Volume 28 - Issue 3

Redaction Criticism, Tradition-History and Myth in NT Theology: In Response to Georg Strecker

By Simon Gathercole

A monumental figure in NT scholarship, Georg Strecker is nevertheless relatively unknown to many outside of Germany. Now that his equally monumental Theology of the New Testament has been translated into English, he will no doubt become harder to avoid. In this brief assessment I hope to focus on the three areas of Strecker’s literary approach, his historical approach, and finally, the theological dimensions of his treatment of the NT literature. All of these areas are of huge significance to NT studies today, both to students and scholars, and this brief treatment intends to highlight some of the problems with Strecker’s approach to NT criticism, some which are relevant in particular to him, but some of which are much more common.

Strecker, formerly Professor of NT at the University of Göttingen, was until his recent death one of the grand old men of NT studies in Germany. He died before the completion of this Theology of the New Testament, but gave instructions to Friedrich Wilhelm Horn to complete it.1 The finished work appeared in German in 1996, and has been translated by Eugene Boring. A foreword by Horn and a preface by Boring lead into the main text, which amounts to around 680 pages. There is a very brief introduction which, considering the size of the volume, is not really adequate to set the scene as far as the author’s method and outlook is concerned.2 The text itself is divided into six parts: the theology of Paul; an analysis of the ‘tunnel period’ between the birth of earliest Christianity and the composition of the Gospels; treatment of the Synoptics; John’s Gospel and Letters (with Revelation); the ‘Deuteropauline’ letters; and finally the catholic epistles.

The Redaction-critical approach to New Testament theology

Since Strecker does not explain his method in detail at the outset, in general it only becomes apparent en route. He follows what George Caird once called the ‘lazy way’ of doing NT theology, that is organising the material according to canonical books rather than thematically. Strecker’s reason for this is that he wants to highlight the distinctive character of each author in the NT as a priority. He calls this approach a ‘redaction critical’ one, and Horn helpfully supplies a paragraph from an unpublished lecture by Strecker which fleshes this out:

This means that each New Testament writing is evaluated according to its particular theological conception so that the term ‘theology of the New Testament’ more precisely means the complex of theologies in the New Testament (vi).3

Furthermore, Strecker looks both at the final form of the various parts of the NT canon, and compares them, as well as looking for the historical development of various traditions which find their way into the NT:

The presentation of the theologies of the New Testament authors is thus to be done in such a way that takes account of their reception and interpretation of this earlier tradition (vi).

There are of course strengths to this approach: the distinctive perspectives of individual NT books are not collapsed together. The weaknesses, however, are also apparent. Strecker’s book has the appearance not so much of a synthesis of NT thought, as an encyclopaedia of the different contents of each book. The section on Paul, the first part, is a two-hundred page book in its own right, but the references to Pauline thought elsewhere in the book are relatively sparse. This is par for the course in NT theologies of this kind. Strecker, however, exacerbates the problem by adopting a particularly hard-line redaction-critical approach, whereby it is the theological distinctives of each NT author which take centre stage, rather than what the various books have in common. There is a strong sense that, for example, when Matthew or Luke incorporate Markan material, it does not really belong to their own conception of reality. Similarly, when Mark adopts pre-Markan tradition, it is not really Markan. For example, he discusses Mark 10:45 (the Son of Man as a ‘ransom for many’) and 14:24 (Jesus’ blood being ‘poured out for many’) and Martin Kaehler’s emphasis on the importance of the atonement and passion for Mark. Strecker comments:

This [i.e. the atonement], however, is not a genuine Markan idea. Here a sharp distinction must be made between tradition and redaction, since the concept of the atoning death of Jesus belongs to the pre-Markan tradition, as can be seen from the two most important examples in Mark (362).

This is a very strange idea. Surely if one of the Gospel writers makes use of tradition, it is because it reflects his own view of Jesus? In the process of using Mark, Matthew and Luke make the Markan material their own. Not only is Strecker’s approach a strange one in itself, but it also has far-reaching consequences in the broader construction of a NT theology.

