Theology in 3D

Redaktionsgeschichte in the Gospels

Greg Stiekes | September 25, 2018
New Testament

As nearly any student of New Testament Introduction should be able to explain, Günther Bornkamm’s brief, 1948 essay, „Die Sturmstillung im Matthäus-Evangelium“ (The Stilling of the Storm in Matthew’s Gospel), helped to launch a new discipline in the historical-critical study of the Gospels known as Redaktionsgeschichte, or “Redaction Criticism.” Bornkamm had studied alongside of Ernest Käsemann and Hans Conzelmann under Rudolf Bultmann, so he was part of the wave of scholars who created the “Second Quest” for the Historical Jesus. As his essay, “The Stilling of the Storm” reveals, Bornkamm was searching for ways to reconcile the differences between the Gospel pericopes when he hit upon an intriguing theory. The evangelists who composed the Gospels were not randomly placing together blocks of stories and sayings from oral traditions about Jesus (like “pearls on a string”), as the Form Critics claimed, but were arranging and modifying material to suit their own presentation of the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In other words, they were not merely compilers of information but authors in their own right.

Bornkamm illustrates this observation by contrasting Matthew’s account of Jesus stilling the storm in Matt 8:23–27 with the parallel versions that appear in Mark 4:35–41 and Luke 8:22–25. In Matthew’s gospel, Bornkamm explains, “the story is made to serve a new motive.” For Matthew alone places the Stilling account after two men, a scribe and a would-be disciple separately approach Jesus and desire to “follow” (ἀκολουθεῖν) him. Immediately Matthew continues, “And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed [ἀκολουθεῖν] him” (Matt 8:23). Thus, while in Mark and Luke the Stilling narrative merely serves as a “miracle story” to illustrate the power of Jesus over nature (a form-critical category), in Matthew the story is used to make point about following Jesus into the storm. “Matthew is not only a hander-on of the narrative,” says Bornkamm, “but also its oldest exegete, and in fact the first to interpret the journey of the disciples with Jesus in the storm and the stilling of the storm with reference to discipleship, and that means with reference to the little ship of the Church.”

So impressed with this approach was Bornkamm’s colleague, Hanz Conzelmann, that Conzelmann produced a study of Luke’s Gospel with the purpose of illustrating how Luke redacted the gospel material he gathered in his own research (cf. Luke 1:1–4). In his Die Mitte der Zeit: Studien zur Theologie des Lukas (The Middle of Time: A Study of Luke’s Theology), Conzelmann attempts to demonstrate that Luke redacts his material in a way that deemphasizes the immediacy of Jesus’s return and encourages the followers of Jesus to wait patiently and to live in hope (e.g., Luke 8:1–8).

Conservative interpreters are right to be wary of Redaktionsgeschichte, for the methodology developed as one of the post-Enlightenment tools of historical criticism that treats the Bible “like any other book.” But while we may take issue with some of the interpretive conclusions of the redaction critics, is there anything fundamentally wrong with the idea that the evangelists arranged, adapted, dismissed, or emphasized certain aspects of their material in order to make a special point in their proclamation of Jesus as the Son of God?

I believe, for instance, that the methodology of Redaktionsgeschichte may be especially helpful in the comparison of another Sea of Galilee narrative, Jesus Walking on the Water. This particular narrative is especially fascinating, first because it is not limited to the Synoptics, but is one of those rare occasions where John’s material is tracking for two brief accounts with the Synoptic material. Second, the story also begins one of the blocks of gospel material where Luke curiously falls silent alongside of Mark and Matthew for ten full pericopes before picking up the harmony again with Peter’s confession. Therefore, oddly enough, the comparison of the Walking on the Water narratives is a study of Mark 6:45–56Matthew 14:22–36, and John 6:16–24).

The account in each of these three Gospels takes place immediately after the narrative of Jesus feeding the 5000, as if the two stories were always told together. The most striking difference between these three pericopes, however, is the fact that Matthew is the only evangelist to insert the story of Peter walking on the water to meet Jesus (Matt 14:28–32). Why do the other evangelists omit this account? I mean, if I were writing a gospel and included the story of Jesus walking on the water I cannot imagine leaving out the part about Peter! The palpable image of Peter stepping onto those violent waves and then beginning to sink into the sea is one of the most memorable scenes in the four Gospels.

