How do we understand what we read?
For most of us, this is not a question we contemplate on a daily basis. Rather it is something we do intuitively. We read the newspaper. We read a magazine article on the Second World War. We read a book on the economy of China.
Understanding what we have read or seen is usually an automatic and intuitive process. But every now and then we realise that this process is not seamless. We see Bible translators arguing over the translation of a single word for days on end. We interpret the doctor’s orders differently from our spouse (what the doctor said we can or cannot eat). Or we argue about the meaning of the ending of our favourite TV show.
The ancient Greeks realised communication and understanding was not always a given. In their mythology, Zeus, the ruler of the gods, appointed Hermes to take responsibility for this. Hermes was Zeus’ messenger, the one he would send down to the world whenever he wanted to tell the ancient Greeks something. Hermes had to interpret Zeus’ wishes to humankind.
As you can imagine, this wasn’t an easy task. First, Hermes would have to be sure that he understood Zeus’ message himself. He would do this by asking Zeus questions to make sure he understood him correctly. Then he would have to find the exact words to correctly communicate the message to the Greeks. Hermes would have to interpret the message so that there were no misunderstandings. If there were, Zeus could get pretty angry!
So, from Hermes’ name comes the original meaning of the word hermeneut: someone who interprets messages. Today, we use the word Hermeneutics to describe the study of the principles of interpretation of the Bible.
In this article, I would like to look at what is involved in the hermeneutical process—the art of reading and understanding well.
How do we understand what we read: the text
Let’s start with the basics, the Bible text itself. We have to ask ourselves three key questions:
1. What is the history of the text I am reading?
How did it come into being? Did it start as oral tradition? Do we have the original? How authentic are the copies we use? What’s a good process for determining that? Who had a hand in creating this text? What was its first purpose?
2. How does grammar function in these ancient languages?
How does grammar work in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic? How does that compare to various modern languages? What did these words, sentences, and expressions mean when they were first used? What’s the best way to capture that meaning today?
3. Why has a certain literary genre been used?
What kind of writing did this author choose to use? What was the customary way to understand this kind of writing in the ancient world?
There are lots of questions! This might leave you feeling overwhelmed. Do I have to answer all these questions for every passage of the Scriptures? What if I don’t know the answers? The point here is not to make us feel inadequate. The key is for all of us to become more aware of what good Bible reading looks like, and to be more intentional in pursuing it. Good Bible reading requires initiative (work) and humility (things are not always what they seem at first glance) from our side.
How do we understand what we read: the world behind the text
The Bible text did not originate in a vacuum. It was written in a very specific socio-historic context. It’s important to look at the world behind the text.
It is important to realise that the Bible was not written for 21st-century man. For the authors of the Bible, the world was flat, rested on giant pillars and had a canopy covering it. To understand the meaning of the text, we need to understand something of the social and cultural practices of the authors. We need to realise that the sub-conscious social, political, economic, ideological realities of the time had an influence on how the authors of the Bible understood and communicated God’s message.
Unfortunately, we cannot travel back in time to experience the realities of the authors. But through archaeology and sociology, we are able to reconstruct the ancient world of the Bible. For example, these two disciplines give us insight into how children, slaves, and women were perceived in the New Testament. Knowing this helps us to read and understand the Bible – as it relates to our context – in a better way.
The important thing to remember when dealing with the world behind the text is that the Bible message – although very relevant for our world – was not written for the fast-moving reality in which we live. So, to make God’s Word relevant to us, we need to take the reality of the authors seriously and realise that there is not a seamless connection between our worlds.