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Hermeneutics, in a classical sense, consists of the art of understanding wherein rules and methodologies exist for interpreting biblical, classical, and legal texts. Typically, hermeneutic systems find application in efforts to discern hidden and symbolic meaning underlying scriptural texts. One might say that the import of hermeneutics relates to theology as epistemology does to archaeology.

Currently under scrutiny by hermeneutic analysis for reputed "archaeological" goals—the acquisition of these sacred objects for the "coming" Jerusalem Third Temple—are the copper Dead Sea Scrolls. Some believe these scrolls contain secret or coded information on the locations of the Second Temple treasures allegedly secreted away to various hiding places before the fall of Jerusalem in CE 70.

While theology traditionally has embraced hermeneutic theory of interpretation, a generalization of its theory into "philosophical hermeneutics" has resulted in some endeavors to extend its applicability to other fields.

Hermeneutics traditionally has been understood as part of a triangular relationship with exegesis and interpretation, although the distinctions once made are no longer always so clearly drawn. Exegesis was that part of the process of the study of biblical texts that had to do with determining the meaning of the text for its author and addressees. Interpretation had to do with determining the text’s meaning for the present age, and hermeneutics then referred to the rules and methodology applied in the movement from exegesis to interpretation. (Burke 1982:863.)

Textual Hermeneutic Analysis

The triad critical in textual hermeneutic applications consists of exegesis, hermeneutics, and interpretation. As used in this sense, these three conceptual components of hermeneutic analysis embody certain technical meaning but in reality there exists significant obfuscation between them.

A tentative working sense of these components, for purposes arguendo albeit resulting in some over-generalization, may relieve some of the abstraction associated with them. The following represent the triad in the limited sense of a classical hermeneutic treatment of a textual data set.

  • exegesis—The process of interpretation which seeks original meaning of data in their social and cultural context.

  • hermeneutics—The principles of interpretation consisting of the rules and methodologies applied to data in the movement from exegesis to interpretation and the processes by which they have application to data.

  • interpretation—The providing of meaning for the postmodern world from hermeneutic analysis.

The traditional province of hermeneutics lies with textual material in some symbolic representation. This source material, usually a literary text but also occasionally a work of art, provides the raw data. The hermeneutic analysis commences with exegesis. 

The first exegetical operation begins with what is known, or thought to be known, about the data set to be analyzed. This operation would properly include a review of relevant literature and scholarly opinion to formulate an idea, theory, hypothesis, paradigm, or conceptual model, to explain the meaning of the data set in its original social and cultural context. In other words, what meaning did the text have to its creators at the time and place it came into being? The historical context of the text is critical to coming to know its meaning in its own time.

For example, if a researcher sees the book of Hebrews as written by the apostle Paul in the first century CE, he or she will see the work quite differently than if it is viewed as a second century piece of Jewish Christian literature with unknown authorship. Subsequent analysis would reflect the adopted paradigm. Hence, the model is not one in a scientific sense. These two alternate views produce quite different interpretations.

The outcome of this first hermeneutic operation is a conceptual model, irrespective of what it might otherwise be called, which permits inferences to be made about the data under study—interpretation. This is not necessarily a conceptual model in a scientific sense, although it could be, but rather a mindset or paradigm. In practice it would seldom be a scientific model for the practitioners of hermeneutics do not generally operate in scientific terms.

Once this first exegetical operation is complete, the exegete commences examination of the data in search of obscurities, symbols, patterns, and apparent contradictions in the text. The direction which the analysis proceeds from this point on is subject to considerable philosophical debate.

Different philosophers have proposed different rules dependent upon their conservative, moderate, critical, or radical position. The process is largely one of question-and-answer playing questions about the data against what was learned as the outcome of the first exegetical operation and questions about this outcome against the data. This "back-and-forth" interactive technique seeks harmonization between the outcome of the first exegetical operation and the specific data in issue leading to the creation of new knowledge. Hence, knowledge evolves, it grows and expands, and gives new meaning.

A second exegetical operation seeks to examine the part—the data and inferences regarding the data—in the light of the whole. In contemporary analysis this would be at least history and what is known about the real world. This outside dimension is brought to bare to keep the question and answer cycle from proceeding in an endless spiral. Without bringing real world considerations into the process questions and answers would continue endlessly in a hermeneutical circle. Every question anticipates an answer. Every answer fosters new questions. Emil Staiger explains:

Hermeneutics has long taught us that we understand the whole by means of the particulars, the particulars by means of the whole. This is the hermeneutic circle, which we no longer accuse of being "vicious." We know from Heidegger’s ontology that all human knowledge unfolds in this way. Not even physics or mathematics can proceed differently. (Staiger 1990:410.)

