Seaborn Hall, 10/20/19
What Is Herméneia?
Phonetic Spelling: (her-may-ni’-ah)
hermēneía – an interpretation, giving the gist of a message rather than a strict translation; an equivalent meaning, rather than a “word-for-word” rendering; interpretation (of what has been spoken more or less obscurely by others)
Original Word: ἑρμηνεία, ας, ἡ
Part of Speech: Noun, Feminine
Phonetic Spelling: (her-may-ni’-ah)
Short Definition: translation, interpretation
Definition: translation, interpretation, explanation.
Jesus and the twelve apostles used at least five different interpretive methods to understand and teach the Scriptures.
Five Interpretive Methods
This is the method most used by pastors and teachers today, particularly those in the Charismatic and Prophetic streams. The problem here is that interpreting the Bible devoid of literary or historical context leads many times to projection. Projection involves reading the text through 21st Century eyes and applying contemporary meanings to the text where they don’t exist. In essence, you ‘project’ your own interpretation on to Scripture where it does not really exist.
Another weakness of the literal method is that it lends itself more readily to ‘hermeneutical spiral.’ ‘Spiral’ occurs every time you make an interpretive choice. That choice locks you into other choices in an ever narrowing spiral down into one interpretation. The faster the spiral the less likely you are to see other possibilities.
Example of where Jesus used literal interpretation: Luke 4:4, 8, 12; Luke 5:14
- Grammatical-Historical, or what I call, Literary-Historical
This originally had to do with the meaning of the original text and the social-cultural context. Literary-Historical is a much better catch-phrase for it, where Literary stands for everything that has to do with the text: the original text, the literary tools available to the writer, the literary forms available and in wide use at the time, as well as any creative/innovative forms or structures the writer may be combining, creating, and introducing. Literary includes Jewish as well as Roman and Greek rhetorical literary options as well as the structure and outline of the book, assuming that there is one.
The Historical part of this method has to do with all of the customs, sayings (proverbial or otherwise), dress, manner, culture, social rules and customs, geography, time, place, etc. etc. Historical is the total context in which the literary creation is formed and expressed and by which it may be impacted.
Example of where Jesus used it: Luke 4:23-27
The best New Testament examples where this form of interpretation applies are the parables of the Gospels and the book of Revelation. Allegorical interpretation not only involves understanding metaphor, simile, and other literary tropes and how they were used at the time of writing, but also involves understanding the customs, saying, myths, superstitions, and other stories of the day.
Example of where Jesus used it: Throughout the Gospels (Luke 5:33-39 + many others), and the book of Revelation.
- Gezera Sawa (Ge-ze-ra Sa-vah)
This is one of two Jewish Rabbinical methods of interpretation that Jesus and the Apostles used to interpret. We might think of our method of cross-referencing today to understand this tool, however, gezera sawa is much more than mere cross referencing.
The method of gezera sawa came from a pattern recognized by rabbis as inherent in and throughout the Scriptures – a pattern used to some degree by all writers of Scripture in which they linked related thoughts – even prioritizing and emphasizing them to one degree or another – through like and related words and phrases. The method of gezera sawa recognizes this pattern and uses it to shed greater light on like passages, but always in context.
Example of where Jesus used it: possibly, Luke 6:1-5
Pesher is the second rabbinical method Jesus used.
After Jesus stood up in the Temple in Nazareth to read from Isaiah 61:1ff, “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, Because the LORD has anointed me To bring good news to the afflicted; He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to captives And freedom to prisoners; (Is. 61:1 NAS95)” He said, “Today these words are fulfilled in your hearing.”
In so doing, Jesus was applying the Rabbinical method of Pesher to the passage. Pesher is when, through the Holy Spirit’s leading, an eschatological passage or prophecy is applied to contemporary time by a speaker or teacher. This is a rare interpretive tool, a high challenge, and should not be lightly applied.
Example of where Jesus used it: Luke 4:17-21; Luke 7:27
This is not an exhaustive study of all the interpretive methods Jesus used, but it does describe the primary ones. To all of the above methods we might also add one final one: revelation (Luke 11:52). Jesus uses revelation throughout all of the methods above. For example in Luke 11: 24-26 He explains how the spirit world functions. Without revelation, the description in this passage would have been impossible.
Revelatory use of the Scripture today is controversial and too deep a subject to get into fully here. Revelatory interpretation sometimes confronts cherished traditions and creates adverse reactions among sub-groups of believers (Matt. 15:1-9). Revelatory interpretation should be used only under the Holy Spirit’s guidance and will never contradict or usurp the revealed truth of Scripture (Matt. 22:29-33).
To seek the truth, we must accept the fact that it may not cohere with our belief system, and must be willing to adjust our beliefs to match it. Otherwise, self-delusion and destruction will occur.
Joshua Overbay, Director, The Sympathetic Doomsday Cult Leader, documentary, Christianity Today article, January 2015
The key to good Biblical interpretation – if there is just one – is knowing when to use the relevant tool. Jesus didn’t use each of the above methods every single time. He knew which one was relevant from a lifetime of study, according to the Scriptural text and context, the unique time and situation, and what the Father through the Holy Spirit was presently showing Him.
Our challenge is the same.