By Skip Moen
My view of exegesis has certainly developed over several decades. I used to think that a good lexicon, a solid historical understanding of doctrine, and prayer were all that was required in order to know what the Bible says. That paradigm was shattered long ago. In its place I have come to realize several important, but not necessarily inclusive, ideas that now shape my exegetical efforts. I wish to share them so that your analysis and critique can further this process for me. These are not in order of importance.
- If I cannot understand the contextual meanings of the terms used by the original author in his culture, then any attempt to proclaim the meaning of a text is most likely mistaken. Biblical words are no different than any other words, that is, the meanings of the terms are culturally dependent. Meanings change over time, especially in translations. So my exegetical effort must begin with what the words meant to the original audience. I cannot assume that I even know who the original audience was unless I am willing to investigate the history of the people addressed. For example, the meanings of the words in Genesis depend on the meanings of those terms as understood by the children of Israel recently removed from Egypt. While that seems obvious, I find it ignored far too often. It is more often the case that ideas, terms and meanings from the reader’s perspective are applied to the text. No better example of this can be found than the Christian penchant for Messianic prophecy. Reading an idea back into the text, an idea that typically has no initial basis in the contemporary culture of the author or audience, usually results in theological category errors or worse.
- Every text of the Bible is also historically dependent. What words meant for Moses does not mean that they are the same for Isaiah, and certainly not for James, John or Paul. Simply because the word shows up in a biblical passage does not guarantee that it has a ubiquitous meaning in all biblical passages. Unless I know the history of the author’s culture, the influences that bore upon him and the linguistic dependencies resulting from surrounding cultures and events, I can’t know what he meant, and ipso facto, I don’t know the exegesis of the text.
- Languages borrow words from other cultures and contexts. That also should be obvious. Bon voyage is common parlance in English but it is borrowed from French. So is “in lieu of.” Since this pattern is true of all human languages, we dare not assume that it is not true of the “sacred” language of the Bible. Genesis borrows words from Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures, for example. Proverbs borrows entire sections from Egyptian sage writings. Daniel is subject to Babylonian influence. In fact, the Hebrew alphabet is borrowed. In order to exegete a passage properly, we must pay attention to the etymology of the word, and in particular, its linguistic cognates in surrounding languages. Exegesis that fails to recognize the influence of linguistic parallels will often mistakenly assert the isolated independence of a biblical idea. While this may be true for some (crucial) Hebraic concepts, it is more often the case that Hebrew ideas are related (in some way) to similar ideas in other linguistic systems. The opening chapters of Genesis are a good example. Genesis is not about Newton. It is about Babylon and unless I know the genesis stories of Babylon, I will not understand why the Hebrew version of Genesis is unique.
- The theological assertion that the Bible is the only guide for interpreting the Bible is just that—a theological assertion. It is not exegesis. It is fideism. I might wish to believe that God “superintended” the formation of the Bible so that every word in the Bible is true, accurate and unimpeachable, but that is theology, not linguistics. It could also be a psychological crutch that enables me to avoid the uncomfortable feeling of tentative truth. What most people desire of religion is certainty, and several doctrines attempt to provide this, relieving the adherent from the possibility that what he believes now might be shown to be false later. If this doctrine prevents me from doing the real research of discovering what the text meant in the first place, if it hinders the task of looking at sources outside the Bible proper in order to understand the words of the authors, then the doctrine is of little value for the task of exegesis. That doesn’t mean it has no value. It just means it stands in the way of exegetical work. As an example, if I assert that the concept of the “son of Man” can only be interpreted from within the Bible, I will fail to recognize the influence of 1 Enoch on Matthew’s development, and as a result, I will not notice that Matthew’s idea doesn’t conform precisely to the idea in Daniel. I can assert that it should conform, but my doctrinal stance will not lead me to understanding how Matthew came up with his idea, and that means I will probably not understand what Matthew is really saying.
Another example of this dilemma is the substantial influence of Second Temple rabbinic Judaism on the text of the Gospels and the letters of Paul. Nearly every idea found in the apostolic writings is connected in some way to rabbinic thought. But very few Christian exegetes pay any attention to these influences simply because of an a priori commitment to this doctrinal position (which, by the way, is also a development of replacement theology) and the textually unsupported belief that rabbinic thought is Jewish while the New Testament concepts are Christian.
Exegesis is a linguistic-theological project. It begins with what the author of the text meant in the cultural framework of his world. It must begin there since there is no other way to understand the words that he wrote. This may lead to theological assertions (or it may not) but the theology is secondary. Theology is abstraction from the text, just as the speeches of Romeo and Juliet are not directly applicable to our generation. Doctrines that regulate what the text must mean hinder exegesis. They are the stuff of paradigms and typically prevent us from seeing anything in the text except what the paradigm says is in the text. The biggest obstacle to learning God’s word is thinking that we already know what He says. We must practice spiritual suspended animation, putting what we think we know on the shelf, if we are going to re-think what the text teaches. Hopefully we will find that what we thought we knew is still the case. But not always. Sometime our most cherished beliefs are the very things that prevent us from hearing what the original author said. There is no better example of the tragic consequences of this phenomenon than the fact that many brilliant Jewish exegetes view Paul as a man who rejected Torah and converted to Christianity. This horrible mistake is the result of reading the New Testament as if it were Christian, rather than Jewish, and that is the direct result of the mistaken Christian doctrine of replacement theology, a doctrine that has colored religious thinking for two millennia.
- In the end, this means we must abandon the idea of absolute certainty as a stand-alone fact. That does not mean we can’t commit ourselves to what we believe to be true. It simply means that we are finite human beings who do not have the temporal span nor the capacity to objectively ascertain all that is true. We have to rely on sources outside of our noetic framework. We have to choose, not blindly, but on the basis of what we know so far. Then we live it out and see how it works, constantly aware that we may need corrections. This does not mean there are no absolute truths. The statement itself is a virtual contradiction. It simply means that we are unlikely to be able to prove absolute truth. The evidence is always subject to the interpretative scheme. We investigate, we contemplate, we articulate—and then we critique and start again—together, in community.
Exegesis is the process of exploring what the author meant and seeing where it leads us. Theology is abstracting ideas from the exploration. Instruction is learning how to live with what we find.