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Redaction criticism, also called Redaktionsgeschichte, Kompositionsgeschichte or Redaktionstheologie, is a critical method for the study of biblical texts. Redaction criticism regards the author of the text as editor (redactor) of his or her source materials. Unlike its parent discipline, form criticism, redaction criticism does not look at the various parts of a narrative to discover the original genre; instead, it focuses on how the redactor(s) has shaped and molded the narrative to express his theological goals.
There are several ways in which redaction critics detect editorial activity, including:
- The repetition of common motifs and themes (e.g., in Matthew's Gospel, the fulfillment of prophecy).
- Comparison between two accounts. Does a later account add, omit, or conserve parts of an earlier account of the same event?
- The vocabulary and style of a writer. Does the text reflect preferred words for the editor, or are there words that the editor rarely uses or attempts to avoid using. If the wording reflects the language of the editor, it points toward editorial reworking of a text, while if it is unused or avoided language, then it points toward being part of an earlier source.
Although redaction criticism has existed since antiquity (that is, the possibility of the various gospels having different theological perspectives), three modern day scholars are regularly credited with this school's modern day development: Gunther Bornkamm, Willi Marxsen and Hans Conzelmann (see generally: Bronkamm, Barth and Held, Tradition and Interpretation in Matthew, Marxsen, Mark the Evangelist; Conzelmann, Theology of St Luke).
From these changes, redaction critics can sketch out the distinctive elements of an author/editor's theology. If a writer consistently avoids reporting, e.g., the weaknesses of the Twelve, even when there are earlier sources that provide lurid details of their follies, one could draw the conclusion that the later editor/author held the Twelve in higher esteem, either because of the editor's presuppositions, or because the editor was perhaps trying to reinforce the legitimacy of those chosen by Jesus to carry on his work. Through tracking the overall impact of this editorial activity, one can come away with fairly strong picture of the purpose of a particular writing.
- Emphasizes the creative role of the author.
- Redaction critics from disparate traditions and presuppositions can still find wide agreement on their work since the purpose of an author/editor is largely still recoverable.
- It can show us some of the environment in the communities to which works were written. If an author is writing a Gospel, he is probably trying to correct or reinforce some issue in the social setting of the community to which he is writing.
- It recognizes the possibility that historical narratives in the Bible are not primarily concerned with chronological accounts of historic events, but have theological agendas (though this does not require one to believe that the accounts are not historically factual).
- In Gospel studies, it assumes Markan priority, which, while widely agreed, is not unanimous.
- The logical extreme of strengths (1) and (4) above, i.e., such methodology may unwarrantedly imply that the author is too "creative" and give a false account of the reliability of the text.
- Sometimes it is wrongly asserted on the basis of redaction criticism that what has been added or modified in a text is unhistorical when it could simply be the addition of another source or perspective.
- There has also been a tendency to overemphasize only what an author has modified as being the important aspects of his theology (even though such modifications are usually peripheral to the message), while ignoring the possible importance of those things which he has preserved.
- Sometimes, redaction critics make too much out of minor differences in detail. Is every instance of omission or addition of material theologically driven? It could very well be from a lack or surplus of information, an omission for the sake of brevity and fluidity, an addition for clarity or background information, or other reasons.
- Perrin, Norman. What is Redaction Criticism? Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969.