Course Syllabus

Hermeneutics: Approaches to Interpreting the Bible and the Qur’an

RELS 3593 section 001 (CRN: 43749)
Spring 2023, University of Oklahoma, Dodge Family College of Arts and Sciences
Tuesdays and Thursdays 3:00–4:15 pm, in the Religious Studies conference room (Robertson 118)


David Vishanoff
vishanoff at ou dot edu
Robertson 119

Office hours: Tuesdays and Thursdays 10:30–11:30, or by appointment. You are welcome either to come to my office (Robertson 119) or to meet with me over Zoom (just email me in advance to let me know, and go to


This seminar will confront the philosophical puzzle of how meaning can be found in or constructed from texts, and more specifically from sacred texts. We will engage the history of reflection on this question in three closely interrelated discourses: Euro-American philosophical reflection on the general question of where meaning comes from, Christian theorizing about how to interpret the Bible, and Muslim debates about how to interpret the Qur’an. Students will formulate brief responses to three theorists or approaches, and then articulate their own tentative statements of hermeneutic principles.

The class will function as a seminar in which we collectively build up a shared set of questions and ideas about hermeneutics. We will work self-consciously on the difficult art of contributing to a seminar discussion, and I will provide feedback to help you improve whatever skills you already have (or feel you don’t have) in this area. Each week we will unpack one chapter from a long and brilliant textbook that surveys the development Euro-American and Christian hermeneutics, as well as one short related writing by a Muslim author.

This is a fully in-person class with a prerequisite of junior standing (or permission of instructor). It is an upper-division Humanities course but does not fulfill any other General Education requirement.


Anthony C. Thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics: The Theory and Practice of Transforming Biblical Reading London: HarperCollins, 1992.

Available at

Short weekly take-home or in-class readings on Islamic hermeneutics will be provided.

Course Goals

  1. To understand and enter into major debates in premodern, modern, and postmodern hermeneutics.
  2. To begin to stake out a personal theory of meaning and interpretation (for the Bible, the Qur’an, or texts in general).
  3. To develop listening knowledge–that is, to train and equip ourselves for the difficult art of listening to, conversing with, and getting to know people who do not share our assumptions, convictions, or ways of thinking.
  4. To develop increased intellectual humility, self-awareness, philosophical clarity and coherence, and charity toward those we disagree with.


Preparation and contribution (40%)

The work of this seminar consists in reading and responding, individually and collectively, to various hermeneutical theorists. Therefore, your principle assignment is to read faithfully and contribute productively to our discussions on most if not all class days. At the end of most classes we will take five or ten minutes to write down a few thoughts or takeaways from class, and compare our notes then or at the start of the next class. Beginning in week five, a different student will take responsibility each week to start discussion by raising one or more important issues from the assigned chapter. 40% of your course grade will represent my assessment of how well your participation, writing, and discussion-starting helps to advance the work of the class and reflects careful reading of the assigned texts. I will give periodic feedback to help you strengthen your contributions.

Three short response papers (10% each)

Each student will write three two-page responses to specific hermeneutical theorists encountered in the readings. The due date will depend on which theorists you respond to; please submit your short paper within one week of our reading and discussion about the theorist in question.

Position paper (20%)

A six-page statement of the positions you are inclined to adopt on three or more major hermeneutical issues. A first draft will be due by the first class of week 12; once you receive my feedback and tentative grade, you are welcome to revise and resubmit the paper, if you wish, at any time before the final exam.

Final exam (10%)

An essay exam describing your own intellectual process and development over the course of this term.

Attendance (crucial)

The work of this course consists in thinking and reaching conclusions together in class, not in learning information on your own. This is only possible with your consistent preparation, attendance, and participation. There is therefore a severe grade penalty for excessive absences. If you will not be able to attend regularly, please drop the course. You will be allowed to miss up to four classes without penalty (after the deadline for adding classes). Every absence beyond your first four will result in a reduction of your final course grade by one half of a letter grade. For example, if your course grade would have been a B, but you missed six classes (two more than allowed), you would be down to a C. Please note that there is no limit to this penalty, so if you miss enough classes you will quickly drop down to an F in the course, regardless of your grades on papers and the exam. I fully expect that you will occasionally (up to four times) be unable to attend class for one reason or another, so it is not necessary to apologize or provide any excuse for your absences. On the other hand, if a serious ongoing personal or health situation will result in four or more absences during the term, please do talk to me about it early on, and I will be as supportive as I can. Absences that result from religious observances will be not be counted, and exams or work falling on religious holidays may be rescheduled without penalty; please let me know in advance, as soon as you are able to determine that a holiday may conflict with class.

