Seeing as this is a site about hermeneutics, it would seem a good place to have an answer to the above question. What exactly is hermeneutics?
A Basic Definition
Hermeneutics is both the science and the art of interpreting any written communication, but particularly the Bible.
Hermes, the ancient Greek god was considered to be the herald and messenger of the other gods. (The Roman counterpart was Mercury, the wing-ed messenger.) Historically, then, hermeneutics concerns the interpretation of messages. If the ancient Greek and Roman polytheists attached importance to Hermes' task of transmitting messages faithfully and accurately for their gods, how much more should the faithful and accurate transmission of messages from the One True God be important to us today in the 21st century.
The Foundation of Hermeneutics: Exegesis
A fairly common approach to hermeneutics begins with exegesis, which is another science and art, having considerable overlap with hermeneutics. Exegesis, however, is concerned primarily with understanding what a biblical passage says, word for word, as it were. Perhaps this is an oversimplification, but exegesis is primarily about the meanings or denotations of words to the original writer of a text and his audience, whereas hermeneutics is about the significance and connotations of those words as they are found in sentences, paragraphs, chapters, books (in the biblical sense, such as Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, etc.), and of course the entire Bible.
Exegesis is a necessary first step because how can you make sense of a verse, a chapter, a book, and all the books if you do not know what the words mean? Obviously, you cannot. Once you have a handle, more or less, on the meaning of individual words and phrases, you are in a better position to understand through hermeneutics the import of the message, at least to the original audience.
To understand the meaning of the text to the original audience, however, you need to take the grammatico-historical approach to interpretation, teasing the meaning and import out of a given text. Knowledge of the original languages in which the Bible was written (Hebrew, Aramaic, and koine Greek) can be very helpful indeed. That the Bible is considered to be a "living" book to many Jews and Christians, however, means in part that God--if He is truly the ultimate author of the Bible, which many Bible scholars dispute--is not stymied in providing His word to all people groups and all their languages, in spite of whatever cultural baggage they carry. In other words, generally speaking, God wants His word (or Word, or Scripture) to be understood by those who have been created in His image--that's you and me!
After all, the Bible is not a science textbook or a specialized treatise, the content of which becomes obsolete in a generation or less. The Bible is a handbook for real life in every generation, and its message can be understood by and adapted to every known culture and every culture which may yet come into being. The Bible is truly a universal book which when read, understood, and applied can meet the deepest needs of the human heart.
This is not to say that understanding God's Word is always going to be an easy task. Far from it. Moreover, there are admittedly passages in the Bible which are difficult to understand, and God seems to have designed His Word, in part, to be difficult to understand, much as Jesus used difficult-to-understand parables in His teaching ministry to confound some of His listeners, particularly the ones who resisted His message of repentance and His claim to be the long-awaited Messiah.
The Three Most Important Words in Hermeneutics: Context, Context, and Context
Perhaps the most important word in the art of hermeneutics is context. Being familiar with the history and milieu in which a biblical passage was written is important--even crucial--in getting to its meaning and significance. The studies of archeology; non-biblical texts, such as histories; and cultural anthropology and sociology, which include an understanding of mores, folkways, taboos, and values, both praiseworthy and blameworthy; all these are crucial in establishing a context for understanding a text. After all, a text without a context is a pretext!
The Context of Culture, Writ Large
Culture, by the way, is context writ large, and the best and most concise definition of culture I've come across can be put into a single question: "How are things done around here?", which in hermeneutics becomes "How were things done back then?"
Manuscripts of biblical and non-biblical texts, such as the well-preserved ones found in the last century in caves near Qumran, an ancient village of Palestine on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea in the West Bank east of Jerusalem, are tremendously important in verifying the historicity of the canon of Scripture. Perhaps of greater import are the revealing cultural clues which aid both exegesis and hermeneutics. Thankfully, Judaism and Christianity are blessed by having thousands of ancient manuscripts, many of which can be dated to within a respectable distance--a few short decades, even--from the original texts, which of course have long since turned to dust.
The manuscript evidence for the New Testament text alone is overwhelming compared to the manuscript evidence for other key texts of non-biblical writers, from historians such as Herodotus, to playwrights such as Aeschylus and Sophocles; from philosophers such as Socrates and Aristotle, to orators such as Demosthenes and Cicero.
Multiple manuscripts are important for many reasons, but one significant reason is because they make possible the process of checking for accuracy in the transmission of the Bible through the centuries. The oft-quoted statistic about the reliability of the biblical text is that over 95 percent of our text is remarkably accurate, and the remaining five percent contains insignificant errors in transmission which do not affect significantly any major doctrine of Jewish and Christian traditions.
