Exegesis: Not for the Faint in Heart

“Alex, I don’t agree with you and think you may need to go study more about exegesis.  The true author of Scripture, though written down by man, is the Holy Spirit.  Something written by man is fallible.”

I receive a lot more email since I launched this blog.  Some is favorable affording opportunity to help others reconcile their faith and sexuality and move on to grow toward Christian maturity.  Some is less favorable.  The excerpt above is part of an email I recently received from someone who tried to convince me that homosexuality and homosexual relationships are biblically and morally wrong.  (Been there, done that, got the tee shirt, and have written about it here at length.)  He got upset, however, when we applied the common-sense rules of biblical exegesis to certain passages of Scripture and some long-held and cherished doctrines of his became challenged.  Since the question of how to responsibly interpret the Bible is a critical one, I thought some basic guidelines might be helpful.

Though the word might sound a bit scary, “exegesis” comes from the Greek verb which means “to draw out”.  Simply put, exegesis is about drawing out from the text the true meaning of a Bible passage.  Or phrased a bit differently, it means getting out of the text what it originally meant to the author and to the original intended audience, without reading into the text the many traditional interpretations that may have grown up around it.

Exegesis then is an investigation.  The question we always have to be asking is: What’s  going on here?  The reader today must somehow try to enter the world of the biblical writer and seek to understand what the writer was saying.  If we fail to pay attention to the world in which the Bible was written, we will simply read biblical texts, infuse them with  meaning from our social and symbolic world and conclude that the Bible speaks directly to us.

In contrast to this, what many do instead is what some theologians refer to as “frontloading”, that is to say, they read their own personal, political or ideological beliefs back into the Bible, instead of reading out from the Bible what the original writers were saying.  This process of reading one’s own ideas into interpretation of the Bible is called “eisegesis”.   EXEgesis and EISEgesis are conflicting approaches to interpreting the Bible.  Why?

— Exegesis is reading out from the Bible what the original writers were saying.
Eisegesis is reading one’s own ideas or prejudices back into the Bible.

— Exegesis is about getting out of the text what is truly there in the first place.
Eisegesis is about putting into the text something never intended by the author.

— Exegesis is drawing out the true meaning of a Bible passage.
Eisegesis is at best unwise, and at worst extremely dangerous.

But exegesis is not an easy task and is not for the faint in heart.  Like most things of value, it requires some work on our part.  We also must be mindful of the fact that we are all guilty of eisegesis, to some degree, because we all read the Bible with modern eyes.  We all have our own beliefs, worldviews and biases, and letting them influence our interpretation of the Bible is an ever-present danger.  So whatever we can do to leave our assumptions behind before we approach the text will only help to not taint what we’re going to come out with.  It is respectful of God’s gift to us to go after the author’s intentions and meanings before arriving at our own.

When trying to interpret the Bible we should never begin with the question: What does this mean?  The reason is that’s the wrong starting point. You’re really asking, “What does it mean to us today, individually?” and that’s why we end up with scores of different
answers that can be answered by anyone subjectively.  If you have 25 people, you can end up with 25 different opinions, resulting in 25 different doctrines, every one of which may be wrong, even though they all sincerely and completely believe they are correct.

Exegesis always asks, “What did it mean?”  There’s a vast difference in those questions as starting points.  What did this mean to the author and original intended audience?  The goal of Biblical exegesis is to explore the meaning of the text which then leads to discovering its significance or relevance.  But if we have no idea what the text meant THEN, we’re left to only guess at what it might mean for us NOW.  Only sound exegetical techniques will bring out the actual truth.  Otherwise, the Bible becomes nonsense with
multiple subjective opinions of what the text means and no objective guide to whether any of them are right.  The reason why there are so many wild and utterly wrong  interpretations of Scripture is that exegesis has not been applied.

