Monthly Archives: May 2009

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.]

What’s So Hard About Exegesis?

[In my on-going effort to help students along toward becoming better readers and practitioners of biblical interpretation, I anticipate putting together a guide to exegesis. I’d like it to be a comics-form work, more concise and more visually illuminating than mere words; since I can’t draw that well myself, and since xkcd has laid claim to stick-figure comics, I may adopt a “Get Your War On”/“Dinosaur Comics”/“Diesel Sweeties” approach and use public-domain images from woodblock literature. If a comics illustrator wants to volunteer to work with me, well, golly, you’d be more than welcome.
I’ll write drafts of chapters/sections here in the blog, with a view to encouraging corrections, suggestions, clarifications, puzzled questions, and the good advice just to leave off the whole project. If by the time the school year rolls around again, someone wants to send students to look it over (for help to the students or to me), they should feel free — but in the end, I anticipate compiling the resulting work into a Creative-Commons-licensed PDF pamphlet/booklet/book, and I can’t guarantee in advance that it’ll be possible comprehensively to acknowledge every contribution. I’ll make the effort, though, and I’ll stipulate in any prefatory material that I may have missed someone, and if someone calls to my attention such an omission, I’ll correct my source version as soon as practicable.
Everything that follows in this project is therefore preliminary, rough, tentative, subject to change without notice, contingent, and so on. It is also simplified, though I hope not oversimplified relative to the task I set for myself of helping beginning students advance toward exegetical literacy and competence.
What makes exegesis hard?