The hermeneutical circle can give rise to an emotional crisis. According to Daniel P. Fuller:

The greatest difficulty to be overcome in the interpretation of texts is the famous "hermeneutical circle." (One’s mind is so delighted with all the "evidence" and "coherency" its construction draws from the text that anger is easily generated against different constructions of that text, which also claim coherency and cite much "evidence" in their support.) But the interpreter who is aware of the alluring power of the hermeneutical circle and who desires truth more than the ego satisfaction of hanging onto his pet ways of construing a text will want to consider seriously the objections of another interpreter brings against his way of gaining a supposedly coherent view of a text (Fuller 1982:864.)

In theology, the examination of a "part" of the Bible, such as a single book like the gospel of John, would require an inference drawn from the study of John to be examined in light of the "whole" Bible. Drawing an inference that the Johannine character Nicodemus was symbolic of a group active in the Johannine community would require at the very least its analysis in light of symbolism in the rest of Bible for reasons of plausibility.

Examination of data through movement between these two exegetical operations, according to hermeneutical rules and methods, continues until all the data is exhausted. At the conclusion of the analysis more is known of the meaning of the text in its own time and the exegete how proceeds to provide meaning—interpretation— for the contemporary world.

A Textual Example

The complexity of the rules and methodology of hermeneutics warrant consideration of a contemporary application of hermeneutic analysis to a literary text before relating its principles to the archaeological record. The Fourth Gospel has been the subject of intensive hermeneutic analysis wherein theologians have sought to unlock its symbols and signs in such a way that it could be understood in terms of its own times as well as today.

"In the Fourth Gospel" wrote Anthony C. Thiselton "word and deed are presented as interwoven in a flow of acted signs" (Thiselton 1992:69). For Thiselton the Fourth Gospel includes throughout "a number of indicators of self-involving and commissive speech acts..." (Thiselton 1992:306).

The text, for R. Alan Culpepper, contained an implicit purpose to alter, in an irrevocable way, the reader’s perceptions of the world as the author saw it (Culpepper 1983:4). Thiselton reasoned further that "in the Johannine texts contextualizing settings and textual allusions also constrain meaning by situation-directedness in ways which may be perceived by some readers, but not by others" (Thiselton 1992:581). David Rensberger generated considerable excitement in theological circles with his analysis of the gospel of John and its contemporary significance for liberation theology and the church in general (Rensberger 1988).

First Exegetical Operation

The first necessity in Rensberger’s analysis of the gospel of John was to establish the "context" in which the original meaning of the data would be probed in their late first-century social and cultural setting. He wrote of a new era in Johannine interpretation enabled by the abandoning the historical notion of John as a "spiritual gospel" for the recognition of an independent body of Johannine traditions (Rensberger 1988:19-21).

While John’s gospel is understood generally to have been written late in the first century, historical critics impute the authorship to some person, or persons, other than the apostle John. Rensberger relied heavily on the scholarship of J. Louis Martyn (Martyn 1979) who characterized the gospel as written in a community of Jewish Christians in Asia Minor who were in the process of being identified and expelled from a traditional Jewish synagogue in the Diaspora. The gospel, according to Rensberger, was written for those who faced exposure as Christians resulting in their expulsion from the Jewish community. He saw in the gospel text a "two-level drama" wherein the stories about Jesus and other characters, such as Nicodemus, revealed the ordeal of the author and his local Jewish Christian congregation. The gospel characters represented symbols of important elements in the Johannine milieu.

It was within this situation of conflict, crisis, and alienation that the Fourth Gospel was written, and against this background it must be understood. The community’s traditions about Jesus were powerfully recast in this milieu, reflecting the influence both of forces outside mainstream Jewish piety and of the conflict with the synagogue. No doubt we may also see in the gospel the impact of some one particularly powerful theologian and literary artist who was primarily responsible for this recasting. (If we refer to this evangelist as "John," it is only for the sake of using a convenient and familiar name, not to imply a historical identification of the author.) This reshaping of an originally independent stream of tradition is what gave the Fourth Gospel its peculiar character, advancing its portrayal of Jesus ever farther from the earlier tradition toward a deeper understanding, in a process perceived by the community as the work of the Spirit of Truth (John 14:25-26; 16:12-15). (Rensberger 1988:28-29).

This exegesis provided the starting point for Rensberger’s hermeneutical "social analysis" of the text. By means of his exegesis Rensberger identified the Fourth Gospel text as the product of a coherent history, and this history as the proper place for coming to an understanding of John’s purpose and theology.

