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"Chapter 21: Form and Redaction Criticism I"


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Right after giving the warnings we saw in chapter 20, the Biblical Commission Instruction of 1964 begins to explain the three stages in the development of the Gospels.

The first stage consists of the words and actions of Jesus Himself: "Christ the Lord joined chosen disciples to Himself, who followed Him from the beginning and saw His works and heard His words, and in this way were suited to be witnesses of His life and teaching."

Thus, the testimony of the Gospels goes back to eye-witnesses who had seen and heard everything from the beginning. Moreoever, Jesus Himself, in presenting His teaching, quite naturally did what any good speaker would do. He adapted His presentation to His audience: "The Lord, when He was orally giving His doctrine, followed the ways of reasoning and presentation that were usual in His time; in this way He accommodated Himself to the mentality of His hearers, and saw to it that what He taught would be firmly impressed on their minds, and would be easily retained in memory by the disciples. They correctly understood the miracles in such a way that through them men might believe in Christ and accept in faith the doctrine of salvation."

Some scholars today, even some Catholics, try to say that Jesus never intended His miracles to prove anything. They were "just signs," these scholars say. But it makes sense to ask what they were signs of. The real answer is that they were evidence of His mission and power. Hence, over and over again, He called on people whom He healed to have faith. In context, He was calling them to have faith in His power and mission.

In the second stage of the formation of the Gospels, according to the Biblical Commission Instruction of 1964, "the Apostles proclaimed chiefly the death and resurrection of the Lord, and faithfully presented His life and words, taking into account in their manner of preaching the circumstances of their hearers."

This is what Jesus Himself had done, for He too adjusted His presentation to His audience. So we can begin to see that while the Apostles might use different words than our Lord did in preaching His message, they did it without changing the sense, for "they faithfully presented His life and words."

We are here far from the imaginings of some critics who think the early community was "creative"-that Jesus' followers just made up things so that in a debate between two factions in the community, if the people in faction A did not have a saying of Jesus to support their position, they would make one up, and faction B would counter with the same creativity. This is impossible because the Apostles were in control. There were no headless groups, each running its own way. Acts 5:12-13 tells us that "many signs and wonders were done among the people by the hands of the Apostles. And they were all together in Solomon's Portico. None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high honor." The people knew that the Apostles, as the Instruction said, "followed Him from the beginning and saw His works and heard His words, and in this way were suited to be witnesses to His life and teaching."

Another argument against the existence of a free-wheeling "creative" community was the simple fact that all knew their eternity depended on getting the facts about Jesus and His teaching. As St. Paul, in I Corinthians 15:17-18, told the faithful: "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished."

What the critics call creativity was all the stronger, according to them, because it had so long a time to operate, for the Gospels were late in being written. Mark, they commonly think, was a little before 70 A.D. Matthew and Luke they assign to the period 80-90 A.D. The evidence offered for these late dates consists of indications found w ithin the Gospel. For example. the clarity of Luke on the prophecy of the tall of Jerusalem, these critics says, shows that it was written after the event. But the strong testimony of early writers, external evidence. shows otherwise. And even if the Gospels were as late as 80-90 A.D., the first apologist, Quadratus, writing about 123 A.D., tells us that in his day people were still alive who had been healed or raised from the dead by Jesus. That need not mean 123 A.D., but it surely covers the later period 80-90 A.D.

As to the changes of wording and adaptation to their audience, the Instruction tells us that the Apostles would benefit in their preaching from the fuller light they enjoyed after Easter and Pentecost: "After Jesus rose from the dead and His divinity was clearly seen, the faith [of the Apostles], far from destroying the memory of the things that had happened, instead strengthened it, because their faith rested on the things which Jesus had done and taught."

If we wonder how their faith could have destroyed the memory of what Jesus said and did, the answer is that the Instruction has in mind those who think the Apostles first idealized Jesus, then divinized Him, and so lost sight of what He really had said and done.

