or whatever reasons, God chose three languages in which to preserve his revelation to man: Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. To understand the meaning of the Bible for our times, it is necessary that someone knows intimately the languages of Scripture and is able to interpret them for the rest of us. The process of interpreting Scripture – that is, drawing out of the text it’s meaning – is called exegesis.
Languages have rules. When one violates the rules of language, the end product is gibberish and confusion. Much Bible interpretation these days is subjective and intuitive (especially among Charismatics), agenda driven (Liberation, Feminist and Black theologies), and otherwise politicized. Because the text as it stands does not naturally yield a meaning that serves the interests of certain groups, theologians representing these groups often perform eisogesis (reading into the text what one wants it to mean) rather than exegesis. Doing editorial violence to the text of Scripture denigrates the Bible’s authority. If the writing down of those thoughts that eventually became Scripture was an inspired process (cf. II Timothy 3:16; II Peter 1:21), then robbing them of their intended meaning and imposing upon them a false meaning is an act of defiance against the God that inspired them. This is to be expected of a natural, unconverted mind for “the carnal mind is enmity against God” (Romans 8:7). It should not be expected of the mind yielded to God.
Gordon D. Fee, in his New Testament Exegesis, p 27, states simply, “Exegesis…answers the question, What did the biblical author mean? It has to do both with what he said (the content itself) and why he said it at any given point (the literary context). Furthermore, exegesis is primarily concerned with intentionality: What did the author intend his original readers to understand?”
Before we can determine what a given text might mean for us today, we must establish what it meant for its original audience. This is the process of exegesis. In this article, we will lay out the fundamental rules, of which there are eight. In future articles, we will elaborate on each one from a nuts & bolts perspective. The rules listed are taken directly from Prof. Fee’s excellent book (p. 32), mentioned in the paragraph above.
Rule No. 2: Confirm the limits of the passage.
Rule No. 3: Become thoroughly acquainted with your paragraph or pericope (see article No. 1 in this series for a discussion of pericopes).
Rule No. 5: Establish the text.
Rule No. 6: Analyze the grammar.
Rule No. 7: Analyze significant words.
Rule No. 8: Research the historical-cultural background.
Whenever one is doing a technical analysis of a passage of Scripture, the above eight rules should ideally be followed. Leaving one out can be exegetically disastrous, resulting in all manner of erroneous interpretations. (This does not mean that it is necessary to follow these steps for every article or sermon. But the process of sound exegesis should be behind any presentation that is made.)
Not only is it important to follow these basic rules, but one must also consider the nature of the documents under scrutiny. The New Testament comes to us in four literary genres (types of literature). They are as follows:
Each of these literary genres requires addition exegetical consideration. Yet all of the steps do not apply equally to all New Testament passages. Some passages, for example, present no major textual problems; others are seriously problematic.
Fee recommends four additional stops to complete the process of exegesis:
Those who write for peer review – i.e. in learned journals – are often careful to follow this process rigorously. As with all understanding within the Church, there tends to exist three levels: the scholarly, the pastoral, and the lay. Pastoral and lay levels are more often concerned with denominational fidelity than with objective accuracy. Scholars, to be true scholars, must rise above the constraints of denominational orthodoxy and perform exegesis that is not designed to confirm already-held beliefs. If a given scholar begins his exegesis with the idea that the denomination that sponsors him holds a certain belief on this or that subject, and then sets out to “prove” that is true, he has abandoned his scholarly integrity. He has lost objectivity. He has become a mere agenda-driven propagandist.
The goal of a true exegete of Scripture must be to allow the examined passage or pericope to yield up its intended meaning, not to impose meaning upon it. By following the steps listed in this article, this is more likely to happen than not.
At the same time, it goes without saying that “spiritual things are spiritually discerned” (I Corinthians ). How we approach the text of Scripture makes a difference in how our process of analysis turns out. We will discuss this further in other articles in this series.