More About Exegesis

[Last time I sketched stipulated definitions for the terms analysis, exposition, and exegesis; now I’ll go ahead to spell out some of the varying expectations that characterize exegesis teachers. Maybe I’ll go on to the related topic of exegetical genres if I get a head of steam.]

it involves learning the kinds of questions and inferences of which an exegetical scholar would approve

Some of the obstacles to successful exegesis involve mismatches of expectations, or unstated preconditions that learners may not yet have attained. Most teachers of exegesis have become so acculturated to the world of biblical criticism that they have a hard time identifying and articulating what a student has yet to learn. While scholars may not all have studied formal and informal logic in their academic careers, they have participated in enough discussions that they’ve had to learn what counts as a sound inference — in a way that most students have not. Years of writing for presentations and publications may have polished the teacher’s writing skills without her or his noticing exactly what has changed (so that the teacher has a hard time explaining what is lacking in a student’s writing). Scholars and students feel different degrees of satisfaction with speculative thinking; whereas students often trust that the majesty and explanatory power of their speculations warrant full credit, their teachers may regret the absence of any supporting evidence for a claim. Or a scholar may regard a particular premise as good as proved (Q, for example, or other source theories, or the non-Pauline character of some letters, or the indubitably Pauline authorship of the same), when a student who is not immersed in the guild’s literature may treat that same premise as unwarranted. And the long-standing problem of the relation of theological claims to interpretive conclusions affects the practice of exegesis in many ways. Some interpreters who hew to the premise that Scripture provides an intrinsically reliable recounting of the events it narrates and the claims it transmits may not perceive any urgency to provide further support for such inclinations, but if their students (or teachers) don’t share the same view of Scripture, the misalignment of their expectations will likely engender disappointment and frustration. No one will be able comprehensively to stipulate every presupposition they bring to the writing-desk, but teachers and students all should extend themselves to minimize the scope and effects of presuming that their audience shares all their experience, educational privileges, theological axioms, rhetorical skills, and other ingredients to effective exegetical papers.
Typical assignments in exegesis courses involve not just the balance of several different sorts of study and expression, but different literary modes, too. To describe this difference in simple terms, I’ll propose a spectrum whose poles are on one extreme the report, and on the other the argumentative essay. Most actual assignments will involve elements of each, but frequent conversation with students has persuaded me that no mater how hard we may try to communicate our expectations relative to the genre of the assignment, students consistently evince hesitancy and uncertainty about what they ought to turn in. When we don’t put a lot of effort into making our expectations explicit, students feel something akin to abject dread — for good reason.
At the “report” end of this oversimplified spectrum, a student is expected to turn in mostly data: perhaps a bibliography, perhaps summaries of the claims that scholars have made (and on the apparent preponderance of scholarly opinion), perhaps some of the results of analyzing the text. These require less interpretive judgment of the student, and more research skills. Sometimes teachers assign students specific exegetical tasks for a report paper; they may require a form-critical assessment of a text, or information on the apparent source(s) of the text. While we can see the texture of the assignment already shading over from strictly reporting information to rendering interpretive judgments, these assignments aim to direct students toward exercising the (broader-sense) exegetical basics: showing a grasp of the scholarly literature, identifying fundamental formal and grammatical features of the text, and so on. Such an assignment does not so much expect the student to compose a paper that resembles an article in the Journal of Biblical Literature as it expects something like an executive summary of things one ought to know before considering various argument about the text.
At the “essay” end of the spectrum, a student is expected to be capable of the basic steps that the report requires; rather than transmitting a compendium of data only some of which actually bears on the interpretive difficulties pertaining to the text, the essay-assignment expects the student to identify an interpretive problem and to show how best to resolve that problem. To that end, the student may not (depending on the problem) need to display familiarity with relatively minor text-critical issues in a given passage, or with the gender politics of the Hellenistic Judaic Diaspora. In an argumentative essay, the student takes responsibility to identify the pertinent evidence for a potentially controversial claim, and to display the rationale for that preferring that claim to other possible solutions.
Since most assignments partake of both reportage and discernment to some extent, it’s easy for teachers to under-clarify their expectations, and for students to provide an imbalanced response to the assignment. Often students provide a greater portion of reported data than reasoned argument — that pleases some teachers, but frustrates others. On the other hand, sometimes students neglect to demonstrate awareness of the basics of a text, rushing instead to try to prove their pet theory about it — thus disappointing teachers who want to make sure students have mastered the fundamentals.
We should note also that it’s quite possible to concentrate on the correct sort of genre in the assignment, but still do the work poorly. A student might, for instance, work hard on an annotated bibliography, but come up with only very marginal, unreliable sources on which to report. The same student might devote much attention to analysis of the text, but make mistakes in the grammar (or draw incorrect conclusions from the translation). Likewise, a student may attempt an argumentative essay, but place undue emphasis on speculative claims, or peripheral characteristics of the text. Many of the skills on which excellent (general) exegesis relies depend on prior skills over which few students have a solid grasp: grammatical awareness (such as diagramming clauses), logical argument, the relation of samples to wholes, the assessment of relative probability. Limited time may force exegesis courses to presuppose skills that few if any of the students have attained.
For all these reasons, teachers and students should devote diligent attention to addressing the specific literary genre for each exegetical assignment. If students don’t have a clear sense of what their teacher expects them to write, or if a teacher looks for characteristics of a genre that was not made explicit at the outset, the goal of learning to practice well the art of exegetical reasoning will be smothered by mismatched assumptions.
[Next time: varying interpretive contexts and their roles in learning exegesis.]

11 thoughts on “More About Exegesis

  1. This is excellent! I’m going to pass it along to several of my colleagues. You might also like, if you haven’t seen it yet, the website Mary Shore is creating for a problem-based approach to teaching exegetical skills (

  2. As I looked back over my notes for this section, I came across more notes about the contrasting genres of paper.
    On one had, we have the research-report style of writing. Assignments of this sort might include:
       Summarization, identification, transmission of results
       Annotated bibliography
       Research journal (an assignment I used often at Seabury)
       A general report on interpretive options
    Evaluation is less important in these assignments than is the collection of data. There’s no need for a thesis, since the writer isn’t arguing for anything particular; instead, the author briefs the reader on the various aspects of the text. In this sense, it resembles a police report or the results of medical testing (to hark back to two of my leading metaphors for interpretive investigation).
    An argumentative essay, on the other hand, calls for familiarity with the data in question, but also:
       Identification and characterization of a problem
       Advocacy of a particular approach to resolving the problem
       Gathering and arraying the evidence for this proposed resolution
        (“Not,” in my handwritten all-caps, “a damn running paraphrase”)
       Any summarizing or paraphrase serves the purposes of establishing context
         and exemplifying a point in the argument
         The argument itself clearly prevails over summarizing
    The argumentative essay would then be more like the case a prosecutor (or defense attorney) presents to the court, rather than the police report. It would be the conclusive diagnosis of a medical condition, rather than an overview of the test results.
    I should note also the genre of a meditation or a reflection, which need not require a problem or even the report of data, but the author’s musings about the text in question. It may be a mixed genre, or even entirely an expression of the author’s feelings.

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