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The MOST Theological Collection: Free From All Error: Authorship, Inerrancy, Historicity of Scripture, Church Teaching, and Modern Scripture Scholars

"Chapter 20: Prejudices of Form and Redaction Critics "


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Many today are overawed at the technical and recondite nature of the new methods of Scripture study. No one trained before these methods were developed can know anything about Scripture, they suppose. Form and redaction criticism are the most awe-inspiring part of this picture. But really, there is nothing too difficult to understand here. To make this clear, we will begin by giving a brief presentation of form and redaction criticism, treating both together, since the 1964 Instruction of the Biblical Commission does that, and since, by nature, one follows the other.

There were three stages in the development of our Gospels: (1) Jesus said and did certain things; (2) the Apostles and others in the first generation preached Jesus' words and deeds; and (3) individuals within the Church, moved by the Holy Spirit, wrote down part of this basic preaching. Incidentally, it should now be easy to see how we could say at the close of chapter 15 that the Church has something more basic than Scripture. The Gospels are simply part of her own basic teaching, set down under inspiration. In this sense, too, one can speak of only one source of revelation.

To find out at which of these three stages a given item in the Gospels took its present form, and to learn something about it, our first task is to classify each part according to its literary form.

For almost any passage in the Gospels, the critics think, could be made up of several of these units, especially since people in stage 2 were apt to report at one time just one unit; one saying of Jesus, or one thing Jesus did. Some of these forms are apt to contain more fact than others, just as various genres assert different things.

In this connection, we should try to determine the life-setting, what the Germans call the Sitz-im-Leben, of a unit. Different life situations are apt to call for the use of different forms, and vice versa.

Next-and now comes an unfortunate development-we try to see which things can be trusted, for very many critics have thought that the Christian community was "creative," that is, apt to just fake things.

To do this, certain criteria must be used. Chiefly there are four of them: (1) DOUBLE DISSIMILARITY OR IRREDUCIBILITY: if an idea is dissimilar to the emphases of both ancient Judaism and early Christianity, we may think it comes from Jesus Himself; (2) MULTIPLE ATTESTATION: if we find the same idea in different literary forms. it is more likely to be genuine; (3) COHERENCE: an item is apt to be authentic if it is consistent with material that we already know is authentic by other criteria; (4) LINGUISTIC AND ENVIRONMENTAL TESTS: if the material does not fit with the languages spoken or the environment of the ministry of Jesus, we reject it. That it does fit, however, is not enough to prove that it is authentic.

Many critics, notably Rudolf Bultmann, the father of New Testament form criticism, think there is little we can be sure of about Jesus. He believes that there is a gap between the Jesus of history (what He really was) and the Christ of faith (what the Church preaches about Him). Bultmann wanted to get around the gap by making the Gospels mean the same as the bizarre existentialism of Heidegger. (Fully developed liberation theology uses Marxism in the same way.)

The study of the first two phases (the words and acts of .Jesus, plus the preaching of the early Church) is called form criticism; the study of the work of the Evangelists in handling this material is called redaction criticism.

The only thing hard to understand about this type of criticism is the remarkable dullness of some of the prejudices the critics bring to the task. For in the above outline, certain assumptions are apparent.

The notion of "the creative community," for example. To examine this line of criticism in more detail, we will follow the Instruction on the Historical Truth of the Gospels, from the Pontifical Biblical Commission of April 21, 1964. The Latin text, plus an English translation, can be found in Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 26 (July 1964), on pp. 299-304 for the Latin, and pp. 305-312 for the English. (We will, however, make our own translation here.)

On the very first page, the instruction calls for scholars to work hard because "the truth of the actions and words contained in the Gospels is being challenged." The instruction calls on the exegete "to work hard to open up the true sense of the Scriptures, relying not only on his own ability but especially trusting firmly in the help of God and the light of the Church." To this end, the instruction insists on five points.

