Historical Criticisms

Course: Introduction to the New Testament: Gospel and Acts

Lecture: Historical Criticisms


PART I

I. Opening Remarks

We now turn to the theme of critical methods for interpreting and understanding the New Testament. Critical methods for studying any ancient works of literature are divided into two disproportionately sized categories. What is sometimes called lower criticism, concerns the discipline of textual analyses or text criticism. It is sometimes called whereby scholars attempt to establish the original text or the most likely reading of an original text when we actual lack the original manuscripts, also known as autographs. Until we have reasonable confidence that the text has been reconstructed in regards to what the original writers wrote, there is little point of moving on to the task of interpreting those writings. We need to know that we have what the authors meant for us to have. Hence, all of the remaining disciplines of analyses of ancient text and in modern literary criticisms as well, are grouped together into a category called higher criticisms in the sense of a more advanced synthetic tasks, once we have done all we could at the text critical level. However, it is not the purpose of this course to address in detail the discipline of textual criticism.

II. Responding to the "KJV Only" Claims

The introduction of part two in the textbook does make some brief comments about one modern Christian phenomenon that most people in ministry will encounter sooner or later is in regards to the King James Version Bible only movement. They represent a very conservative Christian approach to the use of the Bible and believe the Authorized Version, as the English called it of 1611 commissioned by James V of England. They believe that the King James Version is the most reliable translation, not merely because of its highly literal philosophy of translation which indeed it did have by the standards of today. But the King James movement alleges that the particular Greek manuscripts, on which translators of the Kings James version of the English Bible relied on, were the best and most accurate and therefore most reliable manuscript. Even to this day after finding hundreds of additional manuscripts and documents, they allege the textual tradition of the King James Version is what should be preferred.

They continue to say that all the modern English translations that rely on the whole range of manuscripts we now have after twenty one centuries of textual findings and analyses, is inferior and the rejection of modern translations in this movement ranges from somewhat mild as in why would a person prefer an inferior translation all the way to those who would argue that modern translations are a tool of the devil. In our textbook on page 75 and footnote three, the author cites two books, one which goes back to the late 1970’s by D. A. Carson and one which is more recent, mid-nineties, by James White. Each goes into the claims behind this movement and gives very detailed and a thorough refutation of it.

There are four points worth noting here. The entire argument behind the King James movement depends on the claim that the Byzantine family of manuscripts, a group of identical manuscripts, can be identified as highly accurate down through the centuries. This view, which is hardly a new one, was held in the Latin speaking world in the middle Ages. Often, using the Latin expression, Textus Receptus, which means the received text, was a way of identifying these manuscripts within Byzantine tradition. Thus, there is a claim that this was predominately used by the King James translators or in some cases exclusively used. The most important point, therefore, to say in response to this, there is no such group of texts which exists. There are broad features of the Byzantine traditions that include thousands of manuscripts that one can find in common, at different points throughout the New Testament as against other typical older groups of manuscripts, families or traditions that modern textual critics typically rely on as more reliable. But even if the age of Byzantine tradition were old enough to be the preferred tradition for reading, what is important to stress, even those additions of the Greek New Testament as well as its translation into other languages, the early English writers used such early English translations as the Geneva Bible or the Wycliffe’s rendition. The King James Version itself did not use any one manuscript or any small group of manuscripts. Those translators made choices which they believed were the most accurate readings and preferred manuscripts just as modern textual critics do. The difference now is that modern critics have a larger amount of data in documents now available than in they had in 1611.

The second point, supposedly for the sake of argument, we could isolate a single recent text that was carefully preserved in the Byzantine tradition for New Testament documents, what then would we do for the Old Testament? In the Masoretic tradition, Hebrew documents that exist in copies which do not pre-date the ninth century; we also have the Dead Sea scrolls of the Old Testament texts which while in some instances, particularly the Book of Isaiah scroll show remarkable similarity to texts a thousand years later and collaborating with meticulous care which Hebrew scribes sought to copy these sacred texts. Nevertheless, there are minor differences and other places with significant differences.

And then there is the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament which more often than not is the version that New Testament writers cite. It too varies from the Masoretic text and the Dead Sea scrolls. Again, apart from choosing a particular manuscript without any evidence to back up such a claim and use it unquestioningly, there would be no way to even hypothesize on it acceptance with respect to the Old Testament. A third issue is in regards to the many different languages such as European languages known throughout the world, there isn’t an equivalent to a King James Bible. There never was a translation created from the manuscript database that the King James translators accessed. Are we then going to say that these people have never truly had God’s Word? And that all of their renditions are so corrupt and inferior that to be worthy for the lack of acceptance that the King James people only made with respect to modern English translations. Surely, there is a high degree of ethnocentricity; one might even say Anglo centricity in the whole King James only movement.

