Can Redaction Aid Interpretation?

Redaction criticism in gospel studies is a well-known discipline. It is the study of the selection and arrangement of the materials the evangelists used to construct their accounts of the life of Jesus. Redaction does not imply that inspiration takes a back seat, rather, that the Holy Spirit moved in the writers in a way that resulted in the gospels we have. The inclusion (or exclusion) of pericopes, the placement of them in the record, tells us something of the purpose the evangelist had. Redaction need not mean something nefarious, that the gospel writers suppressed something or changed things to make the events of Jesus’ life more acceptable. It is the Holy Spirit’s method of moving each of the gospel writers to record what God wanted to be set down. Redaction is a tool that allows us to consider the questions of “why this, why here?”

 Luke 13 as a “redaction as interpretive aid” case study

In Luke 13, there are pericopes that suggest redaction as an interpretive aid. The chapter begins with the story of “the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.” v. 1. Jesus replies with questions that point his hearers to an equality of judgment. That is, no one should expect their heritage or pedigree to count for anything. “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” v 5. Any Jew, a descendant of Abraham, should not take comfort that this will mean they do not come under judgment.

From there, Jesus tells the parable of the barren fig tree. The fig tree and it’s fruit were part of an illustration God used in Jeremiah 24. The prophet saw good figs and bad figs, and God told him the good figs were the exiles whom he would bring back to the land, after the captivity, and he would again establish them. These were the Jews who humbled themselves under God’s discipline. The bad figs were Zedekiah and the other nobles who refused to serve the king of Babylon and rebelled. God judged them severely. When Jesus refers to the fruit of the fig tree in Luke, his Jewish hearers would think of Jeremiah, and if they are paying attention, draw the lesson of judgment for fruitlessness. Jesus includes this detail: “And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none.” v. 7.  Could this three year period refer to the earthly ministry of Jesus, the years he has sought for faith in Israel, but has not found it? The rulers and the Scribes utterly reject him and his message.  

After this comes wrangling with those in authority. Jesus heals a woman who had a disabling spirit, but it was a Sabbath day, and the ruler of the synagogue berates the people for “profaning” the day. Jesus rebukes him sharply. “You hypocrites!”  Again, official Israel is being judged, set aside. This is a “bad fig.”

Following this come two parables that appear out of place. That is, Matthew gathers parables of the kingdom together in chapter 13, where these two are found. By placing them here, after the material he has already included in the chapter, Luke is signaling their application.  He said therefore, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? It is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his garden, and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.” v. 18-19  

Some believe this indicates the growth of God’s kingdom to a great stature, and to have wide influence. But Luke has already signaled to us what the meaning is. In chapter 8, we have the parable of the sower, and Jesus explains its meaning to include “then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts.” 8:12. Birds of the air are not anything good, but they represent satanic influence, and evil. Having told us what the birds of the air signify in that parable, it is logical to see that same meaning here.

The parable of the leaven is the other brief one, and it, too reinforces the idea of evil influence in God’s kingdom, where good should have flourished. Leaven is always a symbol of evil in Scripture. I know some have tried to see this as the spread of the gospel, but the way Scripture consistently presents this rules it out.  Leaven is a corrupting influence. Jesus warns the disciples to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees. At the start of Luke 12. He explains it to be hypocrisy. Recall the words he spoke to the synagogue ruler. “You hypocrites!” Here, then, in the parable, we shouldn’t expect leaven to mean something other than what Jesus has already told us; hypocrisy and an evil influence.  

By the selection of these parables here in chapter 13, Luke means to tell us something about their meaning. Not the spread of good and the permeation of the gospel, but a warning about evil and how Israel, which should have been fruitful, should have been true to her Lord, was not. The chapter ends with the lament over Jerusalem—a culminating event in the place of Israel as a people before the Lord. There is a setting aside coming, a judgment for their rejection of their Messiah, Jesus says. Indeed, it is not a final setting aside, God will again take up dealing with Israel as a nation, but the way Luke arranges his material in this chapter gives us important hints on what happens before that.

