Elements of Biblical Exegesis
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Elements of Biblical Exegesis

A Basic Guide for Students and Ministers

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eBook - ePub

Elements of Biblical Exegesis

A Basic Guide for Students and Ministers

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World-renowned scholar Michael Gorman presents a straightforward approach to the complex task of biblical exegesis. This third edition of Gorman's widely used and trusted textbook (over 60, 000 copies sold) has been thoroughly updated and revised to reflect developments in the academy and the classroom over the past decade. The new edition explains recent developments in theological interpretation and explores missional and non-Western readings of the biblical text. Adaptable for students in various settings, it includes clear explanations, practical hints, suggested exercises, and sample papers.

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Part One

The Task

Take up and read, take up and read.
—A child at play, overheard by Augustine, according to the Confessions 8.12
And now the end has come. So listen to my piece of advice: exegesis, exegesis, and yet more exegesis!
—Karl Barth, in his farewell to his students before his 1935 expulsion from Germany
What Is Exegesis?
Whether you are reading the Bible for the first time or you have been reading it since early childhood, there will be passages that seem nearly impossible to understand. There will also be passages that you think you understand but that your instructors, classmates, fellow church members, parishioners, or friends from other religious traditions or cultures interpret quite differently. These kinds of experiences occur when people read any kind of literature, but we become particularly aware of them when we read religious literature—literature that makes claims on us. As we know, the Bible is the all-time best seller, a book read, interpreted, and quoted by millions of people in countless ways. It would be easy to abandon any hope of understanding the Bible with some degree of confidence.
Such despair, however, is unnecessary. Although there are many approaches to the Bible, there is also a fair amount of common ground about biblical interpretation among responsible readers of the Bible. The purpose of this book is to help you read, think about, and write about the Bible carefully and systematically using some of these common strategies. Although it is useful for the study of a portion of the Bible of any size, this book is designed primarily for intense, precise study of a small section—a brief narrative, psalm, lament, prophetic oracle, speech, parable, miracle story, vision, or chapter-length argument, and so on—that consists of no more than several closely connected paragraphs. The technical term for such careful analysis of, and engagement with, a biblical text is exegesis, from the Greek verb exēgeisthai, meaning “to lead out” (ex, “out” + hēgeisthai, “to lead”). In this important and necessarily lengthy first chapter we consider the task of exegesis and survey the method proposed in this book.
Exegesis as Investigation, Conversation, and Art—in Context
Biblical exegesis may be defined as the careful historical, literary, and theological analysis and explanation of a text. Some would call it scholarly reading and describe it as reading in a way that “ascertains the sense of the text through the most complete, systematic recording possible of the phenomena of the text and grappling with the reasons that speak for or against a specific understanding of it.”1 Another appropriate description of exegesis I find especially helpful is close reading, a term borrowed from the study of literature.2 Close reading means the deliberate, word-by-word and phrase-by-phrase consideration of all the parts of a text in order to understand it as a whole. Biblical interpreters are not, therefore, the only type of exegete. Literary critics and lawyers, for example, also engage in close reading of texts. But for many readers of the Bible, scholarly, close readings are good but insufficient. For them, exegesis also means seriously engaging the subject matter of the text as a place to seek, and hopefully encounter, truth. Those who engage in the process of exegesis—as scholars, as close readers, as careful seekers after truth—are called exegetes.3
Many people over the years have understood the goal of exegesis to be the discovery of the biblical writer’s purpose in writing, what is called the authorial intent. While a laudable goal, this is often difficult to achieve. It can be hard enough to grasp our own intentions in writing something, let alone those of another person from another time and culture.4 Many interpreters today reject authorial intent as the goal of exegesis. A more modest and appropriate primary goal would be to achieve a credible and coherent understanding of the text on its own terms and in its own context. Even that goal is a difficult one. This primary objective is often, though not always, pursued with a larger (and ultimately more important) existential goal—that somehow the text in its context may speak to us in our different-yet-similar context.
Exegesis as Investigation