The absence of Peter’s story in Mark and John could be explained by Peter’s embarrassment of the incident. If Mark’s material comes primarily from Peter’s preaching (e.g., Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 3.39.16), then the absence of the additional account may indicate that Peter did not mention it in his public ministry. And John, who is often paired as a close companion with Peter (e.g., Matt 17:1Mark 5:37John 21:20Acts 3:1) would have known that Peter was uncomfortable with the account and remained silent about it for Peter’s sake. So, thankfully, Matthew did not get the memo about leaving Peter out of the story!

But is there a better explanation? If so, perhaps it can be sought in the conclusion of these three pericopes. For there is a striking difference in how each evangelist appears to apply the story. At the end of Mark’s version, Jesus “got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened” (Mark 6:51–52). Matthew’s account, however, does not end with the disciples perplexed and hardened, but rather in awe of Jesus and his true identity. “And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God” (Matt 14:32–33). In John’s gospel, on the other hand, the story leaves the reader less impressed on the surface. John simply writes, “Then they were glad to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going” (John 6:21). Except for the simple fact that the fear of the disciples was addressed by the calming words of Jesus, “It is I; do not be afraid” (John 6:20), John’s version serves mainly to get the disciples and Jesus from one side of the sea of Galilee to the other in order to set up the Bread of Life Discourse, the second encounter between Jesus and the multitude who had been miraculously fed by Jesus the evening before (John 6:22–70).

If I can be allowed to speculate, assuming Markan priority, perhaps Matthew’s account is an attempt to tell more of the story offered by Mark, in order that the reader not be left with the impression that the disciples had no clue who Jesus was at this point in his ministry. Though their hearts were “hardened” and though they were still chewing on the lesson of the loaves (Mark 6:51–52), Peter at least had the courage and the trust in Jesus to ask if he could step onto the water with him (Matt 14:28). At the climax of this incident, Jesus and Peter now back in the boat, we find the disciples worshiping Jesus in awe (Matt 14:33).

My purpose here is not to offer a definitive answer for the differences between these three accounts, but merely to suggest that the methodology of Redaktionsgeschichte may prove the most useful approach in helping us to come to an understanding of the differences between the four Gospels. The methodology does not have to serve as a contradiction to an orthodox understanding of the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture; for recognizing redaction does not have to suggest that one of the evangelists got it wrong. Rather, Redaktionsgeschichte is a way of determining the process of how God prepared “holy men” (men set apart for a special purpose) and led them through the Holy Spirit to write the canonical Gospels (2 Pet 1:21). And each author has a unique message to convey to us about the eternal Son of God.

12 responses to “Redaktionsgeschichte in the Gospels”

  1. Josh Jensen says:

    Thanks for this insightful post. I’d love to read a follow-up post on different ways to preach the Gospels that take into account the individual evangelist’s theological/thematic interests. Personally, when I preach a story from the Gospel, I always have trouble leaving out the details found in parallel accounts. When should we do that (that is, add in details from other accounts)? When should we avoid that? To what degree can we talk about, say, “Matthew’s take on this story” without boring our listeners? In general, should we be preaching The Story As It Happened (where the events themselves are seen as the primary topic) or The Story As It Is Told In This Gospel (where the story — understood as completely trustworthy — is the topic of our sermon)?

    • Greg Stiekes says:

      Thanks, Josh. That’s a great idea for a follow-up post! I’m due to post again on Friday, so I will work on some ideas that address these questions and maybe we can interact on the subject. But initially I would say that we have to be reading the Gospels together if we are going to recognize variances in the ways the evangelists use their material. In my Walking on the Water example, for instance, how would I even know to ask questions about what Matthew is doing if I had not read John or Mark? Likewise, if bringing out these highlights in preaching it seems to me that it would be important to direct your hearers to these contrasts so that they can see for themselves. If their interest is an issue, I have found that my congregation is usually more curious about an apparent discrepancy or a contrast between two or more Gospel writers than they are with the story from one author’s perspective. It presents them with an interesting puzzle and offers insight that they had not considered before.

