A Christian religion page on how to read and understand the Bible, authored by
Frank Ellsworth Lockwood

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

TWO: WHO IS THE INTENDED AUDIENCE for the Bible passage in question?

TOPIC: How the intended audience reveals meanings in scriptures

Is the book of "Revelation" addressed to seven mystical churches of a future end time? Was the message a prophesy of  things to come thousands of years later?  Understanding the intended audience may clear up some of these baffling questions.

This is the second in a series on questions to ponder in order to comprehend the significance of any bible passage.

Many people make the mistake of generalizing every passage of scripture Certainly one may take away meaning from every passage, but who were the intended audiences? We may misunderstand the implications of a passage if we make wrong assumptions about the intended audience. Most of us instinctively know this. For example Jesus reportedly told the rich young ruler to go sell his possessions and give his wealth to the poor. We don't see millions of Christians rushing down to the realtor's office to that do we?; everyone assumes that this was a matter of Situational Ethics. Yet many other passages rooted in situations are misunderstood, especially when it comes to mattes of prophesy.

Audience and contradictions

The intended audience of various scriptures explains certain contradictions and inconsistencies found throughout the several gospels. The truth seems to be that the authors tailored the messages for the times and situations of their audiences.

Not only do the synoptic gospels differ substantially from the Gospel of John, as every Bible scholar admits, but the synoptic gospels, Mather, Mark and Luke disagree among themselves on numerous critical details. As noted by such renown experts as Elaine Pagels and Michael White, the writers of the gospels had different audiences in mind for each of their gospels, which may help explain some of the puzzling differences in the accounts. 

This question arises: Since they wrote for different audiences in changing times and during challenging circumstances, would they, could they, actually change the very words of Jesus or add to them?

Yes, that seems to have been the case.

"Well," you might think, "That would be dishonest!"

Literary convention, not guile

It seems unlikely that any dishonesty was intended. I digress here, but it is possible that there were numerous, sometimes conflicting oral accounts of what Jesus said and did, and at first oral messages were all the news of Jesus that people had. They supplemented that oral history with scriptures. 

Once it was established that a certain passage referred to the coming Messiah, believers likely assumed that those passages had to be true of Jesus, since they were convinced that he was the Messiah. This may explain some of the outright errors in the New Testament, where  Greek passages from the Septuagint were misunderstood and applied as prophesies about Jesus. A case in point is the so called "Slaughter of the Innocents." Historians are reasonably certain that this never happened, but early Christians must have assumed that it had happened, because they understood the passage about Rachael mourning her children to be prophetic. It wasn't. 

Tailoring the message for the audience

So some of the other differences in the four gospels -- though not all of them -- could be accounted for if the authors selected the oral accounts that seemed most fitted their particular situations, as is well documented in "From Jesus to Christianity."

Early followers interpreted Jesus in new and continually changing circumstances. Current theory is that they must have "tailored" their accounts to fit both new developments in their communities; they also perhaps selected the whichever oral histories seemed to fit their divergent theologies, and as the groups spread around the known world, their theologies also became divergent.

Modern examples of the same thing

Is this "tailoring of the message" at all different from the way that Dispensationalists hone their interpretations to fit historical developments into their worldview? No, the meme is identical.

 Is it also similar to the manner in which certain liberal Christians re-interpret Jesus to make him more "cuddly," so to speak, in contrast with what some of the authors in the Bible may have had in mind? The author of Revelation pictures Jesus coming back to lead in a great slaughter, and says that he will "whistle" for the birds of carrion to come and pick the bones clean! Hardly the image many of us have of the loving Savior. But we all manage to interpret the Bible in ways that make sense to us.

Changes in the stories about Christ reflect differences in the intended audiences:  Does this make a difference when one is considering the nature of scripture, whether it is the supernatural, verbally inspired Word of God? Yes, of course.

The tendency to reinterpret to meet new circumstances, new understandings and new challenges may explain why some groups of Christians so adamantly oppose close the kind of close analysis of scripture that is done in our universities and seminaries. 

In fairness to fundamentalists

Tailoring the gospel to fit a group's world view is equally prevalent among liberals and modernists. They select proof texts to fit their (or should I say, "our") world view as well. 

Regardless of one's orientation toward the gospel, the honest Bible student will sooner or later have to face the question when reading a passage, "To whom was this written?" And the answer to that can radically alter one's view of scripture and of the Gospel. As will be addressed in another chapter, some modernists may have trouble when it comes to acknowledging what the authors originally meant to say, as their/our very notion of who and what Jesus said -- and what he meant by what is said -- is at stake.

Who was this passage written to? (Revelation 1:4, 11)

A classic example of misapplied/misunderstood scripture is found in the book of Revelation, which clearly states who the intended audience is in Revelation 1:4,11:
"(From) John, to the seven churches which are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from Him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven Spirits who are before His throne.... saying, "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last," and, "What you see, write in a book and send it to the seven churches which are in Asia: to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamos, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea."
John makes it clear in more than one passage that these churches are his intended audience. 

Some commentaries try make this passage say something that to me sounds very strange: They claim that the book was written, not to the seven churches of Asia of the first century as clearly stated on more than one occasion, but rather to seven future churches, churches that they believe will some day -- thousands of years later -- exist during the time they refer to as The Great Tribulation.  That this seems to be a clear case of wresting the scripture matters not to them.

One has to torture the clear meaning in order to come to their conclusion, in my opinion, but that is a prevalent view in Dispensationalist-theology. 

John also makes it clear that he is already in the tribulation period -- along with some of those in the seven churches he addresses, perhaps, but that doesn't fit with Dispensational thought, so they re-interpret it.

Why do people go to such extremes to make these churches fit into some far off end-time scheme?

The answer is simple: They do it in order to justify their pre-existing assumptions about the supposed supernatural nature of scripture.

They do it because to accept the obvious would negate their religious preference for a mystical book that leaves no ragged edges and that predicts a two-thousand years “end time.” And they do it without regard for modern scholarship or what to me seems like ordinary, everyday common sense.

Many of them express disdain toward any science-based analysis of scripture that fails to yield the results that they are looking for. This is just human nature. The same human nature that was evident in the authors of the books of the Bible. When I first "got saved" in Long Beach, California during the early 1960s, my mentors warned me not to read other books than the Bible. "You will only get confused," they said. (But they surely wanted me to read the marginal notes in my Scofield Bible.)

Although Revelation 1: 4, 11 does clearly state the intended audience this is not so in some books of the Bible; In many cases one has to pay close attention to what is being said in order to understand both the author's intended audience and his unique purpose in writing the account. 

Understanding the Bible is never an either-or proposition, however, knowing what may be known about the authors is bound to take one a step in the right direction.

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