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Hermenueutics and the Narrative Genre

Hermeneutics! The word describes a slew of complex rules and regulations for understanding the meaning of a text. Various authors describe biblical hermeneutics differently so what is the core truth that needs to be conveyed? If the largest biblical genre is narrative, how does this truth apply to the narrative genre? How do we select our tools from the mix of valid and invalid approaches? How do we discern which approaches are in fact valid and why? How do we apply these tools in such a way as to be useful today?


These and other core questions face the student who embarks upon a voyage of discovery in the world of hermeneutics. This voyage is at the whim of the wind in the sails of the discoverer. The specific wind and direction selected ultimately determines the destination. How do we know where to go? What wind should we use to power our search?


For some of us this is an easier choice than for others since those who have met Jesus Christ and know the God of the bible will fill their sails with Holy Spirit to set sail to find absolute truth. Without this guide, the easiest course could be to choose randomly, and at this point the unsuspecting student becomes locked into a channel of rushing frenetic worldviews, secular relativism and generalities. With this propelling them, they are at great risk of failing to reach their true destination. Indeed, it is only a miracle and the grace of God that ensures any ever get there!


In simple terms we have three components with which the interaction occurs - the author, the text and the reader or audience. All three are central to understanding the true message. This simple approach immediately gets into turbulent seas as delving into what this means and how it impacts the message of the text is the subject of many books and articles. Time has shown us that there is little comfort in concluding that we know the correct answer since others have been at this place previously and while today they are acknowledged to have loved God they have been now proved incorrect in their teaching. Therefore, it is only with the greatest humility that we should even venture out to attempt to map this course. Without the original author to guide us, any text is open to interpretation. Unfortunately, despite very good guidelines propounded by various authors, the ultimate key aspect on which the journey relies is whether the reader accepts these arguments and applies them or not. This is an individual response not a group one.


To complicate this further the influence of the larger group of Christian humanity towards a consensus opinion is the true objective of biblical hermeneutics and so it is fraught with all the frailties of human communication. Does this mean we should not attempt the task? Not at all! We all know that we communicate imperfectly but we all communicate and achieve great things don’t we? It does however mean that we should be less pedantic in saying we have the ultimate process or method to arrive at that truth!


Now I prefer to use the word “reader” rather than “audience” that Klein[1] and others tend to use. This selection is because today we read rather than listen to the words. The biblical text is a type of time machine, capturing past words and transporting them through time to us in the present. The words are timeless once authored, but the perceptions they create are subject to the recipient’s cognitive background and processes. The extent that these differ from the original intended audience is the extent[that the message fails to reflect the author’s intended purpose.


Then, if we are believers in the reality of Jesus Christ as the son of God and that he imparted Holy Spirit to live within the believer and guide us, we have a second complexity. Could this same Holy Spirit have prompted an original use of words by that author that placed truths into the words that the author may not have fully conceived at the time of writing. Have some of these truths stayed hidden until the Holy Spirit sees fit to unlock the truth in the mind of a believing reader? What new reformation of thinking may occur from such a revelation? Can this happen? If so how can we cleave this type of interpretation apart from false interpretations derived incorrectly from the same text? These are heavy questions that have challenged the discoverer through the ages and will continue to do so into the future.


Why do we even try to undertake this task? As a believer, (the perspective from which I approach this task) we want to understand what it is that God provides as learning opportunities for us, and how we should apply the textual meanings to our lives. We want to follow “truth” for Jesus said “ I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me[2]


To do this means we need to discern truth from fallacy. We must be very careful not to distort truth by allowing our own geographical, cultural, language, philosophical and time related biases to undermine our understanding. We should be honest in revealing our own predispositions so that others can truly evaluate our efforts as we strive towards the consensus that we somehow must achieve. We need consensus because Jesus left us instructions to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.[3] To teach others to obey we have to have a consensus regarding what is being taught and what should be obeyed! This is the prime reason we have to undertake hermeneutical studies. We need to understand “the meaning of meaning”[4] in order to convey it and establish it as truth obeyed both by ourselves and others. It is critical to get to the “plain meaning of the text”[5] but this is an elusive task that is influenced by context.

