Biblical scholars inscribe their interpretation of texts within a cultural project of large or small dimensions. Some read the Bible from a feminist point of view and/or from a post-colonial perspective. Others depend on a particular style of literary criticism, such as that attributed to Mikhail Bakhtin. Others come to the text armed with a methodology drawn from a discipline of wide application, for example, a linguistic theory of information structure at the clause, sentence, and paragraph levels. Many inscribe their reading of the Bible within a religious (or anti-religious) metanarrative. Readings of the latter type are especially appropriate. The Bible after all has generated and continues to generate vast communities of dedicated readers across barriers of language and culture. Most of these communities have a clear-cut religious and theological identity. Is there a method of reading the Bible that everyone should practice? I think there is. It is the method of reading proposed by Hans-Georg Gadamer.1
Cynthia Nielsen ably introduces Gadamer’s method to the general reader: Part I: An Introduction to Hans-Georg Gadamer; Part II: An Introduction to Hans-Georg Gadamer; Part III: An Introduction to Hans-Georg Gadamer; Part IV: Hans-Georg Gadamer; further (with reliance on a brilliant essay by Charles Taylor): Part I: Toward an Archaeologico-Hermeneutical Fusion; Part II: Toward an Archaeologico-Hermeneutic Fusion; Part III: Toward an Archaeologico-Hermeneutical Fusion; Part IV: Toward an Archaeologico-Hermeneutical Fusion. A very short but lucid introduction: Gadamer on Language and Being. In M. H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms, now in its ninth edition (2009), the entry entitled interpretation and hermeneutics discusses the following theorists of interpretation in the following order: Schleiermacher and Dilthey; Betti and Hirsch; Heidegger and Gadamer. To be sure, the Glossary also notes the New Critics, structural and poststructural theories, deconstruction and reader-response criticism, psychoanalytic criticism, Marxist criticism, and the new historicism. But Gadamer is the first point of destination of the entry’s discussion of the history of the discipline of hermeneutics.
There are several reasons why Gadamer’s theory of interpretation is of general interest. For Gadamer, the goal of interpretation is to understand a text and to be open to the contribution it might make to an understanding of the humanity of others, one’s own historicity, one’s self-in-community. Even if one’s ultimate goal is to neutralize, subvert, or co-author the biblical text to the point of devoicing it and replacing its voices with one’s own, I would argue that Gadamer’s vulnerable, holistic approach to interpretation remains the proper point of departure.
According to Gadamer, reading is not about "me, the text, and I," not even about "me and the text that I revere." It is about reading in the sense of understanding and experiencing a text with full consideration of context. Gadamer’s theory of interpretation eschews the prescription of particular methods beyond a general method based on a phenomenological description of effective and self-aware reading. it is possible to approach the text from a number of complementary points of view. One may read the text with acute attention to its inner dynamics, transitions, and fractures. One may concentrate on its use of sources. One may reconstruct, with fierce dedication to detail, the sense the text would have had for its original author and pre-canonical implied readers. One may read the text canonically, as constituting you and calling you, with scripture interpreting scripture in light of a rule of faith and a larger tradition. A text, at least not a biblical text or any other traditional text, is not an end but a means. A traditional text is taken seriously insofar as it is seen as a pointer and an interpreter of realities beyond itself. There is an external standard of truth to a traditional text; often, there is more than one external standard: a larger tradition; reason; experience; other truths and realities to which the text is thought to point. At the same time, the traditional text itself may be viewed as the window par excellence through which all of the external standards are best understood. In that case, the traditional text becomes the norm which norms all other norms (a norma normans as opposed to a norma normata).
Gadamer might be described as both a diachronic and synchronic interpreter. He thinks of diachrony as an uninterrupted continuum which extends from, for example, the time Psalm 137; Lam 1, and Isa 40 were composed in the 6th cent. BCE to the present, within a larger horizon that continues to expand. In that sense, he might be labeled an anti-synchronic interpreter. One might just as well affirm that he is a truly synchronic interpreter.
Here is a favorite Gadamer quote:
Openness to the other, then, involves recognizing that I myself must accept some things that are against me, even though no one forces me to do so. This is the parallel to the hermeneutical experience. I must allow tradition's claim to validity, not in the sense of simply acknowledging the past in its otherness, but in such a way that it has something to say to me. This too calls for a fundamental sort of openness. Someone who is open to tradition in this way sees that historical consciousness is not really open at all, but rather, when it reads its texts "historically," it has always thoroughly smoothed them out beforehand, so that the criteria of the historian's own knowledge can never be called into question by tradition. Recall the naïve mode of comparison that the historical approach generally engages in. The 25th "Lyceum Fragment" by Friedrich Schlegel reads: "The two basic principles of so-called historical criticism are the postulate of the commonplace and the axiom of familiarity. The postulate of the commonplace is that everything that is really great, good, and beautiful is improbable, for it is extraordinary or at least suspicious. The axiom of familiarity is that things must always have been just as they are for us, for things are naturally like this." By contrast, historically effected consciousness rises above such naive comparisons and assimilations by letting itself experience tradition and by keeping itself open to the truth claim encountered in it. (P. 355 of Truth and Method, see below, note 1, for details.)
1 According to Gadamer, art (and literature and therefore biblical literature) discloses truth through non-mimetic means. It presents (darstellen), not represents (vorstellen), reality. For the distinction, see Hans-Georg Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode: Grundzüge einer philosophischen Hermeneutik (Tübingen: Mohr, 11960; 61990, vol. 1 of Gesammelte Werke); ET Truth and Method (2nd ed.; trans. J. Weinsheimer and D. G. Marshall; New York: Crossroad, 1989); Ästhetik und Poetik I: Kunst als Aussage (essays originally published between 1958 and 1992; vol. 8 of Gesammelte Werke; Tübingen: Mohr, 1993); partial ET The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays (trans. Nicholas Walker.; ed. Robert Bernasconi; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986); Kurt Mueller-Vollmer, Hermeneutics Reader: Texts of the German Tradition from the Enlightenment to the Present (London: Continuum, 2011), 256-92. To the “right” of Gadamer are those who concentrate on the recovery of authorial meaning without denying the truth of Gadamer’s observation that interpretation is ultimately about dialogue. For a hermeneutic intent on recovering authorial meaning, see E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Validity in Interpretation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967); The Aims of Interpretation (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1976). To the “left” are methodologies which treat the biblical text as a sounding board for modern theories and ideas, or as a foil to those ideas.