The Instruction does not say that His divinity was more clearly seen after the Resurrection. It merely says when it was "clearly seen." So the Instruction does not tell us whether or not the Apostles understood His divinity at all before the Resurrection. What of the fact that Jesus, in reply to Peter's confession that He was "the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matthew 16:16-17), said: "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven"? Does the fact that Jesus said Peter had had a revelation have to mean that the revelation said Jesus was divine? Not necessarily. It could have meant Peter received a correct understanding of Messiahship, in contrast to the false notions then current. Or it could have been some dim notion of the divinity of Jesus, which would become clearer later on. Either possibility would fit with the words of the Instruction. (The words "Son of God" could be applied at that time to any devout Jew. See Hosea 11:1.)

It could be objected that if Peter had known of Jesus' divinity, he could not have denied Him later. But Peter might have learned by means of an interior locution. Such revelations are clear when first given but can later fade, as we learn from a Doctor of the Church who had experienced them, St. Teresa of Avila (Interior Castle, 6.3).

Next the Instruction follows up on the question of whether faith could destroy or distort the memory of the Person of Jesus and what He said. "The worship which the disciples thereafter extended to Jesus as Lord and Son of God did not change Him into a 'mythical person,' nor was His doctrine deformed." As was noted briefly above, it was Rudolf Bultmann and his school who held that there is a gap between the Jesus of history (what He really was) and the Christ of faith (what the Apostles later preached). This gap happened, they claim, precisely because of the idealization that took place, plus the creativity of the community.

How to answer these critics? The claim rests on subjectivity, not on hard, firm evidence. It is the recognition of this subjectivity that is today leading many prominent critics to abandon form criticism altogether. It should be noted, too, that there is a way of bridging the alleged gap or, better, of simply bypassing it: the use of the method sketched in chapter 2. There are six very simple facts about Jesus in the Gospels, things so simple that entanglement with culture and subjective dispositions could not have affected them, facts whose accurate presentation is assured by the concern of the preachers for their own eternity. Finding these six facts proves that we have on hand a group, a Church, commissioned to teach by a messenger sent from God, and promised God's protection. Then we not only intellectually may, but intellectually must, believe that group, the Church, which can tell us in a guaranteed way about the doctrine of Jesus.

The Instruction makes no mention of the four criteria, which were summarized in chapter 20, to see if something came from Jesus. They are not needed once we have gone through the six facts, for the Church assures us that on things beyond the six, the Scriptures do give us at least the substance of what Jesus said. These facts would not, of course, prevent the Apostles from using different words for the benefit of their hearers, adapting themselves to the current audience, as Jesus Himself had done. The change of wording would still preserve the sense faithfully.

The Instruction now returns to the fact that the teaching of the Apostles would have benefited from their clearer understanding after Easter and Pentecost. "However," the Instruction says, "we should not deny that the Apostles handed down to their hearers the things really said and done by the Lord in the light of that fuller understanding which they enjoyed after being taught by the glorious events of Christ and by the light of the Spirit of Truth. Thus it happened that just as Jesus Himself after His resurrection 'interpreted to them [citing Luke 24:27 which tells how Jesus explained the Scriptures to the disciples on the way to Emmaus] both the words of the Old Testament and His own words, so too they [the Apostles] interpreted His words and deeds as the needs of their hearers called for."

Over and over again the Gospels, with admirable honesty and candor, portray the Apostles as dull and slow to understand during the public life of Jesus. So the Apostles, in using that greater light, would not and did not paint themselves as having understood at a time when they still did not understand. No, but the Apostles would bring out their better grasp of the Old Testament prophecies and of the richness in the words of Jesus Himself.

The Church today still continues to penetrate ever deeper into the message of Jesus, as is seen from the fact that new doctrinal decisions, even definitions, have come down to us over the course of the centuries, and still come to us today. Those new teachings are not new revelations but deeper penetrations into the deposit of faith once given (see Vatican II, On Divine Revelation, par. 4).

