Category Archives: How To Do Exegesis

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…]

No Traction

I could be posting about the weather in Glasgow this morning, with snow-slicked slippy pavements so that one gets a backache just from walking with tensed muscles at every step — but rather I’m talking about the widespread perception that ‘exegesis’ and ‘hermeneutics’ concern the production of a correct answer, rather than (respectively) the rigorous analysis of a text and the theoretical articulation of how of interpretation works.

Freezing Fog in Glasgow


I just noticed this since Kelvin Facebook-linked to a post in which Gillan Scott offhandedly observes, ‘As those on both sides fight over the exegesis and hermeneutics (i.e. the correct interpretation) of the Biblical texts…’.

As long as biblical studies and hermeneutics are haunted by the longing for an illusory ‘correct interpretation’, we won’t get anywhere; the stakes are too high for combatants who can’t risk loosing their death-grip on their professedly correct interpretations. So part of the reason my work draws less uptake than do those essays and books that promise to guide readers to the proper 13 steps to arriving at the correct interpretation lies in my stubborn unwillingness to play that game. Of course one can always identify particular interpretations as correct relative to certain bounded criteria and premises — but people really want not just to be right relative to people-like-them, but specifically to be able to use their ‘rightness’ to bludgeon others into acquiescence. It won’t work; it has a long, demonstrable history of not working; but since participants in this fantasy gladiatorial sport can’t consider the possibility that their energies amount to nothing more than a charade. Big rewards fall to those who play the charade exceptionally convincingly — but the case for a different approach to hermeneutics gets no traction in a world where most participants mostly want to shore up their preconceptions.

Tell Me Something

I’m beginning to think I’m just an incorrigible old crank, a conclusion that many people surely reached a long time ago. Still, as long as I have responsibility for teaching and evaluating students, I’m going to stick with this one. I’ll add it to the “How To Exegesis?” series somewhere, but for now I can’t contain my impatience (‘My heart was hot within me; while I pondered, the fire burst into flame; I spoke out with my tongue’).

If you want to make a positive impression on me in my role as a scholar, show me that you understand the concept of an ‘argument’. Indicate that you have a point, to which you want to win my assent or at least my respect; structure your presentation, or your essay, or your manuscript-submitted-for-refereeing, or your book, or whatever, with a view to establishing that point. Don’t burden my already-complicated life with copious distracting information that doesn’t pertain clearly to the point you’re discussing. Don’t leave it up to me to guess what you want to demonstrate; that’s not my job, it’s your job to make your point unmistakably clear (‘that he who runs may read it’). You may want to summarise other scholars’ work to support your point; fine, well done, but there’s no need to cover their entire oeuvre. Epitomise the relevant part of their scholarship, make explicit the relevance you propose for it, and move on. Imagine you’re in a courtroom, with a grumpy, bewigged QC scolding you for wasting the court’s time, or with an eager opposing advocate who persistently interrupts with cries of ‘Relevance!’ You may know and admire another scholar’s work, or you may have put in laborious hours of study and note-taking for which you want some benefit, but unless the summarisation actually contributes to establishing your point, I don’t want to read about it, and I will take a less favourable view of your position (extraneous summarisation suggests that you yourself don’t know the difference between what’s pertinent and what isn’t).

You’re 100% entitled to not care what I think — plenty of people share that sentiment! But if you want to win my approval, it serves your own interests to show me a genuine argument: a specific claim, supporting evidence, and sound reasoning. I may agree or disagree in the end, but I always admire a strong argument — and I am always disappointed by poor argumentation, even when I think it aims at a conclusion I deem correct.

Long Range Planning

Just noted, for now — I anticipate gathering up all my ‘How To Do exegesis’ posts and compiling them into a PDF that I’ll make freely available. I expect that elements of that compendium will eventually grow into a published book about exegesis, partly into the more technical volume on Exegetical Method and more, probably, into a pedagogical guide to committing successful exegesis. In the latter case I’d go over the whole thing to smooth out wrinkles, harmonise divergences, and so on — but I expect to leave the blogged musings up indefinitely (after all, they’re all there anyway in the individual blog posts).

