One of my tasks this summer is to complete several encyclopaedia and dictionary entries for different projects, one of which is a short piece on Redaction Criticism. In thinking about this entry, my mind turns not just to the strengths of redaction criticm -- and some of my best friends are redaction critics -- but also to its weaknesses. Here, in summary, are my thoughts about what is wrong with redaction criticism as it is normally practised in Synoptic criticism:
(1) As normally practised, one of the goals of redaction criticism is to reconstruct the history and character of the community behind the Gospel in question. But the assumption that the Gospels are all written for a specific community has recently been called into question by Richard Bauckham et al in The Gospels for All Christians: Rethinking Gospel Audiences (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998). My own general verdict on this book is that it scores important points against the traditional scholarly view, but that it does not sufficiently distinguish between the communities from which the Gospels were written from the communities to which the Gospels were allegedly written. Gospels with large target audiences are still inevitably Gospels that reveal information about their author's context. So with some nuancing and rethinking, redaction criticism still has a role to play, but it is a role that does require some work.
(2) Redaction criticism's excessive emphasis on what is distinctive in each Gospel can be misleading. Matthew, for example, might like something in Mark so much that he reproduces it verbatim – he might think that a given section of Mark expresses his own view better than anything he can add himself. I have argued in a forthcoming article (given as a paper at the SBL 2005 Matthew Section) that Matthew's view of Peter, for example, is remarkably similar to Mark's and that we tend to miss this because we are obsessed with where Matthew is different from Mark, and so miss key ways in which Matthew underlines Mark when he reproduces material. In teaching, I try to make this point by noting the way in which students often go to quotation when they find something that they really like in their secondary literature source material. They use quotation, in other words, to underline their own view in a "they said it better than I can" sort of way. Sometimes when Matthew reproduces Mark verbatim, he does so because he has found something with which he is extra specially in agreement. We need to be wary of the assumption that Matthew includes a given passage because he is doing some kind of docile reproduction.
(3) This is a related point. Redaction criticism tends not to allow sufficiently for the effect that a source gospel might have had on a given evangelist. What if Mark fundamentally altered Matthew's views? Gospels are works of propaganda or persuasion and were presumably designed to persuade others, yet we tend to imagine Matthew taking up an utterly critical stance to Mark as if his (Matthew's) views were all fully formed before he came across Mark. My view is that Mark has a profound and overwhelming effect on Matthew, changing and developing his thinking on all sorts of fronts. He likes the book so much that when he rewrites it in order to replace it, he incorporates a large amount of it into his own work. To take one example, I have argued in an as yet unpublished piece on John the Baptist in Mark and Matthew that the idea of depicting John as Elijah was a Marcan innovation. Before Mark, it was always Jesus who had been seen as Elijah. Matthew takes the identification forward, while Luke reverts to the pre-Marcan Jesus as Elijah.
(4) Sometimes, there is too speedy a correlation between the page of the text and the evangelists and their communities. The evangelists are not always recounting material because they see a poignant or important link with the experiences in their community. Sometimes they are simply "telling the story". They are writing Gospels about Jesus, attempting to persuade readers about the good news of Jesus the Messiah's life, death and resurrection. Of course the selection, presentation and creation of material is done in engagement with their own and their communities' interests, but too often redaction criticism works as if those interests do not include some good, old-fashioned "telling the tale".
(5) One of my developing concerns about redaction criticism relates to the way that it is used in some Q scholarship. Redaction criticism is largely the means by which the text of Q is reconstructed, yet there have been recent claims that the reconstructed Q will now help us in the job of doing redaction criticism of Matthew and Luke. The circularity here ought to be obvious, but the increasingly concrete nature of the reconstructed Q text causes it to be missed.