Saturday, 6 December 2014

The Scandal of Redaction Criticism

I've been thinking about redaction criticism. As we all know redaction criticism operates upon the difficulties in the text--the disjoints, the contradictions, the awkward transitions, etc.--seeing these as evidence of redactional activity. This necessarily supposes that more difficult passages are typically secondary to less difficult passages. This is an interesting supposition because it is virtually the opposite of that supposed by textual critics, who suppose that less difficult passages are typically secondary to more difficult passages. The textual critic supposes that editors reduce textual difficulty whereas the redaction critic supposes that editors introduce textual difficulties.

Redaction criticism tends not to go back to the manuscript tradition but rather to work with critical editions, such as the NA28. The difficulty though is that the NA28 has been generated by textual critics, who are operating with the above-mentioned tendency to prefer more difficult readings to less difficult ones. This creates a critical edition in which potential difficulties are maximized. Since the redaction critic adopts the opposite principle, that difficult readings are more likely secondary, the appearance of widespread redaction is also maximized. This however is to a large extent the artifact of a conceptual difficulty, namely the contradictory understandings of an editor's work adopted by textual and redaction critics.

Let us imagine then that textual and redaction critics adopted identical understandings of an editor's work. What would result if the textual critic agreed with the redaction critic, thus judging textual difficulties to typically be secondary rather than primary? In that case we would have a critical edition with fewer difficulties and thus evince less evidence of redaction. What would result if the redaction critic agreed with the textual critic, thus judging textual difficulties to typically be primary rather than secondary? In that case we would have a critical edition with greater numbers of difficulties and thus evince less evidence of redaction. Put otherwise redaction criticism would be greatly vitiated if its understanding of the work of the editor coincided with that of textual criticism.

This is of course not to deny the work of redactors in generating ancient texts. It is to suspect that perhaps we have a bit too much confidence in our ability to detect such work in the texts themselves. Insofar as historical Jesus studies have for the better part of a century, since the advent of form criticism, operated with a felt need to distinguish between traditional (read: non-redactional) and redactional material this has potential significance for that area. If our capacity to detect redaction is vitiated then so too is our capacity to distinguish non-redaction. Of course this ceases to be a problem the moment that we realize that historiography is not a literary analysis and that the question of redaction is largely a sideshow in the work of historical Jesus studies.


  1. I think part of the reason for confusion in this issue is that "redaction" is being used in two different ways. The editing of the text (redaction) of later Christian scribes is not the same thing as the editing (redaction) of one evangelist of the other. One attempts to preserve the "text," the other is interested in creating something new without wholly changing his source. Difficulties are introduced in the one in order for novelty sake, difficulties are smoothed out in the other. In other words, redaction criticism is a different animal when its a subspecies of source criticism (traditional understood) from the beast that it is when scribes are attempting to "preserve" the text/tradition/manuscript. We can agree that whatever they are doing, Luke is not doing to Mark what Scribe X (in the 4th, 5th century) is doing to Mark.
    What do you think?

    1. Thank you for your comment John. Your suggestion, if I read you correctly, is that there is a distinction between redactional editor and scribal editor, and that this distinction consists of that between the generation of new content and the preservation of old content. Therefore we should expect that redactors will produce rougher texts that then scribes. I'm not sure that gets around the question of what one should do when encountering a textual difficulty. Let's imagine for a moment that the redaction critic is working not with critical editions but with the manuscript data directly. She sees four variants, one of which is more difficult than the others. She thus decides that this must be secondary, and that precisely because of the work of an editor of some sort. Would this not be just replicating the work of textual criticism, except now operating with a supposition opposed to that typically assumed by textual critics? It would be very interesting to see how redaction criticism would look if textual criticism opted for the least rather than the most difficult.

      Also, the Synoptic case is a special one, wherein we can suppose that there is definitely some redaction of earlier texts taking place. This is quite different from the situation in, say, Johannine studies, wherein redaction criticism works with aporias and the like. When the very question of redaction is in doubt the hermeneutics of judgments regarding redaction become more acute matters.