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?

What Is ‘Evidence’?

One of the great problems in learning exegesis is that ‘evidence’ is not what you think it might be.† Or — to be more precise — most students don’t apply themselves to learning how to formulate a convincing exegetical argument; while student papers show many sorts of weakness,* I find the leading exegetical problem to involve how my students handle evidence in exegetical argument.
There’s a strong cultural reflex to treat the notion of ‘evidence’ as (pardon me) self-evident. When a much-publicised trial hinges on whether this or that item is admissible as evidence, many civilians feel outrage (or relief) based on our prior determination of whether the accused should be found guilty; if we know she did it, we wnt the knife to be counted as evidence (indeed, we usually simply assert that it is evidence), or if we know she’s been wrongfully accused, we feel certain that the knife doesn’t count as evidence (or that its implications as evidence is uncertain). All the more so do students typically approach the question of evidence in exegesis as a matter of justifying their prior intuitions (or convictions).
There’s surely no way to extirpate our intuitions and convictions from the way we weigh evidence, but if we don’t begin with a shared understanding what counts as evidence in biblical-interpretation discourses, and how that evidence functions, then we’re practically guaranteed to speak at cross-purposes. Imagine a courtroom in which prosecution and defence operated without any shared definition of ‘admissible evidence’; the judge would have some intractable challenges in evaluating their respective cases (and would quite likely fall back on exactly the unevidenced intuitions and convictions we’re trying to escape). If exegesis amounts to nothing more, it must amount to broadly agreed-upon conventions concerning ‘evidence’.
So, among the rules of evidence for biblical scholarship, one might enumerate the following:
Nothing can simply be taken at face value. Whether it be an evangelist’s report of what Jesus did or said, Pauline authorship of a letter, the function of the aorist participle, or the superscriptions of the gospels, or any other thing, one may not simply take it as a settled question. Quickly following this point: if you have [exegetical] reasons for taking your point for granted (that’s what footnotes are for), or if you’re addressing an audience that recognises a given point as sufficiently agreed-upon that it doesn’t require further justification (at the Evangelical Theological Society, one does not have to justify the assumption that Paul wrote Ephesians; at the Society of Biblical Literature, you need at least to note that you’re aware that most of your interlocutors don’t think Paul wrote Ephesians), then go ahead. One doesn’t have to footnote every observation. But once you’re aware that you can’t simply take it for granted that Paul wrote Ephesians, once you’re ready to do the work to back up that assumption with arguments, then you’re already working along exegetical lines.
But too many students substitute special pleading (or ignorance) for argument. ‘But Matthew was there!’ they cry — not because they’ve read Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, but because they simply haven’t caught the point that maybe Matthew’s Gospel is an anonymous text to which an apostle’s name was affixed retrospectively. To hark back to the judicial comparison, ‘Matthew saw it’ is hearsay; ‘The early church ascribed this claim to an eyewitness, so an eyewitness saw it’ won’t convince a judge any more than ‘My neighbour said that someone witnessed AKMA dumping a half-ton of garbage off a fifteen foot cliff at the bottom of which there was another pile of garbage, so AKMA must have done it’ will convict me of littering and creating a nuisance. But under ordinary circumstances, 27 eight-by-ten colour glossy photographs with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one will convince the same (clear-sighted) judge. We don’t have any direct evidence (comparable to photographs, which themselves might be staged anyway) from the first century — but we have numerous almost-universally-agreed premises,** the knowledge of which marks one essential step toward participating in exegetical discourse.
If there are some claims that function within exegetical discourses as taken-for-granted, there are also what we might call “second-degree premises’ — claims that are not held by a majority of scholars, but which are well-accepted enough to be recognised without causing a fuss. If important exegetical leverage depends on such a second-degree premise, though, one should be prepared for those who do not share it to count that reliance as a weakness to the claim.
This is getting too long, but I should not break off before I mention the topic of how exegetes work with evidence. I’m unsure about what to say in this regard; a great deal seems to be implied by the pattern of first-degree premises that a particular collective abides by. All such patterns have internal inconsistencies of oe sort or another, that will seem inexplicable to a novice and irritating to an outsider, especially an outsider student. The outsider and the novice will have internal inconsistencies, too, though, and the odds heavily favour the likelihood that the academic inconsistencies are better worked out than the intuitive inconsistencies of the unschooled outsider. In any case, students need to learn not just “what counts as evidence’, but also what are the licit uses to which evidence can be put. Hard as it is for me to describe this in a general way, it’s all the more difficult for someone who hasn’t spent the last dozen or so years thinking about the nature of evidence in biblical argument‡ — so most of the time, the student will have to learn by following an instructor’s example and internalising those patterns, or by reading a great deal of scholarly literature and absorbing from those writings the sorts of moves one can make. If I can come up with a better way of learning the appropriate uses of evidence, I promise I’ll write about it.
Now, though, it’s getting late, and I want to watch a TV show.


