For most of us, exegesis seems too lofty a term for us to seriously consider, and it certainly sounds far removed from the lives of ordinary Christians. This isn’t helped by the fact that we constantly supplant unnecessarily long words when short words will do (I for one am terribly guilty of this).
Put simply however, good exegesis means to read well, and to read well means to interpret well. So then, if good exegesis is good interpretation, then exegesis of the Bible is really only the first step to what is the science of interpretation: hermeneutics. This is why Mortimer Adler’s excellent book on interpretation (or hermeneutics) is aptly titled, How To Read a Book, and this little tome is well worth investment regardless of your disciplinary sphere, and especially for the purposes of biblical interpretation.
But let me state rather flatly what seems to be the problem for the majority of people: most people most of the time want to read the Bible better; but most people most of the time just simply aren’t reading. Now this is particularly a problem when it comes to reading the Bible if only for the following reason: biblical interpretation is something like a spider’s web of meaning in which the threads of each and every verse are interwoven with one another, and often developed together. Any attempt then, to tease out a single feature is practically impossible, and usually compromises the strength of the interpretive web altogether. The basic point that I am trying to illustrate is that you cannot expect to be an expert in biblical exegesis with a limited knowledge of the Bible – this is casuistry at its finest. Albert Einstein may have said, “Any fool can know. The point is to understand,” but it is equally true that proper understanding is an illusory objective apart from the hard yards of acquiring and retaining information. So, we must read.
Now whether you like it or not, good reading is an intensely intellectual activity, and by transitivity of equality, so too is exegesis. I mean, most of us can read, say, a newspaper article, or a block of narrative, or John Smith and Jane Doe embroiled in a vicious argument over Facebook, slamming away with all battle-hardened vigour on their keyboards. Sadly however, disciplined and deliberate reading has become an almost distant memory, overthrown by the likes of fidget spinners, Netflix, and InstaSnapBook. But these are the basic requirements of good exegesis (and therefore, the bare minimum I will expect of my readers): patience, mental endurance, and deliberate intent.
“But oh,” you say, “I’m not cut out to study the Bible in that kind of depth. I can’t commit myself to that level of cognition.” Shame on you.
Very well, but let me mention this: God didn’t just condescend to us when He took on human form; He equally condescended in the inspiration of the Scriptures. The cross certainly wasn’t glamorous or attractive (even though we Western evangelicals tend to characterise Jesus as a chiselled, well-proportioned man; see below), and neither is grammar, syntax, clauses and phrases. But that’s how God chose to communicate Himself to us. In Jesus Christ we affirm the second person of God; in the Bible we acknowledge the Word of God. To glory in the human nature of God the Son, but to disdain the linguistic nature of Holy Scripture reserves a special place, I think, somewhere between the ludicrous and the irreverence.
Now that that conviction has settled upon your hearts, let’s address the fundamental steps for good exegesis to take place. From the outset, I will say that I will not speak largely on the topic of theology, the reason for which is that because the Bible is essentially a theological text, all exegesis will make theological claims. But here are some basic principles:
- Ask questions. I include this first not because it is the initiating step to a long list of sequences per se, but to indicate its primacy in reading well. There certainly are very few ‘silly’ questions when it comes to the Bible, but this is not to say that all questions are equal. Most people unconsciously ask “what,” “when,” and “where?” but very few ask meaningful questions of “how,” and – perhaps more particularly to exegesis – “why?” Asking questions deliberately and frequently is crucial to good exegesis because the whole aim of reading the Bible is not to know, but to understand.
- Find a reliable text. The Old and New Testaments were written in biblical Hebrew and Greek respectively, and so it figures that the most reliable texts are those transcripts recorded in the original languages. In this respect, if you’re trying to communicate the Bible on a high level, your starting point would be to learn these languages, though even having a single year’s worth of language study is inadequate (and potentially dangerous).
Most people however, do not have the capacity (both in terms of time and aptitude) to devote to these pursuits, but this doesn’t disqualify them from reading the Bible properly. I won’t engage in a debate over Bible translations, but I will tell you which ones I use for what purposes and why.
ESV: I use the English Standard Version for general reading. This is a good, moderate translation that balances grammatical integrity with readability and so, in a sense, you kind of (but not always) get the best of both worlds.
NRSV/NASB: The New Revised Standard Version and the New American Standard Bible are not your most loving friends, but they are your most objective friends. These Bibles make no apologies when they give you a hard time, but once you begin to understand where they’re coming from (American, and they are suckers for the original languages), you’ll appreciate their efforts to preserve the original grammar. For “serious” study, this is where I would point you, but realistically, there is little reason why you would ever opt these translations over the ESV.
(N)KJV: The King James Version gets characterised a lot as the grumpy old man of Bible translations. And sure, he is hated by some, and worshipped by others; but love him or hate him, he is acknowledged by all. Whatever your opinion of the KJV, this translation probably does this best in capturing the essence of biblical poetry (and it reads beautifully). I use the KJV when I’m doing any serious study of poetry in the Bible.
- Understanding propositions.
