Biblical hermeneutics is the branch of knowledge that deals with interpretation. The word most often refers to how to interpret the Bible or other sacred texts from other religions. This is not to be confused with exegesis. Where exegesis refers to the interpretation of a specific Biblical text, hermeneutics is deciding which principles we will use in order to interpret the text.
These principles seek to explain the Bible accurately as intended by the author. We are told to “Make every effort to present yourself approved to God, an unashamed workman who accurately handles the word of truth.” (2 Tim 2:15) There are several generally accepted principles of exegesis.
The Bible should be interpreted literally unless context and meaning indicate an allegory or other symbolic meaning. Allegorical interpretations must not contradict the rest of the scriptures, or other principles of exegesis. Another way to express this principle is to say, “Let the verse speak for itself.”
To arrive at accurate interpretations, a Bible reader should examine verses that immediately precede and follow the verses being examined, as well as verses elsewhere in the Bible that bear on the subject at hand. The Bible must also be interpreted consistent throughout, and passages that are not as clear in their meaning should not be used to interpret clear verses. In other words, “Let the context determine the meaning.”
The grammatical principle of biblical exegesis focuses on the meaning of the original language, grammar, and syntax. In the Old Testament this includes Hebrew and Aramaic, and for the New Testament this includes the Greek language. We examine how words are used in context, which includes the doctrinal context.
The Bible was written with a range of voices, intentions, and structures, so it is important that we recognize the various literary genres within the Bible, from historic record to dramatic poetry.
Finally, historical context helps us consider the location, the date of the writing, the culture, and the intended audience. Understanding the author and what he intended can be helpful in understanding the meaning, too.
This approach seeks out the “plain meaning” of a biblical text. This is not to imply that every passage of Scripture should be interpreted literally, but rather the plain meaning be accepted as truth. For instance, when Jesus said the Christians are the light of the world, we don’t believe we are literally a 100-watt light bulb. We do believe that Jesus was telling us plainly that it is our role to showcase the love of God to everyone around us. We’ll discuss this more in-depth below.
Originally practiced by Jews who believed their laws, poems, and historical narratives had multiple layers of meanings, this approach supposes to reveal the ethics behind any text. One popular example is the Epistle of Barnabas, where the author believes the Old Testament food laws were misunderstood by the people of Israel. Rather than restricting diet, he believes the laws were meant to avoid behavior which was associated with these animals.
Closely associated with moral interpretation, this type of hermeneutics viewed the biblical narratives as having a secondary level of meaning. Most often this meant interpreting people and events as only foreshadowing people and events in the New Testament, usually Jesus and his actions. One such case would be Noah. Rather than focusing on whether or not a worldwide flood actually happened, viewing the story as an allegory allowed the readers to conclude what type of person God was seeking as followers.
Defined as mystical or spiritual, this approach sought to interpret Scripture in view of the life to come. Relying significantly on numerical values of Hebrew letters and words, the focus here was on Messianic prophecies and the study of the last days. Similar to moral and allegorical interpretation, importance was not given to the actual story but to a perceived deeper meaning behind the story.