Wednesday, October 08, 2008


Remember Hermes? He’s the little guy you see from time to time on the logo at the florist shop, wearing a WWI trench helmet and always on the run. Actually, in Greek tradition he was the messenger of the gods, delivering the word of some deity to humans who badly needed to hear it. Hermes, and the concept of his role, is the basis for the Greek words hermeneutike (first found in Plato Epin. 975C) which refer to the art of interpreting. We find the variant word 'hermeneia' for instance in 1Cor. 12.10 where Paul refers to the interpretation of tongues.

In modern discourse the term hermeneutics normally refers to the art (not science) of interpreting important often ancient or sacred, texts such as the Bible. But why would we need a guide to the perplexed in regard to the interpreting of the Bible? After all, don’t Christians have brains and the Holy Spirit to guide them? Well yes, but all modern brains are affected in the way they think by the modern cultural milieu in which they are immersed. They are affected as well by their whole educational progress (or regress) through school as well.

And frankly, ancient Biblical cultures, languages, and modes of conveying meaning are often so different from what modern ‘common sense’ may deduce that we do need some guidelines to help us interpret the Biblical texts which came out of very different cultures and circumstances from our own, ESPECIALLY if we are only trying to interpret the Bible on the basis of one or more English translations, none of which are perfect representations of the original language texts.

WORD UP--- Every translation is already an interpretation of an ancient Biblical text. Once you get this fact through your brain, you realize that all modern persons need some help in interpreting the Bible. We need to give the Holy Spirit more to work with in dealing with the modern thoughts that naturally go racing through our brains when we have a close encounter with the Word of God. What I offer below is just a few of the guidelines or signposts to help prevent misreading of Biblical texts. In this posting I am offering 3 guidelines. There are many more, and sometime later I will bring them up.

1) ‘What it meant is what it means’. Meaning comes contextually not from just having words in isolation but words in conjunction with one another in a specific sentence or larger context. For example, the English word ‘row’ can be a noun or a verb, depending on the context. It is not true that ‘in the beginning was the dictionary’. Dictionaries are compilations of information based on close studies of how words are used in various contexts. Dictionaries do not define words, they reflect the denotations and connotations they have been discovered to have in texts, conversation and the like.

When I say ‘what it meant is what it means’ in reference to any text, but especially the Bible, I mean that the meaning is encoded in the complex of words and phrases we find in the text. Meaning is not something we get to read into the text on the basis of our own opinions or ideas. Meaning is something that resides in the text, having been placed there by the inspired author and requires of us that we discover what that meaning is by the proper contextual study of the text.

‘Significance’ however is a different matter altogether. A text can have a significance or even an application for you or me, that the original author could never have imagined. But the text cannot have a meaning that the original inspired author did not place there. Meaning is one thing, significance or application another. The job of hermeneutics is to help us rightly interpret the meaning of these important Biblical texts, and the difference between meaning and significance.

Let me give you an illustration. The Book of Revelation was written in the first instance for the seven churches in Asia mentioned in Rev. 2-3 to strengthen them and help them get through a rough time of persecution, prosecution, and even execution in the last decade or so of the first century when the evil Emperor Domitian was persecuting Christians. The whole book was written to them in the first place, and it was all meant to have meaning for them. None of it was written in the first place for 21rst century Christians.

Thus when the book talks about an evil empire, and a beastly ruler named 666, and about flying things with scorpion-like tails, it is not in the first instance referring to some modern world dominator, or the EU, or to Blackhawk helicopters! Those first Christians in the first century could never have understood those texts to refer to such things, because of course such things did not exist in the first century A.D.

Let me insist once more—‘what the text meant for them, is still what it means today’. John was referring to the Roman Empire and Emperor and speaking hyperbolically about plagues of insects, something all too familiar to that world. Now here is what is interesting. Apocalyptic prophecy by its nature uses more generic universal symbols and metaphor to speak about certain historical realities. I am not at all suggesting that the text of Revelation is not referring to things happening in space and time— John is speaking about such things. But he speaks about them in generic and highly graphic metaphorical ways. He uses phrase like ‘it will be like… it will be like’ indicating he is drawing analogies, not offering literal descriptions.

