Category Archives: Bible

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]

What Is Exegetical Method?

[As part of writing out a book on exegetical method — the approaches, the how-to parts, the consequences parts, and so on — I’m beginning with some introductory writing on the subject. This will probably grow into a first chapter, perhaps with my earlier posts on “What Makes Exegesis Difficult?” At any rate, this is what I think, not my fully researched and documented formal conclusions.]

“Exegetical method” sounds as though it should be straightforward. Do this, then this, remember that, and poof! That’s exegesis. To a certain extent, I imagine that students expect that as well; they have learned to make scrambled eggs, to knit scarves, to pitch a tent, to drive an auto. Now, teach us the method for producing exegesis. Likewise, non-practitioners may imagine that appropriate method lies behind our confidently announced interpretations. Merely indicating the topic suggests that there is a thing called exegetical method, that it lies behind the process of what can rightly be called “exegesis,” and that somebody who cares to practice exegesis should learn the method, and then be equipped to deliver the goods.

Erasmus, 1st Edition Greek New Testament


Many books about exegesis and method underscore this premise by setting out a series of steps for conducting exegesis. The number and order of these steps vary, but they express the sense that by doing identifiable things in an appropriate process, the results will be — if not always correct or even sound — at least exegetical. Student preachers and adult ed leaders very often refer to “my exegesis of X or Y” (even some experienced leaders do so), with the attendant connotation of interpretive authority. They have performed the steps they were taught, and have arrived at this interpretive result. That’s exegesis.

At the same time, some voices have called this model into question. In lectures at Yale Divinity School, Brevard Childs occasionally referred to “the thirty-three exegetical steps for beating a text into a pulp.” And obviously, not every student who follows the thirty-three, or ten, or twelve, or sixteen steps does so successfully; some students receive high marks, others low marks. If a student receives a low mark, but follows all the designated steps, has she still practiced warranted, authoritative “exegesis”? What is the difference between “good exegesis,” “bad exegesis,” and “not exegesis”?

In order to understand such questions, and thereby to understand what subsequent entries will say about exegetical method, we ought to work toward an understanding of what people mean by “exegesis,” what people want exegesis for, and how we can reasonably expect to be understood when we (as practitioners of this craft) refer to our work as exegesis. No one benefits if we just state a stipulated definition that ordinary readers and listeners won’t recognise, and such artificial definitions increase the likelihood that we’ll be heard as making claims that differ from what we (in our stipulated sense of the term) would defend as what we really were up to. Similarly, if we ourselves are utterly convinced that we are doing something different from what any outsider can observe us to be doing, our definition of our practice may be defective. The more precisely we can name what we do, what that entails, how one could dispute or refute our claims, and why it matters, the more clear, open, honest, and reliable our public discourse will be.

Thus the question: what is exegetical method? The tradition of assigning series of steps that cumulatively lead to “exegesis” is honoured by time, by the authority of notable author-teachers who have promoted the idea, and by the apparent success of students who have learned exegesis by this way. Such warrants cannot lightly be dismissed. At the same time, some authorities (such as Childs) have called the tradition into question, and we can demonstrate certain drawbacks to both the premise and to its consequences among students who practice it.

[To be continued…]

OK, How Do You Do Exegesis?

After having written about what makes exegesis difficult (and subsequent posts), and after having written about criticism and evidence, I’ll get to the point and suggest how you actually set about doing exegesis.
First and most important: do what your instructor says. I can’t emphasise this enough; there is no Platonic ‘exegesis’ such that if you deviate from what your instructor says, you’d be doing it so correctly that even your scorned instructor would have to give you a good mark. No, no, no. I’ll acknowledge that some practices are well-nigh universal among critical interpreters, and that some idiosyncrasies and stipulations depart from what most scholars would approve, but if you]re doing this for academic credit, do what your instructor wants. If you don’t, whether out of unshakeable personal principle or vanity or cussedness or whatever reason, it’s not my fault. Instructors, check this out: I told them to listen to you.
Continue reading OK, How Do You Do Exegesis?

