Exegesis [ < Greek exègeisthai (to interpret) < ex- (out) + hègeisthai (to lead). Related to English ‘seek’.] Definition: To interpret a text by way of a thorough analysis of its content. When you do exegesis, you are an exegete who is exegeting the text. What you are doing is described as being exegetical. 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 historical context 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 shapes its life by),
- symbolic/allegorical (figuring out what each story, character, and event represents),
- literary (using the literary forms, word choices, editing work, main themes or narratives, etc., to understand what was written),
- rational (thinking it through using logic and deductive techniques).
Nearly all Bible students use most exegetical 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 exegetical 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 ways to exegete the text can help you get at more of them. What other passages of Scripture say is not the only relevant thing. What is true about the world around any section of Scripture also affects what is meant by 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 held in the context of the Roman Empire’s rule over the region.
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 look up how to define exegesis in 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.”
— Eugene Peterson, in *Theology Today*, April 1999, p.10
What Is Eisegesis?
Eisegesis [ < Greek eis- (into) + hègeisthai (to lead). (See ‘exegesis’.)] Definition: A process where one leads into study by reading a 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. In eisegesis, 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 of exegesis uncovers what the Bible is telling us, and our 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 driven us to 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).
What Is Hermeneutics?
hermeneutics [ < Greek hermeneu(te)s (interpreter). ] Definition: The science of interpretation of a story or text, and 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 its intents 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 out what you’ve learned. There’s a science and an art to that: hermeneutics. There are hermeneutical methods, too. Most of those take place inside a Christian’s (or a Christian community’s) own desire to learn more of what God tells us in the Bible. (There’s a page on this site that has more on doing this.) You use a hermeneutic, even if you think you don’t. Hermeneutics are a type of discernment process, ways of mining for God and God’s truth. Like other forms of discernment, hermeneutics is a task that’s best not done alone, but with 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 also 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 cause us to be puzzled or revulsed by them. Once that happens, the Spirit can then change the way you operate, and maybe even use you to change them in your faith community and in other people.
What Is Hermeneutic Distance?
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 have been in the role you think you’d have been. 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 all that 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, since in fact the more things change the more they stay the same, as most of the core matters of life change more in shape than in substance. Each era develops its own set of likenesses to the era of Jesus. Good hermeneutics help us break through our era’s illusions to reach our era’s possibilities.
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You can also find ways to define hermeneutics in the dictionary.