Academic honesty (all or nothing)

In my estimation, any form of deceit, however “mild,” warrants a final course grade of F. Individual instances of suspected academic dishonesty will be referred to the appropriate University authorities, who will investigate and determine appropriate penalties (which may include grade penalties, extra classes, suspension, expulsion, and/or other penalties). In my estimation, academic dishonesty includes (but is not limited to) turning in writing not created by yourself solely for this class on the basis of your own understanding of the subject, plagiarism (reproducing or paraphrasing someone else’s words or ideas without citing them), failing to document sources as required in an assignment, using or submitting text (even in modified form) that was generated in whole or in part by automatic text generators such as ChatGPT, helping other students to avoid doing their own reading or thinking or writing, selling a paper or post or exam essay or sharing it with someone who might use it instead of doing his or her own work, using the ideas or wording in others' online posts without citing them, submitting answers or comments online without having studied the relevant materials for yourself, and false excuses for absences or late or missed assignments. You have no need to invent excuses, because unmet requirements will affect only my evaluation of your work, they will not affect my respect for you as a person; so false excuses mean that you are attempting to falsify your grade, which in my estimation warrants a course grade of F. Because recordings or transcripts of class sessions could undermine the limited communal nature of our discussions, and could be used to facilitate academic dishonesty, making or using such recordings or transcripts is not permitted and may constitute academic misconduct. See for information on student rights and responsibilities with regard to academic misconduct. If you have questions about academic integrity or plagiarism, please ask; my aim is to foster an environment of trust in which you can learn, grow, and try out ideas while being transparent about your thinking and learning.

Course evaluation (a moral requirement)

At the end of the term you will have the opportunity to answer the university-mandated online questions about this class at I care a great deal about the insights that students give me in these surveys about themselves, their learning experiences, and my own teaching. There is no way for me to formally require completion of these evaluations, and I never find out which students fill them out (unless they mention their names in their answers, which can help me understand their comments better). But I hope you will agree, when you see how much of myself I poor into this class over the course of the term, that you owe me ten minutes of your time and some honest answers about the class! I sincerely want and expect every student to fill out an evaluation. Thank you; my future students and I will all be grateful that you did.

General course policies

  • Assignments may or may not be accepted late, at the instructor’s discretion. Unless arranged in advance, any such lateness will be penalized one letter grade for each interval between class periods (or any fraction thereof) that elapses after the scheduled date.
  • On all writing assignments the instructor reserves the right, before assigning a grade, to request an individual meeting with any student to ask for explanation of any aspect(s) of their writing, and then assign a grade based on the total evidence of the written paper and the student's explanations. This could improve the grade somewhat if the instructor feels the student had excellent ideas that were not fully communicated in writing despite a good effort, or it could dramatically reduce the grade if the student's explanations cast doubt on whether the student actually wrote the paper themselves from scratch. This policy is needed in order to safeguard against students using recent advances in artificial intelligence to obtain essays that they did not write themselves but whose actual provenance might be difficult to prove. If academic dishonesty is suspected, the case will be referred to the Integrity Council (see Academic Honesty above), but even if the Council is not able to establish that academic misconduct has occurred this policy will enable the instructor to assign a low or failing grade on the assignment if the student is unable to explain to the instructor's satisfaction how the paper resulted from their own thinking. In other words, being ready and able to explain your writing orally if asked is part of what is expected in all writing assignments in this class. If you cannot explain how each aspect of your writing resulted from your own thinking, you have missed the point of the assignment, and if the instructor discovers this you will be graded accordingly.
  • No extra-credit work will be assigned or accepted; please do not ask. To benefit from this class, you need to do the work as it is assigned, not do other work later.
  • Because recordings or transcripts of class sessions could undermine the limited communal nature of our discussions, and could be used to facilitate academic dishonesty, making or using such recordings or transcripts is not permitted and may constitute academic misconduct.

