By Steven Barto, B.S. Psych.
WHAT IS EXEGESIS?
Whether you have picked up the Holy Bible for the first time, you’re a college student studying biblical interpretation or theology, or have been reading Scripture since early childhood, there will be passages you think you understand but which your pastor, instructors, classmates, fellow church members, or family members interpret quite differently. Such incidents occur when people read any kind of literature, but we become particularly aware of them when we read religious literature—i.e., writings that make claims regarding who we are, where we come from, where we go when we die, and whether our lives have any relevance in the whole scheme of existence.
Not to worry. Although there are many approaches to the Bible, there is also a decent amount of common ground among responsible readers of the Bible. As you can imagine, atheists tend to look for seeming contradictions and inconsistencies in Scripture in an attempt to defeat the claim that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God. Regardless, it is critical that we read, think about, and write about the Bible carefully and systematically. This can only be accomplished by sticking to common strategies. Exegesis can be useful for understanding an entire text—indeed, it is important to see the commonalities in a publication—but is typically applied to a smaller section such as a brief narrative, psalm, lament, prophetic utterance, speech, parable, vision, or chapter-length exposition. The technical term for this careful study and analysis of a biblical text or passage is exegesis, from the Greek verb exêgeisthai, meaning “to lead out.”
EXEGESIS AS INVESTIGATION
Exegesis may be defined as careful historical, literary, and theological analysis of a text. We could describe it as “scholarly reading” that ascertains the sense and vitality of the text through complete, systematic recording of the intrinsic meaning of the text. Exegesis requires “close reading,” which is a term quite familiar to students of literature. This exercise describes the deliberate word-by-word and phrase-by-phrase consideration of all the parts of a text in order to determine its overall meaning as a whole.
It is worth noting that many people over the decades have come to realize the goal of exegesis is to discover the biblical writer’s purpose or meaning in the original text. This is what scholars refer to as the “authorial intention,” which can be rather difficult to ascertain. Many biblical scholars believe this is not the only goal of exegesis. When I write an original poem, I am sometimes hard-pressed to determine where the idea and the words came from. Some writers have a hard time expressing their intentions for something someone else has written. It is even more difficult to understand the meaning behind the writings of another person from another time and culture. A more modest and appropriate goal would be to arrive at a credible and discernible understanding of the text on its own merits within its own context.
Exegesis is an investigation: An in-depth look at the many levels or composition of a particular text. To engage in exegesis is to ask historical questions about a text, including the situation or occasion. It also means asking literary questions of the text, such as what is its theological or philosophical aim? Furthermore, exegesis includes asking questions about the religious or theological dimensions of the text. Productive exegesis requires us not being afraid of difficult questions, such as “Why does this verse, phrase, or text seem to contradict that one?” Occasionally, exegesis leads to greater ambiguity rather than a clearer understanding. If you experience this, do not give up. Press on in prayer and meditation.
EXEGESIS AS CONVERSATION
Exegesis involves conversation as much as it does analysis and investigation. It is a dialog with readers (living and dead, more educated and less educated, absent and present). It’s a conversation about about texts and their inherent meaning; about sacred words and what they claim to be true—and what others who have analyzed them claim as their meaning. Beneficial exegesis entails listening to others, even others with whom we disagree. Dissent just might lead to a deeper conversation and a clearer answer. For the sake of universal understanding, exegesis simply cannot take place in a vacuum. It’s a process that needs to occur in the company of others through reading and discussing with them—carefully, critically, and creatively—about the text. Those who like to read and study in isolation would not be an ideal biblical exegete.
Many Christians read the Bible alone, which is perfectly fine. Especially when the object is devotional. I often spend time by myself with Scripture. I will find a collection of verses, for example, that teach who I am in Christ and pray and meditate on those passages. In addition, I like to read Eugene Peterson’s interpretation of Scripture, The Message. It is essentially a paraphrase of Scripture, and is an excellent version for reading the Bible in common language.
It is not wise, however, to attempt exegesis alone. Certainly, ministers, students and biblical scholars spend a lot of time examining Scripture prior to preparing for a paper, sermon, or lecture. They often do this in their private study or office. It is critical that whatever translation they use that they become well-prepared to have an ongoing conversation about the text they’ve consulted for their work. Accordingly, they need a proper exegetical method. In this instance, method should not be considered on equal terms with “scientific” or “historical” analysis. Good reading—just like good conversation—is an art more than a science.