 Context based interpretation while not directly referred to as such in the literature is the goal. There are contexts to be discovered everywhere. Globally the author context, the text context and the reader context are the macro categories. Since consensus in mapping out the course to follow is desired, everyone needs to set the boundaries of the context within which the work is to be done.


In biblical interpretation, the text reigns supreme since we cannot contact the author directly. This means we need to understand the boundaries defining the context of the text and since I wish to discuss biblical narratives, I will start the discussion from this perspective and refine it as we go along discussing this aspect.


The biblical context starts with defining what the bible is since this is the first consensus point. Generally, studies regarding the canon of the bible are a good starting point.


It suffices to say that there is more than one recognized canon in this world of ours. Examples of different canons are Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, and Coptic Orthodox canons.  The basic sixty-six books of the bible recognized by the majority of the protestant world is one version I consider basic, but for example, the Catholic canon includes other apocrypha books. It is significant that over time this basic canon has varied but now has settled into a limited number of generally accepted groupings of biblical books. It is the sixty six book canon of protestant origin that I subscribe to as the key inspired writings, but I do believe the peripheral writings are necessary to gaining futher understanding of the canon and its development. They do also provide significant contextual content assisting in this task of interpretation.


Text is written with symbols. Early texts such as cuneiform are much more pictorial than the symbols we use today. These symbols are the next level of context. We need to understand what the symbols on the original documents meant. This is way outside my area of expertise but knowing this is a factor helps when we start to understand the combination of these symbols into grammars of a language. Today in North America, we read in English and sometimes assume incorrectly that this is the main language of the bible. The original texts were hand written in various languages including Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic. These languages in the form written also no longer exist in that same form today. Time distorts and changes meaning so even the words can have different connotations and meanings today as compared to that they had when originally penned. In fact, the original documents are not available in most cases, and we are taking many different documents to assemble a consensus view that is not always resolved to one meaning as the numerous autographs and their variability shows us.


Time affects textual content as well. Texts were copied by hand originally and so small discrepancies crept in over time. However the more recent discovery of older texts in the dead sea scrolls that showed that this impact was less than many critics had previously believed. It is important to give more weight to the oldest accurate versions of the texts in the interpretation processes. The closer we are to the source context the better we can understand this context.


One aspect not often discussed is the fact that there are texts referred to in the bible that we do not have today. As Christians, we allow God the freedom of determining when texts are discovered and when they should be added to our canon. Today the prevalent view is that the canon is closed, i.e. no changes can be accommodated. This is a consensus opinion that may still change if some of these undiscovered texts are found and deemed authentic and Christian.


Since the conversion of original texts into a new language (such as English) requires understanding of the author and reader contexts, these will be discussed before this conversion aspect of the subject is broached.


It is important to realize that the literary context is a series of overlapping sub-contexts. Turner[6] explains that a text resides in the context of the text immediately around it, which is initially the specific section of the bible and then the part of the specific book. He suggests books are part of a genre (but I feel that books can be of multiple genres) and they are part of either the Old or New Testament within the bible which is the overall textual context. Vikler provides six questions of contextual analysis to determine the local meaning of the text, which he formulates as follows;


1.      What are the major blocks of material and how do they fit together into a whole?


2.      How does the passage under consideration contribute to the flow of the author’s argument?


3.      What is the perspective of the author?


4.      Is the passage stating descriptive or prescriptive truth?


5.      What constitutes the teaching focus of the passage and what represents incidental detail only?


6.      Who is being addressed in this passage?


These summarize an approach that combines both the textual context and the author context rather than being focused on the textual context from which he approaches the evaluation. It also includes an understanding of the audience context. The author and audience context will be explained before I go about illustrating how these questions may be used.


Author context would be the environmental, cultural, social, philosophical, spiritual, and political situation in which the author was immersed when writing. It is not possible to fully experience this even if we were living alongside the author since each of us has a different mental image of the world and it is within this author context that the message written evolved. Consider a doctor and lawyer seeing the same accident and reporting on it independently to get the idea of this impact. The doctor and lawyer upon seeing the same incident would provide different sets of words and descriptions as their descriptions are influenced by their pre-understandings.