This can be seen from Strecker’s observation that the soteriological sense of the atoning ransom in Mark 10:45 documents a ‘Pauline component’ in the pre-Markan tradition, and ‘is related to the Pauline conceptual world’ (355). When one steps back and looks at this in the context of Strecker’s whole project, the result is surprising. The logic goes something like this. We know that Mark 10:45 and 14:24 come from the pre-Markan tradition of Jesus’ death as an atoning ransom, which has become mixed with, among other things, Pauline elements. The atoning sense of Mark 10:45 is therefore not Markan, because what is truly Markan is that which is unique to Mark. Thus Mark and Paul have very different conceptions of the death of Jesus. The discrepancy between Mark and Paul is magnified exponentially. In consequence, the diversity of the books of the NT is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The same process continues later on: because Matthew does not develop Mark’s theology of atonement at all, the atoning death of Jesus ‘plays no larger role in Matthew than it does in Mark’ (386). That is to say, it plays scarcely any role at all. All Strecker is interested in is the way in which Matthew introduces Mark’s ransom saying in Matthew 20:28 with a different conjunction, and therefore uses the saying differently (388). The consequence of this is that there is considerable downgrading of the central core of what the NT authors all have in common. Or, to put it another way, there is a dangerous loss of emphasis on the Gospel.


One of the major areas on which Strecker focuses is the so-called ‘tunnel period’, that is, the period in which traditions from Jesus and the earliest Christian communities were passed down, eventually to be incorporated into the Gospels and epistles. Since Strecker has rejected the approach of systematising and synthesising NT teaching, he delves instead into the backgrounds of NT traditions, assessing the role of the author in shaping the material, as well as the role of the earliest Christians shaping the material before the authors got their hands on it. In the case of the Gospels, it is the sayings of Jesus which are obviously the main object of study. There is also, however, a wide range of source material used in the epistles as well: early Christian hymns, baptismal liturgies, as well as, perhaps, the occasional saying of Jesus which does not appear in the Gospels.

Jesus-Tradition and the Gospels

We need to look at what in Strecker’s approach is authentic and what is inauthentic in the Gospel traditions about Jesus. Here one faces the frequent problem whereby, by the standards of this reviewer at least, the scholar in question seems extremely sceptical towards great swathes of the Jesus tradition. Yet Strecker sees himself as reacting against the sceptical excesses of some of his predecessors. Strecker rightly criticises Bultmann’s ‘criterion of dissimilarity’, whereby a saying attributed to Jesus is, in general, only to be considered authentic if it both contradicts Jewish teaching of the time and is different from the doctrine of the later Christian communities. Realising that this approach is far too reductionistic, Strecker devises a ‘criterion of development’:

This method understands the text analogously to the growth rings of a tree. The older a text is, the more it is surrounded or even overgrown by secondary traditional material. The more clearly such secondary tradition can be identified as formation of the Christian community, the more probably the original kernel of the tradition can be attributed to the authentic sayings of Jesus (251).

In a sense, therefore, the more elaborate traditions have become by the time of the composition of the Gospel, the more likely it is that there was once an authentic Jesus tradition which sparked off the whole process of creative addition. As one might suspect, this very much still leads to sceptical results.

Strecker places the burden of creativity upon the earliest Christian communities rather than Jesus himself. Although he is critical of William Wrede for assigning too much invention to Mark, Strecker does not go down the Schweitzer route and allow Jesus himself to have determined the earliest church’s description of him as ‘Messiah’ (92). He even considers as inauthentic such sayings as that of the disciples not going through all the towns of Israel before the coming of the Son of Man (Matt. 10:23) and the statement ‘there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power’ (Mark 9:1 and parallels). Most scholars consider these authentic by the ‘criterion of embarrassment’, but Strecker consigns them to post-Easter tradition (329–30).

Pre-Pauline tradition and the epistles

We have seen that Strecker sees Pauline Christology as very much influenced by a pre-Christian Gnostic redeemer-myth, and he is likewise, throughout, concerned to identify genetic relationships between hellenistic thought and early Christian ideas. 1 Corinthians 8:6, with its language of Jesus’ pre-existence and participation in the work of creation comes about ‘within the sphere of influence of Stoic thought’ (88). There is thus a diminishing of Paul’s own creative reflection which follows the logic determined by the Gospel. Or again, Strecker displays great confidence in being able to recover various stages of the editorial process in the dark ages from Easter to the composition of the Gospels during which the tradition was passed down. For example, Strecker can reconstruct both the ‘Word of the Lord’ about the parousia that Paul received, andhis changes to it in 1 Thessalonians 4:15–17 (212).

