There are hundreds of technical terms in this field, but we’ll only dwell on two: The first is “EXEGESIS.”
Exegesis means simply interpretation; when you are exegeting a text, you are trying to make sense of it or explain it. A HERMENEUTICS, on the other hand, is what guides your exegesis: it is a set of rules or principles used to interpret texts which are not self-explanatory.
That is, one needs a hermeneutics (a set of rules for interpretation) in order to do exegesis (applying the rules to interpret a text).
Developing hermeneutics is among the oldest tasks of biblical studies, and one which has been the focus of more conflicts and debates than any other. These debates continue today, even on this list. There are two main reasons for this:
First, many if not most of the key biblical passages are not self-explanatory; to make sense they must be interpreted. This point leads logically to the
Second, namely that the hermeneutical principles used in interpreting or exegeting a text play a crucial, even a determining role in what that interpretation turns out to be.
Or as some might put it, garbage in, garbage out.
Take, as one example, The Song of Songs in the Hebrew Scriptures. Many modern exegetes interpret it using a hermeneutics that goes something like this: A text’s “real” meaning is whatever it meant to the first readers when the text was originally written down.
Thus they compare the Song of Songs to similar types of poetry in ancient Near East cultures, and might well conclude (as some have) that it appears to be a sacralized version of what was basically a passionate love song of the day, no more and no less.
On the other hand, for centuries Catholic hermeneutics, and much Protestant interpretation too, heavily stressed an allegorical approach. From this perspective, a text’s literal meaning is of little importance, except as a vehicle for another set of meanings entirely, and these true meanings might not become clear until centuries after the text was written.
The Song of Songs was thus interpreted as expressing the mutual love of Christ for the Church, which in Catholic symbolism was described as Christ’s bride. (Note that according to this view, when the book was actually composed, several hundred years before Christ was even born, the author didn’t really know what he [or she] was talking about.)
Considering these two starkly divergent hermeneutical approaches, the question arises:
Which of these interpretations is “correct”?
This question immediately leads to another, possibly more important one, namely:
WHO DECIDES which is correct?
This second question is the hook on which most of Christian history–and much of Jewish history as well–has hung for well over two thousand years.
The question of WHO DECIDES how the Bible is to be interpreted is what I call the HERMENEUTICAL ISSUE OF POWER, or the HIP QUESTION.
It is my conviction–and I think our experience on the Spectrum proves it–that the HIP Question stands behind many apparent conflicts over hermeneutics and exegesis.
So as you study the Bible, particularly those texts and themes that are hotly debated today, I hope you will ask yourself from time to time:
Does the question I’m looking at involve ONLY exegesis and hermeneutics, or is the HIP QUESTION–the question of Power, of WHO gets to do the interpreting–part of an unspoken agenda here?
I predict that asking this question as you go along will bring many otherwise obscure matters into clearer focus.
Texts to ponder: Song of Solomon, Chapter 4.NEXT TIME: More About Getting HIP