Comparing Source, Form, Redaction and Literary Criticism in terms of Assumption about History and Fo by Ngufan Nyagba - HTML preview

PLEASE NOTE: This is an HTML preview only and some elements such as links or page numbers may be incorrect.
Download the book in PDF, ePub, Kindle for a complete version.







Comparing Source, Form, Redaction and Literary Criticism in terms of Assumption about History and Focused Goals









Advance Studies in the Synoptic Gospels














Ngufan Nyagba

Waxahachie, Texas. 22 April 2008. 











SOURCE CRITICISM…………………………………………………………….4


FORM CRITICISM……………………………………………………………….5


REDACTION CRITICISM……………………………………………………….6


LITERARY CRITICISM………………………………………………………….7












WORKS CITED…………………………………………………………………...13


















Introduction: Background and Basic Characteristics of Criticism


            Inquiry into the origins of the New Testament can be dated back to the nineteenth and twentieth century. Though several critical opinions were offered prior to the 1800, non were known to offer substantial detail regarding the origin of the New Testament. Reformers such as Martin Luther made statements about some New Testament books, but only regarding their unsuitability for directly supporting the doctrine of justification by faith.  At any rate, the age of reason gave rise to modern criticism which subjected the bible text to the scrutiny of human reasoning. Rationalism had been enthroned and all else revelation included, was to bow down to it. The rise of criticism out of such backgrounds then draws attention to the anthropological character, and this raises problems. There was no doubt in the minds of the earliest modern critical scholars that human reason should be allowed to pronounce on the authenticity of the text. It was this tendency for modern criticism to exult itself above the clear statement of the New Testament, that led to the development both of skeptical schools of thought, and of strong reactions from those committed to the absolute trustworthiness of the Bible. It is thus important to understand this background when approaching NT criticism.[1]

The thesis of this paper will be to compare source, form, redaction and literary criticism in terms of their assumptions about history and their focused goals.  I will begin by defining each criticism, discussing their assumptions about history, and explaining their focused goals. I will then move on to interact with the material, comparing each criticism against each other in terms of their assumptions about history and their focal goals. 


Source Criticism


            Source criticism is considered the oldest of the modern criticisms. It first appeared in the seventieth and eighteenth centuries when scholars began to read the bible from a secular perspective. Close reading of certain scripture passages revealed various discrepancies, contradictions, and changes in literary style. In the NT, issues of source criticism revolved around explaining the verbal similarities between extensive portions of Matthew, Mark, Luke.[2]  In 1796 J. G. Herder sought to explain the synoptic problem by assuming a common oral tradition used by Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Gieseler in 1818 more fully developed Herder’s theory explaining that the disciples created this oral tradition which soon became fixed in form. Some time after it was translate into Greek, this common tradition was then used by the synoptic writers. Though there is no doubt about a period when the gospels circulated orally, it must be noted that at times, the degree of similarities seems to require more than just a common oral tradition. Not minimizing the significances of a common oral tradition on the gospel writers, a good number of scholars agree that the similarities we encounter require the existence of some sort of a literary relationship. If a literary relationship existed between the synoptic gospels, then what was the nature of these relationships? Three of the most common of these interdependent hypotheses are:

  1. Matthew wrote first, Mark used Matthew, Luke used Mark. (Augustine)
  2. Matthew wrote first, Luke used Matthew, Mark used Matthew and Luke. (J. J Griesbach 1783, and 1789; W R. Farmer 1964).
  3. Mark wrote first, Matthew used Mark, Luke used Mark. Matthew and Luke also used another source “Q”, (H. J. Holtzmann, 1863; B. H. Streeter, 1924).

Of the three listed, the last two, the Griesbach Hypothesis and the Two-document hypothesis are the most debated.[3]


Form Criticism


Partly because of the multiplication of sources and partly due to the doubts cast on the historical value of Mark, source criticism developed into form criticism. Scholars recognized that source criticism had concentrated on the use of written material without paying enough attention to the origins of these sources. The questions of how Mark and Q reached the form Matthew and Luke came to use became the focal point. Hence the focus reverted back to the period of oral tradition, and scholars endeavored to clarify the way in which the tradition was preserved. Using a circular approach, they decided that a valuable method of doing this would be to analyze the shape or form of the various units of tradition and classify them accordingly. Though form criticism began as a strictly literary discipline, it was tempting for some to use forms to determine historical validity. Hence, many of the judgments made by form critics became negative, as they were the product of highly doubtful methods. According to form criticism different forms existed in the synoptic gospels, some consisted of narratives, some consisted of sayings, some of miracles, and some of the so-called mythical or legendary material. Not all scholars accepted the classification of myths and legends, which presupposed a non- historical content. The more extreme form critics rejected the miraculous, because in their view miracles did not belong to the sphere of history. As for myths, according to this school of form critics, anything supernatural in the accounts of the temptation, the transfiguration etc, were all ruled out. It is clear that scholars who approached the literary forms from different points of view evaluated them differently. Needless to say, a valuable feature of form criticism has been the attention given to the oral transmission, which had long been neglected by most source critics. [4]


