The following notes lead you through the process of exegesis. I would suggest you follow them in the early stages of your exegetical work. As you gain experience you will become more adept at shaping your exegetical work to both the passage and the purpose of your work. The notes are fuller rather than brief in an effort to anticipate some questions you might have or to warn of potential pitfalls. Please read them through carefully before starting your exegesis.
Always remember that in the Old Testament God gave the Torah to Israel not just to cramp their style but that, within the limits it imposed, they might find life and joy. You might like to think of the following guidelines on exegesis in much the same way. They set limits on your approach to the biblical text, but if those limits are respected you will begin to discover the "life and joy" that awaits you in the process of wrestling with these texts.
WHAT IS EXEGESIS?
The word 'exegesis' in English derives from the Greek verb exegeisthai, 'to lead or show the way to; to expound, interpret or explain something', and the Greek noun exegesis, 'statement, narrative, explanation or interpretation.' The task of exegesis involves looking at the biblical text and setting forth your understanding of the text in a way that is comprehensible to others and illuminating for yourself and for them.
First, exegesis is a disciplined activity which requires a method in order to be effective and rigorous. It is neither an arbitrary activity nor simply a response to the emotive or spiritual appeal of a passage of Scripture. Secondly, your exegesis should respect the independence of the text and endeavour to be as "objective" as possible. Exegesis should not become 'eisegesis,' an unconscious reading into the text of your own values and beliefs in a way that stifles the text so that it can never be heard anew as a challenge in life. Of course we are subjective, historical beings and none of us can transcend our own culture and history in order to achieve total objectivity. Nevertheless in the process of exegesis, it is your task to be as objective as possible while being as knowledgable as possible about your own subjectivity.
METHOD IN EXEGESIS
The process of asking questions is at the heart of exegetical method. These questions arise from both your own reading of the text and from the critical approaches you employ. The questions help you explore the passage in its many facets. Of course, exegesis is not simply answering a set of questions. An exegesis is never finished until you have brought all the information you have unearthed through the process of questioning into a coherent understanding of what the passage is about.
Your own questions
Read the passage slowly and carefully in a good formal translation (NRSV or RSV are recommended) or in the original language if possible. Note what seem to you the major and minor concerns in the passage and anything about the passage that you do not understand. List your questions or points. As you proceed you will find answers to some questions, and some points may begin to fit together.
As well as this, note your own reactions to the passage. Does it make you feel uncomfortable? Do you disagree or agree with its main concerns? Do you read the passage from a particular point of view? Make a note of these points. This process might require some honest self appraisal, and it might be a long time before you become aware of some of your preconceptions, but it is a necessary process. We cannot, and ought not, eliminate all our preconceptions, but we do need to be aware of how they influence our reading.
It is now time to begin to ask some technical critical questions of the passage. Note that you are still working with the passage only. You should not yet consult any of the secondary works or commentaries on the text.
To help you begin this task I have listed below a set of questions organised under different critical approaches. They are the sorts of questions scholars ask of a passage in their work. Not all questions will be relevant to every passage. Some will be more important for some texts, others for other passages. Some passages will just not give answers to some questions. Experience will teach you what sort of questions are most useful with different sorts of passages. Your own initial reading of the passage can, with some experience, help in this task. Becoming a skilled exegete will take time and practice.
Questions For Exegesis
1. Are there any problems with the text itself? (Textual Criticism)
Reread the passage and consult at least three translations (e.g. NRSV (or RSV) + NJB, REB, NJV, NAB). If reading the original language consult the critical apparatus for major textual problems.
Are there any major differences in translation? Are these due to variant readings in the source manuscripts or to the nature (or bias) of the translation? (You will probably need the help of commentaries to answer these questions).
2. Background of the Text
(i) What is the literary context? (Literary Criticism)
Where does the passage come in relation to the whole work? What comes before and after the passage? How does the passage relate, if at all, to the immediate context?
(ii) Has the writer used any other source material? (Source Criticism)
Are there any awkward joins, repetitions or contradictions in the passage? Are these stylistic features or do they suggest that the writer has used other sources. Are there signs of rewriting or editing?
(iii) What is the structure or form of the passage? (Form Criticism)
Where does the passage begin and end? What are the major sections within the passage and how do they relate to each other? Is it poetry or prose? Does it have an identifiable form (e.g. narrative, legend, law, oracle, hymn, lament, parable etc.)? Does it relate to an identifiable context or setting in the life of the community (e.g. liturgy, religious festival, preaching, legal proceding, political activities etc.)?
(iv) Are there other texts similar to this one or which give helpful
Does the passage quote other texts or are there any biblical or extra-biblical parallels to the passage? What is the background of the ideas in the passage (e.g. are there allusions to any ancient Near Eastern myths in the passage)?
(v) What is the historical context? (Historical Criticism)
Is it clear when the passage was written? What was happening historically at the time? In the case of a narrative passage, what do you think really happened? To what degree can we evaluate this?
(vi) What is the social context? (Social Analysis)
Whom is the writer addressing? What is the social, political and cultural context to which the passage is addressed? Does the passage suggest anything about the kind of people that might have been present in the author's community? How might this passage have addressed concerns that were significant to the people of that community?
(The answers to some of these questions will only come from commentaries. However, try and develop your own ideas to test against the commentaries.)
3. The Passage Itself
(i) Has there been any editing of the passage? (Redaction Criticism)
Has the writer used any sources (see 2ii)? Can you tell if the sources have been modified or changed? Have the final editor's own perspectives influenced the recording of the passage? What words and themes are of special significance for this editor?
