How we read determines how we think.
Good morning. This is working theology.
When you read this sentence, how do you interpret it? Do you try to understand what I intended to say, or do you draw your own conclusions? Does it matter when I wrote this sentence, or can the meaning of this sentence evolve over time?
These questions represent a concept called “hermeneutics,” which was a major talking point this week during the Senate confirmation hearings of Judge Amy Coney Barrett. She is a so-called “originalist” when it comes to interpreting the US constitution. This means she believes we should try to understand the document as it was intended to be understood back in the late eighteenth century. The framers had particular meanings when they were writing, and we should try our best to understand and interpret the document given those meanings. You can read Judge Barrett’s explanation here.
Conversely, some argue that the constitution (and other texts) should be adapted to a modern context. Language changes over time, as do customs, culture, and creative expression. Therefore, laws should change with them. Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot presents a succinct argument for this side in a popular tweet this week.
I’ll explain Judge Barrett’s side of the aisle because it takes a little more digging to understand what originalists mean.
Hermeneutics is the study of interpreting meaning, especially from text. The word’s etymology stems from the Greek god Hermes, the god of language (among other things) who carried messages and heralded news around Olympus.
Hermeneutics is a core component of theological study. Language does, in fact, change over time. So, when you’re studying a 2,000-year-old manuscript, you need to put your mind into the historical, literary, and grammatical context of that day to begin to peel back the layers shrouding its meaning. This is what biblical scholars do.
I want to show you an overview of this hermeneutical process so you can understand the debate regarding the US constitution. I also want to show you this because I’ve recently heard people using the phrase “I did my research,” especially concerning politics and conspiracy theories, and I think the term “research” needs some support.
Below is an image of P52, one of the earliest New Testament manuscripts we have, dating from the second century. You can just barely make out a few bits of John 18. This text is about the size of a credit card. Thanks to the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts—and Dr. Dan Wallace and his team literally digging through caves and monasteries and basement archives—we have high-definition images of many ancient manuscripts.
The writing on the scrap is Koine Greek, which was a very popular written language (the lingua franca) due in part to Alexander the Great’s conquests throughout the ancient world. The New Testament was written in Greek, while the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, with bits of Aramaic thrown in just for fun.
The Bible comprises sixty-six books (or seventy-two, if you’re Catholic) from over forty different authors spanning roughly 1,500 years, written from different parts of the Ancient Near East (ANE), like Rome, Judea, and modern-day Syria. It contains legal codes, letters, poetry, historical records, prophetic announcements, declarative denouncements, and more. These genres each have their own method of interpretation. That is, you don’t read a poem the same way you read an email, and the Bible is no different.
These texts were written and translated into many ANE languages, so we have literally thousands of ancient manuscripts of the biblical story. From there, the story was translated into Latin in the early Middle Ages, where the “patriarchs” and monks interpreted, commented, and explained the text even further. Then it moved into French, German, and English during the Reformation period. It’s still being translated and retranslated into many different languages in the third world today, and we also have new, major English editions every twenty years to reinterpret it for a new generation.
This is why a typical doctoral student of theology must learn Hebrew, Greek, French, German, and English, unless they’re studying Catholic theology or the medieval period, where Latin is most helpful. Biblical studies students also specialize in an ancient language like Ugaritic or Amharic to trace the text into other ANE contexts. A typical doctoral student’s dissertation is over 100,000 words (about 300 pages), where they write about the “lacuna,” or gap in the literature, after reading literally hundreds of books in multiple languages. This process takes three to seven years to complete. As a small example, here’s a very short paper of mine on dating the book of Mark, which I placed between AD 64 and AD 70.
By the way, the study of the actual manuscripts themselves and the differences between them, including the materials on which they’re written (like papyrus) and the transcription techniques used, is called textual criticism. Have fun in that rabbit hole.
Modern technology helps biblical studies students work through these changes in history, language, and grammar much more quickly. For example, here are some screenshots of Logos Bible Software for deciphering the psalms, Paul’s missionary travels, word studies and grammatical relationships, and then what a typical student’s workflow looks like.
Going back into the history and culture of a text is important to understand what it was intended to say. When Paul wrote in first-century Greek about money, for instance, was his concept of finance the same as ours? When John’s gospel opens with that glorious introduction, did his readers know that he was referring back to Genesis 1? Does that change the way you read John 1? When Jesus “decided to go to Galilee” from Bethany-across-the-Jordan in John 1:43, how far was that walk? Over 50 miles? Might it take a few days or weeks to get there? What was it like packing and traveling across the desert like that on highways where thieves and gangs attack you as you walk? That’s just half of one verse, almost a throwaway line.
Expand that analysis to over 30,000 verses and thousands of years, and you can see why it takes a while to really understand the story of the Bible. All this is often overlooked because many people don’t have the tools to unpack what the text wants to say.
Similar tools exist for legal research. The Interactive Constitution shows you not only the text but commentary about the text from scholars. Or you could read the Harvard Law Review for analysis and critique on American jurisprudence.
I write this to you to say that interpreting meaning, and “doing your research,” isn’t easy. The same hermeneutical process applies to the US constitution or any other text, even your emails, though we do this much more quickly because the language and context is very similar.
So, when Judge Barrett and other conservatives say they’re “originalists,” they mean to say that the intended meaning of the author is an important piece of the story, and we should take it seriously. We should work hard to understand the “text behind the text,” and research the history, culture, language, and grammar of the time the text was written.
Of course, time does have a way of changing things, but we can’t neglect the authors in their own story. It wouldn’t be fair to me, to put it simply, if a reader disregarded this post’s intended meaning some 230 years hence.
Thanks for reading.