Ten Steps for Exegesis (Part 2)

Course: Bible Study Methods

Lecture: Ten Steps for Exegesis (Part 2)


Review of the First Four Steps

Alright, in our last session we began examining ten steps of exegesis. We looked at four, the first four of those steps in some detail. Let me review those first four steps. Let me just say that what we are doing here is when you come to a passage of Scripture, how do you study it, how do you prepare to teach it or prepare to preach it? And I suggested that in terms of your exegesis, determining the author’s intended meaning, here are ten basic steps and we talked about the last four in our previous session. 

The first step was to identify the genre or literary form. The genre determines the rules of the game; it determines how you are going to interpret that. 

The second step was get the big picture, that is establish the historical and literary context of your passage. The best way to do that is to read the entire book through. Read the letter through. Say if you are studying 1 Thessalonians or to read the gospel through if you are studying the Gospel of Mark, to look for the central themes, to look for the main theology, to get the big picture. 

You can do that inductively by reading the text itself; you can also do that deductively by confirming what you discover by reading the text from secondary sources, from Bible introductions, from commentaries, from Bible dictionaries, Bible handbooks, these are the kind of tools that allow you to confirm the discoveries you are making by reading through the text itself. 

Our third step was to develop a thesis statement, also known as a main idea or a big idea. We suggested a thesis statement was made up of a subject. The subject is what the topic of this passage is and complement is what the passage says about it. I should have mentioned at this point we are zeroing in on a particular passage under study, a passage that you are going to teach or a passage you are going to preach. 

Our fourth step was to outline the progress of thought in that passage, to step by step move through the passage, determine how you are going to teach it, how the narrative progresses, or if it is a letter, and epistle, how the argument progresses in this passage. 

So those are our first steps and all of those, you can see, are basically inductive steps that you do, you carry out primarily by reading through the text itself.

Ten Steps for Exegesis (cont.)

5. Consult Secondary Sources (a Good Commentary) on Your Passage.

Our fifth step of exegesis is to consult secondary sources, especially, I would say, to consult good commentaries, if they are available to you. At this point it is time to go deeper beyond our surface reading of the text. In fact, steps five through seven are intended to help us resolve the interpretive questions and problems that may have arisen from your studies so far. 

You have simply been reading the text in your language, in English or whatever language you are reading it in, and trying to determine its meaning. Even if you do not see any problems or questions, the passage may seem perfectly clear, they may be there. Perhaps you have not examined the passage closely enough to detect certain problems or perhaps the problems may arise from the original Greek or Hebrew and the translation you are reading has resolved the problem already by taking a particular interpretation or your understanding of the historical background may be inadequate to recognize the problem. We tend to read the Bible from our historical perspective and so maybe you are missing something because you do not understand the historical background. 

For all of those reasons it is a good idea, at this point, to check a good commentary on this passage, this will alert you to the problems and issues that arise in the passage that may not be immediately evident to you, or questions or problems may have arisen in the passage and you are wondering what the solution is. So it is a good idea at this time to find out what others, what biblical scholars are saying about your passage. Have you misread the passage or missed an important point? You might end up refining your big idea or fining your outline based on what you find in the commentaries. 

Expository Commentaries

Now I would encourage you to use what are called expository commentaries. Expository commentaries are commentaries whose goal is to identify the original meaning of the text in its original context. In other words, they are exegetically focused, focused on determining what the author’s meaning is in its historical and cultural context. 

Some books on Bible study, particularly books on inductive Bible study, discourage the use of commentaries. They say do not use commentaries except as a very last resort. They might even say something like, “you want to read just the words of God, not the words of man,” and a commentary represents human interpretation. But as we have already seen in studying Bible translation, even that translation you are reading, even a simple reading of the text is an act of interpretation. It is an interpretation when the text is translated; it is an interpretation when you are reading the text. 

So, even though we should not allow a commentary to determine and govern our reading of the text. Good commentaries will be your best secondary resource for serious study in preparation for teaching and preaching. To those who would completely shun commentaries it might be asked, would you ever ask another pastor, your pastor perhaps, or a Bible professor what the best interpretation of a particular passage is or what the original Greek or Hebrew tells us about this passage. Really, consulting a commentary is just asking and expert in the field what their perspective is on the passage. 