Although there are certain principles that must be followed in order to properly read, analyze, and report on Scripture, exegesis is an art. An acquired skill. The key is learning what to look for, what questions to ask, and how to put your exegetical analysis together for public discourse. This can never be done with complete certainty or with only a “method” in mind. Instead, an exegete needs not only have principles, rules, hard work, and research skills, but also intuition, imagination, sensitivity, and the ability to listen for the leading of the Holy Spirit.
Exegesis is Investigation, Conversation, and Art
According to Michael J. Gorman (2009), good exegetical practice must involve understanding the unique setting (historical context) in which the text was produced and how it fits within the book or text being studied (literary context). We can understand a text only if we pay careful attention to both the whole and the parts (details)—like the proverbial forest as well as the trees. In addition, there are several options which can be applied to the work. Exegesis is typically a rather technical and challenging undertaking.
Interpreters of the Bible systematically use a number of general approaches and specific methods to help them engage with the text they are examining. Some of these methods are called criticisms. The use of the term criticism, as in redaction criticism, does not necessarily imply negative judgment; the primary meaning is analysis as it applies to the historical, literary, or theological value of a text.
The Synchronic Approach
One approach to exegesis is called synchronic (meaning “within time,” or “same time”). However, this method looks only at the final form of the text as it stands in the Bible. It is not concerned with the “long view” or “prehistory” of the text—including any oral traditions, earlier versions, or possible collateral sources. Instead, this approach uses methods designed to analyze the text itself and the text in relation to the world in which it first showed up as a text. This method is not unlike narrative-critical, social-scientific, and socio-rhetorical. To take a socio-rhetorical approach typically involves integrating the ways people use language in their everyday existence.
Types of Criticism in a Synchronic Approach
- Literary Criticism—the quest to understand the text as literature by employing either traditional or more recent models of literary criticism that are employed in the study of literature generally; corollaries of literary criticism are genre and form analysis, the quests to classify a text as to its type
- Narrative Criticism—as a subset of literary criticism, the quest to understand the formal and material features of narrative texts (stories) or other texts that have an implicit or underlying narrative within or behind them
- Rhetorical Criticism—the quest to understand the devices, strategies, and structures employed in the text to persuade and/or otherwise affect the reader, as well as the overall goals or effects of those rhetorical elements
- Lexical, Grammatical, and Syntactical Analysis—the quest to understand words, idioms, grammatical forms, and the relationship among these items according to the norms of usage at the time the text was produced
- Semantic or Discourse Analysis—the quest to understand the ways in which a text conveys meaning according to modern principles and theories of linguistics
- Social-Scientific Criticism—the quest for the social identity, perceptions of the world, and cultural characteristics of the writers, readers/hearers, and communities suggested by the text; usually divided into two distinct sub-disciplines, social description and social-scientific analysis
It is worth noting that the above approach is often used in the study of literature as well as Scripture. Taking a synchronic approach to the text is quite similar to the technique used by literary critics analyze a poem or other short text. When explicating a poem, for example, they may consider the following features of it:
- Genre and implied Situation—the type of literature the text is, and the life situation implied by the text
- Intellectual Core—the topic and theme (the “slant”) of the text
- Structure and Unity—the arrangement of the text
- Literary Texture (e.g., poetic)—the details of the text
- Artistry—the beauty of the text
Let’s look at an example from Scripture by taking a synchronic approach to the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). An exegete might ask questions such as the following:
- What are the various sections of the Sermon, and how do they fit together to make a literary whole?
- What does the narrator of this Gospel communicate by indicating the setting of the Sermon, the composition of the audience before and after the Sermon, and the audience’s reaction to it?
- What is the function of the Sermon in the Gospel’s portrayal of Jesus and of discipleship?
- How would a first-century reader/hearer understand and be affected by this Sermon?
The Diachronic Approach (The Historical-Critical Method)
The second approach to exegesis is the diachronic (meaning “across time”) approach, and it focuses on the origin and development of a text, employing methods designed to uncover these aspects of it. It takes the “long view” of a text and may be considered a longitudinal perspective. This approach is often referred to as the historical-critical method, and it was the approach of choice by many, if not most, biblical scholars of the twentieth century.
