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Biblical Exegesis: 3. Perform Exegesis of Each Verse

Biblical exegesis is the process by which one comes to understand a Biblical text. One begins by identifying key passages, terms, and concepts and uses specialized library resources during the research process.

Lexicons

Bible lexicons provide definitions and meaning of Biblical words found in the original New Testament Greek and Old Testament Hebrew languages of the Holy Bible. This study resource helps in understanding the origins and root meaning of the ancient language. Additional, lexicons give the context and cultural meaning intended by the authors.

Hermenutics

Perform Exegesis of Your Passage

Now that you have a general understanding of the background of your passage and which cultural issues may be of importance in understanding it, you are ready to perform exegesis of each individual verse.

Exegesis is not a common word in our daily vocabulary. The term exegesis comes from the Greek verb exegeisthai, which means to "explain" or "interpret." Simply put, exegesis is the process of determining or bringing out the meaning of a text.

Exegesis is best done one verse at a time, though of course the meaning of one verse can and should influence your understanding of the verse around it. Two main activities are involved in performing exegesis: close reading and consulting conversation partners.

Close Reading

When you write an exegesis paper, part of the interpretation of any given verse should be your understanding of the verse. The most important thing you can do to gain a good understanding of a passage is by performing a close reading. This means to read through a passage slowly and carefully, noticing the tense of verbs (e.g., "he is calling," "Jesus died"), the arrangement of words, transitions in an argument (e.g., "for," "therefore"), words and expressions that seem important (e.g., "redeemed," "raised from the dead"). You also want to note places in the text that raise questions. In our example passage, Luke 1:26-38, these questions might include "why would Luke name Nazareth?" or "what does Mary's final response to Gabriel indicate about her?" Reflect on the passage and see if you can develop tentative answers to these questions. They often will point to important aspects of the passage's intent.

You may benefit from looking up some of the important words in the passage to see what you can learn about them. This is important because you should not assume that whatever some word means in English is what its Greek equivalent meant to someone in the first century. While Luke 1:26-38 might not have many of these, there are passages that do have words that need to be looked up. For example, Rom 3:23-26 is full of words that have specialized and often debated meanings. There is currently an ongoing debate among New Testament scholars as to what the Greek verb dikaioō means in Rom 3:24. Does it mean "justify," "acquit," "declare righteous," "pronounce righteous" or something else? In Leviticus, what does the word kiper mean, when it is used of what sacrifices do? Does it mean "atone" and if so, what does that actually mean? To answer these questions or at least get an idea of the sides of the debate, you will likely want to consult some tool that discusses the meaning of individual words. There are specialized tools that you can use if you know Greek and Hebrew, you can still do what is called a "word study" with only English.

After you have reflected on the text and potentially studied significant words in your passage, you would begin writing up what you think each verse means. The simplest approach is to start writing one paragraph per verse, perhaps labeling each paragraph (e.g., "Luke 1:26"). This is not your final statement about the whole passage but your initial thinking about the passage. Later you will add more as you look at secondary literature on the passage, but you want to start with your own thoughts and then refine them as you study. Biblical scholars do the same thing. They do not have any magical way of determining the meaning of a verse that you do not have.

As you work through the passage, you want to have both a micro- and a macro-view of each verse. On the micro level, you want to know what a verse means. On the macro level, you want to know how this verse fits into the author's overall goals or themes.In Luke 1:26-38, Luke narrates the story of an angel going to a girl (probably around age twelve) and telling her that she is going to have a baby. In her culture, Mary has essentially no status or power. In Mary's song, Luke 1:46-55, the theme of role reversal, of the lowly being exalted and the high being brought low, is emphasized. The story of the announcement of Jesus' birth through Mary is an example of this, so the story contributes to showing this theme of exalting the lowly, which is very important throughout Luke's Gospel.

Conversation Partners

It will probably come as no surprise to you to learn that Jews and Christians have been performing exegesis of the Bible for hundreds of years, beginning well before there was a New Testament. So when you write an exegesis paper, you are going where many others have gone before you. You do not want to ignore them because they may have insights that you have not thought of, they may have knowledge of the original languages or of approaches to the text that you are not familiar with (e.g., those described in Hearing the New Testament by Joel Green (Call number:BS2331 .H43 1995 ), or they may disagree with your view and you need to know why.

When you write down what you think a verse means, you need to explain the verse, not merely rephrase it. When Luke 1:35 states that the Holy Spirit will come over and overshadow Mary, your explanation of this verse should not be "This verse means that the Holy Spirit is going to overshadow Mary." No, that is not what the verse means. That is what it says. You need to explain those words. When you offer your explanation, you need to be able to explain the words, explain why you think the words mean that, and talk about alternative views. If all you do is say "Luke 1:35 means the Holy Spirit will anoint Mary" but do not explain why that is what the verse means, then you have not given a reader any reason to accept your view. The issue is not whether your reader (your professor) is convinced by your reasons. The issue is that you can explain why you hold your view, demonstrating that it is not simply the first thing that popped into your head.

At the same time, others have written on these verses before you. What did they have to say? Maybe they disagree with you. Maybe they agree with you. Either way, you need to show what others have said about this verse. In the case of Luke 1:35, this might not be very controversial. Other passages, however, are very controversial, such as 1 Tim 2:13, 1 Cor 11:10, Gen 1:1, or Matt 24:28. You certainly do not want to argue for a view that some previous scholar has shown cannot be correct.

