Biblical Hermeneutics - Lesson 1

Early Beginnings (Part 1)

Understanding the roots of the English language and knowing the history of the English translations of the Bible gives you a context that can help you understand the meaning of the passage you are reading. 

Robert Stein
Biblical Hermeneutics
Lesson 1
Watching Now
Early Beginnings (Part 1)

NT510-01 Biblical Hermeneutics: Early Beginnings, Part 1

I. Introduction

A. Definition of Biblical Hermeneutics

B. Importance of Biblical Hermeneutics

II. Early Beginnings of Biblical Interpretation

A. Jewish Interpretation before the Babylonian Exile

B. Jewish Interpretation during the Babylonian Exile

C. Jewish Interpretation after the Babylonian Exile

III. New Testament Interpretation in Early Christianity

A. The Use of the Old Testament in Early Christian Interpretation

B. The Interpretation of Jesus' Teachings

C. The Interpretation of Paul's Writings

IV. Conclusion

A. Summary of Early Beginnings of Biblical Interpretation

B. Importance of Understanding Early Beginnings for Modern Interpretation

  • Understanding the roots of the English language and knowing the history of the English translations of the Bible gives you a context that can help you understand the meaning of the passage you are reading. 

  • After William Tyndale published the first Bible in English in 1539 that was translated from the Hebrew and Greek texts, King James of England assembled a team of top scholars to create an English translation that was published in 1611. More recent translations are still being made to reflect new manuscript discoveries and changes in the English language. 

  • There is no such thing as an exact word equivalent when going from one language to another. Different languages as well as different cultures pose a challenge for translators. It's important to use the best manuscripts for your translation.

  • A few of the challenges that translators face are for the translation to be accurate but understandable, contemporary but universal, and to avoid a theological bias. Contemporary languages are always changing, and each translator holds theological beliefs based on years of training and experience. 

  • Inerrancy of the Bible is an important foundation for the process of translation. Some translations focus more on "word-for-word" equivalents and some focus more on "thought-for-thought" equivalents. Some translations include footnotes to explain a verse that is ambiguous or controversial. 

  • The three components that determine meaning in written communication are the author, the text and the reader. In determining the meaning of Biblical passages, it's important to know as much as possible about all three components. 

  • The author of a passage made an intentional effort to communicate a message. It is the job of the reader to determine the meaning and implications of the message by studying the text itself, then evaluating the literary form and other contextual factors. 

  • The first step in interpretation is to focus on the pattern of meaning the author consciously willed to convey by the words they used. Then, the implications of the text may also include meanings in the text of which the author was unaware but fall within the author's pattern of meaning.

  • It's important to define your terms when you are determining the interpretation and application of Biblical passages. Your goal is to begin by hearing the message of a passage as the author intended it and the first readers would have understood it. 

  • The written word correctly interpreted is the objective basis of authority. The inward illuminating and persuading work of the Holy Spirit is the subjective dimension. When 1 Cor. 2:14 says that an unspiritual man cannot understand Scritpure, it is referring to his lack of acceptance rather than his mental grasp of the words. 

  • You will gain a comprehensive understanding of the role of the Holy Spirit in relation to believers, the church, and the world. The lesson covers the Holy Spirit's work in the regeneration and sanctification of believers, empowering and guiding them, unifying the church, bestowing spiritual gifts, the conviction of sin, righteousness, and judgment, and drawing people to God. The conclusion summarizes the Holy Spirit's impact on all aspects of life.

  • Your presuppositions about whether or not the miracles in the Bible took place as they are recorded will affect the way you look at the Bible and at specific events. Three approaches to this question are the supernatural approach, rationalist approach and the mythical approach. 

  • Kinds of meaning and types of meaning are two of the main ideas in the book, "The Language and Imagery of the Bible," by G. B. Caird. Proverbs are short, pithy sayings that express a general truth. Exceptions are allowed. A good example of an exception to a proverb is the book of Job.

  • Judgment prophecy assumes that, even if not stated, if the people repent, judgment will not come. Prophets also tend to speak in figurative language, using cosmic terminology. 

