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Posted on July 28th, 2012, by

Table of contents:

1. Introduction

2. The essence of hermeneutics

3. Basic qualifications of interpreter of the Bible

a. Qualifications of specialists

b. Presence of the Holy Spirit

c. Strife for knowledge

d. Correctness of interpretation

e. Spiritual/religious education

4. Basic principles of hermeneutics

a. The direct statement principle

b. The moral principle

c. The exegetic interpretation of the Bible

d. The allegorical principle

e. The predictive principle

5. Conclusion

6. References


Historically, the understanding of text was the subject of a particular concern of scholars as well as ordinary people.

In fact, the interpretation and understanding of text can be viewed as a form of art since often one and the same text may be interpreted in different ways. In such a way, it is possible to speak about the possibility of multiple interpretations of the text. While, on the other hand, there are texts that cannot be interpreted by the contemporary scholars. In this respect, it should be said that the problem with understanding or interpretation of texts are not rare and this problem is particularly widely spread when scholars deal with texts or documents originating from ancient epochs.

At the same time, it is necessary to underline that even well-known and perfectly preserved texts can pose numerous challenges and questions scholars can hardly response or give a credible answer, which could logically and convincingly explain the original message. In fact, biblical texts are probably the most well-known examples when scholars and theologians cannot come to a common view on interpretation of various passages and even entire parts of the Bible. On the other hand, the work on biblical texts can help better understand major principles of hermeneutics.


The essence of hermeneutics


Speaking about hermeneutics, it is necessary to underline the fact that its primary goal is the study of meaning, though often, hermeneutics is defined as the study of the Bible or biblical text (Ramm, 1999). Hermeneutics implies the study of meaning through the analysis of the text, but it does not mean that the meaning could be understood from the analysis of the text as a whole, instead, the understanding of the whole text is possible on the basis of the understanding and interpretation of its parts, certain passages and even particular words. In this regard, works of Jewish scholars who interpreted Biblical texts forming the Torah are particularly noteworthy since these were the early attempts of the development of hermeneutics and the specific feature of this interpretation was the focus on slightest details and specific words[1].

In general, one of the basic principles of hermeneutics is to carefully study the texts on the basis of the analysis of the part, which understanding and interpretation leads to the understanding of the whole text. Also, it should be said that hermeneutics uses different approaches to the interpretation and understanding of text, including literal, allegorical, morale, and anagogical.

Obviously, the major field of the application of hermeneutics was and still is the study of the Bible. In fact, it is even possible to estimate that the emergence and the progress of hermeneutics in the western civilization is determined by the study of the Bible since its sacred texts became the basis for the development of Christianity as well as Judaism.

In other words, Biblical texts which date back to ancient epoch gave birth to, at least, two major world religions, Christianity and Judaism. At the same time, it is obvious that ancient texts created thousands of years ago could not be interpreted similarly or absolutely in the same way in different epochs. In fact, any text, especially such complicated ones, which could be found in the Bible in abundance, could pose serious difficulties in interpretation for the audience even since a century or a bit more after their creation. Consequently, in order to adequately understand Biblical texts large masses of people needed interpreters that could explain them the meaning and the major message hidden in sacred texts of the Bible. In this regard, Christian priests and Jewish rabbis served as intermediaries who interpreted sacred texts and the divine law to the large masses of adepts (Peirce, 1993).

Basic qualifications of interpreter of the Bible

a. Qualification of specialists

At the same time, it is necessary to underline that interpreters of the Bible should be really highly qualified specialists. In this regard, it is quite noteworthy to refer to the Bible. In fact, it is possible to find qualifications of the interpreter in the Bible. According to the Bible, one must be a believer because the correct interpretation requires the work of the Holy Spirit[2]. This means that a qualified interpreter should believe and possess a profound knowledge of the subject, especially from the religious retrospective.

b. Presence of the Holy Spirit

Furthermore, the Bible also indicates to the fact that one must be filled with the Holy Spirit[3]. In such a way, the proper interpretation of the Bible is possible on the condition that a reader or interpreter does not only possess some sacred knowledge and sincerely believes but he/she should also be spiritually close to the author of biblical texts.

