Anytime I tell people that I have a master’s degree in biblical exegesis, I’m often met with blank stares. After explaining that exegesis is the process of applying various disciplines to uncover the original meaning of the biblical texts, the next question I’m often asked is, “Why?”
That’s the question I hope to answer in this post. What is the end goal of biblical exegesis? Well, in short, the goal of biblical exegesis is to better understand the Bible in its original historical context in hopes that we can better understand the Bible in our own modern contexts.
That’s a concise and watered-down explanation and there’s a ton to unpack there. But before we can get to that, let’s get a working definition of exegesis.
What Is Exegesis?
Let’s talk about the definition of exegesis. It’s a Greek word that means “to lead out.” Often times when people talk about the meaning of exegesis, they contrast it with the Greek word eisegesis, which means “to lead into.”
When we approach the Bible, we can lead the original meaning out of the text, or we can lead a foreign meaning into the text. Exegesis is the process of drawing the original meaning out of the text, trying to understand the text how the original author intended the text to be read.
Whether we realize it or not, every time we read the Bible and come to conclusions about what it is we’re reading, we are either practicing exegesis or eisegesis. We are either reading the meaning that’s there embedded in the text or we are reading a new meaning not intended by the text’s author. Eisegesis is often talked about in disdain, but in reality, it’s not inherently a bad thing. Eisegesis can lead to faulty conclusions, to be sure. But so can exegesis.
Exegesis can definitely be the topic of another post, and probably will be. But today we are going to zone in on the idea of exegesis, drawing meaning out of a text.
The main problem we have when it comes to reading the Bible is that we are so far removed from the original author’s and the original audience’s context. We have so little in common with those who first wrote and read the Bible that it’s difficult to understand their original meaning or to lead that meaning out of the text, which is to exegete the text. The process of exegesis gives us the tools we need to overcome the barriers that stand between us and the text’s meaning.
There are two particular barriers that we seek to overcome through the practice of exegesis: the historical barrier and the linguistic barrier. As such, exegesis is commonly referred to in full as historical-grammatical exegesis._ Let’s break that down.
Exegesis is Historical
First, exegesis is historical in nature. Thousands of years stand between us and the original penning of the Old and New Testaments. We live in a different part of the world, we have completely different cultures, we have different values, we have different worldviews. The meaning of the biblical texts is embedded in this ancient world, and it’s our job as faithful readers to understand that world as much as we can.
When speaking of the historical side of exegesis, we’re speaking about external factors, the world around the texts. We study cultural backgrounds so that we can step into the sandals of an ancient Israelite or a Second Temple Hellenistic Jew. We study archaeology to get a better understanding of the places mentioned in the Bible. We do everything we can to reconstruct the ancient world to the best of our modern abilities.
Exegesis is Grammatical
Exegesis is also grammatical. Here we’re talking about the internal factors, the text itself. We study Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew to understand what the text actually says. We do rhetorical analysis, word studies, textual criticism, and everything we can to drill down into the lexical core of the text.
It may be obvious, but many modern readers look past this simple fact: the Bible was not written in English. And since language is constantly changing and evolving, Bible translation is an ongoing venture. But we’re not talking about translation here. Through exegesis, we do everything we can to better understand the biblical texts within their own language, to understand the author’s intended meaning embedded within these ancient words.
Exegesis is Holistic
At the end of the day, exegesis is a holistic attempt to study the Bible. It brings various aspects of biblical studies together to construct the world behind and the world of the text.
This holistic definition of exegesis is important because there tends to be a focus in biblical studies on the deconstruction of the text. While deconstruction has its place in certain academic circles, I am much more inclined to focus on constructive and holistic biblical studies.
If our working definition of exegesis sounds a little overwhelming to you, you’re in good company. I have a master’s degree in biblical exegesis, but that doesn’t make it any less overwhelming! There really is a lot to it. Which brings us to the inevitable question: why?
Why Bother With Exegesis?
The Bible is God’s revelation to human beings. Through reading scripture, we can get to know who God is. We can learn about our world, about ourselves, about the purpose of life. We can read the Bible without engaging in deep historical-grammatical exegesis. After all, the New Testament writers didn’t engage in exegesis. Why should we even bother with this?
Some people take this a step further and say we shouldn’t engage in historical-grammatical exegesis at all because it’s worldly. It treats the Bible as a historical document to be dissected and not a religious text to be revered.
These are important questions for reflection. We must ask whether it’s worth the time and energy to engage in biblical exegesis and, moreover if it’s even a good thing to do.
In case you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m pro-exegesis. I think it’s important for the church to engage in exegetical processes to continually challenge our assumptions, stretch our imaginations, and better understand the Bible. Let me tell you why I think that.
First, I’m not arguing that every Christian ought to go get a degree in biblical exegesis. The church is described as a body for a purpose. Some people have certain gifts to help the body as a whole grow into its calling, and others have other gifts. Some people enjoy the exegetical process and some don’t. That’s okay! If you know anything about the Enneagram, and if you know anything about me, you’ll know that I’m a type 5. I love asking questions, I love investigating curiosities, and I love studying the Bible. That’s a gift I can offer the church.
So let me reiterate: I don’t think everyone needs to be engaging with biblical exegesis. But the church as a whole definitely needs to be producing students of the Bible who understand the exegetical process. Here are a few reasons why we ought to bother with biblical exegesis.
The Bible doesn’t change; people do
One objection I commonly hear to exegetical studies goes something like this: The Bible doesn’t change, so we’re not going to discover anything new. Why do we need to keep applying new methodologies to the Bible?
The answer is simple. The Bible doesn’t change, but people do. The way people read literature changes. The way people learn and study changes.
If you look at the writers of the New Testament, they weren’t engaging in historical-grammatical exegesis when it came to reading the Old Testament. They read the Old Testament through their own cultural lenses, through ancient Jewish interpretational methods.
With new cultures, people have studied the Bible in different ways. We study the Bible through our own cultural lenses, which include historical-grammatical exegesis. We use the tools of our culture to study the Bible, just as every other generation and culture has used the tools of their time to study the Bible.
Do we come to vastly different conclusions? Do we learn anything new? Does the Gospel message change? No. The Bible doesn’t change. The message doesn’t change. We change.
That change is not something to resist. It’s something we can use to our advantage. By examining the Bible through the lens of our own culture, we’re able to see things from a slightly different angle. We better understand how to present the Gospel message in our own culture, to other people who think more like we do than the ancients did.
It shapes us in profound ways
The exegetical process shapes us into the kind of people that God has called us to be. Going through these exercises does more than giving us more head knowledge. It helps us experience scriptures in fresh ways. Like any other academic venture, exegesis is about learning more information. But unlike any other academic venture, exegesis is also about growing into the people of God. Historical-grammatical exegesis is as much about formation as it is about information, if not more so.
People do exegesis because it’s something they enjoy. That’s enough of a reason!
We’re joining a conversation
Here’s the thing. Studying the Bible is engaging with an ongoing conversation. A conversation that started thousands of years ago. A conversation that will go on for thousands of years more. We are standing on the shoulders of the giants that came before us. Generations to come will be standing on our shoulders. We must continue to engage in biblical exegesis simply because it’s our duty to pass on the wealth of knowledge that has been passed on to us.
So with all that out of the way, we can return to the original question. What is the goal of biblical exegesis?
Biblical exegesis seeks to draw meaning out of the text. But why? We seek to determine what the text meant to the original audience so we can better understand what the text means to us today.
What the Text Meant
Scripture cannot mean something for us today that it never meant for its original author and audience. That’s not to say that the Holy Spirit can’t use scripture to speak new truth into our lives. But the meaning we draw out of scripture has to be rooted in its historical and grammatical context. The problem is that many people think this is where the exegetical process ends. This is where we get the idea that biblical academics is deconstructive. But discovering what the text meant is only the first part.
What the Text Means
If it wasn’t for bridging the meaning of scripture from then to now, biblical exegesis would have little benefit for the church. But a Bible scholar’s job is all about translation. Yes, translation from one language to another. But also translation from one culture to another. It’s a difficult thing to take the meaning embedded in a particular time and place and transplant that meaning for a modern audience. A difficult task, but a crucial task.
Performing biblical exegesis helps us understand what the text meant so that we can learn what the text means for us today. And that’s the goal of biblical exegesis.
The End of Exegesis and the End of All Things
You see, all the academic studies, the fields of research, the degrees and dissertations are all a means to an end. It’s all to draw us into a deeper love and appreciation of God, to draw us into a life of worship. Exegesis, like any other discipline of the church, exists to draw us into a deeper relationship with Christ. That’s the ultimate goal of exegesis.
This is the first post in a series of posts about exegesis. In the coming weeks, we’ll dig deeper into the process of exegesis.
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