Exegesis vs. Reading? Or, How to Dismantle an Atomistic Bomb

U2_-_How_to_Dismantle_an_Atomic_Bomb_(Album_Cover)I ran across this quote on the B-Greek discussion list today: “I define ‘exegesis’ as learning to extract meaning from a language that one does not control.” (Randall Buth)

What do you think about that quote? I find it very interesting that it’s usually only Biblical scholars who talk about ‘exegesis’ and ‘exegetical method.’ In fact, I presented a paper (at the 2011 SBL meeting) on ‘exegesis’ in the communicative Greek classroom where I remarked on this at length:

“When I discuss this [teaching Greek as a living language] with other Greek teachers, one of the most common questions that comes up is: What about exegesis? I would respond with three points:

First, the question, “what about exegesis?” often presupposes a concept of exegesis that I find less than helpful. Much of the time, what people mean when they say exegesis is an atomistic study of a very short stretch of text, usually no more than a few lines. “Exegesis” means detailed grammatical and lexical study, determining what the logical relationships between propositions is, and then, as the ‘crowning achievement,’ translating the text into English.

[Let me interject, at this point, that there is nothing in that sequence (except the translation part) that cannot be done in Greek. Is there any reason not to use the grammatical terminology the ancient Greeks themselves used? Grammar can certainly be taught in a communicative classroom. It should simply be taught in Greek. Why in the world do we think that we would need to use English metalanguage to discuss Ancient Greek?]

This is rather strange. It might be helpful to realize that people do not normally approach literature this way. I did a search on Google Books the other day for the term “exegesis.” I found that every book on the first ten pages that came up was a Biblical Studies book. Literary critics don’t really talk much about exegesis, nor do classicists, surprisingly. Why is that? Those groups talk a lot about interpretation and hermeneutics and context, but not “exegesis.”

forest-for-treesI would like to propose that much of what people mean by “exegesis” is artificial, atomistic overanalysis of little bits of texts that were originally intended to be heard as wholes, not analyzed, labelled and translated. That kind of exegesis results from an approach to texts that I like to call ‘the Bible Code mentality.’ I am afraid that our approaches to teaching Greek probably contribute significantly to that mentality.

thirdtemple-biblecodeNow, please don’t misunderstand me. I am all for engaging in thoughtful, close reading of the text. I am especially in favor of intensive study of the texts in their literary, social, and historical contexts. Indeed, I think these are much more beneficial than the microanalysis of grammar and syntax that is often taught to students.

So, I find that the question, “what about exegesis?” presupposes that to interpret a text, one must be able to label, diagram and translate it into another language. I disagree with this. When I read and discuss English literature, I do not analyze syntax or diagram sentences. I also do not label each element using linguistic metalanguage. Rather I discuss meaning, themes, characterization. I summarize. I paraphrase. I make connections with other parts of the text. I tease out logical implications. I examine elements of literary artistry. All of this can be done, indeed, is best done, in the language itself.

To summarize, when you can read a language fluently, much of what we call exegesis becomes basically unnecessary.

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26 Responses to Exegesis vs. Reading? Or, How to Dismantle an Atomistic Bomb

  1. Jody says:

    Καλῶς εἶπας Δανιήλ, καλῶς εἶπας.

  2. Daniel, I was part of that discussion on B-Greek. Randall’s comment crystallized for me what I have been thinking about exegesis for years. As I said on the list, a former professor from seminary used to quip “Exegetical methodology is controlled by the exegetical goal.” In other words, there is a theological motivation for exegesis that is quite different from what literary critics do in other languages. How many exegesis classes do you see in graduate level programs in French or Russian? Your comments on how we read our own language are quite instructive. To paraphrase another former professor, Moises Silva, if we did with your own language what NT exegetes do with Greek (and Hebrew), people would just look at us oddly and quietly slip away…

    • Hi Barry! I found your contributions to the thread very helpful–I love your old prof’s quote. And, I love Silva’s take; his first chapter (I think) in God, Language and Scripture is classic, especially the example of exegeting a pantyhose ad. I do something similar with my Greek students to show them how artificial and contrived so much of what passes for exegesis actually is.

      • learnfrenchwiththebible says:

        It would be great if you would post sometime what you do for your students to explain what passes for “exegesis”!

  3. Pingback: Exegesis | Meditationes

  4. Great post Daniel. I like when you say “That kind of exegesis results from an approach to texts that I like to call ‘the Bible Code mentality.’ I am afraid that our approaches to teaching Greek probably contribute significantly to that mentality.” I absolutely agree. I took one month of tutoring at the Polis center in Jerusalem and it completely changed my mind concerning greek language instruction. I’m now working for fluency so that, as you say, exegesis will become unnecessary.

  5. Daniel,

    Thank you for your stimulating post.

    I hope that you are working for the very long term because it is difficult to see how much progress can be made in the short term. When you look at studies for how long it takes native English speakers to achieve the type of facility in a language that you are hoping for and then match that to Hebrew and Greek you are looking at an investment of time and money that frankly the church as a whole in North America is not willing to make in its pastors.