The fourth and final point is to contrast Christian literature with that of the Quran, the Muslim holy book. Muslims make the claim that the Bible is a Holy Book but it has become corrupt in major ways, especially where it disagrees with that of the Quran and the Hadith, a narrative record of the sayings or customs of Muhammad and his companions. For example, Jesus could not have been either God or the Son of God. On the other hand, Islam and the Quran made the claim that it is inerrant and infallible to such a degree that copies of the Quran from early centuries on have been checked and double checked by scribes that every existing copy is literally word for word and letter for letter matching the original. There are very early Islamic traditions that give a lie to this claim because there were variants just as there were among the Christian Scriptures but there was a point which all such known texts were destroyed so that this disparate textual evidence would not be there such as in Christian Scripture. One manuscript was chosen from which authorized copies of the Quran have been copied without the freedom by scribes to introduce even the minor kinds of changes Islam has made. Muslims, typically, are taught to believe that this combination of claims, the inferior copying of the Bible and the superior copying of the Quran proves that the Quran supersedes the Bible and is the only one inerrant perfect word of God for humanity.

There are some interesting fall outs from this understanding. One is, main Qur’anic scholars will argue that while one can do the best to translate the Quran into other languages, but in a very real sense a translation of the Quran is not the word of God in the way as it is written in Arabic language which Mohammad supposedly dictated the revelation that God gave him. On the other hand, Christianity when it has been true to its roots and a point that the protestant reformers believed had been lost or least obscured in Medieval Catholicism has encouraged the translation of the Bible into as many indigenous languages possible so that everyone could have what has regularly been called the Word of God. They have this in their own native language so that they can relate to it best and understand it best and obey and apply it best. The Christian doctrine of the preservation of Scripture, therefore contra the King James only movement and thus has never been that God is under some compulsion to oversee and superintend the process of copying the Scripture to such a degree that there are no spelling errors, no questions about word divisions, no scribes whoever attempt to improve the grammar or meaning or correct what they believed to be a mistake, right or wrongly.

Rather it is to Christianity’s credit that while the study of the original Greek has always been encouraged. The belief is that a reasonably, literal, thought for thought and word for word rendered in a second language is the very Word of God and the very instrument that God uses, precisely because he speaks in a first language to a new set of readers is the tool that God using to bring men and women to himself. The fact that one has to, in another religion, like Islam, actually learn a foreign language and memorize large portions of text and study under religious leaders, trained in the analyses of those texts, less one perhaps promotes serious heresy is in fact a kind of elitism that Christianity at its best moments has always eschewed. The reformers, when they spoke of the perspicuity of Scripture, never alleged that all texts were equally clear, particularly in a second language but certainly stressed that everything that was necessary for salvation, Godly living, and for growth in Christian discipleship, was clear enough in even a reasonably reliable translation into any language of the world so that a careful and thoughtful but otherwise uneducated young person could understand the Christian claims and respond appropriately to them. I believe that is a great strength of the Christian understanding of Scripture; one that Islam certainly misses and one that to a lesser degree the King James only people, even in Christian circles often miss.

III. Questions to Introduce Source Criticism

The remaining portions of this lecture turn to three critical tools, all of which can be grouped together under the broader aegis of historical analyses or criticism. These are source, form and redaction criticism. They are the three tools particularly in respect to the studying of the synoptic Gospels but to a certain degree, all four of the Gospels and the Book of Acts that dominated the century and a half of modern Gospel scholarship from the mid eighteen hundreds to the end of the nineteen hundreds. The lecture series is slightly different from the textbook as we begin with source criticism. From here we want to follow chronologically the development of these three broad methods where as in the textbook, we were following their logical application or the chronological order of the periods of first century compositions of the Gospels they studied. We begin therefore with source criticism and invite the students to review their notes from the textbook readings and be sure they are able to answer three rather basic questions about the sources that the synoptic Gospels rely on.

