning against confusing literary history with tradition history.

Speaking for myself, I think Jesus scholars should just advance the most methodologically sound approach regardless of how those who have taken entrenched positions might respond. Indeed, think I would even avoid terms like "maximalist" or "minimalist". It seems to me such language bespeaks an approach where the scholar--a priori--decides whether the Gospels should be viewed as mostly historical or as mostly unhistorical and then does work accordingly. Again, I may be wrong, but it seems to me that this would convey problematic perceptions.

In fact, from what I can see, Crossan and Borg have been left in the dust. Works such as Key Events and Keener's recent monograph (The Historical Jesus of the Gospels) represent major advances in the field. Call it "maximalist" or "minimalist"--I think it's just good, solid scholarship. It is certainly light years beyond what people like the Jesus Seminar or skeptics like Lüdemann offer. Such writers typically assert rather than argue; they dismiss opinions with hardly any serious interaction. In short, it seems to me the Jesus Seminar is stuck in the 90's and do not represent mainstream contemporary scholarship. Perhaps I am wrong, but I don't think scholars should hamstring their approach because such die-hard skeptics might not agree.

More importantly, I regret that I did not better highlight the strength of this article. It was fantastic! You decimated Smith. I'll definitely have to explain how in future posts.

In sum, you are right, the true target of my post are the skeptics.

P.S. I'm a huge fan of your work. Thank you for writing the book on the historical reliability of the Gospels--and most especially for the one on John. Aside from representing an important academic contribution, what a service it is to the church! Your work has helped make it possible for future generations of believing scholars to have a seat at the academic table. All of us who aspire to bring together faith and Jesus scholarship owe you a deep debt of gratitude.

Tim Johnson said...

Michae, I do have Covenant and Commuion. I read about 40 pages in the bookstore before I bought it. However, I have to finish Boadt's Reading the Old Testement and Fr. Brown's Introduction to the New Testement for my Scripture classes before I go on to anything else.

What is your opinion of Boadt's book? It takes a pretty standard approach to the OT scholarship it seems. So far (first 130 pages) it is all about the human authorship and seems to approach anything prior to Exodus as an invention to bolster Israel's unique relationship with Yahweh rather than a faithful writing down of the oral tradition. Not a whole lot of citations too so far. Which I don't care for. THoughts on Boadt?

C&C is high on the list for after the books for the Diaconate classes. Was wondering whether to finish Jesus of Nazareth and then the second part before C&C. What would you recommend?

Thanks again!