Art & Science of Biblical Interpretation – Hermeneutics & Challenges

hermeneutics

Leo Percer explains, “Hermeneutics is the art and science of understanding Scripture, [which then helps] provide historical and literary background, allowing for modern-day understanding and application.”[1] As believers, it is vital to be able to interpret God’s Word, so the original author’s intended purpose is revealed. Through this process, the role of the author is supreme and deciphering the context is critical to uncovering the honest meaning of the text. William Klein et al. demonstrate, “Hermeneutics describes the principles people use to understand what something means, to comprehend what a message – written, oral, or visual – is endeavoring to communicate.”[2] The art and science of interpretation is especially important when looking at the roles of the author of the text, how the original audience responded, and the role of the interpreter. In regards to the role of the interpreter, Klein et al. demonstrate, “while hermeneutics must give attention to the ancient text and the conditions that produced it, responsible interpretation cannot ignore the modern context and the circumstances of those who attempt to explain the Scripture today.”[3] Regardless of what role is being played, it is impossible to interpret any passage of Scripture without some prior knowledge of contextual data.

When looking at the role of the author, Klein et al. illustrate, “When general living conditions and specific life circumstances are known, [it] can provide helpful information for interpretation. Knowing all the conditions that surround the recipients of the original message provides further insight into how they most likely understood the message at the time of writing.”[4] It is important to note a passage of Scripture cannot mean something today, that was it was never intended to mean for the original audience. Klein et al. also warn against seeking to understand the meaning of a given text through a lens based upon a later revelation. Thus, the ultimate goal of hermeneutics will always be to understand the original author’s intent and how the original audience or first time readers would have responded. While it is often difficult to remain completely objective, Klein et al. cite any valid approach to interpretation must concern itself with two crucial dimensions, “(1) An appropriate methodology for deciphering what the text is about, and (2) a means of assessing and accounting for the readers’ present situation as we engage in the interpretative process.”[5]

Another important piece to proper interpretation comes from understanding while the Holy Spirit inspired the Bible, God still chose man to write it. It is then by combining the science and art of interpretation, and by allowing the Holy Spirit to aid in a person’s understanding of the text, the reader is best positioned to decipher the author’s true message. J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays caution against an over-emphasis of the Spirit’s role in the process of interpretation. Duvall and Hays explain, “Having the Holy Spirit does not mean the Spirit is all you need, [because] the Spirit does not make valid interpretations automatic; the Spirit does expect us to use our minds, proper interpretative methods, and good study helps to interpret the Bible accurately; and the Spirit does not create new meaning or provide new information.”[6] In the end, the role and purpose of the author provides the most valuable information in deciphering the meaning of the text and without this knowledge, it would be very difficult to apply the message in a modern-day application. Klein et al. further demonstrate hermeneutics is, “Essential for a valid interpretation of the Bible, [in order to] discern God’s message, to avoid or dispel misconceptions or erroneous perspectives and conclusions about what the Bible teaches, and to be able to apply the Bible’s message to our lives.”[7]

Distance is the ultimate adversary for biblical interpretation. The distance of time proves difficult since over 1900 years stand between when the last ancient texts were written and today. William Klein et al. explain, “We may be at a loss to understand what a text means because it involves subjects beyond our time span. [Additionally,] another time span that must be considered in interpreting the Bible involves the gaps that existed – more or less in various places – between the time the Bible events occurred and the time when those events were actually written down in today’s text.”[8] There is little question both Jewish and Christian traditions were held in high regard and were preserved as accurately as possible. Many of the stories were eyewitness accounts and written by the author who witnessed the events. However, some used additional sources and others edited preexisting material, so it is vital to understand the motivations behind such actions. Klein et al. demonstrate, “The authors’ unique perspectives and their goals for writing would influence what they felt was important, what deserved emphasis, or what might be omitted. In this process, the writers would consider their readers and the effects they hoped to produce in them.”[9]

The distance of culture is the next challenge that must be addressed, as Klein et al. illustrate: “On the pages of the Bible we encounter customs, beliefs, and practices that make little sense to us, [so] our understanding of ancient customs might be so colored by what we think they mean that we miss their significance.”[10] A person’s individual customs, values, and traditions play a significant role when reading Scripture and without a clear understanding of cultural conditions which existed at the time of the writing, one may inadvertently misinterpret the text. For this reason, this writer believes the cultural distance and by default, the distance of language are the most difficult distances to traverse. Historical criticism is a great tool to use when analyzing written works because it takes into account: its time, its place, the place of composition, when it was written; in order to comprehend who wrote it, when it was written, to whom it was written, and why it was written. By employing this method, the interpreter is then able to decipher what the author said, why he said it, and hopefully the reaction or response of the intended audience or first-time readers.

