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Redaction Criticism of the Gospels


In a previous post I explained why scholars have long held to “Markan Priority,” the view that Mark was the first Gospel written and that Matthew and Luke both used it for constructing their own narratives.   One great pay-off for this conclusion (it really is significant) is that it is possible, given this result, to see how Matthew and Luke have each *modified* Mark in the stories they received from him.  This approach is called “redaction criticism.”  A “redactor” is an editor.  Redaction criticism looks at the editing decisions made by an editor of a source.

Years ago I described the method and gave an illustration of how it worked on the blog, in part to show that finding the differences between the Gospels is not necessarily a *negative* thing, but can have very *positive* results for interpreting the message each one has.  This is what I said then:


I have stressed that knowing that there are differences, even discrepancies, among the Gospels does not need to be considered in a purely negative light. There are very serious positive pay-offs. These differences/discrepancies open up possibilities for interpretation, because they (in theory) prevent a person from importing a meaning into a text that is difficult to sustain from the words of the text itself.

If you pretend that Mark’s version of Jesus going to his death – from his trial to his death itself — is the same as Luke’s version, you *really* miss out on what each author is trying to emphasize, in a very big way indeed.   Mark portrays Jesus as …

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And Then There Was Q



  1. Robert
    Robert  December 1, 2017

    Your tendency to attribute material unique to Matthew or Luke as coming from earlier sources, M or L, respectively, rather than to Matthean or Lukan redaction serves your Leben Jesu methodology by increasing the claim of ‘independent attestation’ among these multiple hypothetical sources. Your synoptic source-critical position seems more akin to the 4-source theory of Sanday and Streeter, still favored by many English speaking (mostly conservative) scholars because it maximizes the amount of traditional or historical content in the gospels. Likewise, you think that John and Thomas were independent of the synoptic gospels, thus two more possible sources of supposedly ‘independent’ attestation. You also favor the Q-hypothesis but do not speak much of the Q/Mark overlaps, which also tend to put in doubt the extent to which Mark and Q are fully independent.

    In my opinion, good redaction criticism, as I have seen it practiced, is much more willing to attribute a greater creative role to ‘Matthew’ and ‘Luke’ as true authors and not merely editors or redactors stringing together pre-existing sources and traditions.

    Do you see how your Leben Jesu focus tends to minimize the importance of the the actual texts of Matthew and Luke (and John) as the products of true authors in their own right?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2017

      I think you’re saying that I have an ulterior reason for holding to M and L. I certainly don’t see it that way myself — my ultimate goal in life is not to establish multiple sources for the life of Jesus! If there were fewer sources, as a historian I would simply say “there aren’t very many sources!” I don’t have any particular reason for wanting there to be more sources or fewer, or for us to be able to know more or less about the man Jesus. I’m simply trying to do history. What we do know about Matthew and Luke is that they took the vast bulk of their stories from sources. We know two of the written sources. Luke says he had “many.” Unless one can give some compelling reason for thinking that he himself came up with all the stories in his account not found in Matthew and Mark then I don’t see any argument against his having used one or more sources that have traditionally been labeled L (mutatis mutandis for Matthew and M).

      • Robert
        Robert  December 4, 2017

        “I think you’re saying that I have an ulterior reason for holding to M and L. …”

        No, not at all. I am certainly not questioning your motives. I’m just pointing out what I think is a weakness of any Leben Jesu methodology that is indeed focused on trying to recover hypothetical sources and traditions and ultimately reconstructing a reliable portrait of an historical Jesus, based in part on supposed independent attestation. This methodology invariably diminishes our focus on the final text of true authors. More contemporary methodologies focus much more on the story as composed by an author, regardless of the existence of hypothetical sources.

        “Unless one can give some compelling reason for thinking that he himself came up with all the stories in his account not found in Matthew and Mark then I don’t see any argument against his having used one or more sources that have traditionally been labeled L (mutatis mutandis for Matthew and M).”