Understanding Aberrant Interpretation

My work in hermeneutics has always sought out explanations for interpretive divergence — in the first instance, for proximate disagreements among well-qualified readers who generally share their premises and conclusions, and in the second instance, between ‘mainstream’ and ‘off-beat’ interpretations. It’s easy enough, and rewarding enough, to come up with a theory of hermeneutical correctness. Everyone wants to be right, and most people want to have a theoretical apparatus that justifies coercion directed against those who aren’t right. Fewer people, though, want to understand why one would reach wrong interpretive conclusions in the first place.
For a while, I corresponded with Lee Perry, the author of Holy Grail: Cosmos of the Bible; he was a genial and patient correspondent, who understood that I declined to assent to his conclusions, while he did not ever waver in his own confidence that he had discovered the true meaning of the Bible (among other cultural phenomena). Perry, and other conspiracy theorists, national treasure hunters, Bible code-hunters, and sundry outsider interpreters, can be literate, erudite, ingenious, articulate, and 100% wrong. What hermeneutical reasoning can give an account of intelligent, well-intentioned people arriving at bizarrely wrong conclusions? The problem is doubled when you look at interpretive change from a historical perspective (as does Frank Kermode in ‘Can We Say Absolutely Anything We Like?’ in The Art of Telling/Essays on Fiction 1971-82); ideas that seem outlandish in one decade turn out to be tiresomely obvious in another.
In the course of exploring outsider biblical interpretation*, I’ve now come to pay particular attention to Hutchinsonianism, a peculiar intellectual affliction that beset the north of England and Scotland in response to the Enlightenment.† Hutchinson taught that the unpointed Old Testament text anticipated New Testament teachings, but that hostile Jews had introduced misleading vowel points into the Hebrew Bible. The doctrine of the Trinity was specifically set out there as well, and all manner of natural science (since all truth was revealed, Hutchinson was ardently anti-Newtonian). Hutchinson’s works influenced an interesting stratum of marginal English and Scottish clergy and educators (apparently including the founder of King’s College/Columbia University, Dr. Samuel Johnson), which is how they came to my attention.
OK, I have to get back to research — trust me, if I come up on any irresistible Hutchinsonian tidbits, I’ll share them here. The point, though, is that a hermeneutics that can’t give a plausible, respectful account of difference — even bizarre-to-the-point-of-hallucinatory difference (I’m looking at you too, Muggletonians) — fails in one of its most important tests. A hermeneutic of self-congratulatory correctness does little to advance mutual understanding, and much to aggravate interpretive conflict. Counter-intuitive as it may seem, our first desideratum in hermeneutics should be to clarify the basis on which reasonable, lucid, erudite minds may reach divergent conclusions,


* Anyone who has ever observed me turn purple and splutter over the terrible writing and utterly vacuous biblical interpretation of The da Vinci Code will understand that I undertake this research not out of any fondness for interpretive implausibility, but strictly out of an obligation to take outré interpretations seriously as part of my hermeneutics.

† I also may be supervising a thesis on Blake’s christology, and Blake may have been influenced by Hutchinsonianism — so there are two reasons.
** William Van Mildert, Bishop first of Llandaff and subsequently of Durham, after whom the disinguished chair in Divinity was named (once occupied by my Doctrine Committee colleague David Brown, now held by my Chicqago-area Episcopal colleague Mark McIntosh), appears to have been strongly influenced by Hutchinsonian theology.

That Exhilarating Feeling

I’ve said a number of times that intellectual life affords very few thrills that equal the feeling that a claim you’re inclined to doubt, one that contradicts what you’re pretty sure to be right — when such a claim’s arguments and evidence convince you that you had been wrong, and that this claim has a stronger case. It’s taken up my whole work day, but I’ve been revelling in that feeling in connection with the verb diakrinomai in James 1:6. It’s conventionally treated as meaning “doubt,” but Peter Spitaler’s article in Novum Testamentum 49 (2007) pretty much blows that interpretive habit out of the water.
Now, I had been dissatisfied with “doubt” myself, though I had tentatively opted for “hesitate,” another option that Spitaler rejects. I’m not as sure of his criticism of “hesitate” as I am of his devastatingly careful exposé of “doubt” — but, happily, I think I’m onto an even more satisfactory alternative. That feeling this morning, though, when “Nice work, but I’m unconvinced” turned into “Well, strike me pink! I think he’s right after all!”, that was pure delight.