(ii) What literary devices has the writer/editor used? (Literary Criticism
What function does the passage have in its context within the chapter/book? Are there any striking literary devices used (e.g. images, parallelism, repetition, word play, irony, humour etc.)? Who are the main characters and what are their roles? What is the progression of thought in the passage? Does the literary form help to express the writer's meaning?
At this point, and no sooner, consult the best commentaries available
to you. They will:
i) help supply answers to some of your questions by giving matters of fact, or history, or literary genre etc. The information in commentaries may or may not be important in your final analysis. Never be too quick to dismiss your own questions or views but also maintain a healthy respect for the experienced opinion of the commentators.
ii) provide additional questions or issues you have not considered. You will have to decide whether the commentator is asking more appropriate questions than you are by virtue of his or her experience or expertise or whether they simply have different interests to you.
iii) summarise a range of opinions on the passage or aspects of it.
Remember that every commentary will reflect the interests, biases, prejudices and experiences of its writer. Evaluate each commentary as you read it and do not be reticent to argue with a scholar's view if you believe there is a good logical argument to the contrary. In the end, your exegesis must be yours and not the commentators.
5. Theological Reflection on the text
You might have already asked some theological questions of the passage. Now is the time to gather those together having explored the background etc. What does the passage suggest about the issues of faith that were of concern to the writer/editor or their community? What aspects of the writer's theology are prominent - view of God? of the community? of the world? of society and human relationships? of history? Is the writer challenging certain theological viewpoints? What other interpretations have been given to the passage over the centuries? What do you believe is the major point made in the final form of the passage?
Reread the passage and note any further questions or ideas you have.
DRAWING IT ALL TOGETHER
You may feel overwhelmed by the broad range of issues and questions with which you may have to deal in exegesis. But note the following:
1. Learning to do exegesis is like learning to drive a car. At first
it is slow and deliberate but with practice, it becomes natural and spontaneous.
2. Not all of the technical questions or areas of biblical criticism are necessary for every passage. Experience, your own interests, and the nature of the passage will determine what is relevant. If in the early stages you allow the passage to speak first, then you will find the relevant questions unfolding.
3. But also remember that not all of the questions or first ideas you had on the passage may prove relevant. Some questions might be unanswerable. You may have even been imposing things on the passage which are simply not there or about which the passage does not speak.
4. Common sense in exegesis must not be forgotten. Do not use the questions mechanically - as a set of rigid exegetical 'laws'. Maintain some flexibility as you work with the text.
The real issue is how you now move from the questions to an exegetical essay in which you present your own view of the passage. You must try to elucidates the meaning of the text without being swamped by the critical details you have discovered.
The first clue to this lies in the way you approached the passage at the start. If you read the passage and jotted down questions as they arose before doing anything else, then you have allowed the text to help direct you in your work. Also, by listing your own questions, you have claimed the exegesis as your own and not that of some 'expert'.
Ideally an exegetical essay will be neither a patchwork of interesting scholarly details nor a verse-by-verse analysis of the passage. A synthesis should be aimed for once the basic research work is complete. This is perhaps the most difficult part. You need to communicate what, in your view, is the basic meaning of the passage. The best way to do this is to give yourself plenty of time. Once you have completed your research and questioning give yourself some time to mull over what you have read and thought. This will help you sift through the details and locate the heart of the passage. Then try to formulate what the passage is about in a single sentence. This may again take some time but is worth doing. Use this sentence in the introductory paragraph of your essay so that you get straight to the point in your written work.
The body of your essay should demonstrate the main point, as you see it, by referring to the details of the passage which you have noted or discovered in your research and building an argument using those details to substantiate your summary statement. You are writing an exegetical essay, not a commentary. What I would hope to see is an essay in which the relevant technical details of the passage, the answers to your questions and even some of the questions themselves are integrated into a whole, clearly relating to your argument. This can be presented in a number of ways. The nature of your summary statement might suggest a sequence of paragraphs addressing aspects of the statement or arguing towards it. Alternatively the natural divisions in the passage might suggest that the essay be set out in a number of sections. If you are having difficulty with this process please see the lecturer. It might be helpful for you to set out your essay under a series of subheadings relating to the questions above. Remember, however, that there still needs to be some sense of integration and argumentation. In all events, do not simply go through the passage verse by verse answering the questions. You are writing an essay which is intended to communicate your overall interpretation of the passage. Listing snippets of information does not constitute communication of ideas.
This task of integration will demand selectivity on your part at this critical stage of your work. Not all answers to questions or all the information you have discovered about the passage will be relevant to your final argument. It is difficult to resist the temptation to include everything you have discovered about the passage. In written work, footnotes can help to ease this anxiety and are recommended for this purpose. However, only those details which are essential to establish your case should be included in the final essay. If you keep this in mind it will aid you in achieving integration.
For further reading, see the article entitled "Integrating Exegetical Procedures" in Biblical Exegesis.A Beginner's Handbook by J. H. Hayes and C. R. Holladay. London: SCM, 1982, 104-113.
Some final points!
1. Your essay should include footnoting and a bibliography set out in acceptable form. You must consult A Style Manual by Lawrence McIntosh or the UFT guidelines for essay writing in this regard.
2. It is good advice always to get full bibliographic details for a work when taking notes from it. Do not anticipate returning later to get the details as someone else may have the work out of the library just when you need it. And always remember when copying quotations which you think you might use to do it with absolute accuracy.
3. The Style Manual and the UFT guidelines also indicate acceptable ways of giving Biblical references.
4. In your bibliography include all works which you have cited in the footnotes plus any others you have read during the course of your research on the passage which have been influential in the formation of your thoughts.
5. Remember that it is an absolute NO! NO! to quote the words of another writer or to pinch their ideas without acknowledging it.
6. Finally, have fun in the process. There are wonderful things to be discovered, hard questions to be faced, and funny things to be read in Scripture.