I is for Interpretation

I is for Interpretation.

This could have been an H-word: Hermeneutics. H, however, was reserved for Historiography, my current nemesis. Interpretation, or Hermeneutics if you prefer, can also be difficult, though we do it all the time without really thinking about it.

Interpretation can be difficult particularly when texts that come from a context very different from that of the reader. I am a Protestant woman, living in the twenty-first century in Canada. That is a brief description of my context. When I read a text by (for example) a Catholic woman living in the fourteenth century in England (Margery Kempe), I have difficulty understanding that text well. In order to understand Kempe well, I look for information about her historical and geographical context. I look for information about how she might have used the English language differently than we do at present. Then I can begin to see how she might make sense in that context.

Lots of times in theology, when we talk about Interpretation (or Hermeneutics) we are talking about reading and understanding the Bible well. Reading the Bible well is much more tricky than reading Kempe. The Bible is made up of ancient documents, with the most recent being almost 2000 years old, and the rest much older than that. Further, these documents were originally written in Greek and Hebrew, and are often accessed in translation. Languages are used differently in different places and times. I’ve written about the process of figuring out the figurative use of language in the Psalms in this blog, where bones could stand for the whole body, or possibly be figurative language for the essential core of one’s being. Our current figurative use of bones in English might be completely different than the figurative use made of bones 3500 years ago (or more) in Hebrew. Sometimes we forget that when reading works in translation.

Interpretation – we do it all the time (you are reading this and assigning meaning and weight to it almost unconsciously as you do so), we too easily forget that we need to do it (what do bones represent really?), and often we need more information to do it well. What does this mean? How can I better understand it? These are the questions that begin Interpretation.


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