Biblical Hermeneutics - Lesson 3

Hermeneutical Issues (Part 1)

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.

Robert Stein
Biblical Hermeneutics
Lesson 3
Watching Now
Hermeneutical Issues (Part 1)

I. Introduction to Hermeneutical Issues in the New Testament

A. Overview of Hermeneutics

B. The Importance of Understanding Context

II. The Historical and Cultural Context of the New Testament

A. The Political and Social Context of the New Testament World

B. The Religious Context of the New Testament World

III. The Literary Context of the New Testament

A. Understanding Genre in New Testament Literature

B. Understanding Structure in New Testament Literature

IV. The Theological Context of the New Testament

A. Overview of the Theology of the New Testament

B. Understanding the Theological Flow of the New Testament

V. Conclusion

A. Summary of Key Points

B. Final Thoughts on Hermeneutical Issues in the New Testament


  • 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


II. Hermeneutical  Issues Involved in Translation

A. There is no on-to-one correspondence between languages

We want  to talk about  the philosophy of Bible translation.  C. H. Dodd made the statement – he was involved in the RSV -, “The first axiom the art of translation is that there is no such thing as an exact  equivalence of  meaning between words  in different languages.” Languages are a part of culture and no two cultures are the same, so we have a problem. For instance,  the word “spirit” in English has a number of possibilities. The norms of language for that word can have a variety of understandings. You can talk about a ghost, you can talk about the Holy Spirit, you can talk about  the soul, or something like that, you can talk about alcoholic spirits and the like. In German there is a word, “geist” and there is an overlapping of these, but they are not identical.  You can’t talk about  an alcoholic “geist.” In Greek you have the word, “duma,” talking about the spirit of man, talking about  the Holy Spirit, but you can’t talk about alcoholic  “duma.” So, what you have is the realization that  there is overlapping of  words, but identical synonyms  and all of the possibilities you  just can’t find. So when you go from one language to another, you have a problem. 

Let me give you an example of that. In 1975 my family and I went to Germany and we spent our sabbatical in Heidelberg.  My oldest two children, Julie and Keith, attended   Bundson Gymnasium that year.  How do you translate that in English?  They spent the year at the  Bundson Gym, played basketball and soccer and all those things.  Gymnasium is the name of the school , it was an academic thing.  What grade were they in? They were in fifth and sixth grade.  Then why do you say they went to Bundson Junior High? A little problem.  This junior high, so to speak, went from fifth grade to 13th grade. Why don’t you just say, they went to high school? Well, there is another  problem. That is, when a student in Germany graduates from fourth grade, grades one to four are “grundschule,” foundation school. They all go there. But after that, they go to one of three kinds of schools. They go to “fachschule,”  beginning in fifth grade, where they learn a trade, electrician, carpentry, things of that nature. They can go to “middleschule,” where they learn how to be in business and economics, or they can go to “gymnasium,” in which you study only for the university.  There is another problem here. There were three gymnasiums in Heidelberg.  There was a science gymnasium with majors in biology, science, chemistry, physics, math. There was another one which was a modern language gymnasium and there was a classical language gymnasium. They went to the modern language gymnasium.

Now, do you understand where my children went?  There is no English equivalent. What do you do to simply translate that? You put, “They went to Bundson Gymnasium with a footnote with a large paragraph explaining it:  gymnasiums are schools in Germany where after fifth grade students go to prepare for university, goes from grades five to 13. Or, you try to find an equivalent .  That’s the problem.

A Biblical problem like that is found in Matthew, chapter 1, beginning at verse 18. In 1:18 we read, “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way, when his mother  Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit. And her husband  Joseph,being a just man and not willing to put her shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered this, behold an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream  saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, you will call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. All this took place to fulfill what was written by the prophet: “Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and his name shall be called  “Immanuel” which  means, “God with us.” When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took his wife, but knew her not until she had bourn a son. And he called his name Jesus.”

What is the relationship of Joseph and Mary? In verse 18 they are betrothed.  Verse 19, Joseph is the husband thinking of divorcing her. Verse 20, Mary is his wife. And in verse 24, Mary is again referred to as his wife. Now, are they engaged? Are they married? What is going on here? And the answer is, “Yes.” There is no English word . Joseph and Mary in the culture of that day had entered into a legally binding engagement  in which they were considered  husband and wife, although the sexual consummation had not yet taken place.  To break that engagement, you had to divorce her. So you can’t say they are engaged, simply using English words, because engagement  for a lot of American young people think of  is kind of like going steady. It is not going steady, it is a legally binding situation in which you can only break  through divorce.  And if she has a sexual relationship with someone else, this is adultery.  So it is a different culture, a different relation. How do you translate that? A problem.  How do you translate  to Eskimos in Northern Canada  that  he is like a sheep  led to the slaughter?  There aren’t sheep up there.  What do you say? He was led like a four-footed animal  whose skin people peel  to make clothing? Do you say, “He is led like a seal pup to the slaughter? “ How do you convey to a different culture  something that is different in your culture?  And the Bible has problems that way.

Do you see the difficulty? Some people get so exasperated  and say, “They will never  understand.” That is not true. That is to over-exaggerate the problem. You can explain and people can understand. You understand what kind of school my son Keith and my daughter Julie went to. You understand the relationship of Joseph and Mary. The problem  is when you try to translate this, there are often not  good English equivalent words that you can use. So this is the major problem.

B. A good translation should:

1. be based on the best manuscripts

If you are going to have a translation, what are the qualities that we want to find in such a translation? The first thing to note is that  a translation can never  be better than the text  they use. So what  you want to do is to base your translation on the best Greek and Hebrew manuscripts that are available. When  Tyndale translated the New Testament he used for his Greek text a printed edition by a man named Erasmus. Erasmus was a leading Renaissance scholar, a brilliant man. A publisher came to Erasmus and said to him, “They are producing a Greek translation in Spain,  a polyglot of various translations of various languages. And the publisher said to Erasmus, “I think there is a big market  for a Greek printed text. Can you produce one and beat the Spanish product?” And so Erasmus worked on it, he went  in 1516 to the library in Basel and he had four Greek manuscripts that he found, dating from the 12th to the 14th century. He used those four Greek manuscripts to produce this Greek text, which later became so popular, it was called “the textus receptus,” the text everybody receives and uses.  Some interesting things. None of those four Greek manuscripts had the last six verses of the Book of Revelation . So what he did was get a Latin vulgate and translated  the Latin into Greek for those last verses. Needless to say,  he has the translation that in part is not found in any Greek manuscript  of the Book of Revelation  that has ever been seen before.

Since that time, we have come across some 5,500 additional Greek manuscripts in part or in whole.  Since that time we have come across fragments and whole manuscripts that are up to 1,000 years older than the one used in Erasmus’s Greek text. That Greek text was the one Tyndale used and the revision of that was the one the King James version translators used.

Since the King James version has come out, what we have now are thousands of additional manuscripts, some of which are much, much older.  What should we do with these additional manuscripts? Should  we just say, “Get rid of them, they just cause problems.” There is a sense that ignorance is bliss, right? If we only had four, it would be a lot easier. Now you have 5,000 of in the deal, it is much more difficult.

Most of the New Testament translations today are based on the best of these Greek manuscripts. One of them is the Codec Vaticanus named because it  was found in the Vatican  library. The other one is a Codec Sinaiticus. Generally those are the two best old manuscripts that we have that are somewhat complete. Those two are at least 800 years older than the best manuscript  that Erasmus had available for the Textus Receptus. If you are going to now make use of these older Greek manuscripts,  it is going to be clear that some times you will see changes in them ,  different than in the manuscripts that were available and became part of the work of Erasmus.

Most, as I say, modern translations make use of the best Greek and Hebrew manuscripts.  The glaring examples of the contrary is the New King James version.  That does not. It refuses to accept these older Greek manuscripts and  leaves what the King James has as a result.

If you have a Bible, I want you to turn with me to 1John chapter 5 verse 7. Like the King James version , this new King James version reads this way: Verse 6 is as follows: This is he who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ. Not only by water, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who bears witness because the Spirit is truth.” Verse 7 in the King James version: “For there are three who bear witness in heaven, the Father, the Word and the Holy Spirit and these three are one.” If you have the New American Standard,  verse 7, does it have that,  “there are three that bear witness”?  It does not have it. Is there a footnote or something like that?  The New International version, 5:7, doesn’t  have that, right? Other translations? The English Standard, it doesn’t.  What do we do with this?

Let me say that when the King James version was translated, the Greek text of Erasmus had those words in the Greek text. Let me tell you a little about that particular verse as it is now found, verse 7. Of all the Greek manuscripts in the world, there are only four that have that expression in 1 John about the three that bear witness, the Father, the Word and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one. One is a 12th century manuscript and it is written in the margin in a modern hand,. Other than the 12th century, after the 12th century, it is not in the text itself, it is on the side of the text and in a later hand. We know that from styles and so fourth. There is an 11th century manuscript which has it, but again, it is not in the text, it is in the margin, written in a hand similar to 17th century. There is a 14th and 15th century manuscript  and there again, it is not in the text, it is in the margin, written in a 17th century hand.  Erasmus was not going to include this in his Greek text because it was not in any of the manuscripts that he was using. He said to somebody, “If you could show me  one Greek manuscript  that has it in, I will include it. “ There is a Greek manuscript , it dates from, listen carefully, the 16th century,  and it has it in, the only one that has it in the text. And most scholars are convinced that it was written just for Erasmus, to make sure he would put it in.