Redaction Criticism


            Redaction criticism arose out of form criticism and was directly based on it. This method switched its attention to the evangelist as writers. This criticism gained much support because it attempts a more positive approach. It regards the writers more as authors rather than editors. The main emphasis is placed on the evangelist as theologians and little attention is paid to them as historians. The German scholars Bornkamm, Marxsen, Conzelmann, and Haenchen devoted their attention to Matthew, Mark, Luke and Acts respectively. All saw their authors as having used and manipulated their material to express their theological view points.  In due course, some redaction critics took this view too far. Conzelmann evaluated Luke’s geographical details with theological meaning.  Theological interest suddenly took precedence over historical validity. Luke and the other evangelist would be considered as theologians and not historians. As it would be difficult to conceive of the narrations as conveying bare fact with some interpretation, yet being historical valid. But there is no reason to see the interpretations made by each evangelist as his own creation. On the contrary, there is sufficient agreement among them for us to regard the particular interpretation of each as a variation within a basic unity. “There is only one gospel, not a plurality of gospels.”[5]



Literary Criticism


            Literary criticism varies in definition according to the nineteenth century, the early and mid 20th century, and the contemporary usage of the term. All three remain in use today, making literary criticism one of the most potentially ambiguous in the field of biblical studies.  In the nineteenth century the term originally referred to a particular approach to the historical study of the scripture popularly known now as source criticism. In the early to mid 20th century, literary criticism began to be used to refer to attempts to explicate a biblical author’s intention and achievements through a detailed analysis of the texts rhetorical elements and literary structure. In the contemporary usage, it often refers to any attempt to understand biblical literature in a manner that parallels the interests and theories of modern literary critics. Definition one falls under the rubric of historical criticism, definition three denotes an approach to scripture that is often ahistorical in interests and method, lastly, definition two fall somewhere in the between.[6] With the contemporary definition in mind, literary criticism as it relates to the Gospels is concern with the literary conventions and the significance of such conventions for meaning. The rationale for such an understanding is first based on the assumptions that, one, that gospels are, in part, literary and thus the reading and hearing of the gospels involves literary appreciation.[7] One view of literary criticism recognizes the text as a separate entity of itself. The text is viewed as possessing  a world of itself, separable, even from its historical and cultural setting. In this view, the text may be separated from the author and the editor. A text once conceived and formulated, acquires a life of its own, and can become an object of investigation in its own right. Some approaches take the autonomy of the text as their fundamental truism, arguing that a text establishes its own horizon of interpretation and can be read and interpreted in apart from any consideration of the historical and cultural setting. In this regard it need not be interpreted as the product of an author per se. Once it achieves a life of its own, the text, not its author nor the author’s intent, becomes the exegete’s object of inquiry. “The world of the text” becomes the arena in which the interpreter moves. Internal consideration are the primary concern, while external considerations bear no relevance. Literary themes and motifs within the text are examined in their own right and in relation to each other. Movements within the text are examined and interpreted in light of other parts of the document. Thus the text is its own world and creates the criteria for evaluation and interpretation.[8]

Another view of literary criticism grant the same measure of autonomy to the text, but excludes the transition to philosophical analysis. They conceive of the text as a “fictive world”, not in the sense that what is being recorded is historical untrue, but in the sense that it is the creation of the author.  Granted this autonomy, the text deserves to be considered treated in its own right and interpreted as a self-contained creation of the artistic intelligence.[9]


Source Criticism Compared to Form, Redaction, and Literary Criticism


Source criticism aims to solve the “Synoptic Problem”. The attempt to explain the similarities and slit variances in the gospel accounts resulted in a quest for the source of the gospel writer’s material. The era of oral tradition is the central focus for source critics. As a result, much attention is given to various hypotheses. Source critics find themselves in an interlock hypothesis dilemma. Considering the skeptical background of  these criticism, source critics in a general sense have maintained a non-skeptical approach to achieving their focused goal. Form critics on the other hand, approach the text with a more skeptical eye. Their belief that the stories were pragmatically selected,[10] based on the needs of the church, depicts the authors as being quite bias in their selection of gospel material. The problem with such a view is its overemphasis on the author as dictator, the ultimate master mind, merely selecting material that solely fits his agenda. In a sense, this perspective leaves no room for one to view these accounts as being text that could transcend the sphere of time, which they clearly have. The more radical form critics consider faith and fact as being incompatible, they also consider these accounts as myths.[11] Compared to source critics, form critics take on a more skeptical approach to the scriptures. Redaction criticism though arising from form criticism takes a more positive approach. Redaction critics seek the theological message from each redactor. The only disputable logic in this criticism is their assumption that these editors created stories to meet an immediate need in the church[12]. This free creation[13] on the part of the redactor, leaves no room for one to consider these gospels as being historically accurate. If the editors as resumed evidently created these accounts one is rest assured that the materials recorded are nothing more that fictions creations of a well meaning disciple.  Compared to source critics, redaction critics also embark a more skeptical, even liberal approach in their assumptions about history. Literary criticism is by far the most problematic of them all. The presumption that the text must be separated from its historical and cultural setting, begins the problem. A total suspension of the author’s intention leaves the text and the reader as the only significant factors. It is best to conclude that such an approach is insufficient, as it eliminates the essential factors that go into truly and fully understanding the text.



