The Resurrection Narratives: A Redactional Study

Written by Grant R. Osborne Reviewed By Joel B. Green

In this revision of his doctoral thesis, Osborne (now Associate Professor of NT at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) sets out to consider the resurrection narratives of the four canonical gospels especially from the standpoint of redaction criticism. The study itself follows a four-part outline: (1) a survey of previous study; (2) a redaction-critical analysis of each of the stories in question; (3) a tradition study of the empty tomb and appearance narratives; and (4) a concluding section on history and interpretation in the resurrection accounts. An extensive bibliography is included.

While this monograph is sub-titled ‘A Redactional Study’, it is obvious that the author’s agenda was threefold. First, of course, Osborne wants to determine the theological programme of each of the four evangelists. Second, as an evangelical, Osborne also demonstrates a marked interest in affirming the fundamental historical authenticity of the narratives. And third, one finds here an apologia for the employment of the redaction-critical method aimed at the most conservative of NT scholars. How well does The Resurrection Narratives fulfil its agenda?

As for the attempt to uncover the theology of each of the evangelists, Osborne is to be commended for his attention to detail and his survey of previous scholarship on numerous points. As a result of his inquiry, he is able to point to the distinctive interests of each evangelist and suggest how each made use of the available traditions. However, Osborne’s meticulous, verse-by-verse approach tends to mask the thematic development of the narratives, and one gains the impression that the resurrection accounts are treated too much in isolation from the earlier portions of the gospels. Perhaps Osborne could have said more at the outset about what, e.g., Mark was doing in his whole gospel which can be traced in his chapter 16. Additionally, does Osborne not go too far in attributing to the synoptic writers narrative competence? Stylistic and theological inconsistencies remain in each of the narratives, and this raises questions about the high level of authorial care Osborne grants the synopticists. Interestingly, Osborne’s portrait of John is that of a second-class redactor when compared to the other evangelists. The fourth evangelist, it would seem, was much more a preserver of tradition than, e.g., Luke; and one cannot help but trace Osborne’s own apologetic tendency at work here. Finally, it must be noted that Osborne finds it much easier to list the opinions of others than to deal critically with the issues before venturing a judgment.

Serious NT scholars will be disappointed, too, by Osborne’s assessment of the authenticity of the resurrection narratives, not so much because of what he says but because of the way he tries to support his assertions. Thus, we find little attempt to resolve the central problem this study raises: if the evangelists exercised such a free hand in providing their gospels with resurrection stories, how can historical veracity be assumed for the accounts? One may counter that this is no insurmountable obstacle, but this does not detract from the necessity of treating the problem seriously. Further, we must query whether Osborne has paid sufficient attention to the fact that redaction criticism can suggest how an evangelist used his tradition and may even be able to point to a writer’s underlying tradition, but cannot determine the historicity of a tradition. In fact, in part three of this study (‘Tradition Study’), where we might have expected an extensive examination of the development of the resurrection narratives accounting for the apparent inconsistencies between the four stories in the gospels and providing reasonable arguments for the historical likelihood of this or that aspect of the tradition, we read little more than a string of assertions regarding the authenticity of the various parts of a more-or-less harmonized account. The complexity of the evidence calls for a more comprehensive treatment of the issues.

For these reasons doubts may be raised as to the usefulness of this study as an apology for the redaction-critical approach to the study of the gospels, though students of the resurrection narratives may find this a helpful book for its summaries of scholarly opinion. We must note finally that, as regards the mechanical presentation of this monograph, the incredible proliferation of editorial blunders renders this a most difficult book through which to work.


Joel B. Green

American Baptist Seminary of the West and Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, CA