WHAT IS EXEGESIS?
last update 29 July 2006

Defining Terms

  1. Exegesis ("reading out of a text") is the process of uncovering the literal meaning of a text, i.e., what that text meant to the original, historical audience.
    1. The historical meaning is the literal meaning.
    2. Any reliable interpretation of a text must begin from this historical, literal meaning.
    3. Hence, it must begin with exegesis.
  2. "Reading" a text without consideration of its historical meaning results in "eisegesis," i.e., reading into the text.
    1. "Reading" a text a-historically means the reader gets whatever meaning he/she imposes upon the text.
    2. Imposed readings are manifold, including spiritual readings, historicist readings, literalistic readings, symbolic readings. None of these are readings of the text. They are readings of the reader.

Purpose

  1. The primary purpose of an exegetical paper is to demonstrate an understanding of the primary text through discussion of one of the main segments (one pericope), or through discussion of one of the major themes which have been presented in the text.
  2. The paper is to concentrate on the text itself, rather than upon secondary sources or modern issues which are comparable to the ones discussed in the text. Secondary sources may help you better to understand the issues involved, and modern issues may help you to realize the importance of the author's discussion; but the paper is to concentrate on the text itself.

Task of Exegesis

  1. The task of exegesis means carefully looking at passages from as many angles as possible, including asking any pertinent questions that will help determine their meanings
  2. See the following resources for specific suggestions
    1. Beginning N.T. exegesis
    2. Beginning O.T. exegesis
    3. N.T. Synoptic analysis
    4. O.T. Source analysis
    5. Suggested questions for N.T. exegesis
    6. Suggested questions for O.T. exegesis

Exegetical Research

  1. The first step in exegesis is establishing the text by determining the length of the pericope. The beginning and ending must be established with care otherwise you can lose the author's original meaning.
  2. The second step includes determining the original wording as best you can. In order to get back to the original text, one must examine all the evidence that would most likely give the original wording. To do this one must ask "What wording would account for the history of the text?" In the New Testament, establishing the text relies on comparison of Greek manuscripts. Textual Criticism involves giving the best judgment about the original wording.
  3. Translation: Changing a text into language that is familiar to the audience without changing its meaning or effectiveness. You want to be able to say that the translated text conveys the same thing to the mind as does the original text.
  4. The historical context helps us to get a clearer sense of meaning and some general knowledge of the time. We need to know the historical background. Things that happened before the text and things that are written in it are also important. We need to know what things went on then in order to understand what they were saying. We also need to figure out the date for the text. We can see the other events and passages that relate to it.
  5. Literary Context: -Establish the Relationship between your passage and the entire book in which it is found. Look at what comes before and after your passage. The meaning of a passage derives in part from its position in the overall text. Meaning depends upon what the readers already know and what they will find out.
  6. Genre & Form Analysis: There are eight major genres in the Bible: law, historical narrative, gospel, illustrative narrative, wisdom, prophecy, hymnody and epistle. These genres can be written in either prose or poetry. Once you know the genre of the book, you can then determine the form of the smaller unit (your pericope), such as a law. This form can be further broken down into a subtype such as apodictic or unconditional law. Identifying the subtype of your pericope aids in making comparisons to other passages while also showing how it is unique. By identifying the form of the passage, you get a clue of the "life setting." Then one can adapt the passage for new purposes and situations. It is important to pay attention to the characteristic features of a form to analyze it completely. Form analysis should be used to make comparisons with similar forms, not to date passages or evaluate their historicity.
  7. Structure:
    1. Analyzing the structure of the text is a distinct step in exegesis that allows you to pick out the important information in a text so it is easier to comprehend. Structure is a guide to the logic of the piece of writing you are reading.
    2. Steps in Analyzing Structure
      1. Outlining the passage: The pattern of the outline must match the rhythm of the information of the piece to help the reader follow the information Use the major points to list the information in steps When constructing the outline, the volume and significance of the material are important
      2. Pattern Analysis: Any passage will be made up of certain key features: transitions, parallelisms, unique forms of phrase, etc.
      3. Arrangement: It is easier to move from largest to smallest units of information -- identify what is important
      4. Minor Patterns: Minor details may be irrelevant; they sometimes are added to help the story along. Focus on important info.
      5. Poetic/Structural Patterns: The poem form and content must be related. It helps organize the information in a different way
  8. Grammar:  Since grammar is the logical substance of language, a correct understanding of grammar is essential in understanding the passage. The reader must analyze the grammar to determine if there are errors in the text. Since the OT was written over such a long period of time, analysis of the terms and grammar is a key in finding the date of the passage. Sometimes the grammar and words of the Hebrew language represent ancient preserved traditions. Others show centuries of copying accidents. In the NT, failure to appreciate the simple grammar and Greek words may cause a significant mis-understanding
  9. Lexical analysis: finging out the meaning of the key words and terms in your passage
    1. Identify the audience and unknown words
    2. Focus on terminology of the original language
    3. Conduct a word study in which all meanings of a word/term are considered
    4. Decide which meaning applies
    5. Naïve approaches to defining words are still widespread.
    6. Take the meaning in its context
  10. Synthesis: After examining the various meanings of the parts of a passage, the Bible scholar seeking to reproduce the original author's intent must see the individual pieces as parts of a greater whole, as a microscope would zoom out to see the larger picture of a specimen. Connections can be drawn between recurring themes within the passage, entire book, or the Bible overall. Vaguer connections between parts of scripture re still valuable in finding a broad notion of the original message. Finally, the passage can be scaled as either very important or less important to understanding the overall message of the Bible. Does the Bible's character hinge on this passage, or is it just a "side issue."
  11. Theology: Continuous study of the Bible's truth. Concerned with how the passage relates to understanding God and other issues. Each passage, while clarifying some things, also raises complications; these must be evaluated. Any passage of scripture has some contribution to make to theology, some are easily identified and others not. Must be careful in explaining the contribution.
  12. Secondary Literature: To get the historical meaning, it is necessary to consult many kinds of books and articles. It is important to use the Bible itself, not just secondary sources. But, it helps to see what others have written, to test your interpretation of the text. One should keep revising previous conclusions. It is more credible to use secondary sources that show extensive research and that have a large following. Nevertheless, one must review the literature as thoroughly as possible and be informed accordingly.

Exegetical Writing

  1. Exegesis essays can be organized verse-by-verse, section-by-section, or by parts thought to be most important. Different passages require different levels of concentration. No two exegeses are the same, just as no two passages are identical.
  2. See the following resources for specific suggestions
    1. Suggested outline of an exegesis paper
    2. Writing an exegetical paper
    3. Exegesis paper grading protocol
    4. Writing a research paper