Quartz Hill School of Theology

Redaction Criticism

Redaction Criticism is the study of editorial activity. A redactor is simply an editor who shapes the material he has received for a purpose. Sometimes the purpose of the redactor is in harmony with the author and sometimes it is not.

In this segment of our study we will be examining the methods used to discover editorial work and how it can be distinguished from the authors own work.

Performing redaction criticism is simply a matter of (again) asking questions of the text. The first question that must be asked is, does the segment of text I am looking at show "seams" or "stitches". Seams or stitches are obvious comments in the text which interrupt the flow of the narrative. These are called "commentary" by literary critics. (NB: It must be noted that the various methods of criticism overlap in places).

If there is an obvious seam, then one must ask: does this seam attempt to clarify the passage; or does it seem to take the passage in another direction? The following passage will illustrate these questions. The BOLD face type are those words deemed editorial comments. The normal face type is the original narrative. The student will note that the editorial comments serve either to explain a word or phrase, or to make a theological comment which explains the text. The passage is John 3:1ff.

"Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God." Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." Nicodemus said to him, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" Jesus answered, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born from above.' The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?" Jesus answered him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? "Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God."

The bold print can clearly be seen to interrupt the flow of the narrative and the it frequently offers clarification or explanation. This is what redaction critics mean when they talk of edited text.

The student can find these editorial insertions and clarifications in most passages in the Bible. The passage above is offered simply because it is very well known.

The purpose of these editorial insertions is to make explicit what the editor saw as the underlying theological message. The editor thus saw himself as simply making plain what he may have considered to be unclear. Redaction criticism is a very subjective method and the student should make sure that there is a clear seam before assigning a passage to the editor.

A very famous, and yet plainly clear example of editorial work is found in the so called "long ending" of Mark. The oldest manuscripts of Mark do not contain Mark 16:9ff (see the text criticism module). The verses appended by a later editor clearly attempt to harmonize the ending of Mark with the endings of Matthew and Luke. Here, the editor wanted to make sure that the "Great Commission" and the post resurrection appearences were included in Mark. He saw their absence as a possible source of confusion: so he clarified by adding them in!

Here is Mark 16. Again, the BOLD face type are the editorial insertions while the plain type is the original narrative of the author:

"When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, "Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?" When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, "Don't be alarmed. You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you." So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. Now after he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. She went out and told those who had been with him, while they were mourning and weeping. But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it. After this he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them. Later he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were sitting at the table; and he upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen. And he said to them, "Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover." So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and proclaimed the good news everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that accompanied it."

This editorial addition can be seen by anyone. In the original narrative, the women leave the tomb terrified and speak to no one. In the editorial addition the women speak to the disciples! The student should also note the harmonization with the other Gospels which takes place in this editorial addition.

When one is able to use the method of Redaction Criticism, one is able to separate the strands of the author and the editor. This is a very important task in the theological explication of the Bible.


Using the tools you have at hand, choose any passage of the Bible and underline what appear to you to be seams or editorial comments; and then use a scholarly commentary on that passage and see if a scholar agrees with you.

Write out your findings and submit them to the instructor.

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Quartz Hill School of Theology
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Quartz Hill, CA 93536

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