        The more traditional source-critical methodology generally assumed that there must be relatively reliable sources behind the current texts. There is no reason for the burden of proof being to disprove this assumption. L source or Lukan creation from whole cloth is a bit of a false dichotomy. Even if Matthew and Luke (and John) are relying on hypothetical M and L (and Signs) sources, they are presumably using them as freely as they used Mark, picking and choosing what to include and freely modifying even the materials that they did use. Nor is there any reason to presume that these hypothetical sources are completely independent and multiply attesting. Doing history need not assume that there are multiple relatively reliable sources independently attesting to what is ultimately an historical reconstruction.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 5, 2017

          To determine what we can know about the historical Jesus, we have to establish which sources of information are available to us. That needs to be done *before* anything else. The determination of sources — e.g. by resolving the Synoptic Problem, ascertaining what sources were available to John, looking at Paul and other NT writers, considering non-canonical Christian texts, looking to non-Christian Jewish and Roman sources and so on — is a first step. That investigation (you’re right!) has to be conducted on its own terms — not with a view to strengthening one’s case for establishing what actually happened in the life of Jesus.

          • Robert
            Robert  December 5, 2017

            Do you agree that the more traditional source-critical methodology and results tended to multiply supposedly independently attesting sources to serve the needs of the Leben Jesu objective? At the expense of understanding each gospel as a literary whole, and the work of a true author? For example, messianic secrecy is seen as an historical element of Jesus’ very own esoteric teaching and less so the creation of the later tradition or a literary motif of the author of the gospel of Mark. Or that Matthew clumsily did not even understand that his inclusion of parable of the sheep and the goats contradicted his own theology of salvation. If we really want to understand why Matthew included the parable of the sheep and the goats, why he placed it where it appears in his gospel, and how he understood its significance, should we really presume that he did not even understand what he was including?

          • Bart
            Bart  December 6, 2017

            Again, no, the solutions proposed to the Synoptic Problem or to the sources of John are NOT reached by competent scholars “in order to” multiply sources for the life of Jesus. They may, afterward, have that effect, but that is not why the conclusions are reached. Scholars are genuinely interested in knowing what sources of information were available to the authors.

          • Robert
            Robert  December 6, 2017

            I think you’re missing my point. It is not about intent, but rather focus. One methodology focuses on identifying hypothetucal traditional sources, generally presumes independence of these sources, and sometimes even assumes that the final reactor of a gospel did not even realize that he disagreed with material he chose to include from his source. Another method focuses on each literary work as a whole and seeks to understand the intent of a genuine author who was master of his material, which he used with authorial intent and purpose. Surely you see how some presuppositions of these two methodologies can sometimes conflict and compete.

          • Bart
            Bart  December 8, 2017

            I suppose they can. But I am not imperialistic about my methods! I think both a historical and a literary set of questions are interesting and important, and require distinct methodologies. And so I do both.

          • Robert
            Robert  December 8, 2017

            “I suppose they can. But I am not imperialistic about my methods! I think both a historical and a literary set of questions are interesting and important, and require distinct methodologies. And so I do both.”

            But, when the presuppositions and conclusions conflict, one must choose. Either Matthew understood the parables he decided to include or he didn’t. If the former, he is functioning as a true author. If the latter, he is much less an author and more of a clumsy and incompetent editor.

  2. Avatar
    godspell  December 1, 2017

    Although none of the gospels can be truly considered a biography in the modern sense, they all aspire to something of that kind, and can be evaluated as such.

    And can we ever say, of any famous and influential person, that he or she is so simple that one biography could ever say all there was to say about him/her?

    We will find some biographies superior in terms of style; how they bring the person alive for us, draw us into the events of that life. Others will be more methodical in their collection of stories about their subject, information that allows the reader to draw conclusions about who this person really was (hopefully accurate, but even modern historians sometimes err in this regard).

    Each new biographer will be aware of at least some previous efforts in this line, and try to add to the pile of information–or, in some cases, amend what he/she considers to be a mistaken impression conveyed by previous works. Revisionism was a thing before anybody called it by that name.

