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What is hermeneutics?

Hermeneutics is a science that even some consider being an art and it focuses on the interpretation of all kinds of text. Of course, these texts must be somehow complex in terms of semantics, since there is no room for interpretation in very literal texts. There must be different opinions about the correct interpretation of certain ideas in a text due to the language used. Then, hermeneutics is used to place the text in its context and determine the connotative value of what is expressed. This is done in order to find out its actual meaning: what the author or speaker really wanted to convey when he/she wrote or uttered the text.

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Etymology of ¨hermeneutics¨

The word ¨hermeneutics¨ comes from the Greek hermeneutikos, which is composed of the words hermeneuo, which means decipher, and techne, which means related to the art. Hence, we could say that ¨hermeneutics¨ means the art of deciphering or interpreting. If we go deeper into the etymology of this word, we can see that it has its origin in the name of the god Hermes. This Greek deity was the messenger of the Olympian; therefore, one of his tasks was to convey the messages uttered by the gods to the mortals. The Greeks also thought that this god was the creator of language and writing. At the very beginning, the term ¨hermeneutics¨ was used exclusively to the interpretation of the metaphorical prophecies made by oracles and deities.

What is the difference between hermeneutics and exegesis?

On many occasions, the word ¨hermeneutics¨ is used as a synonym of the word ¨exegesis¨. However, ¨hermeneutics¨ seems to englobe a wider spectrum that includes the interpretation of all kinds of texts whether they are written or oral, and even includes the interpretation of non-verbal language. On the other hand, ¨exegesis¨ is rather used in contexts related to the interpretation of the Sacred Scriptures, philosophical or artistic texts.

History of hermeneutics

The history of hermeneutics dates back to the ancient times in which Romans and Greeks considered it a technique or art. Since those times, it was used to mainly interpret poems, laws, or books considered classic or sacred. Plato and Aristotle devoted some words to treat this topic, which indicates that from those ancient times, they knew the difference between the literal and connotative meaning. Besides, at the philological school of Alexandria and Pergamos, hermeneutics was seen as a paramount tool for the edition of classic poems.

Still during the Middle Ages, hermeneutics was not considered a science, rather a technique of exegesis. During these times, the interpretation of the Bible recovers its importance and the four main types get defined: literal, moral, allegorical, and anagogical.

Hermeneutics in contemporary times

From the Middle Ages since the end of the XIX century, hermeneutics goes through a lot of changing processes in which it recovers its importance for a while and gets frowned upon during other periods and diminished by being placed as an insignificant aspect within philology.

By the end of the XIX century, Wilhelm Dilthey gave hermeneutics a prevalent position and used it to understand the history of humanity. Later, during the XX century, several important philosophers such as Martin Heidegger makes important contributions to this field. He expresses that interpreting is just a human-inherent characteristic, which leads to the thought that every human being is a hermeneut. Then came his disciple, Hans Georg Gadamer, who based his thinking on the idea of his master, and is considered by many as the father of contemporary philosophical hermeneutics. Schleiermacher was another philosopher during this time. He stated that modern hermeneutics´ objective is to understand the author better than he/she understands himself/herself. Apart from these four authors, many others made important contributions to this science: Karl Otto Apel, Paul Ricoeur, Richard Rorty, and Gianni Vattimo.

Modern hermeneutics focuses on the interpretation of texts of great importance such as the Bible (biblical hermeneutics) and the study of other authors such as Plato. Nonetheless, it also covers the study of texts with a complex language that are somehow relevant to the culture and history of a region or the entire world. Hermeneutics is linked to the search for the truth and it is based on concrete and personal history.

What are the different types of hermeneutics?

In general terms, we can identify four types during the whole history of hermeneutics. The first to appear was the literal one. This type focuses on getting the meaning of every word and then, based on that, it tries to understand the meaning of the whole text. In order to do so, it was necessary to carry out a deep historical study, since languages evolve with history; therefore, their meanings change too. We also have the anagogical type, which is based on a mystical interpretation of sacred texts. By doing so, the hermeneut is transferred to a different dimension, to the divine dimension, and the soul gets enriched. On the other hand, the allegorical hermeneutics states that every interpretation of the Sacred Scriptures must be done taking into account the prominent figure of Jesus Christ. It affirms that every passage evokes the Glory and the deeds performed by the Messiah. Last but not least, we have the moral type. Every passage of the Bible is interpreted as a teaching, as a must-follow guide that awakens feelings in our souls that make us act with justice.

What is the importance of hermeneutics?

Hermeneutics´ main objective is to eliminate every subjectivity that may contaminate the reader´s interpretation of the text, so it can focus only on the author´s intention. It seems easy but it is really hard to achieve. Some texts are extremely hard to interpret since they are loaded with metaphors and symbols: sometimes the only option left is to ask the author himself/herself but most of the time he/she had passed away centuries ago.

