Biblical hermeneutics is the study of the principles of interpretation concerning the books of the Bible. It is part of the more broad field of hermeneutics which involves not just the study of principles for the text, but includes all forms of communication: verbal, nonverbal and written.
While Jewish and Christian Biblical hermeneutics have some overlap and dialogue, they have distinctly separate interpretative traditions.
The article on Jewish commentaries on the Bible discuss hermeneutics on the Bible from a Jewish point of view. This article discusses Jewish bible commentaries from the ancient Targums to classical Rabbinic literature, the midrash literature, the classical medieval commentators, and modern day commentaries.
main article Talmudical Hermeneutics
Talmudical Hermeneutics (Hebrew: approximately, מידות שהתורה נדרשת בהן) refers to Jewish methods for the investigation and determination of the meaning of the Hebrew Bible, as well as rules by which Jewish law could be established. One well-known summary of these principles appears in the Baraita of Rabbi Ishmael.
The methods by which the Talmud explores the meaning of scripture include
- grammar and exegesis
- the interpretation of certain words and letters and apparently superfluous and/or missing words or letters, and prefixes and suffixes
- the interpretation of those letters which, in certain words, are provided with points
- the interpretation of the letters in a word according to their numerical value (see Gemaṭria)
- the interpretation of a word by dividing it into two or more words (see Noṭariḳon)
- the interpretation of a word according to its consonantal form or according to its vocalization
- the interpretation of a word by transposing its letters or by changing its vowels
- the logical deduction of a halakah from a Scriptural text or from another law
It's important to remember that the rabbis of the Talmud were the receivers and transmitters of an oral law as to the meaning of the scriptures. They considered this oral tradition to set forth the precise, original meanings of the words, revealed at the same time and by the same means as the original scriptures themselves. Therefore, many of the interpretive methods listed above, particularly those involving word play, letter counting, etc., were never used as logical proof of the meaning or teaching of a scripture, but rather as an asmakhta, a validation of a meaning that was already set by tradition, or a homiletic backing for rabbinic rulings.
Christian biblical hermeneutics
Until Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher, Biblical hermeneutics was usually seen as a form of special hermeneutics (like legal hermeneutics): the status of Holy Scripture was thought to necessitate a particular form of understanding and interpretation.
Since the days of Schleiermacher, however, it has become increasingly common, at least in academia, to read Scripture just like any other writing, though precisely what that means is not without dispute. Schleiermacher argued against a distinction between 'general' and 'special' hermeneutics, and for a general theory of hermeneutics applicable to all texts, including the Bible.
Since Schleiermacher's days, the concept of hermeneutics has acquired at least two different (related but nevertheless distinct) meanings, both of which are in use today. First, in the older sense, Biblical hermeneutics may be understood as the theological principles of exegesis; in fact, it is often virtually synonymous with 'principles of biblical interpretation', or methodology of Biblical exegesis. Second, the more recent development is to understand the term 'Biblical hermeneutics' as the broader philosophy, linguistics, etc. underpinnings of interpretation. The question is posed: "How is understanding possible?" The rationale of this approach is that, while Scripture is 'more than just an ordinary text', it is in the first instance 'text', which human beings try to understand; in this sense, the principles of understanding any text apply to the Bible as well (regardless of whatever other specifically-theological principles one might want to consider in addition to that).
In this second sense, then, all aspects of philosophical, linguistic, etc. hermeneutics are considered to be applicable to the Biblical texts as well. There are obvious examples of this in the links between 20th century philosophy and Christian theology. For example, Rudolf Bultmann's hermeneutical approach was strongly influenced by existentialism, and in particular by the philosophy of Martin Heidegger; and since the 1970s, the philosophical hermeneutics of Hans-Georg Gadamer have had a wide-ranging influence on Biblical hermeneutics as developed by a wide range of Christian theologians. The French-American philosopher Rene Girard follows a similar trail.
Theological hermeneutics as traditional Christian Biblical exegesis
This particular form of theological hermeneutics, especially within the mainstream Protestant tradition, considers Christian Biblical hermeneutics in the tradition of explication of the text, or exegesis, to deal with various principles that can be applied to the study of Scripture. If it is axiomatic that the canon of Scripture must be an organic whole, rather than an accumulation of disparate individual texts written and edited in the course of history, then any interpretation that contradicts any other part of scripture is not considered to be sound. Thus Biblical hermeneutics differs from hermeneutics as generally understood. Within such traditional Protestant theology, there are a variety of interpretive formulae. Such formulae are generally not mutually exclusive, and interpreters may adhere to several of these approaches at once. Such formulae include:
Theological Group of Principles:
- The Election Principle
- The Historical-grammatical principle based on historical, socio-political, geographical, cultural and linguistic / grammatical context
- The Dispensation Principle or The Chronometrical Principle: "During different periods of time, God has chosen to deal in a particular way with man in respect to sin and man's responsibility."
- The Covenantal Principle: "We differentiate between the various contracts that God has made with his people; specifically their provisions, their parties and their purposes."
- The Ethnic Division Principle: "The word of truth is rightly divided in relation to the three classes which it treats, i.e. Jews, Gentiles and the Church."