      • Ray Arnett says:

        Greg, how do you reconcile bringing in details from other gospels while respecting the narrative? Do you mention them in passing, but keep your focus on the author’s purpose?

        • Greg Stiekes says:

          I’m saying that by bringing these details into the sermon for contrast they may help to highlight the author’s purpose by providing a literary foil. Would I know, for instance, to look for significance in the ORDER of the temptations in Matthew 4 and Luke 4 if I did not realize that the authors reverse the second and third temptations? So, yes to your second question. On the other hand, I would also say that, depending on the sermon, there is room for drawing together parallel pericopes into a single sermon on the basis that the Bible is one book. So we can talk equally about, say, John’s theology as well as the theology of the Gospels.

  2. Okay, time again for a little friendly 3D pushback:) The explanational outcome is, of course, determined by the starting presupposition. Assuming Matthean (rather than Markan) priority, perhaps Mark didn’t see the need to include all the details that he was (presumably) aware were already available through Matthew’s version. Mark is clearly telling essentially the same story as the other Gospel writers (and by “story” here I don’t mean the pericope but the same gospel story) in a condensed form; for example, his telling omits (among other things) almost any record of the content of Jesus’ discourse material. (The decision to exclude nearly all of Jesus’ extensive discourse material seems an odd omission for someone who expressly wants to relate “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”)
    But a larger point might be this: do we really need Redaktiongeschichte to do this (i.e., “to come to an understanding of the differences between the four Gospels”)? Grant Osborne’s essay on Redaction Criticism in Interpreting the New Testament (B&H 2001) notes “several precursors to redaction criticism” including Ned Stonehouse and R. H. Lightfoot. In other words, the basic idea of recognizing the distinctive selection and shaping of Gospel material is hardly the discovery of liberal scholars like Bornkamm or Conzelmann. Conservatives, it seems, were doing it on conservative principles before liberals were doing it on liberal principles. And Osborne also includes an important caveat on the “Dangers of Redaction Criticism” if its definition and practice is not severed from the presuppositional premises of its liberal “founders”; Osborne lists six such premises, and proceeds to demonstrate that they are false. “Redaction criticism,” he concedes, “can be used without the negative bias of radical critics, and it becomes the friend of a high view of Scripture when used without these presuppositions.” I guess my question is, do we need to claim the term (in light of all its theological baggage) to do the kind of thing (on conservative, believing presuppositions) that was already being done anyway before liberals made it a “thing”? Or should we not, at the least, clarify that what we mean by “the methodology of Redaktiongeschichte” works very differently than what is historically meant by that term in the academic world?

    • Greg Stiekes says:

      I suppose I see the idea of redaction criticism as a potentially useful tool when made to serve a high view of Scripture, while leaving behind some of the uses and presuppositions that launched the discipline in the first place. But that is also the way I view biblical theology, and I never hear anyone questioning that project. Our current BT methodology has been divorced from far more damaging presuppositions than redaction criticism has, if we take seriously what Gabler had in mind when he introduced the idea of BT in 1787. ( At least when Bornkamm wrote his Stilling essay he was in a wave of men who were reacting against Bultmann’s belief that nothing about Jesus could be historically known (in the sense of historisch, contra geschichtlich), essentially going in the opposite direction, therefore, of men like Gabler. But rather than discuss what a useful methodology of redaction criticism might look like, let me ask you about Mark. Granted, I do not know for certain that his Gospel was written first; there is plenty of evidence for Matthean priority too. So, you explain a theory here of why Mark produced a pocket version of Matthew, and you said that at least one of his decisions in producing this kind of Gospel seems “odd” to you. So how do you explain what Mark did? Or, we could put it, what drove his decision to make the choices that he did when composing his Gospel? We know that he did not merely shorten all of Matthew’s accounts, for often Mark includes details that the other evangelists leave out (the popular “green grass” addition in 6:39; the naming of Bartimaeus in 10:46; etc.). So at the least we can say that Mark is adding details found in none of the other Gospels. Do you think that we should attach any significance to these details? And, if so, how do we measure this significance?