These scholars are "conversation partners." Think of them as exchanging ideas back and forth with you as you think about your passage. When you read the biblical text, or indeed any text, you do so as someone who lives in a particular social location. You will read it as someone living in the early twenty-first century. You might read it as a middle-class white male American. Or you might read it as a poor black female teenager living in Ethiopia. Your age, your upbringing, the cultural values you absorb from others around you that affect how you look at life, and a whole host of other factors influence how you read the text. By having conversation partners in the form of biblical scholars, you help yourself avoid interpretations that reflect your social location rather than the meaning of the text. You can access these conversation partners in three primary ways:

  • Commentaries
  • Monographs / Books
  • Journal Articles

Commentaries

A commentary on the Bible, whether it is a one-volume commentary on the entire Bible, which will have little detail on a specific verse, or a multi-volume commentary on the Greek text of Romans, filled with lots of details, seeks to do the same thing that your paper is doing for one small passage. It seeks to provide exegesis of the biblical text.

The best approach for performing detailed exegesis is to get several commentaries that each cover only one biblical book, such as Luke's Gospel. For some books, you will find multiple small books covered in one commentary. It is typical, for example, for one commentary to cover 1, 2, and 3 John. However, you want to avoid commentaries that treat the whole Bible because they will not have adequate detail for writing an exegesis paper.

It is best to use academic commentaries. These are written in light of what has been learned over time about the world of the Bible and about the meaning of the books of the Bible. These tend to be focused in one of two directions. Some commentaries focus on the original languages of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. One example would be the volumes in the Word Biblical Commentary series. Others, such as the volumes in the New International Commentary on the Old Testament and the New International Commentary on the New Testament, focus on an English translation of the book from Hebrew or Greek, usually reserving the discussion of the original language to footnotes, if the book mentions Hebrew or Greek words at all.

Monographs / Books

Commentaries should be your main tools for writing an exegesis paper. Sometimes, however, other books, including those on one specific, narrow topic, called a "monograph," may be helpful. Technically not all books on a biblical text besides commentaries are monographs.

You can probably find a book that at least mentions your passage, even if it is not about your passage. There are books that might be about your specific passage.  The issue is not whether there is a book that in some way deals with your passage so much as it is discovering one or more books. There are multiple approaches, from searching on your own to asking a reference librarian for help. Being able to locate a book yourself will enable you to be more efficient doing research, so here is one way that you can approach this search.

Look at your passage. What are some of the ideas in it? In our passage, there is an angel, Mary the mother of Jesus, Nazareth, and the "annunciation" of Jesus' future conception and birth. You would go to the online catalog and do a "Keyword" search. Part of the process of cataloging a book that deals with the Bible is to add information about what parts of the Bible it touches so that you can search on the biblical passage. So if you enter "Luke 1" into the search field and click "search," you get back several results. Although some of them may be commentaries, others are more focused. For example, this search returns The Birth of the Lukan Narrative: Narrative as Christology in Luke 1-2, by Mark Coleridge (Call number: BS2595.2 .C65 1993 )

Now let's try another search. This time, do a keyword search for "Christmas Luke" this gives several titles including the promising looking one The Liberation of Christmas: The Infancy Narratives in Social Context, by Richard A. Horsley (Call number: BS2575.2 .H65 1989). Perhaps what you are interested in most is the place of women in Luke's Gospel. If you search for "women Luke," you get back Women, Class, and Society in Early Christianity: Models from Luke-Acts by James Arlandson (Call number: BS2589.6.W65 A75 1997).

 

Journal Articles

A third place to look for information is in journal articles. Articles tend to be on a specific passage. Since articles typically focus on only one passage, they tend to have much more to say about a given passage in the Bible than a commentary does because the commentator was limited in how much space could be used for a given verse or verses. Journal articles typically do not have this limitation.

To find a journal article, the most efficient way is to search our online databases. You can do this by going to the library home page (

http://www.stthomas.edu/libraries/) and clicking on "A-Z Databases." That brings you to a page on which you can select the starting letter of the database you want to use.

There are three major databases that you might want to use. One is the ATLA Religion Database with ATLAS and the others are Old Testament Abstracts and New Testament Abstracts. For instructions on how to find articles in these Databases, go to the "finding journals" tab above.

Another consideration is whether the article looks relevant or not. An article on the meaning of a word in your passage is obviously relevant, but an article that uses your passage in discussing some modern issue, for example, is not going to be very relevant to exegesis, even it is helpful for a different assignment.

So for an exegesis paper, you do not want an article from a magazine or a journal not related to biblical studies. One final issue to think about is how hard it will be to read the article. If you are looking for a major journal in biblical studies, like the Journal of Biblical Literature, the library has that in print going back for many years. On the other hand, if it is an article in Biblische Zeitschrift, it is going to be difficult to access the article except through inter-library loan. When you are looking at the articles returned by the search, they will often show that a PDF full-text copy is available. You can read these online and save them to your computer. If you are at a library computer, you can send articles via email to yourself. Then you can open that email at your own computer and get to the articles.

One final thing to consider is that journal articles and monographs, like commentaries, become less relevant with age. You should normally avoid any materials for your paper that are over about twenty-five to thirty years old.

Oxford Biblical Studies Online

Selected Commentary Sets - Ancient and Patristic

Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity ; Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1998- .
Includes the scriptural text, followed by an overview of the patristic writers who comment on the passage. This is followed by excerpts of these writings with citations to the complete work such as Origen's Homilies on Genesis 1:1.  The aim of this work is to assist the reader in understanding the place of scriptural texts in the thought of the patristic writers. These are multivolume series.

Selected Commentary Sets - Modern

Catholic Resources for Bible, Liturgy, Art, and Theology.