In Greek = ‘interpretation’: hence, the theory of interpreting and understanding biblical texts, including their historical context. The word is also used in a wider sense, to mean the interpretation of a text and its application to the reader after the historical examination has been done; the work of discerning how a NT text written in the cultural context of the 1st cent. CE can be understood in a modern cultural context. It is a movement from ‘what it meant then’ to ‘what it means’, taking into account empirical evidence of today. For some NT scholars this has involved detaching the essential message of the gospel from the mythological frame in which it has been enclosed. Bultmann's hermeneutical vehicle for this reinterpretation was that of the philosophy of Martin Heidegger.
Although the term ‘hermeneutics’ originated in the 17th cent., it is held that it began in the NT itself, when Paul used contemporary Jewish methods of interpreting the OT for preaching the significance of Jesus. In subsequent ages, allegorical and typological methods were practised. At the Reformation the doctrine of Justification by Faith was adopted as a canon of interpretation. But only a literal sense of the text was regarded as legitimate by Calvin, who feared that faithful interpretation could otherwise be distorted by merely human values. The history of interpretation is one of the resources at the disposal of modern exegetes.