On Hermeneutics

Manuscript in koine Greek on papyrus, Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, ca. 200, 8 f f. (originally ca. 74 ff.), 20x10 cm, single column, (16x8 cm), 22-23 lines in Greek semi-cursive book script.

Leviticus. Manuscript in Greek on papyrus, from Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, circa A.D. 200 (The Schøyen Collection)

When I first personally encountered God at the age of sixteen, I didn’t have much in the way of formal religious or theological training. The church I was a part of at that time had “New Christian” classes, focusing on the importance of reading your Bible, praying, attending church, dealing with sin in your life, and how to relate your new spiritual condition to others. These are good things to know—certainly elemental to any Christian life—and I embraced them, but there is one key element that I missed: hermeneutics, or how to study your Bible. When I discovered it a decade and a half down the road, its effect was equally life-altering.

One Sunday morning I was unable to make it to church, and tuned in to a local broadcast instead (from the non-denominational People’s Church, in the north of the city).  Charles Price (originally from Hereford, UK) is the pastor there, and he is both a gifted speaker and a man of considerable intellectual prowess.  His sermon that morning dealt with biblical hermeneutics, or how to understand Scripture by examining its context.  Those of you who live and work in academia will undoubtedly be familiar with such methods of textual criticism, but for the layman, here is a grossly simplified formula:  a word must be understood in the context of its surrounding verse; the content of the verse verse must be examined relative to the paragraph or section it is part of; the section is but one component of a larger chapter; the chapter should be understood as the subject of a whole epistle or book; the book should be understood relative to its author and placement within the biblical canon (Old Testament or New Testament); and finally all should be examined in accordance with what we understand to be the Scripture-revealed immutable character of God.

Now of course modern biblical hermeneutics is a vast and complex field of study, and one can scale up the complexity by comparing other translations (King James, New International Version, Revised Standard Edition, original koine Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic) and using other techniques beyond simple contextual method.  But for a layman’s purposes that will suffice in most cases; you can’t go far wrong by endeavouring to understand a verse as it relates to the rest of its chapter and epistle; looking at the broader picture will help you figure out when an author is employing allegory, metaphor, and simile versus instructive, narrative or historical writing.  Such an understanding will not just broaden your comprehension of Scripture, but it will help you avoid travelling down the wrong logical track and reaching a conclusion that is not supported by the text.

THE VERSE

Let’s apply this method to a particular text, one that atheists and agnostics will no doubt know as well as Christians—the venerable 1 Corinthians 13, old standby of marriage ceremonies everywhere.  We’ll start off with verse 4.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.

Seems fairly straightforward, a description of love.  Without any other context, however, one could argue that when couples go out to dinner, and a spouse steals a tasty morsel from her husband’s plate, her “envy” of another’s meal indicates that she does not truly love them.  I don’t think this would be Scripturally sound, but when one takes such a narrow focus there is lots of room for misinterpretation and wild flights of fancy.

THE PARAGRAPH

Now let’s look at a bigger portion of the text, verses 4-7.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Now we see that there are other characteristics of love as well.  With this new data we could argue that spouses that fart or belch (i.e. are “rude”) in each other’s presence are not truly loving.  Or that when your spouse reminds you (however sweetly and gently) of something you were supposed to do and didn’t (“keeping a record of wrongs”), that this is not loving either.  But this is not the point of these Scriptures—however beneficial and kind it may be to not belch, fart, or bring up someone’s failures.

THE CHAPTER

Taking a broader view and examining the whole chapter, we can see that this discussion of love encompasses other factors.  The first three verses in particular note that multilingual fluency, towering faith and prophecy are worthless if unaccompanied by love; or in the reverse, love is a pre-requisite of great spiritual deeds.  So this chapter, then, might be about something other than the romantic love (the Greek word is eros) of a husband and wife; even if a wedding ceremony is the context in which we most often hear it.  And in fact, these passages are about something else entirely.

THE EPISTLE / BOOK

Paul wrote this first letter to a church he founded some years before in the city of Corinth.  If you read the whole thing it will become apparent it was intended as a corrective; to put an end to what he saw as the erroneous doctrines of the Corinthian church that were fostering division amongst some of the congregation.  Chapter 12, immediately preceding the “love” chapter, focuses on spiritual gifts—that is, specific talents and skills that individual congregation members put to use for the benefit of the church.  Some of those skills are (surprise, surprise), multi-lingual fluency (“speaking in tongues”), strong faith, and prophecy.  Hmmmmm.

So what Paul was really talking about had nothing to do with husbands and wives, but a selfless kind of love that would be used in concert with these spiritual skills/gifts.  The actual Greek word used is agape, which we understand to be a thoughtful, unconditional love; oriented toward seeing a need and meeting it, and not expecting anything in return.  The King James Version renders the 1 Corinthians 13 chapter with the English word charity instead of love, which in some ways is more precise.  With charity thrown in there, I imagine its popularity at weddings would recede a little bit, as that would not tend to fit the theme of the day.

Now, it is certainly true that a husband and wifes acting in agape (selfless) love makes a marriage a much happier place to be, and in the ideal sense, this is how we should all endeavour to act toward our loved ones.  But it is equally true that this is not at all the point of Paul’s letter.  He wanted the members of the Corinthian church to act selflessly when exercising their God-given talents and skills within that city.  And in the broader sense, so too any of us engaged in missionary work, outreach and service for our churches, whether abroad or in our local communities.  He wanted churches to solve their doctrinal differences in sensible ways, with respect for each other; and for married and unmarried persons alike to bring their lives into alignment with what they perceived to be God’s will.

