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Introducing Redaction and the Synoptic Problem

March 6, 2010

One of the best examples I use in class to discuss redaction within the synoptics is the baptism of Jesus:

  • According to Mark, John baptized Jesus.
  • According to Matthew, John baptized Jesus only after getting Jesus’ permission.
  • According to Luke, it looks like John was in prison when Jesus was baptized.

Reading these passages side-by-side allows me to raise critical questions like the following:

  • Why might this have been embarrassing for early Christians?
  • Might embarrassment have motivated redaction?
  • How do they redact differently?
  • What do examples like this tell us about the reliability of ancient literature?

The baptism passages are perfect for raising these questions; the students pretty much see the stakes of these questions immediately.

Does anyone else use alternate selections that are good for introducing the synoptics and/or redaction criticism?

22 Comments leave one →
  1. March 6, 2010 7:48 pm

    This also brings up the point that there were actually tons of different Christians around the time that these writings were being written and copied by scribes.

    Your point in particular was polemicized by the adoptionist sects and anti-adoptionists sects, right?

  2. March 6, 2010 7:52 pm

    Oh, and to your question, “anyone else use alternate selections that are good for introducing the synoptics and/or redaction criticism?”

    I find the wildly varied passion story to be a great example of redaction. Example: was the character of Jesus silent and downtrodden during the whole ordeal only crying out to god “why have you forsaken me” before dying (like in the earliest gospels, Mark) OR was he defiantly confident and rather vocal to people as he was sent to the cross (like in Luke)?

  3. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    March 6, 2010 8:25 pm

    Uh, I don’t know about the adoptionist/anti-adoptionist thing, although I should.

    Yeah, the passion story stuff is highly emphasized in the Bart Ehrman texts I use. That’s good stuff too.

  4. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    March 6, 2010 8:26 pm

    Oddly, my policy is basically to ignore (almost) the passion narratives. I wonder why that is. I spend almost all my time on what Jesus expects of his followers and almost no time on his death.

  5. March 6, 2010 10:04 pm

    The baptism is a good one. The Beelzebul/”unforgivable sin” tradition is useful as well, with subtle differences between Mark and Matthew, but Luke taking a major chunk and relocating it into a different context, illustrating one of the types of editing that took place. And the death of Judas in Matthew and Acts is a good illustration of apparent independence resulting in contradiction.

  6. March 7, 2010 12:16 am

    It’s neat you mention Ehrman, that’s where I originally read about the adoptionist / anti-adoptionists, in Misquoting Jesus, I believe.

  7. March 7, 2010 3:33 pm

    Yes, the baptism pericope is one that I set for my students for a mid-term assignment this time. Synoptic-wise it is interesting because it’s triple tradition with some major minor agreements against Mark, so one has to ask: do Mark and Q overlap here, or is Luke using Matt. as well as Mark? And yes, lots of interesting material for redaction-criticism.

    I also tried Beelzebub with my Intro. students this time, but in retrospect it is not ideal because it is so anomalous synoptically.

  8. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    March 7, 2010 6:37 pm

    Many thanks for the suggestions, all! I’ll definitely consider using those examples next time around (or maybe even squeeze them in this semester).

  9. meghan permalink
    April 27, 2010 4:11 pm

    My New Testament teacher used the woman washing Jesus’ feet to start off the course, showing the similarities between the synoptics and (bonus) how Mary Magdalene becomes the repentant whore in later Xtian tradition. My Hebrew bible teacher used the creation stories and the flood story to show the redaction going on in the text.

  10. April 28, 2010 12:39 pm

    Isn’t it anachronistic to talk about embarrassment when there’s really nothing embarrassing until Luke has published his account (i.e. at the point where the three synoptic works are largely complete)?

    You can only be saying that someone reading all three then went back into one or more of the texts and changed something to ease his embarrassment. Which of the three shows this later kind of redaction?

  11. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    April 30, 2010 11:09 am

    @meghan: good suggestions; thanks!

  12. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    April 30, 2010 11:09 am

    I use the flood stories myself, since it’s so obvious there.

  13. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    April 30, 2010 11:13 am

    John, the difference between the accounts is not what I take to be embarrassing here, but the fact that John was baptized by Jesus, since that could denote Jesus’ subordination to John—which is why I’m not surprised to see Matt redact it so that John asks Jesus’ permission first.

