Biblical Interpretation (Biblical Hermeneutics)

Bible

Bible [Gr.,=the books], term used since the 4th cent. to denote the Christian Scriptures and later, by extension, those of various religious traditions. This article discusses the nature of religious scripture generally and the Christian Scriptures specifically, as well as the history of the translation of the Bible into English. For the composition and the canon of the Hebrew and Christian Bible, see Old Testament; New Testament; Apocrypha; Pseudepigrapha.

The Nature of Scripture

The sacred writings of the religions of the world exhibit a variety of genres—prayers, visions, ritual, moral codes, myths, historical narratives, legends, and revelatory discourses. Such works have tended to be transmitted orally at first and committed to writing at a later date. This is true of much of the content of the Christian Bible as well as of the Hindu Vedas and the Jewish Mishnah.

The sacred character of such writings is accorded them by communities that have come to value the traditions they embody. Scripture is also perceived in some sense as heavenly in origin—the Qur'an and the Book of Mormon are good examples of this. Religious communities value highly those who interpret their scriptures at both the scholarly and popular levels. Translation of scripture into the vernacular, though resisted in some religious traditions, is a common phenomenon. However, the original Arabic of the Qur'an is regarded as the actual words of God, and therefore as sacrosanct, and is printed alongside its translation. Translations can assume the status of inspired text, as did the Greek translation of the Jewish Scriptures (the Septuagint) in Hellenistic Jewish and Christian communities. The process of canonizing scripture has been an extended one in many religious traditions, e.g., the Jewish, Christian, and Buddhist faiths. Other traditions authorized their respective bodies of scripture early, e.g., the Sikhs, Muslims, and Manichaeans. Inspiration is an adjunct of the idea of the divine authority of scripture.

The role of scripture in the life of the community involves its public recitation or reading at worship, its veneration as a cult object, and its citation in public prayer and in prescribing appropriate rituals. In the private devotional life of the faithful, scripture is the focus of meditation. The use of scripture to function as a charm to ward off evil or to induce healing is also common. Scripture is also the inspiration for cultural expression in art, music, and literature.

The Bible as Christian Scripture

The traditional Christian view of the Bible is that it was written under the guidance of God and that it therefore conveys truth, either literally or figuratively. In recent times the view of many Christians has been influenced by the pronouncements of critics (see higher criticism); this has produced a counteraction in the form of fundamentalism, whose chief emphasis has been on the literal inerrancy of the Bible. The interpretation of the Bible is one of the traditional points of difference between Protestants, who believe that the Scriptures speak for themselves, and Roman Catholics, who hold that the church has ultimate authority in the interpretation of the Scriptures.

English Translations of the Christian Bible

John Wyclif was one of the first to project the publication and distribution of the Bible in the vernacular among the English people, and two translations go by his name. In the 15th cent. the Lollards did much to extend the use of the Wyclifite translation. The next name in the history of the English Bible is that of William Tyndale, whose translation was not from the Latin Vulgate, like Wyclif's, but from the Hebrew and Greek. Its quality is attested by its use as a basis of the Authorized Version. Tyndale's New Testament (1525–26) was the first English translation to be printed. Contemporary with Tyndale was Miles Coverdale. The second version of Coverdale and the translation of Thomas Matthew closely followed Tyndale. In 1539 the English crown issued its first official version, in the name of Henry VIII. This, the Great Bible, was done principally by Coverdale. The Geneva Bible, or Breeches Bible, was a revision of the Great Bible, financed and annotated by the Calvinists of Geneva. The Bishops' Bible (1568) was a recasting of Tyndale.

The greatest of all English translations was the Authorized Version (AV), or King James Version (KJV), of 1611, made by a committee of churchmen led by Lancelot Andrewes and composed of many of the finest scholars in England. The beautiful English of this version has had great influence and is generally ranked in English literature with the work of Shakespeare. The phraseology of much of it is that of Tyndale. The Douay, or Rheims-Douay, Version was published by Roman Catholic scholars at Reims (New Testament, 1582) and Douai, France (Old Testament, 1610); it was extensively revised by Richard Challoner. In the 19th cent. the project of revising the Authorized Version from the original tongues was undertaken by the Church of England with the cooperation of nonconformist churches. The results of this revision were the English Revised Version and the American Revised Version (pub. 1880–90).

Many scholars, either cooperatively or independently, have translated the Bible into English. In other literatures, also, the translation of the Bible has had a formative effect on the literary language, notably in the case of Martin Luther's German translation. Occasionally translation of the Bible has been the first or the only notable work in a language, e.g., the translation by Ulfilas into Gothic.

In the 20th cent., American biblical scholars combined to produce the Revised Standard Version (RSV), published in 1952 and immediately adopted by many churches. A completely new translation, the work of a joint committee of representatives of all Protestant denominations in Great Britain, aided by Roman Catholic consultants, was begun in 1946. The New Testament was first published in 1961, and the entire Bible, called The New English Bible, appeared in 1970. New Roman Catholic translations were also undertaken, the Westminster Version in England, and a complete revision of the Rheims-Douay edition sponsored by the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine in the United States. The latter, after undergoing several major revisions and retranslations, was finally published as the New American Bible (1970). In addition, an English translation of the French Catholic Bible de Jerusalem (1961) appeared as the Jerusalem Bible (1966). A revision of the RSV was published in 1989 as the New Revised Standard Version.

Bibliography

See The Cambridge History of the Bible (3 vol., 1963–70); F. F. Bruce and E. G. Rupp, ed., Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition (1968); F. M. Denny and R. L. Taylor, The Holy Bible in Comparative Perspective (1985); H. M. Orlinsky and R. M. Bratcher, A History of Bible Translation and the North American Contribution (1991); J. Miles, God: A Biography (1995); J. L. Kugel, The Bible as It Was (1997); R. E. Friedman, The Hidden Book of the Bible (1998); C. Murphy, The Word According to Eve (1998); D. H. Akensen, Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds (1999); A. Nicolson, God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible (2003); B. Chilton et al., ed., The Cambridge Companion to the Bible (2007); H. Hamlin and N. W. Jones, ed., The King James Bible after Four Hundred Years (2011).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Biblical Interpretation
Robert Morgan; John Barton.
Oxford University Press, 1988
A History of Biblical Interpretation
Alan J. Hauser; Duane F. Watson.
William B. Eerdmans, 2003
Theology, Hermeneutics, and Imagination: The Crisis of Interpretation at the End of Modernity
Garrett Green.
Cambridge University Press, 2000
Religion and the Hermeneutics of Contemplation
D. Z. Phillips.
Cambridge University Press, 2001
Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church
Karlfried Froehlich; Karlfried Froehlich.
Fortress Press, 1984
Archaeology and Biblical Interpretation
John R. Bartlett.
Routledge, 1997
The Bible in the Churches: How Various Christians Interpret the Scriptures
Kenneth Hagen.
Marquette University Press, 1998 (3rd edition)
Bread Not Stone: The Challenge of Feminist Biblical Interpretation
Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza.
Beacon Press, 1995
Transcending Gadamer: Towards a Participatory Hermeneutics
O'Reilly, Kevin E.
The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 65, No. 4, June 2012
Yet with a Steady Beat: Contemporary U.S. Afrocentric Biblical Interpretation
Randall C. Bailey.
Brill, 2003
The Garments of Torah: Essays in Biblical Hermeneutics
Michael Fishbane.
Indiana University Press, 1992
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