For starters, the whole endeavor is riddled with complexities, ambiguities, and conceptual confusions. At the outset, we’ll name some of these blurry areas, hoping to bring some focus to each one and to distinguish it from other related areas. We can begin by acknowledging that “exegesis” itself doesn’t clearly name a single enterprise or phenomenon; “exegesis” is unclear. Second, biblical exegesis involves at least two distinct languages, and often three or more; since each language has peculiarities of its own, and since people are inclined to disagree about how best to express in one language what was first expressed in another, language itself contributes to making exegesis difficult. Third, exegesis typically involves research, which can be a difficult enterprise both in the activity itself (“Where do I look for this?” “How do I find that out?” “What should I look for?”) and in coping with the results of research (“Is this relevant?” “These sources say opposite things!?”). This points to fourth and fifth sources of confusion: differences among authorities and differences among criteria. Multiple different reference works and research sources make different claims about the same topic; if they didn’t there would be no point in having multiple sources (apart from the commercial exigencies of each publisher getting its toe into the reference-book market). A beginning exegetical researcher is left in a confusing pickle when confronted with conflicting authorities. Likewise, one particular interpreter may deploy form-critical analysis to reach a particular interpretive conclusion, while another may reach a different conclusion based on redaction-critical analysis. By the criteria of form criticism, the first is the (presumably) the best interpretation; by the criteria of redaction criticism, the second seems to be best — but what is the interpreter to do in the face of conflicting criteria? Finally, the overall confusion relative to exegesis involves the brute obligation of forming a judgment. How does one discern which among all the possible interpretations is soundest? All of these aspects of exegetical thinking introduce ambiguity, and all the ambiguities overflow and affect the others, so that their cumulative effect quite justifiably perplexes most beginning exegetes.
Let’s consider these sources of confusion one by one, to tease out further elements of their effects. About the unclarity of exegesis, one need not inform students. That lack of clarity arises in large part because their teachers have assimilated exegetical lore by banging their heads against it until they got the habit of thinking and arguing in a way their teachers (and eventually, their colleagues) recognize and approve. We use terms inconsistently (“exegesis,” for one prominent example), so what students hear in one course may be identified and described differently in another; if a student applies what she learned in Class A to an assignment in Class B, said student may earn Grade F because the second teacher construes the terms of the assignment differently. Partly as a result of different usage, teachers have different expectations of their students (and may not always make those expectations explicit since, from each teacher’s way of thinking, “that’s just how you do it”). Teachers may assign exegetical exercises in divergent genres (again, without making the genre-expectations explicit) — or more often, will assign a paper in a mixed genre with the proportion of constituent elements left unstated. Exegetical study may also draw on any of very many different contexts (each of which will matter more to some teachers than to others). An assignment that presents itself simply as “exegesis” without having defined the teacher’s particular sense of the various dimensions of “exegesis” practically guarantees confusion, especially for students who have already taken an exegetical course from a different teacher. The aspects of exegesis that teachers take for granted becloud their students’ understanding of what the assignment involves.
In order to combat this besetting unclarity, we will try to be specific about the role that various terms, expectations, genres, and contexts play in the sorts of exegetical thinking we cultivate here. For starters, we will distinguish interpretive analysis from exposition and from synthetic exegesis. “Exegesis” will thus bear a double reference: on one hand, to the broader interpretive endeavor in general, and on the other, to the process of developing a plausible explanation for particular features of a text. Ordinarily, this essay will use the word exegesis (or for greater specificity, “technical exegesis”) to indicate the narrower sense of exegesis as critical interpretive hypothesis-forming. To minimize confusion, we will hereafter put “exegesis” in quotation marks when referring to the whole interpretive shebang, unless by some descriptive modifier (such as “the whole shebang”) we make clear that we’re referring to the overall interpretive endeavor. Since other sources use these terms differently, these distinctions will be somewhat arbitrary, and readers should not simply assume that other writers use the same terms in the same way. These artificial distinctions, however, serve the purpose of clarifying just what we’re talking about here, and they bear a general correspondence to widespread usage in the field.
In analysis, then, the interpreter picks apart the forms of words, their customary semantic range, the relation of word to word in the immediate context, and so on. Analysis may take into consideration the text-critical problems relative to a passage — are there discrepancies in the manuscript tradition that impinge on our interpretations? The analytical work of interpretation in the original languages can usually be done with relatively few reference sources: a good lexicon, a reference grammar, a critical edition of the text. Analysis based on an English translation will more cumbersome, since interpreters will somehow have to compare the translation(s) with which they are working to the wording of the original language. A good interlinear version of the text will give clues as to circumstances in which the translation supplies words that the original leaves out, or uses more (or less) specific words than the original language. Still, students who can not read the original language should exercise the utmost hesitancy in advancing claims about the analysis of the biblical text, and should always make sure to have a strong scholarly source for such claims.
In contrast to analysis, exposition begins from a proposed (or assumed) interpretation and explains what it entails, how it fits into the broader context, and other ways one might say the same thing. Expository interpretation tends to paraphrase the text under scrutiny, and to summarize the point at which it seems to be driving. In a certain sense, translation itself partakes of exposition, since translation requires interpreters to restate in other words (in another language) the thrust of what they take the text to express. Many sermons rely heavily on expository reading of the Bible, and students usually arrive at their studies much more comfortable and better-acquainted with exposition. They thus tend to fall back on expository interpretation even when the teacher has explicitly requested analytical or exegetical (in the narrow sense) inquiry. Exposition often comes readily to students, and it feels comfortable, as though they’re doing what they recognize as “Bible Study.” While there’s nothing wrong with exposition per se — sometimes analytical or exegetical argument relative to one passage involves exposition of neighboring passages, since one can’t argue every aspect of a text all at once — interpreters should be careful not to allow exposition to eclipse analysis and exegesis, especially if a teacher has emphasized the analytical or exegetical dimensions of a particular assignment.
If analysis parses a text, and exposition restates and amplifies the text, (technical) exegesis studies the most probable, most plausible, or soundest way of construing a particular text. Exegetical study wonders why John would have put things that way, or what Paul expects his audience to make of a particular phrase. As such, it depends on analysis; if we don’t know what the words mean, or how they relate to one another, we can’t reach confident conclusions about what the author might have been driving at. At the same time, exegetical study can affect our judgment on analysis: if we see various other rationales for taking a particular term in a certain way, even though a narrowly grammatical or semantic analysis might point one way, we might reasonably argue for a less common, even an otherwise unattested, understanding of the word in question, if it makes significantly greater sense of other considerations.
To technical exegesis belong the various interpretive approaches with whose names many students will be acquainted. In each, the practitioner situates the text with regard to a set of interpretive premises and conventions; in some cases the interpretive criticism will involve the premises about formal literary conventions (“form criticism”), while in others the approach compares a text to its putative sources, or in others the approach invokes the most likely behavior of editors (“redaction criticism”), and so on. Exegetical study answers questions of why this is the most likely interpretation by comparing the text to other similar texts, or to its origins, or to common knowledge in ancient cultures, or to other posited points of reference, and applying rules of inference to the comparison. For instance, scholars have often suggested that it is more likely that a copyist or editor will expand a text whle copying it than delete words from the text (we will defer to another occasion the consideration of whether this is true or not). When we compare one passage in Matthew with a similar passage in Mark and observe that Matthew is longer, we infer that Matthew has added words to a Markan source text, and we ascribe particular Matthean emphasis to those added words. The inferred anteriority of Matthew and the ascription of Matthean character to the added words derive not from naked logic nor laws of nature, but from the inductive process whereby scholarly interpreters have proposed, tested, and refined the axioms of a particular way of thinking about texts. Thus, (technical) exegesis involves learning the axioms and inferential conventions by which the various approaches operate, at the same time it involves learning the kinds of questions and inferences of which an exegetical scholar would approve.
[My explanation of “expectations, genres, and contexts” will come next.]

