A STUDENT'S PRIMER FOR EXEGESIS
In the first class of my first semester in seminary, the professor
wrote the word exegesis on the chalkboard and told us that one of these
research assignments was due in two weeks. I had no idea what he
meant. As it turns out, not many others have claimed to know what he
meant, and those who have seem to disagree. Exegesis, like its well-traveled
partner hermeneutics, "is a word that is forever chasing a
meaning" (Frei, 16). The scholarly debate has featured a baffling array
of linguistic insights, philosophical critiques, and competing theories of
interpretation-all about the "meaning of meaning."
Meanwhile, theological students everywhere, still working to produce
acceptable papers, continue to enter the strange world of exegesis
and hermeneutics. The puzzled looks and bewildering talk that usually
follow are reminiscent of an oft-repeated story, the dispute between
Alice and the contemptuous Humpty Dumpty, who with delight turned
"meaning" on its head (Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass,
1872, chap. 6):
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a
scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean-neither
more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words
mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be
Alice was too much puzzled to say anything.
Like Alice who did not know the language games of a nonsense
world, the alert student could wish for a bit of help in grasping what
words really mean, especially when their masters stretch them beyond
Here, then, is a short primer for beginning students-a field guide for
those who are "too much puzzled"-along the fundamental lines of
"How to Write an Exegetical Paper." From the viewpoint of the ever-growing
literature on this subject, it is a pretentious venture, written at
the risk of slighting important issues and technical jargon (that will
appear in later chapters) but in search of a clear reward, namely: an
approach to exegesis and how to do it in plain and simple terms.
The Aims of Biblical Exegesis
What is exegesis, and how is it related to hermeneutics? Although
both words appear in other fields of academic study, they mainly
belong to the classical disciplines of theology, where both exegesis and
hermeneutics refer to the interpretation of the Bible. Hermeneutics
probably first emerged as a name for this biblical discipline in J. C.
Dannhauer's Hermeneutica Sacra (Strasburg, 1654); whereas exegesis
had already appeared in the title of Papias's five-volume work in the
early second century, Exegesis of the Lord's Sayings, an exposition of
Gospel teachings known to us only fragments quoted in later
authors. For Papias, like other ancient writers, exegesis and hermeneutics
were overlapping concepts; the preface to the Exegesis describes
Jesus' sayings themselves, collected and handed down, as "interpretations"
(Greek hermeneiai; see Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 39.1, 3).
The skills of interpretation taught in Greco-Roman education had long
before shaped the popular coinage of both terms, and we must first
look there to define their meanings.
The Greek word groups related to the nouns exegesis and hermeneia,
which gave us the English counterparts, denote an understanding or
meaning derived from an object of reflection and study such as an
event, a speech, or a law. In the area of our interest-literary usage-both
nouns refer to an "explanation, interpretation, or meaning" of a
written text, and the corresponding verbs (exegeomai and hermeneuo)
describe the act which meaning is found, "to expound, to explain,
to interpret" the text. When applied to texts in foreign languages,
hermeneuo means "to translate."
Usage that reaches back to classical Athens (fourth century B.C.)
shows the closeness of the two word groups. According to Plato, ahermeneutes could be an "interpreter" of the sacred law (Laws 907d)
or a poet expounding divine utterances as a "spokesman" for the gods
(Ion 534e; Statesman 290c), one practicing the "art of interpretation"
(cf. Symposium 202e; Theaetetus 209a; Statesman 260d). Plato'sexegetes had similar skills (cf. Cratylus 407a), whether an "expounder"
of ancestral law (Laws 631a; 759c; 775a) or the famous Delphic oracle
entrusted as the "interpreter [exegetes] of religion to all mankind"
(Republic 4.427c). This functional linkage between exegesis and
hermeneutics persisted in Greek literature, specifically in the Jewish
writings of the Second Temple period (LXX, Philo, and Josephus),
down to the New Testament itself.
A wordplay found in the Acts account of Paul and Barnabas at
Lystra (Acts 14:8-18) provides an instructive example. After the crowd
saw a lame man healed, they acclaimed Paul and Barnabas as miracle
workers, shouting "the gods have come down to us in human form"
(14:11). Likely echoing local knowledge of a legendary visit of Zeus
and Hermes to the Phrygian hill country, Paul was "called Hermes
because he was the chief speaker" (14:12). Hermes was the spokesman
for the gods who invented language and its uses, and according to
Plato's etymology of his name, Hermes meant "interpreter"
[hermeneus] whose gift was the hermeneutical art (Cratylus 408a). On
the other hand, the description of Paul as the "chief speaker" (literally,
"the one who leads in speaking") hints at the exegetical skill. The Greek
word used of Paul, egeomai ("to lead"), is the verbal root behind exegesis,
which in its compound form (ex + egeomai) means "to lead, bring
out [the meaning]."
