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.


OK, having said that — Second: some instructors will submit that one should do exegesis by following a step-by-step process. Myself, I sit easy with regard to ‘steps’ and process; I don’t understand exegesis to be susceptible to methodical achievement, but the step-by-step approach has the benefit of ensuring that students actually undertake each of the stipulated steps, whereas if one authorises laissez-faire exegesis, students often skip over (possibly fruitful) modes of analysis. The freer model provides less support for weaker students; the more strict approach tends to hobble singer students. In what follows, I will not mandate any particular order, but will propose several moves, or elements, or steps (so long as you don’t suppose that the steps need follow a particular sequence), which cover many of the most important aspects of exegetical practice. I’ll also give some general advice for how one best conducts those moves. If you do most of what I suggest, in the general way that I suggest you do it, you’ll probably do all right — but if you don’t, at least I gave my best advice.
So, here’s something important to remember: The divisions of chapter and verse in your Bible were introduced in the late Middle Ages; they are not divinely inspired nor part Of the author’s work in composition. On the whole, Langton and Stephanus did a very fine job —especially when you consider the length of the Old and New Testaments that they edited, in handwritten manuscripts — but sometimes the ways that editions of the Bible divide chapters, verses, paragraphs, and even sentences obscures a useful element in identifying the strongest possible interpretation. If you have access to a version without chapter and verse divisions, take a look at your passage that way. You may notice that although your assignment says to analyse Mark 9:2-13, you sense that Mark 9:1 is integral to the understanding of these verses.
Even if you’re content with the bounds of your exegetical pericope, you should look into the immediate context of the passage within the text you’re studying. The preceding and following units bear particular attention, since your author quite likely had those most vividly in mind when composing the passage you’re studying. Think of it this way: if you were reading the chapters of a Harry Potter book, or the cantos of Lord Byron’s “Don Juan”, and the sequence of the units you were reading was jumbled up, it would make a huge difference in the away you interpret your reading. In a similar way, the various texts you’re studying we’re put together in this order by someone. (It may have been an author, or an editor, or a team of editors, or the Holy Spirit, or a committee of conspiratorial bishops, but someone thought the bits of your text belonged in the order in which you read them.) Why did they choose this order? What difference does the order make (how would the larger text be different if this specific unit were moved, or removed)? For example, sometimes scholars propose that the Transfiguration is a ‘displaced resurrection narrative’. They argue that someone, at some point, took what had hitherto been understood as a scene when Jesus appeared to disciples after his death, and moved it up to the middle of the narrative about Jesus’ ministry. What is it about that position, in the middle of the story, that (even if those scholars are wrong) might make this an appropriate position for the story?
At the same time, focus (at this first stage) on the context within this particular book. Don’t enlist Chronicles to short-circuit an interpretive problem in Kings, not at the beginning. Most instructors want to know that you can read a particular text carefully, in a focused way; hopping back and forth among a cornucopia of different texts doesn’t display that skill. You may eventually want to study the connection or disconnection between two different books, but for starters you should be asking yourself, ‘If this were absolutely the only book of the Bible to which I had access, what would I make of this passage?’
In other words, for the first instalment of ‘how I suggest that you do exegesis’, begin by thinking through questions about the most fitting extent of the unit you’re studying, about its links to surrounding material in the text you’re studying (including links and allusions to passages that may not be immediately adjacent), and about the way the text functions in the position in which you encounter it. Don’t take its position in the narrative, or in the letter, or in the poem/psalm/collection/whatever, for granted. Don’t take anything for granted — that which you assume may conceal the most plausible solution to your exegetical problem.

2 thoughts on “OK, How <em>Do</em> You Do Exegesis?

  1. As a confirmed layperson, I’m not often called upon to perform exegesis for an audience, but I’ll just throw out there that one good place to start, assuming SOME knowledge of Greek, would be for a student to look up pretty much any portion of Romans in Cranfield’s commentary and watch what he does. This would probably be especially the case if one was not actually studying Romans, so as not to get too involved in the specific conclusions. I’m sure there are probably other equally worthy models for that purpose, but Cranfield is the one I’m familiar with who does the most straightforward job of textual analysis.

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