Similarly, we cannot fully understand the context of the author, but we would do well to gain as much understanding of their context as we can. The fields of archeology and sciences have added considerably to understanding many of these contextual components of the author’s environment. The geographical elements have changed on this earth due to weathering and climatic changes. To add to this we no longer live in kingdoms with their political contortions.  What do those of us that live in cities understand of a nomadic life in ancient times? The application of logic and science that is so integral a part of our lives did not exist in anything close to the form we know it when the original authors lived. The actual dating of texts is also difficult since our dating system is a modern convenience and did not exist in this same form as we move back into antiquity. All this makes even guessing the authors context difficult. Although a mandatory activity, it is still a difficult task with no absolute outcome!


With this amount of variability in the author context, we can see that understanding the author’s context alone is an art form rather than a deterministic science. It must however be backed by science if we are to get anywhere. Fortunately, with the advent of computers, the internet and knowledge explosion, this activity is far easier today than in yesteryear. However with it comes the challenge of being able to adapt to the changing knowledge base at the speed with which the facts are revealed. Not many people spend time researching the latest discoveries as content for evaluation and then using them in determining the author’s context. This aspect is an important part of good interpretation and so we should make every effort to stay abreast of latest biblical archeological discoveries and arguments if we want to be fresh and fluid in our interpretive task.


I briefly want to address a common adage that we so often hear “let scripture interpret scripture”.  This is flawed from the start since we have so many misconceptions about what scripture says that we have to turn to science and other disciplines to help us understand what is written. We want to ensure that we work out our understanding of meaning within the framework and confines of scripture while  avoiding contradictory guidelines, but let us not pedantically say scripture interprets scripture. Without archeological and scientific discoveries giving context to those scriptures, scripture could not interpret scripture correctly. We must resolve to use scripture to interpret scripture within the context of our understanding of the context within which the text was authored and we should apply whatever science we can bring to bear to determine this context more correctly.


Vikler in his discussion on the historical context suggests we ask ourselves some basic questions. What is the historical situation? What were the cultural customs of the time? What would have been the audience’s spiritual disposition? (This last one will be discussed later in this essay under audience context.) To these I would add the following questions: Why did the author select certain historical events and leave others out? Does the author intend to convey a chronological sequence or not? To what extent did the author subscribe to sola scriptura (that the bible is the only unfailing authority for our Christian faith and that it contains all we need to be saved and live a Holy life)? There are other questions but these are perhaps the key questions to be asked.


As a final point on author context, I wish to point out that we must take care as we approach our investigations so that we do not end up being untruthful and labeled as hypocrites and deluded. It is of interest that carbon dating and other scientific methods are often used to enable us to determine archeologically the [original timelines and dates of texts are often determined by carbon dating and other scientific methods to enabling us to determine the] time of writings and author contexts. We can either reject these tools altogether with their discoveries, or accept them with their discoveries! To reject them when they seem to go against a biblical text in one context and accept them in another is nothing short of being double-minded. Being double-minded is something the scriptures warn against. This gives Christians a bad name and is the reason many people give for not accepting biblical truths. In other words,  it is bad for consensus and if the goal of hermeneutics is to gain consensus on truth related to the meaning of the text (my argument is that this is a key purpose) then we need to seek truth at all costs and have the courage to work with this truth even when it is uncomfortable. Now, let us leave the author context here for a while and move on.


The context that is most discussed and evaluated is the reader or audience context. Perhaps this is because this is where we apply ourselves to the other two main contexts. Unfortunately, this is where we tend to encounter the most difficulty as well! We respond to the author’s message as we perceive it, and not necessarily, as it was intended.


Each of us by the nature of our lives and experiences bring our knowledge, attitudes and opinions into how we respond to what we read . It is impossible to be alive and not do this! So each of us will respond differently to the same content. This means that we have a problem in trying to get consensus in this specific area. Even if we want to be truthful and correct in what we do, we distort the author’s intent unintentionally. (Remember my illustration of the doctor and lawyer reporting an accident and how they would each see it very differently).


