INTRODUCTION TO THEOLOGY – TOPIC 6: Sacred Scripture (5)

José Morales
José Manuel Fidalgo

6. Tasks and principles of a correct biblical hermeneutics

We have seen that the task of biblical hermeneutics is to take the meaning of the Christian facts and truths to another level of understanding. Neither the text nor the concrete historical existence can be eliminated. But what would eliminate them is an abstract and atemporal interpretation of the content of the text, and a purely existential exegesis. Hence, hermeneutics needs to carry out various tasks.

6.1 Tasks of biblical hermeneutics

-Understand the text

The first operation tries to capture/understand the objective value of what is being read. This requires understanding the subject matter of the text, the words it contains, and the intention of the author. A historical-critical reading is therefore needed. This historical-critical reading must use information that allows one to reconstruct the circumstances/situation and the process by which the text came about.

-Make the interpretation of the text more precise

In the second operation, the reader or interpreter brings himself into the picture, together with his own questions, the community and life context in which he is acting. This operation is like measuring the past in the light of the present in order to make the text his own.

-Apply the text to his own situation

The third exegetical operation brings together the objectivity of the text and the subjectivity of the personal understanding of the reader in order to establish the meaning that the text has for us here and now. This is because the biblical text contains an existential invitation addressed to the reader.

6.2 Principles of biblical hermeneutics

-Primacy should not be given to the original target audience

God is the principal author and thus the target audience of the text is not limited to the persons who lived during the time of the composition of the text. God speaks to all. The Letters of Saint Paul are addressed to the Romans, Corinthians, etc. as well as to us.

-The meaning of the text goes beyond the author

The meaning of the text is not limited to the intentions expressed by the sacred writer, nor to everything that he has consciously wanted to say. The text says more than what the writer intended to say. This is only possible because God is the principal author. Hence, the intentio operis (intention of the work) goes beyond (although it does not annul or cancel) the intentio auctoris (intention of the author). The text has its own vitality and is addressed (like all canonical texts) to men of all times and all places.

-One should not ignore the intention of the author

The importance that is attributed to the intentio operis (intention of the work or text) does not signify the “death of the author.” The intention of the author and what he wanted to say when he wrote the text should not be forgotten or be watered down. This is a principle that the Constitution Dei Verbum recalls expressly when it says that “the interpreter of Sacred Scripture … should attentively examine what the sacred writers had truly desired to communicate, and what God has wanted to show through their words” (no 12).

7. Textual criticism

7.1 What is textual criticism?

One of the most important tasks of exegetes is to acquire a good text which is as close as possible to the original, since none of the codices [copies] that we have reproduces the exact text of the Bible with absolute fidelity.

Textual criticism is both a science and an art, because it acquires an objective knowledge but also depends on the ability of the individual critics. These exegetes know that any available document (whether they be papyrus, codices, etc.) are important for his work of textual reconstruction. Examining all the testimonies allows him to come up with a text that is better than any other document studied separately from the rest.

7. 2 Basic principles of textual criticism

– External principles

(i) it is better to have the best and most varied codices, because of the source from which they were taken, their quality, and so on.

(ii) the text that coincides least with the Greek Septuagint version should be used, because some harmonization of text might have been done in the Septuagint version.

(iii) The mutual relation among different versions should be taken into account, because once a copyist corrects a text, he may have forgotten to make the appropriate changes (for example, concordance between the subject and the verb, etc.)

– Internal principles

(i) the most difficult reading [version] is the surest;

(ii) the shorter version is preferred;

(iii) the reading that explains other possible readings is better.

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