The first question; what is the synoptic problem? There’s a problem? A successful graduate of this course, to say nothing of the theological seminary more generally, should be able to answer that question and a thumbnail sketch of such an answer is that it is the question of the literary inter-relationship of the first three Gospels. Matthew, Mark and Luke, called synoptic because one can put them together in a synopsis of parallel columns and see that a majority of the passages in any one of these Gospels is parallel in at least one if not the other two, often close enough in wording to suggest a literary inter-relationship. The question then becomes what literary relationship? Who wrote first? What sources were used? Who wrote next? If, in fact, we can determine answers to these questions; what sources were used? Who wrote last and did they include sources from the first two Gospels? A question that I like to ask students; so what, why does it matter? Who cares? The beginning theological student could be forgiven for thinking that little is at stake in such a conversation. But given our world today with people who range from questioning believers in terms of the trust and authority of the Bible, to total skeptics and people everywhere in between, so any question that involves the nature of composition of the Gospels becomes a significant one.

And there is also for the evangelical Christian, clearly an apologetic reason for understanding the most probable solution to the synoptic problem. But there are also interpretive reasons for wanting to address this issue as well, namely if we are to make sense of why parallel accounts of the same event or teaching of Jesus differ in the way that they do, attempts at explaining those differences will be enhanced if we have a theory about the order of the composition of the Gospels and the kinds of sources, both written or oral, that may have been used. This can also have an apologetic value in helping in the process of explaining so called contradictions among the parallel texts. It also helps in the whole arena of interpretation. Does one particular Gospel differ from a parallel because it reads like an explanation of something that was ambiguous or potentially misleading in the other version? And if it turns out on independent grounds that text which reads like an explanation is the later text which likely knew of earlier version then such a theory to explain the differences gains in credibility. And if we want to understand the distinctive theology; and the particular themes that a given Gospel writer emphasizes as over against his sources, why was it that God inspired four separate Gospels rather than one giant harmony?

When we get to redaction criticism, we will address that issue and see that at least one fundamental answer is because they were written for different groups of the Christian Community initially with different needs and different writers who felt that circumstances dictated difference emphasis on the life of the teachings of Christ. But then surely, it should be a major concern for Christians and the more evangelical Christians. The higher view of the Word of God the believer has, the more they should want to recognize the distinctive in the very shape and form that God inspired the four Gospels. And yet in paradox, it’s often in conservative Christian circles where people have the least clear idea of the actual inspired form of the text. It is simply a large amount of the data from the life of Jesus all jumbled up together with no clear idea of what is unique to Matthew or unique to Mark or Luke, etc.

Finally, the third question is why God could not have inspired two, three, four or more Gospels with the precise combination of similarities and differences that we find, including all of the verbatim or repetition. But if I found even if a tiny fraction of that on two student term papers, I would fail them both for plagiarism clearly coping one from another or from some common source. But God could, if he so chose to inspire individuals to write with this combination of similarities and differences without there being any conclusion or knowledge of one another’s written document. If we believe in an omnipotent God, that objection certainly does reflect a true theological option. Had God so chosen, he could have inspired in precisely that way.

But the most important reply to this question refers to the opening four verses of the Gospel of Luke, sometimes called Luke’s prologue, where the most straight forward reading of the text suggests that this is not the way Luke understood God to have inspired him in the production of his Gospel and given the similarities in genre of the other Gospels to Luke. It would be reasonable to conclude, though the other Gospels don’t have an equivalent prologue, that Matthew, Mark and Luke saw themselves as functioning similarly. Let’s remind ourselves of what Luke 1:1-4 states: In as much as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word. It seemed good for me also, having followed all things closely for sometimes past to write and orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed. It’s significant that the inspired Biblical mandate appears in this prologue not only for source criticism but it also provides the inspired Biblical mandate for at least one brand of form criticism and redaction criticism as well.

Verse one refers to Luke’s knowledge of a number of narratives. The terms in the Greek most commonly refers to a written sequential account of some kind about the things which have been accomplished among us. This could refer to Mark, Matthew or any other document that grouped together a handful or large number of the sayings and teachings of Jesus. Secondly, there is a period of oral tradition which is what the form critics study, when this information about the life of Christ circulated primarily or even at times exclusively by word of mouth. Verse two, just as they were delivered to us and the term, deliver, is a technical one often used in the course of oral tradition for the transmission of information. To repeat, just as they were delivered to use by those who from the beginning, were eyewitnesses and ministers or servants of the Word. Luke was not a disciple of Jesus during his life time. He was not a Jew; he apparently did not grow up in Israel. He probably never saw the Lord during his life time or even during the time of his resurrection appearances. Though we can’t prove that with absolute assurance, Luke have spoken to those who had and others. Then finally, this opening prologue of Luke also provides the Biblical mandate for redaction criticism for the discipline that seeks to fine the theological or you might say ideological distinctive of each of the four Gospel writers. Luke goes on in verses 3-4; it seems good to him also to write an orderly account for you, that you may know the truth concerning the things that you have been informed. So Luke made a selection of those things he believed would best communicate the Christian message to Theophilus.

