Exegetical Inquiry: The Question is more important than the Answer
- How do I do good exegesis if I don’t know Hebrew or Greek? (Part 1)
- The Best Translation to use for (Public) Exegesis
- Exegetical Inquiry: The Question is more important than the Answer
- Seeing New Things in Old Texts: More Tips for Exegetical Inquiry
- Let the Text Question You: Exegesis is Application
If you’re trying to do rigorous exegesis of the Bible, but don’t know Hebrew or Greek, you may feel a bit handicapped. After all, students of the languages will regularly testify that they have transformed their ability to interpret Scripture. “They help me read the Bible more closely.” “I now see details in Scripture that I never noticed before.” “The Bible in English is black and white, while the Greek and Hebrew are technicolor.” Or to update that metaphor: “reading the Bible in one’s native tongue is oh so 480p; the Greek and the Hebrews is 8K HDR w/ Atmos Surround.”
I don’t disagree with the conclusion, but I do disagree with one of the premises.1 Part of the (post hoc ergo propter hoc) logic embedded in these testimonies is that knowing the languages caused or enabled this upgraded level of exegetical inquiry. That’s usually not the case. It’s not actually the languages that are leveling up the exegesis. The upgrade is actually the result of the languages slowing us down, forcing us to ask questions and puzzle over the text, creating a since of unfamiliarity and foreignness when it comes to the Bible. The languages make the Bible strange again.
And here’s the good news: you can do this too! You can ask great questions without any linguistic training, in the comfort of your own home! Nothing can replace the languages, but there are simple ways that you can force yourself to slow down and investigate the text in a manner similar to working out of the Hebrew or Greek.
Ask a lot of questions
The best way to slow yourself down is to inquire of the text. At root that’s all exegesis is: asking questions generated by the text and searching for answers to those questions in and around the text. That may seem a bit obvious, but we forget that the first stage in the process is actually having questions. We often use the text as a kind of compendium of answers, but when we treat it that way we actually end up where we started. We don’t learn anything unless we investigate the text and use the text to investigate ourselves.
So the first step is to ask a lot of questions. Go through the text sentence by sentence, phrase by phrase, and even word by word, turning it this way and that. (This should not, by the way, take the place of a more natural and ordinary reading process. This step assumes you’ve already read the Bible in a more ordinary way). As you slow down and dig into the texture of the text, start making a list of questions. Ask every question you can think of. Ask obvious questions (even if you already know the answer), non-obvious questions, unanswerable questions, personal questions, questions you think other people might have, even questions that might feel “edgy” or irreverent at first. As long as the questions are honest (that is, not disingenuous) and on-topic (that is, about the text and/or generated by the text), they count.
Here’s the trick though: ask a lot of questions. You will need to push yourself, because asking good questions takes work and your brain will get tired. Mental curiosity and inquisitiveness is a muscle that you will need to exercise, and exercise (I’m hear) requires you to push yourself beyond your normal comfort levels. Make it a challenge; “I’m going to ask 10 honest and on-topic questions about this verse.” And keep going.
Don’t trust your assumptions
At some point it will seem like the well has run dry. How do you keep going? One way to kill any investigation is to assume you already know all there is to know. This is true when it comes to Scripture as well. You may have extensive theological knowledge, decades of practical and pastoral wisdom, and a wealth of exegetical insights, but don’t assume from the outset that you understand. This isn’t to say that we reinvent the wheel every time we approach the text, but have a healthy humility when it comes to what we already “know.”
You are trying to get to what Paul Ricœur called a “new naïveté.” We think exegesis is at its best when we arrive at “the answer,” when we reach “understanding,” but actually exegesis is at its best when the text seems strange and alien to us. We need to make the text strange again. You can see this at work when you read a text you’ve heard preached 1000 times. What else needs to be said about the Good Samaritan? The main point is pretty straightforward (everybody is your neighbor), the historical details well-understood (Samaritans were not “good guys” for Jesus’ audience), and the pastoral payoff seems obvious (show mercy to anyone in need). Exegetically speaking, the investigation seems “dead.” How do I proceed?
At least one way to make the text strange again is to question your own assumptions. One great way to do that is to read with those outside your tradition. Did you know that Augustine (and others in the early church) thought that the innkeeper symbolized the Apostles, and particularly Paul? What’s that about? You might not agree with that conclusion, but why not? What assumptions is Augustine making that make such a reading plausible?
Another way of probing your assumptions is to read the text with “first-timers.” Read with people who are unfamiliar with the text and ask them what they think it means. This is not in an effort to teach them what the text really means, but to hear their questions and assumptions as a guide for yourself. You’re the learner here. Again, you might not agree with them, but it will help you get outside of your own thought-circles and see the text afresh.
Notice the “oddities”
Another way you can reach a new naïveté is by playing up the “oddities” of the text. These are the things in the text that might “bother” us. When it comes to the Bible we are often tempted to skip over these things. We don’t want to imply that the Bible is odd–it’s the word of God! It’s perfect in every way! Yes, but precisely because it is the word of God, it will contain deep mysteries. All language is “other” in the sense that it comes from someone else’s mind, and that means there are going to be things that seem foreign and alien to us. For that matter, even our own minds can seem foreign and alien to us! “What are you cast down, O my soul” (Ps. 42)? Don’t be afraid of these things.
Here’s an example: I’ve always been taught that 1 Thessalonians was written by Paul. But in 1 Thess. 1:1 we read “Paul, Silas, and Timothy.” Who really wrote this letter? Is it “purely” Paul, or is it written by a (small) committee? Why put the two other names there if Paul was the creative genius behind the content? Perhaps Silas and Timothy are Paul’s scribes? But why both of them then? How does authorship work in the ancient world anyway?
In all this we are not questioning scripture, but rather our own assumptions about the text.
More to come
That’s enough to get us started, but check back here next week for Part 2! Try some of these out, and next week I’ll include more tips to for cultivating our humility, curiosity, and textual inquisitiveness.
A brief note on the original languages
Before closing, though it should be noted that we are not denying here the importance of the original languages. They are invaluable. The methods we are outlining here are extremely helpful, but they cannot ultimately replace the value of the languages. Why? Not because Greek and Hebrew are magic in some way, but because the Greek and the Hebrew enable you to ask even more questions. You have access to questions that are hidden by the translation, and that’s not because translations are bad, it’s because they are translations and as such have to make decisions on your behalf. The languages thus provide an even higher degree of fidelity, but still: you can get a good way there with better investigative methods.
- This does need to be nuanced at some point. I would not deny the languages are important. They are vitally so. Read to the end if you want to see how I address that.