Category Archives: How To Do Exegesis

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.”]

What Makes Exegetical Research Hard?

[Part Five of this series: one, two, three, four]
Granted, then, that the practice of exegesis is complicated by confusions concerning what the term itself names, concerning the expectations that readers bring to exegesis, concerning the genres in which to express interpretive proposals, and concerning language and what we do with it — granted all those complications, exegesis also involves complications from its involvement with research. Biblical scholars frequently overlook this point, since (in order to become biblical scholars) they often have an insatiable appetite for research; but more typical individuals find research daunting, confusing, sometimes frustrating, sometimes quite unpleasant. Some simply do not have a temperament suited to biblical research, and others might be inclined to pursue research but don’t have an aptitude for the various aspects of research. Sometimes barriers to access to reference materials impede students’ research, and sometimes deadlines (and poor planning) limit the amount of research someone can accomplish. Usually, students undertake exegetical research mainly to satisfy other people’s requirements and expectations, rather than out of a vivid desire to learn; that renders the whole exercise less engaging, more mechanical, than pursuits that draw learners into voluntary commitment to inquiry. Few people have devoted much time to the kinds of activity that exegesis requires; the very unfamiliarity of exegetical research renders the whole activity less satisfying. So one of the fundamental elements of exegesis — research into possible appropriate interpretations — calls for students to operate with underdeveloped skills, in unfamiliar environments, with limited time, at purposes they don’t care for, regardless of their disposition and personal strengths (or weaknesses).
There’s not much we can do about temperament and aptitudes at the start, but it helps us who teach biblical studies to recall that we have been selected as the sort of people who wouldn’t have much trouble with exegetical research, whereas our students include a varied spectrum of learners. Even among those who ardently want to know more about Jesus (or Isaiah, or the Holy Spirit, or whomever), not everyone wants to learn by looking through a stack of books, searching a database for relevant articles, reading, note-taking, comparing, and so on. When we add the consideration that some of these students have already received discouraging feedback on exegetical research (often for reasons they don’t fully understand), their reluctance to throw themselves into detailed investigation of the scholarly interpretations of a given point seems eminently justified.
Beginning exegetes will find further pitfalls in the very topics they’re assigned to study. The topics of exegetical assignments often seem utterly fascinating to scholars, but remote and baffling to students. Perhaps the assignment touches on a nuance that beginners can’t imagine caring a whole lot about, or perhaps the assignment invites attention to a puzzle that only stands out to an observer who already knows the material well, or perhaps the assignment addresses a plainly puzzling or controversial passage that defies explanation at a beginning level. Perhaps the assignment is left open to the students’ choice, leaving them up in the air about what might constitute an appropriate topic. For all these reasons and more, students may feel unmotivated to pursue their research with much energy.
Any lack of motivation will certainly aggravate the fact that research materials are not universally available for handy perusal. Many students don’t live conveniently nearby a research library (and ordinary public libraries typically hold relatively few useful reference works in biblical studies). Even when one can get to a research library, it takes effort to shuttle from databases and catalogs to the shelves that hold books, and sometimes books are misshelved, and sometimes libraries distribute their volumes in confusing ways. When I went to seminary, the library operated collections with three different cataloging systems. The desired books may be circulating, or on reserve, or they may not be in a particular library’s collection. Exegetes who conduct their research online may encounter obstacles gaining access to copyrighted material, if they aren’t associated with a subscribing institution, or if their institution’s privileges do not include off-site browsing. And all this is aggravated by the likelihood that good exegetical research will require multiple trips to the library, refining and adding and abandoning and reviewing various lines of interpretive inquiry. (I will not even describe the user interfaces of some prominent catalog-search software systems, which seem to have been desgned by Mordac, The Preventer of Information Services.) Even if students only perceive themselves to have limited access (see: “lack of motivation” above), the effort of conducting research will diminish the productivity of their research sessions and the likelihood that they will conduct follow-up research to check and enhance their first results.
Finally, the bibliographic problem-solving behavior that characterizes biblical researchers calls for activities at which most people don’t spend much time. Even when I have walked students through exegetical research, showing where I looked for preliminary information, where I looked for further clues, where I would look on library shelves for resources, which periodicals would be more likely to provide helpful articles than others, how to compare two rival interpretive arguments, and so on — even when I demonstrated all the various steps that I typically undertake (with an accompanying handout), students would find it difficult to do what they had just seen me do; that which they had to re-enact on the basis of instruction and demonstration was still awkward and counterintuitive. Unfamiliarity breeds resistance.
[Next: conflicting authorities and criteria]

