There have been many ways of answering this question. Indeed, there is a whole science called Hermeneutics that looks at how to interpret things (check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hermeneutics). Anglo-American Analytical philosophy is entirely about language and meaning, and continental philosophy is arguably about hermeneutics.
In the past the meaning of a text was often determined by authority. Thus, the king or a judge interpreted a passage of written law, or the church said what an extract from the Bible meant. You could disagree, but it was not just a matter of opinion, but of challenging power. The rabbis discussed what the interpretation of Torah was, and their deliberations were codified in the Mishnah and the commentary on the Mishnah known as the Gemara. Together they are the Talmud, and there are commentaries on them. Sometimes a text from the Torah, after being worked on in the Mishnah, Gemara, and commentaries, would be seen to mean something completely different from the plain reading – but it was the Talmudic interpretation that was authoritative.
In ancient times and medieval period Christian scholars developed a four-fold approach to the meaning of scripture. First was the historical, which was the least interesting and meaningful – it was just data. Second was the moral meaning, the message about how we might live our lives. This was good for the common folk and those who were barely nominal Christians. The third approach was typological, which looked to see Christ in all things, allegories that instructed religious monks and nuns, clergy and pious laity. Finally, and most important, were the spiritual meanings, which led to understanding the metaphysical and spiritual nature of the cosmos and God, the soul, salvation, and the divine. This last assists one in contemplative prayer and spiritual union with God.
Luther, Calvin, and their followers tried to sweep all that away. During the Reformation they claimed that the Word of God spoke for itself in its plain meaning. This approach underlies much conservative evangelical hermeneutics today, and it certainly challenged some of the wilder interpretations of scripture that medieval scholars and mystics were coming up with. But it begged the question that we could in fact discern the plain meaning of texts. This is apparent in Luther’s translation of the Bible into German, a work so influential that it may be said that in so doing he created German as a literary language. Unfortunately, some of his translations were influenced by his conflict with Catholicism, his growing anti-semitism, and his misreading of Paul in Romans.
In modern times (let’s say Shakespeare is early modern) people began to think the proper way to understand a text was to look at who the author was – biography as interpretation. Thus, if we want to understand Shakespeare’s plays and poetry, we need to know who he was and who he associated with. Was he a secret Catholic? Who is the dark lady in the sonnets? What is the importance of his relationship with his son, who died young and was named Hamnet? Was he really the actor from Stratford, or was he really some better educated aristocrat? Or, if applied to scripture, who was Paul? Who was Isaiah? Did Moses write the Torah, and if not, who did?
Modern Biblical scholarship went through several cycles of trying to find the “original” (and therefore more “authentic”) meaning. Thus, textual criticism compared manuscripts, and tried to determine what the original autograph might have looked like. To this day, the standard Greek text of the New Testament is determined by scholars who, when there are variations in a passage, vote on what they think is the best reading (and they have rules and criteria for deciding). Source criticism tried to determine what the sources for the texts originally were. Thus in the early 19th century German biblical scholars began to feel that the parallels in the first three gospels indicated literary dependence. The authors of Matthew and Luke, they thought, had the Gospel according to Mark in front of them, which they edited and rewrote, as well as another written source that has not been preserved called Q (from the German Quelle or source). Form-criticism (as originated by Rudolf Bultmann in the early 20th century) tried to determine the evolution of a passage, working backwards from the text through its sources to the original oral form. Redaction criticism, in reaction to this concern with origins, looked not to the original form of the story, but the final form in the text as we have it. Thus, rather than atomizing a text like Luke into various constituent parts, a redaction critic asks what the overall message is in the text as it is.
Redaction criticism is closely related to the early 20th century literary approach called “close reading” which itself was a reaction to more biographical approaches. Do we understand T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland by knowing about his disastrous first message, or do we focus on the relations of the words internally to each other?
Several other approaches also developed in the 20th century. Reader response was developed by Stanley Fish in the 1960s as he taught John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. The late-18th century poet and graphic artist William Blake famously noted that the first two books of Paradise Lost, featuring Satan and Hell, were much more interesting than Book III where he writes about God and Heaven. Blake concluded: ‘The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” Fish said that the absorbing rhetoric and charisma of Satan was not some unconscious favouritism of Milton, but a deliberate attempt by the poet to seduce and manipulate the reader. The issue for Fish is not what Milton consciously or subconsciously thought he was doing, but rather the response generally evoked in the reader by the style and rhetoric of the text. The reader is an active participant in the creation of meaning.