More often than not the author of a commentary, particularly if it is a good, well-written commentary by a reputable scholar, the author’s understanding of the historical, linguistic, and cultural context of the book will be greater than yours. Their insights are, therefore, worth consulting to help you make a more informed decision on the passage. Now that does not mean, of course, that you should uncritically accept everything a passage says. The author may be wrong at certain points. This makes it important to consult more than one commentary if there is more than one available to you. It also makes your choice of which commentaries to use, to purchase, to have all the more important. 

Commentaries and Their Proper Use

Let me just say a few words then about what a commentary is and how to use a commentary. First of all a commentary is a work which comments on a particular book of Scripture. This definition is intentionally broad, because there are an enormous range of types of commentaries and various lengths and detail of commentaries. 

Commentaries may deal with a host of topics including discussions of background issues like the historical background, the geographical background, political, cultural, religious background; all the kinds of things we have been talking about in terms of the historical context of the passage. A commentary will deal with introductory issues such as author, date, purpose, occasion, literary form or genre. It will deal with textual issues, the issues we talked about when we discuss textual criticism. Issues of interpretation, questions of what words mean, of problem interpretation, what confusing passages. 

Commentaries will deal with the progress of thought in the book. They will deal with the theological and thematic issues. They will give you cross references to biblical material as well as extra-biblical material, say inter-testamental Jewish material. Some commentaries deal with a history of the interpretation of the text. Commentaries also give you bibliographies where you can do greater research. Some commentaries today provide personal application of the text. Some provide preaching helps, homiletic or preaching helps, including outlines, illustrations, applications, and other types of information. 

Different Types of Commentaries

There are a variety of kinds of commentaries. There are devotional commentaries. Devotional commentaries focus on application of the text. There are homiletical commentaries. These commentaries focus on helping the preacher prepare a message. Sometimes they will have outlines, they will have illustrations; they are very helpful for last-minute sermon preparation. Then there are expository commentaries, which as I mentioned before, they seek a middle road between practical and technical. They usually interpret using the English text, though the authors are experts in Hebrew and Greek. Sometimes they will put Hebrew and Greek in the footnote, but not in the main body of the text. 

A fourth kind of commentary is a technical or critical commentary which tends to be focused on detailed study of the Hebrew or Greek text, a detailed study of historical, cultural, social, religious background. These commentaries can be very long; thousands of pages long for a single book, sometimes multiple volumes for a single book. For most pastors and teachers these commentaries will be more detailed than usually is necessary, though they can be helpful when dealing with a very difficult interpretational problem. 

Of these four kinds of commentaries; devotional, homiletic, expositional or expository, and technical the most important tools for most pastors will be the expository commentaries, because their focus is on exegesis. Their goal is to determine and explain what the text means in its original context, which is where most pastors and teachers will need the most help. In terms of the application of the text, pastors and teachers should draw that from their context. They should look at their audience, consider their present cultural situation and apply the text accordingly. 

Commentary Series

Let me give you the names, very briefly, of some of the most important commentary series within these various kinds. I am just going to give you expository commentaries and some technical commentaries. 

Some of the better expository commentaries, the Expositors Bible Commentary, a twelve-volume set, over the whole Bible. The New International Commentary, the NIC. The Tyndale Old Testament and New Testament Commentary, the New International Biblical Commentary, the Anchor Bible Commentary, the New Century Bible Commentary, the Baker Exegetical Commentary; these are standard expository commentaries. There is also the NIV Application Commentary which is expository, but also gives application to the text. 

Some of the technical or critical commentaries include the International Critical Commentary, the Word Biblical Commentary, Hermeneia, and the New International Greek Testament Commentary. So, some examples of commentaries.   

Evaluating and Choosing Commentaries

Alright then, let me give you a few hints in terms of evaluating a commentary and choosing commentaries. Here are some questions to ask when evaluating a commentary. 

Ask the question, is the commentary well organized and easy to use? Does it provide a good introduction to the book including the literary genre, historical context, purpose and occasion? Does the author demonstrate competence in the original languages? Does the author discuss interpretational problems? Some commentaries are too brief and skip many important interpretational questions. 

