A Short Guide to Exegesis

I know a lot of you are in ministry, or in school, or are just interested in better Bible study. Recently, I came across a short guide to exegesis that I think would be a great help. For those who don't know what exegesis is, it is described as "A systematic process by which a person arrives at a reasonable and coherent sense of the meaning and message of a biblical passage" I like this guide because it is short, to the point and would be a big help to anyone who wants to do better bible study. It doesn't cover everything a full guide to exegesis would cover, but it should be enough to get you started. If I run across anything else like this, I'll be sure to share.



A systematic process by which a person arrives at a reasonable and coherent sense of the meaning and message of a biblical passage
  • to explain what the text meant to its original audience and in its original historical setting
  • to explain what the text means for today

Three Steps of Exegesis

Observation: "What does the author say?"Begin by reading the passage, perhaps a few times
  • use a good translation; it may help to read a few translations
  • be sure to take account of the translation methodology
  • read the larger context; the chapter or letter or book
Determine the limits of the passage
  • where does the writer begin/end the thought / story?
Note your specific observations concerning the passage
  • what key words, images, symbols are used?
  • where else are key words used by the same writer? By other biblical writers? Outside the Bible?
  • what characters appear and what are their relationships?
  • what issues are addressed in the passage?
  • are there any variant readings noted in the footnotes? (=textual criticism)
  • is there a particular literary form (genre) to take note of (e.g., letter; healing; parable)? (=form criticism)
  • are there any structuring devices used in the text (e.g., parallelism; proofs)? (=rhetorical criticism)
  • did the passage have a source? do we have access to that source? (=source criticism)
  • what unique views or emphases does the writer place on the text? (=redaction criticism)
    • how has the writer used the sources?
    • what is the writer's life situation or theological outlook?
  • are there any parallel texts inside or outside of the Bible
  • what are the socio-cultural codes embedded in the text (e.g., honour/shame)? (=social-scientific criticism)
  • is there any independent confirmation of the events recorded? (=historical veracity)
Ask yourself what cultural assumptions you might be making; e.g., economic, health, family
Use exegetical tools (commentaries, dictionaries, atlas, etc.) only when necessary

Interpretation: "What did the author mean?"
Socio-historical context: What is the author's and audience's situation?
  • politics; geography; topography; demographics; customs
  • use a good Bible dictionary, atlas, encyclopedia
  • for whom was it written?
  • what issue(s) does the passage address?
Literary context
  • interpretation goes along with genre
    • is the passage narrative, poetic, parable, etc.?
    • should it be interpreted literally or figuratively?
  • focus on significant words, phrases, statements
    • what is its meaning (definitions; contextualize)?
    • what is its significance in the passage?
      • why would the author choose this way of expression?
      • does it have a special grammatical role?
      • does it make a difference if it were left out?
    • what is implied by the use of this term or phrase or grammatical structure?
Rhetorical context: what is the significance of the progression in the thought pattern?
  • what was the author trying to convey to the audience - e.g., theological truths, practical advice?
  • what types of responses did the author expect on the basis of writing this passage?
Theological context: what do you know about the author's theological perspective?
Investigate the secondary literature; compare and adjust your own observations
Concisely summarize the primary ideas of the passage; what is the author trying to convey?

Application: "What does it mean for me?"
This step involves the move from text to sermon or Bible study
This is the point at which hermeneutics comes to the fore
  • moving from one social context to another
  • that is, moving from the ancient world to our own world(s)
What was the author's purpose in writing this passage?
Did the author accomplish this purpose?
Does the passage contain "universal truths" (applicable in all ages) or "contextual truths" (applicable for a certain period of history)? Know how and why you make the distinction between these two "truths"
How does the passage fit with the whole message of the Bible?
Ask yourself the following questions:
  • what am I to believe?
  • what am I to do (actions, attitudes, sin)?
  • what do I learn about relationships?
  • what is the good news for me?
Now ask "how would that be initiated in my life?"
    Beware of reading twentieth century cultural norms into a passage. However, do use your imagination to apply the passage to contemporary society. This helps identify what some of the issues in the text might be.
Ask how you can address your particular audience
  • how can you best explain the original meaning of the text?
  • how can you help them connect with the truths of the text?
Be sure to understand your audience as best you can.
Use a format appropriate for your audience (e.g., sermon/homily; Bible study; case study; drama).

Writing An Academic Exegetical Paper

Note that this is not to be a sermon/homily. The emphasis should be on understanding the passage not on preaching the passage.
The aim of the paper is the first goal of exegesis: to explain what the text meant to its original audience and in its original historical setting.
The paper should concentrate on findings from the observation and interpretation steps and should only include an application if the instructor has requested it.
In writing the paper ask yourself the following questions:
  • Do I understand the text or texts I intend to discuss?
  • Are my notes clear and complete, allowing me to describe and respond to key features in the text(s)?
  • Does my opening paragraph lead to a specific and precisely formulated thesis that anticipates the main points of the argument of the essay?
  • Do my topic sentences reflect a logical development of that thesis?
  • Are there smooth transitions between paragraphs and sentences?
  • Do paragraphs cohere, usually around a single idea?
  • Is the meaning of each sentence clear, and are the structures of sentences varied?
  • Are general or abstract observations supported with concrete examples?
  • Have I carefully proof-read and revised for grammatical, spelling, and typographical errors?
  • Have footnotes and quotations been double-checked for accuracy and proper placement?
  • Has proper footnote and bibliographical form been followed?
The structure of the paper depends on the passage. Some texts unfold an argument in a step-by-step manner. They can be discussed in a verse-by-verse format. Others, especially narrations, work best if handled in a theme-oriented structure. Sometimes, a definition has the amount of pliability to fit your arguments. Always allow some time between your research and your writing for this analysis stage to jell (summarized from Hayes and Holiday 1982:110 and 112).

Guides for Biblical Exegesis

Danker, Frederick W. Multipurpose Tools for Bible Study. 4th edition. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993.Fee, Gordon D. New Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors. Philadelphia: Westminister, 1983.
Harrington, Daniel J. Interpreting the New Testament: A Practical Guide. Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1979.
------. Interpreting the Old Testament. Wilmington: Michael Glazier.
Hayes, John H. and Carl R. Holladay. Biblical Exegesis: A Beginner's Handbook. Atlanta: John Knox, 1982.
Soulen, Richard N. Handbook of Biblical Criticism. 2nd edition. Atlanta: John Knox, 1981.
Stewart, Douglas. Old Testament Exegesis: A Primer for Students and Pastors. Second edition. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1984.
Wald, Oletta. The Joy of Discovery in Bible Study. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1975.

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