From reading several comments on this site, there seems to be a tendency to emphasize that questions and answers should be based on how a text would be understood by its original audience. My question is, is it permissible to examine how the text would be understood by a secondary audience as well?

Let me give an example to illustrate my point. Suppose I am attempting to understand what the "spirit of God" in Genesis 1:2 refers to. Is it merely a "wind," or is it God Himself, or something else?

Genesis 1:2 (DRB) And the earth was void and empty, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God moved over the waters.

Now, if someone were to suggest that the "spirit of God" refers to the Holy Spirit, I imagine that he would be chastised and accused of anachronism. After all, the ancient Jews did not understand God as three Persons.

However, I am a Christian and I believe that the Old Testament was divinely inspired. I also conjecture that, although the ancient Jews were the original audience of the Old Testament, God intended the Old Testament to be read by future generations (a secondary audience) as well.

Since I believe that the books are inspired by an omniscient God, it does not seem unplausible to me that God could have included certain information in the Old Testament which would not have been understood by the ancient Jews but would make sense to the future audience.

Thus, I do not find it unplausible that God might have intentionally included trinitarian ideas in Genesis 1:2, even if Moses (or whoever the human writer was) did not know about the Trinity.

But, this site is not Christian, and thus users my frown on my attempt to understand the Old Testament using my "inside information" gathered from the New.

  • 5
    I think this is a good question for Meta. To clarify -- are you asking about a question that assumes a divine motive (and thus the plausibility of a meaning not available to the author and his contemporary audience) or an answer that asserts it? I would suggest that the latter is almost certainly acceptable (people may/will disagree with you, but I think they ought not chastise), whereas I'm less certain about the former. – Susan Apr 7 '18 at 13:01
  • 1
    @Susan We already have questions with different human authorial intents, for example Genesis from the Mosaic authorship camp or the JEDP camp. Probably a majority of people here would assert some kind of divine authorship of the scriptures. How to ask such questions would indeed be worth thinking carefully about. – curiousdannii Apr 8 '18 at 0:33
  • This is, in my view, a matter of Progressive Revelation being Divinely granted and progressive understanding being received as a result. Spiritual hindsight can perceive what the original recipients had not (yet) fully appreciated at the time of revelation. To limit the revelation to those who first received it is simply not logical. The Progressive Revelation, divinely given, is not so limited. – Nigel J Apr 20 '18 at 12:48
  • @Susan - I actually think this would have been fine on the regular old hermeneutics site. It seems like a question about a hermeneutic method to me... – James Shewey Apr 21 '18 at 15:38

I think that the language of "intended audience" is problematic, since "intentionality" begs a host of questions, and these have the potential to raise the emotional stakes quite quickly.

There is, however, other language for talking about the "levels" that OP signals, and my own sense is that any of these levels would be fair -- provided that questions and answers are commensurate. With that proviso in place, I would like to introduce language used by Walter Moberly that is very helpful, just at OP's point of interest (and with the closing comments in the "question" especially in mind).

In a number of publications, but prominently in his recent The Bible in a Disenchanted Age (Baker Academic, 2018), Moberly has refined his use of three readerly stances in relation to the biblical text (or any text from antiquity, for that matter), the 'the world behind, the world within, and the world in front of the text':

  • behind’ = ‘context of composition and initial use’ (The Bible in a Disenchanted Age, pp. 32, 66–7, etc.)
    This approximates to ‘historical-critical’ readings, those informed judgments about how the text came to have its present shape, the historical forces of "production", if you like.
  • within’ = ‘narrative framework/setting’ (The Bible in a Disenchanted Age, pp. 32−3, 66–7, etc.)
    This stance approximates to ‘canonical’/literary readings, or what we might think of as the world of the "implied narrator": the "surface level" of the text.
  • in front of’ = ‘those communities who have looked to, and in significant ways identified with, the content of these works as they read and appropriated them in contexts beyond their origins’ (The Bible in a Disenchanted Age, p. 110)
    This approximates to ‘reception’, the interests and values informing readings by later communities, whether in an earlier period (e.g., medieval, or 'Victorian', etc.). or in our contemporary world, and whether from Jewish, Christian, secular, etc. perspective.

As Moberly elseswhere notes, this sort of language resists privileging any one of these (equally "valid") approaches, and yet provides clarity about what kind of discourse or "reading" is in mind.

He uses this language also in his earlier Old Testament Theology: Reading the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture (Baker Academic, 2013). Here is an extended passage (pp. 283-4) in which he explains its use. (I have taken the liberty of dividing up a fairly long paragraph--easier to read in print than "wall-of-text" on screen!):

It might help to pose the issue differently. In my discussions I have made use of the conceptuality of the world within, the world behind, and the world in front of the text. Almost all interpreters are interested, in one way or another, in the world within the text. The question becomes how one contextualizes this world within the text, which relates also to the nature of the imaginative moves that are brought to bear upon it.