Otherwise, it would be highly problematic to properly interpret and understand them.

c. Strife for knowledge

Also, it should be pointed out that, in addition to the qualifications of interpreter mentioned above, it is very important to have a strong desire to know[4]. Actually, without the strife for knowledge, the interpretation of biblical texts simply lose any logical sense, taking into consideration the importance of these texts for Christians as well as for Jews, for whom they became the basis for laws that regulate the life of Jewish people.

d. Correctness of interpretation

However, what is even more important is the correctness of interpretation. In fact, biblical texts directly indicate to the fact that one must be seeking to interpret correctly God’s Word[5]. In fact, this means that the interpretation of biblical texts should be a conscious process based on the profound background knowledge of an interpreter. In other words, an interpreter should perfectly understand the context and basic postulates developed in the Bible.

e. Spiritual/religious education

In this respect, it is very important that an interpreter of biblical texts had some spiritual education over a period of time[6]. Basically, religious education traditionally played an important role in Christianity as well as Judaism since by means of education these religions conveyed their doctrines and promoted their teachings throughout centuries.

Consequently, an interpreter that had some religious education could better or more correctly interpret biblical texts than a scholar that did not have any religious experience and had a skeptical attitude to biblical texts.

Basic principles of hermeneutics

In such a way, both Christian priests and Jewish rabbis needed to be able to interpret biblical texts properly and understand the message that ancient authors attempted to convey to the audience. In such a situation, the development of hermeneutics was simply essential. However, it is necessary to underline that the levels of understanding and interpretation of biblical texts were different and, therefore, it is possible to speak about different principles or approaches used in hermeneutics. In order to better understand them, it is necessary to dwell upon some examples of interpretation of biblical texts on different levels.

a. The direct statement principle

First of all, it should be said that the necessity of interpretation of the Bible may be easily revealed while studying biblical texts. For instance, Peter (5:2) indicates to the importance of the spreading the message of God to adepts and all people to convert them to the true faith and he underlines that the primary job of the communicator is to communicate God’s word to those allotted to his charge[7]  the simplest way, which was the most widely spread at the early stages of the development of hermeneutics as well as at the early stages of the development of Christianity and Judaism, was the literal interpretation and understanding of the text. This interpretation was based on the direct statement principle which implies that God says what he means and means what he says[8]. In fact, this type of interpretation of the text is very simple and is based on the literal understanding of the text without any in-depth analysis of the text. In such a context, the interpreter of the text stands on the ground that there is no hidden message and nothing more than the denotative meaning of words of the text conveys to the audience. For instance, referring to the Bible, it is possible to interpret the concept of the creation of the world in seven days by God literally, i.e. God spent seven days creating the Earth and the life on it. In this respect, it is possible to refer to the Jewish Literal School, founded by Ezra when he translated the Hebrew to Aramaic for the Jews who were coming out of captivity[9]. The Jewish canons of interpretation were as follows: the word is to be understood in terms of sentence and the sentence by its context; one should compare similar topics of scripture and give the clear passages preference over the obscure; one must pay close attention to spelling, grammar and figures of speech; logics is to be used to apply scripture to life in circumstances where the Bible is silent[10].

b. The moral principle

However, such approach to the interpretation of biblical texts proved to be not very effective, especially in the later epochs. In fact, the growing cultural gap between the original authors of biblical texts and the audience enlarged naturally because human society progressed, socio-cultural environment changed and biblical texts written in the past could not be understood literally since they often made no sense for the audience. The reason was quite obvious, being distanced in time, the original biblical texts operated with such concepts, notions, words, and some details of past life which were out of date in the later epochs, during the Middle Ages or Enlightenment, for instance. As a result, the audience simply could not understand the original biblical texts literally that stimulated the development of different approaches to the interpretation of texts. On the other hand, it should be pointed out that the search of more sophisticated approaches of interpretation of biblical texts was quite logical in relation to the Bible because a considerable part of its texts are philosophical and religious by their nature. Consequently, it would be simply erroneous to interpret them literally.