This is why we have to agree to disagree at times and to look at the scriptures through the practice of faith and Christian community consensus. If Holy Spirit is within all believers, then as a group we should be able to discern truth if we agree to let go of our pre-understandings and let the group influence us in an informed way towards a more informed understanding. Individuals differ and being honest in how we approach these differences will allow us to grasp a new understanding and evolve our appreciation of the text. However, we lose when we (perhaps out of fear of change) reject something without true evaluation or based on historical practices which we do not fully understand.


This said, there are some tools that facilitate better understanding of ourselves as an audience, and which then allow us to project back in time and how the original audience would have perceived the author’s content.


To establish our context, we should first determine the textual and author context (bearing in mind the previous discussion) and then focus on who were the original people to whom the text or words were directed. Understanding the original audience enables us to pre-set ourselves into that same context. Understanding what the key points of impact between the text and the audience helps us to understand the key points. We need to understand what parts of the bible these original receivers of the word would have known and had as reference points. For example, the Old Testament writers’ audience would not have had the New Testament revelation scripture but it is likely they would have understood the books of law that Moses provided.


Next, we need to understand the current theories and models inherent in biblical theological analysis and determine to what extent and in what context this original audience would have understood these themes. Things like covenant theology, dispensationalism, promise theology and the acceptance of the epigenetic model are examples of aspects that form a periphery of understanding to the specific content. We have to form our own understanding of the text and its implications and review it against what the audience of the time would have thought and done to evaluate its applicability. If we have a systematic theological background, we must extract the aspects of theology that the original audience would have understood from the overall structures in the theological approach we have today to enable us to better understand their context.


When we can clearly state our understanding of the passage, we need to check it against our own consensus base by reviewing it against existing commentaries and articles to correlate our opinion with those of others and determine where and if we need to futher investigate components of the textual content. We must check to see that our understanding of the context fits into that of the broader section and book context.


With this understanding, we can then begin a deeper analysis based on the specific genre of the text.


I have chosen to explain the narrative genre since it is the most prevalent genre in the bible. This genre has specific lessons in that it provides a history that builds up our Christian community and gives it a base on which it can attach the learning to be acquired. While it is an indirect form of instruction, it is an easily assimilated form. It is also easy to love this genre as we like to hear stories and this genre satisfies this basic human need.


This genre has structure to it that enables us to identify it and understand it. Key to its conveyance is the linkage between events, the author, the text and the reader or audience. Since many of these narratives are believed to have been originally oral in nature, the original audience would have been provided with memory facilitators or hooks onto which the key aspects of the narrative could be linked. The author may have been an eyewitness, or have received it as an oral tradition and then written it down. Whatever the situation, the author generally wants the reader to understand and believe the historical events that unfold as the narrative progresses and uses tools to facilitate this belief in the hearer of the words. Since historical events are generally being portrayed in a short summarized form, the nature of selection of the events recorded is important and is not done without intent. These are some of the basic understandings with which this genre is to be approached.


While some would go as far as saying that whole books of the bible follow this genre, I am loath to make this statement as so much of books detailed as a separate genre utilize narratives as an aspect of there own “genre”. For this reason, I have chosen by way of illustration the narrative with which we are all familiar, that of the “Christmas story”!


Immediately this provides a quandary since what are the boundaries of this story. Yairah[7] clearly explains that title and story boundary is reader determined. The extent of the story is delimited by the chosen title. By changing the emphasis of the title to “the shepherd and the angels”, the extent can be contracted to omit aspects that would be included under this broader narrative structure.


 I have chosen this text because we all believe we understand this story well and it is replicated differently in two different gospels, that of Matthew and Luke, so there is some comparative evaluations that can be made. John’s and Mark’s gospels omit this aspect and start with the baptism of Jesus. Since one needs to set boundaries firmly I will be addressing the narrative as provided in Luke 2:1-20.