  • The prophets use figurative and metaphorical language to describe future events and spiritual reality. They also use cosmic language to describe God acting in history. 

  • Dr. Stein discusses the possibility of a sensus plenior in some passages. In Mark 13, Jesus talks about coming events that are also prophesied in the Old Testament. 

  • Judges chapters 4 and 5 describe the same events. Chapter 4 uses prose, chapter 5 uses poetry. The book of Psalms is a collection of songs, prayers and reflections about human emotions, and God, his character and his work in the world. 

  • Jesus uses parallelism in the Gospels to illustrate and emphasize who God is and what the kingdom of God is like. In order to understand an idiom, you first need to identify it as an idiom and then determine what the meaning is in the culture.  

  • Exaggeration is overstatement. Hyperbole is literally impossible. When using exaggeration, both parties must agree that the expression is an exaggeration. Jesus uses exaggeration to emphasize and illustrate important teachings. 

  • Jesus uses exaggeration to make his point clear, especially on matters of morality, but doesn't take the time to discuss possible exceptions. Jesus also uses all-inclusive and universal language, as well as idiomatic language that no longer bears its original meaning. 

  • Some of the early church writers and the reformers interpreted parables, like the parable of the Good Samaritan, as allegories. 

  • Adolf Jülicher taught that parables tend to have one basic point of comparison, and the details are just there to make the story interesting. So you should try to understand what’s the main point of the parable. To begin with, seek to understand the parable as the first century audience would have. Consider what the Gospel writers were trying to teach. Ask how it applies to you in your current situation. 

  • In the parable of the hidden treasure and the parable of the pearl of great price, the message of the value of the kingdom of God is more important than the character of the man. In the parable of the ten virgins and the parable of the dishonest manager, it's important to focus on the main point of the parable and not to get distracted by the details. The parable of the lost sheep teaches us to pursue the lost. 

  • When interpreting the parable of the workers, determine the main characters, consider the rule of end stress and pay attention to what gets the most press. 

  • Some parables are best interpreted as an allegory. It's important to ask if Jesus with his audience would have attributed meaning to these details and if the audience of the Gospel writers would have understood the details as being allegorical. 

  • When you are determining how you should apply the parable of the final judgment in Matthew 25: 31-46, who Jesus is referring to when he says, "...just as you did it to one of the least of these, my brethren, you did it to me." In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus makes a point about what causes people to believe in him or to not believe in him. 

  • You read and interpret a passage that is historical narrative differently than a passage that is prophecy, poetry or a parable. Much of the historical information in the Bible is confirmed by archaeological discoveries including literature from other contemporary cultures. In the 1700's there was a group of scholars that began questioning whether the miraculous events in the Bible were supernatural. They tried to find meaning in the stories without saying that a miracle happened assumed that the real meaning is not the same as the author's literal intention. They did this by finding the meaning of the words, then conducting a historical assessment of what really happened. 

  • Supernaturalists believe that the miracles the Gospel writers recorded were supernatural events. The rationalists believe that either the Gospel writers knew that miracles did not take place, but they were accommodating their readers who did believe in miracles, or that they really believed them but they were just myths. This would require the Gospel writers to be liars or not very smart, neither of which seem consistent with the care and precision with which the Gospels were written. When you are preaching a narrative passage, it's important to include the whole context when you are interpreting the meaning of the events.

  • When interpreting the epistles, it's important to identify which words are used frequently, what the meaning of the words are and how the author uses them. It can be helpful to study the etymology of words and the meaning of words in their historical context. The process of moving from norms of language to norms of utterance is important. 

  • We can get information about the meaning of words from studying ancient Greek literature, the writings of early church fathers and the translators of the Hebrew Old Testament. We can also compare letters written by the same author, and also how the word is used within the same letter or passage. It can be helpful to look at the way different authors use the same word. 

  • Once you determine the meaning of the words, it's important to recognize how they are used in the sentence and how the clauses in the sentence are related. Understanding the different ways clauses can be used will help you determine the meaning of each sentence. The distinction between "means" and "cause" is significant. 