    Mark has an idea of a Jesus who is very human, who is Jewish by birth and training, but who has to some extent transcended that faith (that Mark probably did not follow himself). Matthew, being Jewish, would agree with Mark that Jesus came to change Judaism, but wishes for reasons both political and personal to say that Jesus was not merely a Jew, but The Quintessential Jew. Luke wants to make him The Perfect Hero, which makes his Jesus the most iconic, and the least believable of the synoptics. To John, he’s not a man at all, but a divine spirit briefly clothed in flesh.

    Here is where the analogy with modern biography breaks down, because the gospels reverse the normal order of things in that field of historical scholarship, over the past few centuries. We typically start with iconography (early biographies of Lincoln come to mind), and then come the more critical takes, that still seek to sympathize with and understand the inner person, understand his/her conflicts, perhaps admire the person all the more for his/her imperfections that were overcome (assuming they were, not only or even primarily good people get biographies).

    Rarely can we ever say the first attempt at a biography is the best. But in this case, Mark’s, to me, is better than the others. And this is because Jesus is being made into God, over several generations, and nobody can write a good biography of God.

  3. Avatar
    rburos  December 1, 2017

    Has Paul (or his work) impacted Mark in any way?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2017

      It’s much debated, but I think some of Paul’s theology is in there, especially on the significance of Jesus’ death.

      • Avatar
        godspell  December 4, 2017

        I don’t think Mark saw Jesus as an angel, as you’ve plausibly argued was the case with Paul. Mark’s Jesus is the most human, in spite of his extraordinary powers. (Arguably no more so than those of Moses or Elijah).

  4. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  December 1, 2017

    One of the many things I really, really like about Dr. Ehrman’s Textbook of the New Testament is that it discusses each Gospel from the viewpoint of a different critical approach clearly illustrating how this particular critical approach works.

  5. Avatar
    ddorner  December 1, 2017

    I’ve realized in some instances the publisher or translators themselves will encourage conflating the texts. Consider the NIV version, where the heading for Matthew 2:19 says “The Return To Nazareth”, but Matthew never says they’re from Nazareth to begin with, but only has them detour there to avoid Archelaus in Judea.

    Perhaps it’s just poor wording, but for the casual reader this seems deliberately misleading.

  6. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  December 1, 2017

    Interesting post. Often Christians try to cram all the Gospels together to form one big narrative instead of reading each Gospel separately to garner the message each author was trying to make. If the Gospel writers were just trying to write a biographical historical chronology of the life of Jesus then there wouldn’t really have been the need to write more than one. Does this indicate that the Gospels were read by the early Christian community with different motives than they are read today?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2017

      I’m not sure I follow. Lots of biographers have tried to write historical chronologies of Thomas Jefferson and … and of lots of people (not just one biographer!)

  7. Avatar
    fishician  December 1, 2017

    Mark doesn’t seem concerned with portraying Jesus as a supernaturally-born and divinely perfect being, as became Christian doctrine eventually. Am I wrong about this? Is there a specific point, person or place at which Jesus began to be thought of as sinless and perfect, or do you think it was a gradual development along multiple fronts?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2017

      Long development. If you are really interested, my friend Jeff Siker has a book on just the topic, Jesus, Sin, and Perfection in Early Xty.

  8. Avatar
    darren  December 1, 2017

    Would be very interested in your reaction to this story (http://www.iflscience.com/editors-blog/a-rare-heretical-text-of-jesus-secret-teachings-has-been-found-in-a-library/) about the Greek version of the heretical Christian text describing Jesus’ secret teachings to his brother James.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2017

      Yes, it’s fantastic. But it’s not a new text: it’s the Greek form of a text we know already.

  9. Avatar
    wostraub  December 1, 2017

    Bart — Considering the probability that Matthew and Luke wrote their gospels after Mark but roughly at the same time, why were they so different in certain specifics, such as the birth narrative? Were none of these writers in touch with one another, and did no one pick up on the differences as their gospels were made available?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2017

      They had different soruces of information and different agenda themselves.