The first aspect I want to discuss is that of our pre-understandings or pre-knowledge. This is a familiar story, and most of us are familiar with the nativity scene that we encounter in department stores in the western world (or did until a few years ago). The scene is generally of a mother and father, generally in a stable, with a wooden cattle feed trough in the center with a baby inside it. Around it are three main groups. First are three eastern people who by their dress are very important and wealthy. They carry gifts. Next is a group of shepherds and sheep. Lastly, somewhere in the roof area is an angel or two obviously looking at the baby. Such is our preconceptions of this event. Then we need to add to this the memories of their being “no room at the inn” for Mary and Joseph as quoted in many of our childhood nativity plays. Finally we have a strong misconception that the original Christmas was the 25th of  December since we celebrate it on this date.[8]


The fact is that most of these preconceptions are wrong, as we will see as we evaluate the text for what it really communicates.


Firstly, we need to understand the authorship although ascribed to Luke is anonymous. For the purposes of this essay, I will refer to the author as Luke as this is the commonly ascribed author. Luke’s theme is Jesus is the Son of Man.

 The nativity text selected is in the second chapter of Luke and follows a chapter that sets the scene for this narrative. Luke is by his own admission not an eyewitness to the events[9] but is setting down an account of the events for another to read in order to obtain clarity and confidence in what they had already heard. He is reporting eyewitness accounts. The timing of the text is that it is written after Jesus had died, and before the destruction of temple (probably also before Paul was imprisoned). Being a New Testament text, it refers to aspects of the Old Testament, which references the audience of the time would have well understood. Luke was a Greek-speaking physician and probably had lived in the town of Antioch. His references in Acts to being with Paul  suggest he journeyed with Paul at various times. 


So this text was written to first centaury[10] Christians who were under Roman rule. The censuses of the time were taken for the purpose of determining taxation[11]. The narrative event being described occurred when Augustus was Caesar and so was during the timeframe 31 B.C. to A.D. 14. The historical stress of this passage is that Quirinius is known to have imposed a tax in A.D. 6, but since Herod died in 4.B.C. if we take into account knowledge gleaned from the Matthew narrative, Jesus had already been born by the time Herod died. Various suggestions are brought to play to resolve this apparent discrepancy. These include


1.      This was a textual error and Luke meant Saturninus, (I don’t like this suggestion since Luke being a doctor would have had attention to detail and not likely to make this mistake,)


2.      Quirinus held an earlier position in the area but perhaps not one of governorship of Syria and could have instituted a census as part of that commission,


3.      An alternative translation or perhaps the omission of a word by author error could mean that it took place before Quirinus was governor.


No choice is better than the others but the key aspect of the initial portion of the text is that the census required everyone to go to their home town. This is important because of the geographical context that this evoked in the audience of the time. Everyone locally would have been aware that Bethlehem was referred to as the town of David (although Jerusalem was considered the main city of David) and Luke specifically calls this out in the text to make sure that it is understood. The setting is therefore used to establish authority. The repetition of this fact is to drive home the fact that Jesus was of the line of David.


So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.”[12]

The fact that this man was of a royal line would have been immediately understood. Any Jew of the time reading this text would also have understood that this was an indirect reference to a prophecy of the past.


"But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,


       though you are small among the clans of Judah,


       out of you will come for me


       one who will be ruler over Israel,


       whose origins are from of old,


       from ancient times. "[13]


This use of geography by Luke provides authority to Jesus and the event that occurs. Firstly the geography is accurate as Bethlehem is of higher altitude than Nazareth so “going up” is a correct statement. Then, as narrator, Luke’s credibility is built by the use of this reference to Bethlehem as it shows Luke is a man who understands the historical truths that a man in his position would be expected to know.


Now, as a reference of this nature would have been considered messianic in nature by the Jews of the time, he was pointing out a potentially explosive fact, one that would have focused and riveted the audience of the time to the words to come.


Yairah points out that Hebrew narratives often follow a concentric or pediment structure. They start with an exposition, follow with a complication, culminate in a change before unraveling to the ending. Luke 2:1-20 follows this structure.

