What Is Exegesis ?
Exegesis [ < Greek exègeisthai (to interpret) < ex- (out) + hègeisthai (to lead). Related to English 'seek'.] To interpret a text by way of thorough analysis of its content. When you do exegesis, you are an exegete who is exegeting the text. In its most basic Bible-relevant meaning, exegesis means finding out what the Spirit originally was saying through its author in that Bible passage.
Exegesis is what comes out of the Bible, as against what gets read into it. (Of course, the ways we use to find out from the Bible are often merely ways to put something into it 'between the lines'. That's really eisegesis in a Halloween costume.) In a more theological setting, exegesis means what comes from the use of certain methods of studying the Bible. Just about every imaginable method already has a name, and there are all sorts of mixes, but the main types are :
- historical (using the form, word choices, editing work, historical context, main themes, and so on, to find what it meant back when it was written or when it happened),
- canonical (treating the Bible as a whole document designed to be what a specific community lives by),
- symbolic/allegorical (figuring out what each story, character, and event represents),
- rational (thinking it through using logic and deductive techniques).
Nearly all Bible students use most of the methods in their own way at some time, even if they don't know that they do. All of them are often helpful, sometimes not at all helpful, and occasionally downright deceptive. It's best to see all methods as tools for the Bible student to use prayerfully, rather than as rules to follow or conclusions ('scholarly consensus') that one must accept. There are many angles and facets to most passages of Scripture, and the different methods can help you get at more of them. And what other passages of Scripture say is not the only relevant thing. What is true about the world around the Scriptural happening is also relevant to the intended meaning of that section of Scripture. (Just for examples: the behavior of Babylon and the characteristics of the rule of Nebuchadrezzar are relevant to the fall and exile of the Kingdom of Judah. And, everything that happens in the Gospels must be under
If you aren't doing some kind of exegesis, you are not finding out what the writings themselves are saying. But what good is knowing eternal truth if it doesn't matter to the way you live? Thus, exegesis is just one important step in studying the Bible; there also needs to be hermeneutics (see below).
You can also check the dictionary.
"Exegesis...is an act of love. It means loving the one who speaks the words enough to want to get the words right. It is respecting the words enough to use every means we have to get the words right. Exegesis is loving God enough to stop and listen carefully."
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-- Eugene Peterson, in *Theology Today*, April 1999, p.10
What Is Eisegesis?
Eisegesis [ < Greek eis- (into) + hègeisthai (to lead). (See 'exegesis'.)] A process where one leads into study by reading the text on the basis of pre-conceived ideas of its meanings. It is rare for someone to be called an 'eisegete', because eisegesis has a well-earned negative reputation.
Eisegesis is what's being done when someone interprets the Bible according to notions that were born outside of the Bible. It's when we read stuff into Scripture. (For instance, the idea of the United States as a "Christian Nation" is the creation of egos who gloat over being powerful. It has no basis in history or fact, but more important, it has no basis in the Bible. Thus it arises from eisegesis. Yet some leading US politicians and pastors interpret the Bible through this notion.)
To some extent, eisegesis is unavoidable. We don't come to the Bible with a blank slate. A lot of living and learning went into each of us. If we really bring our whole selves to the study of the Bible, all that stuff in us will and should have an impact on how we learn from the Bible. Here's where prayerful obedience and discipline come in, for the Spirit rewards hard work and harder prayer. The hard work uncovers what the Bible is telling us, and the obedience sets aside the ideas we cherish so that we may take on the Bible's vision. The same living and learning that would have made us do an eisegesis of the text instead becomes the raw material for re-visioning our lives and thoughts (through hermeneutics) in the light of what the Spirit reveals in Scripture (exegesis).
You can also check the dictionary.
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What Is Hermeneutics?
hermeneutics [ < Greek hermeneu(te)s (interpreter). ] The science of interpretation of a story or text, or the methods used in that science.
For Bible study, hermeneutics is about the ways you discover meaning in the Bible for your life and your era, faithfully taking the original intent into today's world. The Bible is not meant to be a lazy read; when you read it, you use ways to figure out what it means and how to live it. There's a science and art to that: hermeneutics. (There's a page on this site that has
more on doing this.) Hermeneutics is a kind of
discernment process, a way of mining for truth to live by.
Discernment is a task that's best not done alone, but by a Spirit-led community that lives and breathes this Biblical Word. Such a community lives a hermeneutic of the Bible, and the testimony of each person in it is a living
viability apologetic for the God of that Bible. However, interpretation is not something you can just slough off to the Spirit-led community and leave it there. It is your responsibility, your task, to shape your faith through the Word, and to help the community shape its own faith through the Word. It is a hermeneutical responsibility to be taken with the utmost of diligence.
Just as no exegesis is fully free of eisegesis, no hermeneutic is fully free of the thought frameworks, cultural presumptions, and hidden intents that already exist within us. That's bad news when it blocks the Spirit (for example, when we use it in order to find ways to harm or demean others). But the Spirit can change your hermeneutic in mid-course. The Spirit is fully able to speak through Scripture to make us aware of our frameworks, assumptions, and intents, and maybe even to be revulsed by them. That awareness and revulsion can, in turn, bring the Spirit's purposes to bear on them, changing them, and perhaps use you to change them in your faith community and in others.
There's a lot of talk nowadays about "hermeneutic distance". It means that you are not actually in the life and times of Scriptural happenings and people, and even if you were, you may not be in the role you think you'd be. The part of it most talked about is the fact that as times change, so does the setting for what God is trying to say to you through the Bible. Our era is not the same as Jesus', or even your father's. It's a hot topic now because so much is changing so fast. Churches make far too little of change, as if unchangingness is what counts, when in fact change also counts, because no learning or growth happens without change. Non-believers and 'liberal-church' believers make far too much of it, when in fact the more things change the more they stay the same, and when most of the core matters of life change more in form than in substance. Each era develops its own set of likenesses to the era of Jesus.
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You can also check for hermeneutics in the dictionary.
Lessons About the Bible:
Lesson 1: What is Scripture, and why?
Lesson 2: The Bible as God's Message
Lesson 3: Scripture Teaches Us
Lesson 4: The Bible in discernment
Lesson 5: Studying the Bible
Lesson 6: Thought Processes for the Bible
Lesson 7: What Does 'Biblical' Mean?
Lesson 8: Key Concepts of Bible Study (you're on this page)
Lesson 9: Words For Describing the Bible
Lesson 10: Devotional Bible reading