Does the author give a fair and balanced treatment of problems or is the author clearly biased in one particular direction? Does the work comment on each verse or is it only section by section? Is there a bibliography to pursue further research in the commentary? Does the author exhibit awareness of recent works related to the issues in the book or is it only older works that are cited? 

Does the author document his or her sources, especially references to ancient writers or customs? Sometimes an ancient custom will be mentioned without any reference to evidence for that custom from ancient documents. Does the author include hints for application or contextualization as part of the work? 

Does the author take unusual or novel interpretations which seem to go beyond the author of the biblical book’s intended meaning? Does the commentary follow the main theme or argument of the book well relating each section to the flow of the book or are there just many scattered exegetical comments? So those are just some questions to ask when evaluating a commentary. 

Here are some points to consider when choosing which commentary to use; questions to ask yourself in other words. What are your needs, first of all? As I mentioned for solid exegesis, good expository commentaries tend to be better than the devotional ones. The devotional ones can help when seeking application, but in terms of determining the meaning of the text expository commentaries, or if you are able to use them, critical commentaries are the best tools. 

A second question, what are your original language skills? If you have studied Hebrew or Greek you can use the technical commentaries. If you have not studied them it probably would not be worth the financial investment to have them simply because they will be too difficult to use. 

Third, how much time do you have to study the text in question? As we mentioned before, commentaries come in all sizes and all levels of detail. Most commentary series have a separate volume on each book. Some, however, are whole Bible commentaries; one volume for the whole Bible. And some gather multiple books in a single volume. 

The Expositors Bible Commentary, for example, gathers all the Old and New Testament into twelve volumes. Usually a one-volume Bible commentary will not help you a great deal on your passage because it will be just too brief, but it will give you a good general idea of what the passage is all about. So depending on your needs you choose a commentary with either greater or lesser detail. 

Fourth, ask those with more experience what the best commentaries are. Check with others who have done a great deal of biblical study; they can be your best source. They can say, I really like this author, this particular author. I really like this particular series. 

There are such things as commentary survey books. Don Carson has a good book called New Testament Commentary Survey which surveys well a variety of New Testament commentaries. Tremper Longman has a good Old Testament commentary survey, both of those is published by Baker, that analyzes and tells at least this author’s perspective of what the best commentaries are. 

Gradually you can learn to recognize which commentary series you like the best and also which commentators are most trustworthy. Those are points on how to choose and evaluate a commentary.

Tips for Using Commentaries

Finally, let me give you just five brief tips for using commentaries. First of all, do not let using a commentary replace your personal Bible study. Remember our rule that the text itself, not a particular commentary, is always given priority. So always check the commentary’s conclusion against what the text says in its historical and literary context. 

Second tip for using commentaries, do an inductive study of the passage prior to consulting a commentary. In other words read through it. Try to identify the main idea. Write down some questions from the passage, outline the passage. Then when you go to the commentary you will immediately understand the topics and issues being discussed and you will be more able to actively engage in those questions and the commentary will be a better resource if you have already done a good deal of study on the passage. 

Third tip for using commentaries, consult more than one if it is available to you. When you come to problem passages especially; passages with difficult interpretational issues. It will help you to find out what more than one author is saying about that issue. 

Fourth tip for using commentaries is beware of simply seeking a commentary who agrees with you. Too often I think we know what we are going to prove and so we find someone who is going to agree with us. Be ready and willing to listen to other voices. Be ready and willing to read the passage with fresh eyes. 

And finally, directly related to that, a fifth tip is watch out for the theological biases of the commentator and also watch out for your own theological biases. We all have a tendency to read the text from our particular perspective and if we are aware of those biases we will be more likely and more able to avoid falling into error. 

Alright, this is step five in our ten steps to exegesis after doing a detailed inductive study we have consulted secondary sources to see what they say. We have sought to confirm our results and to test our results against what the better commentaries say. 

Steps six, seven, and eight are closely related and so we will deal with them together. Step six is to analyze syntactical relationships. Step seven is to analyze key terms and themes, and step eight is to resolve interpretative issues and problems. All of these are related to step five in that when you are consulting the commentaries you are doing a more detailed study of the words, of the sentences, of the paragraphs, of your passage, you are seeing interpretative problems and resolving those problems. So we are going to move fairly briefly through this. 