  • Romans 13:1-7 is a good example of the development of a logical argument. Most of the epistles follow the form of an ancient letter, which is greeting or salutation, thanksgiving or prayer, body of the letter and conclusion. 

  • Two types of covenants are the parity covenant and suzerain covenant. Covenant language is used in both the Old Testament and New Testament. The parts of a covenant, illustrated in the Mosaic covenant in Exodus 20, are the preamble, prologue, stipulations, provision for continual reading and witnesses.

  • God renews his covenant with Israel in Joshua 24. The three types of laws in the Old Testament are civil laws, cultic laws and moral laws. 

  • The book of Psalms is divided into five sections. The Psalms were written by different people at different times for different purposes. Some were for public worship and some were the result of personal reflection in times of joy, distress or repentance. 

  • In Jesus's day, the Scripture was the books of the Old Testament. Many of the books of the New Testament were written before 70 a.d. The Gospel writers produced a written record of the life of Jesus. Paul and other apostles wrote to churches to encourage and teach them. Eusebius, a church historian in 325a.d., recorded a list of the books that are currently in the New Testament.

  • Factors in recognizing the books that make up the New Testament were apostolic authorship, use in the church over time, unity and agreement and the superintendence of the Holy Spirit. The writing of the books of the Bible was inspired by God and it is inerrant. 

Dr. Robert Stein covers the history of the English Bible and then moves into the rules for interpreting the biblical text, including the role of the Holy Spirit in the hermeneutical process. He then spends considerable time moving through the different genres of literature (e.g., proverbs, poetry, parables, narrative). Dr. Stein did not provide us the notes he refers to in the class, but we did place links for the books he used as a basis for the class on the class page under the Recommended Reading heading.

Recommended Books

Biblical Hermeneutics - Student Guide

Biblical Hermeneutics - Student Guide

How do you even start to study your Bible? What are the guiding principles? Are the rules for interpreting narrative any different from parables and apocalyptic literature?...

Biblical Hermeneutics - Student Guide


I. Overview of the Course

The purpose of our course is to introduce students to a brief history of the English Bible. Nowhere in the curriculum before we organized the hermeneutics class, was there a place where every student would be getting an introduction to the history of the English Bible.  It seemed incredible that a person could graduate from seminary without  having some overview of, “How did we get  this English Bible of ours?” So we will begin that.  It is also a helpful introduction to the issue of hermeneutics.

We start tonight with a brief history of the English Bible and then we are going to seek to understand the goal of interpretation, what part presuppositions play in interpretation, the role of genre in interpretation, how to arrive at the meaning of an ancient text, as well as the present significance. The major goal of this course will be to master the technical hermeneutical vocabulary found in R. H. Stein’s,  A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible.

II. Recommended Reading

There are three texts: Klein,  Blomberg, and Hubbard,  “Introduction to Biblical Interpretation”. That was out of print for a while, but it is in print again; the second is “Stein’s Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible”; and the other is Paul Wegner, “The Journey from Text to Translation.”  That is a really good text. It fills in a lot of things in this area that I could not find elsewhere.

A lot of books have been written on hermeneutics in the last 15 years. It is simply incredible to try to keep up with them.  I think I can honestly say that of all the books I have read so far, there is none I agree with more than the “Stein” one, and that is why we are going to be using it. I think you will find it very user-friendly and helpful.

III. Goal of the Course

By the end of this class, you will have an understanding of hermeneutics that will make clear just what interpreting the Bible is all about, an understanding you did not have before. I guarantee that.  The best part of it will be to master a vocabulary of definitions. There will be 12 terms or so, expressions that we will carefully define. That will become the framework in which we will understand the issues and discuss them.

I will give definitions to these terms and there are other definitions that you can find elsewhere.  But in this class, we will always use the same definitions.  It is kind of silly to talk about meanings when you have a different understanding of what that term means, and you talk at cross purposes. So we will have a specific vocabulary that we will use precisely time and time again and it will become second nature. You will find that will be very, very helpful.

