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]

2 thoughts on “What Makes Exegetical <em>Research</em> Hard?

  1. Glad to see the series continuing! Helpfully articulates all that jumble of stuff that I catalogue under, “This assignment doesn’t always go like I mean it to go.”

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