More than two dozen terms in the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures
make up the vocabulary domain related to interpretation (see the references
in Thiselton, 574-82). However the noun exegesis, used sparingly
in the Old Testament, does not occur in the New Testament, and its
cognate verb is used only six times (John 1:18; Luke 24:35; Acts 10:8;
15:12, 14; 21:19). The "hermeneutics" word group dominates the biblical
usage (cf. Ezra 4:7; Gen. 42:23; Sir. 47:17; Matt. 1:23; Mark 4:41;
15:22, 34; John 1:38, 41-42; Acts 4:36; Heb. 7:2). Notable instances
of hermaneia are Joseph's gift for the interpretation of dreams
(Gen. 40-41) and Paul's instruction concerning the interpretation of
tongues (1 Cor. 12-14). As for interpretation of the Scriptures, the Old
Testament has little to say, but we get memorable images of the biblical
perspective in four New Testament passages.
1. Opening Up the Scriptures. Along the Emmaus road, Jesus spoke
with Cleophas and a despondent companion, helping them to understand
the Scriptures: "And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets,
he explained [dia + hermeneuo] to them what was said in all the
Scriptures concerning himself" (Luke 24:27). Later in the evening, after
they had recognized Jesus, the two recounted their experience with a
parallel term; they said to one another that their hearts had been set on
fire as Jesus had "opened up" (dianoigo, 24:32) the Scriptures to them.
Interpretation opened up the closed text, inspiring the mind and heart
to a new understanding.
2. Guiding Through the Scriptures. When Philip came upon a chariot
on the desert road south of Jerusalem, he heard an Ethiopian eunuch
reading aloud from the prophet Isaiah. Philip asked him whether he
understood what he was reading. "How can I," he said, "unless someone
explains [hodegeo] it to me?" (Acts 8:31). The eunuch wanted a
pathfinder to lead or guide, to strike a trail to a chosen place; interpretation
was a guide along the right path of meaning.
3. Cutting Straight with the Scriptures. Paul enjoined Timothy to be
an unashamed workman "handling accurately the word of truth"
(2 Tim. 2:15 NASB). The verb orthotomeo conveys the picture of cutting
a straight line, for example, cutting a straight road through a dense
forest or plowing a straight furrow in a field. Timothy was to expound
the word of truth along a straight line without being turned aside
wordy debates or impious talk. Such interpretation cut straight through
the issues with the unswerving truth.
4. Unlocking the Scriptures. In warning against "cleverly devised
tales" used false teachers, 2 Peter cautions against an arbitrary reading
of prophecy: "But know this first of all, that no prophecy of
Scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation [epilysis]" (2 Pet. 1:20
NASB). The noun epilysis ("solution, explanation") touches the area of
inquiry and problem solving, particularly the unlocking of a mystery or
secret. The confirmation (1:19) of the Scriptures was not located in personal
whim; rather its meaning was secured and unlocked the Spirit's
The cases of exegesis and hermeneutics we have surveyed indicate
that interpretation aims at the appropriate meaning of a text, that is, a
meaning judged to be accurate, responsible, or faithful to a specified
goal. How can an accurate meaning be found? This question gave rise
to the development of "rules" for interpretation both in Judaism and
Christianity, such as the seven rules of Rabbi Hillel (see the description
of Middoth in chap. 5) and the seven rules of Tyconius that were appropriated
Augustine (see On Christian Doctrine 3.42-56). Rule-governed
procedures were handy controls on the possible meaning(s) of
a biblical text; therefore, the rationale and enumeration of such principles
were subjects of paramount importance in the history of biblical
interpretation. The church's quest for the rules which to understand
the Bible gave hermeneutics its modern definition: the theory of interpretation.
When theory was applied and put to work in the text, it was
then called exegesis: the practice of interpretation.
