Introduction to Exegesis: Standard Exegetical Method

There is a growing stigma around the term “exegesis” as if it’s a negative thing in today’s academic and layman studies. The stigma derives from a fear of “not knowing” or “unable to know” or “appeal to authority” when in actuality the exegetical method is how we derive any interpretation of the Biblical text. For example, whether you read from ESV or NASB or whatever version you can think of, some level, hopefully high, of exegetical method was employed to derive at an English Translation of the Hebrew/Greek texts.

The main goal of exegesis is to find the true, valid and logical meaning of a Biblical text. These texts were written thousands of years ago and must be read in the lens of the reader of that day, in the language of that day, in the culture and context of that. You would not read a letter from 50 years ago with the scope of today, why would we think of doing that for the Bible?

The examples are endless but I will give two main examples before we go over the Standard Exegetical Method by which we interpret our texts. In John 21:15-17 you will find Jesus asking Peter if Peter “loves” Him; on the surface this text is straightfoward in our english and western mindset. Does Peter actually love Jesus or not? But in reality, Jesus is asking Peter if he “agapas, agapes” Jesus. This word is used by Jesus to reflect a divine, eternal and ultimate form of love that we don’t have a word for in our dictionary. Peter replies by saying, “yes Lord, I do “philo” you”. Peter replies by saying he loves Jesus as a dear brother, he doesn’t reply with the same word Jesus uses. Peter is even missing it.

On the surface, our English Bible seems to fail us, but it does not. The English Bible is an interpretation of the Greek/Aramaic and Hebrew texts that bring over the core doctrines of the Christian faith in perfect clarity. The above text example is NOT a core doctrine, we will call this a Peripheral Issue. These PI’s or peripheral issues will appear a lot when and if you learn the original languages.

An example in the Hebrew bible is the first few verses in Genesis where we find the definite article “the” put into the text in all but the NASB version of our English Bibles. The word “the” does not appear in the first five days of the Hebrew Bible. It is added in for readers clarity or readers ease as some translators say. The translators of the ESV Bible have even stated in conversation that they are unable to digest or take their time on every nuance of the original languages because they need to focus on a readers translation of the core doctrines.

An example of core doctrine versus peripheral issue would be the day lengths in Genesis. The core doctrine in the first chapter of Genesis is that God created everything that was and is. He is the sole purpose and creator of the entire universe. The non-core or peripheral issue would be the length of days in Genesis which can be left to interpretation of either 6 literal days or some other views (See Justin Martyr, Augustine, Hugh Ross and Young Earth Creationism for varying views). The differentiation for core doctrine versus peripheral doctrine would be that not believing the core doctrine can fall into heresy; where believing or not believing the peripheral is nuanced, not heresy.

The much larger debated conflict example would be that of Neo-Calvinism and Neo-Arminianism and the battle over free will. Neither puts you in a heretical standpoint and both agree on most all core doctrines. However, they both contain believing brothers and sisters on either side.

Now, moving onto the Standard Exegetical Method that we can use in order to rightly define the original meaning of a text of scripture. Exegesis starts with a few presuppositions that can be summarized as:

1. The scriptures are the inspired Word of God and are inerrant in the autographs
2.The primary goal of biblical interpretation is to discover the author intended meaning, that is, the message the Holy Spirit led the human author to convey to the original readers.
3. Each text has one primary author-intended meaning; therefore, each passage most likely has only one correct interpretation. I reject all forms of sensus plenior (multiple meanings), especially the idea that the text can mean something to us that it could never have meant to its original readers (outside of doxology and application).
4. The Bible should be interpreted with contextual literalism (i.e., grammatical historical exegesis).
5. Although a text has only one meaning, it may have many valid applications. The applications derive from the one meaning; they are concrete applications of the same timeless truth.
6. Culture, language, and so forth play the vital role in distinguishing meaning.

These are fairly common presuppositions and hopefully I have worded them correctly to reflect an honest starting point for interpreting scripture. We must start with the correct frame of reference, you would not start reading Exodus from an English Western View. You’d have to rid yourself of todays culture and posit the Ancient Near Eastern Culture. The same goes for the New Testament books as well with their Roman and Jewish culture. It is vital.

There are two key things to keep in mind before proceeding down the road of interpreting or exegeting the original languages of the Scriptures. The first is as Paul exhorted the Corinthians “not to go beyond what is written” (1 Cor 4:6) and second, as often as possible interpret Scripture with Scripture. We often go far beyond what is written into speculation, attempting to discern mystery and so forth. Some of this is wonderful practice, if it remains practice. However, as we’ve seen throughout History with the Reformation and other portions of Christian history, going “beyond what is written” often leaves us divided in areas we should not banter over.

Keeping that in mind here is the Standard Exegetical Method:
Context: The background of the book, the historical context of the book, the literary context of the book, the theological themes of the book. The author, authorship and authors background theology (if applicable).
Meaning: (a) The prelim-analysis: which contains translation & textual criticism.
(b) Contextual Analysis: Study the immediate historical and literary context. The historical setting, literary context (c) Verbal Analysis: the grammatical and lexical (verb usage, clauses, phrases, etc)
Literary Analysis: Genre, Structure, Composition, Rhetoric. All of these things give answers to the questions of meaning in a certain text.
Scripture against Scripture: If text (a) pertains to a difficult exegesis, find another scripture that exegetically is the same context and usage to better understand text (a)
Logical Conclusions: Finally, you’ll draw all of you exegetical points to a logical conclusion that derives from the above method. From there you hinge application off of what is true, valid and authentic from the texts original meaning.

(Images being made for visualization, stay tuned)


RC