    BTW – While you are naturally focused on Greek it is important to remember that we need to teach future pastors Greek, Hebrew (and Aramaic), while also working on many of the other disciplines such as Systematic and Historical Theology, Homiletics, Apologetics, Worship, etc … This means that we don’t just need to have a better method for approaching Greek we need to convince the church of the need to invest a truly educated clergy.

    Hang in there and keep up the good work!

    Your brother,


  6. pnitz says:

    “Yes, but can they do EXEGESIS?” I’ve heard it many times, too. The latest twist was, “Yes, but can they read scholarly commentaries about the text?”
    My response has been similar to what has been said here and on B-Greek. If “exegesis” means understanding the text better, then the communicative approach certainly does lead to that.

    As soon as we mention “exegesis” and interpretation, faith becomes part of the equation. Do we approach this simply as ancient literature, or was there divine intention and control over things as small as the choice of verbal aspect?

    If we fall in the verbal inspiration group (I do), that does not thereby mean that we imagine a magical, mystical, allegorical meaning is hidden within. We maintain the hermeneutic principle: stick with the plain meaning of the words. But we would say that if something was phrased in a certain way in this divine literature, it didn’t happen by accident.

    By the way, I recently stumbled across a reference to “exegesis” from outside the realm of Biblical interpretation. See a screen shot here:

  7. Pingback: Reading a second language will never be like reading a first language – Jeremy Thompson

  8. tdolhanty says:

    Great post, Daniel, and I must tell you how helpful your Blog has been for me. Thank you. Just a few weeks ago I came upon your whole discussion concerning the state of pedagogy in Koine Greek, and have found it most refreshing and so promising. Many of the things you’ve articulated I had discovered over a period of years by trial and error, as I’ve learned Greek and Hebrew. The idea that one can ‘do grammar until he drops’ and then begin to read text based on her new found skills is such a strange one. No person with any awareness at all of current language acquisition practices would apply that principle to a typical learning setting for a modern language. The light you’ve trained on this dark corner is the most helpful aide I could hope to discover as I prepare to teach an introductory course in Koine this fall. Thomas

  9. This will betray my lack of understanding, but when you say, “Is there any reason not to use the grammatical terminology the ancient Greeks themselves used?,” are their Greek works on grammar? In other words are their classical or Koine original grammars? Or just grammatical comments in passing?

  10. Prometheus says:

    Thanks for the post. I have felt the same way. Isn’t it mighty suspicious that students of Biblical languages are the only ones that are taught ‘exegesis’? I’ve made some forays into teaching using spoken Greek and Latin in the classroom with the help of materials from Christophe Rico and the like, but there is tremendous push-back from the powers that be: “don’t teach Latin Grammar in Latin.” Anyways, you may be interested in using a game like “Spot It Jr.” to teach animal names. I found that after doing so in Latin, reading Alice in Wonderland (Alicia in terra mirabili) was delightful. 🙂

  11. Pingback: Exegesis as Reading « The Patrologist

  12. Scott says:

    What a fantastic article and follow up comments. I am so glad I “accidentally” found your blog. It is nice to see that there are others out there who believe in teaching Greek as a “living language” besides myself. We home-educate our eight year old son and he has been learning Greek through the “living language” approach for as long as he can remember (since age three). This approach has really helped him grasp the elements of grammar, to master vocabulary at a fairly steady pace, and to learn to deal with those daunting anomalous desinences that never ceased to give me migraines when I began studying Greek seven years ago. Fortunately, his mother (my spouse) fluently speaks two highly inflected languages (Mongolian ,which is her first language, and Russian), so we believe he may already be genetically predisposed for learning inflected languages like Greek with relative ease.

  13. Trencavel says:

    The New Testament authors were members of an élite (an inchoate, if not yet fully defined, priesthood). Since, at the very least, they were “educated to a high standard”, we should conclude that their oral delivery of any text in a public context would have been rhetorical in manner. To such as Peter and Paul, high “officers” of the Church, formality and linguistic conservatism when expounding doctrine to a congregation would be especially applicable.

    It is for this reason that I choose the Attic/Erasmian pronunciation as my standard when reading koine Greek: every letter carefully pronounced as written, including diphthongs and diacritics (accent and hard breathings).

    Modern Greek shouldn’t even enter into discussion, since no part of our Bible is in any way colloquial or modern in idiom. To the contrary, its language is elevated, literary, conservative, and, more often than not, formal and sacerdotal.

    It would be hard to argue against the epithet Classical as best fitting the lion’s share of its content.

  14. As a theologian who keeps his eye on biblical studies, this is very encouraging! It reminds me, perhaps not all too hopefully, of what the late John Webster says the nature of theology is: an extended paraphrase of the biblical text.

  15. Hiram says:

    This post is a breath of fresh air in the current evangelical environment, tbh. Thanks!

  16. Jay says:

    I very much used to look forward to your language posts, google took me back here again today. They were an encouragement to me when I first started my language studies. I wonder if you are going to start up again with your blogging. (I hope so, and I hope you are well)

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