University policies

  • In order to help alleviate the stress of "dead week" or "pre-finals week," I have designed the schedule so that papers are due well before the last week of classes. For specific provisions of OU's official pre-finals week policy see
  • Exams or work falling on religious holidays may be rescheduled without penalty; please let me know in advance, as soon as you are able to determine that a holiday may conflict with class or an assignment.
  • Any student who has a disability that may prevent him or her from fully demonstrating his or her abilities should contact me personally as soon as possible; I will be very glad to make accommodations to help you participate and learn more effectively. If you are unsure whether you should request some kind of accommodation, or what kind of accommodation might be most helpful for you, consult the staff at the Accessibility and Disability Resource Center (, 730 College Avenue, 325-3852, TDD 325-4173, who will be able to help figure out what is best and whether you should formally register with the Center. The ADRC is committed to supporting students with disabilities to ensure that they are able to enjoy equal access to all components of their education. This includes your academics, housing, and community events. If you are experiencing a disability, a mental/medical health condition that has a significant impact on one or more life functions, you can receive accommodations to provide equal access. Possible disabilities include, but are not limited to, learning disabilities, AD(H)D, mental health, and chronic health. Additionally, the ADRC supports students with temporary medical conditions (broken wrist, shoulder surgery, etc.) and pregnancy.
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  • Adjustments for Pregnancy/Childbirth Related Issues: Should you need modifications or adjustments to your course requirements because of documented pregnancy-related or childbirth-related issues, please contact me or the Accessibility and Disability Resource Center at 405/325-3852 as soon as possible. Also, see for answers to commonly asked questions.
  • Mental Health Support Services: If you are experiencing any mental health issues that are impacting your academic performance, counseling is available at the University Counseling Center (UCC). The Center is located on the second floor of the Goddard Health Center, at 620 Elm Rm. 201, Norman, OK 73019. To schedule an appointment call (405) 325-2911. For more information please visit
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  • Emergency Protocol: During an emergency, there are official university procedures that will maximize your safety.
    • Severe Weather: If you receive an OU Alert to seek refuge or hear a tornado siren that signals severe weather.
      1. Look for severe weather refuge location maps located inside most OU buildings near the entrances
      2. Seek refuge inside a building. Do not leave one building to seek shelter in another building that you deem safer. If outside, get into the nearest building.
      3. Go to the building’s severe weather refuge location. If you do not know where that is, go to the lowest level possible and seek refuge in an innermost room. Avoid outside doors and windows.
      4. Get in, Get Down, Cover Up
      5. Wait for official notice to resume normal activities.
    • Additional Weather Safety Information is available through the Department of Campus Safety.
    • Armed Subject/Campus Intruder: If you receive an OU Alert to shelter-in-place due to an active shooter or armed intruder situation or you hear what you perceive to be gunshots: 1. Avoid: If you believe you can get out of the area WITHOUT encountering the armed individual, move quickly towards the nearest building exit, move away from the building, and call 911. 2. Deny: If you cannot flee, move to an area that can be locked or barricaded, turn off lights, silence devices, spread out, and formulate a plan of attack if the shooter enters the room. 3. Defend: As a last resort fight to defend yourself. For more information, visit OU’s Emergency Preparedness site ( Shots Fired on Campus Procedure – Video:
    • Fire Alarm/General Emergency: If you receive an OU Alert that there is danger inside or near the building, or the fire alarm inside the building activates: 1. LEAVE the building. Do not use the elevators. 2. KNOW at least two building exits 3. ASSIST those that may need help 4. PROCEED to the emergency assembly area 5. ONCE safely outside, NOTIFY first responders of anyone that may still be inside building due to mobility issues. 6. WAIT for official notice before attempting to re-enter the building. OU Fire Safety on Campus video: