Why Exegesis?

It’s a blog, not a through-composed book or essay, so I can jump from topic to topic if I want to!

What is our investment in identifying our work as “exegesis” rather than less exotic words such as “interpretation”? If the word “exegesis” we’re extirpated from English usage, we wouldn’t miss much (and we would be protected from tedious preachers’ insistence on throwing the word into sermons altogether too often). At the same time, biblical scholars do seem to read and study the Bible differently from the way that literary scholars, for instance, study Austen or Morrison. But then, scholars do devote concentrated, word-by-word attention to Joyce, Eliot, and Dickinson; what accounts for the differences, and what can we learn from the ways that readers study the texts they do?

First, it is not irrelevant to note that the works of any modestly prolific novelist outstrip the Bible in sheer volume by a considerable margin. It would be impractical for a literature scholar to make his way through Silas Marner in the degree of detail that I’ve just dedicated to the Epistle of James (and my own comments on James are dwarfed by Dale Allison’s 800-page commentary). Life is too short, and the results probably not interesting enough, to warrant diagramming every sentence, parsing every verb, considering every possible nuance in every construction, in a single long novel — let alone in the corpus of an author. (Saying that I specialise in the Epistle of James is — by scope — a bit like saying that I specialise in Chapter 1.XIX of Tristram Shandy). Length itself is one reason readers of other bodies of literature don’t treat their subjects in the same way that biblical scholars treat theirs.

That point can be underscored by the fact that interpreters of poetry — usually or often, shorter units of literature — do tend to devote the sort of focused, intense attention to every aspect of their texts. While relatively little of the Bible is customarily identified as “poetry,” the example of poetry-interpretation diminishes to some extent the distinctiveness of biblical interpretation.

Moreover, particular works of prose literature — say, Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake — also elicit word-by-word analysis. This may be due in part to Joyce’s having the Bible (and the Odyssey and the Code of Canon Law) as models; all of these precursor texts have elicited exegetical commentary over the ages. At any rate, it suffices for now to note that some long prose works seem to warrant detailed technical analysis even though those stand out as atypical.

Let’s consider biblical exegesis as part of a spectrum of scholarly attention that runs from, say, Kane and Abel (a popular best seller to which few people would dedicate much study) to the Torah (which has been studied letter-by-letter for thousands of years). It’s hard to find good examples at the “plain” end of the spectrum, since once a work has become very popular, it tends to attract certain sorts of critical attention willy-nilly; still, particular works of popular literature will fall further along the spectrum than others (there is more critical attention to Harry Potter than to Jonathan Livingston Seagull). Most “serious” literature would fall toward the middle of the spectrum: studied for style, themes, characters, and various general characteristics of the work as a whole, but less so for the individual sentences and words. Poetry — characterised by intense focus and, generally, more brevity than novels — will be studied more closely than novels; one reads “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” differently than Moby-Dick. Biblical scholarship of the technical, academic sort lies in the neighbourhood of poetry, of Joyce’s longer prose works, and the intense interpretation of Torah.

These neighbours are not obviously related to the Bible by style or genre (well, apart from the Torah, obviously). Matthew’s Gospel isn’t a poem, nor the sort of enigmatic prose of Finnegan’s Wake. Why do we read some texts this way, while others (say, Robinson Crusoe) we read differently? Are there intrinsic qualities of the text that compel, or elicit, certain kinds of attention? Is there an ethics of interpretation that regulates kin of interpretive attention?

[Again, more to come]

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One Response to Why Exegesis?

  1. Michel Clark says:

    Obviously I haven’t checked you blog lately (sorry about that), but I couldn’t help commenting on your note about “exegesis”. The one and only conversation I ever had with my father that was remotely about ideas centered on the word exegesis. A judge, he had read in a journal that “most jurisprudence lately has been more about precedence than exegesis.” The word was new to him and he wanted to know what it meant. I had never seen the word in another context than biblical studies and was delighted to be able to explain it to him. The word still serves…

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