The geographical distance is the third challenge, which must be addressed. Having had the opportunity to visit Israel, this author has a much deeper appreciation for many of the stories found in the Bible. In many cases, the text now jumps off the page as images, tastes, smells, and feelings come to mind. Despite having visited Israel, as Klein et al. illustrate, “Even if we could visit all the accessible sites (and many Christians have), few of them retain the look (and none, the culture) they had in biblical times.”[11] Klein et al. use a great example of traveling up to Jerusalem. This journey was called the Ascent of Adummim and was considered a day’s journey from Jericho, but the elevation change was 3,500 feet. Traveling up this road the temperature dropped by fifteen degrees; so only by traveling to the places recorded in the Bible can one truly grasp the underlying themes behind the text. However, as previously mentioned, despite walking where Jesus, the disciples, and patriarchs did, the culture is no longer the same. For this reason, this writer believes the geographical distance is the easiest distance to overcome. Even if one is unable to travel to the Holy Land, with the Internet and technology that is available, there is much that can be vicariously learned, regardless of where someone lives. That being said, traveling to Israel is a life-changing experience every believer should embark on, given the opportunity.

The distance of language is the final challenge presented to those engaged in biblical interpretation and E. Randolph Richards and Brandon O’Brien believe, “Language is perhaps the most obvious difference between cultures.”[12] Because the Bible was written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, this final challenge has many obstacles to overcome and despite having scholars who have dedicated their life and work to this task, there are still areas that are debated over. Fortunately, as Leo Percer explains, “Where differences exist, none of them are theological issues and ninety-five to ninety-seven percent of the Greek New Testament is valid.”[13] One of the major hurdles of the language difference is the fact no known manuscripts have survived. However, there are over 5,500 copies of the New Testament, and within these copies, textual criticism allows scholars to come as close to the original text as possible. In the end, the distance of culture and language seem to be intertwined and prove the most difficult, especially for those in the Western world. As Richards and O’Brien further explain, “The most powerful cultural values are those that go without being said. Ironically, this is as true of language as of any other aspect of culture – and perhaps more so. Behind the words that make up language is a complex system of values, assumptions, and habits of mind that reveal themselves in the words we use and leave unsaid.”[14] This can lead to profound misunderstanding, and for this reason, Richards and O’Brien both believe language is the most obvious cultural difference that separates us from the Bible and this author ascribes to this view as well. On this premise, there are significant misinterpretations and ultimately misunderstandings that occur when there is a failure to recognize cultural context and all that goes without being said. Only by reading multiple translations and by understanding the culture and intended audience can a reader fully comprehend how a specific passage can speak in a modern-day application.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Duvall, J. Scott and J. Daniel Hays. Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible, Third Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012.

Klein, William W., Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L Hubbard, Jr. Introduction to Biblical Interpretation: Revised and Updated. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Inc., 2004.

Percer, Leo. “Introduction to Hermeneutics.” Filmed [2012], Liberty University Website, NBST 610 Course Content, Week One Video Presentation, 02:22. https://learn.liberty.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_327796_1&content_id=_14931609_1 (accessed October 26, 2016).

______. “Modern Approaches to Hermeneutics.” Filmed [2012], Liberty University Website, NBST 610 Course Content, Week One Video Presentation, 09:45. https://learn.liberty.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_327796_1&content_id=_14931609_1 (accessed October 27, 2016).

Richards, E. Randolph and Brandon J. O’Brien. Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012.


[1] Leo Percer, “Introduction to Hermeneutics,” Filmed [2012], Liberty University Website, NBST 610 Course Content, Week One Video Presentation, 02:22. https://learn.liberty.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_327796_1&content_id=_14931609_1 (accessed October 26, 2016).

[2] William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L Hubbard, Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation: Revised and Updated (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Inc., 2004), 4.

[3] Klein et al., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 7.

