Updated: Jul 5
Hermeneutics Defined and The Role of the Original Readers
Hermeneutics is to biblical interpretation as procedural mathematics is to solving equations. The science behind biblical interpretation involves multiple applications similar to solutions to mathematical problems. There is more than one approach to concluding that the sum of five plus two is seven. Using only one method of understanding Scripture's meaning or interpreting God's Word will lead to misinterpretation and false conclusions.
In Nehemiah 8:1-8, we have the first record of Hermeneutics in practice. As Ezra, the "Father of Hermeneutics," read from the Book of the Law, he made it clear and gave intended meaning to the text so that the people could understand the written Word. The passage in Nehemiah states the essence of what Hermeneutics is all about. During the exile, the written Word had been neglected and forgotten for many years. For seventy years, the children of Israel exiled in Babylon created the need for translation from Hebrew to Aramaic. Following their return from exile, a whole new generation had renewed zeal to learn the Word of God. However, Hermeneutical principles of interpretation had to be developed and applied before the text's true meaning could be understood. The cultural setting (the role of the original readers) had set the stage. In his book, Thiselton explains that "Hermeneuein is the Greek verb that means "to express," "to explain," "to translate," "to interpret." J. C. Dannhaur used the term first in the 1600s when he used it in reference to Bible interpretation."
In addition to figures of speech and prepositional language, I will include examples from the book of Revelation to describe the kind of impact this particular participant provides to discover the meaning of a text. We cannot and must not create meaning out of a text. Language is more than just words. The languages in one part of the world are very different from those in other parts of the world. Even within the United States, the words forming sentences and how the sentences are used vary significantly. For example, if I am fixin' dinner in Texas, a New Yorker may wonder if dinner is broken or they may also be fixing dinner with a "g". If I am surfing in Hawaii, someone else may be surfing on their computer in the office within the same state but not on the water as likely presupposed. "I'm all ears" is not taken literally. In some parts of the country, a pop is different than a soda. A person with a Texan drawl is clearly distinguished from a person with a New York accent. Figures of speech may exist universally but are universally different. A person may be busier than a one-armed paperhanger; another is working at Mach-three with their hair on fire. "Walking like a new-born calf" might not be as relevant in New York as in Texas. "Nervous as a cat in a room full of rockers" is also descriptive and metaphorical. Prepositional language works well in casual climates. Concrete absolutes are what we desire in formal dialog.
Genre influences how something is to be understood. We expect differences between the romance movie and the triller. Escape literature is different than interpretive. We expect apocalyptic literature to have bizarre happenings with trumpets, plagues, stars, scrolls, and numbers. And we expect the animals to be strangely configured. The metaphoric language is not to be taken literally while at the same time we cannot disregard the mere metaphor. The Lord is a warrior, but the helmet of salvation is not an actual helmet. Being like a lion is different than being a lion. Consuming the Word through the intellect is different than eating a scroll.
It can rain cats and dogs, figuratively. It can figuratively rain three cats and four dogs. Numbers are symbolic or figurative in the book of Revelation as well as literal. The number seven is symbolic of perfection. The 144,000 is figurative of the tribes or symbolic of humanity. Jesus symbolically portrayed as a Lamb with the metaphorical seven horns and seven eyes creates a much different image of our risen Savior. Six is half of a dozen but is the fullness of creation in Genesis 1:26–31. Half of seven is three-and-a-half, broken from the perfect number seven. Three-and-a-half years is 1260 days, but 1260 divided by the perfect seven is 180. If you turn 180 degrees, you turn opposite as one does in repentance from sin.
The immensity of one thousand is seemingly dwarfed if ten horns or ten diadems signify unlimited authority. Some treat all of the numbers used in Revelation literally, and some treat them as symbolic or figuratively. I treat some literally, some symbolically or figuratively, and some as either. The three woes of the angels can be literal three woes, and for Satan to be bound for one thousand years can mean being bound for a long time. Four horsemen and seven plagues are easier to conceptualize than the New Jerusalem at the height of 12,000 stadia, rising 1400 miles. What would that do to earth's orbit? Perhaps the New Earth could handle something rising miles above oxygen. Why not take the 1400-mile length by the 1400-mile width by the 1400-mile height literally? "Mass and gravity are child's play to the Creator." God's throne is symbolic of power and authority but a throne is also an actual physical object.
