- Brian Chilcote
Two More Hermeneutics
Updated: Nov 16, 2022
"On this home by Horror haunted—tell me truly, I implore—
Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!”
Quoth the Raven 'Nevermore.'"
Edgar Allan Poe The Raven
Imagine reading an Edgar Allan Poe short story with no prior knowledge of Poe, his era, his aims for writing, his style, vocabulary or his preferred topics. How would you interpret his stories and poems? You might study up on nineteenth century history and political realities, and specifically Poe's personal biography. You might analyze his grammar and word choice or themes he addresses. Could you read The Raven as nonfiction, a true account of an actual incident? You might not have prior knowledge of Poe, but you might be able to draw on your familiarity with Herman Melville or Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Hermeneutics has to do with the lenses we use to read and understand literature, and specifically for this discussion, the Bible. Every reader or listener brings a set of expectations and assumptions to a text. Some would say there are good and bad ways to interpret, others might insist that there are actually no wrong ways to read a work of literature.
Where do we acquire our assumptions that influence the meanings we get from a text? Sources might include culturally instilled stories, our individual mix of preferences, interests, learned knowledge, observations of others' behaviors, modeling by parents or influential early authority figures- too many to enumerate here. Our lenses etch in our minds an internal map of reality, whether by careful study or uncritical acceptance (probably a combination of both). Because we can't access reality in real time in quantum detail, all maps contain a certain amount of error as soon as they are made. And yet many of us are determined to proceed convinced our internal maps are in one-to-one correspondence with reality. It's much harder to learn to live with the ambiguity of uncertainty, admitting that our lenses aren't perfect.
Are you open to other ways of finding meaning in biblical texts as we pursue of an internal map that more closely resembles objective truth? If we understand the strengths and weaknesses of different starting points and the acquired values of many interpreters, we have a better chance to inch closer to objective truth than we would in our own hermeneutical echo chamber.
What's your preferred hermeneutic? In the previous article, we were introduced to two types of Literalism and an Allegorical / Typological / Anagogical approach. Now let's look at some other examples of different hermeneutic standpoints. Keep in mind that these categories describe regions of a spectrum rather than hard points that exclude all the others.
This hermeneutic is particularly interested in achieving a high level of confidence in determining the single intent of the original composer of a written text. This is done by examining the use of written language in relationship to the historical context surrounding its purpose and message. This approach is not a big fan of multiple valid meanings, especially ones of which the author might have been unaware, such as prophecies ostensibly written to comment on both present and future events. Assuming that the Bible's basic idea is to communicate God's thoughts to humankind, is it always the case that the human author's intent matches exactly what God's intent was?
A strict grammatico-historicalist would say yes.
Knowing as much as possible about the grammar, thought patterns, genre, literary structures, and vocabulary employed by the author can move remote readers closer to an elusive single intended message. Like the metadata attached to a digital photo, this aspect of the grammatico-historical hermeneutic reveals information not evident in a plain sense reading. Syntax, semantics, symbolism and other features of a text in comparison to other data we know about the author or period of writing.
Much of the New Testament is written in Koine (common) Greek, which was not the native language of Jesus. It compels the interpreter to locate influences on the text in the complex mixture of first century Hellenistic Roman and Jewish worldviews. In both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, we see wide variances in styles and emphases due to changing cultural and political realities over time. And, like modern American English, Koine Greek words can change their meaning from one decade to another as generations and cultures interact.
One popular characterization of this hermeneutic is a Bible study method that prescribes three related steps that help the reader deduce meaning and incorporate that meaning into their personal life. The first step is to observe, or pay special attention to the lexicon of the text; genre, style, structures, relationships to other texts and so on. The second step builds on the first and concentrates on interpretation. Interrogating the text with analytical questions, looking for explanations for why the text was written and other exegetical methods gives the reader a summary of what the original intent of the author (and God?) wanted to convey. The final step is to apply the meaning to one's daily life, e.g., determining how the meaning informs how one thinks and acts, enacts ethical principles or takes on a social challenge.
