Backwards and Forwards

By David Galston | 9.26.2017

In Biblical Studies, there are two basic movements of criticism. The backward movement is the study of early units of developing tradition, and the forward movement is the study of later combinations of units into a larger, complex story. These two movements have names. The backward movement is called Form Criticism, and the forward movement is called Redaction Criticism. Sometimes, today, scholars prefer other names; Form and Redaction are the traditional names.

An example of these two criticisms, Form and Redaction, is a parable of Jesus. To move backwards with Form Criticism is to search for the original, or at least authentic, expression of the parable before it was combined with other writing into a Gospel. The Good Samaritan is a parable found in Luke. Form Criticism is about isolating the parable - removing it from the Gospel of Luke - and studying the parable in the originating context of the life of Jesus. When we do this and when we understand that Samaritans and Jews in the early First Century were bitter enemies, the parable comes alive with meanings that the later writer Luke either did not understand or chose to ignore.

To move forward with the Good Samaritan parable is the act of Redaction Criticism, and this criticism asks how Luke put the parable together and placed it into the new context of the Gospel. Luke created the context of a dispute with a lawyer and used the parable as the key to unlocking the question, "Who is my neighbor?" This new setting and interpretation are Luke's redaction of the parable. It is the way Luke took the earlier parable form and re-interpreted it in a context the writer created. In the process of re-interpreting and creating a context, Luke was a redactor. Another way to understand the act of redaction is to say that Luke was a theologian. Luke theologically interpreted the parable in the act of redaction.

Redaction, then, is how going forward we put earlier traditions or stories together as one new interpretive unit. Redaction is neither an act restricted to ancient writers nor a criticism restricted to Biblical Studies. Redaction is something we all do, all the time. We all take earlier forms of stories and redact them in our present situation.

If I was asked to recall the most influential moment of my life, I might recall a story about my father or my mother. When I was a child, something influential happened and I relay that story as a central and formative memory. But anyone could ask my older or younger brother about the story and will get several possible answers. My brother might say that it never happened that way or that the so-called "most influential event" never happened at all. They each could interpret the event entirely differently and scold me for my typical exaggerations. But it's possible that I might write down the story while my brothers do not and that my version of the story becomes a standard or canonical family story. Suppose, we might imagine, that at future family reunions the story, as written, is recited annually as a type of holy story, even though it never happened. If this was the case, we'd easily conclude that the story is a mythical story: it may never have happened but it still holds authority as an identity story for this family.

The American account of Plymouth Rock - as biblical scholar Michael White pointed out at the 2016 meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature - in its present form is an exaggerated and mythical account of the founding of a nation. The events normally associated with the rock likely never happened, and even the rock that tourists today can visit is unlikely to be the "actual" rock. Indeed, there is probably no such thing as the "actual" rock in any case. If we use Form Criticism in relation to this foundational story, the story as factual history falls into tattered shreds. If we use Redaction Criticism, we can observe how this story rose, was sown into a context, and became through memory and repetition a canonical and sacred story in the imagination of a nation. For some people, using Form Criticism to deconstruct the Plymouth Rock narrative is an act of liberation, for the story carries within its myth several problems related to colonialism, to assumed privileges, and to presumed blessings. For others, who might have inherited the privileges the story relays, the act of deconstructing the story could be a form of blasphemy, of insult, to the founding narrative and identity of the nation.

Form Criticism and Redaction Criticism can seem like academic questions. To the average person, these criticisms can seem like things people in ivory towers invent just to disturb the culture or, maybe, to drive an agenda. Many times, when using these criticisms, the person employing them will be asked by another, "What's the point?" It seems, after all, that once an authoritative story, like Plymouth Rock, is deconstructed, the "point" about being a nation or being an American is lost in a sea of relativity and meaninglessness.

There is, though, another and important side to employing Form and Redaction Criticism, whether we apply them to our own lives, the life of a nation, or the Bible. It is important to understand that we, who live presently, are redactors of our past. In relation to our personal past and the past of our nation or religion, we inherit the stories and we redact them. This means that we actively tell the stories and interpret them. The authority the story holds expresses its power among us, but due to Form and Redaction Criticism, due to the ability to go backwards and forwards, the story need not continue to hold the same power. We are responsible for the power the story holds among us and the meaning the story is given. We can see today that certain stories from the past hold destructive assumptions about colonialism and privilege. Our relationship to the story, our "redaction" of the story, can change the status that the story holds. The story is truly our responsibility, and Form and Redaction Criticism offer two things: one is our ability to reconsider the story and its power, and two is the liberty going forward to correct mistakes or shortcomings our ancestors held.

Form and Redaction Criticism are not just academic concerns. They are concerns we all share, and they are forms of criticism that can make a difference in the task of seeking peace and reconciliation today.

Photo of David Galston

David Galston is the Executive Director of the Westar Institute and the Ecumenical Chaplain at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, where he is also an Adjunct Professor of Philosophy. A co-founder and Academic Advisor of the SnowStar Institute of Religion, a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar, and a United Church minister, David has written several articles and led many workshops on the question of the historical Jesus, the future of Christianity, and the problems of Christian theology in light of the historical Jesus. He is the author of Embracing the Human Jesus (Polebridge Press) and Archives and the Event of God (McGill-Queens Press). David holds a PhD in the Philosophy of Religion from McGill University.

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"'m not sure to which category this old Bible (not KJV), belongs, but it was stiffly open to Joshua 18. I left it in its place, untouched, took only this photograph." -Photographer Patrick Feller
2 replies
  1. Gene Stecher says:

    Dr. Galston,
    I think this is the best and easiest to understand explanation of Form Criticism and Redaction criticism that I’ve ever seen. Some form of it should be circulated in receptive churches as a way to help scholars and laypersons to speak to one another. I would also propose that something like this would be helpful in the 4thR every issue. Perhaps there should be a column titled something like Unpacking Scholarship for the Lay Person.

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