Modern scholars of the New Testament have applied a critical approach to the books of the Bible which accounts of a plethora of non-classical methodologies, including text criticism, cultural and social criticism and redaction criticism, among others.1 These academically-driven studies often focus more on the form than on the content of the Bible, though they promise to enhance our understanding by placing it in a more specific context. Redaction criticism, in particular, asks several pertinent questions of a text, including the character of the audience, as well as the socio-historical setting in which they received the text. Of some importance is the issue of the the redactor's own background, which informed his or her theological biases.2
A comparison of the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke gave rise to the “synoptic problem”, the issue being that several passages in these three books overlap, some word-for-word. Modern scholars have answered with a “two-document hypothesis”, namely that Matthew and Luke used Mark as the source text for their own work, in addition to a yet-undiscovered document named Q.
Redaction criticism posits that one text has been produced from another, or from others, with modifications. The modifications need not be arbitrary or incidental, in fact one is encouraged to seek out reasons for any alterations to the source text. The reasons may involve any of the themes mentioned in the preceding paragraph, such as a different emphasis for a different audience. The Jesus of Mark, for example, is not revealed to the disciples until the final scenes, whereas the story of Jesus in Matthew is prefaced by a lengthy geneology to give him proper messianic credentials. The redaction critic must ask herself why the difference exists.
Several lenses are available to the redaction critic, through which she might view a particular text with the thought of finding evidence of redaction. By comparing a text with its proposed source(s), one might look for: seams, placement and emphases.3 Seams involve literary devices such as transitional statements, summary statements, editorial asides and the like.4 A redactor may also have changed the order of presentation of the events of a story. This might be done to highlight certain passages which may be key to a given audience in a given situation. Other means of providing added emphasis include repeating material, or omitting superfluous or unflattering material to the end of enhancing the strength of the remaining verses.5
Let us turn now to a brief discussion on Matthew as a product of Mark and the circumstances which surrounded its formation. The earliest references to Matthew are thought to have come from the church at Antioch, whose members may have included Jewish disciples.6 At the time of its writing, the believers were engaged in a struggle to replace traditional rabbinical leadership with a more dynamic model based on Jesus' teachings and example.7
Thus we read of a Jesus in Matthew who begins his Sermon on the Mount with a theme familiar to his listeners: the law of Moses. Matthew (assumed name for the redactor, after Ehrman) also frames the introduction to his gospel in a manner analagous to the life of Moses. The king murders the babies, there is a flight to Egypt and a passage through the waters. The absence of these elements from Mark's account sharpens the interest in a particular fashion. For Matthew's Jewish audience, this material gives added credibility to Jesus, who is the prophet promised by Moses in Deuteronomy 18.
Let us place two passages beside one another and apply the redaction method8 :
Matthew 27: 22-26
22 Pilate said to them, “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?”
All of them said, “Let him be crucified!”
12 Pilate spoke to them again, “Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?”
13 They shouted back, “Crucify him!”
23 Then he asked, “Why, what evil has he done?”
But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!”
14 Pilate asked them, “Why what evil has he done?”
But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him!”
24 So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man's blood; see to it yourselves.”
15 So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd,
25 Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!”
26 So he releases Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus,
released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus,
he handed him over to be crucified.
he handed him over to be crucified.
The first evidence for Matthew's redaction of Mark in this passage is his use of the term “messiah”. For Mark's Gentile audience, Jesus is “the man you call King of the Jews”. Mark externalizes the honorific (“you call”) while Matthew allows identity with Messiah for his Jewish listeners, even in Pilate's lips: “Jesus whois calledthe Messiah”.
When Pilate washes his hands in Matthew 27:24, ideas of Pharisaical ritual purity are evoked, establishing, for the redactor, another cultural link with his Hebrew audience. Mark's version does not include this gesture, nor yet the verse in which certain Jews call the blood of Christ on their heads (Mt. 27:25). One might posit that the Matthean community was struggling with issues of identity, drawing lines between themselves, the true Jews, and the others, Jews who had not accepted Jesus as the promised Messiah.
Matthew's gospel not only casts shadows on the old order, it serves to comfort and reassure a fledgling community in the midst of troubled waters. Not only were the followers of Jesus rejected by their own kin, they were used as scapegoats for problems in the Roman Empire. The rise of a corpus of literature to bolster the spirits of the persecuted was not only useful, it may have been integral to the spread of their beliefs.
By addressing issues relevant to a Jewish audience, Matthew's gospel shows itself to be the product of a particular time and place. In addition to the elements already discussed, there is a strong body of evidence for the theory that Matthew modified Mark to serve the needs of his community. The “fulfillment citations” target a group that knew the Scriptures, one that was itself searching for their realization in a time of great trouble. The promise given of Christ's return in the eschatological passages in Matthew were also a comforting hope for the early Christians who were constantly in danger of annihilation.
Redaction criticism is an approach to the Bible which tries to make sense of the parallels and more importantly, of the differences between various texts therein. It has been applied to the synoptic problem to the satisfaction of a great number of scholars to support the two-document hypothesis. Matthew's gospel, though founded on Mark's earlier narrative, seems to have been ably crafted to suit the particular needs of his mostly Jewish audience.
Ehrman, B. The New Testament. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).
Shantz, C. Lecture Notes for Intro to New Testament. (Toronto: St. Micael's College, 2004).
Throckmorton, B. Gospel Parallels. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1992).
1 Shantz, C. personal communication.
6 Ehrman, B. The New Testament. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004). p. 109.
7 Ibid. pp. 105-107.
8 Throckmorton, B. Gospel Parallels. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1992). pp. 196-197.