Types of Criticism in a Diachronic Approach
- Textual Criticism—the quest for the original wording of the text and the ways later scribes might have altered it
- Historical Linguistics—the quest to understand words, idioms, grammatical forms, and the relationships among these items, often with attention to their historical development within a language
- Form Criticism—the quest for the original type of oral or written tradition reflected in the text, and for the sort of situation in the life of Israel or the early church out of which such a tradition might have developed
- Tradition Criticism—the quest for understanding the growth of a tradition over time from its original form to its incorporation in the final text
- Source Criticism—the quest for the written sources used in the text
- Redaction Criticism—the quest for perceiving the ways in which the final author of the text purposefully adopted and adapted sources
- Historical Criticism—the quest for the events that surrounded the production of the text, including the purported events narrated by the text itself
A diachronic analysis of the Sermon on the Mount, for example, might involve the exegete asking the following questions:
- What written or oral sources did the evangelist (writer of the gospel) adopt, adapt, and combine to compose this “Sermon?”
- What are the various components of the Sermon (beatitudes, prayers, parables, pithy sayings, etc.), and what is their origin and development in Jewish tradition, the career of the earthly Jesus, and/or the life of the early church?
- What does the evangelist’s use of sources reveal about his theological interests?
- To what degree do these teachings represent the words or ideas of the historical Jesus?
It is very important when studying biblical texts that we consider not only our own preconceptions, biases, and presuppositions, but also those of the writer of the original text or sources used. For example, there are practitioners who deny the current operation of miracles or the role of the Holy Spirit. These individuals are called cessationists. They believe that spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues, prophecy, and healing ended with the last apostle. Consequently, they also do not support a modern-day office of apostle. I do not support this conclusion.
Scripture tells us that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8). Eugene Peterson, in his translation The Message, puts it this way: “For Jesus doesn’t change—yesterday, today, tomorrow, he’s totally himself.” How can we limit Jesus to certain “dispensations” relative to the works of the Holy Spirit, especially in isolated or developing countries where the Gospel has yet to be preached? Besides, in John 14:12-14 Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it” (NIV).
The Existential Approach
There is a third approach that is often applied when practicing exegesis, but it does not seem to have an official or commonly used name. Michael J. Gorman (2009) says this method could be labeled existential. It seems this technique is often criticized. This is true for a number of reasons.
Those who support the existential approach to reading Scripture are predisposed to see the subject text as something to be engaged with. Existential methods are therefore considered “instrumental.” They see the text as a vehicle; a means to an end as opposed to an end it itself. For them, perhaps it is a springboard. The existential approach by its very nature will include elements grounded in a reality beyond the text itself. In other words, metaphysical. With this approach, the text “bears witness” to the subject matter. This “something beyond” may be a set of relations among people, such as a “spiritual” truth beyond the “literal.” I believe this approach may also be categorized as theological or transformative. Remember the precept that God’s Word is alive and is power unto personal or psychic change.
The existential (theological or transformative) approach is by nature self-involving. Exegetes using this method do not see the text as a historical or literary artifact to be examined, but as something to engage with—as something that could or should affect their lives. The text is taken seriously with respect to present-day experience, as it impacts the individual and the community. We see this with the Word of God, which has the potential to create a new self and a new community. It is, therefore, both personal and corporate.
Types of Criticism in an Existential Approach
- Theological exegesis, missional interpretation, and spiritual reading—exegesis is done in the context of a specific religious tradition and or religious purposes
- Canonical criticism—exegesis is done in the context of the Bible as a whole
- Embodiment or actualization—exegesis is done in the context of attempting to appropriate and embody the text in the world.
- Ideological criticism (including post-colonial criticism), advocacy criticism, and liberationist exegesis—exegesis is done in the context of the struggle against unequal power relations and injustice and for justice or liberation
Interestingly, the existential approach is subjective and leaves a lot open to personal interpretation. This can be both good and bad. The existential approach has been with us in Western civilization since the Enlightenment. Enlightened individuals tend to equate knowledge and education with the procurement of truth. This rather ethereal approach to acquiring knowledge is often limiting as it involves an individual’s ability to apply collective values and intuition to understand others and the world around them. Existential methodology features metacognition, which is the act of thinking about what it is you’re thinking about. The upside is people well-versed in this approach are able to see “the big picture,” and are less likely to get lost in the minutiae.