Exegesis and Language

[Previously on this topic: One, Two, Three.]
Many of the confusions that arise in exegetical inquiry come from the extrinsic factors we’ve been discussing: the ambiguous technical terms, the unstated expectations, the literary genres in which students write, and the multifarious contexts that pertain to interpretive reflection. At the same time, a great deal of the complexity in learning exegesis arises from the fact that we’re working with language. Language sometimes seems so simple that readers pursue their interpretations of the Bible with vigorous reliance on plain common sense. At other times, even casual readers detect intricacies that defy convenient resolution. Moreover, different readers will identify different texts as “transparent” or “opaque”; the text itself provides no marker that indicates “The following bits will be hard to figure out,” or “This last part should have been immediately intelligible to you.” The unpredictably intermittent clarity or murkiness of linguistic expression makes exegesis that much more complicated.
The interpretation of linguistic texts poses even greater challenges to readers whose fluency in a language, even their own native language, may not include the capacity for rigorous critical reflection on the syntax and semantics of the text in question. Many students, for instance, have difficulty learning additional languages because they have not learned the internal mechanics of their own language, and that difficulty may be amplified for students who know a non-standard dialect of their indigenous language better than they know the standard version. Few people write particularly well, and most resist refining the deeply-ingrained compositional habits they acquired as early as grade school. If students do not communicate with critical fluency in their native language, they will probably write that much less clearly and comprehend the texts they read less satisfactorily. Thus, language in itself entails one of the problematic dimensions of exegesis.
The problem of language intensifies, however, as we consider the role of multiple languages in exegesis. Students reading and writing exclusively in one language nonetheless rely on translations and multilingual scholarship produced by others. The monolingual interpreter then faces the enigma of how to adopt one particular translation (or to weigh various translations) without even minimal fluency in the source language. Monolingual interpreters may rely on trusted scholarly authorities, but when scholarly authorities disagree, the monolingual interpreter must take a guess as to which figure to rely on. Yet not all scholarly authorities attain the same degree of fluency in any given language, and the Hebraist of superb refinement may read Greek inexpertly; or, more commonly, qualified working scholars may simply read other languages with competence, but without subtlety or grace (and “subtlety” and “grace” are notoriously difficult to teach or to pin down in evaluation). The monolingual reader must cope with problems of interpretation and expression in one language, while also allowing for even greater problems of interpretation and expression in unknown languages.
The importance of translation for biblical interpretation engenders one further fillip of complication. Translators generally work under the obligation of producing a representation in a target language of what they take the source text to express — fair enough. But In many cases, the source text involves ambiguities, allusions, and connotations that cannot be represented equally in any one translated phrase. The greater problem, though, is not the deficiency of any single translation; the greater problem is the latent proclivity to treat translation as a normative activity for interpreters of the Bible, such that the lurking obligation of arriving at one correct definitive translation shapes the work, the deliberation, and rhetoric of biblical interpreters. Since a translation must, in the end, adopt one representation of each expressive unit; and since the tradition of biblical interpretation has emphatically promoted the Bible’s availability in translation (as opposed, for instance, to the Qu’ranic tradition); and since theological argumentation typically puts a very high value on biblical warrants; hence, the interpretive activity of translating has held center stage for biblical scholars, the disciplinary discourse of biblical scholarship gravitates toward a univocity that fits the requirements of translation and polemics.
Scholars may argue about extent to which textual “meaning” is determinate and univocal — I doubt both characterizations — but regardless of the philosophical status of textual univocity, that axiom not only fuels academic and ecclesiastical controversy, but also underwrites badly-written, dizzyingly-profitable best-selling novels. Moreover, in so doing, it perpetuates a disabling misconception about communication and the Bible: the idea that texts encode a concealed meaning that only the right interpreters can unveil. On one hand, this sensibility produces The Bible Code and The da Vinci Code; on the other, the Left Behind potboilers. All of these rest on the premise that a non-obvious meaning lurks behind the familiar surface of the Bible that unenlightened readers have been interpreting for centuries. Several possible objections should come to mind right away: first, if this is the real, true meaning of the Bible, why did no one identify it before the late nineteenth century? What of all those brilliant-but-presumably-hapless scholars who actually read the Bible fluently in its original languages? However one explains away those queries, though, the more disquieting aspect of the “coded Bible” axiom lies in the extent to which it mirrors the figure of the academic discipline of biblical studies, which frequently represents itself as a revelatory discourse of truth that banishes the misconceptions prevalent among untrained interpreters (especially ecclesiastical interpreters). The epithet “pre-critical” that historians of interpretation used to deploy without hesitation betrays the condescension with which modern scholars have treated their predecessors in the field. As long as contemporary critics insist on the axiom that the Bible encodes a “real meaning” that only the true experts can decrypt, they play into the hands of opponents who contest the qualifications for “true scholarship” rather than contributing to a richer discussion of what makes for sounder biblical interpretations.
A second pitfall that besets efforts to identify the “real meaning” of texts — particularly of the Bible — involves the red herring of “literalism.” Someday somebody will trace out the labyrinthine rhetoric relative to “literal” meaning, but at a very simple level one may note that neither those who espouse a virtuous “literal” interpretation of Scripture (as opposed to a misleading, evasive, fanciful “figurative” meaning) must rely on extrinsic contextual clues to explain which texts really should be read figuratively (for instance, when Jesus says “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho,” he doesn’t literally mean that he’s thinking of some particular fellow who actually made such a business trip); and those who repudiate an ignorant “literalism” lack a consistent rationale for distinguishing texts that should be taken literally from texts that shouldn’t. While the literal/figurative opposition doesn’t correlate with claims about “real meaning,” the two sets of hermeneutical claims intertwine and, by promoting the limited us-vs.-them binary alternatives, reinforce the latent axiom that some encoded real meaning awaits revelation by the appropriate privileged expert. [This paragraph has gone somewhere I don’t want it to; I’ll revise later, but now I want to wrap up for the day.]
In order to help interpreters to practice sound, well-informed exegesis, teachers must attend to the ways that language itself, and their students’ relation to language, and their assumptions about language, all make exegesis more difficult. Teachers should watch out for the effects of monolingualism on their students, should encourage students to a more critical relation to their own most comfortable modes of linguistic expression, and should exemplify both appropriate humility about their mastery of various languages and their appreciation of the tremendous value of learning more Hebrew and Greek (and for practically everyone, there is always more to learn). At the same time, teachers should steer clear of suggesting that knowledge of the original biblical languages affords students with a supernatural anointing that licenses them to know and preach “what this or that really means.” If teachers opt to uphold some model that posits an encrypted meaning subsisting in the text, they should extend themselves to display (to the extent possible) how one can distinguish well-founded practices of decryption from impoverished, misleading interpretive decryption.
[Whew, OK. I’ll probably revisit and emend the paragraph I marked above. When I tackle the next bite of “what makes exegesis so hard,” I’ll move ahead to problems attendant on the conduct of research. For now, I have other obligations to which I have to turn.]