† One of my favourite books, one that I would lvoe to teach in a postgraduate seminar someday, is Questions of Evidence in the Critical Inquiry special symposium series (I mentioned it in my ‘Syllabus of my Imagination’ post). Questions takes the kind of discussion I open up here and shoots it into the intellectual stratosphere.
* To wit: bad spelling; weak sentence structure; incorrect use of words; lazy, inconsistent, bibliographic style; incoherent paragraphing; stream of semiconsciousness composition; utter absence of elucidating structure (related to preceding weakness). Note that none of these is an exegetical problem! If you want to write a better exegesis paper, begin by making sure you’re writing to the best of your abilities.
** Of course, the specific range of ‘almost-universally-agreed premises’ varies somewhat from pool of exegetes to pool of exegetes; the agreed premises at Birmingham aren’t the same as the agreed premises at Aberdeen, and the agreed premises will vary somewhat even at the same school, depending on who staffs a particular department. Likewise, the agreed premises of a given school of exegetes will be subject to change over time as some arguments lose the strength of their predominance, or as they gain adherents (taking changes in the status of Q as an example). Students whose intuitions and convictions do not match those of their instructors may need to stretch their analytical capacities to granting their instructors’ premises on a provisional basis, if only better to understand the ways that they handle evidence and arguments. Provisional insight into others’ arguments need not amount to a case of ‘welcoming one who does not walk in the truth’, but more precisely to ‘becoming all things to all people, that you may win the more’. Or just the basic rhetorical common sense that if you want to persuade someone of something, it usually works better if you argue on their terms.
‡ Either it will be difficult, or it will be described easily on the basis that ‘what we do is correct, and this is how to do it’, without the crucially important consideration that other top-rank scholars do things differently elsewhere.