Myth and Kerygma in New Testament Theology

The themes of ‘myth’ and ‘kerygma’ are by no means new theological issues. There are, no doubt, numerous Themelios articles from the past on the subject. Yet for those who thought that Bultmannian theology was dead and buried, Strecker’s Theology of the New Testament is a reminder that old habits die hard in the theological academy. Throughout the work, Strecker displays a concern to understand the NT within the framework of ‘myth’. As a number of scholars who advocate a similar line have protested, this does not automatically mean that the NT is being regarded as in the same class as fairy-stories.

Myth and Christology

Two mythical frameworks from the Hellenistic/Ancient Near Eastern world are particularly prominent, and impact especially on Strecker’s understanding of NT Christology. First, Strecker is a moderate advocate of the Gnostic-redeemer myth as having a significant influence on the development of NT thought. He is not (like, for example, Walter Schmithals) prone to seeing Gnosticism everywhere, but nevertheless does see the heavenly redeemer myth as particularly formative for Paul’s thought-world. The hymns of Philippians 2:5–11 and Colossians 1:15–20 describe a pre-existent figure who comes down to earth to bring salvation and then returns to God in heaven: thus for Strecker such passages clearly reflect the Gnostic myth which, at least to a limited extent, was alive and well in pre-Christian times (62).4

Second, Strecker draws parallels between the references to Jesus’ designation as ‘Son of God’ in Mark and the Ancient Egyptian enthronement ritual, where the new king becomes a god (357–58). There are three stages in each case. The first is a rough parallel (Jesus’ baptism being an Egyptian deification). The second, in my view, is fairly shaky (Jesus in the company of Elijah and Moses at the transfiguration corresponds to the Egyptian presentation of the king to the circle of the gods). The third, the enthronement ritual proper, is, however, the most shaky. Strecker half-heartedly raises the possibility that the proclamation of Jesus as the Son of God by the Roman centurion corresponds to this, but also notes that there is no real connection. He concludes, however, just as speculatively that the event corresponding to the Egyptian enthronement ritual is to be located in the now lost ending to Mark!5 ‘In fact, the possibility is not to be excluded that the enthronement of Jesus as Son of God was declared in the context of a resurrection appearance to Peter’ (358).

A good example of this can be seen in Strecker’s discussion of Pauline christology. ‘Paul’s Jesus is not to be bracketed out of the realm of myth’ (102). The pattern of Jesus’ existence, that is, his humiliation and exaltation, is defined as a ‘mythological scheme’. Also part of this mythological scheme is his being the ‘image of God’, which for Strecker is a ‘Gnosticising manner of speaking’, which also gives rise to understanding Jesus as pre-existent, and having been sent from God. Again, the enthronement of Jesus as sovereign over the whole cosmos, as in the conclusion to the Christ-hymn in Philippians 2:9–11, belongs for Strecker ‘to the realm of myth, not the realm of logos’ (102). However, it is highly questionable whether the kerygma can be separated off from its ‘mythical’ shell.

The theological function of myth

The background to Strecker’s understanding of myth lies in his emphasis on the traditional Protestant extra nos (literally, ‘outside ourselves’), whereby ‘the saving event is not identified with an internal event in human existence but is grounded in something that happens external to human existence’ (114; emphasis mine). Similarly, the communicative aspect of the Christ event is ‘not something which human beings can say to themselves but something that can only be said to them’ (370). Since the divine word, the kerygma, cannot be spoken of straightforwardly, it is necessary that it be clothed in mythical language which enables it to be understood, while preserving its own character as something in every sense outside of ourselves. When it comes to interpreting the NT, Strecker follows Bultmann in insisting that we must not see the mythical cultural baggage (such as the pre-existence of Christ) as essential to the kerygma, the message of the Gospel.

As it has traditionally with the Bultmann school, the inability to think about God and his activity in rational terms means that there is a focus on the mere fact of Jesus and the kerygma, and a dogmatic agnosticism about anything else that Scripture addresses concretely. Even Luke is brought in as evidence of the ‘thatness’ of the eschatological event (417).6 The kerygma for Strecker seems so elusive that it is practically speaking indefinable. The being of God is disclosed to humanity in the Christ event (116), but the extent of mythological language in the NT is so thorough that ultimately, the only function of language about God is to safeguard the idea of the extra nos. This is not done in abstraction from Christ, however: for Strecker, it is integral to this extra nos that God has established Jesus Christ as the eschatological sign for the world. Nevertheless, as noted above, one seldom gets from Strecker any sense of content to the Gospel which must be believed. Interestingly, when he comes to discuss the Pastoral Epistles, he skates over the issues so central there, such as the ‘deposit’, the body of sound doctrine to be passed down, which must be taught and guarded against those false teachers who contradict it.