New Deal

Loyola took so long in funding Margaret’s position for this year that I had prepared myself for what seemed like their probable decision to cut her budget line (it’s a tough economy, they had to find savings somewhere, etc.). Since I wasn’t counting on Margaret having a job, I felt more weightily the necessity of finding a job for myself, lest we both be unemployed next year.
Now that she has a secure position for next year, I’m gradually releasing the intense urgency of finding my own job. I’m not obsessively checking the “positions open” pages of academic sites. I have a couple of applications still pending, but I’m not clutching at them with desperate fervor. I’m entertaining the possibility that even if one of them makes an offer, I might decline it if their offer doesn’t cohere with a manageable marital arrangement. I can probably pick up a course or two to adjunct-teach in Baltimore, and living with your spouse matters a great deal (especially since Margaret and I have spent most of the last five years living apart).
I haven’t attained perfect everyday serenity, but I’m unwinding slowly. I can look with more patience on the unfolding microdrama of my place in academy and church. This, it seems, is more nearly what “healthy” looks like.

That Was Fast!

Marlboro College has already posted a video recording of their graduation ceremony, including recognizable appearances by Josiah Adam (soon to be Harris-Adam), Michael Bérubé, and this writer. The key moments in the video feed for fans of this family arrive at 52 minutes (Michael Bérubé’s address), 1 hour and 15 minutes (Josiah Adam receives his degree), and 2 hour 5 minutes (AKMA valedicts the new graduates). (Those of you who are following the “manuscript vs. without manuscript” throw-down may notice, by the way, that I did not utter a single “uh.” That comes in large part through extensive experience reading aloud.)
Lyn and Will sing two lovely musical selections beginning just before the 45 minute mark, and — earlier — the two senior speakers gave impassioned commendations of their college; all in all, quite an excellent and impressive ceremony.

Ceremonies R Us

This morning brought gray skies, rain, a conversation with Michael Bérubé, and the opportunity to conclude the college careers of seventy-five Marlboro College students. Every bit of it went well. I mean, the gray skies and rain weren’t distinctly good or bad, but I greatly enjoyed meeting and talking with Michael, and the valediction seemed to meet general approbation.
The only glitch, and we eventually ironed it out, involved the ASL signer, who looked the text of my composition and earnestly asked, “What makes underwear ‘ironic’?” It’s a good question, quite difficult to answer without resort to saying, “Well, you know, wearing it out of a sense of irony.” Eventually I devised a somewhat elaborate explanation of the nature of irony, the motivations for wearing certain sorts of underwear, the difference between naïveté and (alleged) sophistication, and we agred that the whole matter had been cleared up. Not understanding ASL, I have no notion what she signed to the world — but I’m utterly confident that it wasn’t more foolish than the words I spoke audibly.


Graduates of Marlboro College:
A Valediction Forbidding Absence

When you were children, we gave you gifts that befit childhood:
   footie pajamas;
   stuffed animals;
   organically-grown, natural-finish wood building blocks;
   superhero underwear.
Now, we offer you gifts that befit your greater standing:
   critical evaluation;
   challenging vocations;
   ambiguous circumstances,
     in which you will have to make life-changing decisions;
 and ironic superhero underwear.
Before we let you go — speaking on behalf of Marlboro College, and especially on behalf of your teachers, we thank you for the gifts you have brought to this community: the gifts of diligent striving, of persistence, of reckless joy, and of boundless promise.
Thank you for trusting us, for working with us, for receiving our wisdom and for answering us from your own.
Thank you for your grace, your energy, your honesty, your loveliness.
And now, I will not send you away; you will go, whether I send you or not.
Instead, I bid you remember that at Marlboro College, you have made a home with Truth. And once you have made a home with the Truth, you can always come home again — wherever you travel, no matter how far your sauntering takes you. Always come back to the Truth, and to this Potash Hill, where Truth makes a home with us.
Valete, alumni alumnaequae!

Sunny Day

It looks as though today is cloudy, almost bleak, in upstate New York this morning — but around our family, the sun is out, the temperatures are balmy, birds are chirping (but only after you’ve already woken up), happy days are here again. The intense relief that accompanies our knowing that Margaret’s job at Loyola was funded again for the coming year cannot be overstated. Together with Nate’s progress through his doctoral work, and Pippa’s moving toward Interlochen, and Jennifer getting her MPhil at Union, and some noteworthy days coming up for Si (and our soon-to-be-daughter Laura), great things are afoot!

On The Road Again

No, Margaret and I haven’t packed up our bedrolls and made like bindlestiffs; we’re making a long drive northward toward Vermont, where we’ll arrive tomorrow for the festivities surrounding Josiah’s graduation.
(I had thought that the bindlestiff was the belongings-in-a-kerchief-on-a-stick apparatus, not the characterization of the tramp who travels thus. You learn something every day.)

