The relevance of Redaction Criticism?

Having received much of my theological/biblical education in fairly conservative circles, I’ve noticed that I have certain assumptions in relation to redaction criticism (a short, adequate definition of redaction criticism can be found on Wikipedia. I’ve come to suspect that these assumptions come into conflict with the assumptions made by others who have had a different background.

During university, I’m pretty certain that I heard about redaction criticism and why it could be helpful. But growing up in a conservative Christian background with a limited understanding of what inerrancy in the text meant, I’m fairly certain that very little related to redaction criticism really registered.

In Seminary, we focused on exegesis and reading the text (itself). We wouldn’t have used those exact words – it seemed fairly obvious in these circles what exegesis involved. Questions about the authenticity of the text were discussed in relation to textual criticism in the New Testament, but seeing as the Old Testament had an established text (the Masoretic), this seemed somewhat irrelevant (although there was mention of how the Dead Sea Scrolls helped show where certain things might be missing in the text). We focused more on language and literary methods – with a bit of form criticism mixed in for good measure – all with the end goal of asking why the text was relevant to the person listening in the pew. We might have asked about the intention of the author, one small part of redaction criticism, but otherwise redaction criticism was generally ignored, and I understood it as being generally poor scholarship that was rather irrelevant to understanding the text.

And then I came to a secular university in Europe. All of a sudden, redaction criticism moved from being something I ignored to something that everyoned assumed was a relevant part of understanding the text. After the initial shock to the system, I started to recognize that my ignoring redaction criticism led me also to ignore valid questions about sections of the text whose writing and grammar did not seem to fit the established rules. Taking the text seriously meant looking also at the potential problems within the text; the unexpected repetitions, the switch in participants, illogical verbal tenses, and addition/subtraction of words helpful for understanding. These were all questions raised by redaction criticism.

Yet, some of my initial suspicions of poor scholarship remained. As much as I value the questions related to discrepancies that generally raised through redaction criticism, the solutions to these problem areas often feel a bit subjective. The answer to the problem often seems to be that it was the result redaction, a problematic solution as it doesn’t solve the question of why (or how) the redactor(s) left these problems in the text. And how does it help the reader? Well, the reader is advised to try to get into the head of the (long-dead) author/redactor, a rather speculative task. Or the reader is advised to take the redacted parts less seriously, looking for the original and paying attention to the evidence of other voices in the text. Unfortunately, there is limited consensus about what is a problematic section in the text and what is not, causing there to be very few areas in the text where a majority of scholars agree about what is redacted. That there are such a wide range of suggestions for what is redacted causes me to question how subjective the criteria is, and it makes me wonder how valuable it really is.

But in the end I feel I’m missing something about the value of redaction criticism, a value that seems to be an intrinsic assumption to many people involved in biblical work in continental Europe (and other places). It seems to be considered an important part of understanding the text, as it is important to understand the voices that are layered into the text. And to some degree, I can understand this desire to be objective about the text; it seems the best way to take the text seriously. But then wouldn’t one want to take the text that we now have, that has been affirmed by the Jews and the church for thousands of years, instead of a text we think is redacted? And in terms of looking objectively at the various voices in the text, I’d have to argue that the text itself wasn’t intended to be objective: the text was written to proclaim a message and, as such, certain voices are purposely silenced. Thus, taking the text seriously means also taking it seriously on its own terms.

Considering the relevance placed on redaction criticism, I feel like there must be a logical glitch in my argument and problems with redaction criticism, but I’m not sure where it is.


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