When Criticism Isn’t Critical

I don’t remember where I left off in the “How To Do Exegesis” series, but this afternoon I’m provoked to write about a phenomenon that puzzles me as a scholar, frustrates me as a colleague, and depresses me as a teacher. This is the phenomenon of which I’m thinking: Sometimes a reputable scholar responds to reasoned challenges by noting some of the sources on which the challenge draws, and calling into question other points that these scholars make. That’s too abstract. What I mean is that sometimes Lester (let’s say) will cite points that Kirk, Hays, and Bulkeley, make relative to a critique of Adam. Lester may say, ‘Kirk has shown an alternative interpretation of Rom 3:1-8, which makes the grounds for Adam’s assertion that “Paul understands the Old Testament as a collection of oracles such as a chresmologos would consult” conflicts with Hays’s and Bulkeley’s treatments of prophetic oracles’. OK so far? Lester thinks I’m wrong, and he draws on Kirk, Hays, and Bulkeley to make his point.
This is where the irritating part comes in. In this hypothetical case, Adam sometimes responds, ‘Of course, Kirk reads Romans as apologetic literature, a long-discredited analysis. As such, he would be attracted to such counterintuitive proposals as Hays’s misreading of Isaiah, and Bulkeley’s postmodern skewering of Amos. Lester here is simply barking up the wrong tree’.
Do you see what I just did? Nothing in the whole response addresses the substance of Kirk’s claim, or Hays’s, or Bulkeley’s. When Lester identifies Kirk’s treatment of Rom 3:1-8, he calls me to respond to that issue, not whether I think Kirk is right about Romans as apologetic. Kirk may be 100% correct about Rom 3:1-8 even if Romans is better read as epideictic, or ambassadorial, or a thank-you note to his auntie. Neither does my riposte above rebut Kirk’s reference to Hays or Bulkeley; characterising these scholars doesn’t amount to demonstrating that their arguments don’t hold water.
When we aspire to critical interpretation, we volunteer to meet the standard of the best plausible explanation. The best plausible explanation may not be the one we like the most, or the one that our denominational authorities insist is correct, or that comforts us on our sickbed, or that supports arguments that we espouse for other reasons. There’s noting intrinsically wrong with preference, denominational loyalty, consolation, or our other convictions. They just don’t warrant our critical exegetical arguments.
So we may opt to stick with our favourite reading of Romans 3:1-8, even though we know that Stack-Nelson has made a convincing argument that leads to a different conclusion. That’s OK, it’s a preference, not a reasoned, critical conclusion. We may be loyal, obedient representatives of our Calvo-pisco-ptist Evangelische Humanist Association (or whatever), so long as we don’t try to represent our fidelity to CEHA doctrine as critical interpretation of Romans 3:1-8. We may pray ‘Let God be true, though everyone else a liar’ while tossing and turning in bed with a feverish flu (why one would do so is a separate question). We may think of circumcision as a form of child abuse, even if we agree that Romans 3:1f insists that circumcision is very beneficial in every way. All OK, so long as one distinguishes what one thinks on other grounds from what one affirms as a critical reader.
But if, in the give-and-take of critical discussion, Lester cites Stack-Nelson’s interpretation of Rom 3:1-8 as evidence against my argument, it’s my obligation to address that claim one of several ways. I may show the reasons that I find Stack-Nelson’s claim unconvincing. Or I may allow that she has propounded a convincing interpretation, but that it doesn’t necessarily undermine my own. Or I may give a reason that her argument doesn’t count as evidence (perhaps she made it in the context of a discussion of the relative merits of punk rock bands, rather than Greek-language analysis of Pauline epistles).
If instead of addressing Stack-Nelson’s claim against me, I slough it off by disputing a different aspect of her argument, or by questioning her judgment in general, or by suggesting interpretive guilt by negative association (‘she’s a heretic’, ‘she’s a fundamentalist’), by throwing out a red herring (‘She obviously hasn’t read Carey’s recent monograph’ without explaining how Carey’s monograph affects Stack-Nelson’s proposal), by appealing to my reputation (‘How many keynotes has she given? How many books has she written?’), or by ignoring her, I’m no longer speaking with the authority of critical scholarship. Anyone can dodge a question; meeting a challenge, allowing its full force, and explaining your position relative to that challenge, that’s what a critical scholar is called to do.
So, sometimes ‘criticism’ isn’t critical, in the sense that we don’t really need critical exegesis for the need at hand (when I’m lying a bed with the flu, I want someone to make me feel better, not to parse Greek participles) (though now that I mention it, participles are a lot of fun, and might make a diverting relief from neuralgia and overheating). And sometimes criticism isn’t ‘critical’ in the sense that the arguments from ostensibly responsible scholars neglect actually to address the issue in question honestly and analytically.
Our jobs in conducting exegetical research require us to put forward what seems the best explanation of the evidence before us, to give reasons that this proposal better fits the evidence than does our neighbour’s, to join up as strong as case as we can think up, and to be aware that sensible interlocutors will still have good reasons to reach other conclusions. We may not enjoy admitting that Judy Stack-Nelson has a very strong case for her opposing theory, or that Tim Bulkeley’s recondite postmodernism actually does laudable work with the Hebrew text, or that we just never remember which Iron Age level Chris Hays’s reconstruction of Isaiah belongs to (or even whether it was Bronze Age or Some Other Metal Age), or that Brooke Lester remembered aspects of ancient oracle-mongering that we hadn’t taken into account, or that Daniel Kirk’s broader exposition of Romans makes his particular reading of 3:1-8 more likely than ours (which doesn’t fit tidily into any overall reading of the epistle).
(This goes with my series on ‘How To Do Exegesis’, which may turn into a book someday, but which aims to spell out some of the aspects of interpretive labour that my colleagues sometimes think of as self-evident. The first post is here, second here, third here, fourth here, fifth here, sixth here, a relevant but non-serial post here, and some miscellaneous notes and quotations elsewhere in the ‘How To’ category. If you want to use some of these for your teaching, by all means help yourself, unless you charge for them or take credit for having prepared them. I did not consult the actual scholarly positions of any of the friends I invoke here; they’re all smart, wise, critical, profound, and correct, except when they depart from what I think.)