The book of Revelation, indeed the Bible, challenges us to look beyond the curtain through lenses borrowed from the world-wide, lost-and-found bin. We are to perform an analysis of the biblical text in the language of its original author, the grammar and lexicon of the day. If we interpret everything in Revelation as only symbolic, nothing is real, and everything is "up for grabs" in terms of interpretation. One can spin the tail of fanciful interpretation around and sling heresy between book covers to intimidate some people into believing they are not smart enough to understand the Word of God. Yet God provides the sovereign gift of insight, "And He said to them, 'To you it has been given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God; but to those who are outside, all things come in parables, so that seeing they may see and not perceive, and hearing they may hear and not understand; lest they should turn, and their sins be forgiven them'" (Mark 4:11–12).
The preceding paragraphs are purposefully non-sequential, a random spilling of information about figures of speech and prepositional language to help us understand that much of the use of time in Revelation must be understood as non-sequential and non-linear. The Greek Word Chronos is used to describe the more quantitative aspect of time, and something Westerners are more accustomed to than Kairos, the Greek Word for a more qualitative part of an appropriate opportunity. This difference is significant for western readers since Kairos is used almost twice as much in Revelation as is Chronos. Therefore, when we read, "there was silence in Heaven for about half an hour" (Rev. 8:1), let us not set our chronometers, our clocks, for thirty minutes.
The role of the reader is not merely important. The part of the reader is critically essential. Today’s self-centered western reader views the text through "me-lenses" and hears the spoken word in a language Jesus never spoke. We are self-absorbed, self-medicated, and self-entitled to the promises of the Bible. The reader realizing there is no "me" in a relationship, finds a genuine connection. It cannot be all about "me." We learn self-reliance, independence, and individual interpretation of God's word at our peril. Instead of telling others what Scripture means to one personally or even how it applies to one personally, we need to focus on how it applies to us as the body of Christ. Jesus condemned the church of Laodicea for depending on their wealth and self-sufficiency instead of God's provision. Let us not conflate meaning with the application.
Let us take ourselves out of the center and know that the Bible was written for us, not to us. Peter walked on water. Should we attempt walking on water? For a reader to think the "you" in Matthew 5:20 is directed to them is but one example of misreading Scripture. Jesus was addressing Jewish groups of the time and within the context of fulfilling the law. However, Jesus demanding deeper obedience does not introduce any contradiction in this passage.
There is no contradiction in Scripture. It means what it means. The Bible also does not have different levels of meaning. Spiritual meaning must lie within the text and not from human speculation. Within the same culture, Scripture cannot mean something for one person but something other to another. That opens the door for contradiction. The application of Scripture can and often is different between people within or even between cultures. How Scripture applies varies significantly. The authors of our textbook, Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes, suggest that we should try to answer the question "What did this passage mean to the original audience?" before asking, "How does this passage apply to me?" I understand their suggestion in the context of what it was they were trying to explain, but they wrote this a few sentences after stating that the "Bible means what it means." A safer approach for them would be to maintain their earlier convictions and ask, "How did this passage apply to the original audience?"
Alcorn, Randy. Heaven. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2004.
Duvall, J. Scott, and J. Daniel Hays. Grasping God's Word—A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2005.
Richards, E. Randolph, and Brandon J. O'Brien. Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes—Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2012.
Thiselton, Anthony C. New horizons in Hermeneutics: The Theory and Practice of Transforming Biblical Reading. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.
 Anthony C. Thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics, 194.  Alcorn, Heaven, 491.  Duvall and Hays, Grasping God’s Word, 202.  Richards and O’Brien, Misreading Scripture, 208.  Richards and O’Brien, Misreading Scripture, 208