The exposition is the first unit of the narrative provided in Luke 2:1-4. In this portion of the text, Luke describes why the census is taking place and how an unwed mother has a baby in the town. The complication is introduced in Luke 2:8-12 when the shepherds and the audience finds out this is no normal baby, but is the expected messiah. They are told how to find him. Then the change occurs in verses 13 to 14 when the angel focuses the whole story on the Glory of God. This is the central concept of the narrative and provides the key focus of the narrative. Verses 15 to 16 start the unraveling of the narrative as the shepherds go to Bethlehem and the angles leave. Verses 17 to 20 close the narrative by pointing out that the word about the child was spread and that the shepherds glorify and praise God regarding what they have seen.

Central and core to this is the message that there is a need for glorifying God. So often, we see the core message as Jesus coming to earth, but Luke focuses the narrative on God rather than Jesus. How often do we do this? This is one point of application to be considered.

Next, let us consider the characters. Yairah makes an important point of the difference between “showing” characters (like those in a dramatic scene) and “telling” characters (that narrate the story). In this chosen text, we find both. The “showing” characters are the angels and the rest are narrated or “telling” characters. This again emphasizes the point that Luke wants to make namely that God’s glory [that] is to be central to the story. The angels speak with words that command attention to focus us on this fact.


The depth of the characters are also important and we can see that Mary is well introduced in the chapter prior to the story so that we have deep knowledge of the purity of her character to offset the potential consideration of unwed misadventure that could have impacted the reader. The suspense of the birth in foreign circumstances is resolved by the angel’s proclamation of the uniqueness and focus of the birth. Note the emphasis Luke places on the fact that they were not yet married but “pledged to be married”[14] and that the baby was her firstborn and not yet Joseph’s!


The historical cultural context is particularly important in this story, and is needed to debunk many misconceptions. Bailey[15] describes a number of misconceptions.


1.      Most homes would have been open to Joseph as he was returning to his origins.


2.      Joseph was of a royal line and would have been more welcome for this fact.


3.      In Middle Eastern culture then and today, no one would dare to turn a woman who was pregnant away. Their sense of honor would not allow it.


4.      Mary had at least one relative, Elizabeth in a nearby village. Bethlehem was in the center of the hills of Judea.


5.      Joseph had plenty of time to make arrangements and would not have failed to look after a pregnant wife as that would have been dishonorable.


So much of this is lost on Western audiences who cannot understand the Eastern mindset. This brings up some significant points of consideration for this narrative. Note the use of the term swaddling clothes. This is a custom as seen in Ezekiel 16:4[16] and one that is still practiced today. The word “inn” as translated in English is the Greek word “katalyma” and is not the word for a commercial inn, but more correctly is used to refer to “a place to stay” or “guest room”. Bailey contends that like many homes today in the Middle East, the homes would have had a few levels, a lower level where the animals were kept that was alongside a slightly higher level that was the “family room” and into which a depression would be placed at the end next to where the animals were kept. This hollowed out section would have had cattle feed placed in it as cattle were brought into the home (on the lower level) to provide warmth on the cold nights. This feeding depression in the floor would probably have been the “manger” referred to. It would have been natural to have cleaned this out, put clean hay into it as bedding and placed a newborn in it as they could not roll out and they would have been in the middle of the family room.


The guest room would have been a separate room (also known as the prophet’s room). This was the room that was filled already. Therefore, it is highly probably Mary and Joseph were taken into the family room instead. Not a stable with nobody present! Bailey points out that Plummer[17] and Marshall[18] make similar observations.


Bailey also points out shepherds were poor in Palestine at that time and that according to rabbinic traditions would have been unclean and not likely to be invited into a home. The fact that the baby was wrapped in swaddling clothes and placed in a manger would have been similar to what they might do and therefore would have given them comfort that the home was an ordinary peasant home where they could be welcomed in.


 This aspect would have increased the understanding of the “good news”. The fact that they “hurried off” suggests they did not take their flocks with them. It is more likely someone was designated to keep watch while the rest went into town. Therefore, unless the peasant home also had sheep, the sheep in the traditional nativity scene would be erroneous.


This is the importance of understanding the historical, cultural and literary contexts of the narrative. Equally important is the fact that Luke makes no mention of the “wise men” which Matthew records. If the Matthew account is read carefully we see that there was not three and that they probably came through a year or so after Jesus was born. This means that the star was not likely to have been there the night he was born either despite its depiction in the Western nativity scene.