Next the Instruction speaks further on this matter of adapted presentation: "Devoting themselves to the ministry of the word [see Acts 6.4], they preached, using various forms of speaking that would fit with their purpose and the mentality of the hearers; for they were under obligation [to bring the truth of salvation] 'to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish' [see Romans 1:14]. These manners of speaking in which the heralds announced Christ should be distinguished and appraised: catecheses, narratives, testimonies, hymns, doxologies, prayers and other literary forms commonly used in Sacred Scripture by men of that time."

One of the first steps in form criticism (see chapter 20) is to identify these forms1 so as to see what the Apostles and Evangelists meant to assert. For it is only when we know the rules of the genre being employed that we will rightly judge what is asserted and what is not. However, everything that is asserted was and is true, as Vatican II tells us: "Since all that the inspired authors or sacred writers assert should be regarded as asserted by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to be confided to Sacred Scripture" (On Divine Revelation, par. 11).

This brings us to what the Instruction has to say about stage 3, the work of the inspired authors (which is really redaction criticism). "The sacred authors entrusted this primitive instruction, first given orally, then in writing-for it soon happened that many attempted to put in order a narration of the things [see Luke 1:1] that pertained to the Lord Jesus-they entrusted it to the four Gospels for the benefit of the churches, according to the method and special purpose that each had in mind. By selecting some things from the many things handed down, by making a synthesis of certain things, by every resource they strove, keeping in mind the state of the churches, that their readers might have assurance about the words in which they had been instructed [see Luke 1:4]. For the sacred writers, out of the things handed down to them, selected chiefly those things which were suited to the various circumstances of the faithful and to the goal they had chosen."

Notice that the Evangelists used both oral and written sources. (On St. Luke's meticulous use of sources, see chapter 12.) The Gospels are really part of the original preaching set down under inspiration. The Instruction stresses that only part of the original tradition was set down in writing, for the Evangelists selected some things but did not take all. Further they synthesized some things. St. Matthew, for example, in the Sermon on the Mount, seems to have put together things said by Jesus on several occasions. This selection was guided, the Instruction notes, by two things: the special goals each Evangelist set for himself, and the particular needs of local churches for which the Evangelists wrote. For example, St. Matthew is specially intent on bringing out the fulfillment of prophecies in Jesus and in speaking of the Church. St. Luke stresses the universality, the mission to the Gentiles.

Yet not always can we determine just what the special goals were. Thus Raymond Brown, in Antioch and Rome (Brown and Meier, Paulist, 1983), admits that "one does not know whether Mark was written to confirm a community in its outlook or to correct that community and help it change its mind.... These observations are culled from modern scholarship and reflect the enormous range of disagreement that characterizes contemporary discussion of Mark" (pp. 199-200). Brown adds a note to this sentence: "See the almost despairing note struck by C. F. Evans in The Cambridge History of the Bible (3 vols., Cambridge University. 1960-63) 1.270-71." Brown adds. in the body of the text: "Furthermore. they are affected by our inability to distinguish with much surety between Mark's redaction or editing and the tradition that came down to him...."

Quite an admission! Brown, agreeing with most form critics that Mark wrote rote first. confesses that he cannot be sure what is a redaction (editing. change) by Mark and what came down to Mark in tradition. Hence. the "almost despairing note,"-a recognition again of the heavy subjectivity and insecurity involved in form criticism.

Notice. finally. the stress the Instruction places on the reliability of the Evangelists. Not only are they dependent on the tradition of those who had been eyewitnesses to Jesus from the beginning, but they took great care and "by every resource they strove ... that their readers might have assurance about the words in which they had been instructed." This is a deliberate echo, as the footnote tells us, of Luke 1:4. in which Luke says that he made a most careful investigation to assure Theophilus of the truth.


1 We called these mini-genres—in contrast to the larger kinds of genres which we surveyed in the early chapters of this book. These larger kinds had more extensive consequences as to how we should understand things; these mini-genres have lesser consequences. Yet in both cases, we should study them.

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