Reading the Bible through Hermeneutics

It is the most influential book of all time, the best selling and the most controversial. A collection of 66 books, the Bible is rendered in all major languages of the world. And it is continuously being translated to even the most foreign tongues from Europe to Asia.

For Christians, printed on every page of this book are the very words of God. Throughout centuries, however, the limitations of human language have been a major setback in understanding its message.

Differences in interpretation led to the division of Christendom in the Great Schism, the Protestant Reformation and today’s multitude of Christian denominations. At the same time, this led to varying stands on issues of homosexuality, abortion, sex and even salvation, among others.

However in a postmodern world where relativism is the norm, people expect such variations in interpretation. The belief is, an objective, absolute truth is unattainable.

A foolproof interpretation may be elusive, but Bible scholars stand their ground and argue that there is an objective scientific method of interpretation that can stand scrutiny. They call it Biblical Hermeneutics.

Biblical Hermeneutics

Simply put, hermeneutics is a “science and methodology of interpreting texts.” In this case, Biblical texts are highlighted. Theologians, pastors, priests and even Bible Study leaders use the method to properly understand the message of a specific Biblical passage.

Thus, hermeneutics answers a very basic question, but one that has puzzled people for years, “How do we read the Bible?”

Most people who believe in the Bible would say that reading it is not difficult. They would argue that since God wants everyone to understand his word, he has made it plain and simple, easily understood in one sitting.

But People’s experiences say otherwise. Take this passage from the Gospel of Mark, for example. Jesus corrects a number of religious leaders, saying:

"You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! For Moses said, 'Honor your father and your mother'; and, 'Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die. 'But you say, 'If a man tells his father or his mother, "Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban’ (that is, given to God)-- then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do."

A number of things escape a modern reader’s understanding in this passage. What does “Honor your father and mother” mean? What is a Corban? What is Jesus’ point in saying this?

Clearly, the message of the passage cannot be easily understood in one sitting. In fact, serious Bible students spend at least an hour just to understand what the words mean, and this with the help of hermeneutics.

Begin with Literary Context

Hermeneutics demands readers to start with context. Before anything, they must realize that reading Biblical texts is the same as reading any other works of literature, that is, the preceding and succeeding sentences, paragraphs, and chapters matter.

It warns against haphazard using of verses and passages, words and sentences, explaining them out of context to fit a message.

A verse used out of context leads to faulty interpretation, and eventually causes distortion. A simple example is a sentence in Psalm 10:4. It reads, “In the pride of his face the wicked does not seek him; all his thoughts are, ‘There is no God.’"

If the last sentence is used out of context, it makes it appear that the Bible teaches that God does not exist. However, the context reveals that wicked men and women think that there is no God because of pride.

Hermeneutical Bible reading, then, considers sentences around a verse or passage, always studying them together. In fact, one basic rule demands that the clearer and easier parts of Scripture interpret the more difficult ones. At the same time, the Bible must be read according to the overall themes of all the books, never isolating one from the other.

Proceed to Historical Analysis

Context, however, is not limited to literary analysis. Hermeneutics also demands a historical study of the text. It calls this part exegesis. Simply put, the method teaches that Bible readers must look into the lenses of the original audience to understand texts.

In the Bible’s case, readers must first use the worldviews, perspectives and understandings of the people of that time—the Israelites, Hebrews, Galileans, Romans and Greeks among others—before using one’s modern views.

This guards against cultural and generational differences because it ensures that texts are analyzed using similar and correct criteria—the understanding of the original hearers.

Historical analysis is, perhaps, the most academic part of Biblical hermeneutics. Sometimes it entails intensive study of culture, language and beliefs of ancient civilizations and people. It may include archeology, world history and linguistics. Despite this, modern Bible students are luckier because of numerous materials that make cultural studies easier.

Several history books of the Near East, Israel, Egypt and other Scriptural landmarks can aid in understanding texts. Linguistic variations are now explained more clearly because of the analysis given by language books.

Even physical evidences from archeology help in pinpointing exact locations mentioned in the Bible, helping students determine which people group and culture to study in the first place.

An Exegetical Example

The earlier passage from the Gospel of Mark can demonstrate exegesis. To the modern eye, honoring one’s parents denotes respect in words and actions. For example, Filipinos use “po” and “opo” when talking to parents. They may also practice “pagmamano.”

However, when one looks through the eyes of Hebrews, the original hearers, to honor one’s parents means in part to financially provide for them and to care for them. Thus, when Moses gave this command, it was a warning against neglect. It is taboo to Jewish societies for children to live in luxury while their parents suffer in poverty.

Now, it makes sense why they demand a heavy penalty of death for those who dishonor their parents.

Corban, on the other hand, means “offering” in Hebrew or Aramaic, the languages of the time. In this historical context, Jewish leaders taught that it is okay for sons to fail in providing for their parents as long as they give money offerings.

The Corban, then, though a tradition, circumvents the responsibility of children to their parents commanded by Moses. This is what Jesus was condemning. The Jewish religious teachers are teaching their audience to break the Scripture because of this established tradition.

Without historical analysis, a Bible reader will miss many of the points uncovered in exegesis.

Contextualization: An Application

After these two main processes, hermeneutics proceeds to the last and most practical part of interpretation—applying the past’s experiences to the present.

Bible readers are now permitted to look through modern lenses. After understanding the text as literature and as historical document, the modern perspective contextualizes the message.

This is the part when the past and present are bridged. The obscurity of literature and history are dealt with in the first two steps. The last one makes the Biblical message relevant to the modern reader.

In the passage used earlier, Jesus hammered his point when he condemned how the teachers of the law taught precedence of tradition over the Word of God. He made it clear that in matters of faith and living, the commands of the Scriptures are to be followed, not tradition.

There are several examples in modern times where this can be applied. A simple one is in the veneration of carved images of saints. This has become a Filipino tradition handed down by the Spaniards.

If the Bible is consulted, it is clear that God commanded in Exodus that people must not make "a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth."

And the command continues, "You shall not bow down to them or serve them..."

Applying the message uncovered through hermeneutics, people must not compromise the command in Scripture with tradition. This means that kissing, kneeling before and putting one's faith on wooden images, though a tradition, run contrary to what the Bible teaches.

Truth may be elusive. Postmodernism may deny absolutes. But hermeneutics has shown that even in the highly subjective field of interpretation an objective and scientific method exists.

Starting with literary analysis to exegesis (historical study of texts), and ending with contextualization, Bible readers may find themselves at least an inch closer to an understanding of what the text really says.
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  1. great site...good topic...contextualization itself is just one approach to interpretation...although your idea of contextualization is certainly different from a Roman Catholic hermenuets' idea of contextualization (which s/he would call "inculturation". There are as many hermeneutical approaches as there are seminaries in the world :) we read Scripture in the located-ness of where we are...We read scripture according to our faith community's traditions.

  2. Hello! Thank you for the comment. :) The one I tackled is called Grammatico-Historico-Theological Hermeneutics. It's the tradition I'm brought up to and find very useful in understanding the Bible. :) I've not really studied other traditions on hermeneutics :D