Hermeneutics may be defined as the theory of interpretation. More precisely, biblical hermeneutics inquires into the conditions under which the interpretation of biblical texts may be judged possible, faithful, accurate, responsible, or productive in relation to some specified goal. Whereas exegesis involves the actual process of interpretation, biblical hermeneutics moves beyond interpretation. It entails a study of method, inviting reflection on the nature, methods, and goals of biblical interpretation. It also draws on general hermeneutic theory, that is, on traditions of scholarship—within philosophy, the social sciences, theories of literature, and semiotics—that shed light on questions about meaning and understanding. The subject embodies a proper concern to understand the biblical writings not only as particular historical documents of the past but also as texts that address the present with a living and transforming voice. This has often been described as the task of “application,” though some prefer to speak of “recontextualization.” Finally, theological questions about the status and nature of the Bible also shape hermeneutics. Whether or in what sense the Bible is seen as the authoritative word of God shapes the ways in which issues are explored. (see Authority of the Bible.)
Up to the end of the eighteenth century, three sets of issues assumed particular importance in the history of biblical hermeneutics. First, the Hebrew Bible could be seen either as part of the Christian scriptures or as Jewish scripture only. For Jesus and the earliest Christian communities, the Hebrew Bible was their only scripture, providing among other things the frame of reference within which the gospel was to be understood (1 Cor. 15.3, 4; cf. Luke 24.27). These Christians saw it as applying to their situation (1 Cor. 10.11) and interpreted it in the light of the ministry of Jesus Christ (Acts 8.32–35). In the second century CE, Marcion challenged the status of the Old Testament as part of Christian scripture. But Irenaeus and other church fathers reaffirmed the unity of the two testaments as the message of the one God, who had revealed himself preeminently in Christ (see Interpretation, History of, article on Early Christian Interpretation).
The second issue concerns allegorical interpretation. Allegory presents a meaning other (Grk. allos) than that which might be immediately apparent in the text. For example, John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, which portrays a spiritual journey through language, at first sight seems to describe physical travel from place to place. In such cases, allegorical interpretation constitutes the appropriate hermeneutic method. But this method was also used extensively in the ancient and medieval world as a device with which to seek out other meanings from biblical and classical texts. It was used in classical Greece to draw “higher” meanings from Homer's narratives about petty squabbles among the Greek deities. The Alexandrian church fathers, especially Clement and Origen, were among those who inherited and used this interpretative device. Clement of Rome allegorized the scarlet thread in Rahab's window (Josh. 2.18) into a symbol of the blood of Christ (1 Clement 12.7). More subtly, many narrative parables were interpreted as if they had been spoken as allegories in which each element of narrative description carried some independent or self‐contained spiritual meaning. The Antiochene fathers, and subsequently also Luther, used the method, though more cautiously. Calvin dismissed the approach on the ground that it allows the interpreter to shape scripture in accordance with human judgments. In this respect allegory is less constrained than typology: whereas allegory rests on parallels between ideas, typology depends on correspondences or parallels between events.
A third persistent issue in hermeneutics concerns the role of interpretative tradition. Does the way in which the Bible is read and understood depend decisively on the tradition of expectations and assumptions in which the interpreter stands? On one side, the church fathers insisted, against the gnostics, that the Bible can be understood rightly only when it is seen as the scriptures of the catholic or universal church. On the other side, the reformers, while respecting early tradition, insisted that the Bible could stand on its own feet (see Interpretation, History of, article on Christian Interpretation from the Middle Ages to the Reformation). Its message was not to be equated with how it might already be understood within some given ecclesiastical tradition. In the modern era, it is widely recognized that interpreters must take seriously both the right of the text to speak from within its own historical particularity and the role of traditions in shaping the horizons of interpreters and their questions.
In the modern era, several movements have profoundly influenced biblical hermeneutics. Following the rise of Romanticism in the eighteenth century, Friedrich Schleiermacher and Wilhelm Dilthey argued that to understand a text we must seek out the circumstances or creative vision that caused the author to produce it. This involves sympathetic imagination, or the capacity to place oneself in the author's shoes. The Romantic theorists rightly saw that in the process of interpretation there is a progressive interaction between understanding elements of a written text and provisionally grasping the sense of the whole. In biblical study this means interaction between an analytical study of words or phrases and an attempt to grasp the message of a book or an author as a whole.
In the mid‐twentieth century, a number of writers explored existentialist models of hermeneutics. Most notably, Rudolf Bultmann insisted that a narrative or descriptive mode of writing in the Bible can mislead us into failing to notice where such material serves primarily not to describe but to evoke some practical response from the reader. Thus “myth” (a descriptive or narrative mode) needs to be “demythologized,” in other words, interpreted as preaching or kerygma. The strength of this approach is that it takes seriously the practical function of the Bible for its writers and earliest audiences. Its weaknesses are that it makes claims about the definition and use of “myth” that are open to question, and that it underplays the importance of historical report and factual truth claims in the New Testament.
Bultmann's pupil, Ernst Fuchs, together with Gerhard Ebeling, pioneered a movement that came to be known in the 1960s as the “new hermeneutic.” It had close affinities with the philosophical hermeneutics of the later Martin Heidegger and Hans‐Georg Gadamer. They argued that language does not merely communicate ideas; it creates a “world.” Biblical language draws the interpreter into a world within which a new reality comes to life. This creative experience is described as a “language‐event.”
From the late 1960s to the late 1980s, various other hermeneutic models were explored. Liberation theology has taken up the sociocritical models of the social sciences by raising questions about the use of texts for the social control of communities. Paul Ricoeur and others have seen the earliest origins of a “hermeneutic of suspicion” in Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. On the other hand, Ricoeur and, from a different angle, liberation theologians also seek to bring the situation of the present to bear on the text in order to produce positive meaning. Thus, feminist hermeneutics expresses suspicion of masculine interest and have attempted to derive feminist significance from new readings (see Feminism and the Bible). One critical question for such movements is whether the desire for change represents any less an “interest” than does desire to perpetuate the status quo.
Reader‐response criticism in literary studies represents another model in process of exploration. The capacity of biblical texts to shape, revise, or confirm readers' expectations is seen as one further aspect of hermeneutic inquiry. Each of the models explored in the modern era underlines, in different ways, the many levels at which understanding, transformation, and action may take place in the encounter between the reader and the text.
Anthony C. Thiselton