This is the fourth in a multi-part post explaining why I think rhetorical criticism is a valid and helpful tool for examining New Testament texts. In part I, I talked about texts having an origin and an audience. In Part II, I spoke about texts having integrity and a genre. In part III, I discussed he shortcomings of literary criticism.
In this post I will discuss audience oriented criticism (AOC).
AOC began as a response to the shortcomings I discussed in part III. Audience criticism attempts to take seriously the fact that texts were written at a specific time, by a specific person(s), to a specific audience (see my part I). These things have to do with the world behind the text (see part III), which is almost entirely ignored by literary critics.
AOC also attempts to avoid the pitfalls of Reader Response Criticism (RRC), in its propensity for assigning validity to every reader's interpretation of the text. In RRC, there are as many valid readings of a text as there are readers. AOC attempts to remedy this unending expansion of valid meanings by privileging one audience, namely, the authorial audience.
Authorial audience is a concept that is derived from Peter Rabinowitz in his book Before Reading. This concept has also become foundational for my NT mentors, Mikeal Parsons and Charles Talbert. Authorial audience, or as Rabinowitz calls it, hypothetical audience, is the audience that an author has in mind when s/he writes a book. It is the intended audience. We saw in part I, that determining the intended audience can be a tricky endeavor. Yet, even when a specific audience cannot be determined, the critic can usually narrow the audience somewhat. We can be relatively sure that Luke did not write his gospel for 21st century Christians living in America. Even though we do not know his specific audience, we can limit it to a first century Mediterranean group of people.
The authorial audience brings with it certain competencies and expectations that the author takes into account. Therefore, the critic should attempt to read such texts as the authorial audience would have. For the 21st century critic, this involves gaining some of these competencies. In the next post I will discuss some of the competencies which an ancient audience would have had to be able to understand a text. (Part V).