Words in and of themselves don’t communicate a lot. For instance, “Jesus” makes little sense on its own, and can be used quite indiscriminately. The “Jesus” portrayed in the Gospel of Matthew is not the same characterisation as the “Jesus” portrayed in the Gospel of Mark, or of Luke, or of John, and certainly quite different to the “Jesus” in the Book of Revelation. In fact, “Jesus” alone might not even be in reference to the Christian Bible – “Jesus” might actually be “Jesus Malverde” – a folk saint in Mexico that conveniently happened to be the first reference that popped up when I Googled “Mexican Jesus.”
The point is, words convey substance only when they are used in relation to one another: either by qualifying that word (e.g. “Jesus is love” or “Jesus Christ”), or attributing agency to that word (e.g. “Jesus sent” or “Jesus was sent”). Of course, these rudimentary phrases and clauses themselves have rather ambiguous interpretative values, which is why we need to think in terms of propositions: the basic meaning of a sentence.
Take for instance, the statement: “Jesus is good.”
This statement can have a variety of interpretations: (a) it could be a comment on the morality of Jesus; or (b) it could be a comment on the ability of Jesus (e.g. “Jesus is good [at golf].”); or (c) it could be a comment on the advantage of Jesus (e.g. “Jesus is good [for me].”); or a comment on the quality of Jesus (e.g. “Jesus is good[ness embodied].”). Of course, these propositions (that is, meanings) do not have the same interpretive values (and in fact, at least one of them probably isn’t true), but I think I have illustrated my point sufficiently: clauses and phrases generally do not carry concrete propositions in and of themselves.
NB: “how” and “why” are great questions to ask in these instances.
- Relating Propositions to One Another.
So once you understand the syntax of a statement, you might find that the meaning is still not yet altogether clear. This is because the meaning of a statement is usually supplemented (and sometimes even supplanted) by surrounding statements.
Take for instance, 1 Thessalonians 5:6:
“So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober.”
Taken as an isolated sentence, this is a pretty concrete imperative. But thankfully (hopefully) we all have sense enough to realise that such statements are coloured and qualified by accompanying propositions. This is a good example of why identifying pericopes (sections of a text, particularly that of the Bible; and for any book for that matter), are crucial to interpretation. Let’s look at the fuller pericope of 1 Thessalonians 5:1-6:
“1Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. 2For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3 While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. 4But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. 5For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. 6So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober.”
Or let’s look at Philippians 2:12:
“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling …”
Taken in isolation, this propositional statement would be understood to the general effect of: “I need to figure out where I stand in terms of my faith.” But our understanding of this statement needs to be tempered with the following verse, “… for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” It is clear that in relating these propositional statements together that there is a clear sense in which the passage should be understood as: “As a Christian there are certain practices of my faith that I am obligated to do, because God is working in me for (probably) the goodwill of other human beings and for his pleasure.” A whole theological principle hinges upon the (correct) interpretation of this verse.
Likewise, John 3:16:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Most people have probably misunderstood this passage because they think either (a) don’t read Greek (this is a great reason why you should learn), or (b) they think it is unspiritual to respect literary principles in the Bible. Inasmuch as God’s love is certainly of the highest degree, “so” (Gk. “οὕτως”) is in reference to the manner (that is, in what way) God loved the world. This is qualified in the preceding verses of 14 and 15, and is grammatically coherent because οὕτως is always used to refer to something previously mentioned.
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life … For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Relating propositions to one another is significant then, not only because:
(a) it helps us to realise the meaning of any single statement in light of surrounding statements; but also,
(b) it allows us to identify relationships between propositions; and
(c) taken even further, we can understand the purposes of the author (though in limited ways for certain texts); and
(d) recognise the logical progression of an argument (though this only becomes readily apparent as you read and understand the full scope of a text).
- Finally, appreciate the beauty of the Bible.
I use the word ‘beauty’ deliberately because I think there is an important sense in which Christians are not struck by the beauty of the Bible; that is, the combination of qualities (theological, moral, ethical, aesthetic, literary, historical) that makes reading the Bible pleasing. There is a part of me that feels mortally wounded every time I hear someone set the Bible down after a few minutes with an exasperated sigh, “I can’t do this anymore”; or when someone mentions in passing with an air of nonchalance, “Oh, I haven’t read my Bible this past week.”Now – believe me – reading the Bible is hard work. It requires the full effect of both our cognitive enzymes and the Holy Spirit for us to engage with the Word of God on a meaningful level. But I am also of the opinion that if you approach Scripture with a high view, and that you recognise from the outset that if this truly is God’s Word, then you should be able to perceive (at the very least) reflections of godly beauteousness that other texts may take up as a cheap imitation, but certainly never matched. Approach the Bible with the level of esteem it’s due, and you will not set it down without effect. Practically, this usually means teasing out the finer details of a passage (usually these details are encased in the syntax of a statement, inner-biblical allusions i.e. parallel language of one passage to another, or careful use of particular words). We will go into some really great examples of this at work in a later article.
So, perhaps the question to be addressed here is not so much to do with interpreting the Bible per se, but rather with stirring our affections to want to interpret the Bible more widely and deeply; to make the time to read the Word of God with deliberate intention. And I think (and this may just be pure speculation) the problem that appears to be plaguing Christians of our demographic is not even with reading the Bible and making intellectual assent our goal, but it is with the practice of the Bible that appears to be the great stumbling block.
In the next article, we shall look at the hermeneutic cycle in operation holistically, and hopefully lay down some ethical paradigms for biblical interpretation.