Hermeneutics: Part 1

The Fall season and Fall semester on college campuses is underway and many students attending public institutions are taking a “Bible as Literature” course. Such a course may be their first introduction to and reading of the Bible with all its uniqueness, frankness, intricacies and perplexities. For the most part, they will study the pages of this ancient body of texts with a focus on its literary dimensions while employing literary critical theories and methods. There is much that can be gleaned about the Bible in such a course and by subjecting it to literary investigative techniques, but there is more to the process that the biblical text requires of its readers. There is a need for interpretation or in biblical studies terminology there is a need for a hermeneutic─the art and science of explaining the meaning and application of a communicated message. [1] 

The Necessity of Hermeneutics

Throughout the following discussion there is an acknowledgement that the contents of the Bible are viewed as religious writings by Jewish and Christian faith traditions. Both traditions historically have believed that these writings are inspired by God and are authoritative in all matters of faith, life and conduct. Thus, it behooves these faith communities to interpret the texts in order derive meaning from them and then to worship and to live accordingly. This is the primary necessity of hermeneutics.  In other words, God has communicated to humanity through human language in written form, and so the task of faithful interpreters is to use biblical hermeneutical principles in order to hear and understand God’s message and apply this message to their lives and faith communities.

Moreover, hermeneutics is needed because there are challenges that confront readers as they pursue understanding. The Bible is an ancient body of texts written by numerous authors across the timespan of hundreds of years with a time gap of over 1,900 years from the last writing to the present day. These writings were written in ancient languages throughout the ancient world, and so they are contextually situated culturally and socially. Authors used various literary genres and rhetorical techniques that were commonly used in antiquity. This all leads to understanding gaps between the ancient and modern worlds.  Biblical hermeneutics aims to bridge these gaps through historical, literary and grammatical methods.[2] More about the specifics of these methods will be discussed in later sections because before delving into biblical study, the concept of preunderstandings of interpreters needs to be explained.

Preunderstandings and Presuppositions

The process of hermeneutics does not exist in a vacuum because as readers approach any given text, they do so within a specific context (i.e. historical, cultural, social, political, religious, environmental), and this shapes their views, emotions, attitudes and methods. Prior experiences influence how people view their present reality and how they approach various tasks or endeavors.[3] Therefore, when interpreters undertake the reading of a text, they read with developed preunderstandings. Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart write, “We invariably bring to the text all that we are, with all of our experiences, culture, and prior understandings of words and ideas.  Sometimes what we bring to the text, unintentionally to be sure, leads us astray, or else causes us to read all kinds of foreign ideas into the text.”[4] This is the crux of the matter of preunderstandings in relation to biblical hermeneutics. Preunderstandings are ever present and are a fact of life for all who interpret any form of written communication, and they have the ability to color or determine what readers see in a passage, which may aid or enable but also may prohibit or hamper. Thus, it is vital that interpreters engage with the fact of preunderstandings by acknowledging, identifying and evaluating their own preunderstandings, and then they should embrace those that may be deemed valid and discard those that are invalid.[5]

Klein et al. further suggest that specific to biblical hermeneutic there are valid presuppositions about the nature of the Bible that interpreters should adopt before engaging in the hermeneutical process. They explain that the biblical interpreter should presuppose that the Bible originates from God, who revealed his message through the writings of humans, and so these writings are recognized as authoritative and true concerning all matters of faith, life and conduct.[6] The Bible should be viewed as a spiritual book that “manifests unparalleled spiritual worth and a capacity to change lives.”[7]

Furthermore, interpreters should affirm the unity and diversity of the Bible while at the same time affirming that it is understandable. In order to presuppose that there is understanding of a book that has both unity and diversity, there should be a proper balance of the two. While unity delineates the foundations of faith and practice, diversity legitimizes different expressions of faith and practice. Lastly, the traditional Judeo-Christian canon consisting of the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament writings should be presupposed as inspired scripture due to their divine, authoritative and revelatory nature as recognized by ancient Jewish communities and the early Christian church.[8] 

[1] William Klein, Craig L. Blomberg and Robert L. Hubbard, Jr. Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. Revised and Updated ed. (Nashville: TN:, Baker Academic, 2004),4-5.

[2] Ibid., 13-16.

[3] Ibid., 154-155.

[4] Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 1993), 14.

[5] Klein, Blomberg and Hubbard Jr., Introduction, 155-158.

