Not long ago, I wrote a blog post about the goal of exegesis. We talked about what biblical exegesis is and why Christians should take part in the exegetical process. There I explained that exegesis is beneficial for the church as a whole, but not necessarily for every individual Christian. But for those who are interested in going deeper into the world of biblical exegesis, this post will give you a starting point. Because today we’re going to be talking all about the process of biblical exegesis.
Before we start, it’s important for you to know that exegesis is both a science and an art. It’s a science because there’s a process to follow. It’s an art because sometimes it involves breaking the rules. In this post, we’ll break the process into two parts: science and art.
The Science of Biblical Exegesis: Top-Down Bottom-Up
The process of exegesis is a lot like the scientific method. You start with an observation, from which you develop a hypothesis. You test the hypothesis using repeatable experiments. You then return to your original hypothesis, revise, rinse, and repeat.
The process of exegesis I learned in grad school is called the *top-down bottom-up method. Much like the scientific method, it starts with what you already know, your current convictions. At the end of the process, it feeds back into those convictions, confirming them or adjusting them. And the whole process begins again. It’s this top-down bottom-up approach that I’ll walk you through briefly. Keep in mind, this process is not for the faint at heart.
The general shape of the top-down bottom-up approach to biblical exegesis goes like this: your current convictions sit at the top. Then you’ll move downward through history down into the text. After drilling into the linguistic core of the text, you move upwards again through history, back to your convictions at the top. If it sounds confusing, that’s because it is. Hopefully, it’ll make a little bit more sense after I explain it further.
Start With What You Know
The first step in the exegetical process is to understand your current convictions. When you approach a biblical text, it’s important, to be honest about where you stand. On the one hand, we want to approach the text as a blank slate, with no prior assumptions. On the other hand, it’s impossible to do this with any confidence. Recognizing our biases at the start is a crucial step in order to keep our biases in check.
Remember that we’ll come back around to this step at the end, so it’s also important to keep in mind that our initial biases and assumptions might change by the end of our exegesis. Or they might not. At any rate, the work we do moving downward into the text and back up will likely have some kind of impact on the way we understand this text and the wider canon in the future.
Now with our biases in check, it’s time to start moving downward. Recall that at the bottom is the text itself; this downward movement is informing ourselves of the historical background of the text. This step is laying the groundwork for understanding the text in its proper historical context.
In this part, we’re investigating everything that went into the original writing of the text. What was the historical situation that drove the author to write the text? Or that led the community to compile the texts? What are the ancient near-eastern or Greco-Roman backgrounds of the text? In this step, we want to know everything there is to know about the world behind the text.
This is an important part of the exegetical process that can’t be ignored. Without understanding the historical background of the text, it’s difficult to understand what the text might have meant to its original audience. The text cannot mean for us today what it never meant to the first readers back then.
The Linguistic Core
After moving down toward history, it’s time to dig into the text itself. This is going to involve translation, textual criticism, rhetorical analysis, discourse analysis, grammatical analysis, form criticism, genre criticism, literary criticism, and a ton of other analyses and -isms.
This is the piece that most people consider Bible study. When they think about where to start, usually it’s right here. But in reality, this is only a piece of the larger puzzle. Sure, it’s a big piece. This is where you’ll spend most of your time. But it’s still just a piece. Because without the aforementioned downward movement into the text and without the subsequently described movement back out of the text, the exegetical process is incomplete, divorced from its historical context and theological traditions.
I’m not going to spend too much time here because we’ll dive deeply into the linguistic core in posts to come.
At this point, we begin our ascent back to the top of the circle. On our way down into the linguistic core, we studied the background of the text in order to create historical boundaries for our interpretation of the text. On our way up, you could say that we’re studying the historic foreground of the text to double-check our interpretations and tether us to reality. In other words, we’re following interpretational trajectories through time.
In this step, we look first at the canonical trajectories. How was this text interpreted throughout the biblical corpus? If you’re studying a text in the Pentateuch, how was this text understood throughout the historical books, the poetic books, and the prophets? How was the text interpreted in the intertestamental period? How did the New Testament use the text?
In addition to tracing the canonical interpretation, we follow the trajectories all the way through history. From the early church fathers, through the middle ages, through the reformation, up to the modern-day. What are all the various ways the text in question has been interpreted by various Jewish and Christian groups?
The reason this step is important is that it keeps our interpretations in check. If you go through history and haven’t found anyone else with the same interpretation as yours, you most likely need to return to the whiteboard and rethink your interpretation. As interpreters of the Bible, our job is to stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.
Back to the Top
As we reach the top of the circle, we’ve returned to our convictions that we kept in check at the beginning of the exegetical process. At this point, everything we’ve learned so far is now feeding back into our own convictions about the text and about the Bible in general. In many cases, our original understanding of the text is now confirmed and strengthened. In many cases, our initial understanding must be revised or adjusted based on new information.
Then when you approach the text again, your previous interpretations will feed into and inform your new interpretations, which will fuel the whole exegetical process once more. Some might call it a spiral. A hermeneutical spiral. And if you’re interested in learning more about this spiral, The Hermeneutical Spiral by Grant Osbourne is an excellent introductory resource to these ideas.
The Art of Biblical Exegesis
Biblical exegesis is a science. There’s a particular and repeatable process to follow. But it’s also an art. It’s largely based on intuition and curiosity. Yes, there are steps to follow to make sure you remain faithful to the text throughout the interpretive process. I’ve briefly outlined some of those steps above. But sometimes biblical exegesis is about stepping out in faith and following your gut.
So here’s my encouragement to anyone seeking to get into biblical exegesis. Follow the rules. Play it by the book. But don’t let that stop you from asking questions. Follow your curiosities. In the business, we call this chasing rabbits. Don’t be afraid to go down those rabbit holes, because sometimes that’s when we do our best work.
Keep an eye open for posts to come, when we will dig deeper into exegetical tools available to us. In the meantime, let me know in the comments below what your process is like when it comes to exegetical processes and biblical studies in general!
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