Historical origins of hermeneutics

While the word is only about two-and-a-half centuries old, hermeneutics as a disciplined approach to interpretation can be traced back to the ancient Greeks studying literature and to biblical exegesis in the Judeo- Christian tradition.

The Greeks took texts to be wholes rather than merely a juxtaposition of unorganised parts. Because of this, they expected that grammar and style, and even ideas, would be consistent in any particular text and throughout the writings of any one author or school. On this basis, they proceeded to codify principles of grammar and style and to identify the logic found in particular authors and schools. These principles and emphases, which the Greeks used to correct, confirm or authenticate various passages and even whole texts, can be said to constitute their hermeneutics, even if the word itself was not to emerge for some 2000 years. Whatever of the word, the relating of part to whole and whole to part discernible in the interpretative practices of the ancient Greeks would become an enduring theme within hermeneutics.

Another tradition stemmed from Jewish hermeneutical practices. In interpreting its sacred Scriptures, Rabbinic Judaism had different procedures for dealing with narrative texts and legal texts. Haggadah (‘story’) sought to draw moral lessons from narratives. Here a number of hermeneutical devices were employed. Some of these made it possible to bring separate texts together. Others either creatively embellished the existing narrative text or added anecdotes to it. Halakhah (‘procedure’) was the way in which legal texts were read. This had its own hermeneutical devices. The text was regarded as a divine code of behaviour and the devices enabled it to be mined for deeper significances. Sometimes haggadah and halakhah were combined in a form of literature known as targum (‘translation’), which itself required hermeneutical principles for its interpretation.

The first Christians inherited Jewish ways of interpreting. However, a significant development occurred in the second century. Drawing on the writings of Philo Judaeus, this move combined the approach deriving from Judaism with another approach that found its source in Greek practice. According to Philo, while interpreters are to look for a spiritual sense in the text, they must find a basis for this spiritual sense in the literal sense that the text bears.

Philo’s thought on the matter was very influential. Two conflicting schools developed, however, and became locked in bitter controversy.

One, headed by Origen, was centred at Alexandria. The other school was centred at Antioch and found its main representative in the person of Theodore of Mopsuestia. While both schools accepted the twofold sense to be found in texts, a literal meaning and a spiritual meaning, Alexandria emphasised the spiritual meaning far more than Antioch did. The Alexandrian school saw texts as allegorical, drawing from them meanings that were at once moral and mystical. Antioch, to the contrary, gave more prominence to the literal meaning of texts. It looked very much to what the author intended and what the written words conveyed grammatically. These different hermeneutical approaches led to significandy different theologies. Where Alexandria saw Jesus as a divine being who took on human form, Antioch saw Jesus as a human elevated to divine status.

St Augustine, in Platonic mode, situated true understanding in what he termed ‘eternal reasons’. These are essentially divine; but Augustine believed them to be discernible in nature and in texts. Not surprisingly, Augustine agreed that primacy should be accorded to the spiritual sense in the interpretation of religious texts.

Such privileging of the spiritual sense led to a proliferation of interpretations bearing litde relationship to the literal meaning of texts. In response, the Church began to exercise stronger control of scriptural interpretation. It came to be accepted that discerning the true meaning of sacred texts requires guidance. There are certain assumptions one needs to bring to the task of interpretation and these derive not from something inherent in the text but from religious tradition.

Tradition is, of course, a pivotal notion within Catholicism. Although contemporary Catholic theology, in the wake of Vatican II, tends to meld Scripture and Tradition in a way that contrasts with their earlier articulation as twin sources of faith, the faith tradition has always shaped biblical interpretation for Catholics in quite decisive ways. On the other hand, with the Protestant Reformation and its emphasis on ‘Scripture alone’, interpretative practices arose that sought to apply biblical data to present-day situations rather than reading them in ways that square with historical traditions. Both orientations—looking back to tradition and looking outward to the contemporary world—have echoes in the hermeneutics we find today within philosophy and the human sciences.

Source: Michael J Crotty (1998), The Foundations of Social Research: Meaning and Perspective in the Research Process, SAGE Publications Ltd; First edition.

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