Moreover, the traditional aim of exegesis was retrospective, that is,
to understand what the text originally meant discovering the historical
meaning intended the ancient author. The prospective aim, what
the text means now for the contemporary reader, was usually calledexposition, an application based on exegesis but not part of it. The traditional
model can be sketched as follows:
This sequential model, hermeneutics -> exegesis -> exposition, has
all but collapsed under the weight of literary criticism with its dual
insistence upon the autonomy of the text and the centrality of the
reader (see Morgan and Barton, 167-263). The customary distinction
between hermeneutics as theory and exegesis as practice, while helpful
in some ways, has proven to be artificial. Much hermeneutical theory is
distilled from the experience of reading the biblical text; its principles
are reshaped and verified how they work in the text. Hermeneutics
and exegesis may be distinguished but not divided; they form a seamless
continuum wherein the one constantly informs the other (Ramm,
11). The line between exegesis and exposition, never a clear one, has
also faded with the recognition that meaning is shaped the reader's
presuppositions and interests.
Modern theory of written communication involves an author who
creates (encodes) a text and a reader who interprets (decodes) a text.
Therefore, "the process of discovering the `meaning' of a written
utterance has three foci: the author, the text and the reader" (Osborne,
366). A satisfactory model for exegesis should take account of the "trialogue"
among the biblical author, the scriptural text, and the contemporary
reader. Exegesis in this model (fig. 2) attempts to maintain an
author-text orientation with a formal integration of text-reader concerns
(for a careful analysis of the issues see Osborne, 366-415, and
relevant chapters in parts 2 and 3 below). On the one hand, a reader's
tendency to create biased and fanciful meanings is under the restraint of
historical investigation; on the other, a dry-as-dust historical account,
however tediously factual, is under the constraint of theological
relevance. We are suggesting that the aims of exegesis must be balanced
so that both the past and the present get a proper hearing.
The aims we are proposing may be construed in terms of three interpretive
stances with regard to the biblical text:
1. Behind-the-Text Aim. Exegesis has and should approach the biblical
text as a window to see into the world of the author. Questions
that go behind the text typically probe the circumstances of a writing,
such as its date, sources, and terminology: When did the Exodus occur?
How were the Synoptic Gospels composed? What did the term righteousness
mean in the Old Testament? In the New Testament? The
required studies are diachronic ("through time"), moving through the
text to a point of time in the past; the results are historical in nature.
Historical-critical methods were fashioned to achieve this goal, and
when freed from the tyranny of Enlightenment skepticism ("the
historical-critical method"), they still offer the best promise of finding
the world and intention of the author (cf. Maier, 376-79, 386-93).
2. Within-the-Text Aim. The literary world of the text itself is a second
focal point for exegesis. While still dependent on historical data,
the textual aim is primarily literary-critical, giving attention to prominent
words, markers, and structures that convey meaning. How does
the narrative of Genesis 1-11 set the themes for the rest of the book?
Do certain aspects of poetic parallelism in the Psalms signal different
meanings? What about the allegorical details of some Gospel parables?
Why are they significant? Such within-the-text explorations are synchronic
("together in time"), studying the side--side literary features
of the text in comparative and contrastive fashion. This generation's
fervor for literary criticism has the salutary effect of requiring an exegesis
that reads the Bible in a holistic, integrative manner. The word
splintering and historicism that often passed for exegesis have long
needed the enrichment of literary topics such as genre, style, narrative,
plot, semantics, discourse, and rhetoric.
3. Before-the-Text Aim. The stance before the text brings us to the
role of the reader, and this focal issue has raised the distinctive question
for contemporary exegesis: Is not interpretation, after all, subjective
and relative? Is it not the reader, armed with a preunderstanding
that seeks only certain kinds of knowledge, who finds and creates
meaning? Some will argue that the role of the reader is the only thing
that matters, and specimens of exegesis from ideological and sociological
viewpoints provide ample evidence of this claim. Yet the facts of
the author and the text exist prior to and apart from the reader; the
reality of the written communication is not created a reader's
response, but its significance is. The reader focus teaches us the importance
of prior commitments or the legitimating values that we bring to
the text (cf. Kaiser and Silva, 240-47; and Vanhoozer, 301-24).
Among the commitments a reader brings to the Scriptures, commitment
to one basic conviction is essential: God has spoken. God's self-revelation,
both in word and deed, called forth a written record from the
hearts and hands of human authors who worked in a wide variety of
circumstances. The Bible, the whole of the Old and New Testaments, is
truly a human book; but because God also worked in it from beginning
to end, this book is just as truly the inspired Word of God. The fact of
revelation leads us a step farther. The warrant for interpreting the Bible
in a plain, straightforward manner, the so-called literal sense, comes
from the desire to understand what God said and says. The Bible is not
a jumble of religious opinion or a mystical cryptogram that the contemporary
reader sorts out according to whim or fad. On the contrary, God
purposed to speak through human language and to be understood. So
exegesis puts a premium on what the Bible says, using the best of linguistic
and historical research to interpret meaning properly.