[6] Ibid., 143-146.

[7] Ibid., 147.

[8] Ibid., 147-150.


Textual Criticism: Part 3 New Testament

The development of the New Testament text is more clearly understood than that of the Old Testament. Early in the life of the first century Christian church, gospel accounts were being circulated orally and eventually were documented in written form. Furthermore, letters were written by Christian apostles (or dictated to amanuenses who transcribed with the apostle’s final approval) and sent out to specific recipients or churches. These letters were circulated to several churches and due to the growth of the church throughout the Roman empire, more copies of the gospels and letters were needed.  Thus, there was a burst in the development of manuscripts (copies) throughout the following centuries.[1]

With the presence of thousands of manuscripts, textual criticism a necessary discipline, and the same guiding principles given by Wegner for Old Testament textual criticism should be applied to New Testament textual criticism with an added sixth principle

 “1) Manuscripts must be weighed, not counted. 2) Determine which reading would most likely give rise to the others. 3) The more distinctive reading is usually preferable 4) The shorter reading is generally favored. 5) Determine which reading is most appropriate to the context (examine literary structure, grammatical or spelling errors, historical context). 6) Examine parallel passages for any differences and determine why they appear.”[2]

While the focus of the Old Testament discussion was on a single text versus plural texts in the development of the Hebrew scriptures, the New Testament has its own single text versus eclectic text debate, but this debate is focused on the use of texts in the textual criticism process. Some Scholars argue that one text type is preferred in the process based on the view that a particular text type may have been better preserved resulting in greater accuracy. Others prefer to gather the most accurate readings from all the various manuscripts creating an eclectic text; therefore, they argue that this combination of the most plausible readings will create a text that will be closest to the original writing.[3]

Regardless of one’s methodological use of a single text or an eclectic text in the textual criticism process, the various sources available for New Testament textual criticism still should be considered.

Michael Holmes writes, “New Testament textual criticism enjoys an embarrassment of riches with regard to sources of information about the New Testament text.”[4] He further points out that these sources are typically grouped into three categories: Greek manuscripts (consisting of papyri manuscripts, uncial manuscripts, minuscule manuscripts and lectionaries), ancient translated versions of the New Testament in several different languages, and Patristic citations (almost all the Greek New Testament could be reconstructed based on quotations by early christian writers).[5]

[1] Paul D. Wegner, The Journey from Texts to Translations: The Origin and Development of the Bible. (Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Academic, 1999), 207.

[2] Ibid., 224.

[3] Ibid., 223.

[4] Michael W. Holmes, “Textual Criticism,” in Interpreting the New Testament: Essays on Methods and Issues, eds. David Alan Black and David S. Dockery (Nashville, TN.: Broadman & Holman Publishers,2001), 48.

[5] Ibid., 48-49.

Textual Criticism: Part 2 Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament)

There has been an ongoing debate among scholars regarding theories of the development of the Hebrew text, and one’s views in this debate will affect the goals of Old Testament textual criticism. Wegner explains the various views in Table 1. Theories of Hebrew Development in the journal article entitled, “Current Trends in Old Testament Textual Criticism” and the following is an adaptation of this visual aid.[1] 

Paul de Lagarde 1827-1891 (Göttingen) argued that all the Old Testament manuscripts were developed from a single original manuscript.

Paul Kahle 1875-1964 (Oxford) argued that the standardized official text was developed through the use of several divergent copies.

William E. Albright 1891- 1971 (John Hopkins) and Frank M. Cross 1921- 2012 (Harvard) argued for the idea of text families explaining that an original authoritative text was copied and maintained in three locations Palestine (forming the text family consisting of the Samaritan Pentateuch, Masoretic Text of Chronicles, and some Qumran manuscripts), Babylon (forming the Masoretic Text family) and Egypt (forming the Septuagint text family).

Shemaryahu Talmon 1920- 2010 (Hebrew University) argued that there was diversity in early Judaism and there are three text types that survived because they were protected by different groups: the Masoretic Text by Jewish Rabbis, the Samaritan Pentateuch by the Samaritans and the Septuagint by the Christians.

Emanuel Tov 1941- (Hebrew University) argued against a single, original manuscript and explained that there may have been several authoritative forms of a specific writing and the various manuscripts were related to one another highlighting the similarities, variants and exclusive aspects.

