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"Chapter 23: Examples of Form and Redaction Criticism"


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Examples of form and redaction criticism demonstrate how some of the leading critics actually have worked in this method. They will also show the degree of subjectivity that is characteristic of such critics. Some of them, recognizing the lack of objectivity in their work, have abandoned the entire historical-critical method, of which form and redaction criticism are important parts.

We already saw (chapter 21) how R. Brown and C. F. Evans frankly admit their inability to know why Mark was written or to distinguish between Mark's redactions and the traditions that came down to him. Here are some striking confessions by Rudolf Bultmann, the father of New Testament form criticism. Talking about how to resolve a controverted question of biblical interpretation, he said, "naturally enough, our judgment will not be made in terms of objective criteria, but will depend on taste and discrimination" (HST, p. 47). I n fact: "... conclusive knowledge is impossible in any science or philosophy" (KM, p. 195). Even faith should have no real foundation, according to Bultmann, since "security can be found only by abandoning all security" (KM, p. 210). Referring to the search for objective proofs, Bultmann says, "The old quest for visible security... is sin" (KM, p. 19). And: "The word of preaching confronts us as the word of God. It is not for us to question its credentials. It is we who are questioned" (KM, p. 41).

In Luke 3:10-14, various kinds of people ask St. John the Baptist what they should do. Bultmann, in spite of his admissions, feels certain here. "This is a catechism-like section," he says, "naively put into the Baptist's mouth, as though soldiers had gone on a pilgrimage to John. There is one thing that makes it improbable that we are here dealing with a product of the primitive Christian Church-that the profession of a soldier is taken for granted. Neither does this passage appear to be Jewish. It is perhaps a relatively late Hellenistic product, developed (by Luke himself) out of the saying from the tradition in v. I I " (MST, p. 145).

Bultmann is sure that the primitive Church could not approve of soldiers. He thinks it must have been totally pacifistic, even though Jesus Himself, when the centurion came to ask Him to cure his servant, praised the centurion: "Not even in Israel have I found such faith" (Matthew 8:10). Nor did Jesus tell him to give up the army. Neither did the angel, in Acts 10:1-9, who was sent to Cornelius the centurion, tell him to give up soldiering.

Bultmann here is using the criterion, discussed in chapter 20, of dual irreducibility (something is from Jesus, or at least level one if it fits neither Jewish ideas nor those of the primitive Church). Yet he does not accept the result of the criterion but calls the verse a "relatively late Hellenistic product developed by Luke himself." Incidentally, especially because of the studies of Martin Hengel, most scholars now think we cannot call something late because it seems Hellenistic, since we now think that "even in Jewish Palestine, in the New Testament period, Hellenistic civilization had a long and eventful history behind it (Judaism and Hellenism: Studies in Their Encounter in Palestine During the Early Hellenistic Period, SCM Press, 1 974).

Another prominent critic, Norman Perrin, has different comments on John the Baptist and thinks the saying in Matthew 1 1:12 about the kingdom of heaven suffering violence from the days of John the Baptist is genuine. The tradition about John the Baptist, he says, shows "a continuous 'playing down' of the role of the Baptist" ( Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus, Harper & Row, N.Y., 1967, p. 75).

Perrin thinks the primitive Church was in rivalry with the followers of the Baptist and so would never have made up the saying in Matthew 11:12. In regard to the words that the kingdom of God suffers violence. Perrin adds: "What we have here is the reverse of the situation envisaged in the interpretation of the exorcisms: there the kingdom of Satan is being plundered, here, that of God" (p. 77). The real sense seems to be that the Pharisees forcefully try to prevent people from entering the kingdom.

Perrin mentions a saying about exorcisms in Matthew 12:28: 'But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you." On page 64, he comments: "The saying has high claims to authenticity...." Perrin then quotes Bultmann (MST, p. 162), who thinks the saying "is full of that feeling of eschatological power which must have characterized the activity of Jesus."