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.

Cranmer’s Prologue to the Great Bible

For the whole cornucopia of reasons that you can readily enough recite — academic, Anglican, biblical scholar, theoretician, typographer, preacher, reader of Henrician/Elizabethan literature, partisan of the non-verbal elements of communication — I have long been fascinated with Thomas Cranmer’s writings on biblical interpretation. One favourite of mine, his Prologue to the Great Bible, has brought me back, time and again. I wanted to be able to show students what the early printed versions of the preface looked like. Many people casually assume that “typeset, printed works” equals “uniformity of content”, but reading the Prologue in its various editions reminds you that the print revolution was accompanied by a long interval of textual fluidity. Even within the same edition, words are spelled differently, punctuation marks are inserted almost randomly, and sentences meander for indefinite durations.
It’s great!
So this weekend, partly for students and partly for myself, I finally whipped up a version of the Prologue that I can use for classes or for reference. The project was made much easier — nay, possible — by Jeff Lee’s having designed and offered to the public the typefaces JSL Blackletter (which I used for the Prologue itself) and JSL Ancient (which I used for the regularised English version). I then set the blackletter and regularised versions on opposite pages, and made a PDF of the result. This version doesn’t correspond precisely to any one edition of the Prologue; there are scans of the Prologue to do that work. Instead, it compiles an eclectic text according to the conventions of abbreviation and expansion, typography and spelling, that the Prologue itself displays in its various editions. Unless I’ve made a mistake, nothing in this does not appear in one or another edition of the Prologue, so it might as well be the result of a sixteenth-century printer preparing an A5 edition for digital distribution (and if I have made a mistake, well, I’ll go back and correct it forthwith).
Now, back to work that’s more obviously productive for my day job.

On Knowing Greek and Hebrew

”Do I understand Greek and Hebrew? Otherwise, how can I undertake, as every Minister does, not only to explain books which are written therein but to defend them against all opponents? Am I not at the mercy of everyone who does understand, or even pretends to understand, the original? For which way can I confute his pretense? Do I understand the language of the Old Testament? critically? at all? Can I read into English one of David’s Psalms, or even the first chapter of Genesis? Do I understand the language of the New Testament? Am I a critical master of it? Have I enough of it even to read into English the first chapter of St. Luke? If not, how many years did I spend at school? How many at the University? And what was I doing all those years? Ought not shame to cover my face?”
John Wesley, “An Address to the Clergy,” in Works X:491.
Hat tip to Michael Bird, who passes the compliment on to Ken Schenck in a broken link

Conflicting Exegetical Criteria and Authorities

[Part Six of a series on “what makes exegesis difficult?” that otherwise includes parts one, two, three, four, and five.]

