You must search in order to find gold. You can either pan for gold on the surface where shallow streams flow, or you can blast the inner walls of a mountain—either way it’s still gold. However, blasting and drilling reap more treasures than a 14-inch gold pan in the river. In the same way, you can read the surface of a particular biblical text and get a decent grasp of its message, or you can “dig” and “blast” to uncover the hidden treasures in the Bible. The latter always, if executed well, requires a careful eye, sharp mind, great patience, and much prayer.
What is Exegesis?
“Exe”-what!? The word itself sounds a bit daunting, doesn’t it? But in fact, with a little explanation, “exegesis” really isn’t all that complicated. In fact, exegesis is the very process by which one uncovers the meaning of any written text. Exegesis isn’t strictly a theological or “Christian” term. It is simply following an author’s flow of thought. Therefore, the implication is that everyone who can adequately read a written language is an “exegete” (one who executes exegesis). Bethlehem’s Assistant Professor of New Testament and Theology Andy Naselli provides a helpful illustration:
Exegesis may sound complicated, but it’s really not. You know how to exegete a text. If I randomly opened an e‑mail thread in my Gmail inbox and if I asked you to exegete it what would you do? You would probably do the following (though not necessarily in this order):
Recognize that the style of literature is e‑mail, so the thread consists of messages that two or more individuals electronically wrote to each other.
Look at the subject line to see whether it tells you what the thread is about.
Look at the names of the authors in the thread.
Look at the time stamps of the e‑mails.
Figure out who the authors are.
Read the messages in the order in which people sent them.
So, if you can read, then you are an exegete.
Exegetical digging looks like careful reading and thinking. I’m grateful to God that our professors stress the importance of carefully reading and thinking about the text in such a way to follow the author’s train of thought. In other words, we exegete in order to uncover the author’s intended meaning. The written text is merely a medium by which meaning is conveyed, and it is the exegete’s job to uncover it.
Likewise, careful reading involves understanding the words an author uses in the manner the author uses them. Words take on specific meaning in their given context. Take Mortimer Adler’s warning, for example:
“If the author uses a word in one meaning, and the reader reads it in another, words have passed between them, but they have not come to terms. Where there is unresolved ambiguity in communication, there is no communication, or at best communication must be incomplete.”
Yet, before you can “come to terms” with an author, you must establish a reliable text. That is, if you know Greek or Hebrew, it is your obligation to engage with any text-critical issues. Those who do not know the biblical languages are limited in their exegesis, since they must rely on translators for their written text. “It is therefore incumbent upon interpreters of the English Bible to find a reliable translation. But those who taste the exhilaration of theological discovery through careful grammatical exegesis will never be satisfied until they can drink fully at the foundation of the original source!”
Personally, the sweetest fruit I have experienced as an M.Div. student thus far is the ability to read Greek (I’m currently learning Hebrew). Bethlehem College & Seminary trains their students in the languages well. To be sure, learning the languages is incredibly difficult, but oh so satisfying on the day that you can read God’s word in them!
The Bible is like a never-ending mountain that houses endless supplies of precious gold. You can either pan for the dust in the streams which flow from the mountain, or you can dig and blast your way into the endless treasuries of wealth housed deep within the mountain’s body.
The goal of biblical exegesis is to uncover as much of the Bible’s treasures as God will allow. Since the Bible is a supernatural book, this not only involves the intellect, but the heart. Therefore, the grammatical and syntactical conventions of language do not constrain the meaning of the text. The glory of God shines forth through the text into our hearts (2 Cor 3:18). Therefore, the ultimate goal of biblical exegesis is to see and feel reality clearly for what it actually is, as prescribed in the Bible, and respond to truth with proportionate, heart-felt adoration for Jesus Christ.
Like one ancient exegete once professed, biblical exegesis is meant to foster hope:
“Let your steadfast love come to me, O LORD, your salvation according to your promise; then shall I have an answer for him who taunts me, for I trust in your word. And take not the word of truth utterly out of my mouth, for my hope is in your rules.” (Ps 119:41–43)
Likewise, the gold of the Bible, once uncovered, is designed to shoot an eternal joy deep down into the Christian’s heart:
“These things I have spoken to you [i.e., my word], that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” (John 15:11)
God has given to us his word in the grammatical and syntactical conventions of language. I am thankful to God that he has placed my classmates and I in an institution where we are trained to hold these conventions with a fierce grip that we might uncover the riches of eternal knowledge that lay behind the words of the biblical text.
- Pray that students would see more of Christ through the rigors of academic study.
- Pray all of the students studying the languages. At times studying the languages can be discouraging, but there is a sweet reward in the end for those who persevere.
- Pray for the recent publications of two of our own professors, Andy Naselli (How to Understand and Apply the New Testament) and Jason DeRouchie (How to Understand and Apply the Old Testament), that these works would further equip Christians to handle the Biblical text with faithfulness and confidence.
- Pray that God would continue to raise up leaders to go all across the globe and teach others to observe (i.e., exegete) all that Jesus commanded (Matt 28:18–20).
- The semester is over halfway complete; pray that students would persevere well into finals week, seeking to soak in as much of Jesus as they can.