In such a context, the use of moral interpretation of biblical texts seems to be quite logical. At the same time, it should be pointed out that moral interpretation of biblical texts mainly refers to religious texts which regulate the life of people and adepts who perceived biblical texts as sacred texts. For instance, Ecclesiast repeatedly conveys the moral message, which is briefly postulated in the saying vanitas vanitatum[11]. In such a way, he promotes the idea of obedience and readiness to accept challenges sent to humans by God. At the same time, Ecclesiast underlines the vanity of human desires and efforts. Consequently, moral context and significance of this saying turns to be determinant for the entire text conveyed by Ecclesiast. Moreover, it is possible to find practically didactic messages of Ecclesiast which reveals the moral context of the entire text. For instance, Ecclesiast (10:8) warns the trap you set may catch you and your accomplice in crime may double-cross you[12]. In such a way, it is necessary to interpret the moral aspect of the message and convey it to the audience.

c. The exegetic interpretation of the Bible

In this respect, the work of Rabbi Ishmael is particularly noteworthy since he interpreted biblical texts and used them to postulates or, to put it more precisely, to sum up major laws from the Torah which constitute the basic rules and norms of life of Judaists. What is meant here is the fact that the moral interpretation of sacred texts contributed to the explanation of complicated biblical texts or messages to the mass audience in simple or, to put it more precisely, understandable words[13]. In such a way, through the interpretation of biblical texts by means of hermeneutic principles, it was possible to explain basic norms and rules of virtuous life of true Judaists. For instance, it is possible to draw the example of the Mosaic Law, which was interpreted by Judaist theologians and actually became one of the major constituent elements of the norms and rules of life of Judaists. Even though Mosaic laws may be viewed as quite direct, it was still necessary to interpret and adapt them in such a way that they could be accepted by the Judaist community.

On analyzing the Bible, it is possible to find references to the necessity of implement interpretation of the Bible, i.e. hermeneutics in order to understand the text and the original message. For instance, it is possible to compare reading of the Bible, Corinthians 14:27-28 without any interpretation to speaking in tongues with no interpreter[14]. In a way, it is possible to view as an indication to the necessity of interpretation of biblical texts and adaptation them to the audience adequate perception. Obviously, the interpretation of such texts implies that each word is important and cannot be omitted in the process of interpretation.

It is worth mentioning that Rabbi Ishmael as well as other Judaist theologians focused on the interpretation of words and passages which were often viewed as unimportant and insignificant by other interpreters of the Bible, including ancient Greeks. Unlike, Greeks, Judaist theologians paid a lot of attention to all words, which they believed had a profound meaning and the study of each word gave insight to the better understanding of the entire text.

Moreover, Judaist theologians also paid attention to the fact whether promise of God referred to their own time frame or to a specific time. For instance, according to the Bible we know that wolf and lamb will dwell together and that leopard will lie down with the goat[15], but those passages refers to the Millennial Kingdom of Jesus Christ.

Also, it is possible to refer to the Roman Catholic Church recommendations to interpretation of the Bible, which are as follows: interpretation must be solely of faith and morals; should not be bound by national or scientific matters; must bear witness to Catholic tradition; must have a unanimous witness by the Church Fathers; should not be explained by unwritten tradition when the passage is obscure; should follow the principle of development that means that the doctrines of the New Testament were seeds and not complete units in themselves; should follow the principle of implication which is called Epigenesis meaning that doctrines grow, develop and change[16].

d. The allegorical principle

Alternatively, the allegoric interpretation of biblical texts became widely spread in later epochs. This type of hermeneutics implies the use of second meaning which is hidden beyond the literal meaning of biblical texts.

