Note: This is the second in my series on Biblical Hermeneutics. Please read the first one before reading this one.
The first thing to address in this series on Biblical Hermeneutics is what are hermeneutics and why is Biblical Hermeneutics so special? As discussed before, hermeneutics is the science of interpreting communication be it written, oral, or nonverbal. The rules for interpreting both biblical matter and nonbiblical matter are the same at the core. There are certain specifics that will be different. For example, when working with context, Shakespeare’s use of a word in the Scottish play may shed light on his use of the same word in Hamlet while the same word being used in the King James Bible would be of lesser importance to the Shakespearean scholar. However, at the last step of hermeneutics, the Shakespearean scholar might examine the KJV since Shakespeare was active at the same time it was being translated.
The first rule is simple: Pay attention to the text. You can’t do good hermeneutics unless you pay attention to what you are working on. It does no good to read between the lines when you haven’t read the lines themselves first. This applies to hermeneutics of anything written, not just the Bible. But there are considerations when interpreting the Bible that do not apply to other books.
What is the Bible?
But what is the Bible? If it has special rules, that is the first question to be addressed. The Bible is a collection of books, held sacred by Christians. It is viewed as the inspired word of God. This collection is called the canon, and only the canon is seen as inspired and binding on believers for all times.
While true that different sets of believers have different collections, the core books within them are the same. The Catholic Bible has more books in the Old Testament than does the Protestant Bible. These books, Tobit, Judith, additions to Esther, Wisdom of Solomon, Ben Sirach, Baruch, Additions to Daniel, First Maccabees, and Second Maccabees, were not seen as canonical as early as the other books of the Bible. They are called the Apocrypha or Deuterocanonical books. The Protestant Old Testament is the same as the Jewish canon. While the books are counted differently (for example, the Jewish Bible combines all the minor prophets into “The Book of the Twelve”), the content is the same.
The Eastern Orthodox Church recognizes the same books as the Catholic Church does along with Third Maccabees and First Esdras.
For this series, since I am a protestant and I expect most of the readers will be protestant, we will be using the protestant canon. That is the 39 books of the Old Testament and 27 of the New Testament. At times, the books from the other canons may be consulted to shed light on the use of a word or to see how a custom is portrayed. For example, the New Testament shows a conflict between Greek-speaking Jews and Hebrew-speaking Jews. Where did this conflict come from? The answer is actually found in First Maccabees. In the opening chapter, we read that the Greeks had conquered Jerusalem and tried to make it a Greek city. To that end, they introduced Greek customs, philosophy, art, and entertainment. Some Jews saw this (correctly) as an attempt to destroy Judaism slowly by absorbing its distinctives into the empire. They waged a war against the Greeks, resulting in varying levels of independence for the nation for the next decades. The same story can be found in the works of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (born Joseph ben Matityahu) known as “Wars of the Jews.”
The books that are not of the canon may be used to help our interpretation of the canon, but they are not held as binding upon our actions or in the construction of our doctrine.
The Bible is a Divine Book
The first thing that any serious student of Scripture has to recognize is that the Bible is inspired of God. God moved upon the writers of the Bible so that they gave the message that He wanted them to give. While the exact details of inspiration are not explained in the Bible, a simple definition is given. 2 Timothy 3:16 “All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness.”
The word translated “inspired” is literally “God-breathed.” It means that Scripture came from God into the minds of the writers. Also from the Bible, we know that the writers were inspired (2 Peter 1:20-21). And from Job 32:7-9, we know that those who interpret Scripture can be inspired by the Holy Spirit.
A discussion and exploration of inspiration will have to wait as the topic is large and has had much discussion throughout Christian history. Some have held to a dictation theory of inspiration (that God himself chose the words the writers wrote), others to a dynamic inspiration (that God impressed feelings upon the writers). In my opinion, the truth is between those two extremes, verbal plenary, that God chose the writers because their life experiences and passions would move them to chose the words God wanted them to choose.
A final factor to consider with the divine nature of the Bible is the unity and diversity it shows. In the 66 books, there are many topics discussed. They were written over the course of at least 1,600 years. The writers were from three different continents (Africa, Asia, and Europe) and came from a variety of backgrounds (shepherds, poets, kings, courtiers, fishermen, tax collectors, priests, religious leaders, and more). Some of them were poor. Others were wealthy.
However, for all of this diversity, it shows an amazing unity. The Bible holds forth, from beginning to end, on the redemption of man. I have at times summarized the purpose of the Bible as “God redeems penitent humanity.”
Either the unity or diversity of Scripture would be no problem. It is both together that require special awareness as we interpret. If the Bible had been written by one person, even over the course of decades, the unity would not be a surprise. Had there been such diversity with no unity, we would still not be surprised. That both exist point to the Bible being more than just words penned on a page. It shows the work is divine and has meaning for all time.
Any interpretation of Scripture that does not take into account the divine nature of the Bible is not doing justice to the work that it seeks to explain. As such, any interpretation by someone who does not hold the Bible to be divine should not be given high weight. Their insights into culture and history may be helpful, but their interpretation should be taken with a grain of salt.
However, the Bible is not just a divine book. It is a human book. That subject will be addressed in the next essay, part 2 of The First Rule of Hermeneutics.