Another 20th century approach is Critical Theory, which emerged in Germany and spread into English faculties in the UK and North America as a blend of Marxian theories and Freudian analyses. It is typically looking at power relations in texts and the construction of realities. Some aspects of it have been taken up in post-colonial theory, feminist literary theory, and Queer theory, although most of them would abjure the Marxist and Freudian designations.
Russian and French literary theorists developed the idea of intertextuality which positions a text as relating to and always being an interpretation of another text. Thus, Jane Austin’s Northanger Abbey needs to be read as a parody of late 18th century Gothic novels. James Joyce’s Ulysses must be read in relation to a whole library of books – The Odyssey, Irish newspapers, Hamlet, Irish drinking songs, romantic novels, catechisms, Anglo-Saxon, and, of course, the Bible.
Associated with the French philosopher Jacques Derrida is the movement known as Deconstructionism or Post-Modernism. This approach holds that a text kind of deconstructs itself – that within the surface meaning are implications that subvert that meaning. Thus, while we assume a work is coherent, that is actually an assumption a reader imposes on a text. We talk blithely about the author, whereas the author is really a function a reader uses to impose unity and coherence o a text. Roland Barthes in 1967 wrote his most important essay called the Death of the Author which lays this out. S/Z is a phenomenological analysis of a French short story in which he sees how the universe of that story is created with all its ambiguity and direction.
All of these literary approaches have been applied to the Bible, and the contradictory approaches makes one’s head spin. I remember being at Harvard in 2002-2003 and the eminent historian of early Christianity Karen King had the Graduate New Testament seminar read a library of French literary theory and try to apply it to various Christian texts. It was like trying to teach cats synchronised swimming. So what’s a simple student of the Bible to do?
My own approach is to heed all of these approaches, and recognise that while any number of interpretations are possible, not all are equally valid, and many are limited. Often various interpretations are best held in tension.
I begin with the fact that paper, ink, and binding does not have an inherent meaning, but only becomes a passage of scripture when I read it and my brain processes it. The meaning is not “out there”, some objective truth in Plato’s universe of ideas, but rather it is created subjectively within me as I read, as I mull it over, re-read, and relate it to other things I know. Martin Heidegger described the hermeneutical circle, in which a person or community reads a text and that reading is informed by everything that they bring to it. But the reader or community of reading is changed by that reading, which means when they come back to it they read it differently. As Christians we continually return to the same texts, the same ideas, over and over again, and we bring new experiences to them as we are transformed by them. As human beings, then, we are incapable of having a definitive meaning to any text, because meaning is historically conditioned. This is not relativism, because relativism says anything goes, but rather a recognition that we have a shifting set of criteria to determining meaning depending on who we are and the reasons we are reading. The reality is few people read scripture as if it were a detective novel or a thriller. We read it from positions of faith or from some intellectual curiosity.
Let me introduce the concept of time. Right now, as you read this, the past and the future does not exist. The only thing that exists is the present, not a moment but an incessant forward motion that is not past or present. The past exists only inasmuch as it is present now in its effects now and in the future. We can reconstruct the past through memories, physical evidence, texts in our hands, but all of this is a reconstruction. To ask “What really happened in Jerusalem in the 8th century BCE” is to ask “What does our best reconstruction look like?” All interpretation is this kind of reconstruction. To ask what a text is to say, “If I use the best criteria for interpreting this, what do I get?” Now, right now, here and in this place, you do have some scope of command and control. You can read a passage as emancipatory, you can be inspire to do something, you can relate it to other texts, you can ignore it, or just enjoy it. Reading is action and in time, and meaning is an action in you.
Biblical texts are important for me as a Christian because not only because they are historical documents addressing 1300 years of God and people, and which have been influential for 3000 years, but because I choose to see God speaking to me from them. I am inspired when I read the Bible, when I translate the Hebrew into English, when I preach on it, when I act in relation to others and with others, and when I allow it to inform my prayers. Indeed, subjectively it feels as though I am not making a choice, or allowing anything that happens, but that God has gone before me to create these texts to come alive in me and in the community of faith.
And God speaks in pluriform voices and in the mouth of friend and stranger. It is by encountering other people and their opinions that I come closer to what the meaning of a text might really be. The meaning of a text, ultimately, is incarnate in human flesh, mine and others, which is undoubtedly connected to the Christian dogma that in Christ the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We are a historical religion, we are a faith of the present looking to the future, we are a religion that cherishes materiality, and we should not have it any other way.