Perrin makes a shocking blunder on page 16 of the same work. He was once inclined, he says, to believe that the Gospels were historical, but form criticism showed him over and over again they were not: "We would claim that the gospel materials themselves have forced us [emphasis added] to change our mind." Perrin says that he has been particularly influenced by Mark 9:1 and its parallels. Mark 9: I says: "Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power." Matthew 16:28 is the same, except that it says they will see "the Son of Man coming in his kingdom." Luke 9:27, says that they will see "the kingdom of God."

Perrin believes that Matthew and Mark expect the end soon but that Luke, because he no longer does, rewords things in such a way as to face "the long haul of history." Behind this claim lies the belief that Jesus was in error, expecting the end soon, and that Paul held a similar error.

Perrin thinks he is "forced" to see Matthew and Mark clashing with Luke, but he is not at all forced. The passage could refer to the Transfiguration. More likely, Mark means that they will see the kingdom-the Church-coming, being spread by the power of the Holy Spirit, by miracles after Pentecost. Many scholars today accept at least a partial equation of the Church with the kingdom (see JBC 11, David M. Stanley and John McKenzie, pp. 783 and 64; Matthew, Anchor Bible, 1971, Doubleday, W. F. Albright and C. S. Mann, pp. Ixxxvi and c). Note, too, that in the parables of the net (Matthew 13:47-50), of the wise and foolish virgins (Matthew 25:1-13), and of the weeds in the wheat (Matthew 13:24-30), kingdom must mean the Church. For if it meant reign, there would be wicked persons in it; they refuse to subject themselves to God's reign.

When Matthew says that they will see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom, he means that Jesus will visit His Church (concept of Hebrew paqad, "to come to help or to punish"-not necessarily visibly). As to Luke, he says that they will see the kingdom, the Church, established.

So Perrin is not at all forced. And again, subjectivity is showing with full power!

This notion that Luke is settling down to the "long haul" basically comes from Hans Conzelmann in his Die Mitte der Zeit, 1954 (English title: The Theology of St. Luke, Faber & Faber, London, 1961), a work that, though often called "epoch-making," introduced a major error.

We recall (chapter 16) that Fuller now thinks that the historical-critical method is bankrupt. He once felt otherwise. A really-great influence has been exercised by his form-critical analysis of Mark 8:29-33, the scene of the confession of Peter at Caesarea Philippi (The Foundations of New Testament Christology, R. H. Fuller, Charles Scribner's Sons, N.Y., 1965, p. 109). Jesus asks the disciples who men say that He is. They report various ideas. He then turns to the Apostles and asks them. Peter replies, "You are the Messiah" (unit 1). Jesus then commands them to tell no one (unit 2) and goes on to predict His passion, to which Peter objects (unit 3). Finally He turns on Peter saying, "Get behind me Satan" (unit 4).

Units 1 and 4 seem genuine to Fuller, but he attributes units 2 and 3 to the Church. Unit 2 is the "Messianic Secret." Jesus never said He was Messiah, Fuller writes: The church later, being embarrassed, covered by picturing Him as knowing but calling for silence on His Messiahship.

In his analysis, Fuller leans on the work of Wilhelm Wrede (The Messianic Secret, trans. J. Greig, James Clarke Co., Cambridge & London, 3rd ed., 1971). Wrede tries to prove his point by examples. His strongest case is that in which Jesus raises the daughter of Jairus, then tells the people to tell no one. Wrede explains that since anyone will be able to see that the girl is alive, there is fakery by the Church. But the reply is easy. Jesus was alone in the house with the parents, Peter, James, and John. Had the crowds found out, they would have seized Him, proclaimed Him King Messiah, according to their false notion of what the Messiah should he. Jesus needed silence only long enough to slip out of the house and be on His way.

In unit 3. Jesus predicts His Passion; but, the critics object, when He died and rose. the Apostles acted as if they had never heard of it. So the Church invented the prophecies after the fact. But it is well known that if one has a mental framework and then hears something that does not fit it. that item of information will not enter his mind at all.

