Exegesis (from the Greek ἐξηγεῖσθαι 'to lead out') is a critical explanation or interpretation of a text, especially a religious text. Traditionally the term was used primarily for exegesis of the Bible, however in contemporary usage it has broadened to mean a critical explanation of any text and the term Biblical exegesis is used for greater specificity. The goal of Biblical exegesis is to explore the meaning of the text which then leads to discovering its significance or relevance.
Exegesis includes a wide range of critical disciplines: textual criticism is the investigation into the history and origins of the text, but exegesis may include the study of the historical and cultural backgrounds for the author, the text, and the original audience. Other analysis includes classification of the type of literary genres present in the text, and an analysis of grammatical and syntactical features in the text itself.
The terms exegesis and hermeneutics have been used interchangeably. However, hermeneutics is a more widely defined discipline of interpretation theory: hermeneutics includes the entire framework of the interpretative process, encompassing all forms of communication: written, verbal and nonverbal, while exegesis focuses primarily on the written text.
One who practices exegesis is called an exegete. The plural of exegesis is exegeses. Adjectives for exegesis are exegetic or exegetical (i.e., exegetical commentaries). In Biblical exegesis, the opposite of exegesis (to draw out) is eisegesis (to draw in). Eisegesis, often used as a derogatory term, implies that the reader is importing their own meaning into the text. Exegesis is an attempt to discover the meaning of the text objectively, while eisegesis is importing a subjective meaning into the text.
According to some forms of Christianity, two different forms of exegesis exist: revealed and rational.
- Revealed exegesis considers that the Holy Spirit inspired the authors of the scriptural texts, and so the words of those texts convey a divine revelation.
- Rational exegesis bases its operation on the idea that the authors have their own inspiration, so their works result from human intelligence.
A common published form of a biblical exegesis is known as a 'bible commentary' and typically takes the form of an encyclopedia-like set of books each of which are devoted to the exposition of one or two books of the bible, in the order they appear in the Bible. Long books such as Psalms may be split over 2 or 3 volumes while short books such as 1, 2 and 3 John may be conflated into one volume. The form of each book is identical, consisting of a background and introductory section, following by detailed commentary of the book in a verse-by-verse basis (split up either into chapters or smaller units of text). Before the 20th century, a commentary would be written by a sole author, but today a publishing board will commission a team of scholars to write a commentary, with each volume being divided out among them. A single commentary will generally attempt to give a coherent and unified view on the bible as a whole, for example, from a Catholic or Reformed perspective, or a commentary that focuses on textual or historical considerations. However, each volume will inevitably lean toward the personal emphasis of its author, and within any commentaries there may be great variety in the depth, accuracy and critical strength of each volume.
Catholic centres of biblical exegesis include:
- the École Biblique of Jerusalem founded in 1890 by the Dominican order's Marie-Joseph Lagrange. The school became embroiled in the modernist crisis, and had to curtail its New Testament activities until after Vatican II
- the Pontifical Biblical Institute of Rome practises exegesis in a more canonical way
- for a history of Biblical Exegesis as a branch of theology see http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05692b.htm
For more than a century, German universities such as Tübingen have had reputations as centres of exegesis; in the USA, the Divinity Schools in Chicago, Harvard and Yale became famous.
Robert A. Traina's book Methodical Bible Study has become influential in the field of Protestant Christian exegesis. Many regarded it as the standard text describing the inductive approach to interpreting the English-language Bible.
Jewish exegetes have the title meforshim (commentators).
The Midrash is a homiletic method of exegesis and a compilation of homiletic teachings or commentaries on the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), a Biblical exegesis of the Pentateuch and its paragraphs related to the Law or Torah, which also forms an object of analysis. It comprises the legal and ritual Halakha, the collective body of Jewish laws, and exegesis of the written Law; and the non-legalistic Aaggadah, a compendium of Rabbinic homilies of the parts of the Pentateuch not connected with Law.
Biblical interpretation by the Tannaim and the Amoraim, which may be best designated as scholarly interpretations of the Midrash, was a product of natural growth and of great freedom in the treatment of the words of the Bible. But it proved an obstacle to further development when, endowed with the authority of a sacred tradition in the Talmud and in the Midrash (collections edited subsequently to the Talmud), it became the sole source for the interpretation of the Bible among later generations. Traditional literature contains explanations that are in harmony with the wording and the context. It reflects evidence of linguistic sense, judgment, and an insight into the peculiarities and difficulties of the Biblical text. But side by side with these elements of a natural and simple Bible exegesis, of value even today, the traditional literature contains an even larger mass of expositions removed from the actual meaning of the text.