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What does "application" mean in hermeneutics?

liminate as much subjectivity as possible. However, we have to face the text and think about how we can implement some of its teachings in our own lives. This is a very important aspect that must not be overlooked. We are aware of the fact that every text always provides us with some teaching, it gives us some advice. And all the time, whether consciously or not, we try to find out if what we read or listen to, and therefore, what we interpret, fit our lives, our realities. Nonetheless, this may lead to a distortion of the real meaning and the interpretation might get contaminated by our point of view. That is why, the ¨adaptation¨ must be carried out after and not before having correctly interpreted the text.

What is biblical hermeneutics?

The biblical hermeneutics is a branch of hermeneutics that focuses on achieving a correct interpretation of the Bible and other related texts. It is also known as biblical exegesis. To do so, it resorts to the setting of some principles which are the main tools to guide the exegetes to interpret the Scriptures with the less subjectivity possible. It is needless to say that this is a very serious task; a mistake could lead to a misinterpretation of the Word of God. People whose responsibility is to tackle this noble task are called hermeneuts, exegetes, or biblists.

On the other hand, we can say that biblical hermeneutics has been through a lot of changes. Jesus Christ himself and the authors of the Gospels interpreted the Old Testament. In the beginning, the literal interpretation was the one that prevailed. Esdras, among others, used this method to proclaim the Word of God. Later, the allegorical method was used: related to the impact of the Scriptures on the spirit. Further on, the literal method was recovered during the Reform.

History of biblical hermeneutics

After the return of the people of Israel from Babylon, they had forgotten their language, all their traditions, and God´s teachings. That is why they did not understand what was written as part of the Mosaic Law. Esdras, aware of this situation, decides to proclaim de Word of God among the Israeli people. Therefore, it can be said that biblical hermeneutics is born with Esdras´s ministry. He focused on studying the Word of God included in the Sacred Scriptures as well as on the comprehension of the different passages in them. As said before, he used the literal method. He tried not to contaminate what was written in the Scriptures and devoted himself to interpret what was expressed in each book. In order to do so, he began researching the context in which the different happenings took place.

From the I century, this method was put aside, and the allegorical method prevailed. However, this new way of interpreting contaminated the interpretation of the texts with the addition of spiritual and religious aspects. This method prevailed until the XVI century. During this time, The Reform laid the foundations for a literal interpretation of the Scriptures, which contributed to a more loyal interpretation of the Word.

What are the main principles of biblical hermeneutics?

As it was expected, the first principle is not to divert the words written in the different books that compose the Bible. Hence, it is necessary to take into account the time in which the books were written, ergo the language used during that time as well as the world that surrounded the author. On some occasions, as with parables, a thorough knowledge of the customs of the people during that time is necessary in order to extract its valuable teachings. 

Another very important principle has to do with the connection established among many passages in the Bible. It does not matter if they do not appear in the same book but even if they are in different ones, they may refer to the same occurrence. This allows keeping a line in history that sets the events and its characters in a certain time and place.  

Hermeneutics must not be used as a way of justifying or trying to make sense of beliefs or different theological stands. This process must disconnect from all that and carry out a truly scientific and critical analysis in order to reach the essence of the meaning of God´s Words.

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Differences among Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant biblical hermeneutics

The Catholic religion, unlike Jewish religion, does not englobe only a certain group of people and the Pope is the head that rules all and has the privilege of infallibility. This, of course, has a great influence on the way the Bible is interpreted by Catholics, and the Church is placed as the definite interpreter when it comes to the meaning of the content within the Sacred Scriptures. 

Jewish biblical hermeneutics is based on the divine revelation that took place in two different ways: oral and written (Tanaj). They consider that it is correct to freely interpret their sacred literature.

On the other hand, protestants exclusively focus on the interpretation of biblical texts and follow the principle of scriptura scripturae interpres (The Bible is interpreted by itself).

What is the difference between exegesis and biblical hermeneutics?

In fact, there is not a big difference between these two concepts and they are commonly considered to be interchangeable. However, it seems that biblical exegesis refers more to an objective interpretation of the Scriptures, while biblical hermeneutics is more related to the spiritual interpretation of the meaning of the Word in the Bible. Furthermore, many describe biblical hermeneutics as the set of tools used to carry out the interpretation or better-called exegesis.

Importance of communication in hermeneutics

When we interpret a text or, in other words, when we use hermeneutics to know the real meaning of a text, we have to take into account the different components of communication. We are referring to a sender, a channel, and a receiver. Many times, the receiver is forgotten but he/she plays a very important role when it comes to accurately interpreting the text. We have to take into account that every human being is different. Each one of us understands in a different way certain situations. That is why it is very important not only to take into account the sender but also the receiver.