Examples are countless. Dr. Semmelweis, in the nineteenth century. found that by taking antiseptic precautions puerperal fever could be largely prevented. His medical colleagues considered it ridiculous. not knowing there were such things as germs. Poor Semmelweis was sent-by doctors-to an insane asylum for the rest of his life. Teilhard de Chardin dreamed of a glorious period, just before Christ's return at the end, when most of the world would be united in love. He must have read Scripture-Luke 18:8, Matthew 24:12. Timothy 3:1-7-but it did not penetrate his thinking (Consciousness of Christ).

Having eliminated, as they think they have, units 2 and 3, the critics will then read what they think is the truth without fakery: Jesus asks the Apostles who they say He is. Peter answers that He is the Messiah. Jesus, with the words "Get thee behind me, Satan," angrily rejects the notion that He is the Messiah. This analysis is one of the chief supports of the notion that Jesus was ignorant of His own identity. What a poor proof!

A less radical but not yet sound, view of the Passion prophecies is found in J. Jeremias's New Testament Theology (Charles Scribner's Sons. N.Y., 1971). Jeremias speaks of the three Passion prophecies in the Gospels and says that the third one, Mark 1 0:33ff and parallels, so closely matches the actual event, even in details, "that there can be no doubt that this passion prediction is a summary of the passion formulated after the event" (p. 277).

Jeremias admits a core of truth but thinks that the abundance of details is evidence that some falsification has taken place. Behind his theory lurks a disbelief in the possibility of real prophecy. Jeremias also argues that in the first of these prophecies, Mark 3:31, the use of the Greek dei is striking. He says that the Semitic languages have nothing that exactly corresponds to it. This, he says, indicates that the first prediction took its form in a Hellenistic millieu. (Dei plus accusative and infinitive means "it is necessary that.")

It is now known that Hellenistic influence had been around long before the time of Jesus, so it cannot be argued for that reason that the form is late. It is true that Hebrew and Aramaic lack a word equivalent to the Greek dei, but those languages do in other ways express the idea that something must happen-in the case of the Passion, by the will of the Father. Examples can be seen in Isaiah 38:10, "I must depart," and in Jeremiah 4:21, "How long must I see?" A complete concordance, under the word must, will provide other instances of the concept of necessity in the Old Testament.

Already in 1943, L. J. McGinley studied in detail the alleged parallels between the miracles of Jesus and rabbinic or Greek miracles.1 The differences are so great that one should not agree with Dennis C. Duling, who repeats the error of Bultmann without correcting it: "The narratives about Jesus, like the biographical framework of the total story of Jesus itself, were judged [by Bultmann] to have little actual historical value, though historical events might lie hidden in them. Miracle stories, for example, were so retold that they often sounded like the miracle stories so common in the Greco-Roman world."2

Not if one makes close comparisons, as McGinley did.

Fuller also thought that to believe in the virginal conception is to go counter to the Gospel: "But the virginal conception clashes headlong with this earlier Davidic-sonship Christology, for the latter depends on Jesus' physical descent from David through Joseph.... Both Evangelists [Matthew and Luke] leave the two concepts side by side, thus indicating their concern, not with historical facts, but with Christological affirmation" (p. 195).

Fuller sees "three possible candidates for the creative milieu: (1) Palestinian Aramaic Christianity; (2) Hellenistic Jewish Christianity; (3) Gentile Christianity, from pagan sources. Everything points to (2) as the correct solution.... Thus the virginity of Mary is an idea which could only have arisen in the LXX sphere."

LXX stands for the Septuagint, the old Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. It had parthenos, "virgin," in Isaiah 7:14, where the He brew had almah. But almah, "young woman" (commonly unmarried) can mean a virgin. So the thought can be found in the Hebrew too. As to Davidic descent, adoption by Joseph is sufficient for that.

Fuller, perhaps realizing his evidence is insecure, tries to show, in note 43 on the next page, that Hellenistic Judaism already had the idea of a virgin birth in the case of Isaac and others. But he uses statements from a different genre-typology or allegory-and strains them badly to make them seem to give cases of virgin birth.

