How do we interpret the Bible? Literally? Allegorically? It depends on how the Author intended each section to be interpreted. Hermeneutics helps us understand.
By Mark D. Harris
Hermeneutics, defined as the science of interpretation, is important in every field of endeavor (1). People working in law, philosophy and religion use hermeneutical techniques to interpret communication, whether written, oral or otherwise, but so do friends arranging a party, and even lovers proclaiming their everlasting devotion. Biblical hermeneutics applies the art and science of hermeneutics to gathering meaning in the Bible.
When a book is written and subsequently read, information and emotion are transferred from author to reader, and both have an important role in the process. Things become more complex when the reader is not the reader that the author was writing for, as is the case with the Bible. The role of the author is to assemble his ideas in a coherent fashion and then decide how best to communicate those ideas to his intended audience. He may use different languages, different genres (narrative, poetry, law, prophecy, wisdom, letters, and apocalyptic), different words, and different stories to illustrate his points (2). The author then puts pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) to write his work.
Who is the audience?
Authors always write for specific audiences just as actors always play for specific audiences. The audience usually shares the author’s language, culture, geography and period in history. Communication with such an audience, while difficult in the best of circumstances, is far easier than communication with audiences that do not share these characteristics with the author. The role of the original readers of the text is to understand the meaning that the author put into the text when he wrote it for them.
When the reader is not from the intended audience, such as modern day interpreters striving to understand and apply the Bible, communication is more challenging. Intended audiences of Bible books intuitively understood the background, setting, assumptions and authorship of the texts and could apply the message directly to their lives. Modern interpreters must discover the background, setting, assumptions and authorship and how the intended readers understood the passage (exegesis) (3). Only then can they understand the meaning in their context and finally apply the passage to their lives (3).
Further, all readers bring their own set of experiences, beliefs, preferences and assumptions about reality to any work that they read (2). In postmodern thought, it is not authors but readers who actually determine the meaning. On one hand, this is ridiculous. No judge writing a criminal verdict or bank sending out an account statement would agree that it is the reader who determines the meaning of what they have written. If the bank says that your balance is $1,000, unless someone made a major mistake, you can’t just interpret the statement as saying that you have $100,000.
On the other hand, reader biases inevitably lead them to see things in a way that the author never intended, and miss things that the author tried to make clear. Readers must be aware of the glasses through which they see reality, and be careful. All participants are important in conveying God’s message in the Bible. However, modern readers of Scripture are neither authors nor intended audiences, and we must therefore take special note to avoid the pitfalls of interpreters.
Challenges in hermeneutics
Four major challenges exist for a third party striving to understand a Biblical book (2). First, the Biblical languages of Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic are far different than almost all modern languages. Even Modern Greek (13M speakers), Hebrew (9M), and Aramaic (400K), spoken by less than 0.5% of the world’s population today, are significantly different from their forebears. Since languages never translate exactly into one another, meaning is inevitably changed and the author’s original meaning becomes more difficult to find. Second, the geography of the Middle East, Egypt and Southeastern Europe, the setting of the Bible, is vastly different from that of Northern Europe, Central and East Asia, the Americas, and the rest of the world. It is difficult to understand many of the events in Bible history without understanding the geography. Third, ancient Near Eastern culture is vastly different than cultures today, even modern Near Eastern ones. Webster defines culture as “the ideas, customs, skills, arts, etc. of a given people in a given period (4).” Culture involves religion, food, and everything large and small that characterizes a unique people. Much of culture is unnoticed by its natives; just as fish do not notice the water they swim in. Therefore, it is very hard to know, much less adapt to, a culture foreign to a person’s native one. Such adaptation, or at least knowledge, is important to understanding how the original audience understood a passage. Fourth, life from 2000 BC to 100 AD was vastly different than it is today, so time is a great separator of modern man from the original Biblical audience.