All too often modern interpreters of Revelation don’t understand this. They either assume if its figurative language it isn’t referential, or they assume you are denying the particularity of the text if you deny it refers to one particular person and set of circumstances. But that’s not how generic symbols work--- Mr. 666 could just as well be Hitler or Stahlin as Nero or Domitian. It refers to any evil world dominator of a pagan or godless sort. This is precisely why Christians in any and all generations in the last 2,000 years have felt John was speaking to their situation. He was--- but there are wars, and rumors of wars, and plagues and cosmic signs in the heavens in every generation of church history, not just the last one.

2) ‘Context is king’. One of the great, great dangers in modern interpretation of the Bible is proof-texting. What this amounts to is the strip-mining of certain key terms and ideas, linking them together with similar or the same words in other texts and contexts, and coming up with a meaning which none of the original texts had. Let’s take a perfect example—the word perfect in the NT. Jesus said “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect’ in Mt. 5.48. Paul says in 1 Cor. 13.10 Paul says that “when the perfect comes, the partial disappears.” Are they talking about the same thing just because they use the same term? Well, no.

The context of Mt. 5 indicates that Jesus is referring to that sort of whole-hearted loving of others that characterizes God. ‘Be perfect’ means be loving like the Father is loving. Paul on the other hand is talking about when the eschaton (the final perfect condition) comes, and we see Jesus face to face and understand all things perfectly and clearly. Words only have meaning in contexts, and plucking words out of contexts and linking them to other uses of the same word is often a recipe for disaster and misinterpretation. Each verse of Scripture, indeed each key term in Scripture should be interpreted in its historical, literary, religious, theological, canonical contexts, to mention but a few. This of course means that the modern interpreter of the Bible must be a student of Biblical interpretation, must study to find themselves approved. Treating the Bible like a Ouija board, and just opening it up and thinking the meaning will leap out of the verse on the page into one’s brain, especially if we keep thumbing through and looking for other examples of the same word, is simply laziness and not careful contextual study of God’s word. Read Ps. 119 and how it talks about the diligent study and meditation on God’s Word that is required.

Let me give you an illustration. I had a phone call over twenty years ago from a parishioner from one of my four N.C. Methodist Churches in the middle of the state. He wanted to know if it was o.k. to breed dogs, cause his fellow carpenter had told him that it said somewhere in the KJV that God’s people shouldn’t do that. I told him I would look up all the references to dog in the Bible and get to the bottom of this. There was nothing of any relevance in the NT, but then I came across this peculiar translation of an OT verse—“thou shalt not breed with the dogs’.

I called my church member up and told him “I’ve got good news and bad news for you.” He asked for the good news first. I said “well you can breed as many of those furry four footed creatures as you like, nothing in the Bible against it.” He then asked what the bad news was “well” I said, “there is this verse that calls foreign women ‘dogs’ and warns the Israelites not to breed with them.” There was a pregnant silence on the other end of the line, and finally Mr. Smith said “ Well, I am feeling much relieved, my wife Betty Sue is from just down the road in Chatham county!”

3) Genre matters. Before we can interpret a particular type of literature we need to understand what literary type or kind of literature it is. Prose should be interpreted according to the kinds of information prose is meant to give, poetry should be interpreted as poetry, historical narrative as narrative, parables as the literary fictions that they are, and apocalyptic prophecy must be interpreted as the highly metaphorical literature it is, and so on. As C.S. Lewis once said, until you know the purpose and kind of a text, what it intends to say or convey, you don’t know how to read it, properly. And frankly no one should ever start reading the Bible with its last book. That’s not because its unfair to peek at the conclusions before you read all the rest. It’s because Revelation, as apocalyptic prophecy is the most complex material in the canon, the literature most likely to be misinterpreted by modern persons. Let me give one more illustration