Bultmannian-Lutheran theology (to which Strecker is very committed) is passionately concerned to emphasise that we are not saved by our own achievements. We cannot reinforce our faith with rational proofs, because that would give us a role in our own salvation. However, the same Bultmannian Lutheranism is committed to historical-critical research; and it is hard to avoid concluding that whatever Strecker intends, the end result of historical-critical tools is the identification of the mythical elements of NT teaching. Luther himself understood trust in God as simple faith in Jesus and in God’s written word. Strecker, however, is the most recent representative of an approach that, while attempting to deny human achievement, in fact lets it in through the back door. It is human reason, by means of secular historical methodology, which reveals what is to be believed and what is to be discarded as myth.

Myth and Resurrection

Strecker’s approach to myth has a particularly significant impact on his discussion of the resurrection of Jesus. The first problem is with the category of the ‘empty tomb’, which Strecker does not see in Paul. On this point, Strecker pits Paul against all the Gospels, where the concept of the empty tomb is clearly important: ‘He is risen; he is not here’ (Mark 16:6; Matt. 28:6; cf Luke 24:23, John 20:6–7). In spite of that Strecker is insistent that when it comes to the empty tomb, ‘we are not dealing here with an idea from the earliest period, for the motif expressed in this tradition only gradually took shape’ (107). He sees the Gospel writers as reflecting developments which occurred later than Paul. As a result of this Strecker gets himself into difficulties over Paul’s conception of resurrection.

The problem lies in Strecker’s reconstruction of Paul’s developing understanding of resurrection. First, he presumes that the pre-Pauline tradition does not say that the tomb is empty: Paul has no empty tomb ‘raw material’ that he received from other Christians (109). One might well ask, however, how it is that Strecker knows this. But Strecker’s treatment of the Pauline texts themselves is even more puzzling. Here he draws an analogy between the general resurrection and the resurrection of Jesus.7 His treatment of 1 Corinthians 15 is confusing in that in one paragraph he affirms that the idea of the empty tomb is ‘excluded’ because the new body is ‘completely different’, since the old one has been ‘laid aside’ (which is not what 1 Corinthians 15 actually says.) Yet in the next paragraph, he notes that 2 Corinthians 5 ‘affirms that the earthly body will not be transformed, in contrast to the conception of 1 Corinthians 15, but rather it will be replaced’. 2 Corinthians 5:1–10 is of course a difficult passage for any exegete, but Strecker absolutises Paul’s position here.

As a result he runs into particular problems in his interpretation of Romans 8, where he says that the nature of the redemptive resurrection at the eschaton is ‘not only the redemption of the body, but also redemption from the earthly body’ (108). This seems to throw a spanner in Strecker’s exegetical works. The whole context of Romans 8:18–27 is the groaning of the cosmos and of the people of God, awaiting the adoption of God’s children. There is no hint of an annihilation followed by a creation ex nihilo; rather it is the opposite—the transformation of the present groaning reality into a future glorious reality.

In a similar vein, the fault-lines in Strecker’s exposition also lie in his over-emphasis on the non-physicality of Paul’s term soma. As Strecker notes, following Bultmann, soma can mean ‘person’, but it means physical body much more frequently and not least in 2 Corinthians 5:1–10. The main (related) problem is that Strecker does not sufficiently account for the tension in Paul’s thought between the continuity and discontinuity between present and future existence. The elimination of any bodily continuity does not do justice to Paul’s thought, and so the empty tomb cannot so easily be discarded.

So far the discussion has been confined to the exegetical arena. How is Strecker’s concept of the resurrection related here to myth? There are three important points. First, it is ‘the mythological scheme of the humiliation and exaltation of the pre-existent one’ which is the driving force behind the continuity of personhood between the Jesus who dies and the (same) Jesus who is raised. Secondly, the continuity of Jesus’ personhood expresses the unity of God’s saving activity in Jesus’ death and resurrection, ‘in which the eschatological “Yes” of God is spoken to humanity’ (110). Thirdly, the mythical expression is necessary, because ‘such a divine affirmation cannot be pictured in clear concepts’.

