It’s essential for the historian to understand and analyse the intent of any author, yet always within the broader historical frame of reference. However, I’m also aware it’s impossible to know completely the context and intent of any ancient text. We have enough problems grappling with contemporary world events as they happen, with cameras rolling. So absolute familiarity is off the table.
Certainly the task is to come as close as possible in our interpretations, but we must be humble and acknowledge our limits, accepting the past as a forever-partial reconstruction.
But the blur of history has been brought into better focus through new techniques of analysis. For example, as more data — some new, some old yet unexamined — from the past are investigated over time, the historian’s tools from which to work and test ideas expand.
Using textual analysis we can recognize common definable forms. These forms might be sayings, epics, prophesies, histories, etc. Most biblical scholars have long-taken Revelation of John to be an example of a common and widespread literary form.
Here’s how scholar Robert M. Price describes this canonical Christian prophetic work:
There are many such ancient and medieval books, mostly in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions, though they are not altogether absent from other religions. John’s book lent its name to the collective genre; hence, all are called ‘apocalypses‘ even though John’s was by no means the first. (The Pre-Nicene New Testament, 747)
Using this as a starting point to look at Revelation, we gain a greater insight into how and why the book was written. Notice how this interpretation doesn’t rely on the original intent of the author. John of Patmos was almost certainly intending this for an ancient audience, using symbolism obviously referencing ancient Rome.
From John’s perspective he intended the writing for his own, long-dead contemporaries, not an audience thousands of years into the future. We understand this better because we can locate his work (Revelation) within a broader literary context (apocalyptic form). The scholar utilizing form criticism here
So form criticism in this case gives us the added bonus of not only knowing the author’s intent, but also nestling it within a greater context of ancient history.
That being said, always strive for humility when arriving at such historical conclusions, and always be prepared to change if better evidence is presented.