Our ability to do sound exegesis has increased exponentially over the past century.  This is because today we actually know more about the Bible than at any previous time in history, including even in later biblical times.  Case in point: Up until the early 20th century, we knew very little about the Canaanites.  We knew little about their religion, culture or way of life.  For the most part, our only witness to these people were the texts in the Old Testament.   But in 1929 that changed substantially with the discovery of what is called the “Ras Shamra” texts.  (Ras Shamra is a place on the northern coast of Syria, where the remains of the ancient Canaanite city of Ugarit have been unearthed.)  From 1929 to the present, literally thousands of texts and materials have been found.  The real treasure was not the buildings or jewelry, but large quantities of writings showing how ancient Canaanite city-life worked and revealing a wealth of information that has been invaluable in our understanding of Canaanite religion and culture.  The discovery of these texts is considered by many second only to the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls and they have had a profound effect on biblical studies.

When I advised my email friend why it is so important that we pay attention to the writer’s intent, it was dismissed with, “But the true author of Scripture, though written down by man, is the Holy Spirit.”  Certainly, the Bible was guided by the Holy Spirit to be a representative for all who respond to God.  However, that does not in any way undermine the absolute interpreting principle that we have to know what the ancient inspired writers thought in order to correctly interpret their words.  The Bible is a mingling of divine and human, as was Christ.  As soon as we ignore one over the other, we are off into heresy.  As Dr. Herman Bavinck, former professor of systematic theology at the Free University of Amsterdam said:

“The Scriptures are the product wholly and entirely of the spirit of God … and at the same time are wholly and entirely the product of the activity of the writers.”

For those reading the Bible with the sincere intent of wanting to know the truth of Scripture, as opposed to merely the presumption of the truth of Scripture, every group will have things to learn and every group will have things to unlearn.  But when our beliefs and doctrines — however cherished or long-held they may be — are found to be wrong, we have to be willing to let them go.  This will not always be easy.

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About Alex Haiken

Born to a Jewish family in New York City, I came to faith in Christ in 1982 after trying to disprove the Bible. I found so much evidence in support of the claims of Jesus and the Bible that it required more faith to reject it than to believe it. I hold a Master’s degree from Westminster Theological Seminary and among other things am a lecturer, teacher, blogger and conference speaker. I came out as gay at a young age but was taught when I came to faith that I could not be both Christian and gay. I served for a time as a leader of an ex-gay ministry but shifted my views after recognizing that when the few passages generally appealed to in this debate are examined more closely and in context, the traditional anti-gay interpretations do not hold up to scrutiny. I learned that the ex-gay route is a scripturally unsound mirage, a specious illusion that deceitfully draws people not to a life-giving oasis but to a deeper and deeper spiritual desert. Seeing the immense need for education in this area, I began to speak and write about my experience and new-found convictions. I am also passionate about helping the Church better understand her rich Jewish roots; helping other Jewish people understand Jesus as their Jewish Messiah; and helping other gay people integrate a theologically sound, committed Christian faith with their sexuality. It is my hope that the reflections in this blog will prompt you to explore the paths they suggest, leading to your own more eloquent thinking, exploration and action. If you want, visit the “Contact” page and let me know what you think.
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10 Responses to Exegesis: Not for the Faint in Heart

  1. Hi Alex… this is such an important topic and I am so glad that you have given us a little taster. The Bible, from Genesis to the Apocolypse is a Jewish book – written by Jews with an Eastern rather than Western worldview. And although the Scriptures are inspired by the Holy Spirit, they were very much written by men who were a product of their time and culture. I would love to learn more about Exegesis and any resources you might recommend. I was not aware of the Ras Shamra texts but am inspired at how our understanding of the Bible is growing every year. I really appreciate your articles, which are inspiring me to continue as a faithful Gay Jewish Talmid (Disciple) of my Lord and Saviour, Yeshua HaMashiach. Shabbat Shalom 🙂

  2. Keith StClare, Masters Student at University of Houston - Victoria, Texas says:

    Thank you for doing this. Thank you for your scholarship and fairness and shared respect to all sides. Thank you for your patience.

  3. moonchild11 says:

    I’m really thankful that you explained all of this! I’ve heard those words but never understood them. Thanks for explaining such an important topic in a way that everyone can understand! 🙂

  4. Alex Haiken says:

    Thank you very much for your kind words. I’m so glad that you found this helpful!

  5. Alex this is an excellent post. All too often, especially in evangelical fundamentalism there is not enough proper exegesis and far too much eisegesis.

    I am not sure how close we can ever come to know the authors’ intentions. I do believe that we can come so much closer to the original audiences’ understand, how they would have understood the message. In this we might get a glimpse as to the authors’ intent.