I Always Do What Pleases Him

The Humility of Jesus in John’s Gospel

John’s gospel is a unique document, and students of the life of Christ rightly set this gospel apart from the others. There are the synoptic gospels, and John. John contains 879 verses, and only 124 of these are traceable to the other gospels. This means a full 86% of John’s material is unique to his gospel. A striking aspect of the book is how often Jesus refers to his father. When referring to God, Matthew contains 42 occurrences of “Father.” Mark has 4, and Luke 13. But John’s gospel has 113 such references. What do these many references to God as the Father of Jesus tell us?

Jesus the Eternal Son

The character of this gospel is to present Jesus as the man from heaven. He is the one coming from above, the Word of God, the one in the bosom of the Father, making God known.

The deity of Christ is unequivocal in John. Jesus is equal with God (5:18), he and the Father are one (10:30, 17:11). Before Abraham was, Jesus tells the Jews, “I am.” There was no mistaking what he meant, for the Jews took up stones to kill him. “I am” is a clear reference to the covenant name of God, revealed to Moses in Exodus 3:14, I AM THAT I AM. One cannot read anything in John as a new category, that is, as Arianism claims, a god, but not THE God. In 17:3, Jesus says, “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” If Jesus and the Father are one, and there is but one true God, a lesser god, and one in whom we find eternal life, is not possible.

The intimacy of the Father and the Son

In the gospel where the deity of Christ is so manifest, the book also displays the relationship of Jesus as the Son of the Father with great intimacy. The Father loves the Son, and shows him all that he is doing (5:20). He tells the Twelve that whoever has seen him has seen the Father. (14:9). If they know him, they know the Father also. The 14th chapter is filled with references to the Father doing, acting, loving toward the believer, and the ground of it all is the relationship of the Father and the Son. Jesus will ask the Father, and he will send the comforter (14:16.) The words of life, all that Jesus has heard from his Father, he has made known to the disciples. (15:15). But the self-giving love of the Son means that this intimacy is shared with believers. “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.” (15:9). And those who love the Son will be loved by the Father (14:21.)  The great hymn writer Horatius Bonar captures this sentiment when he writes:

So dear, so very dear to God,
More dear I cannot be;
The love wherewith He loves the Son,
Such is His love to me.

The humility of the Son

A wonder of John’s gospel is the portrayal of Jesus in his humility. He is the Son who does only what he sees the Father doing (5:19). He seeks not his own will, but the will of him who sent him (5:30). This, of course, culminates at the cross. Giving himself freely, out of love for the Father, and in submission to his Father, this is Calvary. “The cup that the Father has given me, shall I not drink it?” Peter would intervene, but Jesus explains that in going to the cross, coming to this hour, that the Father is glorified (12:28). Paul muses on this mystery in Philippians 2, when he says Jesus humbled himself by becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross. This, believer, is the substance of our worship. The Son’s humility in going to the cross, fulfilling what his Father sent him into the world to do, accomplishing all, made it possible for Jesus to utter “It is finished.”

This display of humility in the eternal Son of God is the substance of our worship. We can never stray very far from the condescension of Calvary. We should never, for Christ crucified is the heart of the gospel. This makes a frequent celebration of the Lord’s Supper an important reminder to us. Considering his humiliation, his death, never gets old, never becomes routine.

His life of humility is also the pattern for the believer. In John 13, when Jesus set aside his outer garments, and took up a towel, washing the disciple’s feet, he presented a model to them. “For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.” Later, in his first epistle, John will expand on this, “whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.” A sin-cursed world needs to see believers satisfied and marveling at the wonder of Calvary. But it also needs to see believers modeling the example of Jesus.

