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Theosophical Encyclopedia

Hermeneutics

The study of the principles of interpretation of the Bible and other scriptures.

The Bible. Judaic and Christian traditions assume that the scriptures are divine revelations, but there is no unanimity as to how best to interpret the written words. It is obvious that a literal interpretation of the Bible, although still advocated by many, is fraught with difficulties. Biblical verses contain internal contradictions and inconsistencies (e.g., the two accounts of creation; the two genealogies of Jesus). Many of its statements have been directly questioned or repudiated by science (e.g., creation of the world, stopping of the Sun). It also has statements that go against the social values of current society.

Hermeneutics is inextricably related to another field of study called BIBLICAL CRITICISM, which is the study of the text, composition, authenticity and history of the Old and New Testaments. Interpretation must assume that the text, for example, is accurate or properly translated and understood according to the language of the times. There is no sense in trying to interpret or expound on a text that is wrongly copied or translated. For this area, 

Another aspect relevant to hermeneutics is the inerrancy issue of the Bible. Some believers assume that the entire Bible is the word of God and hence it cannot be mistaken or have internal contradictions (except for errors in copying or translating), while others would assume that it is a human document, which, although inspired, can well be subject to human errors or misconceptions, and limited by the cultural, social and scientific knowledge of the times.

Modern hermeneutics generally recognize four ways of interpreting the Bible: literal, allegorical, moral and anagogical. In the last would be included the mystical-esoteric interpretation of scriptures.

Literal. This is the view that the words of the Bible should be taken as stated. Six days means six twenty-four-hour days and not six thousand years. The apparent contradictions are explained away partly by attributing them to corruption of text (as in different numerical figures given for the same thing), or by philological reasons (a word having two different meanings). The literal interpretation is often associated with the inerrancy view of the Bible, as expressed in 2 Tim 3:16, “All scripture is inspired by God.” The difficulties of a literal interpretation of the Bible have led to rejections of the parts of the scriptures by early Christian leaders such as the Gnostic Marcion, who did not accept the entire Old Testament as well as many books of the New Testament. The literal view had been espoused by such people as Martin Luther, John Calvin and Thomas Aquinas.

Allegorical. This approach is endorsed by the Bible itself in Galatians 4:24, when Paul speaks of the story of the two sons of Abraham as being an allegory. Origen (185-254) accepted this kind of interpretation and called it “spiritual” interpretation. So did Clement of Alexandria (150-c. 211). This interpretation is the most widely accepted among theosophical writers on the Bible, such as Helena P. BLAVATSKY and Geoffrey HODSON.

Moral. The moral interpretation takes the Bible as a guide to human conduct, and hence passages should be understood in terms of how they tell us to behave under certain circumstances. Many parts of the Bible, however, are not susceptible to this interpretation.

Anagogical. Under this would be secondary meanings that are spiritual, mystical or esoteric.

Torah. In Judaism, the Kabbalistic book Zohar specifically identifies four modes of interpretation similar to ones cited above. They are:

Peshat – the literal meaning
Remez – allusion or allegory
Derash – anagogical
Sod – mystical

The four initial letters of these words form the word “PaRDeS” which means “Paradise.”

Moses de Leon, in his Midrash ha-Ne’elam, similarly likened the Torah to a nut, with an outer shell and a kernel, “each word of the Torah contains outward fact (ma‘she), midrash [hermeneutic interpretation], haggadah [narrations, replaced by remez or allegory in previous list], and mystery (sod), each of which is deeper in meaning than the preceding” (Zohar Hadash, quoted in Gershom Sholem, On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, Shoken Books, 1965, p. 54). Sholem states that a fifth method has been added, the Gematria, the interpretation of scriptural words and sentences through the numerical equivalents.

Gershom Scholem writes in Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, “Jewish mystics are at one in giving a mystical interpreration of the Torah; the Torah is to them a living organisim animated by a secret life which streams and pulsates below the crust of its literal meaning; every one of the innumerable strata of this hidden region corresponds to a new and profound meaning of the Torah” (quoted in Hodson, The Hidden Wisdom in the Holy Bible, vol. III, p. xiii)

Qur’an. The Islamic Qur’an has also its own methods of exegesis. The Qur’€n itself mentions that some of its verses are “basic or fundamental (of established meaning); . . . others are allegorical. . . . None will grasp the message except men of understanding” (3:7, Yusuf Ali translation). The verses that have decisive or clear meanings are called muhkamat, while those that have secondary or allegorical meanings are called mutashabihat. Of the basic verses, Islam has developed a large literature that forms the basis of interpretation. The most accepted ones are the hadiths or accounts of the sayings of Mohammed. Another large body of writings that has developed is called the tafsir, which are the explanations and clarifications of obscure points in the Qur’an.

The hidden meaning of the Qur’an is the subject of ta’wil or the esoteric interpretation of the verses. The Shi’ite sects give more important to ta’wilthan the Sunnis.

Eastern religions. In Eastern religions, the idea of esotericism and transcendent meaning of scriptures are generally assumed. The most important Hindu scripture, Bhagavad-Gita, is in fact an allegory of spiritual development.

Theosophical views. Theosophical literature emphasizes the allegorical interpretation of the Bible. H. P. Blavatsky states that there are seven keys to the interpretation of any scripture. These are:

1. Astronomical
2. Psychological (or psychical)
3. Physiological
4. Numerical or Geometrical
5. Metaphysical
6. Geographical
7. Anthropological 

She further states that the entire gospel story is but an allegory of the process of spiritual initiation. “. . . The four Gospels, as well as the Bible of Moses and everything else, from the first to the last, clearly appear to be a symbolic allegory of the same primitive mysteries and the Cycle of Initiation” (CW 8:372).

Geoffrey Hodson, in his many books on The Hidden Wisdom in the Bible, gives four keys to interpretation of Bible stories and events:

  1. All happens within
  2. People personify human qualities
  3. Stories dramatize phases of human evolution
  4. There is a need to understand the language of symbolism (e.g., mountain refers to an elevated state; the sun as the spiritual divine Self, etc.)

Hodson further echoes the statement of Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) that when one encounters something unrealistic or repugnant in the scriptures, “then be sure that the tale contains a profound allegory veiling a deeply mysterious truth; and the greater the absurdity of the letter, the deeper the wisdom of the spirit” (Hodson, op. cit., p. xii).

See also BIBLICAL CRITICISM; BIBLE.

V.H.C.

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