Geography and Culture
Geography is the easiest to overcome. The physical layout of the Bible lands and even their climate has changed little since Jesus’ time. It is not difficult to travel to most of the places that our predecessors walked. Culture is the hardest to overcome. Veteran missionaries born in the West who have spent decades in modern foreign cultures still cannot be totally a part of them (5). They can adopt the dress, the language, the food, the housing, the mannerisms, and even many of the attitudes of their new culture, and yet remain just a little bit outside (5). How much less can any of us become part of a culture that no longer exists? The best that we can do is to come close. Usually that is good enough.
Time is a very great distance between the modern day and the Biblical day which can never be fully overcome. Human nature and the natural world have stayed basically the same and yet the technologies of our lives and many of our ways of thinking have changed dramatically since Solomon wrote “there is nothing new under the sun.” The ancients held a largely cyclical view of life while moderns hold a more linear view. The ancients believed that religion and society were inseparable while most Westerners sharply divide the spiritual and the secular. Americans in general really believe that all men are created equal; a statement which would have been ludicrous to the most progressive Sumerian. Most of our assumptions about life are unquestioned, just as our forefathers’ were, and therefore color our observations without us even knowing it.
Another way in which time separates us from our forebears in the Bible could be known as “chronological chauvinism.” Later generations in the developed world generally think that they have better understanding of almost everything than previous generations did. As a young teen I was visiting a park in Bakersfield, California with my grandmother and she showed me a 19th century locomotive. As I mentally compared the old fashioned looking engine with mental visions of jet airplanes and spaceships, I asked her why earlier generations weren’t smart enough to figure out the wonderful things that we had. Taken aback, she scolded “Don’t ever let me hear you say that again! Why do the young always think that they are better than the old?”
In the same way, modern man believes that ideas of the divine right of kings, arranged marriages, inequalities between persons in society, and many other ancient ideas are not just incorrect but shameful. We judge not only the wisdom of our ancestors but also their morality. As such, we listen little and learn less. Our forebears had many things wrong with their worldview, but so do we. I am confident that people studying us 100 years from now will be dismayed by what they perceive as our ignorance and wickedness, and others later will think the same of them.
Time, and all of the attitudes surrounding it, does indeed pose a major obstacle to our understanding the word of God.
Many in history, such as the famous Alexandrian bishop Origen, have emphasized the allegorical over the historical sense of Scripture. They may give a passing nod to the historical meaning of a passage but then construct an allegorical meaning which they consider to be the true one. Often, the true historical context and significance is ignored and interpretations become fanciful. Allegory is present in the Bible but the plain historical sense of what was written is usually the better guide to truth.
In conclusion, hermeneutics refers to deriving meaning from content, such as speech or literature. Biblical hermeneutics deals with correctly interpreting the Bible. It is harder than it seems, with culture, geography, time, and language forming high barriers to understanding, much less applying the Bible to the modern day. It is not subjective; the Biblical authors put meaning into their words just as authors today do (2 Peter 1:21). Despite the fact that perfect interpretation is impossible (in everything, not just Christianity), mankind can understand God’s intent through Scriptures, and interpreting the Bible is one of the highest callings anyone can undertake. The Bible reveals the person of God, the highest and most wonderful person that man can conceive.
- Critical Methods and the Bible
- Literary and Historical Criticism
- The Bible – Word Above All Words
- The Supremacy of Scriptures
- Why Do a Good Exegesis of the Bible?
- Why Word Studies are Useful in Bible Study
1. Hermeneutics, Webster’s New World Dictionary, 2nd collegiate edition, Simon and Schuster, New York NY, 1984
2. Klein WW, Blomberg CL, Hubbard RL, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, Thomas Nelson, Nashville TN, 2004, pp 3-21
3. Fee GD, Stuart D, How to Read the Bible for all it’s Worth, Zondervan, Grand Rapids MI, 2003, p 23
4. Culture, Webster’s New World Dictionary, 2nd collegiate edition, 1984, Simon and Schuster, New York NY, 1984
5. Reyburn WD, Identification in the Missionary Task, Perspectives in the World Christian Movement, 4th ed, Winter RW, Hawthorne SC (Editors), William Carey Library, Pasadena CA, 2009, pp 470-476