First, the exegete should make use of the work of previous scholars, especially the holy Fathers and Doctors of the Church. (Many scholars glide lightly over this point.) He should "diligently employ the new helps to exegesis, especially those which the historical method, taken broadly, provides. This method diligently seeks out the sources and their nature and force, and gathers the helps given by textual criticism, literary criticism, and a knowledge of languages. The exegete will observe the admonition of Pius XII...'to prudently ... seek out how the form of expression or the literary genre employed by the sacred writer helps towards true and genuine understanding'.... Finally the exegete will use all means by which he may see more deeply the nature of the testimony of the Gospels"

After these introductory things, the instruction adds the following: "Where the situation calls for it, the exegete is permitted to investigate what sound elements there are in the 'method of the history of forms,' which he can use for a fuller understanding of the Gospels."

Evidently there is good to be had from form and redaction criticism. Note, however, that the instruction merely says that its use is "permitted." It does not say that it must be done. Further, it warns: "But let him yet be circumspect, for there are often joined to this method unacceptable philosophical and theological principles which not rarely vitiate the method itself and its conclusions on literary matters."

We often hear this instruction cited as an unqualified go-ahead for scholars to use these methods. Yes, there is a green light, but there are many warnings as well. To ignore them leads to great distortion. Here are the unacceptable principles: "Certain followers of this method. Led astray by the prejudices of rationalism, [1] reject the existence of a supernatural order and the intervention of a personal God in the world as taught by revelation properly so called and [2] the possibility and actual existence of miracles and prophecies. [3] Others start with a false notion of faith, as if faith does not care about historical truth or is even incompatible with it. [4] Others deny, as it were in advance, the historical value and character of the documents of revelation. [5] Others, finally, think little of the authority of the Apostles as witnesses of Christ, and of their role and influence on the primitive community, while they extol the creative power of this community. All these things are not only opposed to Catholic doctrine but also lack a scientific foundation, and are foreign to the right principles of the historical method." (Numbers have been inserted in the text for convenience in discussion.)

There is no need to use much space to prove that unbelievers and some Protestants hold such prejudices. A few samples will suffice. R. Bultmann says that today "nobody reckons with direct intervention by transcendent powers" ( Jesus Christ and Mythology, Charles Scribner's Sons, N.Y., 1958, p. 36). On page 15 of that book, Bultmann writes: "The whole conception of the world which is presupposed in the preaching of Jesus as in the New Testament generally is mythological ... the conception of the intervention of supernatural powers in the course of events; and the conception of miracles.... We call [it] mythological because it is different from the conception of the world which has been formed and developed by science.... Modern science does not believe that the course of nature can be interrupted." Patrick Henry, in his broad survey New Directions in New Testament Study (Westminster, 1979, pp. 252-253), reports various views: "Much more important is the Bible's own portrayal of the 'piety of doubt' the 'faithfulness of uncertainty.' Even Paul said that 'now we see in a mirror dimly' ... and that now is the time of pilgrimage.... Paul also insists that we do not have certain knowledge of things to come.... Interpretations of the New Testament which make of revelation either the direct voice of God or the mystery veiled by the language are simply not serviceable for persons on pilgrimage."

Some Catholics make unfortunate statements on item 1 above, revelation. Thus the noted catechetical specialist Gabriel Moran, with Sr. Maria Harris, in "Revelation and Religious" (National Catholic Reporter, November 22, 1967, p. 6), wrote of revelation as denoting a "present happening." Moran and Harris say that "it is impossible to come to a present, personal, social revelation by building upon a thing that is handed down from the past.... The only way that God does not speak is in generalities to the general mass."

About the possibility and actuality of miracles (item 2), R. Brown says that "'Myth' means the supernatural ... that is part of the biblical scene but is not encountered in our lives. For example, the Gospels report a virginal conception, a star that guides wise men to Bethlehem, a voice that speaks from the open heavens, angels who intervene in men's affairs, demons who possess the sick, marvelous healings, stillings of a storm, multiplication of loaves, a glorious transfiguration and bodies raised from the tomb.... One approach ... is to take every bit of it literally with the explanation that in New Testament times God acted in a totally different manner than He acts now because His Son was in the world. This is biblical fundamentalism, an approach that no respectable scholar, Catholic or Protestant, really follows today. Such an attitude makes New Testament times another world, a type of fairyland.... Some modern scholars are radical in that they accept none ... others are more conservative in that they accept some of it literally. For instance, they accept the virginal conception of Jesus and His resurrection ... but they do not believe in demonic possession" ("The Myth of the Gospels Without Myth," in St. Anthony's Messenger, May, 1971, pp. 45-46).