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What are the structures of hermeneutics?

– Horizontal: this structure is based on temporality or context in order to achieve an accurate interpretation of the text. This kind of interpretation is influenced by the tradition and culture of the time, not only the time when the piece of writing was issued but the context of the reader or listener.

– Circular: there is room for a subjective and open interpretation of the text. Every individual is allowed to give his/her opinion and simply there is no correct interpretation.

– Dialogue: sees interpretation as a dialogue in which we have a question and an answer. The question provides us with teaching and context: where, how, and when. Hence, the text gives the answers to our questions. 

– Mediation: interpretation is carried out without the mediation of readers´ opinion. The text provides the meaning and, based on it, we can analyze readers´ opinions. 

Theological hermeneutics

This type of hermeneutics focuses on the interpretation of the Scriptures. At the very beginning, the allegorical method was used for the interpretation. However, with Martin Luther, there is a turning point and the allegorical method is abandoned. New methods of plural reading of the Bible are introduced. This distancing is born alongside the protestant tradition and reveals the need to interpret objectively the Word of God. In order to do so, the grammatical-historical method is used. This method covers the philological field as well as the importance of historical context: the one related to the different passages and the one in which the authors of the different books and epistles used to live.


Legal hermeneutics

There is a long tradition regarding hermeneutics in courts. From the issuing of the famous Roman Law, the interpretation of legal documents and the implementation of what was interpreted received a lot of attention. Later on, during Humanism, a new need to use legal hermeneutics in order to interpret the law aroused. This enabled the adaptation of the interpretation of the law from certain universal contexts to specific ones.


What are the main contemporary currents of hermeneutics?

– Spiritual hermeneutics (Schleiermacher): this philosopher is considered the father of modern hermeneutics and is a follower of the circular structure of hermeneutics. He deemed hermeneutics as the interaction between a sender and a receiver (just like every communication). Both should be placed in the same context, so they could correctly understand the meaning of what is conveyed. He expressed that the existence of two dimensions: one objective and negative, and another one spiritual and positive. The first dimension is grammatical and takes into account linguistic aspects, and focuses on accurately representing the context in which the author lived. The second one focuses on the general aspects of certain texts.

– Methodical hermeneutics (Dilthey): it is based on Schleiermacher’s work and focuses on paying attention to the spiritual sciences as part of the surge of natural sciences. Dilthey proposes that natural sciences explain but spiritual sciences understand. He also says that the development of the historical critique is crucial for the argumentation of spiritual sciences. He thought that the historical relations that must be established will allow a better understanding of the author´s context.

– Hermeneutics of phenomenology: phenomenal methodologies are closely related to hermeneutics. This current proposes to know the psyche of the author through an analysis of the text and does not base its results on the historical research which shows the author´s context. It suggests that what is read in the text is a different dimension that does not mirror the reality the author lived. Therefore, it does not make sense to focus on the objective matters but on how the author could have interpreted reality.

– Ontological hermeneutics (Heidegger): this philosopher practices the hermeneutics of the being. He proposes that interpreting and understanding are essentially the meaning of our existence. He reformulates the question of classical hermeneutics and states that we are beings whose purpose is consists of understanding. He states that the being can be known by means of his/her language, and by using the language we can realize how much humans know about the being.

– The centenary tradition (Gadamer): this current focuses on the search for the truth and the methods to reach it. This philosopher reveals the fact that knowledge is essential to every human being. Besides, he states that one can acquire this knowledge is by means of the interpretation of one´s reality. However, this interpretation, in turn, is determined by the reality in which the individual lives. In his opinion, hermeneutics paves the way to know the truth. According to this thought, the meaning of a text changes, since the realities of the people who interpret it also change; hence, the true meaning of the text will never be known.

– Semiological hermeneutics (Ricoeur): due to the influences he received from phenomenology, he relates hermeneutics to this current of thought. According to him, the distance between the author and the reader is not a problem, on the contrary, he thinks it is something positive. He states that it is correct to separate the meaning of the written text from the meaning the author wanted his/her words to convey. When a text is interpreted, a need for applying the meaning of the text to our reality also appears: when we try to understand a text, we are understanding our being.

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What are the different types of hermeneutics?

In the first place, due to its relevance, we have theological hermeneutics, which focuses on providing the tools for the adequate interpretation of Scriptures. Besides, there is the philological hermeneutics, which is in charge of clarifying the meaning of the words of books that were written in the past and there is no record of the intention of the author and he/she already passed away. Legal hermeneutics is another type and it takes care of the interpretation of laws and other related documents. Last but not least, we have philosophical hermeneutics, which englobes the rest since it focuses on the study of the interpretation of every phenomenon and not only texts.

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