1967-68 was an interesting time. Neil Armstrong actually landed on the moon and hit a golf ball a mile! If only my driver would do that. But seriously folks, I was riding with a friend on the Blue Ridge Parkway when the clutch blew out of my Dad’s 1955 Chevy. As the Bible says ‘my countenance fell’. There are no gas stations, or really any kind of help of that sort to be found on that beautiful mountain parkway. Luckily my friend Doug and I got a push off the parkway into a Texaco station, and then, on that hot July day we decided to hitch hike back to High Point in the middle of the state. Almost immediately we were picked up by a really ancient couple dressed in black driving a black 48 Plymouth. Doug, now a lawyer in Greensboro, decided to strike up a conversation and referring to the moon walk of Neil Armstrong. The elderly man driving said that was all fake—a TV hoax. Doug, not recognizing invincible ignorance when he saw it, decided to argue with the man. Meanwhile, picture me elbowing him and whispering for him to shut up, since we needed the ride. Turns out we had been picked up by genuine Flat Landers from the N.C. mountains. Doug however persisted and asked “Why don’t you believe they went to the moon, and why don’t you believe the world is round?” The man retorted “It says in the book of Revelations that the angels will stand on the four corners of the earth. World couldn’t be round, could it, if its got four corners to stand on.”

Now what was wrong with this man's comment, other than that Revelations (plural) is not the name of the last book of the Bible. The problem was he had mistaken the genre of that book. He had assumed it was teaching him cosmology and geography, when in fact it was teaching theology and eschatology. It was saying in a metaphorical way that God’s angels will come from all points on the compass to do his will and span the globe. If you don’t grasp the kind of literature you are reading, you aren’t going to know what kind of information it is trying to convey. Interestingly, the problem with that Flat-Lander’s interpretation is not either that he took the book of Revelation seriously, or that he thought it was referential. It is indeed referential. But the realities it is describing, it describes in metaphorical terms.

Well, I think I hear ole Hermes calling me to move on to other floral venues. So we will leave it at that for now. Think on these things. BW3


Brett Royal said...

Lost my first comment (I think) so here goes again. I like your thoughts. People often look at me like I'm a freak when I say that there is only one correct meaning for a passage of scripture. Applications, however, are practically limitless. Bad things can begin to happen if meaning and application are confused.
I'm not sure why people have such a hard time with the one meaning concept.

A. C. Mattern said...

Thank you for this, as well as your other similar entries (Relating the OT and NT Thought Worlds, Sacred Texts in an Oral Culture, etc). Lately I've noticed a shrinking amount of hermeneutics being taught by Christians in proportion to what is said about application, which is sad considering that the former seems to be what informs the latter. I’ve also noticed some of my small group discussions devolved into "what I've heard someone else teach" or a shotgun approach using Strong’s Concordance without much examining and sifting to see if it holds up to scripture.

Any suggestions (resources or otherwise) for assisting the layman in learning both the language as well as the historical context that the NT was written in? I've been working through both Letters and Homilies to Hellenized Christians and Conflict and Community in Corinth. I'm looking forward to your forthcoming NT Rhetoric book as well.

Ben Witherington said...

For the historical context you might check out my New Testament History.


Dave said...

"1967-68 was an interesting time. Neil Armstrong actually landed on the moon and hit a golf ball a mile!"

Not to be nit-picky, but since I work in the space industry i can't resist. The first moon landing was in July of 1969. Alan Shepard, not Armstrong, was the 1st to hit a golf ball on the moon during Apollo 14 in February of 1971. It went far, but not a mile.

Ok, history class is over :P

david said...

Excellent article Dr. Witherington!

One question regarding "it means what it meant" and typology.

There seems to be several options for interpreting messianic passages (e.g. Isa. 53) :

1. The original author meant whatever was in his historical context, but the overall meaning of that text includes both contexts (Isa. 53 actually references Christ but Isaiah doesn't realize this).

2. The original author knew about both contexts and meant both of them.

I know thats quite a rough sketch, but which do you think is more consistent?

jabre said...

Thanks for this. My college Hermeneutics professor's line was, "It can't mean what it never meant." Lately I've been working through The Art of Reading Scripture (Ellen Davis and Richard Hays, eds.). The group that produced this work seems to give a nod toward the kind of hermeneutics you advocate, but then they move in a somewhat different direction. They don't seem to want Scripture's meaning to be limited to the original meaning.