The Context of Culture Writ Small
If the above pathways to uncovering context could be labelled the macro-approach to hermeneutics, then a micro-approach is perhaps even more important. Even if--as with many Jews and Christians around the world--you believe in the reliability, historical accuracy, and faithful transmission of Scripture, you still need to contextualize a passage by studying such things as a passage's
writer(s): who he was, where he came from, and to whom he wrote (i.e., his audience)
the occasion for his writing; that is, his overall purpose or purposes for writing
the context within the larger context of similar writings by the same author, and writings elsewhere in the Bible, particularly if you believe as I do that there is a common thread in the skeins of thread comprising the tapestry of Scripture from beginning to end
the form and style of the writing, whether it is law, historical narrative, personal letters, proverbs, psalms and other forms of poetry, prophecy (both foretelling and forthtelling), or a combination of the above
the placement of a given book within the 39 books of the Old Testament (or 27 books of the Tanakh, the Scripture of modern Judaism), and the 27 books of the New Testament, such as the lumping of various books of the Tanakh into the Law (the Torah or Chumash), the Prophets (Neviim), and the Writings (Kesuvim), and the lumping of various books of the New Testament into the Gospels, early Christian history in Luke's book of Acts, the Pauline Epistles, the General Epistles, and the Apocalyptic Books
Many conservative and evangelical Christians subscribe to the theory and belief that Scripture is verbally and plenarily inspired of God. Not literally inspired, mind you, as the Bible contains plenty of figurative- as well as literal language! Even mentally challenged interpreters of the Bible realize that rivers do not clap their hands (see Psalm 98:8 NASB Updated), and that when Jesus claims to be The Door, He is not claiming to be made of wood (see John 10:7 and 9). Enough said.
God used fallible men to transmit His infallible will and word, but He also used each author's background to bring that word to life, allowing each author to give to his writing the unique thumbprint of his personality, educational background, literary skills, temperament, unique perspective, mission (the calling), and commission (the marching orders), since each author, we believe, was specially selected by God to provide at least one skein (and often many more) to the rich tapestry of Scripture.
Each student, whether expert, intermediate, advanced beginner, or beginner, has a unique perspective, despite the label or labels they attach to themselves--or that others attach to them. With each perspective come different assumptions, presuppositions, cultures and sub-cultures, denominational preferences and preferences of traditions within the larger faiths of Judaism and Christianity.
At a site such as Biblical Hermeneutics Beta, there are bound to be differences of approach to the framing of questions and answers. Some members insist that we limit ourselves to the actual text or texts which are relevant to the question being asked, and not wade into--or get bogged down by--the kind of macro-contextualizing called by some biblical scholars the analogy of Scripture, which means in essence that Scripture is the best interpreter of Scripture.
Moreover, some members balk at applying the message of a text to life today and are content to arrive at what they believe a given text meant to the original author(s) and audience(s).
To those members I say only this, which is a favored motto of "hermeneuts" like me:
"One interpretation; many applications."
To bracket (or hermetically seal--pun intended!) the application of a text to contemporary lives and situations, in my opinion, is a travesty of God's intention for His living and powerful and eternal word, reducing it to something merely historically interesting, perhaps, but spiritually impotent and empty. Without application, hermeneutics becomes a truncated version of what it was meant to be. Paul reminds us in his words to his protégé Timothy,
"All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable [today] for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man [or woman] of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17, my emphases).
"'Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth'" (John 17:17 NASB Updated).
In conclusion, can we always arrive at the "true" meaning of a text and then apply it both to the context from which it came and also to the context in which we find ourselves today? No. Does this mean we should give up both the quest for truth and our statement of the truth as we see it, in favor of a flaccid fetish of bracketing truth claims simply because doing so might offend someone else? No. That's political correctness taken to an extreme.
As I have been reminded many times by the "powers that be" on this site, however, one's presuppositions and subsequent conclusions about truth and its application to today, should function as a garnish to a question or answer, and not the entire banquet; an appetizer, not the entrée. Nevertheless, no one should feel obligated to apologize for believing in truth. By the same token, however, no one should be apologetic, nor should he or she be ridiculed, for not believing in Truth.
Our site welcomes all who are interested in making sense of the book which is the biggest seller of all time: the Bible. We owe each other respect and good manners as we interact with one another, and respect sometimes requires that we simply agree to disagree, but agreeably, which means to disagree with neither rancor nor malice.