An article published in the magazine of St. Columba's Church of Scotland (London, UK) relating to assumptions that New Testament writers would have made about their audience and suggesting that if we want to understand the New Testament properly, we first need to try to be like the original readers before we can try to be like Jesus. Click "Read More"!
Not long ago I was listening to the radio while driving in my car. The station was running a contest in which they would play a short clip a song, probably no more than a second or two. Listeners who thought that they could identity the song were encouraged to call in.
The songs that they were asking people to identity were all relatively new rock and pop songs. For a number of the song clips I found myself shouting, “I know that one!”.
I knew some of the songs instantly not because I am an expert in music but, simply, because within my cultural context I am exposed to those songs regularly. Through repetition and regular listening I simply pick up an awareness of this particular aspect of life.
While I had no trouble identifying a number of the songs, I suspect that if my grandmother had been sitting beside me she would have failed to identify any of them. Why? Because she has not been exposed to modern rock and pop music. To her, the short clips would simply have been indistinguishable bursts of noise.
In many ways, the New Testament behaves in much the same manner. With perhaps limited exception, the books and letters that comprise this corpus were written with a particular audience in mind. Just as the radio show was geared towards a particular audience (people who are familiar with modern rock and pop music), so too were the works of the New Testament.
This is important for us to reflect on because, largely, we are not the type of people to whom these works would have originally been authored for. As such, we often miss the meaning that is embedded within these texts – much as my grandmother would have missed the meaning within the short bursts of music.
Whenever we write something we make certain assumptions about our audience. I am assuming, for instance, that my audience can read and comprehend modern English, and that you are familiar with the terms I am using throughout this article – in other words, I am making the assumption that when I use words like “radio”, “grandmother”, “song”, and “car” that you know exactly what I mean. And, of course, you do – these are all normal parts of our cultural context.
The various authors of the New Testament texts also made assumptions about their readers. One of the most significant assumptions that they made was that their readers were intimately familiar with the texts that comprise the Hebrew Bible – what we know as the Old Testament – as well as Jewish tradition and history.
Why does this matter for us?
Consider it this way. I could recognize songs based on small musical clips because I have been regularly exposed to those songs in my life. As such, the music is not simply a random collection of notes, but a melody that has a specific and recognizable meaning to me. In the same way, the New Testament texts are absolutely awash in both obvious and subtle references to the Hebrew Scriptures.
Such references are not coincidences, they are deliberate constructs designed to make the texts relatable and, also, to carry a specific message on a deeper level.
When Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I have a dream” speech in 1963 he began that speech by saying “five score years ago”. While this is a valid measure of time, it is also a rather outdated way of measuring time, and was certainly outdated in 1963, too. Dr. King used this language; however, not because it represented a modern way of communicating but because it connected listeners to another historic speech, “The Gettysburg Address”, delivered by Abraham Lincoln, which began with the words “four score and seven years ago”.
Dr. King knew that, culturally, most of his audience would have been familiar with President Lincoln’s speech (it’s studied in American schools) and, as such, by alluding to that speech he was able to connect his movement to the struggle for liberation that Lincoln advocate. He positioned himself as the heir to Lincoln.
However, that allusion and deeper meaning would be totally missed if one was not familiar with the Gettysburg Address. In the same way, we often miss out on the deeper meanings contained within the New Testament because of our relative lack of knowledge of the Old Testament and Jewish cultural context.
For instance, how many of us notice the intentional parallels between the elements of Christ’s life and those of Moses’ life? Have you noticed the clear connections between Jesus feeding the 5,000 and the 23rd Psalm? Or that same event and Elisha’s feeding of the 100 (2 Kings)?
How many of us, today, read the genealogy in Matthew 1 and notice “wife or Urias” and immediately think, “Oh, that’s Bathsheba – the one that David committed adultery with!”? Do we notice the many countless references to Isaiah in the Gospels? Do we correlate Christ’s prayer to “give us this day our daily bread” with the manna of Exodus 16?
The answer is, for many of us, no. Most of these connections, and the deeper meanings which accompany them, are lost on us because we are not steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures. However, such allusions would most certainly not have been lost on early readers or hearers of the texts. They would have been like I was when I listened to my radio show: “I know that one!”
My point is this: if we are going to endeavor to follow Christ and be more like Him, we need to first try to be like those whom he was ministering to. We need to take time and care to study the Old Testament and become familiar with its workings and stories. We need to attempt to study the historical and cultural context of the early church if Scripture is to speak to us in the way that its author’s intended it to be.
In short, we aren’t those for whom the New Testament was written. We aren’t the people that the Gospel writers had in mind. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t be!