Wednesday, June 24, 2009

What is "redaction"? The MPs and the NT

In my most recent NT Pod (and don't forget to subscribe if you haven't had a chance to do so yet; each episode is a bite-sized 6-8 minutes long so you can slot it into your busy life), I discussed the question "What is 'redaction'?" I wanted to choose this topic for this week's podcast because I kept hearing the term in the British media in relation to the vexed question of the official publication of MP's Expenses, where the term "redacted" is being used over and over again. The term in this context is pretty different from the way that we use it in Biblical criticism. In the political context, a "redacted" document means one in which key information, usually the alleged personal or private details, has been censored or blacked out, as in the example shown here (source). In an enjoyable Telegraph blog post, Emma Hartley reflects on the word's usage:

. . . . Last night I received a text message from an Oxbridge-educated friend who works for the Times Literary Supplement from time to time, asking “What does redaction mean?” From the context, he’d clearly been watching Newsnight, which ran a piece about MPs’ expenses, and I realised that I only knew what it meant myself because I’d looked it up when we began to break this story. Before that I don’t recall ever having heard it, so to a pleasing extent it’s time and place specific - a word that the Telegraph can make a small claim on. Obviously the purpose of language is communication, but if a newspaper can’t popularise words, who can?

In my dictionary, (product placement alert) kindly supplied to the Telegraph’s offices by the Oxford University Press, it says under redact: rare. Edit text for publication. Similarly, redaction: the process of editing text for publication . . . .
Hartley's post confirms that the term has been relatively unknown in the British media, at least until recently, and the post concludes:
So redaction is bureaucrat-speak for drawing a big black line through something. And now it’s also a small part of history.
In Biblical criticism, though, the term is a much broader, all-encompassing one. It does not refer to the simple elimination of data by an evangelist ("redactor") from his source material. Rather, it refers to the whole process of editing, deleting, adding, composing and arranging materials. Here's what I give out as an introductory note for my New Testament Introduction class:
Definition: Redaction Criticism is the study of the way in which the evangelists (= “redactors”) moulded their source material, with a view to discovering their literary and theological agendas

Aim of redaction-criticism: to discover the evangelists’ agendas, and to learn more about the communities from which they came.
  • Why did they include the traditions they included?
  • Why did they mould their traditions in the ways they did?
  • Why did they add, omit and change what they did?
  • What can we know about them and their communities?
Focus of redaction-criticism: the evangelists and their communities.

Heyday of redaction-criticism: 1950s – present.
The recent increased usage of the term in the media is making me wonder whether it is going to make it more difficult for us to use the term in the classroom. Are our students going to default to thinking that the term is all about the way in which Matthew blacks out bits of Mark? The fact that something like that, crudely, is sometimes in play may make the teaching task here a little more difficult. Indeed, talking about the term on my recent podcast reminded me of the first time I heard the term myself, back when I was sixteen years old and working on my 'A' Level RE (Religious Education). I remember my teacher holding a copy of Norman Perrin's What is Redaction Criticism? and I remember thinking, "Wow that sounds scary -- and fascinating!" and I imagined that it must have something to do with the scholar's elimination of lots of material from the Gospels in order to get to some kind of core.

As I mention in the podcast, I am a fan of redaction criticism, though I think there are some difficulties with it. I published an article on one of those difficulties not long ago, "The Rock on Rocky Ground: Matthew, Mark and Peter as Skandalon" in Philip McCosker (ed.), What Is It That the Scripture Says?: Essays in Biblical Interpretation, Translation, And Reception in Honour of Henry Wansbrough Osb (Library of New Testament Studies; London & New York: Continuum, 2006): 61-73. Since it's an essay in a collection, I should make it public on the web.


Frank McCoy said...

I worked in a law firm for a number of years. When a firm or individual is legally required to produce certain documents, these documents will frequently be reviewed by lawyers or paralegals to see if certain sections can be *redacted*. Those sections that are redactable are blacked out or otherwise covered over. Usually, with such documents, the word REDACTED is stamped one or times on each.
I worked in data entry and read produced documents, looking for items I was under instructions to note on the computer screen for that case. Almost always, one of the fields was a redaction field and I activated it whenever I ran across a document that had been redacted. Such documents are frequently "hot", so lawyers in a law suit want to know exactly which documents produced by the other side have been redacted.
I think that there are a lot more lawyers than biblical scholars. So, I suggest that biblical scholars either rename redaction criticism or else resign themselves to frequently being misunderstood by their students when speaking about it.

Brandon Wason said...

Frank, one thing to consider is that the meaning of "redaction" in Biblical studies stems from the German Redaktion which has a broader definition of editing.

Geoff Hudson said...

How do you know that the redaction by a biblical author is not editorial of an original text by a different author?

Frank McCoy said...

Dear Brandon Wason:
Danke! I appreciate this info.
Perhaps it might be profitable for biblical scholars to change "redaction criticism" to "redaktion criticism". This would alert students that it has nothing to do with what is called redaction in legal circles and, increasingly, in political circles (perhaps a not unexpected development considering the high percentage of politicians, at least in America, who have law degrees).

Brandon said...

Well, for starters the term redaction criticism has been used in the field for more than half a century, so I doubt it'd be easy to convince people to change. I'm not even sure it's something that needs changing since biblical studies has a lot of its own terminology that might be used differently in other disciplines.

Geoff Hudson said...

Mark wrote:" "Wow that sounds scary -- and fascinating!" and I imagined that it must have something to do with the scholar's elimination of lots of material from the Gospels in order to get to some kind of core."

Why just elimination of text? Why not alteration and additions, anything that reveals the agenda of a writer/editor?