Too Much Life

Daniel honoured my ponderings about the prominence of ‘the cross’ in his fourth chapter by blogging further about the problem of cruciformity in Pauline ethics and ours. I have a few brief comments about our discussion, but I will keep them short because I didn’t sleep very well last night, and I will probably make even less sense than usual.
First, I re-emphasise that I have no objection to the axiom that we mustn’t let our theologia crucis be suppressed in favour of a theologia gloriæ. I am not ashamed of the gospel; lift high the cross! Cross, cross, cross. All okay by me.
My hesitation involves situations wherein the sound exposition of Pauline theology (and Michael Gorman’s Cruciformity and Apostle of the Crucified Lord are two of my favourites, which I’ve assigned in classes for years) entails such an emphasis on the cross that it may no longer be evident that ‘the cross’ isn’t by itself the vehicle of our redemption. One of the virtues of narrative theology lies in its appropriate, important insight that moments in the story don’t do the whole work of the story itself. Specifically, in this case, the cross (perhaps more precisely ‘the way of the cross’) matters for disciples in conjunction with what led to it (faithfulness in action, regardless of how appreciatively that faithfulness is received — whether with acclaim from the crowds, or with persecution, torture, and execution at the hands of Roman power), and it matters in conjunction with what came after (the revelation that God’s power for life is so great that death cannot prevail over it). So it may be that ‘the cross’ and ‘cruciformity’ function suitably as shorthand for the whole story, but capsule summaries don’t substitute for the defining narratives of our identities. We want to keep an eye on our short cuts, lest we fall into the error of mistaking the short cut for the Way.
But that word of caution contains what may be my response to myself and to Daniel. I noted his attention to, and he reaffirmed, the daunting dangers of ‘successful’ ministries; humility, in its evangelically healthful mode, not in the feigned humbleness of Uriah Heep or the culturally-mediated self-abnegation that scars the souls of many of our neighbours, characterises faithfulness to the Jesus who set his face to go where he would be least popular, where rancour against him was most concentrated, where he may well (without supernatural foresight) have anticipated the most hostile of receptions. Faithfulness tarries not to cultivate fame, nor avoids facing opposition (nor seeks suffering, nor refuses truthful praise); faithfulness follows where the Way leads.
There will be no short cut to discerning whether our course is unduly influenced by craving for approval, or by ineradicable shame. Again, short cuts aren’t the gospel. But the steadfastness that sustains faith through ups and downs, whatever the (im)balance of those circumstances, bespeaks the character of Jesus, and even of that gospel-mad Paul (whether you love him or not).
Anyway, thanks for the good read and the worthwhile conversation, Daniel!

Daniel Kirk, Jesus, and Paul

… the Christian life is the kind of thing that makes the kings of the earth nervous — not because it encounters them with the force of arms, but because it testifies to a power that not even death can contain. (Kirk, 76)