 Now let us briefly look at Vikler’s approach to reviewing a narrative. 


 The blocks of material can be broken into exposition Luke 2:1-4, complication Luke 2:8-12, change Luke 2:13-14, unraveling Luke 2:15-16, and closure Luke 2:17-20. The passage in question contributes to the flow of the author’s argument which is to show Jesus as the Son of Man by the fact that he is born of Mary and yet the angels show he is also God and born for the glory of God. The author is reporting from the perspective of a narrative historical perspective selecting only materials presented by eyewitnesses about Jesus. He views his work as complete and whole but this specific piece is focused on the Glory of God, which is one of the teaching aspects of the passage. This answers his main question in determining textual context.


While this is a narrative, it should also be noted that there is a distinct chiastic arrangement to this selection of text. Verses 1 and 2 align with 17 and 18 the first two discussing the overall introductory context, the last two the overall concluding context. Verses 4 to 7 are aligned with 16 in discussing Mary and Joseph. Verses 8 to 12 as well as 15 discuss the angels and shepherds. Verse 13 and the Verse 14 are central to this chiasmus and therefore key and emphasize the praise and glory of God as introduced by the angels. Again, we see the central aspect is the glory of God and the linkage to men on Earth. This ties in totally with Luke’s theme of the Son of Man, Jesus, who is God and has come to glorify God.


From a theological perspective, there are also some interesting aspects. The use of swaddling clothes reminds us of Jesus death where he is again wrapped in cloth. Perhaps Luke is pointing out the reason for Christ’s death right at the beginning in his birth as suggested by Keathley[19]. The fact that Jesus is announced to the lowly shepherds is also significant. He came to all; status in life is not a prerequisite for accepting him.


Then the most significant theological link to the Old Testament that the Jewish readers would have recognized is Isaiah 9:6 where it says:


For to us a child is born,


to us a son is given,


and the government will be on his shoulders.


And he will be called


Wonderful Counselor,  Mighty God,


Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”


This would have immediately occurred to the reader of the story. This would have lent authority to the narrative Luke wrote.


So, what are the points of application of this text? Central is the Glory of God in providing Jesus. Do we place God firmly at the center of our worship? Secondly, God came to “men on whom his favor rests[20].  We need to respond to this outpouring of love of God by doing what the shepherds did and looking for the Christ. Thirdly, once he is found, we need to “spread the word”[21] regarding Jesus. We need to treasure what we know regarding Jesus like Mary did and follow the shepherds’ example in glorifying and praising God.


I trust this case study has clarified the use of hermeneutics in understanding the meaning of the text and given a concrete example of how careful evaluation of texts can lead to some unexpected understandings.


In conclusion, the following summarizes the changes from the traditional western view:


The scene is generally not of a mother and father, but a man and his betrothed. It is not in a stable but a Middle Eastern peasant home, probably with an earthen feed trough in the floor of a family room full of people. The trough has a baby in it wrapped in cloth. There are no wealthy eastern people present. Shepherds are probably present without their sheep. The angels were in the field and not in the home and there would have been no star overhead. There would also have been no inn.


There would be one amazing God for us to glorify!




Fee, G., and D. Stuart. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. 3d ed. Zondervan, 2003. ISBN:0310246040.


Klein, W., C. Blomberg, and R. Hubbard. Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. Dallas-London-Vancouver-Melborne, Word Inc. 1993


Ryken, L. How to Read the Bible as Literature. Zondervan, 1984. ISBN: 0310390214.


Turner, David L. Supplemental Materials for Biblical Hermeneutics: Audio Materials, Trinity 2010


Virkler, Henry A., and K. A. Ayayo. Hermeneutics: Principles and Processes of Biblical Interpretation. 2d ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008. ISBN: 0801031389.


Zuck, R.B. Spirit-filled Teaching The Power Of The Holy Spirit In Your Ministry Wheaton, IL: SP Publications, Victor Books, 1984


Oda Wischmeyer, 2009. Henry A. Virkler and Karelynne Gerber Ayayo, Hermeneutics: Principles and Processes of Biblical Interpretation, Review of Biblical Literature [http://www.bookreviews.org] (accessed July 27, 2010).