There are at least two problems which come to the fore here. First, if God’s saving act is the eschatological ‘yes’ of God, then it is God’s ‘yes’ only to a disembodied humanity, and at the same time, God’s ‘yes’ to human personalities which are just as corrupt and in need of redemption as human bodies. Second, it is perhaps revealing that Strecker sees the earlier verses of 1 Corinthians 15, where Paul brings forth witnesses to the resurrection as evidence of its authenticity, as in ‘fundamental contradiction’ to Pauline theology elsewhere (104). Paul, however, has more room for God’s activity in the material world, in history, than Strecker has. (Strecker follows Bultmann in asserting that ‘Jesus rose into the kerygma’.8) And yet Paul wholly preserves the extra nos, the ‘otherness of God’, for God does not bring about salvation fromhumanity, but to humanity from the outside.


Strecker’s work is not only encyclopaedic in its coverage of NT material, but is also an extremely comprehensive guide to German scholarship of, in particular, the last forty years. (Strangely, Strecker is much less reliable when discussing scholars of past generations such as Reimarus and Albert Schweitzer.) There is very little engagement with Anglo-American works, though this is characteristic of German scholarship in general. But within these confines, not only does Strecker have a fine grasp on NT scholarship, he also displays enviable learning in the areas of Gnosticism and Hellenistic religion. (Jewish background, however, is treated very scantily.) There is no general bibliography at the end of the book, but short, very useful, bibliographies introduce each subject-section, and there is a concluding bibliography which deals with general issues principally surrounding ‘New Testament theology’. Just as there is no introduction to speak of (a mere eight pages), there is even less of a conclusion. The book ends with the treatment of the Epistle of James with no word to conclude the project as a whole. This anticlimax highlights the lack of focus on any synthetic theological work. The only real sense in which there is synthesis derives from the fact that the book is a kind of NT genome project: it attempts to account historically for every significant idea, in terms of its genetic origin and development.

There are other weaknesses: that Strecker treats Ephesians in a mere ten pages must be protested, considering the book is of such theological weight. Or from a different viewpoint, there is very little focus on the Holy Spirit throughout the book. Two pages on Luke’s presentation of the Spirit is one of the only treatments which goes beyond passing reference. Reading this book by Strecker does provide a window into how different German NT scholarship is by comparison to British and American approaches, and it is always useful to be reminded of that point. To many readers of this English translation, however, Strecker’s project will seem rather strange, and his historical reconstructions unconvincing and occasionally bizarre. Finally, his demythologising theological agenda is even less compelling than it was when it was put forward by Rudolf Bultmann.

1 G. Strecker, Theology of the New Testament (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000).

2 Though he has written an article, unfortunately untranslated, which is probably equivalent to such an introduction. ‘Die Theologie des Neuen Testaments’, in Strecker, ed. Das Problem der Theologie des Neuen Testaments (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1975), 1–31, and reprinted in Strecker, ed. Eschaton und Historie. Aufsätze (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1979), 260–90.

3 Quoted from a paper delivered to the Society of New Testament Studies, Madrid, 28 July 1992.

4 Similarly, this background shapes Strecker’s interpretation of Johannine Christology (500).

5 Strecker is so confident of the contents of this lost ending that he goes on to assert that ‘the lost ending of the Gospel of Mark was also unknown to Matthew’, which thus enabled Matthew to come to his own conclusions about the resurrection appearances (366).

6 That is, the fact that Jesus lived and died for our salvation, rather than the how of salvation.

7 Here again, however, he reads Paul against the grain: ‘On the basis of his concept of the bodiliness of the future resurrection of Christian believers, Paul draws conclusions about the bodily resurrection of Christ’ (108). This is Paul’s reasoning in reverse, however. As Strecker notes elsewhere, in 1 Corinthians 15, ‘the hope for the resurrection of the dead is based on faith in the one who is already risen’ (272, n. 25).

8 R. Bultmann, ‘Das Verhältnis der urchristlichen Christusbotschaft zum historischen Jesus’, in Bultmann, Exegetica. Aufsätze zur Erforschung des Neuen Testaments (Tübingen: Mohr, 1967), 469.

Simon Gathercole

Simon Gathercole
Cambridge University
Cambridge, England, UK