[4] Klein et al., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 10-11.

[5] Klein et al., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 13.

[6] J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible, Third Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 229.

[7] Klein et al., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 19-20.

[8] William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L Hubbard, Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation: Revised and Updated (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Inc., 2004), 13.

[9] Klein et al., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 14.

[10] Klein et al., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 15.

[11] Klein et al., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 16.

[12] E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 25-26.

[13] Leo Percer, “Modern Approaches to Hermeneutics,” Filmed [2012], Liberty University Website, NBST 610 Course Content, Week One Video Presentation, 09:45. https://learn.liberty.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_327796_1&content_id=_14931609_1 (accessed October 27, 2016).

[14] Richards and O’Brien, Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes, 70-71.

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The Jewishness of Jesus – Case Study of Luke 2:41-52

INTRODUCTION

A critical error many people make when trying to interpret scripture happens when they do not have a proper understanding of the context and culture of the time in which it was written, so in order to understand how a particular passage may speak to a Christian in the twenty-first century, one must first establish: who wrote it, why it was written, and who it was written for before they can extrapolate any potential significance to the modern day believer. As Dr. R. Wayne Stacy emphasizes, “Understanding the Jewishness of the New Testament is essential to the interpretive process… [And to be sure how] the New Testament is the Word of God for us today, we must first answer: what did it mean to those it was written for? [Only after answering that can we begin to understand:] what does it mean for us today?”

In this case study, the teacher should be commended on his or her attempt to provide as much background and explanatory information as possible in order to help the class understand the proper historical context and cultural setting. However, because of the wide range of diversity in the maturity and knowledge of believers, it is imperative that culture and context do not overshadow the meaning of the passage and how it can be applied today. The sad reality is the complexity of historical facts and vastly different customs and traditions have a way of causing people to lose perspective or interest and as Dr. Stacy suggests, “because of modern misconceptions the end result is often misinterpretation.”

At the conclusion of the lesson, one of the attendees challenged the teacher with several argumentative statements and questions, which ranged from saying Jesus was not a Jew, but a Christian to while Jesus may have been born a Jew, He rejected all that “law stuff” along with the rest of Judaism as a false religion. Ultimately, the individual was arguing as to why the teacher was trying to make Jesus out to be a Jew and why it was so important to know all this Jewish stuff to interpret the New Testament since they were in church and not a synagogue. Proper responses to both of those pivotal questions are as follows:

WHY ARE YOU TRYING TO MAKE JESUS OUT TO BE A JEW?

After proper examination of Luke 2:41-52 and according to Stacy’s assertion: “to know the Jesus of the Gospels, you must study a particular people, living in a particular place, at a particular time, speaking a particular language, sharing a particular culture, and worshipping a specific God.” In doing so, it is hard not to address the scandal of particularity, as God did not just reveal Himself to His people; instead He became one of them, lived among them, and ultimately gave His life for them.

As the teacher and after presenting the lesson based on this passage of scripture, I would highlight the piety of Joseph and Mary and clarify how Jesus was raised in a home focused on the purpose of God as demonstrated by their observance of Passover. Jesus was a Jew, His father was a Jew, and His mother was a Jew who could trace her bloodline back to King David. As Joel Green demonstrates, “Jesus is being raised in a pious environment, but his commitment to God’s purpose transcends that piety and that environment.” Jesus was twelve in this passage, and Thomas Lea demonstrates how Luke is the only disciple that sheds any light on the childhood of Jesus, pointing out, “At the age of thirteen Jewish boys became full participants in Judaism, [so] Jesus’ parents may have taken Him there when he was twelve… to acquaint Him with the Temple and its festivals.” Ultimately, He would in fact grow up to be a Jewish rabbi and all of His disciples would be Jewish as well. In this passage of scripture, Lea demonstrates in verse forty-nine how, “Jesus’ reply to His parents indicates a developing messianic consciousness at an early age. As an obedient son, Jesus dutifully returned to Nazareth with his parents, [but] Luke chronicled the development of Jesus intellectually (“in wisdom”), physically (“in stature”), spiritually (“favor with God”), and socially (“favor with man”).”

