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The Gospel Writers as Editors Rather than Authors

Three weeks ago I started to give a response to a question about the Messianic Secret.  At first I thought I could handle the question in a post or two.  As seems to happen a lot on the blog, once I explained all the background that led up to the development of the idea, and then explained it, and then talked about its aftermath – Voila!  We had an entire thread.   All to the good, I suppose.

I have now gotten to the point of talking about how in the 1950s, New Testament scholars moved away from focusing on the oral traditions behind the Gospels (the concerns of the “form criticism”) to looking at the theological and literary investments of the Gospels themselves (“redaction criticism”).  Scholars now had a renewed interest in seeing what these particular authors – the anonymous writers of the Gospels – wanted to emphasize, individually and distinctively, about Jesus.  It came to be realized afresh that each writer had his own emphasis, his own story, his own perspective – that Matthew’s was very different from John’s which was very different from Mark’s which was very different from Luke’s, etc.

The way they originally got to this was by realizing that if two of the Gospels had used one of the others as a source, then it was possible to see how they had changed the source, and that would provide clues as to their own invested interests.  The only reason to change a source you’re copying is if you want to present the account differently.  The differences can then tell you what you want to emphasize.

Over time – decades really – this method of redaction criticism took hold and came to be refined.   Eventually, some scholars realized that in an odd way …

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A Return to the Historical Jesus
A New Way of Looking at the Gospels



  1. Avatar
    Nichrob  February 26, 2019

    Per your suggestion, I am currently reading Albert Schweitzer’s “The Quest of the Historical Jesus”, and LOVING it…!! I think the book could easily be turned into a TV documentary by modeling it like the TV series “Cosmos” with Neil Degrasse Tyson. The Cosmos series uses cartoons as the format to transport us (the viewer) back in time to meet pioneer physicists… I think that “format” would work perfectly for Schwitzer’s book…! You would be the perfect “host” of the show. Now, if I only had 3 million to “produce it”….. I think it would be an incredible series….! Let’s pitch it….!

  2. Avatar
    AstaKask  February 26, 2019

    Matthew and Luke trace Jesus’s line through Joseph, which makes no sense if there’s a virgin birth. Do you think they inherited these lineages from someone else and that they pre-date the stories of a virgin birth? Or is there some other explanation?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 27, 2019

      I think they inherited them, yes. Whether they predated them or not, I don’t know. I suppose so? They are designed to show that Jesus is a descendant of David, adn therefore the messiah. Of course, millions of others were descended from him too…..

  3. Avatar
    Silver  February 26, 2019

    Reading a parallel New Testament I have just noticed that Luke has only a very abbreviated mocking of Jesus at his trial. Why is it, do you think, please, that Luke did not include the crown of thorns?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 27, 2019

      One of Luke’s major emphases is that Jesus didn’t suffer very much, but in fact was not in terrible anguish and pain. It’s probably related to that.

      • Avatar
        JohnKesler  February 27, 2019

        It appears to me that the, or at least *a*, reason that Luke doesn’t have Jesus suffer as much prior to the cross is because Luke alone has Jesus speak to the women who were “beating their breasts and wailing for him” (Luke 23:27-31) on his way to Calvary.

  4. Avatar
    kqn  February 26, 2019

    I think the average Christian, like I used to be, always assumed there were four independent Gospels which was proof of the life and death of Jesus. “Hey, four disciples told the same story. It must be true.” Now the evidence indicates that the Gospels drew on common sources, and the authors edited the material to weave their narratives. Makes me wonder if John 21:25 is a ploy akin to the strategy you describe in “Forged” at 2 Thessalonians 2:2, i.e. to draw the reader away from questioning, “Look out for those other guys, those darn forgers.” By the time John was written the author may have noticed that the previous Gospels were sounding too much alike, so he made his much different, and then he throws in John 21:25 to lead the reader to think that there’s tons of stuff out there, such that, “…the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” Is that a plausibility, just another literary ploy? (the truth being, there’s not tons of stuff out there). Maybe you’ve discussed this in a previous blog. You’ve got a lot out there. BTW, Thank you for that.

  5. Avatar
    godspell  February 26, 2019

    We are, in many ways, in a golden age of history writing. In spite of the post-modernist plague, that I don’t see afflicting studies of Ancient Christianity much, thank God (well, had to thank something).

    Nothing is off-limits, and yet you still have to make your point, back it up, and refer to earlier pioneers who passed this way before you. Historiography–the study of how we have recorded and analyzed the past over time–gives us perspective, the understanding that it’s a long hard slog with no real end to it, since the further we go into the future, the more the past matters–a homing beacon, if you will.

    Thanks for this series (which I think you’ve about wrapped up).

  6. Avatar
    fishician  February 26, 2019

    Are any of the English translations accurate enough to do some analysis like this, or do you really have to get into the Greek to see the differences and nuances? If so, which translation(s) could be used for such study?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 27, 2019

      It can be done in English. Just get a Synopsis of the Four Gospels (edited by Kurt Aland) and look from one Gospel column to the other (use colored pencils to note similarities and differences among all the accounts!)

  7. Avatar
    NancyGKnapp  February 26, 2019

    Are the different types of criticism used in combination. Which ones would seminary students at Princeton, etc. be learning?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 27, 2019

      The doctoral students would learn about all of them. The divinity students would learn the ones being used most commonly, e.g., source criticism and redaction criticism and various kinds of more recent literary criticism

  8. Avatar
    rivercrowman  February 26, 2019

    Bart are you still planning to revise your text “The Bible — A Historical and Literary Introduction?” (2014) … A great book.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 27, 2019

      The 7th ed. is finished and now being copy-edited, for release later this year.

