Exegesis, Before You Attempt Biblical Interpretation
One of the first lessons I learned in my ministry classes was to always practice good exegesis and not eisegesis when it comes to interpreting the Scriptures. We were taught the difference between the two and to always avoid the latter. Definitely two “academy” type of words, but they have tremendous importance if one is to read and understand the Bible well. Exegesis is from a Greek term meaning to “draw or lead out.” It is tasked with drawing out the meaning of a biblical text objectively. One is essentially taking a text of Scripture and asking the question “What does this really say?” The opposite of this is eisegesis, which means to impose upon or importing a subjective meaning into the text. Essentially there are two ways that people can approach the biblical text. You can either start with the Bible and a text and be an explorer and ask “what does that mean?” and try to get the meaning out of it. On the other hand there is eisegesis, which we don’t want to do, because we all have thoughts, beliefs, desires, traditions, etc (we touched on this a bit in the “what is hermeneutics” post) and what happens is we go into the Scripture and try and prove it by taking verses out of the Bible to try and prove our point of view. Essentially we are trying to prove or need, want, desire, etc with the Bible as opposed to starting with the Bible and coming up with something from the text that challenges us and forms us into the people God expects us to be.
In school I was taught to teach and preach in an exegetical manner. So, I might be approaching a text or book of the Bible, like John, and may never have any desire to teach John, but I just do it. I’ll read the entire book of John and just teach and do what the text says (a bit more on this process in detail at a later time). I’ll learn right along with those who hear or read the lesson. Instead of me trying to justify my thoughts, beliefs, actions, or desires I have to potentially change and work through things in my own life to be all that God calls me to be because of what the Scripture is telling me I need to be, do, or change in my life.
Thinking About Exegesis
It’s helpful to think of exegesis as answering the question “what it meant?” It is simply,”Reading the text to find out what’s there.” The first task, before one ever cracks open a commentary or Bible dictionary, is to read, read, and read the text again to find out what’s there. You want to be immersed in the biblical text itself as much as possible. We are simply reading for information at this point to learn about the text. This gets you familiar with the text. It will prompt you to ask important questions of a text (that you should take note of by the way). You’ll begin to gain insights and make connections of other important points in the greater part of that particular book and learn about the original hearers. You’ll learn how a particular author uses particular words. And many other insights, by merely practicing careful reading of the text and of the book as a whole. If you have the ability to read in the original languages it is all the better if you do so to get the best understanding possible.
Hermeneutics will encompass this task of exegesis as a primary aspect or rule of interpreting Scripture and communicating it to today’s audience. This task will account for making bridges of language and culture from then to now. It will also inform one’s understanding of how to understand various genres of a biblical text, one such example of this role is in the book of Revelation. Revelation has multiple genres in it, it serves generally as an apocalypse, but also as prophecy and as a letter. Each of these genres has their own unique attributes and principles that will give a person the best insight and understanding as to what is being said. This, again, illustrates that exegesis is a neccessary first task in reading the Bible well.
Exegesis as The First Task
As the first task in biblical interpretation, exegesis carefully, and systematically will look at a given text to discover it’s original, intended meaning. This is primarily a task of historical analysis. In this we are trying to place ourselves in the shoes of those who received these words first, those who would gather and listen as the leader would read the words to the congregation. We want to find out the original intent of the words of the Bible. This is often times where people will require the aid of an “expert.”
As we have established in the “What is Hermeneutics?” post, and previously in this post, you do not have to be an expert to do this. Our goal is to help you read well, and there are tools and resources available to those without formal education in these task. I’ll even bet that you are probably already teaching a Sunday school or small group and have no formal education in the matter except the material you are given. How often in preparing those lessons have you discovered something and then said something like “Back in those days….,” or “What Jesus meant by that was….” to your class or group? These are exegetical expressions often used to help us understand the differences between “them” and “us.” The problem that occurs with this however is that we can often be too selective and that any resources we do use are not written by true experts.
A few words borrowed from Dr. Fee and Stuart on these items however must be given here. Firstly that while everyone interprets and employs exegesis at times, it is often only done when there appears to be a problem between the biblical text and modern culture. Sometimes this happens to come up in a group study with questions like “What does that mean?” or “How did the material author get that?” Often times we will only have a limited amount of information to answers these questions based on the material covered thus far or given to us by the author. While such study and preparation is important to answer these questions, it is important that our first step be reading and studying the biblical completely and thoroughly first.
I’ve found myself in this type of setting before and come to find that having read ahead or completely before everyone else allows me to give a better, more substantial answer that had I only prepared for the section, would have been wrong because I had not read the entire book we were studying or did not read past the subject material given where the truer answer was. It is thus important to note that being too selective in our study and preparation will caused us to read completely foreign ideas into a text that are not there, but imposed upon it. Remember, that we do not want to employ eisegesis (imposing something) in our reading of the Bible, but exegesis (draw something out) of the Bible.
To address the second issues, we often do not consult true experts. These experts can often be regurgitations of secondary information, upon other secondary information sources. When it comes time to consult experts, it is best to do so from the better sources, that is, those who have worked from primary or primary and secondary sources of information.This isn’t a matter of if one will interpret but when and with what understanding. It is best that we do so with the best information possible.
Learning to Do Exegesis And Avoid Eisegesis
It’s simple enough to talk about exegesis, but one needs to learn to do it to fully grasp its importance. Of course, we also want to learn to avoid common pitfalls and imposing things on the text. Future post will detail more specifics on particular genres and things, but at this point one needs to know what tools to have and the task involved in a bit more detail.
At its peak, exegesis often requires us to have knowledge of a great deal of many things, things I do not expect you to know at this point. Certainly, I do not expect you to know Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic; but, you will learn how to research words and their meanings. I also do not expect you to know much about Jewish, Semitic, and Greco-Roman backgrounds; but, this will develop over time as you study and engage in this process. Nor do I expect you to know anything about original text and how copies differ in reading or all the different kinds of primary sources and tools. Much of this you will learn to do over time in this process and as you study, at other points you won’t need to know any of it. Regardless if you have some background in these things or none at all, you can do exegesis without access to these skills and tools. This however means that you must know what you are already skilled at and what you are not and need help doing. Again the first step in all this is to read the text and read it multiple times in different translations and original languages if possible. Reading carefully and asking the right questions of the text.
Yep, another post ending on a high point, but I don’t want to overwhelm you with too much. There is certainly a lot of chew on here already. I’ve already added a couple of helpful text on this subject over in the bookstore, but will list them here for you also if you want to get a head on this like a guinness. The first text I recommend is “How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth” and “Introduction to Biblical Interpretation.” In a future post I’ll discuss exactly what the “right questions” are in the task of exegesis. Until then, share this with your friends and discuss it and leave a comment about what you learned.
Grace & Peace,