Exegesis is therefore an investigation. It is an investigation of the many dimensions, or textures, of a particular text. It is a process of asking questions of a text, questions that are often provoked by the text itself. As one of my professors in seminary used to put it, the basic question we are always asking is, “What’s going on here?” In some ways, that question is enough, but it will be helpful to flesh it out, to give this basic question some greater form and substance. Markus Bockmuehl, an Oxford professor, asks his students to consider the context, content, and contribution of a text.5 Accordingly, exegetes must learn to probe, to love asking questions.
To engage in exegesis is to ask historical questions of a text, such as, “What situation seems to have been the occasion for the writing of this text?” Exegesis also means asking literary questions of the text, such as, “What kind of literature is this text, and what are its literary, or rhetorical, aims?” (Rhetoric is the art of effective communication.) Furthermore, exegesis means asking questions about the religious, or theological, dimensions of the text, such as, “With what great theological question or issue does this text engage, and what claims on its readers does it make?” Exegesis means not being afraid of difficult questions, such as, “Why does this text seem to contradict that one?” Finally, exegesis means not fearing discovery of something new or puzzlement over something apparently insoluble. Sometimes doing exegesis means learning to ask the right questions, even if the questions are not immediately resolved. In fact, exegesis may lead to greater ambiguity in our understanding of the text itself, of its meaning for us, or both.
Exegesis as Conversation
It would be a mistake, however, to think that we are the first or the only people to raise these questions of the biblical text as we seek to analyze and engage it carefully. Exegesis may also be defined as a conversation. It is a conversation with readers living and dead, more learned and less learned, absent and present. It is a conversation about texts and their contexts, about sacred words and their claims—and the claims others have made about them. As conversation, exegesis entails listening to others, even others with whom we disagree. It is a process best carried out in the company of other people through reading and talking with them—carefully, critically, and creatively—about texts. The isolated reader is not the ideal biblical exegete.
Nevertheless, we often read the Bible alone, whether by choice or by virtue of our vocation. Students are normally required to write exegesis papers on their own. Pastors and other ministers usually prepare and preach sermons or homilies, grounded in careful study of the text (we hope), on their own. Whatever outside resources students or ministers may or may not consult, they need a method for the careful study of their chosen or assigned text. They need a way to enter the ongoing conversation about this or that text with confidence and competence, so that they too may contribute to the conversation. Hence the need for an exegetical method.
Exegesis as Art
The word method, however, should not be equated precisely with scientific method or historical method. Good reading—like good conversation or any sort of good investigation—is an art more than it is a science. Exegesis, as we will see throughout this book, is therefore an art. To be sure, there are certain principles and elements to consider, but knowing what to ask of a text, what to think about a text, and what to say about a text can never be accomplished with complete certainty or done with method alone. Rather, an exegete needs not only principles, rules, hard work, and research skills, but also intuition, imagination, sensitivity, and even a bit of serendipity on occasion.
The task of exegesis requires, therefore, enormous intellectual and even spiritual energy. In fact, as Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (HB/OT) scholar William Brown puts it, good exegesis is “a practice of empathy, wonder, and hospitality.”6 The results, he rightly claims, can be both transformative and joyful. Many people experience this art, therefore, as a rewarding spiritual discipline. This has certainly been true for most of the great biblical interpreters in both Judaism and Christianity. As the Anglican Book of Common Prayer tells us, Scripture is something to “hear . . . , read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.”
Exegesis and Context
Finally, it is critical to note that exegesis does not occur in a vacuum. We read in context, indeed in multiple contexts. Our personal, religious, ecclesial (church), social, economic, ethnic, racial, historical, and geographical contexts all affect what we see when we read a text, and that is actually a good thing. Different vistas on the same scriptural passage are normal, even if the interpreters follow a similar method. In fact, different interpretations are both healthy and helpful; such is the nature of good conversation. C. S. Lewis tells us that “what you see and hear depends a good deal on where you are standing; it also depends on what sort of person you are.”7 We become better interpreters when we recognize our own contexts and appreciate the contexts of others.
Elizabeth Mburu, an African biblical scholar, suggests that biblical interpretation is a four-legged stool consisting of the four contexts of any text: historical and cultural, literary, theological, and what we might call contemporary—meaning, for her, parallels to the African context. Interestingly, Mburu says that these four contexts should be considered in reverse order from the way I have listed them. That is, parallels in African life (whether about marriage, ancestors, shame, good and evil, etc.) are the first context because interpreters can then move from the known to the unknown.8 ...