  9. Avatar
    Eric  February 26, 2019

    You have probably explained this before, but can you remind me why we think that Matthew and Luke used Mark INSTEAD of assuming all three used the same stories source (call it K). Perhaps Mark followed this more verbatim than the other two (being much more pleased with himself over his framework efforts than in his ability to rephrase the existing stories).

    The scenario i describe would account for similar order, the different redaction of Luke and Matthew but from K, not from Mark, while Mark’s redaction from K were minimal or zero ).

    The clearest evidence would be some stray, vestigal copying of some of Mark’s framework material (but nowhere near all! — that would merely move the frame to K) by Matthew and/or Luke. Is this the case?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 27, 2019

      It’s because most of the problems can be solved by assuming Markan priority, *without* introducing a hypothetical source (think: Ockham’s Razor).

  10. Avatar
    doug  February 26, 2019

    Given how the work of Wrede and Schweitzer and others eventually led to the development of redaction criticism, I wonder what new kinds of Biblical analysis will develop, say 100 years from now, as a result of current Bible scholarship.

  11. Avatar
    mannix  February 26, 2019

    You contributed a chapter in “Hearing the New Testament” edited by Joel Green (Eerdmans,1995). If you have a copy handy, which chapter describes best the redactional criticism you have been referring to?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 27, 2019

      Ah, don’t have it. But it would be indicated in teh Table of Contents I should think.

  12. Avatar
    Nexus  February 26, 2019

    I have an unrelated question.

    You often mention the need to understand the Jewishness of Jesus and the place that he lived. This item (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/unearthing-world-jesus-180957515/) states that, yes, Galilee was thoroughly Jewish: synagogues, no pork bones, pottery made according to scripture, and ritual baths.

    However, they’ve gone a step further. The discovery of a stone altar that mimics the interior of the holy of holies plus some chariot wheels with fire, leads to one of the researchers suggesting that this altar suggests Galileans were shifting to a Judaism where god was everywhere, even your heart, not just in a temple in Jerusalem. It is then suggested that this was fertile ground for Jesus’ movement to begin.

    Are you aware of this altar? Can you comment if these conclusions are commonly accepted?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 27, 2019

      No, I’m not.

      • Avatar
        Nexus  March 1, 2019

        It’s known as the Magdala stone. You might find it interesting, even just to look at.

  13. Avatar
    Brand3000  February 26, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Do you think that the Sermon on the Mount goes back to the historical Jesus as well as the “But I Say Unto You” words?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 27, 2019

      No, I think Matthew constructed it out of a number of earlier sources, including Q.

      • Avatar
        Brand3000  February 27, 2019

        So as far as the teachings of the historical Jesus, what do you think those were actually like? Anything original or just him quoting OT verses?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 1, 2019

          See my book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. That’s what it’s about. But no, he wasn’t just quoting the OT.

          • Avatar
            Hngerhman  March 1, 2019

            Dr Ehrman – curious, if you were to do a red-font gospel of Mark comprised of only the (probable) historical sayings and material, just how short would it be? Thanks!

          • Bart
            Bart  March 3, 2019

            Ha! Great question. I”ve never thought about it like that!

      • fefferdan
        fefferdan  March 9, 2019

        I agree that Matthew’s Sermon isn’t exactly historical, but I have no problem believing that many of the sayings are. As for “but I say unto you,” it’s important to realize that [whether historical or not] this “but” isn’t contradicting the “old” law — it’s telling people to do even more. “Your righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees” is meant quite literally. Not just no adultery, but no lustful looking. Not just no killing, but no getting angry with your brother. Not just love your neighbor, but love your enemy, etc.

  14. Avatar
    John Murphy  February 27, 2019


    How ‘distinct’ were the various groups of scholars involved in the studies you’ve mentioned on this thread from one another? For example, did those who worked on redaction criticism reject or basically ignore the findings of those involved in form criticism, or did they see their work as incorporating or developing the earlier theories?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 27, 2019

      Most of them were trained in form criticism and wanted to move on to other things, leaving it behind them when they did so.

  15. Avatar
    Warrior6  February 27, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman:
    My question is unrelated (directly, anyway) to the current blog topics. I have read virtually all of your books, and am struggling with this question: “Why would anyone believe or just think (perhaps even imagine) that crucifying another human would (somehow?) absolve anyone of their real or imagined ‘sins'”? Can you shed some light on this belief from a theological perspective or perhaps an anthropological perspective?


    • Bart
      Bart  March 1, 2019

      In antiquity it wsa probably easier to see the logic, since everyone practiced sacrifices — e.g. of animals — to please or placate the gods. Jesus was seen by some as that kind of thing.

  16. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  February 28, 2019

    Is there a book I can purchase that explains what information is included in Q, M, L, etc.?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 3, 2019

      I give a partial list in The New Testament: A Historical Introductoin to the Early Christian Writings. If I were looking for a full list, I would look at some of the books that deal with the Synoptic Problem, such as Robert Stein’s (don’t know if he gives a list or not).

  17. Avatar
    Eskil  February 28, 2019

    Are you still avoiding the topic of “Johannine Thunderbolt”?
    Johannine Christology found in three preceding sources: Matthew, Luke and Q.
    It is described as “the most impressive piece of agreement between Matthew and Luke anywhere in the Synoptic tradition. The twenty-seven word verbatim-string is the longest anywhere in the double tradition”

    • Bart
      Bart  March 3, 2019

      I think talk of the Son knowing the Father is not necessarily only Johannine; others thought of this as well. And since it is a string of verbatim agreements, it is not in three sources, but one.

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