By taking this course, you will arrive at an understanding of how the Bible was translated into the English language. We will talk about some of the various translations, their strengths, and weaknesses. We will develop a conceptual framework in vocabulary, which explains the role of the author and reader.  We will distinguish different genres of Biblical literature and understand the basic rules involved in that in those particular genres.  Similarly, you don’t interpret a medical report the same way you interpret a love poem. The Bible is filled with different kinds of genres and there are different rules that the editors expected people would understand about them. But over the millennia, we have lost sight of some of the rules and some of the principles of these genres and we will re-learn them in class. We will seek to understand how to interpret various approaches.



The following lecture is provided by Biblical Training. The speaker is Dr. Robert Stein. More information is available at www.BiblicalTraining.org.

I. Early Beginnings to the Present

A. The Making of the English Language

I want to talk about the translation of the Bible into English. We have to remember, of course, that there was no such thing as an English language when the Bible was written. Actually, English is an amalgam of various kinds of dialects and the English language begins roughly in the 5th century when Germanic tribes left the continent of Europe and came to England. The main three tribes were the Angles, from which we get England; the Saxons, these were a Germanic group from the Holstein region; and the Jutes. The Jutes were out of Denmark. If any of you are history buffs, in World War I the greatest naval battle in the world was the Battle of Jutland – the British Naval Forces and the German Navy slugged it out with one another. The Battle of Jutland was off of Denmark, the Jutland Peninsula.

1. Anglo-Saxon dialect

As they came to England, they were not taking vacation cruises, they came to conquer, and they did. As they settled in England, there developed a common dialect out of these Germanic tribes which was called Anglo-Saxon  or Old English. If any of you have studied German, you will note that a lot of the vocabulary in German is very, very similar. I have listed some of them: House, spelled differently, pronounced the same way; shoe; glass of water; book; finger; knee; glass; hand; fire; boat, same; blue; white; road; student. So, lots of words are similar. The reason is very clear. English comes out in part from the German language.     

2. French influence

In the 11th century William the Conqueror, who was a Norman in France,  conquered the English in 1066 at the Battle of Hastings, introduced the longbow at that time and brought magnificent victory to the French. It was kind of a reverse of D-Day in 1944. Here was the Normandy people going over to England, rather than the reverse. That brought then a Norman or French invasion and the influence of the French language came. The French language worked with the Anglo-Saxon. You throw a little Latin in there and put it in a whirring blender, you get English, our English. So that is the way the English language originated.

In the earliest period, the Bible of the people of England was the Latin Vulgate. It is the Bible of the Church. Most people could not read, however. In fact, a lot of the priests could not read. So, in effect, people learned their Christianity from the art of the church, the paintings of the church. I don’t know if you have gone to any of the old cathedrals in Europe. Stained glass windows. These were pages of the Bible, so to speak. You would learn your Bible stories through them. The preaching was lousy, look to the windows, and you read your Bible this way, or something like that. You would go to a door in a church and there were carvings of Bible stories all over the door. Anything that was art was primarily associated with the art of the Christian Faith and many people learned their Bible from these things.

There were other ways people learned about the Christian Faith, not only the preaching of the church and so forth. There were groups called troubadours, people who would have ability to sing and go from village to village, and they would sing, and people would learn the Bible. Some troubadour would come to your little town and he would start singing, “Only a boy named David, only a little sling. Only a boy named David, but oh, how he could sing”, and they would sing the story about David. We do the same with our children.  A cool way of learning, especially for people who can’t read or write, like our children at that age. They can learn stories, but they can’t read or write. “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he” and so forth. They would sing the Bible stories and this is the way people would learn them.

B. Early Translations

In the Old English dialect, beginning at around the 600s, the Bible began to be translated into Anglo-Saxon, not English, but Old English, the pre-French influenced English.  Sedman around the 7th century put into poetry and song the Biblical stories. Aldhelm, who died in 709, translated The Psalms into Anglo-Saxon, the Lord’s prayer, the Decalogue. Interesting. Psalms, you need to sing, that is what you sing. The Lord’s prayer, you have to pray together. And the Decalogue, moral instructions, those basic needs of the Church were first dealt with. They didn’t start out translating the book of Leviticus into Anglo-Saxon, but those which were most crucial to the worship of the Church. Then Venerable Bede by his death, the Gospels have been translated into Anglo-Saxon. It is debated as to how much he personally translated, but he was very much responsible for seeing that it was translated. But this is all Old English or Anglo-Saxon.