Getting to Know the Gospels Better

One cannot study the gospels without the idea of harmony coming to the fore. Specifically, in the synoptic gospels, the idea of laying one gospel alongside the other two has a very long history. Beginning with Tatian’s Diatessaron in the 2nd Century, putting the gospel records side by side to see both similarities and differences can show you an awful lot. Tatian intended to highlight the fact that the gospels are one story. He reduced the 3780 total verses of the four gospels to 2769 in his “harmony” – a reduction of about 25%(!) One can see some logic in his method. The Lord Jesus did not live four different lives, each evangelist giving us but one of them. His earthly ministry, death, and resurrection are relatable as a single narrative story. What Titian’s method obscures, however, is that the Holy Spirit inspired not just one evangelist, but four. Each of the four has a distinct perspective on the life of Christ, and so attempts at harmonization can mask the diverse pictures each gospel writer provides.
In one of the books I’ve been using for gospel study, the author recommended marking in your Bible which gospel incidents (aka ‘Pericopes’) occur in which gospels. A pericope is not just a narrative of an event, or a parable, but any unit of teaching Jesus spoke, or something the evangelist recorded. It can be as short as a single verse, such as Mark 14:51, the young man who flees from the garden after the arrest of Jesus. In looking at the gospels in these incidental portions, you’re better able to compare them, and importantly, to glean from them more of what each author put there differently from his fellow evangelists. I did this, and I believe it has indeed given me a better understanding of the gospels. It isn’t a short exercise, and it requires a fair bit of grunt work, but I see it paying dividends. There are a couple of steps to doing this.
1. Get a list of gospel periscopes. There are several online, and various folks count them differently. The one I used is from the Semantic Bible site. This list has 355 distinct periscopes. Note that things like Matthew’s genealogy and Luke’s genealogy are counted as different. Your first thought may be, “Both Matthew and Luke contain genealogies of Jesus.” They do, but they differ enough from one another that you should ask how and why, and it makes sense to count them as different.
2. Mark your Bible with a different colored dot for where these periscopes occur. I chose purple to represent Matthew, green for Mark, red for Luke, and blue for John. Any color will do, you just need to be consistent. It took me several hours over 3-4 days to do this. It’s laborious, because you have to constantly refer back to the list, and make sure you’re in synch. This is the result:

The above is from Matthew 12, and you can see that beginning at verse 22, this pericope is found in all 3 synoptic gospels. However, with verse 31, only Matthew and Mark record the portion about the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. At verse 33, the tree and its fruit is found only in Matthew. You can thus see how each writer frames the same story a little differently, and you begin to ask why. You ask not only about the material they include, but how they record it is significant. For example, all three synoptic gospels record the baptism of Jesus. Only Matthew contains the dialogue with John about needing to baptized by Jesus, and Jesus’ answer about fulfilling all righteousness. Why? Matthew and Luke both say that afterward the heavens were opened, (though Matthew says “the heavens were opened to him”) but Mark says the heavens were “torn open.” Why? These are examples of the subtle differences you begin to notice in the gospel records, and doing so helps you go deeper into these narratives of the Lord Jesus. Asking good questions of the text of Scripture helps you better understand God’s Word.
Another thing you notice is what material is unique to each writer. For example, all of Luke 15, and about half of chapter 16 are unique to this gospel. Why? Even without the markings I describe above, it’s fairly easy to see that a huge amount of John is unique (On the basis of verses to be found in other gospels, it’s nearly 86% of them that are found only in John.) But something else I noticed is that as the gospels progress, and Jesus comes closer to his death and resurrection, this material is found in all four gospels. This tells me what Paul echoed to the Corinthians, that what is of first importance is, “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” The atonement is the heart of the gospel, and it is the heart of the Gospel records. That is but one small example of the benefits of studying the gospels in this degree of closeness.
Jesus is the Logos, the Word, the one in whom God has, in these last days, spoken to us. The very words of Scripture are the way we know him. Studying these words with greater focus, greater detail, can only yield spiritual treasures.