The dominant move in modern biblical scholarship has been to relate the world within the text to the world behind the text—to look backward, as it were, from the Old Testament to the world that gave rise to it, the immediate world of Israel and also the wider world of the ancient Near East. This means, for the most part, a focus on times and places before ever there was an Old Testament, when at most there were incipient collections and compilations of material that only over time became Israel’s scriptures.

My approach, by contrast, has been to focus primarily upon the world within the text in relation to the world in front of the text—to look forward from Israel’s scriptures toward those enduring faiths, both Jewish and Christian, that appropriate this material as Scripture and understand themselves in relation to it. For this approach, Israel’s scriptures as an authoritative collection are a given from the outset (and issues to do with these scriptures being received in Greek as well as Hebrew, and with disagreements over the boundaries of the canon, make no significant difference to this basic stance).

In drawing this basic distinction of approach, there is no need to polarize unnecessarily. Many scholars whose primary interest is the world behind the text are still interested in facets of the world in front of the text. And in my readings, although the world behind the text has been subordinated, it has not been ignored; judgments about the nature and genre of the text and how best to read it are informed by judgments about likely context and date of origin (despite the great difficulties in being confident about such matters, given the paucity of firm evidence).

If questioners and answerers on BH.SE were to use this kind of categorization (or something like it) with clarity and self-conciousness, I believe we would be able to make room for the sort of "levels" OP has in mind, without the "baggage" (and diatribe) that sometimes features in our Q&A's and their comment threads.


"Since I believe that the books are inspired by an omniscient God, it does not seem unplausible to me that God could have included certain information in the Old Testament which would not have been understood by the ancient Jews but would make sense to the future audience."

This is the fundamental theory of all predictive prophecy. As Simon Peter wrote:

1 Peter 1:10-12 ESV,

  1. Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, 11. inquiring what person or time[a] the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. 12. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.

Another quick example that comes to mind is the relationship between Joel 2:28-32 and Acts 2:17-21.

Clearly the text written by the prophet Joel, while being for the original audience to read and contemplate, was not something they themselves were ever going to experience or see come to fruition, if the Apostle's testimony in Acts 2:17 is to be believed, because Simon Peter (or the author of Acts; take your pick) makes easy use of the text, pulling it away from it's original context and audience, and brings it centuries forward to the day of Pentecost.

I submit therefore, that within the Bible itself, the question is answered, that more than the "original audience" is intended with anything written.

Else, we must ask, why was anything written at all, unless some type or semblance of permanency was intended? The written medium is specifically designed as a way to not only record for the here and now, but also for that which is recorded to be read and reread in the future, for the sake of posterity.

Now, does that mean God was secretly planting theological hints and concepts like bread-crumbs through the pages of the Bible so that people thousands of years later could pick up on them and have an "Aha!" moment? That's debatable. But certainly within the Bible, we are shown that that which was written, especially in the Hebrew Bible, was intended as much for a future audience, as any other.


First of, the act of interpreting something is no light matter:

"And they said unto him, We have dreamed a dream, and there is no interpreter of it. And Joseph said unto them, Do not interpretations belong to God? tell me them, I pray you Gen." 40:8 KJV

Sometimes, the Scriptures give us a clear interpretation, such as this example:

"Israel is an empty vine, he brings forth fruit unto himself: according to the multitude of his fruit he hath increased the altars" Hosea 10:1

On the other hand, Paul indicates that there was an acceptable, perhaps more flexible interpretation of even Torah command outside of its literal context (speaking of a teacher i.e. himself reaping the gain of new disciples):

"For it is written in the Law of Moses: 'Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.' Is it about oxen that God is concerned? Isn’t He actually speaking on our behalf? Indeed, this was written for us, because when the plowman plows and the thresher threshes, they should also expect to share in the harvest" - 1 Cor. 9:9-10

So there can be a Holy Spirit inspired interpretation of Scriptures that can apply to our own time. Because the issues that are dealt with are usually fundamental to the human experience, there is little difficulty in doing so. That being said, throwing out the historical context altogether will weaken our understanding of Scriptures in our modern day. It's most important to discern what applies when, and to not stretch Scripture to fit where it doesn't. Not all prophecy foretells events in our day, though some does. Understanding historical fulfillments helps us to see what still lies ahead.

As a final answer to the question, a Biblical text originally had a targeted audience: Moses, the Prophets, Jesus...they were all sent to Israel, though they also gave specific messages concerning other nations (all very specifically and in usually in context). However, while many of the Scriptures have uniquely historical weight, they still can teach us things as individuals that are profitable to help us be more Godly. One person can come up with an interpretation different from another and they can both be 'right' because that's part of the Word being alive. It speaks to everyone along common lines but in different ways. It's just important to let the Word speak to you, and not to add or take away from it. God gave the Word to a specific People at specific times, to ultimately be for all People for all time.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .