Biblical Hermeneutics - Lesson 4

Hermeneutical Issues (Part 2)

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. 

Robert Stein
Biblical Hermeneutics
Lesson 4
Watching Now
Hermeneutical Issues (Part 2)

NT510-04 Hermeneutical Issues, Part 2

I. Introduction

A. Definition of hermeneutical issues

B. Purpose of this lecture

II. Historical-Grammatical Method

A. Definition of historical-grammatical method

B. Characteristics of historical-grammatical method

C. Importance of historical-grammatical method

III. Literary Context

A. Definition of literary context

B. Importance of considering literary context

C. Types of literary context

IV. Cultural Context

A. Definition of cultural context

B. Importance of considering cultural context

C. Factors that influence cultural context

V. Theological Context

A. Definition of theological context

B. Importance of considering theological context

C. Factors that influence theological context

VI. Conclusion

A. Summary of key points

B. Final thoughts on hermeneutical issues

  • 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

Hermeneutical Issues

2. be based on the latest knowledge of  language and culture

Second issue: We want the translation to be based on the latest knowledge of the languages and culture. Since 1611, the date of King James, there has been considerable knowledge that has increased with regard to various translations. We know, for instance, that  a lot of the Bible  consists of poetry and we can recognize that poetry.  Up to the 1700s, no-one knew Biblical poetry. They didn’t understand  or talk about poetry and how we interpret  poetry different than other works. But we have learned a lot since that time. We want to be careful about  what we have learned during that time and apply all of that knowledge t o our particular  text.  We want  a translation that is accurate and we can say, “Of course that is true.” Sometimes people take liberties in translation, like the Living Bible. In John 21:2 they translated, “A group of us were there, Simon Peter, Thomas the twin, Nathaniel from Cana and Gallilee, my brother  James and I and two other disciples.” The Greek text doesn’t say “James and I.” It says, “The sons of Zebedee.”  The translator  of the Living Bible thought, and he may be right, that John was the writer of this Gospel. But even if he is right, that is not what the text is saying, it says “the sons of Zebedee.”  So you should put in “the sons of Zebedee.” You want  an accurate translation .

3. be accurate

You have to realize too that just producing an accurate translation in manuscript form does not mean that it comes out accurate in printed form. There are some notorious goofs this way. For instance, in 1631 Barker and Lewis who were printers,  printed the King James version. It was a nice translation, a nice copy of the King James version. A little problem: In the  seventh commandment they left out a word, and so it read, “Thou shalt commit adultery.” They were taken to court, fined, went out of business. In 1653, Paul asked the question, “Know ye not that” and they had a little word change, “the unrighteous shall enter the kingdom of God,” rather than “righteous.” In 1716 in Ireland, 8,000 copies of a Bible were printed  and they discovered  no word was left out, nor incorrect word, no letters added, just  two letters were reversed.  So in the story of the woman taken in adultery, Jesus says to her, “Sin on more” instead of “Sin no more.” You have the famous printers’ Bible where David in Psalm 119 complains , “Princes have persecuted me without  a cause” and it came out, “Printers have persecuted me without  a cause.” In 1682 in Deuteronomy 24:3 it talks about  if the latter husband hate his wife and the “h” dropped out. If the latter husband “ate” his wife… In 1795, Mark 7:27:  “Let the children first be killed” instead of “filled”… You can have all sorts of interesting problems.  Before the New American Standard came into our pew Bibles at the seminary, we had a King James pew Bible. Some guy,  I don’t remember which pastor,  preached on 1 Timothy 6, and a lot of people used the pew Bible and they did not realize that it read a little differently. Instead of reading, “There is great gain in godliness with contentment.” Everybody who had the pew Bible had  “There is great pain in godliness with contentment.” He was preaching on that verse and there were chuckles going on, and I felt so sorry for the guy. You had to laugh. Here was a Bible that said a very negative thing about godliness and he was preaching on it. On the other hand, you can be very accurate and not have a very readable Bible.  For instance, I think the New American Standard Bible is probably the most useful Bible for verse-by-verse reading and analysis in English. But it is a miserable Bible to try to read large sections. It has accuracy, but very, very awkward reading.  In the American  Standard Bible, 2 Cor 10:13 is very awkward,  whatever  it might mean.  You want a translation that is understandable. 

4. be understandable

Understandable sometimes does not mean  accurate. If you look at the Living Bible, it is always understandable.  Even  when the Biblical writer is not clear,  the Living Bible will be clear.  There is no question about it. And it will always be orthodox, so that makes people very happy in many ways. But you sometimes have a compromise here of whether you sacrifice understandability for  accuracy or vice versa. It should  be contemporary.

5. be contemporary

There are a lot of changes happening in the English language since the King James version. The King James has all sorts of words that don’t mean the same or we don’t know what in the world they mean anymore.  For instance,  in the King James we come to 1 Corinthians 13: “The greatest of these is charity.” Now most people who read English today do not think that that word means love.  It is a synonym for it. They think of alms for the poor or something like that. Charity has a different connotation 400 years or so after the King James version. How many of you know what a besom is in Isaiah 14:23 is. They did in King James’ day. It is a broom. I don’t have any problem with that. In Nehemiah 13:26 it refers to an outlandish woman. What they mean is a foreigner. We don’t use the word “outlandish” in that way.  In Acts 13:34, respecting persons  is very positive in some ways,  or it can be negative, it is not always clear.  I trow not, I believe, Luke 17:9, one that always drove me crazy as a young Christian. I had just come to know the Lord and was a baby Christian. After a few months I read in Romans 1:13 where Paul says to the Romans, “I would have come to you sooner, but I was let hitherto.” I said,  “If he was let, why didn’t he go?” I could not figure it out. In 1611 the word “let” meant to hinder, just the opposite of what we understand . We only understand the word “let” in this sense when you play tennis and someone serves and there is a “let” that hinders the game from proceeding.  Other than that,  it is totally different. You can’t have a translation use words that no-one understands  or understands  differently than they do now. “He waxed strong.” What kind of car wax were they using? “He wist not  to wit or to know. The word “ghost” has negative connotations , so when we talk about  the Holy Ghost, it brings up something different in American minds  instead of the Holy Spirit. “Suffer the little children to come unto me.” Let those little rascals suffer a little before they come to me.  It means to allow. Words have changed.  If somebody comes into your church  (James 2:3) “in gay clothing.” In the last 50 years that word has been used totally differently, we don’t use it like that anymore. 

The result is that since there is changing words, we have to recognize that language has to be brought  up. For many centuries the English language was quite stable. It was controlled by two things: The Bible and Shakespeare.  Now the language has no great issues that are controlling it. And language is changing drastically and so quickly. So words mean the opposite  before you know it. My father, when you want to talk about somebody as being a really good person, he’s a real square guy. All sorts of differences. The fact that language changes so quickly means  that translations will continually have to be revised. The fact that language changes so slowly allowed the King James version to continue on for many, many, many decades and centuries,  in fact.

6. be universal

To understand this, let me point out that if you get to the universal language, when you do a translation, you have to understand what your target group is and be careful. The New English Bible, when it first came out, I liked to read it. It reads very smoothly. If I had to read through the Old Testament  quickly, I think I would use the New English Bible. It reads well. But the problem with the New English Bible is that it is too British. So in your church Sunday, if you were reading something like this, people would not understand it. I Cor 16:5+. Paul says “I shall come to Corinth after passing through Macedonia, for I am traveling by way of Macedonia, and I may stay with you, perhaps even for the whole winter. Then you could help me on my way wherever  I go next.  I do not want this to be a flying visit. I hope to spend some time with you if the Lord permits.” Stated beautifully. Then he goes on, “But I shall remain at Ephesus until  whitsuntide.” The New English Bible has changed that: “I shall stay in Ephesus until Pentecost.” That is more universal, people can understand that. 

You have to also realize that  in Mark 2:23 again we have a misunderstanding that  takes place in American culture. “One Sabbath,  he, Jesus, was going through the cornfield s. And his disciples as they went began to pluck ears of corn. “ The average American, what is he thinking of? He is thinking of maze. But for the British it is barley or wheat. Corn means grain. The American looks at it, going through the cornfields of Iowa, shucking ears. It is totally misunderstood in the American culture. You have different kinds of weights, pounds, a farthling and my favorite is the Mary Poppins translation of  Luke 12:6:”Are not sparrows five for 2-pence?” I can’t handle it. But my favorite one would be to read this in the middle of Eastern Kentucky or somewhere like that  and reading the story in John 21:6. “Sometime later Jesus showed himself to his disciples once again by the Sea of Tiberius and in this way, Simon Peter and Thomas the twin were together with Nathaniel of Cana and Galilee. The sons of Zebedee and two other disciples were also there. Simon Peter said, “I’m going out fishing. “We will go with you” said the others. So they got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.  Morning came and there stood Jesus on the beach. But the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. He called out to them, “Friends, have you caught anything? They said, “No.” He said, “Shoot the nets to starboard and you will make a catch.” The British know what “starboard” is, whether it is right or left probably, or something, backwards or forwards, something like that. It is a very British type of translation. The revision of this subsequently removes some of that to make it more accessible.

If you are ever in the market  simply for the British people, you can do that. But if you want an English translation that is universal  for all English-speaking people in the world, you have to make sure that there are on that committee  Canadian translators, American translators, British translators, South African translators, Australian translators. Because something that may seem perfectly good  English may be a horrendous idiom  in the other culture. So, to be universal, you want to take all that involved.  A lot of the translations  are sensitive to that. The Revised English is somewhat suprising. Again, it reads wonderfully in many ways, including all of a sudden  getting across something like  coinage or different weights and the like.

7. be dignified

I think another  thing you want in a translation is that it should be dignified. I don’t mean that you remove  things for political  correct ness that some people don’t like. But I think you don’t want to be unnecessarily harsh simply for the effect it may take. For instance, in the earliest translations of the Living Bible,  there is a story about  how David fled from Saul and Saul is asking Jonathan about David and Jonathan says to Saul, “David asked me if he could go to Bethlehem to take part in a family celebration” Jonathan replied. “His brother demanded that he be there, so I told him he could go ahead.” Saul boiled with rage. “You son of a bitch” he yelled at him. Grandma and Grandpa are gone for the rest of the hour. There is no way you are going to get over that. The message is lost. Meanwhile,  Johnny from junior  high says, “Mom, I like that translation.  Could you get that Bible for me” or something like that.  You don’t want to be crude simply for shock effect or something like that. Another  example of that is the cotton patch version of the New Testament . That is a really nice, nitty gritty, down-to-earth Southern translation. There are a number  of places where Paul is asked  in a dialogue with a  hypothetical  appointment: “Shall we sin that grace may abound? God forbid. Let it not be.” Here you would read, “Shall we continue in sin that Grace may abound? Hell, no!” Johnny has another  translation he wants, making him a Bible student or something like that.

8. avoid a theological bias

Avoiding a theological bias is maybe more easily said than done. There are some notorious  biased translations. I think for instance of the Jehovah’s Witness Bible that just avoids translating things in order to maintain its anti-acceptance of  Jesus as deity. When I got the New Testament version of the Jerusalem Bible, I liked it very much. I read lots and lots of Paul’s letters, really fine translations.  It is a Roman Catholic translation and I thought,  I wonder  how they translate Matthew 1:25 where the Greek text says, “And Joseph did as the angel of the Lord said and took Mary his wife, but knew her not until she brought forth her first born son.” The word “know” is a beautiful Biblical word that the Bible uses to describe the sexual  relationship. In other words, Joseph marries Mary, but they have no sexual consummation of that until the birth of Jesus. The implication of course is that the birth of Jesus, they live a normal husband and wife relationship. When you read then of the brothers and sisters of the Lord, they are the sons and daughters of Joseph and Mary. But there are Roman Catholics saying, “Are you for the perpetual virginity of Mary” which by the way is not simply a Roman Catholic view. I remember reading in the synoptic Gospel commentary of Calvin where he argues fairly strongly for that.  In this particular translation, it read, “He did what the angel of the Lord said and though he knew not Mary, she brought forth her firstborn son.” If you can find a place where that particular construction in Greek is translated , “though he knew her not” even though he knew her not until…, I can show you 10,000 on the other side for every one.  It is not the normal way, it is theological bias that came in there.

When I was in Minnesota , one of the big mega  churches in the area was doing a study as to what  Bible they wanted to have for their pews. They asked me to be part of the study, and I was. They compared the RSV, the New International version and  some of the others that they compared. The King James was one and the Life. They asked a number of questions and one of the questions they asked was this: Which translation has the highest Christology?  What does that have to do with the translation?  Translation is which translates  the Christological  passages best?  Suppose you have the Stein translation, which translates this way: “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and laid him in a manger. He was very God of very God, the second person of the Trinity, pre-existent for all eternity.” That is a high Christology.  It is a false translation, though.  God does not need our help, by the way. Just let the  Bible say what it says, and we will be alright.  We do not have to help the Bible. What you want to say is,  which translates those passages most accurately?  And that is the most important.