  14. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    April 30, 2010 11:13 am

    I meant “the fact that Jesus was baptized by John”

  15. April 30, 2010 1:50 pm

    OK I get it. I hadn’t interpreted the interchange between the two in Matthew to constitute a cover-up of Mark (it doesn’t actually read like a request by John for permission anyway).

    I understand the implication is there that Matthew doesn’t understand Jesus’ acquiescence (in Mark) to John’s role as baptiser. I just can’t rule out the possibility that Mark’s stripped-down account had the effect of creating a dialectic-of-memory, ‘evoking’ for publication a previously unreported (but factual) story about the two of them talking it over before baptism. Does criticism allow for such a weak dialectic or is it all about the strong dialectic-of-embarrassment? The former dialectic would deconstruct a lot of so-called redaction criticism (which makes it worthy of consideration in my opinion). I guess we don’t talk about historical dialectic unless it serves the agaenda.

    But I’m not fooled by the extension of Luke’s Baptist-material to a point in the text which overlaps the prior event of Jesus’ baptism. Wouldn’t require that to be strictly ‘after John’s imprisonment’ (although again I suppose it could look like Luke’s dodging the issue).

    Not sure how far suspicion can take one on the search for truth. But thanks for the late answer and sorry I missed the fun when Zack, Goodacre and McGrath were checking in.

    I get it though. I’m only pretending to be in your class and coming up with my own written response.

  16. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    April 30, 2010 1:58 pm

    I’m curious: would you extend the same level of effort in reconciling or smoothing over apparent contradictions in texts from other religious traditions?

  17. April 30, 2010 3:10 pm

    You mean the same effort which redaction applies to making them these texts so bumpy? No need to insult my effort at neutrality. What religious tradition did you have in mind? I would choose Torah and say yes, you can’t simply throw out the Elohist and the Priestly because it contradicts the Jahwist or Deuteronomist. There may be issues with old stuff embedded in the new.

    I am against any process that makes the first historical thing normative, and gives everybody else a coverup assignment. How do we decide when Matthew has a fact to add, or a fiction? I admit it makes better classroom material to go all-or-nothing.

    The publication of Mark was in my opinion not the gospel thesis but the gospel antithesis (i.e. the effort to put into text what had been propogated without the aid of text). Any antithesis naturally calls forth a certain amount of memory of differences, nuances, factual and counterfactual ‘history’ in the form of unreported material (as well as an effort at face-saving, but facts can also save face).

  18. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    May 2, 2010 2:02 pm

    @John: if you came across an apparent contradiction in the Qur’an, the Bhagavad Gita, or the Lotus Sutra, would you expend as much energy trying to show that it’s not really a contradiction?

  19. May 2, 2010 10:25 pm

    Is it about contradiction? I thought it was about difference and development – you know, redaction?

    You keep asking questions implying I am prejudiced against other faiths – I am not coming out of a background in an inerrancy cult like you apparently are. I do not view all differences as contradictions. There are millions of faithful Christians (like me) who have not been infected by inerrancy fallacies. We go to these texts and ask, what is each trying to tell us that is new or old?

    The topic was whether the baptism represents a good place to point out redaction. I suggest you take the hint from Goodacre and McGrath and try their alternates. Maybe they were just being polite.

    Fundamentalists make the worst kind of atheists, in my opinion – I rarely find one who has really left their all-or-nothing baggage behind. Marxism is a good fit for you.

  20. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    May 2, 2010 10:40 pm

    Wow; personal attack. Fun stuff!

    In any case, it’s been my experience that those who expend energy trying to smooth over bumps in the text do so only for the texts they like—and reserve a hermeneutics of suspicion for texts from other traditions. Perhaps you’re not one of these—perhaps you were merely making the point that the oldest text is not necessarily the most reliable.

  21. May 3, 2010 7:01 am

    God (the Christian one, duuuh!) obviously saw that the earlier writers totally mixed things up and that’s why there were changes. Contradictions… errr… differences solved!

    Why talk about other holy books that are obviously not real, just read the bible and you’ll know that our god is the RRRReal God.


  1. Religious Literacy and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion « Missives from Marx

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