Although one could go on indefinitely citing the sources of frustration and confusion for students who are beginning the study of exegesis, I’ll conclude my survey here by describing a structural problem with the exercise: that is, that beginning students face an incoherent diversity of claims about proper critical interpretation. The incoherence doesn’t derive from the scholarly sources themselves (usually), but from the absence of any overarching explanation of whence the teeming variety of interpretive possibilities arises, and what relation each alternative bears to others. Since a beginning interpreter doesn’t have the benefit of extensive experience dealing with the players and their positions, the hyperabundance of interpretive options challenges students to make interpretive decisions without the rich understanding of the discourse that they might gain after years of attentive study. As a result, many students hew to a safer, or more comfortable standard. They either adopt and defend a consistent factional position (upholding a doctrinal, or ideological, or local, or conspiratorial, or whatever sort of standard), or latch onto interpretations because they “like” them.
In defense of teaching scholars, I will affirm that we do talk about criteria and authorities, and we typically assign exercises aimed at cultivating a student’s fluency in deploying criteria and weighing various authorities. Such exercises frequently work out fine for people who will eventually become scholars themselves, so it’s more difficult for us to recognize how baffling they seem to many students. If a reader approaches the field of biblical criticism without being attuned to the intricacies of judgment in the discipline, though, they’re likely to make initial assessments that depart seriously from the normative target zone of academic criticism; and, having made a divergent initial assessment, the reader is likely to draw questionable conclusions, and frame arguments that wobble unsteadily away from the goal for which the instructor is aiming. If a popular author claims that Jesus spoke classical Hebrew in his daily comings and goings, and a student reader accepts this claim, the student will embark on a series of inferences and evaluations that take an exegetical essay onto precarious ground — but a beginning exegete doesn’t necessarily have the standing to evaluate an assertion made by a prominent interpreter, especially when the claim in question tends to confirm the student’s initial inclinations. When an instructor hands back a paper with comments that suggest the trajectory and scale of the beginning exegete’s error, the student-writer has reason to feel discouraged, perplexed, and somewhat resentful of the teacher (“Who is Prof. Vexillus to question Popular Author?” “Prof. Vexillus is grading me unfairly just because he doesn’t agree with so-and-so” or “because she’s a heretic” or “because he’s a fundamentalist.” ). {To an extent, I think this repeats claims I’ve advanced earlier, but it’s been a while since I read the previous entries in the series.}
The confusing conflict of criteria arises in part from genuine, unresolved conflicts within the interpretive fields. Archaeologists who concentrate on material culture have been known to derogate their colleagues who endeavor to reconcile textual material with material evidence, and vice versa. Interpreters who invoke social-scientific approaches have been known to belittle interpreters who operate primarily with grammatical and comparative-literary criteria. Literary-critical interpreters scorn scholars who (allegedly) neglect matters of plot, character, and narrative technique. Interpreters who bring to the foreground the interests of non-dominant groups question the integrity of “mainstream” dominant-group interpreters. And, of course, critical academic interpreters deride readers who take less erudite, more populist approaches. The list could go on indefinitely, and it matters not because someone is right and someone else is wrong, nor even because people ought to be more charitable about their colleagues, but because beginning interpreters don’t have a sufficient acquaintance with these disciplinary streams to assess the weight of one over against another; they have to just take sides, perhaps with the first rhetorical powerhouse they encounter, perhaps with the interpreter who most forcefully confirms the student’s pre-existing biases, perhaps with the scholar who seems to debunk the follies of the student’s home community, frequently with interpreters who resonate with the sermons or Bible studies that drew the student toward formal study of the Bible in the first place. Students have a built-in incentive to conform to their teachers’ apparent predisposition, and teachers have a tremendous advantage in presenting a persuasive case for their perspective (and a flimsy case for “the other side”), though sometimes a contrarian student adopts an opposing position in the hope of confuting a professor. All of these exemplify very common classroom phenomena, and none of them involve making a well-informed, balanced discernment. If students don’t mind a false start or two, or if they’re exceptionally quick at picking up the rhetorical dynamics of a discourse, they’ll manage fine. Many students, however, assimilate the rhetoric and etiquette of a discourse relatively slowly, and many lose interest quickly if they are not evaluated favorably from the outset. If we want to teach exegesis to a whole class, we have to keep in view the interests not just of the apt learners (the ones like us), but of the less rapid learners who are apt to lose heart when their efforts garner lukewarm (or negative) feedback.