A man in my church recently was faced with a passage of Scripture in a "discussion" with another church member. He said, "You interpret it one way. I may interpret it another. There may be a thousand different interpretations." I thought, "Wow, post-modern hermeneutics has even reached my little town." I'm sure he was not distinguishing between meaning and significance. By the way, I appreciate the way you express that distinction.

Ben Witherington said...

Dear David;

There is a further option. The homiletical and Christological use of a non-Christological text. This is a matter of application rather than meaning. The text meant something which was generic enough that it could be used in a very different way later. One illustration from my life--- shortly before our first child was born my wife was put in the hospital with high blood pressure. As a biologist she wanted nothing to do with the drugs involved in inducing labor, but the doctor told her she must in the morning. On that very night we were reading some from the doom and gloom chapters in Ezekiel, and the words originally spoken to Jews in exile suddenly spoke to us for they included these words "and I will multiple your kindred, and I will keep you safe, and you will come home soon."

Now of course these words were not originally meant for nor were they about my wife's urgent circumstances. But God used them to speak to us.... and this often happens, not because the text has multiple meanings, but because given the commonality of human experience, they have multiple applications.


Ben Witherington said...

P.S. She went into labor naturally at 4 that morning and Christy was born by 10:30 a.m. Aug. 14th 1979.


Ryan said...

Thanks for this informative post. How does hermeneutics differ from exegesis?

Carlo said...


I fully enjoy reading Revelations as Apocalyptic Book (My Teacher told us to read it as you read a comic). The question is I think John did not get a vision as he said "I saw ..." since like you said, he 'hyperbolizes'. So, He did not see dragons with ten heads and twelve trunks, nor he saw Jesus' leg made from copper and His toungs like sword.
Would you agree? Since seems Sunday School teacher tought us that God provided a 'Screen' or 'Movie' to John?

Warm regards,


Ben Witherington said...

Hermeneutics is the rules for interpreting the text. Exegesis is the act of interpreting the text.

As for Carlo's question my answer would be no--- he really did have a vision of these things. The vision however was like watching a vivid fantasy or cartoon, not a National Geographic documentary.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

I used to understand Scripture as a coherent "whole", with Christ understood as the Jewish Messiah. But, Scripture's authority is not so much in the text itself, as in the person who has faith in the text...this is what I understand about your understanding of Ezekial...

When one understands the Scriptures original intent, one can come to understand certain human tendencies or principles that are universally applicable. But, I wouldn't call that infallible, or inerrant in the traditional sense. Inspiriation was held by the person who wrote the text in faith and the person who reads the text in faith...

Tim said...

Thanks for this excellent summary! Very useful in reminding us that reading scripture is a multiple-step process.

Douglas Stuart's OT Exegesis text has an appendix with a list of common hermeneutical errors which is less evocative but also quite useful.

I am very curious: Do you think, when Matthew quotes Isa 7:14, does he see his interpretation as finding a second meaning, or finding an application? Was the pesher hermeneutic seen as a form of interpretation or something more?


BrianM said...

Excellent article Ben. Can I make copies for my Young Adults Group? We're just finishing up a walk thru Revelations(the 's' is silent...) ;-) I'm amazed at the resistance from Church kids for flying insects to be anything other than Black Hawk helicopters. I'm starting to wonder if University kids are watching Jack Van Impe as some sort of drinking game...

Ben Witherington said...

I would call Mt.s use of Isa. 7.14 a homiletical use of the text, but he does indeed believe Mary was a virgin when she conceived, which is what prompted the use of this text. That is, the historical event forced the re-reading of the OT text in a Christological manner.

Any and all are welcome to use this with their Sunday school classes, youth groups etc. with proper attribution,
Ben W.

Gary said...

So are there christological meanings in OT texts? Is there only one meaning of, say Psalm 110?

Is "meaning" related AT ALL to "understanding"? Does the OT (as a whole and in particular portions) have a different meaning for Christians than for Jews?

Also, is an interpretive community of some sort relevant to the question, or does meaning rest solely in the words?

I'm ok with there being a restricted sense of "meaning" which would follow your outline here, but it seems a bit confusing since we use "meaning" in a few different ways.

I'm a man of many questions.

FWIW, I thought this article raised quite a few interesting thoughts about how we approach hermeneutics:

Corpus Christi Outreach Ministries said...