IV. The Synoptic Problem

With those three questions having been addressed, we are now ready to turn to the most common proposed solution to the Synoptic problem. As you will know from the reading, this is not the only approach. If anything, it is probably over simplistic. There may well have been other written notes and notebooks and small groupings of teachings or miracles or other events from the life of Christ associated either, according to form and content. But the schematic was one made famous in the 1920’s by the Englishman, B. H. Streeter, and continues in scholarship internationally to command a very sizable majority of scholarly support today. It is the view that of the synoptic Gospels, Mark is the oldest and written first in the form that we have it. And Matthew and Luke, each, borrowed from Mark and at times are close enough in the wording, particularly the teachings of Jesus in places where Mark has no parallel. It makes sense to suggest that they were borrowing from some other common source and the term ‘Q’ has been used to designate this common source. Then there are other portions of both Matthew and Luke wholly unparalleled which may in part or total have relied on one or more written sources which then are often conveniently designated, ‘M’ and ‘L’.


PART II

V. Formgeschichte

We now look at form criticism or perhaps we should call it, form history or interpreted history. The word associated with this originated in Germany and had more to do with history. Form criticism can be divided into two different forms of analysis. At one level it’s an analytical interpretive tool doing much like the analysis of a literary genre of an entire book on the macro level. Form criticism on the micro level looks at constituent parts of an entire document and analyzes their literary form, thus, demonstrating that different interpretive principals may well attach to different genres. For example, one does not interpret a parable as if it was historical reporting. One does not interpret a proverb as if it was a lengthy sermon or extended discourse. One does not interpret a miracle story or an account of the supernatural in the same way as a scientific report, etc. In this sense, form criticism is an essential tool of all interpretations of works of literature both ancient and modern. More controversial, is the better known dimension of form criticism, particularly as it was developed and practiced in the middle decades of the 20th century and especially in its more radical forms coming out of Germany.

The tendency here was to dress the way in which the oral tradition developed or embellished, changed or even distorted. A modern American scholar, a skeptic who had taken it upon himself, vehement to attack traditional Christian faith; Bart Erman used the analogy in his book on Jesus from Oxford University Press that Oral tradition was like a child’s game of telephone, whereas, a joke for fun at a party, a long complicated message whispered in the ear of the first child and that child repeats the message to the next child and on, it continues. Once the message finishes up, we all laugh at how different the message is with the finial child. At times, adults perform the same way in the game. So because of Erman, the question is ask was the Christian oral tradition like this and if so, how can we believe that over a period of two or three decades that such oral tradition could have been preserved. On the other hand, early on, there was a significant minority voice among form critics and then a development, sometimes referred to the guarded tradition hypothesis, stressed that Erman was not the appropriate model, but rather one should think as we see the image the women in the picture in slide ten of NT511 Week 3, entitled Formgeschichte. They seem to be sharing important information. There are reasons to think that there were all kinds of checks and balances for the traditions about Jesus to be passed on with great care and safe keeping. We will return to this question in just a moment.

VI. Are the Gospels Historically Reliable?

This introduces us to a somewhat broader debate which falls under the rubric of form criticism, particularly when it is also supplemented by redaction criticism. Just about all of the major questions involved in the debate over the historical reliability of the Gospels can be considered in one of three broad questions or issues. The first of these is, were the first Christians interested in preserving reliable history? Not all religions in the history of the world by any means have taken the same approach to the question of history. Perhaps the early Christian writers’ intentions were not exclusively or even primarily historical. Perhaps they did not think they were writing primarily historical or biographical documents. Or did they? Secondly, even if one were to hypothetically answer yes to that first question. Were they able to preserve a reliable history? Or was it a hopeless task? Thirdly, even if they potentially had the ability as well as the interest, did they, in fact accomplish that task?

