Monday, November 7, 2022

Examining the Basis Of Biblical Hermeneutics. (Pt. 1)


At Loyola, exegesis was taught as a rigorous discipline as part of Theology 220, centered on biblical hermeneutics. We used the actual original forms of the texts in their original languages and the meanings associated with each.  Needless to say those Theology exams were some of the most difficult I’ve taken in any course.

At each class session, we were issued the passages for exegesis from the different quadriform gospels. The passage was rendered under different headers, e.g.


One then went from column to column annotating the changes in emphasis of the respective passage, as well as its contextual meaning and then to the final English rendition. In the process, we were expected to estimate: 1) the net loss in meaning based on the total meaning in the original, usually Aramaic text, and 2) discern the actual meaning from docetic and textual analysis.

This is really the basis of biblical hermeneutics. The primary objective of exegesis is interpreting what the passage in the original language meant in terms of its OWN CONTEXT not simply putting it into the new one. THIS is why so many biblical literalists foul up and end up in a ditch.

As I noted in an earlier blog post, the process for the literalist is basically 1:1 onto:

[Text x] -> [Text x]

Thus, [Text x] undergoes no modification from what their eyes detect or parse in the passage.In fact, there are three primary phases of the hermeneutics process so that at least three stages have to be covered, so:

[text x] -> [1] ->[2] –[3] -> [Text Z]

Even this is oversimplified, since technically each step also needs to be checked and parsed from one language to the other. For example, what did the author MEAN in Aramaic? What did he mean when this was transferred to GREEK? What did he mean when this Greek was transferred to Latin? What did he mean when the Latin went to English? Then step [2] – repeating the same. When we did exegesis at Loyola we used columns for the four main languages and parsed each passage for EACH step before arriving at the final meaning. (As anyone who's ever studied foreign languages knows- and I've studied Latin, Russian, German and Spanish- it is essentially impossible to get a perfect translation from one to another!)

What we acknowledge in doing this procedure is the fact that we have NO ORIGINALS of any scriptures, only error-ridden copies. But, if we can take the passages through the above sequence, then let the light of the historical research shine upon the effort, we can at least approach the truth. We are not so naïve as to claim or expect we HAVE the truth, since hermeneutics itself – its very use- is a tacit admission one can’t take passages literally.

Bible scholar Bart Ehrman also notes (Misquoting Jesus, p. 54) there were almost no controls for standardization of textual content like there are today because there were no copyright laws! Thus, copyists could literally add or subtract as they saw fit. One estimate has it that nearly all the references in the NT to “Satan” or “Hell” were accomplished at the hands of copyists, leading one Bishop of Corinth to remark that:

The devils’ apostles have filled it with tares, taking away some things and adding others. For them the woe is reserved”.

In addition, other portions or whole segments of the Bible (King James or other versions) are easily exposed as incorporating bogus "padding" with just cursory inspection of the same passages in different editions. An excellent example of a later added text ("synthetic addition") bearing no relation (in terms of coda context or document validation) are the last twelve verses of Mark. None of that content bears any continuity with what came before it so it's reasonable to conclude these were later additions and not part of the original text.

The content of Mark dealing with Yeshua’s end is fairly intact from say 15:42-47 to 16:4-8. Thereafter the problem text appears. (Last 12 verses)Terrific stuff, compelling and used as the basis for “speaking in tongues” by many Pentecostals, but totally bogus. The whole last 12 verses were added by another scribe (as pointed out by biblical textual analyst and scholar Ehrman (a former evangelical).

There's also the matter of how historicity of the scripts, documents affects the exegesis process. Doing one without the other is like trying to argue about the justification of recent historical events without knowing what they were.

Consider the letter of Paul to the Galatians. This encapsulates a problem of not only historicity, but of significant copyist errors (bastardized mss.) left to parse, as well as geography. Consider, even at the time of the original “letter” (assuming it was even penned by Paul), Galatia was not a single town with a single church, it was a region in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) in which Paul had established churches.

When he writes to the “Galatians” therefore, is Paul writing to ONE single church or to all of them? (Presumably since he doesn’t single out any he intends his missive to go to all of them). If so, given the churches are far apart (on average 150 miles) does that mean he made multiple copies of the same letter – or did he intend one letter to circulate to all the churches of the region?Suppose he made multiple copies, how did he do it given no printing presses were available and the precise copying of merely one letter would have taken over a year.

In fact, the evidence of extant texts shows Paul dictated the letter to a scribe. (Paul’s initials, unusually large, diverge from the scale of script used in the actual letters)Problem with the dictation: Did Paul actually dictate it word for word, or did he merely spell out general points and enjoin the scribe to fill in the rest?

Here’s what we do know: What survives today is not the original copy of the letter, nor one of the first copies that Paul himself made, nor any of the copies that were produced in the towns of Galatia to which the letter was sent – nor any of the copies of those copies.The first reasonable copy we have of Galatians is a papyrus called P 46 – for the 46th New Testament papyrus to be catalogued, which dates to 200 CE (200 AD). This is roughly 150 years after Paul putatively wrote the letter.

It was in circulation – copied sometimes correctly, sometimes not, for 15 decades BEFORE any copy was made that survived to the present day. Further, we cannot reconstruct the copy from which P 46 was made.Was it accurate? If so, how accurate? It surely had mistakes of some kind, as did the copy from which it was copied. We can see all these exposed like rotting wood under the floorboards when we use textual analysis to peel back the layers!

Textual criticism and analysis not only exposes the inadequacies in distinct texts of the NT, but through the whole bible via the propagation of errors concept. Consider: from the earliest OT scribblings (12 th century BC) to the final establishment of the NT corpus at the Council of Trent (16th century) more than 28 centuries elapsed! That is, twenty eight centuries for copyist errors to propagate through millennia and not be caught and for enormous mistranslations to emerge because of said errors.

Trustworthiness itself was often determined by consensus in the earliest writings and codices. Most evangelicals s aren’t even remotely aware that the content they are claiming today as “literal or inerrant words” were in fact originally “passed by committee” !

See Also:

Introduction to the New Testament History and Literature

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