Redaction Criticism, Star Trek, and the Bible (Director’s Cut)

Redaction Criticism, Star Trek, and the Bible (Director’s Cut) December 5, 2011

To err is human. To learn to take the time to revise and improve on first drafts of one’s work may not be divine but it sure is important.

In the freshman class I teach, students are required to submit a first draft of most papers, which is then graded and given feedback, after which they have to revise the paper and submit their revised version.

It is an attempt to teach freshmen the importance, indeed the necessity, of doing this even when a professor does not require it.

Everyone who writes in connection with their profession learns sooner or later that it is essential to good writing that one learn to revise. And whether one is writing novels, reports, or even music, being open to revising is usually required, particularly if one wants to go from the stage of having a good idea to the stage of producing a masterpiece.

I found myself thinking about this  as I read the IO9 article about earlier drafts of the iconic opening monologue from the original series of Star Trek. It did not come into existence in a single step. Would it have been as powerful or as memorable if one of the earlier drafts had been treated as the final form? Click through to read some, then come back and let me know what you think.

I wonder if the reason why some conservatives object to redaction criticism, the study of the history of editing of the Bible, is precisely that it makes it all too human. A text that is powerful and appears fully formed in the mind of an author and is written in precisely that form can naturally lead to discussion of the person being “inspired” whether in the religious and supernatural or the more mundane sense.

Working through sources and drafts to produce the final version, on the other hand, reminds us that the authors of the Bible were as human as we are. They didn’t get it right the first time, and while the final product has often proven powerful and stood the test of time, even that is not above criticism (in either sense of that word).

Acknowledging the editing process that was involved in producing the works which are now part of the Bible is important, both for recognizing their humanness and non-ultimacy, and also for recognizing their value as classics. Classics are works which maintain their value and continue to be found to be worth reading long after they were created, long after the style of literature or music in which they were expressed has ceased to be popular in the same way. It can be helpful in reaching that point at which one appreciates Biblical literature for what it is, without either expecting it to be the end all and be all of literature, and without feeling the need to try to tamper with it to make it contemporary.

One reason why conservative Christianity has a problem with the Bible is that it is determined to treat the Bible as something other than a human work, and is determined instead to treat the Bible as a definitive revelation. That places the conservative Christian believer in the impossible situation of trying to both hide the evidence for the Bible’s human authorship, and try to make it speak directly to today’s issues.

Is it not better to accept and appreciate the Bible for what it is, and acknowledge that we, like the Bible’s authors, will regularly have to revise our thinking and our statements on various topics?

Is there not as much of a lesson for us today, if not more, that emerges from a consideration of what the Bible is and how it was put together, as one gets from the study of what the Bible says?

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  • Gary

    At least science tends to be consistent (like metric system for units).
    Bible redaction, new and old (text and content).
    New (text):
    Matthew 23:35 Zechariah son of Barachiah (RSV)
                           Zacharias son of Barachias (KJV)
                           Zechariah son of Berekiah (NIV)
    I think current bible scholars/translators do this to purposely confuse us non-linguists.

    Old (content):
    Matthew 23:35 Barachiah
    Luke 11:51 Same event, Zechariah, no Barachiah
    And no one knows for sure who this guy was.
    Considering this is a rather important verse, since Jesus is really ticked-off, calling Pharisees and Sadducees a brood of vipers (only used by Jesus and John the baptist – hint)…
    If infallibility is defined as “not misleading”, by definition the bible must not be infallible.

  • Luke’s dropping of Barachiah may be a result of his having understood his source to have made a mistake, confusing the prophet Zechariah with the individual said to have been killed in 2 Chronicles.

    It is also possible, however, that Matthew added the reference in order to refer to a person who had lived recently and was mentioned by Josephus, in order to make it seem that it was a prediction.

    • Gary

      Or as all good Catholics and Orthodox know, Jesus was referring to the recent killing of John the Baptist’s father. I personally think this makes more sense, simply because of the strong emotional content expressed by Jesus (and John the Baptist) against the Pharisees. Brood of vipers is pretty strong language in referring to someone killed 500 years earlier, or to a rather obscure (from our standpoint) prophet only a few people wrote about. Of course, that’s the advantage I have over you. I do not have to have evidence as a scholar (in a non-science field). As simply a believer, for me, it only comes down to what I believe. Maybe it doesn’t make sense, but much of the bible doesn’t make sense.

  • Gary

    Just wanted to clarify, I think “Barachiah” was added by a redactor at a later date. Clearly the emotion by Jesus and John the Baptist indicated a personal connection, not a reference to a 500 year old event “from Abel to Zachariah”, and from/to indicated Zachariah was the last, most recent killing, in Jesus’s time. So Zachariah was John the baptist’s father. Two possible reasons the redactor added to it, 1) since “from Abel to Zachariah” indicated Zachariah was the most recent, a redactor added the Josephus Zacharia. Redactor thinking he’s improving the story. 2) Most likely, I think, the movement to elevated John the Baptist (just like the Catholics elevated Mary in status), had followers – carried to the extreme, Coptics and Mandeans. The establishment certainly would have liked to squash that, so what better way than having a redactor add “Barachiah”, diverting some of the magic away from the Jesus/John connection, to a Jesus and older-than-the hills prophet that was killed. Just conjecture, not academic, but fun to think about. The redactor was like the two-shooter JFK followers, muddy the waters to get your point across. When the most likely scenario is right in front of your face.