So let’s unpack these questions. First, were they interested in the Jesus of history? Well, why wouldn’t they be? One might ask, since when has the disciples of a revered teacher religious or otherwise, not be interested in all kinds of biographical details of the lives of the religion’s founders? But there are two counter arguments that must be taken seriously, one has to deal with the belief that Christ, Jesus as the Messiah, was coming back very soon, perhaps in the life time of many of those who had walked with Jesus on earth. There are plenty of places in the New Testament that suggest that early Christians shared this conviction to one degree or another. If that was so, then the argument goes, perhaps it was not until the first Christian generation was nearing its end when most of the eyewitnesses to the life of Christ were dying off that this Christian movement realized it would be around to stay for a while and historical information about its founding would be worth preserving. This hypothesis is sometimes referred to as the delay of the pryrozia, the Greek word that means ‘coming’ in the New Testament.

It’s argued, for example, that three famous texts known as the pillar passages, the very pillars on which Jesus’ teachings could be established because nobody would have invented them later since they were apparently disproved. Namely, Mark 9:1 when Jesus says, truly I say to you, there are some who are standing here who will not taste death before they see the Kingdom of God coming with power. In Mark 13:30, where Jesus says again, truly I say to you that this generation shall not pass away until all these things have taken place; this was Jesus talking about his return. And finally in Matthew 10:23, he sends the twelve out on their first missionary trip of preaching, teaching and healing and says to them, you will not have finished going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes. We want to argue that each of these three texts should be interpreted in a different way other than the way Christ unambiguously predicted his return. One could certainly believe that some of those followers might have taken such text and claims as to be immediate.

On the other hand, it has often been pointed out, if one surveys the full range of Jesus’ teachings, particularly about how his followers were to live. It runs the gamut from the sublime to mundane with many of the topics he addresses seemingly presupposed an extended period of time in which his followers will live as ordinary human beings caught up in all the good and bad of this life, such as the instructions about paying taxes to governments, is one example. There were topics about whether or not to marry, and if divorce were ever permissible and on then what grounds. What about remarriage? There were interpersonal conflict and hostility even among one’s own family members. There was information in regards to tribulation and persecution when people would long for the end to come but would seem to be delayed. This tension between potential eminence and delay of Christ’s return ushering in the fullness of the Kingdom, we should not be surprised because it is a tension inherent in Jewish thinking. In the writings of the Hebrew Scriptures, the prophets from the eight century BC onward, in more than one context, pronounced the Day of the Lord was at hand. This make us look ahead to an eminent judgment not by a superpower from the North but the events that would usher in God’s final judgment day. This would be followed by the millennium with peace and prosperity along with God’s people and judgment against their enemies. Even as prophet after prophet warned their followers to watch for this day which could come at any moment, centuries continued to go by. There are also apocryphal and pseudo graphical text from the inter-testamental period that wrestle with this tension. The most common Jewish pre-Christian solution is to cite Psalm 90:4 where we read, ‘to the Lord, a day is as a thousand years and a thousand years is as a day.’ In other words, God’s timing is not human timing in what seems like something being very close at hand from God’s perspective but from the perspective of his spokes people may in fact be a prolonged period of time. It is interesting that 2nd Peter 3 quotes this same texts out of Psalms showing that early Christianity likewise appealed to it and therefore it’s not likely we should accept this scenario that Christianity believed in the immediate return of Jesus, and it is not likely that they would have had no interest in preserving historical information.

But, what about a second counter argument, namely that early Christians believing that they had what Paul would call the gift of prophecy. They spoke words and messages they believed that the risen Lord, Jesus, now at the right hand of the Father was giving to them on how the community of God’s people should live and believe. They believed that these revelations were as much from the same Jesus who once walked on the Earth. It is hard to believe there was no concern in retelling the Gospel accounts to distinguish between what Jesus said while on Earth and what he later told his church from heaven. It is argued that Greco-Roman prophets regular spoke in this fashion, speaking in the name of a particular God or Goddess. Yet, it is interesting, there are three and only three places in the New Testament where we see someone whose name we know and whose ministry is described as Christian prophecy. There is no confusion what-so-ever of these individual words and the words of Jesus during his earthly ministry. One of those is a reference to John’s words in the Book of Revelation and two others has to do with the prophet Agabus in Acts 28 and 21:10-11. What is more, even if we were to grant for the sake of argument that such activity took place, the resulting picture of Jesus’ life and teaching should not have come out materially different because early Christians recognize from their Jewish forbearers the need to test any alleged prophecy. 1st Corinthians 14:29, one of the time honored criteria for testing prophecy or alleged prophecy was that it cohered with and in no way contradicted that which was previously believed to have been from God. Yet, the picture of the Jesus seminar in the 1990’s or other radical scholars over the past two hundred years of Gospel Scholarship have often been that this speaking or teaching, prophesying in the name of the Risen Lord, in fact, has led, in some cases, to some dramatically different theological and ethical teachings, unfortunately.