Good stuff witherington! Too bad Dave [the guy who corrected your moon landing]did not realize you were simply using an application!

Ben Witherington said...

Good questions Paul. Understanding must derive from the meaning of the text, or else it is not understanding of the text, of course. Eisegesis (a reading something into the text) is not exegesis.

Based on texts like 2 Sam. 7 there were hopes and expectations about a future Davidic king. We do not know all the shapes that took. I would say we do see messianism and hopes for a future king in various OT texts, including some of the royal psalms. This however is not the same as after the fact Christological readings of these texts. For example, so far as I can see, there is little or no evidence that Jews before the first century A.D. even contemplated the idea of a virginally conceived crucified messiah.

Finally, there is a difference between fulfillment and prediction. The former is a larger category. Jesus was the fulfillment of all sorts of OT things, not just of predictive prophecy-- for example he was the fulfillment of the sacrificial systems in the OT. If we ask what God was doing, we can say that we have foreshadowings and proto-types of Christology in the OT, but only in the late prophetic and apocalyptic stuff do we begin to go beyond that-- e.g. in texts like Dan. 7.13-14 and Is. 53.



dave said...

Thank you for taking the time to do this. I will have to make it required reading for my it in print in one of your books, or upcoming books?

Of course, as an ATS grad (:
I received great training in hermeneutics..
but the odds we are up against in teaching Revelation is huge...the popular model is so huge ..i guess we have to just keep teaching hermeneutics, huh?


approvedworkman said...

"But the text cannot have a meaning that the original inspired author did not place there."

The original author is God Himself.
The scriptures are God's literal word or they are not.
The Spirit leads us into all truth or He doesn't.
Christ told the Truth or he didn't.

"(Isa. 53 actually references Christ but Isaiah doesn't realize this)."

Hmmm.... Jesus said Abraham saw His "day" and rejoiced.
So how would you know what Isaiah realized?

I am an avid student of history, but it is not the primary hermeneutic. Is God not able to deliver, intact, for all generations His will and His Word and its meaning?

The neo-gnostics are those who relegate the Scriptures to another textbook.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi New and Approved workman: The Bible is the Word of God in the words of human beings, and as such reflects the language and culture of those human beings. It tells the truth through the vessel of human language and was written by means of normal human processes. It did not drop from the sky like Joseph Smith suggested about the golden tablets behind the book of Mormon. More to the point, God doesn't want you to interpret the non-literal portions of the Bible literally. If you do that you have violated not vindicated the divine author's intent. Prophecy is to a large degree poetry. It often has a poetic form and diction and rhythm and rhyme and personification and other such poetic devices. It certainly has meaning and referents outside the text itself, but it speaks of those things often in metaphorical terms. In short, God wants you to interpret prose as prose, poetry as poetry, songs as songs, laments as laments, and in general observe the literary genre and its conventions of the various kinds of material in the Bible. That is what it means to take God at his Word, and that is what it means to honor the truth in those words.


Ashley Biermann said...

One of the greatest joys during my years of study at a Pentecostal College in Melbourne, Australia has been the wonderful freedom to read widely and be tested in the often eisegesic (however you spell that one)view we all have of the bible. It has been quite interesting in my life's journey (which has included 10 years of illness) to find myself in the midst of another denomination that insists on the word being very central to the life of the church.

Yet seeing such strange and unusual interpretations due to tradition (even worse man's tradition) and not sensible exegesis of a text with a solid hermeneutic, has been quite a surprise.

It reminds me a lot of the ongoing point of Jesus (in the gospel of Mark) on the leaven of the ruling religious authorities, and the way it blinded the disciples from seeing the unfolding of prophetic events foretold in the past that were occurring in the life of Jesus.

I so enjoy the challenge of looking at scripture and endeavouring to carefully exegete and draw out the meaning of the text. It is a privilege and journey of a life time to experience this aspect. Sadly my natural personality is to prefer people over study, otherwise I would ever be lost in the world of exegesis and never get to application.

I for one so appreciate those who take the time to look deeply into the word and journey to the first century world...(or whichever age the text of the bible relates to) and carefully with much effort and study draw out the meaning of texts.