  10. Avatar
    meohanlon  December 1, 2017

    Hi Bart,
    In Mark (and the other synoptics) there is an apparent discrepancy regarding Jesus’s Davidic lineage, between Mark and the other Gospels in their genealogical accounts, and in fact, within Mark alone, between Jesus’ perceptions of himself (or rather, the Christ) originally in Mark 12:35 – and that of others who regard him as the Christ in (Mark 10:48 for example). I find this pretty interesting.
    What do you make of Jesus’s apparent disagreement with general expectations about who the messiah really is (which he’s even mocking it seems), or is supposed to be?
    Assuming he takes Jesus as the final authority, could Mark himself be disagreeing with the later gospel authors here?
    And why would Matthew ( in 22:41) and Luke (in 20:41) paraphrasing Mark, have Jesus say something seemingly at odds with their clear intentions to prove the messiah’s (and therefore Jesus’) Davidic lineage?
    Because Jesus’ disclaimer appears so dissimilar to the conventional expectations of the time, as well as those of later traditions, could you make a case for its authenticity (and perhaps even a reason for Mark cautiously leaving out a Davidic genealogy)?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2017

      I’m not sure what you’re seeing as the discrepancies. What do you have in mind about the differences among the Gospels?

      • Avatar
        meohanlon  December 5, 2017

        The discrepancy between what Jesus says and the views of the teachers of the law (that the Messiah is a descendant of David); he appears to be questioning it here, even making their view seem absurd.

        12: 35 While Jesus was teaching in the temple courts, he asked, “Why do the teachers of the law say that the Messiah is the son of David? 36 David himself, speaking by the Holy Spirit, declared:

        “‘The Lord said to my Lord:
        “Sit at my right hand
        until I put your enemies
        under your feet.”’[a]

        37 David himself calls him ‘Lord.’ How then can he be his son?”

        The large crowd listened to him with delight.

        • Avatar
          meohanlon  December 5, 2017

          Also – between the gospels; If Jesus is questioning the Davidic Messiah idea, does Mark then side with him? Mark has no genealogies, but Matthew and Luke do, partly to establish a Davidic line -which seems as though they missed the “mark” on what the above passage is saying (which they share with Mark).

          • Bart
            Bart  December 6, 2017

            It’s a point that Mark doesn’t emphasize, unlike Matthew and Luke; so it’s hard to know if he would disagree with it or not.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 6, 2017

          This is a very difficult passage to interpret, and there is no agreement about it. Some scholars think that the point is to show that Jesus can confuse Jewish scholars with an unanswerable question to show his superiority to them; others that he wanted to claim that the saying was invented by Chrsitain storytellers to explain how Jesus could be the Lord if he was not descended from David; others that he wanted to actuallyi has an answer to the question in mind and is forcing them to realize that their own theology doesn’t work, because Jesus is the “Son of David” in a way other than what they expect (he is the messiah who must suffer, not reign); others that… there are still other explanations!

          • Avatar
            meohanlon  December 6, 2017


  11. Avatar
    Eskil  December 2, 2017

    Interesting news “Greek fragments of the First Apocalypse of James survived”. I wonder will they find more of these greek versions in the future.


    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2017

      One can hope!

      • Avatar
        Eskil  December 5, 2017

        Do you think you need to revise your text books if it ends up that Gnostic texts were still studied and copied in Greek hundreds of years after being banned?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 6, 2017

          No, I’ve always said that these texts were originally composed in Greek, and that what we have are Coptic translations.

          • Avatar
            Eskil  December 6, 2017

            My understanding was that these new fragments are now much younger than the Coptic copies found from Nag Hammadi. I had got an impression that the Coptic copies had been hidden just before all the other copies were destroyed shortly after the canonisation of the Bible. Such an hypothesis doesn’t seem to hold after this discovery. Maybe the texts didn’t get destroyed until Muslims conquered Egypt.

          • Bart
            Bart  December 8, 2017

            I’m not sure this discovery has any bearing on why the Nag Hammadi library was hidden. It was secreted away because of local conditions in and near Nag Hammadi, not because of some kind of global crisis.

  12. Avatar
    Brand3000  December 25, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Do you agree?

    “What set Jesus apart is that unlike his contemporaries, he performed his miracles and good deeds solely for the glorification of God – free of charge – while dispensing wisdom on morality and the nature of God’s kingdom.”

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