Eugene Ulrich 1938- (University of Notre Dame) argued for the idea of literary editing of texts which took place in temporary stages resulting in a final form. Each literary edition was a response, by the editor, to a unique religious set of circumstances.

As stated earlier, one’s view regarding the development of the Hebrew text will establish the goals for textual criticism. Scholars who have a single text focus will strive to recover the wording of the original writing. Others with a single text focus will set out to recover the final form (the form that was finalized after undergoing a process of redactions). Still others will set out to recover the single text in its earliest attested form.[2] Moreover, scholars with a plural text focus strive to recover several texts which include final texts that were equally valid and authoritative, texts that were accepted by diverse religious communities and literary edited texts that were completed through stages.[3]

Regardless, of one’s view and goals for Old Testament textual criticism, there are some basic principles for Old Testament textual criticism that should be discussed.  Wegner gives five guiding principles when evaluating and comparing manuscripts,

“1) Manuscripts must be weighed, not counted. 2) Determine which reading would most likely give rise to the others. 3) The more distinctive reading is usually preferable 4) The shorter reading is generally favored. 5) Determine which reading is most appropriate to the context (examine literary structure, grammatical or spelling errors, historical context).” [4]


[1] Paul D. Wegner, “Current Trends,” BBR 23.4 (2013): 462.

[2] Ibid., 476.

[3] Ibid., 476.

[4] Paul D. Wegner, The Journey from Texts to Translations: The Origin and Development of the Bible. (Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Academic, 1999), 179.

Textual Criticism: Part 1

In churches around the world, Bibles are opened for the public reading of God’s words.  These Bibles are in many different languages and translations and due to the invention of the printing press and other technological advances, people are able to open their own personal Bible or Bible app and follow along with the reading of holy scripture.

In order to arrive at this point of Bible availability, there has been a long transmission process from the original writings to the Bibles that people open with their hands today.  The original writings have not yet been discovered, but there are many manuscripts (copies) derived from the original writings that have been evaluated and compared with the focus of ascertaining the words of the autographs. Throughout the evaluation and comparison process, scholars have found textual variants or differences among the Old Testament and New Testament manuscripts. Paul Wegner explains the differences and errors found among the plethora of manuscripts of the Old Testament,

It should be no surprise that there are variations between the different Hebrew manuscripts-even with the strict guidelines indicated in the Talmud for copying biblical scrolls,copying mistakes would, over time, be incorporated into the biblical texts. There are simply too many manuscript copies, made over an extensively long period of time, by many different scribes, to assume that all copyist mistakes could be averted. This is even more true given the fact that the temple was destroyed twice and throughout Israel’s history the nation was persecuted and deported from its land.[1]

This explanation can certainly extend to the New Testament manuscripts seeing that there are approximately five thousand Greek manuscript fragments or complete readings that have been evaluated and compared.[2] With the presence of variations in both the Old Testament and New Testament manuscripts, scholars needed to develop textual criticism methods that would assist them in determining the most accurate and reliable presentation of the original writings. [3] Bruce Metzger writes,

Confronted by a mass of conflicting readings, editors must decide which variants deserve to be included in the text and which should be regulated to the apparatus.  Although at first it may seem to be a hopeless task amid so many thousands of variant readings to sort out those that should be regarded as original, textual scholars have developed certain generally acknowledged criteria of evaluation. These considerations depend, it will be seen, upon probabilities, and sometimes the textual critic must weigh one set of probabilities against another.[4]

Therefore, textual criticism is a necessary discipline because in order to study, interpret, apply and proclaim the message that God has communicated through human writers, there must be a consensus about what the text exactly states.[5] In order to further understand the process of textual criticism of the Old and New Testament, one should explore the specifics of each branch of the discipline. The next few post will address these branches.

[1] Paul D. Wegner, “Current Trends,” BBR 23.4 (2013): 473-474.

[2] Bruce M. Metzger and United Bible Societies, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament; a Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament, 2nd ed.(London, New York,: United Bible Societies, 1994), 10.

[3] Paul D. Wegner, The Journey from Texts to Translations: The Origin and Development of the Bible. (Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Academic, 1999), 177.

[4] Metzger, A Textual, 10-11.

[5] Michael W. Holmes, “Textual Criticism,” in Interpreting the New Testament: Essays on Methods and Issues, eds. David Alan Black and David S. Dockery (Nashville, TN.: Broadman & Holman Publishers,2001), 46.