What is Exegesis?

What is Exegesis?

Exegesis is a deeply considered, critical interpretation of a text used to elicit the true meaning and importance of the reading. Biblical exegesis is an academic branch of theology that helps Christians ensure they fully understand and follow the Scripture as laid down by the prophets.

Exegesis is a scientific process of analysis that is used to extract the fullest meaning possible from the text of the Bible. It is impossible to fully understand the mind of God. But in interpreting His instructions to the human race, it’s possible through the use of logic and reason that He gave us to develop a true understanding of His message.

In fact, there’s a Biblical duty to understand Scripture—Joshua 1:8 commands meditation on the law of God, day and night.

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For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

~ Hebrews 4:12

And while some parts of Scripture are straightforward, others are open to interpretation. Is the Promised Land a metaphor for heaven, or a literal piece of territory believers will be awarded?

Exegesis Offers a Path for Human Understanding of Divine Scripture

Friends reading bible together outsideAlthough interpretation of Scripture stretches back into ancient times, the formal practice of exegesis came of age in the Enlightenment. The philosophers of the Age of Reason were also theologians and men of God. It was only natural for them to turn their logic to analysis of the Bible as well.

Like many terms in Biblical study, exegesis originates from a Greek word, exgeomai, meaning “to lead out”… in this case, to lead out the meaning from the text.

The traditions of Scripture that had been handed down through history sometimes didn’t make a lot of sense to rational interpretation. The long-held view that Moses was the author of the Pentateuch, for instance, didn’t seem to hold up to statement in the text itself—some of it described events Moses had not historically been present for, while elsewhere it referred to him in the third person, as if someone else were writing about him.

This kind of basic search for consistency launched the modern field of Biblical exegesis.

Although it is also sometimes called Biblical criticism, exegesis is easier to understand as a search for deeper and fuller meaning through a variety of common techniques used in literary criticism.

While Scripture is divinely inspired, the very human tasks of recording the words of the prophets is as open to error as any other. Scholars finding discrepancies in ancient texts had to wonder which was correct, and if the meaning could be altered.

Asking the questions was sometimes seen as heresy. But finding the answers in line with God’s Word and commandments ultimately gave Christianity a better understanding of His promise.

What Is Eisegesis vs Exegesis?

Thoughtful minded womanEisegesis is something to be avoided in Biblical studies. In fact, it’s the opposite of exegesis in many ways. While exegesis seeks to uncover the true, unbiased meaning of the Word, eisegesis refers to the process of interpreting text in a way that favors the reader’s own preconceptions, agendas, or biases.

Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the Lord your God that I give you.

~ Deuteronomy 4:2

Eisegesis is antithetical to Biblical exegesis because Scripture is divinely inspired writing. Reading personal opinions into it means overriding the Word of God—not something any Christian should be part of.

What Is the Process of Exegesis?

Biblical exegesis is pursued today through several different major methods. Each of these might come to different answers about a single passage. It’s the work of scholars and academic debate in the theological community to decide which interpretation is definitive. That process involves:

Textual analysis – This type of exegesis looks at the actual texts for comparison and translation. Literally millions of manuscripts and fragments containing Scripture exist in dozens of languages. Comparing errors of transcription, translation, and variations between them offers a powerful way to get to the originally recorded Word of God.

Source analysis – Going one step beyond textual analysis, source analysis attempts to use a variety of analytical and scientific techniques to identify the original sources that form the basis of Scripture. In some cases, this even goes back into oral tradition, prior to the Word being written down.

Form analysis – Form analysis goes in the opposite direction from source analysis, moving one step up from the text itself to look at the format. Looking at the way a certain passage was recorded, whether in long paragraphs or short, in prose or verse, literary or legalistic, can reveal things about both message and author.

Literary analysis – Looking at the Bible like any other kind of book or novel is among the most modern forms of exegesis. But the stories of the Bible resonate for some of the same reasons that other human stories do, so it’s possible to look through them for layers of meaning and analyze the intent and process of the author.

Exegesis is not just a modern innovation, however. The history of Biblical studies has altered the way that people today understand the text of Scripture. Although many Christians think of the Bible as static and unchanging, it has gone through many versions of format, content, and understanding throughout history.

Exegesis itself has also evolved. Many of the traditional approaches of analysis have been criticized, altered, or discarded. As culture and society continue to change, the process of exegesis is also bound to develop.

What is an example of exegesis?

A perfect example of exegesis is the exploration of the meaning of the Apostle Paul’s writings on women in the ministry. 1 Timothy 2:9-15 appears to state plainly that women in the church should have no leadership role.

I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man;[a] she must be quiet.

~ 1 Timothy 2:12

But exegetical analysis that brings in both the specific context of that passage and Paul’s other writings develops a more nuanced view. His praise of Phoebe as a deaconess and acknowledgement of women’s roles in prophesy elsewhere leads some scholars to believe that 1 Timothy 2 was written with respect to issues in a specific congregation, not applying to women generally.

What Is Biblical Exegesis Used for Today?

Exegesis is rooted in Christian scholarship, but it has many practical uses in ministry. Most Christian degrees will include some study of exegesis. Not all exegesis requires heavy academic research. It’s a valuable skill for pastors and others engaged in practical ministry.

Exegesis has uses in:

Translation – Many advanced Christian degrees, such as the Master of Divinity, include study of Scripture in the original Greek and Hebrew. Exegesis allows students to perform their own translation and come to a better understanding of the meaning of the original texts.

Inspiration – Deep analysis of Scripture leads many pastors to a more sound understanding of God’s plan and offers fresh inspiration for sermons, counseling, and wisdom.

Scholarship – Of course, academic theology is often driven by new thoughts and perceptions of Biblical texts.

In short, pastors use exegesis all the time for a wide variety of reasons.

What Is Exegesis Preaching?

Man praying over BibleExegetical preaching allows pastors to put Scriptural verses in the proper context for their sermons. While an ordained minister has the training and knowledge to understand Biblical passages properly due to years of formal education, parishioners do not. So it is the responsibility of preachers to use exegesis in their sermons to deliver a fuller meaning from the text than their audience would otherwise get from it.

In fact, exegesis may form the basis for many sermons. Pastors may choose a particular passage from the Bible and focus the entire sermon on it. They will not only deliver the basic message of the text, but help break down the setting and the way that message is developed. They may use the different types of exegetical analysis to help their congregation understand all the layers of meaning in the passage.

Exegesis brings clarity and deeper meaning to God’s Word. That makes it a useful tool in the toolbox of every pastor.