Who Was the Intended Audience? (RJS)

Who Was the Intended Audience? (RJS) December 10, 2019

The book of Isaiah is long and complex. General consensus holds that it was compiled over time. The historical prophet Isaiah of the late 8th century BC, possibly a court prophet, was followed by others who added in the theme of his work – in the exile and post-exile. Ben Witherington III (Isaiah Old and New: Exegesis, Intertexutality, and Hermeneutics) emphasizes that this doesn’t question the prophetic nature of the book – there is predictive prophecy in all parts of the text. However, different parts of the book reflect different cultural situations. While it is wise to be cautious, unwilling to follow every whim of historical criticism, or to attach a great deal of significance to the various reconstructions proposed – there is nothing unfaithful in the suggestion that more than one ‘Isaiah’ contributed to the prophetic work recorded and compiled in this book. Nor should we find it troublesome that the whole has been woven together from pieces with scribes playing a role. The scribal community “collected, compiled, edited, and augmented all kinds of Hebrew texts including prophetic, wisdom, and legal texts.”

It seems reasonably clear that the book known as Isaiah is a compilation of prophetic texts and traditions from over several hundred years of Hebrew history, with a later prophet or prophets following in the footsteps of the historical Isaiah and drawing on various of his terms, themes, and phraseology. In other words, the later portions of the book draw on the earlier portions and amplify and augment what was said in earlier eras. (p. 44)

This doesn’t diminish or degrade the text – but it may add to our understanding of the message of the text. This is, after all, the point of reading it in the first place – as Scripture.

Witherington also points out that while Jesus read Isaiah, the people didn’t. The book of Isaiah was of unparalleled importance in the  early church, but it is important to remember that most of the population was illiterate or only functionally literate. (Literacy rates were probably around 15% – but are hard to quantify). Most of the population did not have access to scrolls or the ability, time, and desire to read and study them.

Some of the Jewish Christians may have been familiar with significant passages of the Hebrew Scriptures through regular public reading in the synagogues (something Witherington doesn’t seem to consider). Certainly I was familiar with many Biblical allusions and echoes long before I began to read the Bible seriously – from sermons and public readings. I expect the same was true in Jewish communities in the first century. Nonetheless, they did not read extensively and did not have large passages memorized. More importantly, most  Gentile Christians would have very little familiarity with the OT – the Hebrew Scriptures.

While there are many echoes of Isaiah in the Gospels, most of these would likely have gone over the head of the congregation in general. “The Gospels were written for the more literate and learned members of the congregation to read out and explain to the majority of the audience where needed.” (p. 53)  Later he writes about the Gospels “They are teaching and preaching tools for those not only literate, but well familiar with the OT.” (p. 54)

The net result is that the Gospels are sophisticated books designed to be read by literate readers, not by the general population of the day. Some of the echoes of the OT in the NT are subtle – not readily apparent to the casual reader. This isn’t surprising given the nature and purpose of the book. They are intended for the church as a whole, but through teachers, preachers, and readers who can answer questions and offer more detailed explanations when necessary.The primary audience was educated – and through them the broader audience of the Church heard and understood the Gospels.

We need to read Scripture in community, with specialists who study carefully and are able to explain some of the details.

But this also means that as careful readers in a 21st century literate society, we should not be surprised to find subtle allusions and echoes to the OT in the Gospels.

The Bible is a complex text … Isaiah, a community of successors, scribes and editors … down to the Gospel writers who used the OT in sophisticated ways to communicate the story of Jesus, his birth, life, death, and resurrection. There is always more to learn.

Who was the primary audience of the Gospels?

What does this mean for the way we read the texts?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

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The link to the book above is a paid link. Go with this one if you prefer: Isaiah Old and New: Exegesis, Intertexutality, and Hermeneutics.

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  • Wade Stewart

    Excellent points. I always try to emphasize during any serious Bible study that it is most helpful to know a few things when you start. Who wrote it, who was it written to, why was it written, and are there any cultural norms through which the original audience would have viewed the writing? If you can figure these things out, the particular book or passage will often become much more clear.

  • the old scribe

    The explanation concerning the composition of Isaiah is excellent. Evangelical Christians are trained to equate inspiration solely with authorship without recognizing that canonization is what determines which texts are inspired and which are not. Accordingly, those making the determination of which texts are divinely inspired must have also been divinely inspired. The composition and selection of canonized texts is a process carried out by divinely inspired communities over centuries. This divine superintendence through many hands over expanses of time is why scripture is relevant to all times and all cultures. Scriptures come to believers through the community of the faithful and are never the opinion of one author. It is not that the Apostle Paul made a proclamation, but the proclamation is that of the Church throughout the age. It behooves the faithful never to challenge so great a crowd of witnesses, regardless of how offensive the words are to modern sensibilities.

    The opinion of RJS and Witherington about education and literacy among ancient Jews is speculation rather than research. From the age of three Jewish boys were taught the scriptures at home and in ancient synagogues beginning at age five. Much of Jewish society involved study at the synagogue. There were 480 synagogues in Jerusalem and each one operated a school (Jerusalem Talmud, y. Meg. 3:1, II.2.D–E).

  • BenW3

    It is a very significant mistake to read post bar Kokbha literature like the Talmud as reflecting pre-70 A.D. Jewish practice (see the many cautions in Neusner’s work). There absolutely were not 480 synagogues in Jerusalem in Jesus’ day. The archaeology makes this quite clear. Indeed I doubt there were that many in all of Galilee and Judea combined at that time. The literacy studies of earliest Judaism are clear…. there was limited literacy, particularly in Galilee, and it was indeed almost entirely Jewish males. More could read than could write. BW3

  • the old scribe

    Thank you for the frank reply.
    So, you discount the three references provided?
    How about your references?
    No need to write the contents.
    I can read the references and desire to know what I do not know.

  • BenW3

    I’d suggest reading either of John Barclay’s excellent books about Judaism in that period.

  • Realist1234

    ‘General consensus holds that it was compiled over time. The historical prophet Isaiah of the late 8th century BC, possibly a court prophet, was followed by others who added in the theme of his work – in the exile and post-exile.’

    My eyebrow always raises when someone claims a ‘consensus’ on Biblical matters. I think you’ll find quite a few scholars believe Isaiah was written by, well, Isaiah the prophet to whom Jesus referred (quoting from earlier and later parts of the book). Similar arguments are made about Daniel, as if his writing couldnt predict events hundreds of years hence (eg the coming of the Messiah during the Roman period). Im not convinced at all of these multiple authors theories.