Basically, such approach allowed viewing the traditional biblical texts in a different way making them more realistic, understandable, and credible. For instance, the biblical story about the deluge and the Noah’s Ark may be viewed as a metaphor. Consequently, it could be interpreted as a symbol of salvation of mankind through the power of Noah’s faith, while ark may be just a symbol of his faith and not a real vehicle.

It should be said that the Jewish allegorical school was developed by Aristobulus and Philo. The latter attempted to reconcile the Hebrew with Greek philosophy and Jewish allegorists agreed that literal interpretation of biblical texts was immature. The Jewish allegorists developed canons for allegorical interpretation that told them when they were to interpret in this manner. In such a way, if they found a word unworthy of God, or statements that either contradicted or presented a difficulty, they felt free to interpret allegorically[17].  As for Christian allegorist tradition, it should be said that it stood on the ground that biblical texts were full of parables, enigmas and riddles. For instance, in Revelation 5:5 the Lord is called lion of Judah[18]. According to allegorists, Jesus Christ is apparently not a literal lion and this part should be interpreted allegorically.

e. The predictive principle

Furthermore, it is possible to speak about anagogical interpretation of biblical texts. This hermeneutic method views meaning on the mystical level (Virkler, 2000). Consequently, the explanation of biblical message could bear some mystical traits. For instance, the prophetic nature of biblical texts concerning eschatology, i.e. the end of the world and the judgment day may be interpreted on the anagogical level as mystical predictions which will have meaning for times to come, while at the present moment they cannot be fully understood. For instance, John 3:16 says: whosoever believes in Him shall have eternal life[19]. In this regard, an interpreter of the Bible have to use the predictive principle since the interpretation of such texts are based on the prediction of the future vision of eternal life, since such concepts may be viewed differently at different epoch, varying from eternal physical life to a concept of eternal spiritual existence.  However, speaking about anagogical school of hermeneutics, it is worth mentioning that even though there is figurative language in biblical texts concerning prophecy, it will still have a literal fulfillment, since the figurative is a shadow of the reality it represents[20]. At the same time, there is a harmony in prophecy since God is not a God of confusion[21].


Thus, hermeneutics can be widely applied in the contemporary world, but its emergence is closely interlinked with the interpretation of the meaning of biblical texts by different scholars representing such different religious movements as Christianity and Judaism. Nevertheless, various hermeneutic types of the interpretation of meaning facilitate consistently the process of understanding of texts and messages by scholars, as well as ordinary people, which they deal with in their life and work.

[1] Virkler, H. A. (2002). Hermeneutics. New York: Baker Books.

[2] Bible, Cor. 2:14-16.

[3] Bible, Eph 5:18.

[4] Bible, Matt 7:7-8.

[5] Bible, Tim 2:15.

[6] Bible, Tim 3:6

[7] Bible, Pet. 5:2.

[8] Geisler, N.L. and W. E. Nix (1986). A General Introduction to the Bible. LA: Moody Publishers.

[9] Bible, Neh 8:1-8.

[10] Geisler, N.L. and W. E. Nix (1986). A General Introduction to the Bible. LA: Moody Publishers.

[11] Bible, Ecc. 1:2.

[12] Bible, Ecc. 10:8.

[13] Ramm, B. (1999). Protestant Biblical Interpretation, 3rd rev. ed., Baker Book House, Grand Rapids.

[14] Bible, Cor. 14:27-28.

[15] Bible, Isa 11:6; 65:25.

[16] Geisler, N.L. and W. E. Nix (1986). A General Introduction to the Bible. LA: Moody Publishers.

[17] Lewis, C.S. (2003). A Summary of the Bible. New York: Believers Publishing.

[18] Bible, Rev 5:5.

[19] Bible, John 3:16.

[20] Bible, Heb 10:1-14.

[21] Bible, Cor 14:33.

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