The same sorts of conflicts among criteria arise from divisions among disciplinary currents arise also among the various authoritative sources to which an exegete might appeal. Very obviously, different schools and teachers rely on different textbooks, different reference texts, and so on. Further, though, the range (and credibility) of sources that a student might find in the library will vary by institution and teacher. And although online databases lead to staggeringly vast repositories of interpretive judgments, these sources do not come with obvious identifying markers that guide the interpreter toward (or away from) arguments discordant from their interpretive academic habitat. Again, some students will pick up very quickly that certain journals are welcome reference sources here, unwelcome there — and the quicker students will notice patterns of bibliographic citation and commendation (or omission and deprecation) — but more nearly average students won’t notice these patterns as quickly, if at all. Students who struggle with the whole enterprise may not recognize institutional/professorial approbation at all, and some students will operate on the premise that anything that appears in the library’s collection (and increasingly, anything that they find online) bears an imprimatur of sound authority.
Students who face this welter of conflicting criteria and authorities confront a two-fold assignment. Not only do they have to compose a well-reasoned, adequately-written exegetical exercise, but they also have to assess, interrogate, affirm, dispute, and arrange the criteria and authorities on which they draw. This is as it must be: even if we try to direct students’ attention to the text itself, apart from secondary interpretive guidance, we ourselves are functioning as an interpretive filter for their deliberation. We permit them to use certain translations and discourage others, we assign certain textbooks and ignore others, we present certain information in lectures and disregard other information. All of this doesn’t mean that there’s no point in concentrating on the text — it just means that even this emphasis doesn’t equal “unmediated” or “the plain sense of the text.” (If it were so very unmediated or plain, students wouldn’t need our guidance in the exercise.)
It won’t do to try to suppress the social, political, theological, and institutional aspects of exegesis — unless, of course, one honestly believes that one has escaped the influence of social, political, theological, and institutional effects on one’s interpretive practice (and one expects that one’s students can likewise hope to attain such interpretive purity). I have no word from the Lord on this, but I suggest making explicit some of these factors, and explaining that they are not simply whimsical, but are integrally related to the sound practice of exegesis as “we” (Methodists, secular critics, liberals, orthodox, Chicago grads, white males, Karen Christians, whatever) have critically received and perpetuated those practices. If one grants that “we” are who we are for good reasons, those same reasons ground our affirmation of the social, political, theological, and institutional flavors of our exegetical practice.
Some of our students (and colleagues) may well want to query these premises. That’s OK, too, so long as they have sound reasons for their criticism. There’s no magic wand that’ll compel our interlocutors to accept our premises. The best we can do is to practice our exegesis with integrity and consistency, and to make explicit as many of the good reasons for our premises and our interpretations as time permits.
We ought also point to the reasons that our interpretive heroes should be respected, and the reasons our misguided interlocutors have gone astray. Moreover, we should acknowledge the weaker parts of our heroes’ positions, and the strongest case for our adversaries’ positions. Otherwise, we’re inculcating a catalog of correct answers — not teaching exegetical reasoning.  
This will frustrate students who hanker after right answers for confuting the heretic, thwarting the fundy, putting ideological interpreters in their place, unveiling the plain, objective truth that only people like you recognize. It may cause a degree of stress if your colleague(s) adhere to one of the various partis pris that deem themselves the beleaguered bastions of untrammeled good sense. Still, I can’t think of a way to draw students into exercising the kind of resourceful, self-reliant, prudent, long-run exegetical judgment that enhances essays, sermons, and instruction.
[Next — when I get to it — I’ll begin describing the practice of exegesis as scholars practice it among themselves, in terms that open up to the very different situation of a beginning student venturing to compose an interpretive argument under the evaluative judgment of a pedagogical authority figure. This portion will try to articulate the characteristics that distinguish critical exegetical deliberation and persuasion (on one hand) from cheerleading, brainwashing, partisanship, incorrigible idiosyncrasy, and blind guessing (on the other). After that, I anticipate sketching the specific qualities that belong to the diverse interpretive “methods.”]