An existential analysis of the Sermon on the Mount might involve asking the following questions:
- To what kind of modern-day faith and practice does the Sermon call contemporary readers?
- How might the text about “turning the other cheek” be a potential source of difficulty or even oppression for the politically or socially downtrodden?
- Does love of enemies rule out the use of resistance or violence in every instance? What does it mean practically to embody the teachings about non-violence in the Sermon?
- What spiritual practices are necessary for individuals and churches to live the message of the Sermon in the contemporary (albeit pluralistic, self-centered, reactionary) world?
Scholars who approach a text in this way use diverse methods and have a wide variety of goals or agendas. Both diachronic and synchronic methods can be appropriated, and others may be introduced as well. Practitioners of existential exegesis judge the adequacy of a specific method on the basis of its ability to assist in achieving the overall goal of exegesis. This goal may be described as something rather fundamental, such as conversion or spiritual maturity, or for something more specific, such as a personal encounter with God.
EXEGESIS VERSUS HERMENEUTICS
Making sense of Scripture is an arduous and sometimes confusing undertaking. Some scholars describe exegesis and hermeneutics as “How to read the Bible for all it’s worth.” There is an appreciable difference between explaining what the Bible says and agreeing what it means by what it says. It seems many in the church today tend to argue over how the Bible should control or impact their lifestyle, if at all. This is in part why each individual who approaches interpretation of Scripture will bring a great deal of subjectivity to the exercise. If you study Scripture intent on finding loopholes to justify how you’re living or what you’re believing, you will likely end up confused, indecisive, and (unfortunately) miserable.
The difference between exegesis and hermeneutics is not as sharp as you might think. It could be said they are two sides of the same coin.
Exegesis is the interpretation of a text by way of critical analysis of its content in order to clarify its true meaning. The main goal in exegesis is to uncover the original intended meaning of a given text through careful, systematic study. When we undertake examination of biblical texts in accordance with exegesis, we are examining the text in order to decode the original meaning and determine how it applies to a current situation. Exegesis, by its nature, includes reaching back into history.
Hermeneutics is the study of the principles and methods used to interpret religious texts and philosophical works. Its main goal is to determine the contemporary relevance of such ancient writings. Specific to the Bible, hermeneutics looks for ways that Scripture applies to the “here and now.” In 1764 French philosopher Voltaire wrote, “The Bible. That is what fools have written, what imbeciles commend, what rogues teach, and young children are made to learn by heart.” Numerous skeptics of Christianity have attacked the names, dates, events and conclusions in the Bible, often proclaiming that Scripture is riddled with errors. For example, people who accept Darwinian evolution ridicule the claim of Creation as a leftover fantasy from the age of barbarians and illiterates. These early scholars believed that science would ultimately provide concrete answers about the origin of life and the universe. We’re still waiting for that to happen.
Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, Jr. (2017) discuss how presupposition can skew what we seek and how we interpret. They write, “We are convinced that the goal of hermeneutics is to enable interpreters to arrive at the meaning of the text that the biblical writers or editors intended their readers to understand” (p. 224). Of course, most Christians hold the presupposition that God’s Word is eternal and will always be relevant. It is inspired and alive, having relevance beyond its original circumstance or intention. It is a living text.
It seems appropriate to take a moment to accept and engage with the fact of presupposition. Here are a few critical elements presupposition that needs to be faced:
- Admit that you have presuppositions
- Identify those presuppositions that you bring to the task
- Evaluate or assess your presuppositions
- Embrace those presuppositions you believe to be valid
- Take steps to discard those presuppositions you deem invalid
If we are going to explain, interpret, or translate Scripture in a manner that preserves its meaning and power, we have to move from mere “rules” for decoding texts to a more far-reaching understanding of how to understand Scripture. It also must include admitting our own presuppositions, biases, and preconceived notions, which may or may not be true. It is important to rely on the Holy Spirit to illuminate Scripture. The Spirit will (i) convince us that the Bible is accurate and true, (ii) instill in us an ability to possess rather than merely comprehend the meaning, and (iii) eventually lead us to conviction in our hearts that enable us to fully embrace and live within its meaning.
Gorman, M. (2009). Elements of Biblical Exegesis. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
Klein, W., Blomberg, C. and Hubbard, Jr., R. (2017). Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 3rd Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.