   With Chapter Four, Daniel Kirk’s Jesus Have I Loved turns to the ethical implications of the understanding of New Testament theology that he’s been tracing in the first three chapters. As in previous chapters, he describes Jesus first. The Jesus whom Kirk presents here called disciples to specific behaviour: following, teaching, healing, exorcising, proclaiming, cross-bearing, and so on. Although the Jesus of John’s Gospel puts great emphasis on ‘believing in me’ (‘believing in his name’, believing in the son’, ‘believing in the Son of Man’), even John portrays a Jesus who instructs his followers that whoever believes in him will do his works, and even greater works, and that they must love one another as Jesus loved them, so that ‘the love of a Christian community is none other than the continuing embodiment of the self-giving love of Jesus’ (Kirk, 79).
   Kirk then shows the continuity of Paul’s ethical exhortation with Jesus’ teaching. While Paul doesn’t simply repeat what Jesus said, the development from Jesus to Paul involves their different settings relative to the overarching narrative that Kirk proposes. Jesus lived (according to the flesh) before the resurrection, and his teaching relative to death and resurrection remained obscure to the disciples. Since Paul can look back on the resurrection, he and his audiences can take account of the resurrection and trace its implications in a way that would have been unintelligible for Jesus. Nonetheless, the narrative Paul teaches, like the narrative that depicts Jesus’s own ministry, identifies the cross as the pivotal element in recognising God’s work and God’s will. Whereas for Jesus, discipleship entailed following him on the way of the cross, Paul takes discipleship as the vocation of ‘making [one’s] life a living narration of the story of the crucified Christ’ (80).
   Kirk extends himself to disabuse readers of the notion that justification by faith is in any way antithetical to actually, you know, doing good things. This effort bespeaks a different ecclesiastical ecology from that which I’ve inhabited; I rarely, if ever, encounter someone who treats good behaviour as a threat to their pure sanctity. Much more common in my worlds is the ‘believer’ for whom believing, the right kind of believing, and concentrated correct believing constitute the epitome of adhering to Jesus. Kirk’s exhortation applies as well to the latter as to the former, though I wonder whether some believers might let themselves off the hook too easily on the grounds that they aren’t anti-works (just works-indifferent). In any case, Kirk draws on Paul’s repeated emphasis on ‘faith working’, on the ‘work of faith’, and God’s making it possible for us ‘to will and to work for his good pleasure’ — and of course, on Paul’s predictably forceful moral instruction. After these pages, a casual reader will find it difficult indeed to imagine how anyone could ever doubt that Paul wanted believers to live in particular ways.
   Kirk wants not simply to argue that Christian believers should not be allergic to works, though; he wants to show how that working coheres with, and perpetuates, the gospel that Jesus proclaimed. The pivotal element that aligns Paul and Jesus, according to Kirk, is the power of God, greater than sin and death, that transforms the life of the believer. Transformed believers will readily accept the derision, rejection, abjection of their scornful neighbours; while not all would actually be crucified, the cruciform life of enduring abuse in order to bear witness to the power of resurrection life will apply to all. God, in the Spirit, can free believers from their imprisonment to mortality, to the earthly powers of success, fame, and acclaim — imprisonment to the temptation to secure for themselves control over the contingencies of life by triumphing over adversaries and circumstance. Contrariwise, Kirk reminds his readers that Paul’s strength was made perfect in weakness, in being rejected and punished and trashed.
   Readers who take up Kirk’s exposition of Pauline theology (and Jesus’s theology) will endeavour in all things to make themselves transparent to the luminous power of the gospel. As people who have been in-corporated into the life of Jesus, sharers in the life of Christ, they will act in the world in ways congruent with their exemplar Jesus, as they were coached to by Jesus’s eminent interpreter, Paul. That way of life isn’t determined by rule-following (for no one will be justified by works of the law), but by that divine power made flesh in Christ, communicated to us by the Holy Spirit, that transforms our inclinations from death-fearing servitude to sin into life-embracing freedom for godly action in the world.
   In all this, I applaud the trajectory of Kirk’s interpretation of Jesus and Paul (and particularly in Chapter Five, where Kirk treats the topic of inclusivity — but that’s not my chapter to discuss). I would argue with him on points of detail here and there, but these would be the sorts of argument that we might conduct convivially over a pint of Chip 71 or Cart Blanche, or perhaps one of Kirk’s own home brews. Kirk speaks from a vision informed by Hays and Gorman, adopting the trope of ‘discipleship as playing/improvising a role in the divine drama’ popularised by Wright (pioneered by Lash and Young, redeployed by Vanhoozer, and focussed into ethical principle by Wells), yet with a voice of his own. Kirk’s Jesus Have I Loved… exemplifies the best sort of New Testament theologising in current scholarship — richly grounded in (critical) appropriation of Scripture, remaining recognisably close to Scripture’s own words, arranged so as to reveal a persuasive greater coherence.