More On Exegesis

[Part One, Two]
Finally, to the extent that sound interpretation entails identifying convincingly illuminating contexts with relation to which to read the text, teachers should bear in mind that the range of possibly-plausible includes so many alternatives that a student’s mind may reel at the prospect. Scholars typically concentrate on a select range of interpretive contexts, within which they have an acutely-trained sense of which proposals make sense. Even beyond their range of specialization, they have the transferred capacity to recognize likelier and less likely gestures — though it’s not that surprising to observe a specialist on the Dead Sea sect (for instance) faltering when dealing with Roman civil religion (or vice versa). Begin with the interpretive contexts based on the histories of Judea/Samaria/Galilee and their inhabitants, the histories of neighboring nations, the literary forms prevalent in the first century (or earlier, for Old Testament interpretation), distinctively Judaic culture (in both Judean and Diasporic flavors), gentile Hellenistic cultures, Roman culture, Mediterranean peasant culture, the dynamics of acquiescence and resistance in imperial /colonial relations, gender relations, the history of Judaism, the rise of rabbinic Judaism as the normative expression of Judaic faith, the history of Christianity, the various theological trajectories toward dominant orthodox Christian belief and toward various divergent expressions of Christianity, the politics of personal identity, the economic infrastructure on which social life rests — and any beginning student should feel justified at a case of vertigo.
Some of the judgments on the “appropriate” context(s) to introduce to textual interpretation rest on generally-shared scholarly assessment, but some involve ideological considerations as well. A beginning interpreter may invoke particular interpretive contexts apparently at random, or may endeavor to mimic the informed judgments and prejudices of the teacher, without appreciating the extent to which these judgments (and prejudices) rest on arguments, experiences, histories, institutional circumstances, and so on. A student who makes interpretive gestures without understanding their contexts may, with persistence, develop the capacity to recognize a fuller picture of these contexts — but such a student may also feel frustration and despair when a given paper’s interpretive approach receives sternly critical disapprobation from the teacher without careful explanation of why that interpretive repertoire doesn’t fit the interpretive circumstances.
By this point, the grounds for confusion and ambiguity in biblical interpretation should be obvious, if not entirely overwhelming. Those who have navigated the daunting hidden shoals and entered the calmer harbor waters of biblical interpretation can help their baffled, vexed colleagues by marking as much of the complexity as possible, explaining whence it arises, and showing ways around the most dangerous reefs. The very common alternative, however, of asserting that recognized scholarship simply approaches texts in an obvious, naturally appropriate, uniquely legitimate way — without attending to the grounds for confusion and error — ill serves eager learners. In order to encourage biblical interpreters to grasp the idioms and conventions of biblical scholarship and deploy the admirable results of millennia of close scrutiny, teachers of exegesis should never minimize the peculiarity of our practice.
[Next time I plan to talk about the problems attendant on the prominence of language in our interpretive practice. That may seem paradoxically obvious — “Duh, we’re working on verbal texts!” — but the very obviousness of language in our work tends to obscure a cornucopia of dimensions of exegesis that stymie beginning exegetes.]

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.]