6. Analyze Syntactical Relationships

Analyzing syntactical relationships means examining the sentences and how they relate to each other. It means identifying the main clause of each sentence and the subordinate clauses and identifying the function of those subordinate clauses. 

7. Analyze Key Terms and Themes

Analyzing key terms would mean doing word studies, if necessary. We are going to have an entire session, in fact, our next session will be on avoiding word study fallacies and how to do a word study and so I am going to hold off more discussion of step seven until then. 

8. Resolve Interpretive Issues and Problems

Step eight, then, is to resolve interpretative issues and problems. Every passage, most passages anyway, will raise interpretive questions. Some of those questions will be essential to resolve because they will directly relate to your lesson or your sermon. Some of them will not be essential and can be safely bypassed, except in your more detailed study in attempt to understand the passage. It is important to discern which problems are essential to resolve. 

The key principle for discerning what is an essential issue is does it affect the essential meaning of the text. Is it going to change your thesis statement? Is it going to change your main points of your outline? Is it going to change the way you approach, teach and apply the text? 

There are all types of problems that you may encounter; let me just summarize a few of those. There are textual problems, issues of textual criticism. For example, suppose you are teaching on the letter to the Ephesians. Ephesians 1:1 Paul says the letter is written to the church in Ephesus, but if you look at the footnote you will see that some manuscripts do not use the word Ephesus, do not have the word Ephesus there, and there is a question as to whether this letter was originally sent to Ephesus or originally meant as a circular letter to be sent around to a variety of churches. 

Obviously your decision on that interpretative question will determine, to a certain extent, how you teach the letter to the Ephesians. Is this meant to address specific issues and problems and concerns in Ephesus, or is it a more general letter to Christians in all of Asia Minor in the first century? So there are textual questions. 

There are genre identification questions. For example, you are telling the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke chapter 16. One thing you will have to resolve is whether this is meant to be a parable or whether Jesus is actually describing an historical event. That is a question of genre; how you teach it could be determined in part, at least, by that identification of the genre. 

Suppose you are teaching Genesis 1–2. One of the major questions related to the creation account is what is its genre. Is this a poetic description of the creation of the heavens and the earth or is this meant to be something of a historical, almost scientific description of how the time frame within which the heaven and earth were made? That genre identification question is critical for understanding that. 

There are problems related to the meaning of words. What do certain words mean? We will talk more about that when we discuss word studies in the next session. 

There are syntactical questions and problems. Questions of how sentences relate to one another. Questions of how words and phrases function within a sentence. Take Matthew 28:18-20, for example, the Great Commission. If you study that passage in Greek you will see that there is only one imperative and that is to “make disciples.” The rest of the verbs are participles; “Go and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit and teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” That going, that baptizing, that teaching are participles subordinate to the main imperative which is “make disciples.” Now there is a syntactical question as to whether, in fact, “make disciples” is then the controlling idea of that. There is a problem, an interpretative question that needs to be resolved. 

There are problems of historical reference. For example, you are teaching on Philippians and Paul is clearly in prison in Philippians. But where is he in prison, in Rome, in Ephesus, in Caesarea? Most scholars think Rome, but there is a debate about that. The letter to the Colossians speaks about a particular heresy in the church. What is that heresy? That is a problem of historical referent. 

Questions of historical veracity or historical truth. For example, Luke 2 describes a census under Cesar Augustus and there have been challenges as to whether that census actually occurred or not. There is an interpretative question you might need to resolve. 

Apparent contradictions, chronological problems between one Gospel narrative and another Gospel narrative. Apparent errors as in when Matthew in Matthew 27:9 seems to quote from Zechariah and attribute it to Jeremiah. These are some of the kinds of problems that you would face when doing your exegesis. 

Principles for Resolving Problems

Let me just, then, give you a few brief principles on how to resolve problems and my first principle is that there are no really unique principles to solving problems, it really is a matter of doing good interpretation. So some of the basic principles we have set out for exegesis apply directly to solving problems. Principles like identify correctly the literary genre. Principles like carefully examine the literary and historical context. Consult outside sources, but always check their proposals against the text. So, there are three key principles that arise directly from what we have been talking about before. 