- The Breach Principle: Interpretation of a certain verse or passage in Scripture is aided by a consideration of certain breaches, either breaches of promise or breaches of time.
- The Christo-Centric Principle: "The mind of deity is eternally centered in Christ. All angelic thought and ministry are centered in Christ. All Satanic hatred and subtlety are centered at Christ. All human hopes are, and human occupations should be, centered in Christ. The whole material universe in creation is centered in Christ. The entire written word is centered in Christ."
- The Moral Principle
- The Discriminational Principle: "We should divide the word of truth so as to make a distinction where God makes a difference."
- The Predictive Principle
- The Application Principle: "An application of truth may be made only after the correct interpretation has been made"
- The Principle of Human Willingness in Illumination
- The Context Principle: "God gives light upon a subject through either near or remote passages bearing upon the same subject."
Sub-divided Context/Mention Principles:
- The First Mention Principle: "God indicates in the first mention of a subject the truth with which that subject stands connected in the mind of God."
- The Progressive Mention Principle: "God makes the revelation of any given truth increasingly clear as the word proceeds to its consummation."
- The Comparative Mention Principle
- The Full Mention Principle or The Complete Mention Principle: "God declares his full mind upon any subject vital to our spiritual life."
- The Agreement Principle: "The truthfulness and faithfulness of God become the guarantee that he will not set forth any passage in his word that contradicts any other passage."
- The Direct Statement Principle: "God says what he means and means what he says."
- The Gap Principle:"God, in the Jewish Scriptures, ignores certain periods of time, leaping over them without comment."
- The Threefold Principle:"The word of God sets forth the truths of salvation in a three-fold way: past - justification; present - sanctification/transformation; future - glorification/consummation."
- The Repetition Principle:"God repeats some truth or subject already given, generally with the addition of details not before given."
- The Synthetic Principle
- The Principle of Illustrative Mention
- The Double Reference Principle
Figures of Speech Group of Principles:
- The Numerical Principle
- The Symbolic Principle
- The Typical Principle: "Certain people, events, objects and rituals found in the Old Testament may serve as object lessons and pictures by which God teaches us of his grace and saving power."
- The Parabolic Principle
- The Allegorical Principle
Techniques of hermeneutics
In the interpretation of a text, hermeneutics considers what language says, supposes, doesn't say, and implies. The process consists of several theories for best attaining the Scriptural author's intended meaning(s). One such process is taught by Henry A Virkler, in Hermeneutics: Principles and Processes of Biblical Interpretation (1981):
- Lexical-syntactical method: This method looks at the words used and the way the words are used. Different order of the sentence, the punctuation, the tense of the verse are all aspects that are looked at in the lexical syntactical method. Here, lexicons and grammar aids can help in extracting meaning from the text.
- Historical/cultural method: The history and culture surrounding the authors is important to understand to aid in interpretation. For instance, understanding the Jewish sects of the Palestine and the government that ruled Palestine in New Testament times increases understanding of Scripture. And, understanding the connotations of positions such as the High Priest and that of the tax collector helps us know what others thought of the people holding these positions.
- Contextual method: A verse out of context can often be taken to mean something completely different from the intention. This method focuses on the importance of looking at the context of a verse in its chapter, book and even biblical context.
- Theological method: It is often said that a single verse usually doesn't make a theology. This is because Scripture often touches on issues in several books. For instance, gifts of the Spirit are spoken about in Romans, Ephesians and 1 Corinthians. To take a verse from Corinthians without taking into account other passages that deal with the same topic can cause a poorer interpretation.
- Special literary methods: There are several special literary aspects to look at, but the overarching theme is that each genre of Scripture has a different set of rules that applies to it. Of the genres found in Scripture, there are: narratives, histories, prophecies, apocalyptic writings, poetry, psalms and letters. In these, there are differing levels of allegory, figurative language, metaphors, similes and literal language. For instance, the apocalyptic writings and poetry have more figurative and allegorical language than does the narrative or historical writing. These must be addressed, and the genre recognized to gain a full understanding of the intended meaning.
Howard Hendricks, longtime professor of hermeneutics at Dallas Theological Seminary, set out the method of observing the text, interpreting the text, applying the text in his book, Living By the Book. Other major Christian teachers, such as Chuck Swindoll, who wrote the forward, Kay Arthur and David Jeremiah have based their hermeneutics on the principles Howard teaches.
Roman Catholic principles of hermeneutics
The Catholic Encyclopedia lists a number of principles guiding Roman Catholic hermeneutics in the article on Exegesis:
- Historico-grammatical interpretation - The meaning of the literary expression of the Bible is best learned by a thorough knowledge of the languages in which the original text of Scripture was written, and by acquaintance with the Scriptural way of speaking, including the various customs, laws, habits and national prejudices which influenced the inspired writers as they composed their respective books. John Paul II said that: "A second conclusion is that the very nature of biblical texts means that interpreting them will require continued use of the historical-critical method, at least in its principal procedures. The Bible, in effect, does not present itself as a direct revelation of timeless truths but as the written testimony to a series of interventions in which God reveals himself in human history. In a way that differs from tenets of other religions [such as Islam, for instance], the message of the Bible is solidly grounded in history.
