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Hermeneutics, biblical

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-K035-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 22, 2024, from

Article Summary

Hermeneutics has traditionally been defined as the theory of interpretation. Biblical hermeneutics concerns the interpretation of biblical texts. But ‘interpretation’ tends to reflect the nature of the discipline only from ancient times to about 1960. Increasingly it has come to be seen not as a tool used for difficult or obscure texts, or even for the application of such texts to the present, but as a theory of understanding in the broadest sense. It currently also relates to views of contextual theories of meaning and truth, in contrast to formalist approaches.

From ancient times until about 1800, philosophy played a minimal role in biblical hermeneutics. The subject concerned theology in the context of grammatical, philological, historical and linguistic inquiry. With the work of Schleiermacher in the early years of the nineteenth century, however, hermeneutics entered a new phase. It became a transcendental discipline, seeking to explore the conditions under which the understanding of texts becomes possible at all. In the era following Schleiermacher, theorists drew on the work of Dilthey and Heidegger, among others.

A third phase began with the work of Hans-Georg Gadamer in the early 1960s. Gadamer replaced the Enlightenment preoccupation with ‘method’ in the context of ‘science’ and ‘reason’ with a hermeneutics which took full account of the interpreter’s prior situatedness within a given historical tradition. This angle of approach was developed further by Habermas, who noted the role of ‘interest’ in understanding, and by Ricoeur, who, in dialogue with Freud and others, stressed the role of ‘suspicion’ as well as ‘listening’ in hermeneutics. Barthes and Derrida challenged the very notion of a ‘given’ text, shifting emphasis to construals by society and by readers which reflect motivations not immediately apparent from the supposed messages of texts.

This raises a multitude of fundamental questions for biblical hermeneutics and theology. If texts are no more than shifting constructs, what may still be said about divine grace or revelation? Do sacred texts merely mediate idolatrous constructs? How may hermeneutics serve to unmask interests which interpreters bring to the text and tempt them to use texts manipulatively?

Citing this article:
Thiselton, Anthony C.. Hermeneutics, biblical, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-K035-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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