The Bible, Audience and Purpose

I wanted to take a moment to contemplate some apparent contradictions which can be easily found in the New Testament. In looking at the clock, I have time to work through exactly one.

First up are the genealogies of Jesus from Matthew and Luke. They are blatantly different from one another. What gives? A person could write pages of logical gymnastics to try to resolve the differences, and many scholars have attempted such a feat.

But there's no real need.

The issue comes down to audience. Every piece of writing that has ever existed, including the Bible, had an intended audience.

Drilling down, audience simply means the people to whom the author created the material. In the case of the Bible, we have two spheres of authorship and therefore two spheres of audience.

The Bible comes to us filtered through a particular ancient culture (Israel) at particular points on that culture's journey (Desert wandering, Babylonian exile, Roman occupation). Human beings, culturally Jewish people, penned the words of the Bible. It therefore drips with Jewish culture. Because of the timeframe, the Bible also drips with Babylonian culture and Hellenistic culture.

Paired with these culture backdrops is the theological idea of the Divine inspiration of the Bible, which gives us a second author. The idea is that God guided the human authors so that his message to humanity was recorded in the midst of the pages. The idea of Divine authorship is held as true by many modern Jews and Christians to differing degrees.

The implication of this is I want to focus on is that every part of the Bible can be instructive to us today. The principles of instruction we take away from the Bible can be transferred across time, culture and context. All people are therefore part of the Bible's intended audience.

The problem we run into is that in not understanding the original context of the scriptures (and I would argue the ultimate context -- Jesus), we will fail to re-contextualize them well for today.

The cultural backdrop of an intended audience is important to be aware of in any piece of literature (even divinely inspired ones)), since in creating the space for cultural awareness, we are given a great allowance at deeper understanding of the text. In the case of the Bible, gaining a deep understanding of it will have the result of ever pointing us in the direction of Jesus. But we will also potentially skirt textual problems while still being faithful to both the text and to scholarship.

Let's look at the Book of Matthew. This book's intended audience was Jewish people living in the first century. Matthew traces Jesus' ancestry back to King David to show those he was writing to that Jesus is the anticipated Messiah, the 'Son of David'. When held up against all of the other evidence Matthew gives for Jesus' messiahship, a rather compelling picture is painted.

Luke's Gospel, on the other hand, was written for a Greco-Roman audience. As far as the citizens of the Roman empire were concerned, Caesar was Lord. Jesus? Who cares. Instead of linking Jesus to the king of a long-past dynasty, Luke instead traces Jesus' lineage all the way back to Adam.

Whether or not you take Adam as a stand in for humanity or as literally the first human being doesn't matter. In ancient Jewish understanding, it was assumed that Adam was not a stand in for anything except a person. So, we have to run with it.

Luke points out that Jesus descended from the beginning of humanity itself who are derived not from Gods at war, but from the God of Israel. His dynasty is therefore all of us, and Jesus is Lord even of Lords like Ceaser. Luke's genealogy makes a drawn out philosophical point to the Greco Roman world that the Caesar they worship is not the real Caesar. By tracing Jesus' lineage back to Adam, Luke underscores, italicizes and capitalizes the point that Jesus is not just king of the Jews, but King over all humanity.

That's it.

Other contradictions in the New Testament are quite honestly, minor. Yet, the fact that there are inconsistencies should underline the point that utter perfection in storytelling is not as important to God as it is to us.

Rather, what seems important to God was the willingness of humble and flawed people to do the incredibly challenging work of compiling these and other historical narratives in an era of no communications technology other than scribes and papyrus. In a sense, what we have in the Gospels is the beginning of investigative journalism.

And if you anything about start-ups, they are messy.

If you needed to talk to someone in Nazareth and you were in Rome, you had two options.

Option 1, Walk or take a Camel. Either way, it's not a day trip.

Option 2: Send mail. No typing or air postal service. You needed to find a scribe. Then someone would walk it over for you. Hopefully they had a camel, because wow!

The four Gospel writers, all writing for different audiences find a common purpose in their desire to spread the Good News of the resurrected Jesus. This is news they clearly believe is the utterly liberating truth. Luke even begins his Gospel by saying he attempted to write a thoroughly researched and orderly account of the message of Jesus, the liberating king. This was a message which was already being spread orally all over the place.
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4)
Each Gospel approaches the life, death and resurrection of Jesus differently. Read all together, they can give you a three dimensional picture of who this Jesus is.

If there is one thing which remains crystal clear throughout each of the gospels and the rest of the New Testament, it's this: The Liberating King Jesus is going to, and has already begun to take away everything wrong with the world, starting with our sins. For those willing to believe and trust the message now, our transgressions, large and small, are forgiven in an act of love and grace. We are then sent out as forgiven children into the world to spread the news and bring the healing power of the gospel to all people.

The irony of this grace is that we didn't ask for it, and in some cases we don't even really want it. But it's ours. It is truly, truly ours.


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