1. John Wycliffe

The first real approach to translating the Bible into English would be William of Shoreham, 1325, who translated the various psalms into English, not Old English, but English. The first major name, however, who comes across in the history of the English Bible is a man named John Wycliffe. This is the Old English kind of spelling. If you look at a Bible back in the 1600, 1700, they will spell it in this manner. John Wycliffe produced the first Bible in the English language in 1382. He really was a kind of pre-Luther/Calvin reformer. He convinced a lot of people who were priestly and these priests would go around sharing the Bible and the message of the Bible with other people. He did not know Greek or Hebrew, so what he did was to translate the Bible from the language he did know which it was in, and that was the Latin Vulgate. So the Wycliffe translation was a translation of the Vulgate, which was a translation of the Greek and Hebrew. You say, that’s not real good, you should go from the Greek and the Hebrew. If Wycliffe were here, he would say, “What do you want, nothing? Or from the Vulgate”. The answer is sure, anything, we don’t have anything, so the Vulgate was really fine.

As people began to hear the Scriptures read, they began to notice a lot of things which caused problems and that is, that the character of the clergy and a lot of the political leaders did not match what they were reading in the Bible, and they became critical of the church. They became critical of their political leaders as well. The result was that the ecclesiastic or similar authorities began to cramp out on this and said, “Let’s put an end to this” and by 1414, it then became a capital offense to be found reading the Bible in the English language. For just reading the Bible in the English language,  you could get executed. I wonder how many people in our churches would be reading the Bible if that was the alternative. But they did that.

With Wycliffe it was too late because Wycliffe died in 1384, some 30 years earlier; so what they did was to dig up his body and then they burned his bones at the stake. We laugh at that, but there has been a recent survey among translators and well over 98% said this is the way they prefer. This translation occurs before the printing press. So they are handwritten copies and there are handwritten sections of the Bible that the Lollards were selling. They were like Bible booksellers who went around selling passages and teaching from those passages.  The result was that if you were going to start a mission society whose basic goal was to translate the Bible into the language of the people and you were living in and coming out of the English-speaking world, you might think of the name Wycliffe Bible Translators, because he was the first to really begin the translation of the Bible into English. He did the whole Bible that way.

2. William Tyndale

The next person who comes along comes after the printing press. His name is William Tyndale. He produces the first printed New Testament. Remember, Wycliffe has already done the whole Bible, but it is handwritten. This is the first printed New Testament, it appears in 1526. It was not published in England because there was opposition to this. It was printed in Worms, Germany, the place where the reformation was centered and very active. He did something in translating the New Testament that revealed right away that he was a Luther supporter. Tactically, that might not have been a wise thing to do because Henry VIII, the King of England, had received a medal from the Pope for resisting the Lutheran doctrine in England. During a meeting later on, on opening his New Testament, he noticed there was kind of a Lutheran translation. It was evident because in the introduction, the preface, he used the term, “justification” and talked about the need for justification. He used other words that were not the Church’s words. He used the word, “repentance” instead of “doing penance”. He used the word, “congregation” instead of “church”. He used the word, “elder” rather than “priest”. But I think the clearest indication of all was his order of the New Testament. Luther has an unusual order in his New Testament. The last four books of the Lutheran New Testament are not 1, 2,  3 John, Jude, Revelation like we have, but Hebrews, James, Jude, Revelation. Very unusual order.  I think it partly involved his evaluation of those books, he didn’t like some of them, James especially, and Revelation and the like.