   So compelling a depiction of Jesus’s and Paul’s narrative understanding of the gospel, though, inescapably raises weighty questions. Kirk devotes particular time to one in particular: how does a servant of the ‘upside-down’ gospel approach leading, or teaching, or decision-making? Kirk astutely points to the risk of performative contradiction for the teacher who persuasively lectures (or ‘writes’) about the self-denying humility of cruciformity — what if the book becomes a best-seller? What if the acclaim that accompanies an insightful ministry of scholarship impels all people to speak well of you? (And, conversely, how do we distinguish the disagreeable prophet from the just plain disagreeable person, the lowly leader from the crummy leader?) Kirk confesses to being haunted by Paul’s gospel as he lectures through 2 Corinthians, and one can readily sympathise with his plight — but is it too much to ask that he dwell a bit longer on how his readers might cultivate a spirit of humbleness that eschews the culturally-prominent markers of financial, occupational, and ‘reputational’ success?
   Kirk also draws all threads of the theological narrative to their convergence at the cross; fair enough, for it would take a foolhardy critic to question the centrality of the cross for contemporary theology (especially in a chapter with a well-known epigraph from Dietrich Bonhoeffer). At the same time, since Jesus and Paul both draw so richly on the precedents and the sensibilities of the Old Testament, I’d have welcomed a stronger sense that the narratives in question don’t just begin at Matthew 1:1. To be clear, Kirk’s earlier chapters make strong narrative connections with the Old Testament — the point here is that dominical and Pauline narrative ethics draw strength from their continuity with the characters and teaching of the Old Testament, in a way that this chapter’s focus on the Old Testament as represented just by the abstract concept of ‘law’ or by the Ten Commandments short-changes. The narrative that Jesus inherits and passes along to his disciples (transformed, yet recognisably ‘the same’ in theologically important ways) is more deeply understood as it engages the broad swath of stories that precede Jesus’s advent. That additional depth and richness would well serve Kirk’s purposes in this chapter, if he invoked it.
   Finally, Kirk’s focal emphasis on the cross also provoked me — perhaps counterproductively — to wonder. At the risk of a serious misstep, which I would earnestly recant if proven — Is the cross itself the central, defining characteristic of the paradigm that Kirk (and Gorman, and their numerous admirable forebears) identify? In this chapter, the cross sometimes seemed to figure more importantly than the imperishable vindication that followed it, a little as though the resurrection were an afterthought. Make no mistake: I’m not soft-pedalling the cross, but wondering how truly it captures the ‘and resurrection’ good news if we refer continually to ‘cruciformity’, ‘the cross’, and so on. My concern derives from having thought more and more recently that the relation of the good news of Jesus to the character of holiness, wisdom, and purity adumbrated in the Old Testament can be deflected by accenting the characteristics of suffering. The point of the good news in this regard, after all, is not that we should look forward to misery, or that we should seek out persecution, or that only someone who has been scarred by abuse can understand the gospel; rather, the point is that God’s power for life, for justice, for restoration and harmony, all are greater than the obstacles that sin and death set before them. This is actually a harder teaching for me than the centrality of the cross, because the former version of the cross can modulate into an abstraction, a figure, a generality — whereas the latter requires that I regard my own impending death as no more worrisome than a cold, requires me to regard my financial instability as relatively inconsequential in light of the depth of the riches of God’s glory. Does abstract-metaphorical invocation of ‘the cross’ sometimes serve, ironically, to screen from us the daunting prospect of actually living in the way that Kirk shows Paul to be teaching?
   It takes a provocative thinker to push a reader as far as Kirk has pushed me, especially since I started the book so sympathetic to Kirk’s own vision. For such a vivid treatment of the true power of resurrection life, and the transformation in ourselves that it would call forth if only we could let it, Daniel Kirk should be (humbly) applauded. And now, I’m about ready for that pint.
(The foregoing is my contribution to the Jesus Have I Loved, But Paul? blog tour, organised on behalf of Daniel’s book by Baker Academic. Yesterday, the tour stopped at James McGrath’s place and Jamie Arpin-Ricci’s; the tour continues tomorrow with contributions from Tripp Fuller and Jim West.)