Finally, it is worth pointing out what we might call the missing topics of Jesus from the Gospel tradition. For example, circumcision may not be among the most one hundred moral dilemmas, but for a 1st century adult Greek or Roman man who became attracted to the Christian message, it was a crucial issue since some Jewish Christians were going around saying (Acts 15:1), ‘you must be circumcised to be saved.’ Remember also that this was in a world without anesthesia. This was such a divisive issue that an entire council in Jerusalem had to be convened in order to debate and decide on it. The rest of Acts 15 covers this issue. But why just pronounce authoritatively what Jesus spoke or have one of the prophets declared in the name of Jesus what his view of the matter was? The first Christians did not feel free to speak in the name of the risen Lord to solve the matter. They simply hashed it out to normal debate and conversation. This list could be extended, what about the issue in regards to speaking in tongues that threatened to blow the church at Corinth apart. It doesn’t seem likely that the practice of early Christian prophecy is a threat either to the question of Christian interest.

What about the second question? Were Christians able to recover the Jesus of history? Even early in the 20th century during its first sixty years or so as this discipline became more standard, there were important counter points that more conservative scholars made, even if their voices never attained a majority or consensus of opinion. It was pointed out that by ancient standards, a period of twenty or thirty years of exclusively oral tradition was in fact an astonishingly short period of time when information, for example, about the life of Alexander the Great circulated for more than half a millennium, the oldest sources that we have for compiling a biography of him are from Prutark and Aryan, late 1st century and early 2nd century Greek writers, even though Alexander died in 320 BC, yet from them and from subsequently lost written sources, those ancient historians were able to construct with great confidence and detail the main events of the life of Alexander. And Jesus was much greater in comparison.

Secondly, it has been pointed out by Allen Malard in his book, Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus, that it was by no means un-known that rabbi’s and their disciplines in the process of facilitating memorization to take written notes usually after listening in public to a revered teacher to help them recall and commit to memory the most important things. Thirdly, it has been demonstrated that while one can certainly find examples of legendary embellishment of ancient stories from the Mediterranean world. The more common pattern of lengthy historical accounts in oral tradition is that of abridgement, a tendency to abbreviate. While details may be left out, new ones were not invented in order to be added. Fourthly, given that the oral tradition behind the Gospels took place within the first Christian generation, there would have still been eyewitnesses of the life of Christ, particularly in Israel. Many of them never accepted the Christian claims and some who were hostile and witnessed the persecution in the Book of Acts at numerous junctures. These eyewitnesses could have easily countered the testimony of first Christian preachers, had it been materially distorted. There was also a center of Christian leadership with the core apostles in Jerusalem. In the Book of Acts, we read on more than one occasion going out to listen to the Gospel message which had been proclaimed, particularly among unchurched peoples. It’s not like the child’s game of telephone; if anything, it’s like someone monitoring children and listening to what was said with each statement being said aloud instead of in whispers, checked for accuracy until the person got it right, then being allowed to pass it on.

The sixth point from the list of points in the previous paragraph involves the many hard and difficult sayings of Jesus. Certainly there are ethically demanding sayings of Christ. What about Luke 14:26, ‘whoever who does not hate his parents or siblings cannot be my disciple.’ We are grateful that Matthew in Chapter 10 has something of a paraphrase or explanation of this text. Matthew explains that Jesus meant that if anyone does not love God far more than parents or siblings is not worthy of him. But why did Luke preserve the text the way he did? Why did he even bother to include it, as if Jesus was contradicting the commandment to honor your mother and father which he reaffirmed on other occasions? Unless there was a strong conservative force within the Gospel tradition at a number of points that did not leave Luke feeling free to omit a saying that perhaps was well known to his communities. The same could be said of the puzzling text in Mark 13:32 and parallels where Jesus says that not even the Son will know the hour of his return, but only the heavenly Father knows. There are certainly ways to explain this but at a time when the first Christians were exalting Jesus and increasingly equating him with divinity, why not just leave out such a potentially misleading statement unless there were important constraints on the Gospels writers.