When the Tyndale New Testament came out, everybody knew this guy is pro-Luther because his order is the same. He also translated large parts of the Old Testament. Some were destroyed, some were burned as he was fleeing, and the result was that he never completely finished that. There was a lot of opposition to this and the result was that they sought to destroy the various new testaments. There is some irony in this because the Church would go about trying to collect Lutheran New Testaments and some of the merchants were approached and told, “We can get some of these New Testaments for you, we will collect them.” They were actually some supporters of Tyndale; so they were saying, “We can sell them, make profit and make more”. So they were selling to some of the clergy these New Testaments, making profit so they could make even more New Testaments and sell them this way.

The attempt to destroy the Tyndale New Testament was really very effective. There were something like 18,000 printed New Testaments. Only two still remain, one in the British Library in London and the other in the Baptist Bible College in London. Listen to how some of the religious leaders oppose this. The Bishop of London fumed against the maintainers of Luther’s sect that have craftily translated the New Testament into our English language. Cardinal Wolsey assured the people that no burnt offering could be more pleasing to Almighty God than the burning of a Tyndale New Testament. Another man by the name of Cochlea says, “The New Testament translated into the Vulgate tongue, meaning the common everyday language, is in truth the food of death, the fuel of sin, the veil of malice, the pretext of false liberty, the protection of disobedience, the corruption of discipline, the depravity of morals, the termination of concord, the death of honesty, the wellspring of vices, the disease of virtues, the instigation of rebellion,  the milk of pride, the nourishment of contempt, the death of peace, and destruction of charity, the enemy of unity, the murderer of truth. If you read very carefully between the lines, you get the impression he didn’t like it very much. So there was this attempt to wipe out the Tyndale New Testaments. Tyndale himself was living at the time in Antwerp, Belgium, which was an open city, neither Catholic nor Protestant. He was kidnapped by followers of Henry VIII and in 1536 in the little town named Vilvoorde outside of Brussels, he was burned at the stake. His last words were, “Lord, open the eyes of the King of England.” If someone were about to strangle me or burn me, I don’t know if I would say that. I might have some other choice words. Who knows. God does promise that at such times the Spirit will be present and we will be able to do things like Stephen does: “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge” as he is being stoned, and blessed rather than cursed. A good example.

Tyndale was an excellent translator. He had a mastery of the Greek and Hebrew languages. He not only knew the languages,  the original languages, but he had a tremendous ability to translate that into good English. You say, “When I look at Tyndale’s writing, it sounds very archaic”. It wasn’t archaic in 1530, it was very modern. When the King James version is later translated in 1611, with regard to the New Testament, 90% of our King James version is simply Tyndale. He did a masterful, masterful job. A great translator. A great martyr of the Faith.

3. Miles Coverdale

When he dies, his work is followed by a number of his coworkers. For instance, Miles Coverdale was one of his disciples and he completes and publishes a complete printed English Bible. Pay attention, this is the first printed Bible in completion.  Wycliffe had a Bible, but it was handwritten. This is the first printed Bible in the English language in completion. He had been a coworker with Tyndale. He did not know Greek or Hebrew, however. What he did was some minor revisions of the New Testament and he did the Old Testament by taking that which Tyndale himself had already done and then the parts that he had to do for himself, he translated from the Latin Vulgate and from Luther’s German. The result was to come out with a Bible. He also was the first person up to that time who separated the books of the Apocrypha from the Old Testament.  If you come from a Roman Catholic background, the books of the Apocrypha, 1, 2 Maccabbees,  Tobit, Judith, are intermingled in the Old Testament. The reformers had to wrestle with the issue, what books belong in our Bible? We will talk more about that at the end of the semester when we talk about the canon of Scripture: Which books measure up to the canon of Scripture. They concluded for various reasons we will discuss then. The Apocrypha did not measure up and were not to be understood as Scripture. So they separated them out of the Old Testament, put them in between the Old Testament and the New Testament.

English translations continued to have them in the Bible, between the Old and the New Testaments, indicating they were separate from those two, until sometime around the 1700s. Then there was a large, massive attempt in England to produce cheap Bibles so that everybody in England could read and have their own Bible. One way you could make it cheaper was to leave out the Apocrypha. Since they did not think this was part of Scripture, they did so from then on, there was a tendency not to have them in the Bible.