Regarding the Law, Jesus said, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.” As R. T. France illustrates, “It raises acutely the issue of Jesus’ Messianic authority in relation to the existing authority of the Torah and of its authorized interpreters at the time, and illustrates the tensions which were to lead to the ultimate decision of the Jewish leadership that Jesus was a dangerous influence who must be eliminated.” This is the polar opposite of the reception Jesus received from the teachers when they were astonished by Him, His answers, and His understanding. Green goes on to say, “It is a good thing to keep the Passover, but the sort of pious environment to which Jesus has become accustomed at home serves and must serve the more fundamental purpose of God. Not even familial claims take precedent over aligning oneself uncompromisingly on the side of God’s purpose.”

It is interesting to note that Paul, even after his transformation on the road to Damascus, remained a Jew and adhered to all the instructions found in the Torah. Paul’s conversion experience did not mean he became a Christian, only that he now believed Jesus Christ was the Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament. Stacy points out; “Luke went to great lengths establishing whatever Christianity may become, it had its roots in pious Judaism and that Christianity was formed through and by a move of the Holy Spirit within Judaism.” Antioch would be the epicenter and birthplace of Christianity and base of operations for Paul. As F. F. Bruce illustrates:

No difficulty seems to have been felt at this stage about the uniting in one believing community of Jewish converts and Gentile converts. The new way was wide enough to accommodate believers of the most diverse backgrounds. Antioch was a cosmopolitan city, where Jew and Gentile, Greek and barbarian rubbed shoulders, where Mediterranean civilization met the Syrian Desert; racial and religious differences, which loomed so large in Judaea seemed much less important here. The church of Antioch from the outset had an ethos quite distinct from that of the Jerusalem church. The pagans of Antioch, too, knew all about these people, for they did not keep quiet about their faith, but proclaimed it wherever they went.

The term Christian did not come about till well after Jesus Christ’s resurrection and ascension and it simply meant followers of Christ in word and deed. Bruce demonstrates how, “Just as, in Palestine, the adherents of the Herod dynasty were called Herodians, so, says Luke, in Antioch the adherents of Jesus the Christ first came to be popularly known as Christians.” Stacy elaborates further by illustrating how in that time the issues between Christianity and Judaism were internal – that is a struggle within one religion and not two competing religions as we view them today.

WHY DO WE NEED TO KNOW ALL THIS JEWISH STUFF TO INTERPET THE NT?

Knowing and understanding Jewish culture and history is important because Christianity finds its roots within Judaism and J. Julius Scott Jr. highlights how just as the “Intertestamental Jewish writers assume the reader is familiar with the Old Testament, [he also explains,] how the primary and initial audience of the New Testament would understand the same significance of geographic locations, festivals, and ceremonies.” If readers of the Word are to have any relevant perspective, according to Stacy, “They must be able to negotiate vast distances between their world and our own by understanding the times, the languages, the culture, the geography, and the politics.” Bridging the gap starts with understanding the New Testament was written to the first century believers and early church, but also by accepting what it meant for them and why; only then can we apply it to the twenty-first century for application today.

God reveals Himself to us through His creation and through His Word, so having a proper understanding of Jewish history is crucial if we want to have closer relationship with Him and if we are to be successful in fulfilling the Great Commission. Through a deeper understanding of culture and times allows one to unlock passages and provide a more concise translation. The Word of God is timeless, so the truths found within its pages must never be discounted or forgotten simply because they are not easily comprehended and the Jewishness of Jesus and the forefathers of Christianity are fundamental in our understanding of scripture.


Bibliography

Bruce, F. F. The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Book of Acts. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988. WORDsearch CROSS e-book.
France, R. T. The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007. WORDsearch CROSS e-book.

Green, Joel B. The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Gospel of Luke. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997. WORDsearch CROSS e-book.

Lea, Thomas D. and David Alan Black. The New Testament: Its Background and Message 2nd Edition. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2003.

Scott Jr., J. Julius. Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 1995.

Stacy, Dr. R. Wayne. “The Jewish Setting of Early Christianity, Negotiating the Distances Slide: Week One.” https://learn.liberty.edu/bbcswebdav/pid-10753578-dt-content-rid-84883558_1/courses/NBST515_B06_201620/Presentations/NBST515%20iSpring%20Presentations/NBST515%20Module%201%20Jewish%20Setting%20of%20Early%20Christianity%20%28LMS%29/res/index.html (accessed 1-19-16).