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March 30, 2010

Essay on Biblical Criticism

Biblical criticism is a scholarly activity that aims to make the text more, not less, meaningful. In the course of that activity scholars may be led to make suggestions as to how the text may have been changed over the years, especially during the process of scribal copying, or to suggest how an evangelist may have allowed his particular theological interests to influence his record. Biblical criticism follows four forms: source, form, redaction and narrative.

Originally biblical scholars tried to harmonize the Gospels, and evidence of this exists in the harmonization of the two infancy narratives. However, rather than harmonizing the Gospels, Griesbach set the synoptics in parallel. This posed the question, ‘How do we account for the similarities and differences?’ The way was open for source criticism to develop as scholars tried to establish the relationship between the synoptic gospels and their sources. Griesbach proposed that Matthew was written first because of its Jewish content however this theory was quickly discredited as scholars asked ‘Why would Mark abbreviate Matthew?’ Griesbach’s theory is based on the theory of St Agustine in the Middle Ages who was a proponent of Matthean priority.

Alternatively, modern biblical scholars (including Harrington) would, for the most part, propose Markan priority with Mark as the source or framework for the other two synoptics as Taylor asserts, Mark, for Luke is a quarry from which stone is obtained to enlarge an already existing building’. Although this proposal was valid it still did not account for the fact that Matthew and Luke still had similarities although the material was not in Mark. In 1863 Holtzmannn put forward a two-source theory i.e. that Matthew and Luke had used marks as a source as well as another common source known as ‘Q’. He outlined his theory thus:
Mark Source ‘Q’

Luke Matthew

This two-source theory remained very influential for many years, and was the foundation of Streeter’s four-source theory in the early twentieth century. Streeter recognized the fact that both Matthew and Luke’s Gospel had unique material respectively. Streeter identified four sources from which the synoptics were comprised: Mark, source ‘Q’, ‘Special M’ (material unique to Matthew) and ‘Special L’ (material unique to Luke). He outlined his theory thus:

Mark Source ‘Q’
Special L Special M
Luke Matthew

Nevertheless we are faced with problems in relation to the four-source theory. There are occasions when Matthew and Luke appear to agree with each other against Mark. This might be explained in several ways – tradition, theology or perhaps mark used Q – but differently. It could also mean that one (probably Luke) relied on the other as opposed to Mark. Some scholars also question why Matthew and Luke especially have left out parts of Mark. For instance, Luke contains no account of Walking on Water. Perhaps he did not use Mark or had an incomplete copy. This may suggest editorial redaction and as Russell points out, ‘most of the omissions made by Matthew and Luke are not surprising.’ Perhaps each evangelist omitted material to suit their theological or Christological perspective and needs. We are also faced with the problem that there is no evidence of Source ‘Q’. Most scholars are prepared to consider Luke using Matthew as there is much more Matthew in Luke than Luke in Matthew. Again there are problems with this. If Luke were using Matthew, why does he leave out additions that Matthew has made to Mark? It can be said that perhaps each writer used the same source but applied it differently, especially since Luke wanted to hi-light the theme of universality in his gospel. Overall we can say that the materials may well have come from both oral and written sources. It is clear from the content and the existence of Paul’s letters to churches, that early Christians considered accurate transmission of material important. Although some people would suggest that the transmission of stories of Jesus in the early Church were haphazard and relied on luck, we can see how quickly Paul’s letters circulated and became Church documents. If this was the case then surely we can assume that stories about Jesus were afforded some protection. What is essential to acknowledge is that if the four-source theory were to fall completely, then so would many of the finding of the Redaction Critics, who depend on being able to compare the use of parallel sources to draw conclusions about the theology, ecclesiology and Christology of evangelists.

After source criticism had opened the debate about the relationships between the synoptic gospels the way was clear for scholars to suggest how the evangelists had been influenced in their selection and presentation of the traditions about Jesus. Form and redaction critics responded to this in distinctive ways: form critics investigated the oral period and how it influenced the gospels while redaction critics looked at the evangelists as authors who had interests and convictions of their own which they imposed onto those sources.

Form criticism developed in the early 20th century. The oral period became the focus of interest and form critics suggested that mark’s gospel was little more than a written version of oral traditions, with no regard for chronology or style. Mark had simply linked stories and parables together that had little relation to each other. They were aware that material in the gospels must only represent a fraction of that which was available about Jesus. The Church had to select and edit the material, and only the important material survived. It was transmitted orally, and further selection took place when it was written down. Sometime stories or parables seemed to have more relevance to the early church than the time of Jesus, and the form critics saw this as evidence that the early church had been influential in the development of the material. The main challenge of form criticism was that the gospel material didn’t necessarily reflect the words of historical Jesus. Rather, the early church was depicted as having little interest in the life of Jesus or in establishing a reliable witness to his actions, but only as providing material that met its needs. However, to say that they had no interest in providing an accurate record of Jesus’ life is wrong. Luke distinguishes his account from the others, saying that he is telling the ‘truth’. However, Rudolph Bultmann argued that the gospels did convey truth but they were spiritual not literal.

Although redaction criticism didn’t come into works of its own until Gunther Bornkamm, William Wrede’s study of Mark’s gospel in 1901 argued that Mark had written a messianic secret into the gospel. Redaction criticism developed as scholars identified the editorial or redactional work of each evangelist. Redaction critics used source criticism as their base, examining the changes each evangelist made to his sources. These differences enabled redaction critics to isolate the main interests and characteristics of each gospel. Matthew and Luke’s changes to Mark’s gospel reveal their characteristic interests. The use of ‘L’ and ‘M’ are especially important in isolating their theology. For example, many of the 14 parables that are unique to Luke emphasise Jesus’ mission to the lost and the outcast. Redaction criticism has been criticised for its dependence on the four-source theory and for the assumptions it makes about minor differences in the gospels. However, it makes an important contribution to gospel study by showing that gospel writers played a significant role in the transmission and interpolation of traditions about Jesus.

Narrative critics set out to examine the gospel in its entirety, rather than as a collection of sources. Narrative criticism encourages the reader to see the gospels as narratives that have recognisable structures plot, characters, settings and events that the evangelist has shaped in order to create a rounded whole. Narrative critics are aware of two levels in the gospel: discourse and story. The story is the content of the narrative, i.e. characters, plots, events and settings. The discourse is the way in which the story is told and gives meaning – it is essential to give depth to the story. The implied author sets out to evaluate their view in the narrative. Mark for example makes it clear in 1:1-13 that Jesus is the Son of God and this view is programmatic for the gospel. God has an evaluative view also, which is the view that the implied author has accepted and the implied reader is intended to accept. Symbol and irony are of interest are of interest too. The crown of thorns is ironic: Jesus is mocked as King, when in fact the soldiers are right to call him King, only they aren’t aware of this. Places acquire importance for the critic. Jerusalem is the centre of activity in Luke’s gospel and is the place from where the church will expand. Events are given dramatic or narrative significance by the way they are narrated. The evangelists can create casual links between events to make connections that would not otherwise be obvious. Characters too are important. They can be ‘flat’ characters who do not develop throughout or ‘full’ characters who change and grow. The Jewish authorities are examples of flat characters who remain hypocritical while ‘full’ characters like the disciple develop from being disillusioned to being strong.

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