This book also contains some challenging passages related to head coverings and the role of women in the assembled church which would be too lengthy a sidebar to address here, but my view is best summed up by Professor Graham A. Cole (lengthy article/exegesis here):  “On my view women may indeed teach men the Bible. Godliness and giftedness are the keys not one’s sex.”

CONCLUSION

I hope you will forgive me for skipping the last two steps as I thought the progression of the context would be clear enough after these examples.

A lot of churches don’t give you anything like a basic framework for studying the Bible.  Their instructions basically boil down to “read it every day, pray and ask for guidance about what you are reading”.  Which isn’t bad idea, but it is not all that methodical.  It can help you identify preachers who are reading in rather more than the text says, too.  When I was a lot younger, only a few months old in the faith,  I attended a week-long seminar by a certain well-known evangelical association.  It offered what we might call basic principles for living the Christian life.  Since this was the tail end of the ’80s/beginning of the ’90s, the speaker did address some pop culture trends.  One of which was Cabbage Patch dolls.  The speaker seemed to think that the seemingly innocuous dolls were a vector for demonic activity.  That they were given the names of African and South Pacific kastom deities, and that the unsuspecting parent who let their kids play with these dolls was allowing demons to enter their home.

Needless to say I thought at the time that none of the scriptural basis this seminar provided for these “insights” would have held up to serious scrutiny.  To say nothing of the magical thinking that believes the process of modern manufacturing can somehow integrate the assimilation and indwelling of spirits.  I don’t think we have a good scientific process for even identifying the presence of spirits, let alone getting them to agree to line up and be a product in an assembly line.

The Cabbage Patch Kids were a fad, soon forgotten as children of the 80s grew up and moved on to more mature pursuits.  If I had known a little more about contextual analysis I would have made a point of refuting such nonsense then and there.  But alas it would be many more years before I would discover it.  I use this illustration only to say that contextual analysis might have saved this preacher and his association from making such outlandish and ridiculous claims; certainly it would prevent a large part of the audience from buying it, too.

I have a couple of Bibles of varying translations at home for study purposes. A slimline NIV is generally the one that gets carted around for quick reference, although I also like to check the NASB, and of course the King James is everyone’s favourite for more poetic language.  These days it is often easier and faster to refer to an online site like BibleGateway, which can offer up most English translations (and if you can read Greek, it has three popular koine translations, too).  Although there are various subtle differences between the sources and translations, the one thing that is truly remarkable is how well each agrees with the bulk of the others—and with the fragmentary oldest documents we have found so far, long before the canon we know today was agreed upon—despite being handled by thousands of translators over a couple of millennia.

When we aim to interpret the Bible, we should do so with every effort made to understand the context, rather than cherry-pick a verse and assign it our preferred meaning.  This is far more difficult than it would initially appear, especially when there are a couple of passages that appear to run into the wall of our present-day egalitarian cultural sensibilities.  Because we cannot reach the authors, determining their actual intent and the reasons for their remarks can not always be definitively solved by textual criticism; some of that will have to wait for the day when we can speak to them in person.  But in 95% of the cases, simple contextual hermeneutics mixed with a little understanding of history will go a long way toward helping us average laymen put Scriptural passages into something like a proper context.  In my case it has certainly fuelled a desire to know more about many eras of human history, so that I can better understand the cultural contexts of the author.

But while a more thorough knowledge of history may be an aid to better textual analysis, it is important to remember that the greatest challenge Christians face on a day-to-day basis is not sussing out the meaning of the Bible verses we don’t understand; it is trying to act in accordance with the letter and spirit of the passages we do understand.

RELATED: This simple but concise Bible interpretation website will go a long way toward helping the curious but inexperienced Scripture-reader move toward a more sophisticated method of study and analysis.

Category: Fidei Defensor
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2 Responses
  1. Nathan B. says:

    You are continuing in faith while I have left it, and it wouldn’t be right for me to try to argue with you. I can say, though, that I find your posts interesting.

    A nitpick and a comment: the Koine in Bible Gateway comprises three “texts” (not “translations”), but they are all rather outdated. The standard scholarly texts are under copyright, and perhaps the copyright holders weren’t willing to allow them to be placed there.

    Incidentally, as you indicated in your conclusion, there are other contexts than the verse, paragraph, chapter, etc. (And of course the verse and chapter divisions were not original to any of the texts, so “sentence” and “paragraph” and “section” would be better descriptors–but for ease of use I don’t think anything will overcome the old chapter-verse system.) The historical context, generic context, and geographical context are all also very important.

    By the way, Jerusalem University College in Israel offers some very fascinating biblical historical geography courses that one can do short-term; I have a feeling you might really enjoy one. Basically, you go traveling all over Israel for three weeks or so to see how the geography of the place has influenced the biblical writers.

    • Chris Taylor says:

      Yes, there are many aspects to hermeneutics—encompassing history, culture, geography, et cetera. I linked to the Wikipedia article as a shorthand way of indicating there was more, but I didn’t want the post to become too overwhelming in scope.

      The worst thing we can do is to discourage somebody from even picking up a book by giving the impression it has niche appeal or can only be comprehended by specialists with years of training and experience. Those things help, but the ordinary Joe is just as capable of understanding the basic concepts and methods, provided they are willing to put in the time.

      None of us will grasp, for example, all the aspects and nuances of The Lord of the Rings the first time we read it as a young pre-teen, but that will come in time as our knowledge of language, mythology and Northern European history grows.

      My purpose was just to demonstrate that there is such a framework for understanding Scripture, and you don’t have to get it 100% right the first time, but as long as you have the framework you will eventually get to a broader perspective. =)