Here is a fourth principle; keep an open mind. Neither the traditional solution nor the one that best fits your theological persuasion may be the correct one. Even when you reach a conclusion beware of being overly dogmatic about it since further light may arise in further investigation. 

And finally, most importantly of all, a fifth principle is to pray about the passage. Remember the Holy Spirit is the one who illuminates Scripture. John 14:6, “The Holy Spirit will teach you all things.” There is a passage given to Jesus’ original twelve disciples but certainly has application for us. 1 John 2:20, 27, “You have an anointing from the Holy One and you all know the truth.” We can know the truth because the Holy Spirit is our guide. That does not replace detailed study of the text. It does not replace examining the text in its historical and literary context, but it does remind us that ultimately it is the Holy Spirit who guides us into all truth. 

Alright, steps six, seven, and eight then once again. Step six was analyzing some tactical relationship, step seven, analyze key terms and themes, and step eight, resolving interpretative issues and problems. Now you have done your basic exegesis of the passage you want to then relate your passage to the broader meaning of Scripture. 

9. Evaluate Your Results From the Perspective of Wider Contextual and Theological Issues

Step nine, then, is to step back after you have determined the meaning of the passage. You have done a detailed interpretation. This particular passage is to relate the passage to the broader teaching of Scripture. And here just as in our context, we move outward in concentric circles from a word to a sentence to a paragraph to a section; here we are just moving further out in concentric circles. You would relate the message or theology of this passage to the teaching of the passage in the context of the book as a whole. 

For example, 1 Thessalonians 4, Paul has been talking about the return of Christ, the rapture of the church, and the fact that believers who die in Christ will be raised first to meet Christ in the air. At this point in the passage you could compare that text to what the rest of 1 Thessalonians says about the return of Christ, that theme arises again and again throughout the letter of 1 Thessalonians. What is Paul’s purpose in repeatedly referring to the return of Christ? Well, the purpose appears to be that this church is suffering persecution and Paul refers to the return of Christ as our ultimate vindication, out ultimate salvation and deliverance form the persecution that Christians undergo. So there is our first concentric circle, examining our teaching of this passage in the context of the book. 

Then we would move outward, the teaching of the passage in the context of the author’s writings as a whole. We might then say, okay, what does Paul teach about the return of Christ or the final consummation of our salvation in the rest of his writings and we might turn to passages like 1 Corinthians 15 where he discusses in detail the resurrection and its significance. We would compare, perhaps, the teaching in 2 Thessalonians to 1 Thessalonians where Paul gives further discussion related to the end times and the rise of the man of lawlessness and so forth. 

Then finally, third, the teaching of the passage in the context of broader biblical teaching in general. Here, of course, we could look at the broader teaching related to the return of Christ in the gospels. Jesus’ own teaching in the Olivet Discourse, Matthew 24 and 25. We could talk about the return of Christ in the book of Revelation and references to Christ’s return in other New Testament documents. Here, then, we are synthesizing what we have discovered from this passage in the broader context of Paul’s letters moving outward in our concentric circles and in the broader context of the New Testament, and ultimately in the whole biblical revelation of both Old and New Testament. 

So that is step nine. Step nine is to evaluate our results in the context of a theology of the Bible as a whole. 

10. Summarize Your Results

Finally, step ten is a summarizing step that simply says summarize your results, revise and refine the literary context. Now that you have studied the passage in its context, now that you know what the book as a whole says, revise any particular areas related to literary context. Revise and refine your thesis statement and revise and refine your outline, the progress of the passage. 

Alright, these are our ten steps of exegesis. From this point we would move then to our steps of contextualization or application. You have crossed the bridge back to its original life setting, its original context, you have determined what the text means, the authors intended meaning writing to those particular readers in that context; you are on that side of the bridge, you have moved from us to the them. Now you want to take that message and bring it back. 

So our final lecture is going to be on contextualization, but before we do that we are going to have one lesson on word studies. Word studies can be a profitable area of research, but it can also be an area of some abuse and so we are going to have a session on word studies and then a final session on contextualization or application.