Conventionally, nontraditional textual symbols are identified by an author at a text’s opening. The author of the gospel of John did not out rightly identify any symbolism inherent in his characters in any specific terms. Rensberger’s supposition was that the author of the Fourth Gospel wrote his work such that those for whom the gospel was intended did indeed understand its symbolic meaning. Presumably, there were ancient valid reasons for a covert approach to preserve the security and safety of the people involved.

The goal of Rensberger’s hermeneutical analysis was to reveal any symbolism that could be discerned through a careful reading of the text and treating its characters as symbolic of individuals or groups of individuals within the Johannine community. Validity and reliability of findings, arguably, was enhanced by evidence of a pattern of coherent and internally consistent inferences drawn from the text. The more internally consistent the findings, and the inferences drawn thereon, and the more consistent the findings and inferences are with the whole Bible, contemporary historical knowledge of the Johannine community, and early Christianity, the more probable the veracity of Rensberger’s conclusions.

Commencing Hermeneutical Analysis

One of the characters Rensberger selected for analysis was Nicodemus (John 3). He proceeded to trace the data, verse-by-verse, for information regarding this character’s historical origin, then he proceeded to interpret this data in a logical historical context. The first question Rensberger asked was: "If Nicodemus is a symbolic figure in John, what does he symbolize?" His answer from the question he put to the data, in a manner that would reasonably account for it, was that Nicodemus symbolically represented "secret believers" who were still part of the traditional Jewish synagogue.

Second Exegetical Operation

In a second exegetical operation Rensberger proceeded to examine the data in the light of known history as reported by reputable scholars and researchers on the "cutting edge" or "horizon" of the discipline (Barrett 1978, Brown 1982, Bultmann 1971, Lindars 1972, Martyn 1978). Utilization of this strategy yielded more knowledge of the meaning of the data in the sense that the inferences drawn from the questions asked of the data were confirmed, rejected, or modified when subjected to confirmation in the historical knowledge fund.

Rensberger’s working findings then became part of the evolution of his knowledge for continuing his hermeneutical analysis. What an exegete has learned serves as the basis for the next question. Through this series of continuous interactions a "possible" solution was devised to account, in the most satisfactory manner, for the observed inferences from the data consistent with his continuing exegesis.

Continuing Hermeneutic Analysis

Rensberger continued by interacting with the text, by means of the question-answer style required in hermeneutic analysis, until he exhausted all the data pertaining to Nicodemus. His questions included (Rensberger 1988:52):

  • Why does Nicodemus come to Jesus, and why does Jesus answer him as he does?

  • What is meant by the other birth, and what has it to do with the coming of the Son?

  • Does Jesus’ speech to Nicodemus end at some point and the evangelist’s own observations begin?

  • Why is it remarked that Jesus baptized people, and that what exactly is the occasion of John the Baptist’s dialogue with his disciples?

  • Is the latter supposed to be related somehow to Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus?

  • Does John’s speech also give way to comments by the evangelist, and if so, at what point?

From his hermeneutical analysis Rensberger concluded that "Nicodemus appears as a man of inadequate faith and inadequate courage, and as such he represents a group that the author wishes to characterize in this way" (Rensberger 1988:40).

Apparently they hoped to be disciples of Jesus but also to remain within the framework of synagogue Judaism. In the Johannine situation, this could only be done by concealing their discipleship from public knowledge, avoiding an open confession, for it is clear that known Christians were being expelled from the synagogue. The full dimensions of their Christianity, how they managed their concealment, and what mechanism if any there was for exposing them we do not know. Apparently they were successful enough at avoiding detection to have caused considerable distress to John and his community (Rensberger 1988:40-41).

Ultimately, with similar analysis of the text relating to other asserted symbols, Rensberger fabricated his working model detailing issues and identifying groups within the Johannine community. Rensberger structured his model to account for the data observed in a manner consistent with the proffered evidence. Whether this analysis resulted in a model accounting for the data and findings such that its validity was more probable than not remains an open issue. Once the model was complete, such that the model would reasonably account for the data, Rensberger undertook formal interpretation by attempting to provide meaning for the postmodern world.


Having established his model Rensberger approached the final task of hermeneutic analysis, that of interpretation, wherein meaning is set forth for the postmodern world. He asked,

How can the gospel of John, now clearly seen to be so intimately involved in the particular conflicts of a particular time and place, be of significance for us in our time and place? (Rensberger 1988:135.)

He then set forth how the results of his study bear upon social issues such as "liberation theology" (Rensberger 1988:107-134) and how the gospel of John be of significance for Christians in postmodern times (Rensberger 1988:136-154).

Page last edited: 01/24/06 09:08 PM


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