    As far as inspiration I have come to believe that God revealed Godself to and within communities of faith. these communities then struggle with what that revelation means to them and how to communicate it to posterity and other faith communities. Because of this I reject the idea of a single, “right”. interpretation. I know little of the early rabbinic tradition, but I see the early rabbis having different interpretations of God’s revelations as reflected in the Talmud and Midrash. I think that any single interpretation necessarily fails. It fails because it names God and in the naming we seek to contain and control. Yet God is not containable by our finite ideas. God cannot be controlled despite our strong desires to both contain and control Him. I also find doctrinal statements failing too. These serve as an attempt to reduce God to propositional statements, God is irreducible.

    I do find interpretations and doctrinal statements useful. Maybe each has something too offer, provided, of course, that they are based on proper exegesis, one that states upfront its biases.

    thank you.

  6. Andinho. says:

    This post is so interesting! Your Blog is also marvelous. Now I am your reader. Both Homosexuals and Heterosexuals uses the Eisegesis (giving their own ideas and view) to what they wish they could talk. Otherwise Exegesis bring us the possible true meaning and understanding. Haiken, I’d like to know if there’s a book about Exegesis. Could you introduce me any? You told something so interesting about reading with modern eyes, here in Brazil many Evangelical and Catholics they read with modern eyes, and people who have the lack of information always follow the preachers speech. They always believe in many egocentric preachers speech. And when they read; they’ve got a bunch of doubts, so they ask them and in return they have the wrong information. I love history, cultures and so on, and you wrote something amazing as well. About the history of Canaanites, and the city Ugarit too. But today people don’t know how those folks lived and what they were and how they made their laws and culture. And the Canaanites lost their culture because of another nomad people. Great writing Haiken. I’ll go on my disbelief in God, however I’ll keep reading about Religions. But your post I will keep reading as well. Thanks a lot.

  7. Alex Haiken says:

    Andinho, thank you for your note. By the way, my name is “Alex.” (Haiken is my last name.) I can’t think, off-hand, of a good book that’s exclusively devoted to exegesis, but let me give it some thought. By the way, as for your holding to your “disbelief in God”, for what it may be worth, I first started to read the Bible, not because I believed a word of it, but because I was determined to come up with enough ammunition to prove to a believing friend just how wrong and foolish he was. However, the more I read, the more stunned I became at my findings. The outcome proved to quite different than I had anticipated. The more I read, the more evidence there was to support the reliability of the Scriptures. So be careful in your studies. A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. You never know what you’re going to find.

  8. Keith StClare, Masters Student at University of Houston - Victoria, Texas says:

    Atheism is such an off-putting declaration. I suggest simply that belief in God is inherent in the human.

    The magnitude of the thing; the Universe and the quintessence of all machines; life — is so awesome and yet inclusive that everyone — I suggest has little choice in the matter. Whether your “god,” or God or (g)ods, are in a book or a bag, whether your god is good-liness or gold, whether dogma or doing what you feel inside honors the great-outside-and-all-around-you — the message is the same.

    The Spirit is big, really big.

    Shall we worship the Word, or words, or shall we be what the words say we are? What a piece of work is man… And, this man, this small piece of creation is both cause and means for our glimpse at the magnitude of the thing, the logic and non-logic of life, the inevitable reverence for the alpha and omega, and the peace among the otherwise seeming chaos, changes, threats and reassurances from Bang to Bang.

  9. Hi Alex,

    Such a wonderfully written, and informative post. This post is completely in agreement with everything I learned about Exegesis in college. I am currently finishing up my BA in Christian Studies (emphasis Pastoral Ministry). I too attempt to find out what the passage meant at the time it was written. For example, reading the teachings of Jesus without understanding the turmoil and oppression being suffered under Roman rule and how His teachings were thought of from the Roman, and Pharisees, perspective would only tell half the story.

    Great post.

    God Bless,

    Greg

    • Alex Haiken says:

      Hi Greg:

      Thanks for your kind words. Good to see we’re on the same page when it comes to the established rules of biblical exegesis.

      God’s blessings to you in your studies and as you prepare for ministry!

      -Alex

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