Bryant, Michael L. 2009. "Hermeneutics: principles and processes of biblical interpretation." Criswell Theological Review 7, no. 1: 118-120. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed July 27, 2010).


Gallagher, Shaun. Hermeneutics/Education, State University of New York Press, 1992. ISBN-10: 0791411761.


Yairah, Amit. Reading Biblical Narratives. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001. ISBN 0800632809


Bouteneff, Peter C. Beginnings: Ancient Christian Readings of the biblical Creation Narratives. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008. ISBN 0801032332


Bailey, Kenneth E. Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes : Cultural Studies in the Gospels. Illinois: Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2008. ISBN 0830825684


Jabbour, Nabeel T. The Crescent through the Eyes of the Cross. Colorado Springs, Navpress, 2008. ISBN 81600061950


Carson, D.A. New Bible Commentary :21st centaury Edition, Rev Ed of The New Bible Commentary. 3rd ed / edited by D.Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970., 4th Ed. Leister, England; Downers Grove, Illinois, USA: Inter-varsity Press, 1994.


Easton, M.G. Easton's Bible Dictionary. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1996, c1897.


Drane, John William. Introducing the New Testament. Completely rev. and updated., Page 47. Oxford: Lion Publishing plc, 2000.


Achtemeier, Paul J., Publishers Harper & Row, and Society of Biblical Literature. Harper's Bible Dictionary. Includes index. 1st ed. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985.


Plummer, Alfred. Gospel according to St Luke, 5th ed, Edinburgh :T & T Clark, 1960.


Marshall, I. Howard. The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text, Exeter: Paternoster, 1978.


Keathley, J. Hampton, Acclamations of the Birth of Christ (Luke 2:1-20), accessed at http://bible.org/article/acclamations-birth-christ-luke-21-20 on 3 Aug 2010.


[1] Klein, W., C. Blomberg, and R. Hubbard. Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. Dallas-London-Vancouver-Melborne, Word Inc. 1993

[2] John 14:6, New International Version of the bible, Zondervan, 1984,  

[3] Matthew 28:19-20, New International Version of the bible, Zondervan, 1984,   

[4] Turner, David L. Supplemental Materials for Biblical Hermeneutics: Audio Materials, Trinity 2010, tape 1

[5] Fee, G., and D. Stuart. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. 3d ed. Zondervan, 2003. ISBN:0310246040., Kindle location 326-39

[6] Turner, David L. Supplemental Materials for Biblical Hermeneutics: Audio Materials, Trinity 2010

[7] Yairah, Amit. Reading Biblical Narratives. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001. ISBN 0800632809

[8]Achtemeier, Paul J., Publishers Harper & Row, and Society of Biblical Literature. Harper's Bible Dictionary. Includes index. 1st ed. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985.

[9] Luke 1:1-4
[10] Easton, M.G. Easton's Bible Dictionary. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1996, c1897.
[11] Carson, D.A. New bible commentary :21st centaury Edition, Rev Ed of The New Bible Commentary. 3rd ed / edited by D.Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970., 4th Ed. Leister, England; Downers Grove, Illinois, USA: Inter-varsity Press, 1994. Luke 2:1
[12] Luke 2:4 , New International Version of the bible, Zondervan, 1984,  

[13] Micah 5:2 , New International Version of the bible, Zondervan, 1984,  

[14] Luke2:5 NIV

[15] Bailey, Kenneth E. Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes : Cultural Studies in the Gospels. Illinois: Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2008, pg 25-37.

[16] Bailey, Kenneth E. Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes : Cultural Studies in the Gospels. pg 28.
[17] Plummer, Alfred. Gospel according to St Luke, 5th ed, Edinburgh :T & T Clark, 1960, pg 54.
[18] Marshall, I. Howard. The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text, Exeter: Paternoster, 1978, pg 107.
[19] Keathley, J. Hampton, Acclamations of the Birth of Christ (Luke 2:1-20), accessed at http://bible.org/article/acclamations-birth-christ-luke-21-20 on 3 Aug 2010.
[20] Luke 2:14 NIV
[21] Luke 2:17 NIV

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