Now, what do you do if you are responsible for a translation of the Word of God, do you leave it in like the King James has? Or do you not have it in? You say, there is a warning in  Revelation about anybody who takes out of the Bible these verses, but read that warning. It also says about adding into it. Are we taking something out  that is there, or are we not allowing anybody to add something that was not there?  All the other manuscripts  on that passage that are earlier, do not have anything, not even in the margin. But what is really interesting is that in the 2nd, 3rd, 4th centuries, the church debated the issue of the nature of God and they hammered out  the formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity. The Nicene Creed comes out of Nicaea.  They wrestled with the nature of God. Isn’t it interesting that  never  once, all of those who argued for the Trinity quoted this verse. Wouldn’t you think, if you were trying to prove the Trinity and this was in your Bible, you would quote it? They never found it. It was not in their Bible. It came into the Bible later, centuries after those conferences.

So, do we allow it in or put it in? Or do we say, “No, no-one can add to the Word of God and we are not going to allow this to be added to it.” I assume it is the latter.  When the new King James version came out, I was teaching at  Bethel Theological Seminary and one of the editors  came out and gave everybody, the faculty and students, a copy of this after chapel  address and then there was a time for questions. And he said, “Are there  any questions?” My colleague in New Testament , Berkeley Michelson had his hand up and he said, “Yes, why did you include 1 John 5:7?” The editor said,  “The editorial staff really felt that we should not include it, but the publisher said that if we don’t include it, the translation won’t sell,” which is a “noble reason” [sarcasm] for adding something to the Bible.  In other translations , this is not a major problem.  This is one. Same thing when you get to the issue of the woman taken in adultery,  John 7:53 to 8:11. If you look at that, most translations will either  put it in the footnote or they will put brackets  around it and they will say,  “The earliest Greek manuscripts  that we have don’t have this.” John 16:9-20, same thing. Most translations will eliminate that or put it in brackets and say, “Some manuscripts add this,” etc.

So what we are dealing here with is the issue of textual criticism, and the average lay person really does not know enough about textual criticism . The average pastor doesn’t know much about textual  criticism.  The average New Testament scholar like me, I don’t know much about textual criticism.  So it is an area where  we feel uneasy and you have some dogmatic people who have a direct line to the Lord, making pontifical statements about this, which really does not show any humility at all. When you don’t know enough about something and you are dogmatic about it, it tends to be arrogant . Whenever you preach, you have to exegete where your congregation is,  where do theylive?  Some churches, this would not be a big issue if you said the early Greek manuscripts  don’t have it, it seems to be a later  edition.  Okay, what  do you mean?  What are you taking out of my Bible?  If you have the latter congregation, let’s just say, it takes a lot more explaining to deal with that.

Fortunately, none of these begin a book of the Bible. So, by the time you get to Mark 16, you’ve been with the congregation long enough that they have either a trust for you or suspicion. If they have suspicion, you can’t help that. But they develop a trust if they see you have a real love for the Lord, you have a great reverence for the Word of God, and you are not going to allow anybody to add something  to it. Then they might say, “I’m not really sure,  I don’t quite agree with him, but he loves the Lord and he wouldn’t say something like this if he didn’t believe it.” Or, if you are dealing with John, you have seven chapters to prepare your congregation for that.

Somebody says to me, “I’m only going to read the King James version, I don’t care what you say.” I would say, “Why don’t you get a New King James version. Some of the words we don’t  use anymore  are explained a little better there..” And they would feel more comfortable with it. And I would say, “Fine.” If a person won’t read a different translation , whatever  one they will read, unless it’s a Jehovah’s Witness kind of thing, I’ll get it for them and say, “You read this.” What we want is the use of the best Greek and Hebrew texts available.

Since the discoveries at Qumran, we have discovered Hebrew manuscripts  that are 1500 years,  1300 years older than the oldest manuscript that was available at the time. The oldest was something like 900 A.D., 11 manuscripts of the prophets.  They only go back to 300, 400 B.C. some of them. Wouldn’t it be absurd not to use manuscripts  that much closer to the original?  It is not quite as mechanical as this, but simply this way. Here we are today, 2002, and here we have the Biblical author , say the prophet Isaiah at 600 B.C. Would you like to base your manuscript  evidence  on manuscripts that date from 1600 or 300 B.C. All things being equal, isn’t the tendency down here for more  spelling errors to creep in than up there?  It is not quite that simple, but it is still relevant  to see in this way. With Greek manuscripts, there are a number of issues. For instance, if you have Mark, the original  Mark. Here you have a copy that dates 600. Here you have a copy dating 1200. This one is based on a 500 copy. This one is based on a 300 copy. So this is essentially 600 years later, but its predecessor  is earlier. So you talk about  families and traditions and the like. It gets to be a whole art at which I’m not really much of an expert.  Generally I think you would say, the older they would be, the more that they would tend to be less affected by changes and errors that have occurred. The older they are, the more opportunity for that.