Then finally, we may appeal to the kind of distinction that the Apostle Paul makes in 1st Corinthians 7 where he is teaching on the topic of marriage and divorce. In verse 10, Paul gives a teaching from the Lord. In verse 12, he says more on the topic and that this is ‘I’, not the Lord. This is not a lack of divine inspiration here, because as the chapter finishes in verse 40 which turns out to be an ironic aside against the false teachings in Corinth who thought they had a monopoly on the spirit. He goes on to say, ‘I think I too have the Spirit of God.’ And rather, the distinction is that most likely when Paul refers to basic prohibition against divorce which he does in 1st Corinthians 7:10; he is referring to what he knows of what Jesus taught during his earthly life. Perhaps of thinking of what Jesus taught recorded in the opening verses of Mark 10. But when he refers to the more specific question of what about an unbelieving partner when a spouse converts to Christ who no long wants to stay in the marriage but wants to divorce or at least separate or abandon his or her partner. Paul realizes that he has no word of the Lord to appeal to as one who was called a prophet in Acts 13 in the opening verses.

In the last forty or fifty years two more developments have proved highly significant. As late as the 1950’s and early 1960’s, a group of Scandinavian scholars, led by B. Gerhardsson, who continues to write today well into his retirement years and pursued even in the 80’s and 90’s particularly by the writings of a German scholar, R. Riesner, has shown with considerable detail to what degree the ancient Hebrew, Greek and Roman cultures but particularly the Hebrew culture were those of memorization. Even school children from ages 5 to 12 when many boys in those cultures had access to schooling were able to commit large quantities of important texts to memory. One would expect the followers of Jesus to quickly come to honor him as a heavenly sent prophet if not God himself, would have taken as much care in creating a guarded tradition. Then in the last decades of the 20th century and continuing on into the 21st, there has been another school of the study of oral tradition, beginning particularly with the Harvard researcher, A.B. Lord studying in Eastern Europe and more recently Kenneth Bailey in traditional Arabic in Palestinian, Lebanese, Syrian villages of the Middle East. Memorization could carry with it a fair amount of flexibility as those who recounted the formative stories of a given people would choose what to leave out or expand or abridge, explain or leave cryptic, but yet with 60 to 90 percent of the text that remained would be unaltered. Hence, what we called in the PowerPoint side # 14 entitled, Were Christians Able to Recover the Jesus of History, as flexible transmission with fixed limits. If the crowds listening to such tellers of stories, this is another reminder of a public check and balance on the tradition because an entire villages, tribe or clan would know these formative stories; and if the story tellers in any given performance would error in way or fail to include one of the necessary points it would be right to correct such.

Finally then, we come to the third of our questions which provides the bridge from form criticism into redaction criticism and that is the question, did the first Christian in fact manage to preserve accurate history? The only way to answer this question fully is to read each of the Gospels from start to finish, particularly where there are parallels, to read them in the form of a synopsis or harmony shown in parallel columns so that students can see precisely in detail the kinds of similarities and differences that emerge.

This brings up, therefore, the three sub-disciplines of historical criticisms that this lecture is surveying, namely redaction criticism. For our purposes here, to bring this lecture to a close, we may review a comparison chart of Matthew, Mark and Luke that is printed in the textbook: Redaktonsgeschichte, German for redaction history. Redaction is simply a lessor used English word that refers to editing, the final stage of the composition of the Gospels, as the Gospel writers also functioned as editors of all their written sources and oral traditions. They then choose what to include and how to include it in order to communicate their distinctive theological emphasis. How one determines these depends on adopting solutions to the synoptic problem. So we can read across the columns horizontally of the synopsis as described by D. Steward in his book, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, call reading and thinking horizontally and look for unique emphasis, especially those that occur more than once.

One could take the Gospel of Mark or any other text and read vertically as well and think vertically, imagining one holding a scrolls up and reading it down through the document and seeing what are the most emphasized scenes, accounts or issues the narrator wants to call attention to. Why is material arranged in a certain order, especially when it is not obviously chronological and particularly when it may be arranged in a different order in a different Gospel? Perhaps a topical or thematic arrangement is in view to some of that authors’ distinctive emphasis. Here then are the major historical critical disciplines for studying particularly the synoptic Gospels and as we mentioned in terms of redaction criticism, we will see repeated illustrations of this as we progress.