In this long and complicated answer to the “messianic secret” in Mark I have explained how 19th century scholars were interested in “source criticism” — the attempt to figure out what the sources of the Gospels were, and in particular, how to explain the “synoptic problem,” that is, the problem of explaining how Matthew, Mark, and Luke have so many similarities, in terms of the stories they tell, often in the same sequence, and even at numerous points in precisely the same words.  The goal in this source analysis was to figure out which Gospel was closest to the time of Jesus and therefore most reliable.

The answer: Mark.  But after some decades Wrede showed that even Mark was not a simple historical account of Jesus’ life, but was driven by literary/theological purposes, causing the author to alter the traditions about Jesus’ words and deeds he had inherited.  That killed for a time the Quest of the Historical Jesus.  Scholars turned to a different interest: what can we say about the traditions of Jesus *before* the Gospels, when stories were being passed along by word of mouth for years before anyone wrote them down.  This was the goal of “form criticism,” which I explained in my previous post.

You might *think* that the reason for moving behind the Gospels to the oral traditions was to get closer to knowing what Jesus really said and did.  But as it turns out, that was not the primary objective of the form critics, only a secondary emphasis and interest.  Many of them weren’t sure there was any way to know.  All we could know is how communties of Christians told their stories about Jesus, and these stories could tell us a lot about the contexts, conflicts, concerns, interests, views of these communities.  And that’s what scholars came to be interested in for some years.

All that changed in the 1950s, withe a return of scholarly interest in the Gospels themselves, as written texts.  The interest was NOT for seeing what they could tell us about the historical Jesus so much as for what they could tell us about the theological interests and views of the authors who wrote the books.  This new form of analysis is called “redaction criticism.”  Here is how I described the method some five years ago on the blog.  I set it up by summarizing some key points about its predecessor, form criticism


In some respects, form criticism put the final nail in the coffin of historical Jesus research, a coffin fashioned by Wrede and Schweitzer. If the stories about Jesus, even in our earliest Gospels, are not accounts of what happened but narratives that were formulated by communities of Christians after his death (as the form critics assumed), well, there’s not much source material left if we want to reconstruct the life of Jesus. And so a lot of scholars gave up trying. For a long time.

The form critics used the Gospels more or less to mine the stories that were in them to hypothesize how they were formed at the oral stage of transmission. The Gospels themselves were not interesting to them as literary products so much. They were interesting only because they strung together a lot of oral stories about Jesus. It was these older (oral) stories that was of primary interest – and not because they indicated what Jesus said and did but showed, instead, but because they showed what was happening in the early years of Christianity when stories about Jesus were being formulated, invented, shaped, and used by the Christian churches around the Mediterranean.

For these form critics, the Gospel writers themselves were relatively unimportant and uninteresting. They took stories available to them and put them into a roughshod narrative, more or less like “putting pearls on a string,” as Dibelius likened it. The pearls – the stories themselves – -were what mattered. In a pearl necklace, who cares about the string?

That view came to be radically changed in the 1950s with the advent of a new form of Gospel analysis called “redaction criticism,” an approach to the Gospels that was highly significant for the 20th century, an approach that was still going strong when I was in graduate school in the early 1980s.  The redaction critics – starting with prominent German scholars such as Willi Marxsen, Gunther Bornkamm, and Hans Conzelmann – wanted to stress precisely what the form critics left out of the equation.   For the redaction critics …

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