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The Next Step: Redaction Criticism

In this breezy overview of New Testament scholarship that I’ve been giving, from roughly the 18th century till today (!) I have talked about textual criticism (establishing what the authors of the New Testament originally wrote based on the surviving manuscripts), source criticism (determining what the written sources of the New Testament were – especially the Gospels, and most especially the Synoptic Gospels), Life of Jesus research (up to Albert Schweitzer’s day), and finally form criticism (the interest in establishing the formal characteristics of the oral traditions of Jesus in circulation before the Gospels were written down).

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?


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Why Textual Variants Matter for the Rest of Us
Form Critics and Oral Tradition



  1. Avatar
    TomTerrific  May 26, 2014

    This material is so utterly interesting and you put it so well, Dr. E, that even I can follow it.

    Isn’t the name of the institution in Durham spelled Dook over in Chapel Hill?


  2. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 27, 2014

    This series of posts is quite helpful. A lot of it is discussed in your “New Testament” textbook where you use a different critical method with each Gospel, but this series summarizes it all in a very helpful manner. Thanks so much.

  3. Brad Billips
    Brad Billips  May 27, 2014

    How about a post on fatigue in the gospels? Where Matthew and Luke use Mark or Q, alter some details of a story, but then keep some (original) odd texts in the same story. Thanks.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 27, 2014

      Interesting idea. I’m afraid I haven’t studied fatigue much — what I know comes from my friend Mark Goodacre, who is the one, I think, who came up with the idea….

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    Pofarmer  May 29, 2014

    So, what do you say about Randal Helms contention that the author of Mark pretty much just reused stock OT miracles for Jesus? Or MacDonalds ideas that these OT stories were placed in a framework using Homer as a guide?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 29, 2014

      Some of Jesus’ miracles are not like OT miracles — but then again, there are only so many miracles a miracle worker needs to perform: healings, raisings from the dead, feeding the hungry, and the like…. I don’t buythe Homer connection myself.

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    HowardPepper  May 29, 2014

    On one “biblioblog” (I think it was maybe LaDonne and Keith’s) there was some discussion about the fairly recent (I believe) questioning of an actual written Q. The idea was its diminishing acceptance. It seems to me to be pretty solidly established… is it just conservatively oriented scholars who still (or freshly) are questioning it? Or what?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 29, 2014

      No, it is questioned by others, most notably Mark Goodacre, in his book The Case Against Q.

    • Avatar
      HowardPepper  May 30, 2014

      Thanks… do you have a position one way or the other? Do you find Goodacre’s case a strong one?

  6. Avatar
    gabilaranjeira  May 30, 2014

    Hi Bart,

    This evolution of NT scholarship is very interesting. Is there any new approach on the horizon to address this topic?
    Great series of posts. Thanks a lot.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 30, 2014

      There are lots of developments since the 1950s, but in large measure, the field has become highly fragmented. But in the 1980s, when I did my work, the two main approaches were literary (seeing what the texts meant as pieces of literature apart from their sources, redactions, and so on) and socio-historical (seeing what the texts could tell us about the social history of the communities out of which they came).

  7. gmatthews
    gmatthews  June 11, 2014

    Per Larry Hurtado’s post to his blog on 6/9 you need to add Performance Criticism to the list. Would it be possible to get a video of you acting out one of your upcoming blog posts rather than forcing us to read it? 😉

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