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.]

3 thoughts on “What’s So Hard About Exegesis?

  1. Here’s a sign of students’ hesitancy and confusion about what they’re attempting in exegesis courses: I’ve observed that my students (with whom, as you may guess from these posts, I try to be explicit about what I’m asking of them) show a very strong proclivity to approach exegetical claims as questions, rather than as assertions. When they work their way to the verge of an insightful possibility, they tend to ask whether such-and-such might be the case, then ask a follow-up, or sometimes just change the subject back to surer terrain. These questions would oftn make good exegetical theses, but students decline to assert them, then provide the logical/evidential backing for their proposal.
    Now, students have some basis for fearing that they’ll be smacked around for making a “wrong” exegetical move, especially when they don’t already know the teacher. Sadly, hard as some of us try to disarm such fears, students have all too much experience to justify their suspicion of us. Even if we aren’t punishing them for taking the wrong interpretive path, their (lack of) understanding of our comments and criticisms will often reach for the simpler conclusion, that their answer was “incorrect.”

  2. Coming to this series late, I am reminded of an early exegesis I wrote early in my undergraduate theological studies. I had analysed the text, I had laid out the various options that the commentators had suggested and I had said which one I preferred (which may even have been a combination of several approaches). The comment I got back from the marker was that I had made a very good attempt, but I needed to be able to back up my preferences for interpretations with reasons.

    I recognised this as a very fair comment, but only of limited helpfulness because at that stage of my studies I really didn’t have the tools or knowledge to be able to do this. I didn’t even know enough to be able to say that I preferred particular interpretations because they sat well with my denominational tradition, which was probably the reason. I didn’t feel as though I was being punished or that I had given an “incorrect” answer but I was at a total loss as to how I might justify my taking the side of one giant of New Testament studies over that of another when I was still struggling to make sense of the Greek text.

    I was very grateful for the comments and criticisms on this piece of work, especially since the first exegesis I had done (for a different member of the faculty) had simply had a tick and the letter C on it. When I went to ask why I had only got a C and what I could do to improve, all I got was “It’s a competent analysis of the text and it’s worth a C.” and the suggestion that I could “write more” – not helpful when I’d already written 2,600 words for a 2,500 word limit task.

    I agree that one of the essentials of teaching exegesis is giving the student a clear definition of what exegesis is in the context in which they are working. I think, though, that a critical part of learning how to do good exegesis is having the opportunity to read examples of good exegesis and to have the good bits pointed out and another is being given constructive feedback on one’s attempts. Of course, this takes significant amounts of time for the teacher/marker and is probably frustrating when most of the class just wants to pass.

    Of course, you may have dealt with this in subsequent articles. I’ll find out as I read them, I guess. 🙂

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