The grammatico-historical hermeneutic, like all hermeneutic approaches, solves some problems and creates others. One difficulty is how it contends with the traditional idea that the Holy Spirit, not academic technique takes care of all the interpretive chores. Second, we see countless portrayals of biblical characters ignore this hermeneutic especially when New Testament writers find meanings or applications in Old Testament passages. In Galatians 3:16, Paul uses a grammatical nuance in Genesis 12:7 to give it a double meaning. According to Paul, the word "seed" in its singular form applies to Christ, not necessarily Abraham's promised multitude of descendants. Awkward at best, it really gets odd as you read Genesis 13 and find the same singular term explicitly denoting Abraham's many offspring. So is there one meaning in Genesis or two? Or maybe more?
How are actual written texts transmitted through time and space? The events of the life of Jesus did not happen last year in Baltimore, so we only know about them if the stories were somehow preserved in ways that make them accessible to the intervening hundred or so successive generations, over thousands of miles and dozens of languages. Textual criticism is a way of seeing a text in light of its complicated journey from the minds of the composers down to us in the modern day.
The central idea is this: whenever a text is transmitted, it is highly probable that later versions of the same document will contain variations from the original. Human beings are careless, fallible and occasionally tempted to alter a word or two to benefit his or her idea of what the text ought to say. Reasons for this are legion- physical damage, omission of a word or even whole lines as they were copied, scribal ignorance of what they were copying (picture a monk copying a Greek manuscript by candlelight, knowing not a word or letter of Greek), inattention, the confusing addition of marginal notes that are later copied into the actual text, or simple misunderstandings of the material.
A textual critic attempts to trace the history of these changes to arrive at an original meaning. Reconstructing an abstraction- an author's thoughts- takes careful study of both the texts under review and the circumstances under which they were copied and used. All the biblical texts we have are derivatives of earlier ones and therefore open to placement in a "family tree" of texts. By comparing all the possible variations, the textual critic's job is to tease out both the actual wordings and how people interpreted them over time.
How this is done is a science in itself. To simplify, this hermeneutic tries to reduce the possible meanings of a text to a number as small as possible by studying the historical contexts of transmission events, the actual lexical variations in extant and quoted manuscripts and examples of ancient commentators' interpretations. Exhaustive comparisons enable flow charts that illustrate the development of multiple documents from common ancestors.
A quick note here- modern scholarship does possess a comparatively high number of examples of extant and other manuscript evidence. The bits and pieces of ancient copies of New Testament works we can use to craft a decent English translation outnumber other first and second century documents like Homer and Aristotle by at least 5,000. This figure is often wielded as proof of the accuracy and by extension, the authority of the Bible. However, these impressive numbers say nothing about how close they are to any originals. All the manuscript copies we have are highly likely to vary from both the oral traditions and the written narratives used by the early church. We might have hundreds of copies of John, for example, but there is no way to determine the consistency of our earliest copy (dated somewhere between 94 and 138 CE) with an original read by Jewish Christians even ten years earlier.
One famous example of this is an edition of the 1631 King James Bible in which the printers inadvertently omitted the word "not" in Exodus 20:14 rendering the sixth commandment as a command to cheat on one's spouse. While most copies were summarily incinerated, eleven copies remain extant.
There are a few more hermeneutic spaces to consider so watch this space for more!
To think about...
What questions do you have in mind when you read the Bible? Answering this question can help you determine your personal hermeneutic
What effect does our interpretive approach have on our everyday circle of influence? Our political or social choices? Our own well-being?
Is your hermeneutic the same or different from Bible teachers you listen to?
Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy, edited by Merrick and Garrett
Biblical Hermeneutics: Five Views, edited by Porter and Stovell
Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, Richards and O'Brien
Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, Marcus Borg