This truth you share in this blog is truly a blessing to many Ben and my constant prayer is that this medium of the internet will be used more to help many to correctly divide the word of truth.

Blessings and thankyou Ben

Recovering Sociopath said...

Thank you for posting this. I will be passing it on.

I was saddened to have to witness some of the more pernicious effects of proof-texting when I sat through the Truth Project training simulcast in September in order to vet it for use in our parish. Good heavens. The rampant proof-texting resulted in just the kind of equivocation you talk about here: they take Jesus' words to Pilate in John 18 ("You are right to say I am a king; for this reason I was born, to testify to the truth...") and read them as if Jesus was talking about some Platonic abstraction with a capital T, rather than the truth of Jesus' identity and mission. From there they go on to pull out snippets of text with the words "truth" or "truly" in them to demonstrate how concerned we should be with "propositional statements that conform to reality," since that is how they define truth.

They are so blind to their own commitments to Enlightenment rationalism that they fail to see the massive eisegesis they are undertaking.

You can find further examples here, if you're interested: as well as

Kyle said...

Thanks for another informative post, Dr. Witherington! The subject of interpretation is a very thorny area when it comes to the opening chapters of Genesis, so it would be very interesting to hear a more detailed explanation of your take on the matter. said...

Is there a good resource that lists the books or chapters of the Bible and assigns them a genre?

job - Wisdom
Genesis 1 - Science (not!)
Luke - Historical Narrative


Deano said...

Hi Dr Ben.

Thanks for sharing this. You are offered three great principals for Hermeneutics; keeping it clear and simple. I have some questions on what seems to be absent, or maybe you just assume this takes place. What value do you place on good hermeneutics taking place within the community of believers? I would have thought that good hermeneutics should include thorough ‘academic study’ and ‘devotion’ (as David deSilva puts it). What role does prayer have in the hermeneutical process? Gordon Fee argues that exegesis and spirituality should work together. Surely good hermeneutics should acknowledge the role of the Holy Spirit in the process?

I have never been a fan of giving credit to Hermes for delivering God’s Word. I like to refer to hermeneutics as pneumaneutics. The Holy Spirit is the one who inspired the message not Hermes. I believe whole heartily with your points but shouldn’t we acknowledge good biblical interpretation takes place when we are ‘good pray-ers’ (as Gordon Fee puts it). Good biblical interpretation is Spirit inspired (pneumaneutics).

By the way, I have enjoyed reading some of your Socio-Rhetorical Commentaries.

God Bless


Adonaiislord said...

Dear Mr Witherington
I am truely saddened after reading this article. After praying for you I realized that I had to write something, so I created an account just for this very occation. Although I agree somewhat with your secound point and was interested in your stories, it is with great passion that I must stress to you that you have been mislead in your thinking. Although, in some cases, you are right there is only one real truth written within scripture, this is majorly false. Truth comes through Adonai, not through scholorship. One obviouse case of this being false is found in biblical Hebrew. The shema being one example in Deut 6:4. This passage has over 6 translation all simultaneously true at the same time. Scripture can not only have multiple meanings, but because it is timeless, it can also have different meanins in different eras.

Although I agree that we should have a background in the religious, clutureal, philisophical and overall setting of the New Testament; However, God is meant to teach us the scriptures, not scholorship. You refer to reading with the holy spirit as using "Common scence", however I think that the holy spirit is alot more informed than you are, or any man for that matter. If one truely listened to the holy spirit in their study of scripture it would lead them to learning about the implication of the past(such as it did in myself).

Finialy, in your review of the book of revelation you have missunderstood what many gentiles misunderstand about ancient biblical text. From the very beginning of the prophets it was know that PROPHECY IS PATTERN. "What is true, was once true, and will once be true again." On top of that, although the early Christians belived that the revelation applied to them(and it did as it is timeless) it only can be fulfilled when the Jews were inhabiting canaan, hence people could not believe it applied to them for the last 2000 years at Israel only became a state in 1948. To take any future meaning out of the text is almost like saying Yeshua(Jesus) could'nt have been the promised massiah because Isaiah was writting a letter to Judah.
Anyways Ill continue to pray for you. Try and base your conclusions on what God puts on you heart that all.

God Bless