      • In answering your final questions, I think discussing what a useful methodology of redaction criticism might look like is sort of what we’re doing. (I was just raising a question about the term itself, given its baggage. Biblical theology is another discussion:) It’s certainly appropriate to attach theological significance to many of the differences between the Gospels. Each writer, under the direction of the Holy Spirit using their individual perspective, vocabulary, style, experience, etc., is shaping a historically accurate yet distinctive theological picture of the person and work of Christ. (Though again—to use perhaps the most oversimplified and generalized of examples—people distinguished Matthew’s portrait of Christ as King from Mark’s of Christ as Servant long before Redaction Criticism.) To try to answer your question (“how do you explain what Mark did?”) more specifically, it seems apparent that Mark minimized Christ’s speaking ministry (by excluding almost all the discourse material and 40 of the 47 parables included by Mt and Lk) but maximized references to Christ’s serving ministry (e.g., 36 refs to the activity of Christ’s teaching ministry but comparatively very little of its content; includes 19 of 29 Synoptic miracles, more than even Lk; the stylistic use of euthus and archomai; the historical present, etc.). I.e., the Spirit of Christ used Mark to craft a stylized theological picture of Christ to emphasize distinctive facets of his life and character and ministry that no one Gospel could possibly capture (which is also part of the reason we have four and not just one). I’m confident we completely agree on this, so I’m not sure exactly where that leaves us:)

        • Josh Jensen says:

          Perhaps the most reliable literary and theological conclusions are those that don’t depend on a particular theory of dependence or priority. Even in Genesis we can make arguments about Moses’ portrayal of events, without the luxury of having parallel accounts to compare. So it seems that perhaps our theories of dependence (which are highly tentative) should make reference to our literary/theological conclusions (which have the potential of being quite secure), but not the other way around.

          • Greg Stiekes says:

            Agreed, we cannot build a theological conclusion on questionable evidence and expect its validity to escape criticism. So, if we are going to hypothesize about an author’s ostensible alteration of the material he has in front of him, however inventive we are with the evidence our hypothesis is only as confident as our historical reconstruction of authorial events and their chronology. The conclusions of Redaction criticism, therefore, must be taken into consideration with other approaches, like the evaluation of what we have in front of us as you are suggesting. My point is merely that this tool can be useful in pointing us toward and highlighting for us ideas that we may have missed otherwise, as I will illustrate in a second post, if I can get it finished!

  3. Greg Stiekes says:

    Okay, assuming all of this for the point of discussion, can I get you to go into more detail? If just for curiosity? Do you believe that Mark read Matthew and Luke and made conscientious choices using those two documents to whittle down their gospels and add other material that he knew about (very few additions, of course) and so forth to create his gospel? Or did he just have Matthew alone in front of him?

    • Actually, I thought mine was a pretty detailed reply, at least to what I thought you were asking:) Based on my understanding of the data, I suspect (“believe” is far too strong a word) that Mark (a) was aware of both MT and LK, (b) was also informed by Peter as well as others, and (c) made selective decisions, under the superintending direction of the Holy Spirit, as to both content and style of presentation with (probably) a particular target audience in mind at the time.
      [I’ll probably get myself in trouble for this, but I’ll just add here that the notion that literary works only get bigger with time makes little sense to me; it’s a little like scholars in AD 4018 deciding that the Reader’s Digest version of David Copperfield must have come first because it’s shorter than Dickens’s version. And no, I’m not saying that Mark is a Reader’s Digest version of MT or LK.]
      All this is, as you say, for the sake of curiosity. I think Josh Jenson’s comment above is noteworthy: “Perhaps the most reliable literary and theological conclusions are those that don’t depend on a particular theory of dependence or priority.”

  4. stuart murden says:

    Redaction criticism is simply a tool in the toolbox replete with tools. It’s good to have a lot of tools to hand. Maybe a hammer can secure a screw but it’s better to have the right screwdriver.

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