Exegesis as Reading

A little while ago there was an exchange that started on B-Greek, a place I generally read but do not interact, about Exegesis. Then there were a few blog posts, one by D. Streett, one by B. Hofstetter.

I often deliberately don’t engage in discussions that I don’t have time for, but obviously I have opinions. Particularly outrageous, bombastic ones. So part of my heart warms when R. Buth writes, “This is why I define “exegesis” as learning to extract meaning from a language that one does not control. “

Somewhat like Barry, I had already done a degree that was virtually Literature studies, as well as started down the Classics track, and taught myself the fundamentals of Koine Greek, before I got to seminary. One of the reasons “exegesis” is so problematic is that Biblical Studies got hived off, with so many other humanities disciplines, into a discrete ‘discipline’ about 200-150 years ago. On this regard, see the recent volume by James Turner, Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities, which among other things does a good job of explaining how humanities ‘disciplinised’.

Exegesis as practised by most biblical studies students is a process of analysis and interpretation of a text at a fine-detail level: grammatical, lexical, syntactical analysis of words, phrases, verses, put together at the level of a paragraph. It rarely moves beyond paragraph level. It is, as Buth points out, often done by students/scholars who actually have no “control”, that is no genuine active competency, in the target language.

Let’s just stop and say, “That’s odd.” We would find that incredibly odd for a modern foreign language student. “Oh, you can’t speak a word of French, but you can analyse to death the syntactic choices of individual sentences in Camus’ The Plague?”

I want to be really clear here: there is a place for fine-detailed studies of grammatical, lexical, syntactical elements of small units. Everyone else calls this linguistics. And many, many of these ‘questions’ disappear, or better yet are disambiguated by a genuine competency in the language.

Take a step back – what is the purpose or goal of exegesis? To acquire a better understanding of the meaning of the text. We can call this ‘exegesis’, but we may as well call it ‘reading’, though we must keep in mind that ‘reading’ here actually means something like ‘interpreting’, i.e. we are engaged in attentive, analytical reading at micro and macro levels. Or, “literary criticism”.

I don’t think calling it ‘reading’ is always helpful. In my school there were some teachers who used to say nonsense like “We don’t interpret the Bible, we just read it.” Which was always doctrinal dribble based on a claim to avoid the theological difficulties that the very idea of ‘interpretation’ generates. No, that won’t do. Reading itself is an interpretive act.

On the other hand, reading here is a higher order activity than mere reading. And it really must go beyond the sentence level. Unless you can get to a level of discussing a whole text – a whole book, then you are missing the integrity of the text and cannot complete your reading. That’s why discourse analysis, or just plain literary criticism, needs to work at the macro-level.

To wrap up, I am constantly amazed to interact with so called ‘critical scholars’ who look at, say, a book like John’s Gospel and see nothing but a pastiche of cut-up pieces that represent a proto-Gnostic text re-edited by a proto-Orthodox edited then re-edited again. Why do they see only that? It’s because they analyse a painting by looking at each blob of paint from a stroke of the brush and consider it a different source. They never step back and see the artistry. Whether they are right or wrong is irrelevant to the fact that they can’t step back and look at the whole, can’t discuss the meaning of the book, can’t discuss themes, genre, art, motifs. Because they can’t decide which of 400 types of genitives the proto-Gnostic redactor meant, and their competency in the language is like a tourist who got off the plane with an antique reference grammar of the language and nothing else.