- Catholic interpretation - Because the Catholic Church is, according to Catholics, the official custodian and interpreter of the Bible, Catholicism's teaching concerning the Sacred Scriptures and their genuine sense must be the supreme guide of the commentator. The Catholic commentator is bound to adhere to the interpretation of texts which the Church has defined either expressly or implicitly. Since the same God is the author both of the Sacred Books and of the doctrine committed to the Church, it is impossible that any legitimate teaching can be at variance with the latter.
- Reverence - Since the Bible is God's own book, its study must be begun and prosecuted with a spirit of reverence and prayer.
- Inerrancy - Since God is the principal Author of Sacred Scripture, it can be claimed to contain no error, no self-contradiction, nothing contrary to scientific or historical truth (when the original authors intended historical or scientific truth to be portrayed). Minor contradictions are due to copyist errors in the codex or the translation. Catholics believe the Scripture is God's message put in words by men, with the imperfections this very fact necessarily implies. That's why it becomes self-contradictory to hold biblical interpretation to be 'historico-grammatical' and treat the Bible's own words — which aren't but human — as error-free. Catholic hermeneutics strongly supports inerrancy when it comes to principles but not, for example, when dealing with Evangelists' orthographic mistakes. According to Pope John Paul II, "Addressing men and women, from the beginnings of the Old Testament onward, God made use of all the possibilities of human language, while at the same time accepting that his word be subject to the constraints caused by the limitations of this language. Proper respect for inspired Scripture requires undertaking all the labors necessary to gain a thorough grasp of its meaning.
- Patristics - The Holy Fathers are of supreme authority whenever they all interpret in one and the same manner any text of the Bible, as pertaining to the doctrine of faith or morals; for their unanimity clearly evinces that such interpretation has come down from the Apostles as a matter of Catholic faith.
Trajectory hermeneutics or redemptive-movement hermeneutics is a liberal teaching in postmodern Christianity that parts of the Bible can have progressive, different meanings as a culture unfolds, advances, and matures.
One teaching under this view is that homosexuality was once a sin but has become acceptable due to cultural changes and advances in understanding of psychology and the social sciences. Proponents of trajectory hermeneutics may point to Romans 1:18-32  and explain that Paul has always been speaking to those who violate their sexual orientation, those that go against their natural desire. But a homosexual's natural desire is for the same sex, which is now defended as natural.
One proponent of trajectory hermeneutics is William J. Webb. In his book Slaves, Women and Homosexuals, Webb says that the moral commands of the bible were, being a significant improvement over the surrounding cultures, relevant to the Christians who lived at that time, but possibly not for modern Christians. However, Webb's use of this hermeneutic comes to the conclusion that homosexuality is a cross-cultural prohibition, unlike the treatment of slaves and women.
- Allegorical interpretation
- Biblical literalism
- Biblical studies
- Formulary controversy concerning Jansenius' Augustinus in the 17th century
- Historical-grammatical method
- Literary criticism
- Literary theory
- Postmodern Christianity
- Qur'anic hermeneutics
- Summary of Christian eschatological differences
- Table of books of Judeo-Christian Scripture
- Talmudical Hermeneutics
- Ferguson, Sinclair B; David F Wright, J. I. (James Innell) Packer (1988). New Dictionary of Theology. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press. ISBN 0830814000.
- This list of 'principles' in conservative evangelical hermeneutics appears to derive from: Hartill, J E 1960. Principles of Biblical Hermeneutics. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
- Presented by the Pontifical Biblical Commission (1993-04-23). "The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church". http://catholic-resources.org/ChurchDocs/PBC_Interp5.htm. Retrieved 2007-05-21.
- Grudem, Wayne. "Review of "A Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic" and "Gender Equality and Homosexuality" by William J. Webb". Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. http://www.cbmw.org/Resources/Book-Reviews/A-Redemptive-Movement-Hermeneutic-and-Gender-Equality-and-Homosexuality-by-William-J-Webb-from-Discovering-Biblical-Equality. Retrieved 2007-10-06.
- Webb, William J. (2002). Slaves, Women and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis. Authentic Media. ISBN 1842271865.
- Biblical Interpretation and Application Reading Room. Extensive online resources for contemporary biblical hermeneutics (Tyndale Seminary)
- Issues in Hermeneutics by Prof. Herman C. Hanko
- Bibliology and Hermeneutics Course featuring audio and video resources from an Evangelical perspective
- Basic Rules for New Testament Exegesis
- Rev.Dr. Jose Puthenveed, "Psybible Interpretation of The Bible Passages through tools of Psychology " A Website Interpreting Biblical passages ( Sunday Homlies) using Psychology and Biblical scholarship, Website
- BiblicalStudies.org.uk Offers detailed bibliographies and numerous scholarly articles on various aspects of biblical hermeneutics.
- Hermeneutics - A Guide To Basic Bible Interpretation, By Darryl M. Erkel (Evangelical)