Exegesis—A critical explanation or interpretation of a text, especially Scripture
The word exegesis [ek suh JEE suhs] is derived from a combination of two Greek words: a preposition meaning “out of” coupled with a verb meaning “to lead.” In reference to Scripture, then, the term describes the practice of examining and explaining a Bible text, of “leading out of” the text the meaning intended by its ultimate Author. Exegesis strives to let the text first speak for itself and only then to work out its meaning for readers.
To illustrate: suppose that you were standing before the classic Picasso painting titled Guernica. On the one hand you admire the painting’s brilliant yet unusual cubist form; on the other hand you wonder what on earth the painting was meant to express. You might say, as some art critics do, that the painting means whatever you, the viewer, think it means. But that’s a picture of eisegesis [igh (eye) suh JEE suhs]—of reading into the painting one’s own ideas, feelings, and context. Exegesis has the opposite starting point. It takes the time to research questions such as “Who was the artist?” “Who was the original intended audience?” “What was happening in the lives of the artist and his audience at the time?” “What might the painting have expressed in that context?” Only after gaining answers to these and other questions would the “art exegete” formulate a personal meaning, or application, from the painting.
Suppose now that you were standing at the door of a room in which a Bible study group was meeting. Quietly you observe the participants as they talk openly and seriously about the meaning of a classic Scripture text—let’s say John 1:1-5. How could you tell whether the group was practicing good exegesis as they explored this passage?
Here are three words that would describe the portrait of good group exegesis:
- First, the discussion would be biblical. Group members would seek to talk first about what the Bible text says. Who wrote it? What is known about the writer and the original audience? What are some key words and phrases in the text, and what did they mean to the writer and the audience at the time? What were some cultural events or trends occurring at the time that might have given impetus to the text’s being written? Finding answers to these questions often requires advance preparation and the use of additional study resources. However, groups committed to good exegesis of Scripture make those efforts consistently.
- Second, the group’s discussion of the text would be meaningful. Having discovered answers to questions about what the text said in its original context, participants would then talk about what the text means. At this point, you (the observer) would hear the group begin to describe one or two general truths that arise legitimately from the text. For example, participants talking about the meaning of John 1:1-5 would properly reach the conclusion that Jesus Christ, referred to in the passage as “the Word,” is fully God. They also could reach the understanding that Jesus is the source of true life. These are examples of biblical truths that express the same meaning for people today as they did for the original first-century audience. Still, good group exegesis takes one more step.
- Third, the group’s exegesis of John 1:1-5 would be personal. If step one is to discern what the text says and step two is to understand what the text means, step three is to hear and obey what the text calls the individual (or group) to do in his or her (or their) personal context. Sometimes this is called application; participants follow the guidance of God’s Spirit (who inspired all Scripture; 2 Tim. 3:16) in applying the text’s meaning in their lives.
Good exegesis of Scripture, whether done individually or as a group, is first biblical, then meaningful, and finally personal. It is studying the text in its context in order to obey the text in one’s own context. Does your study of Scripture and your group’s discussion of Scripture paint a portrait of good exegesis?
David Briscoe is a content editor at Lifeway for Explore the Bible resources.