Where does Brown belong? He is a bit cagey, but in Virginal Conception and Resurrection (Paulist, 1973) he wrote: "My judgment ... is that the totality of the scientifically controllable evidence leaves an unresolved problem" (p. 66, italics his). In The Birth of the Messiah, he explains, "I mean the type of evidence constituted by tradition from identifiable witnesses of the events involved, when that tradition is traceably preserved and not in conflict with other traditions" (p. 527, n. 26a). In Virginal Conception, Brown says, "It is lucidly clear that Matthew believed in Mary's bodily virginity before the birth of Jesus" (p. 31, n. 37). So a lucidly clear statement in a Gospel is not enough evidence? (See Birth of the Messiah, p. 526.)

As for conflicting traditions, Brown says, in Virginal Conception, that "if Joseph and Mary knew that their son had no human father hut was begotten of God's holy spirit, if it had been revealed to them from the start that the child was to be the Messiah, and if they had not kept this secret from Jesus, how can he not [italics Brown's] have affirmed that he was the Messiah or that he was the unique Son of God?" (p. 46).

But Brown is convinced that Jesus was ignorant of many things. He spends well over half of his book Jesus, God and Man heaping up scriptural arguments tending to show Jesus' ignorance. For example, on page 56, Brown says that "we cannot assume that Jesus shared our own sophistication ... [on the question of the afterlife]. If Jesus speaks of heaven above the clouds ... how can we be sure that he knew that it was not above the clouds?" In the Virginal Conception, on page 58. Brown notes that "in Mark 8:29-30 Jesus reacts against a confession that he is the Messiah." Is this an implication that Mary did not tell Him because there was no virginal conception?

About the Resurrection in the same book, page 132, Brown claims to have found that "the biblical evidence when re-evaluated by current scientific methods continues to favor the idea of a bodily resurrection." Note that word favor. It suggests something short of certainty. In the article cited from St. Anthony's Messenger, above, Brown distinguishes his opinion about demons from that of Jesus and Paul. saying that "the New Testament gives us no reason to think that Jesus and Paul were not deadly serious about the demonic world.... I do not believe that demons inhabit desert places or the upper air, as Jesus and Paul thought.... I see no way to get around the difficulty except by saying that Jesus and Paul were wrong on this point. They accepted the beliefs of their times about demons, but those beliefs were superstitious."1

As we saw, Brown said that the more generous critics admit the virginal conception and the Resurrection but not demonic possession. We just saw Brown's views on these points. In what category does that place him?

As to prophecies (also in item 2 above), Brown says, in Virginal Conception ( p. 15): "Those who are called Old Testament prophets were concerned about their own times and not with the distant future, about which they could speak only in the vaguest way. Therefore, whether they know it or not, when New Testament authors see prophecy fulfilled in Jesus, they are going beyond the vision of the Old Testament authors." In a note on the same page, Brown adds this: "The classic apologetic argument from prophecy has had to be reinterpreted in the light of modern biblical criticism. It is no longer primarily a question of the exact fulfillment of divinely guided foreknowledge; it is much more a question of the culmination of a divine plan that could only be detected through hindsight."

About the third item, an unfortunate concept of faith, we can recall the views, discussed in chapter 6, of Thomas Hoffman, who wants faith to lack a rational foundation. This is much the same idea as is found in "the leap" of Kierkegaard and Bultmann. Sadly the ideas of Hoffman are diffused on a popular level in The New Guide in Reading and Studying the Bible, by Wilfrid Harrington, Wilmington, Del., revised 1984, pp. 25-28). This book summarizes and explicitly refers to Hoffman's article.

As to items 4 and 5, some Catholic authors do have little confidence in the historical value of the Gospels, as we shall see in the next chapters. The Biblical Commission had ample reason for its warnings. We may and should make use of the resources of form and redaction criticism, but we must be alert for the dangers mentioned.


1 Answer to Brown by Most, The Consciousness of Christ (Front Royal, VA: Christendom College Press, 1980), p. 49.

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