Jörg Frey on the Source-Critical and Redaction-Critical Approach to the Gospel of John

I am happy to announce that I have just submitted my co-translation (with Christoph Heilig) of a selection of essays on John by Jörg Frey (Eng), which will be published in the BMSEC series in 2018 with the title The Glory of the Crucified One. Thus, it seemed fitting to celebrate this occasion by continuing my series of posts on Frey’s chapter “Wege und Perspektiven der Interpretation des Johannesevangelium,” which will be titled “Approaches to the Interpretation of John” in our volume. For my full range of posts on The Glory of the Crucified One, see here.

Today’s key quotation comes from section 1.4 of this chapter : “The Source-Critical and Redaction-Critical Approach: The Search for ‘Original’ Sources and the Question of the Theological Development of the Johannine Community.”

After presenting specific criticisms of several recent source-critical works, Frey has this to say about the lasting value of this approach (page 20 in Die Herrlichkeit des Gekreuzigten):

Such works are well suited to discredit the method of source criticism as a whole. At the same time, here too a particula veri should be upheld. For the Gospel of John can scarcely be regarded as a text ‘made from a single mold,’ as a completely homogeneous literary unity.

Solche Arbeiten sind geeignet, die Methde der Literarkritik gänzlich zu diskredieren. Gleichwohl sollte auch hier eine particula veri festgehalten werden: Das Johannesevangelium kann eben doch kaum als ein Text ‘aus einem Guß’, als eine völlig homogene, literarische Einheit gelten.

It probably grew over a rather extended period of time, and strongly synchronic interpretations are justified text-theoretically rather than in a way that is actually historical.

Es ist wahrscheinlich über einen längeren Zeitraum gewachsen, und dezidiert synchrone Interpretationen sind eher texttheoretisch als tatsächlich historisch begründet.

At least for chapter 21 the question of a secondary expansion or edition of an existing text arises, and the question of what else was possibly added in this context can only be approached with cautious deliberations, since we have no parallel texts for comparison.

Zumindest für Kapitel 21 stellt sich die Frage einer sekundären Ergänzung bzw. Edition eines vorliegendes Textes, und die Frage, was in diesem Zusammenhang eventuell noch ergänzt wurde, läßt sich, da keine Paralleltexte zum Vergleich bereitliegen, nur mit vorsichtigen Erwägungen angehen.

The same applies to the by no means irrelevant question of the presupposed sources and traditions. For it seems clear that the evangelist presupposes sources and traditions.

Das gleich gilt für die keineswegs irrelevante Frage nach den vorausgesetzten Quellen and Traditionen: Daß der Evangelist Quellen und Traditionen voraussetzt, scheint klar zu sein.

As long as one regarded the Johannine line of development as completely independent and not dependent on other early Christian traditions (especially the Synoptics), one had to reckon with sources that consisted of larger narrative pieces (semeia source and passion narrative or Grundschrift). If one assumes knowledge of the Synoptic tradition, such continuous sources can scarcely be reconstructed any longer, but even then the taking up of individual special traditions from the Johannine community or other circles must be assumed.

Solange man die johanneische Entwicklungslinie für völlig eigenständig und von anderen frühchristlichen Überlieferungen (insbesondere den Synoptikern) unabhängig ansah, mußte man dann mit größeren erzählerischen Quellenstücken (Semeiaquelle und Passionsbericht oder Grundschrift) rechnen, wenn man mit Kenntnissen der synoptischen Überlieferung rechnet, können solche durchlaufenden Quellen kaum mehr rekonstruiert werden, aber auch dann ist die Aufnahme einzelner Sonderüberlieferungen aus dem johanneischen Gemeindekreis oder anderen Kreisen anzunehmen.

Now the source situation for a resolution of the associated problems are anything but great, so that one can scarcely expect source criticism to provide the key for the interpretation of the Fourth Gospel.

Freilich ist die Quellenanlage für eine Lösung der damit gegebenen Probleme alles andere als günstig, so daß von der Literarkritik der Schlüssel zur Interpretation des vierten Evangeliums kaum zu erwarten ist.


As a single comment on the translation of this passage, let me simply flag up the difficulty of translating the German terms Literarkritik and literarkritisch. Since it is now used to refer to a very different approach, “literary criticism” is not a viable solution in my judgment. Accordingly, the translator must find another term for the subject matter in question. This, however, is difficult. In fact, since Literarkritik is a more far-reaching term than “source criticism” (see e.g. here), I considered retaining the noun Literarkritik (see e.g. here) and even gave considerable thought to whether it would be possible to coin a new word for the adjective. However, in the end, while recognizing the shortcomings of using “source criticism” and “source-critical” (see e.g. here), I decided to adopt this common translation, albeit with reservations.

For a complete list of my blog posts, please see here.

For interviews with me on my work, see here.

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German Mondays: Thank you for making it to the end of this blog post! I hope to be able to write at least one Monday blog post each month. Best, Wayne


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