Uh. . . No, And This Is. . . Uh. . . Why

The organizers of the Duke Conference on Archaeology, Politics, and the Media alerted us that the audio portions of the conference have been posted at both the ASOR website and the Duke channel at iTunes University (as I type, only four of the presentations have been posted there). While you might think that an audio feed of my talk must have preserved the best part of my remarks (omitting the unprepossessing appearance of the speaker), I was dismayed by what I heard when I checked on the recording of my response.
You see, Mark Goodacre — to whose presentation I was responding — has long been an advocate of semi-extemporaneous presentation. He argues that papers read aloud at conferences drone and bore, and his favored presentation style (with skeletal notes, or note cards) preserves a desirable degree of spontaneity (by the way, Mark, the changeover from your NT Gateway blog to your current blog has borked a great many links; it’s a shame that Logos couldn’t have preserved your old pages, or devised a forwarding script). I thought that, in keeping with Mark’s suggestion, I would follow his example in this case. (I may also note that my decision was not unaffected by the fact that Mark didn’t finish his talk until a couple of days before the conference.) Hey, why not aim at spontaneity?
Well, the audio explains why: when I try to speak extemporaneously, I ummm and uhhhh with distracting, disappointing frequency. I know that about myself, and that’s one of the reasons I ordinarily rely on a manuscript for scholarly communication or preaching. So this recording of my digital presence will reveal my proclivity extemporaneously, spontaneously, to hem and haw — but it will help ensure that in the future, I stick with my well-composed, deliberate rhetoric, and minimize the ummms.

Life Imitates…

The other day, Si IM’ed me to make sure I had seen the day’s PvP comic strip, in which Brent Siena fulminates at businesses’ poor choice of typefaces. Si was teasing me, since I get itchy about poor type design, but then he went on to sympathize with Brent, and make some critical observations of his own on type. The apple seems not to have fallen far from the tree.
This afternoon, Pippa needed trip to a local mall in order to find the right pair of shoes. While she went into fine-discernment mode and scoured the mall for the right footwear, I stopped by the smoothie booth to obtain a cold, fruity beverage.

Hawaii's Best Type Design

I asked the congenial young man at the booth why some of the offerings use italics, while others used upright type. He explained, “Well, each one has different ingredients.”
“Right,” I agreed, “but in some of the smoothies those ingredients are listed in italics; does that mean something different about them?”
“Yes, for instance that first one has strawberry, banana, and pineapple in it.”
“Right, I understand that, I can read — never mind, no big deal.”
“No, sir, what do you mean?”
“OK, you see how some of those letters are kinda slanty? And some of the other letters are straight up and down? Does that mean the slanty words are different in some way, or are they all the same?”
“Wow! I never noticed that! Look at that! That’s real attention to detail, that you noticed that!”
I ordered the Maui. It tasted good, and when the server spotted me later on in the afternoon, he asked how I liked it. “Terrific,” I said, “Thanks a lot.”


I’ve finalized two job applications in the last two days, an exercise which is almost as challenging to the beleaguered sense of one’s own worth as is the necessity of finding places to store our possessions and to couch-surf while we await good news about our future. With those two preoccupations running neck and neck toward the finish line of despair, who needs global warming to worry about?
But interrupting the breakneck pace of rival anxieties come two lovely bits of encouragement. In the first instance, the ever-gracious Michael Bérubé points back to this page in discussing his plans for the pre-valedictory (read: long, usually kinda boring, though Michael will surely constitute an exception to that rule) speech — Michael, I too have considered and rejected the idea of a sunscreen reference. There’s probably a Borgesian way to interpret our silence as a deafening endorsement of skin care. But I bask in the reflected glory of Michael’s ruminations, and I underscore to Si the shout-out he received from the commencement speaker.
Then Brooke pointed out that “online” has identified this very blog as 1% of the “100 Awesome Blogs By Some of the World’s Smartest People.” (Link to removed at their request.) That just flat-out stuns me; obviously the list-compiler doesn’t get around much, or he or she would have picked one of the Official Biblioblogs (if they wanted to name a biblical scholar), or one of the Beliefnet blogs such as Scot McKnight’s or Tony Jones’s. But in my current state of nonchalant desperation, I’ll very gladly receive such acclaim as comes my way.

Faster Pony

Rob Letchford, bless his soul, exemplifies the kind of individual dtermination that will evenetually break through the conceptual logjam at the intersection of technology and education. He has already developed a site replete with the writings of and information about Cyprian of Carthage; now he’s soliciting participants for a grass-roots effort to hand-code a machine-readable transcription of Marcus Jastrow‘s [Aramaic] Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature. This is the sort of enterprise that a cadre of graduate students would do well to take up (not because grad students are a less caste of academic labor, but because this effort would combine their academic contribution with learning that furthers their own interests). Again I say, if some institution were to take up the cause (and associate their name with it), they’d be furthering their mission, their name, and the broader cause of teaching and learning.
And if such an endeavor became a model for collaborative work in the field of education and technology….