Study of the parables is quite active today. A turning point came in the two volumes of A. Julicher (Die Gleichnisreden Jesu, Tubinger, 1888-1889). who insisted that any allegorical explanations of a parable in the Gospels could not have come from Jesus Himself. Julicher argued that Jesus used simple comparisons only, not the detailed applications found in allegories, since His main purpose was to illustrate general truths on morality and religion. Julicher did not prove his point. yet many followed him. A major follower of Julicher was C. H. Dodd: The Parables of the Kingdom, Charles Scribner's Sons. N.Y., 1st ed. 1935; revised ed. 1961. Dodd, however, did not agree that the parables of the kingdom deal with general moral or religious truths. Rather, they convey the message of the kingdom of God. which Jesus inaugurated.

On page 105, Dodd begins to deal with parables of crisis: faithful and unfaithful servants (Matthew 24:45-51 and Luke 12:42-46); the waiting servants (Mark 13:33-37 and Luke 12:35-38); the thief at night (Matthew 24:4344 and Luke 12:39-40); and the ten virgins (Matthew 25: 1-12). Dodd thinks that these parables have been reapplied, that they deal with the Sitz-im-Leben (life situation) of the Church rather than that of Jesus. The Church, according to Dodd, saw itself in the interval between two crises, the Incarnation and the return at the end; while Jesus had in mind a brief period of intense crisis, the coming of God's kingdom.

What are we to think of this? Dodd, of course, gives no real proof. Yet we can admit that the Church, in retelling parables given by Jesus, might well make different applications of them. We saw in chapter 22 that St. Paul at times uses Old Testament texts in a sense different from that of the original context. So the Church could, not unreasonably, do the same with parables, fitting in everything with the message of Jesus.

J. Jeremias, in The Parables of Jesus, (translated by S. H. Hooke, Charles Scribner's Sons, N.Y., 1955) gives us a minor but helpful bit of light on the parables in view of rabbinic usage: "Most of the rabbinical parables," says Jeremias, "begin with the words: mashal le.... This usage is an abbreviation of ... 'I will relate a parable to you. With what shall the matter be compared? It is the case with it as with..."' (p. 78). Therefore, in Matthew 13:45, the kingdom of God is not really like a merchant but like the pearl in the story of a merchant who finds a great pearl, as we can see from the full form of the introduction to parables.

We have now seen some examples of form and redaction criticism. What is to be said about them? We do not wish to simply discard these techniques, as do those who once abused them (see chapter 16). Yet it must be said that, compared to the approach through literary genres, form and redaction criticism are not nearly so fruitful. The genre approach yields more good than harm; form and redaction criticism more often lead to errors. Yet there are many good examples. Let us mention just a few.

Norman Perrin (Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus, Harper & Row, N.Y., 1967, pp. 140-141) does discover the correct meaning of faith in the Gospels. He says that in ancient Judaism, the basic meaning of faith was trust. "But to the Jews, trust must of necessity issue in obedience." Therefore faith would include absolute trust and complete obedience. Of course, trust presupposes mental belief in the power or mission of Jesus.

Many are puzzled by Mark 13:30: "This generation will not pass away before all these things take place." Form criticism suggests that perhaps, in the original setting, the passage refers just to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. That is possible, but it is better to say that the Hebrew dor can mean a period (here, the Christian regime) and that there can easily be a multiple-fulfillment pattern here, less well marked than in Matthew 24 but present nonetheless. (On multiple fulfillment, see chapter 5.)

Many form and redaction critics, in their study of Luke's use of his sources, have noted how carefully he follows them-an indication of accuracy and reliability. Recall, too, the special study of Luke's Semitisms, summarized in chapter 12, which also shows the meticulousness of Luke's work in translating his sources.


1 "Hellenic Analogies and the Typical Healing Narrative," Theological Studies, Vol. 4 (1943), pp. 385-419, summarized in The Consciousness of Christ, op. cit. pp. 218-219.
2 N. Perrin, Dennis C. Duling, The New Testament: An Introduction, 2nd ed. (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1982), p. 402.

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