Hermeneutics The way in which we interpret



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The way in which we interpret things can depend on many factors. Our cultural background, our environment, and our upbringing among many other things shape the way we view the world and its surroundings. One of what many consider the greatest book ever written, the Bible, has many different stories with just as many interpretations. Some individuals believe that in order to understand the Bible, one must pray to God for understanding when interpreting it. Others take the Bible literally at face value. The purpose of hermeneutics is to aid us in the interpretation of such things as the Bible. There are different methods of hermeneutics: in front of the text, in the text, and behind the text. In reading the two stories by Samuel Cheon and Daniel Patte, we get a clear understanding of which hermeneutical method is used.


In Reconsidering Jephthah’s Story in Asian Perspective, Samuel Cheon gives westerners a new perspective on the story of Jephthah from an Asian point-of-view. He also tells the story of Simcheongjeon. In both stories, the daughters sacrificed their lives for the safety and preservation of their fathers. Jephthah actually killed his daughter to fulfill a vow he made to God and Simcheong willingly sacrificed her life so that her father could regain his sight. Both stories can be viewed as harsh and barbaric from a western standpoint. But, from a hermeneutical standpoint, the method used appears to be behind the text.


In both Jephthah’s and Simcheong’s stories, the reader must look at each in terms of socio-cultural and historical terms. It is unfair to judge and interpret each story based only on western culture. We must view each story keeping in mind the period in which they were written as well as the cultural setting of the time period. Western culture can be vastly different from Asian or eastern culture. In Western culture, it is unthinkable for a father to ‘sacrifice’ his daughter, or for a daughter to allow herself to be sacrificed for the well-being of her father. Westerners would consider these things criminal or attach some sort of psychological dysfunction to each. Many westerners view the New Testament of the Bible as being written for them because they cannot or will not try to understand or relate the Old Testament. To them, the Old Testament was written from an eastern cultural standpoint, whereas the New Testament is written with more of a western mindset. Because of this common belief, westerners must make the effort to fully understand the hermeneutical method of reading behind the text in order to gain a full understanding to be able to interpret the Bible from a socio-cultural and historical standpoint.


Patte, in his writing titled, Contextual Reading of Mark and North Atlantic Scholarship is very upfront on how westerners interpret the gospel of Mark. Patte is straightforward in his assessment of how western society believes biblical interpretation should occur. The author does not agree with how the Bible is taught in an academic context. Patte uses in the text hermeneutical method to let the reader know his exact stance. According to him, western academia does not allow students to come to their own interpretations on the Bible. Western academia rejects the very notion of studying and interpreting the Bible in terms of context.


Patte believes that the scholarly world rejects the idea of contextuality in Bible interpretations because it signifies superstition and bias. Bible scholars believe that we are not to interpret the Bible based on contextuality. Patte is of the opinion that the interpretation of the Bible should be each individual’s interpretation and not something that scholars have taught throughout the years to their students. When this is done it almost forces the opinions of the scholars onto the students not allowing them an opportunity to formulate their own interpretation or even know that there may be other interpretations out there. He suggests that a more proper way of interpreting the Bible is to have a roundtable discussion where participants listen to each other’s interpretation of the Scriptures and decide for themselves whether or not to accept or reject it. Instead of scholars reading the Scriptures from a scientific point-of-view, Patte says these scholars should read them as Scripture the same way in which conscientious preachers do.


Both Cheon and Patte have strong opinions on how the western world views and interprets the Bible. Cheon uses the behind the text method as a way of interpreting the Bible. He views the Scriptures from a socio-cultural as well as a historic point-of-view. Whereas westerners view the Scriptures of Jephthah as ambiguous, easterners view Jephthah’s sacrificing his daughter as showing his true devotion to God. Patte does not use any particular Bible Scriptures to get his point across. His hermeneutical method is in the text and he tells the reader exactly how the Scriptures should be interpreted. He has made it perfectly clear that he does not support the way in which western scholars interpret the Bible.


Both authors have valid arguments, but these arguments are also flawed. Even though we may try to tolerate different cultures, we inherently cling to the culture we are most familiar with. And, although we can be open-minded enough to listen to other’s interpretations of the Bible, in the end we are more than likely to cling to what we have been taught and have believed to be true throughout the years. For these reasons, Bible interpretation will be the topic of debate and discussion for years to come.

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