Form Criticism Compared to Source, Redaction and Literary Criticism


Form criticism reverted back to oral tradition and attempted to determine the form in which these gospels came to being. Its value was in this very thing, as it focused on determining the forms that existed prior to the complete account we have now.  Unfortunately, the mythical and legendary classification of form critics was problematic as this presumption deemed the gospel accounts non-historical. Comparing source criticism to form criticism, the clear fact the both seek to determine the origin of the scriptures is commendable. But rising from the era of modernism, this influence greatly impacted their out look on scripture. Especially the ‘extreme form critics’, as they rejected the miraculous altogether. Thus, source critics offered a more proper view on the miraculous as they at least presume these accounts to be historical. Like wise redaction criticism compared to form criticism yields the same conclusion. Both offer an a historical view on scripture. Redaction critics placed the theological interests of the evangelist above historical validity. To these critics it was difficult to conceive of the narratives as being historically valid, with the element of the evangelist interpretation. Literary criticism with its assumption of the text as possessing a “world of its own”, do not defer much from the prospective of form critics. Both  by virtue of their presumption about the text, deem it historically invalid.    


Redaction Criticism Compared to Source, Form and Literary Criticism


Redaction criticism as mentioned above, gained much support for its more positive approach to the scriptures, but viewing the evangelist as theologian rather than historians (or both), lead to a dismissal of the texts as being historically valid. Form and literary critics come to the same conclusion about historical validity. Source criticism unlike redaction by virtue of their goal paid no pressing interest on the historical validity of the scripture.


Literary Criticism Compared to Source, Form, and Redaction Criticism


Literary criticism by reading the gospels with literary appreciation in mind, (as mentioned above), detach the author and the historical value from the text. This completely deprives the text of very important elements for a full and true understanding of the text. While a certain degree of literary appreciation may be healthy, an overall evaluation of this approach to scripture does not offer the holistic approach to understanding the bible. Hence, literary criticism falls in a class of its own when compared to the other criticisms. Source, form and redaction have the evangelist and historical prospective as foundational rudiments for study.




Understanding the basic background from which each of these criticisms arose is key to understanding them. Source, form and reaction, arose at a period where rationalism reigned supreme. While literary criticism and its literary appreciation approach, had been used in the world long before the other criticism arrived. As mentioned above each criticism in its focal goals has its advantages. But their assumptions about history (rationalism) blinded them from offering a pure unadulterated interpretation of the text. All in all, convincing arguments can be made for or against the benefit of these criticisms.
























Green,             Joel,  Scot  Mcknight, Howard Marshall, eds.  Dictionary of Jesus and the

 Gospels.  Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 1992.


Harrison, R. K, B. K. Waltke, D. Guthrie, G. D. Fee.  Biblical Criticism, Historical,

Literary, and Textual.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1979. 


Hayes, John, Carl Holladay. Biblical Exegesis: A Beginner’s Handbook. Atlanta: John

            Knox Press, 1982.  


Soulen, Kendall, Richard Soulen.  Handbook of Biblical Criticism. Louisville:

            Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.





[1] R. K Harrison, B. K. Waltke, D. Guthrie, G. D. Fee, Biblical Criticism, Historical, Literary, and Textual (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1979), 85-7.


[2]Richard Soulen and Kendall Soulen, Handbook of Biblical Criticism (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 178-179. 

[3] Joel Green, Scot  Mcknight, Howard Marshall, eds.,  Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, (Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 1992), 784-87.


[4] Harrison, Waltke, & Guthrie, 104-7.

[5] Harrison, Waltke, & Guthrie, 107-08.


[6] Soulen & Soulen, 105.


[7]  Scot, McKnight & Marshalle, 473.

[8]  John Hayes, and Carl Holladay, Biblical Exegesis: A Beginning Handbook, (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 67-8.  


[9] Ibid.


[10] Class notes. 


[11] Class notes.


[12]Class notes. 


[13] Class notes.

You may also like...