- Halakha and Aggadah
In the halakic as well as in the haggadic exegesis the expounder endeavored not so much to seek the original meaning of the text as to find authority in some Bible passage for concepts and ideas, rules of conduct and teachings, for which he wished to have a Biblical foundation. To this were added, on the one hand, the belief that the words of the Bible had many meanings, and, on the other, the importance attached to the smallest portion, the slightest peculiarity of the text. Because of this move towards particularities the exegesis of the Midrash strayed further and further away from a natural and common-sense interpretation.
Midrash exegesis was largely in the nature of homiletics, expounding the Bible not in order to investigate its actual meaning and to understand the documents of the past. This was done to find religious edification, moral instruction, and sustenance for the thoughts and feelings of the present. The contrast between explanation of the literal sense and the Midrash, that did not follow the words, was recognized by the Tannaim and the Amoraim. Although their idea of the literal meaning of a Biblical passage may not be allowed by more modern standards. The above-mentioned tanna, Ishmael b. Elisha said, rejecting an exposition of Eliezer b. Hyrcanus: "Truly, you say to Scripture, 'Be silent while I am expounding!'" (Sifra on Lev. xiii. 49).
Tannaitic exegesis distinguishes principally between the actual deduction of a thesis from a Bible passage as a means of proving a point, and the use of such a passage as a mere mnemonic device – a distinction that was also made in a different form later in the Babylonian schools. The Babylonian Amoraim were the first to use the expression "Peshaṭ" ("simple" or face value method) to designate the primary sense, contrasting it with the "Drash," the Midrashic exegesis. These two terms were later on destined to become important features in the history of Jewish Bible exegesis. In Babylonia was formulated the important principle that the Midrashic exegesis could not annul the primary sense. This principle subsequently became the watchword of commonsense Bible exegesis. How little it was known or recognized may be seen from the admission of Kahana, a Babylonian amora of the fourth century, that while at 18 years of age he had already learned the whole Mishnah, he had only heard of that principle a great many years later (Shab 63a). Kahana's admission is characteristic of the centuries following the final redaction of the Talmud. The primary meaning is no longer considered, but it becomes more and more the fashion to interpret the text according to the meaning given to it in traditional literature. The ability and even the desire for original investigation of the text succumbed to the overwhelming authority of the Midrash. It was, therefore, providential that, just at the time when the Midrash was paramount, the close study of the text of the Bible, at least in one direction, was pursued with rare energy and perseverance by the careful Masorites, who set themselves to preserving and transmitting the pronunciation and correct reading of the text. By introducing punctuation (vowel-points and accents) into the Biblical text, in the seventh century, they supplied that protecting hedge which, according to Rabbi Akiba's saying, the Masorah was to be for the words of the Bible. Punctuation, on the one hand, protected the tradition from being forgotten, and, on the other, was the precursor of an independent Bible science to be developed in a later age.
The Mikra, the fundamental part of the national science, was the subject of the primary instruction. It was also divided into the three historic groups of the books of the Bible: the Pentateuch, the Prophets, and the Hagiographa. The intelligent reading and comprehension of the text, arrived at by a correct division of the sentences and words, formed the course of instruction in the Bible. The scribes were also required to know the Targum, the Aramaic translation of the text. The Targum made possible an immediate comprehension of the text, but was continuously influenced by the exegesis taught in the schools. The synagogues were preeminently the centers for instruction in the Bible and its exegesis. The reading of the Biblical text, which was combined with that of the Targum, served to widen the knowledge of the scholars learned in the first division of the national science. The scribes found the material for their discourses, which formed a part of the synagogue service, in the second division of the several branches of the tradition. The Haggadah, the third of these branches, especially furnished the material for the sermon.
Jewish exegesis did not finish with the redaction of the Talmud, but continued during ancient times, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance; it remains a subject of study today. Jews have centres for exegetic studies around the world, in each community: they consider exegesis an important tool for the understanding of the Scriptures.
The Mimamsa school of Indian philosophy, also known as Pūrva Mīmāṃsā ("prior" inquiry, also Karma-Mīmāṃsā), in contrast to Uttara Mīmāṃsā ("posterior" inquiry, also Brahma-Mīmāṃsā), is strongly concerned with textual exegesis, and consequently gave rise to the study of philology and the philosophy of language. Its notion of shabda "speech" as indivisible unity of sound and meaning (signifier and signified) is due to Bhartrhari (7th century).
The Qur'an has two dimensions, the outer and inner dimensions ... The outer dimensions can be understood by the "Tafsir" which are more general, or understandable topics and concepts. While the second dimension, the "Inner" is only understood through the discipline of Ta'wil - The exegesis of the Qur'an
Ta'wil: Is the act of taking something to its primary meaning, the deepest meaning of a matter, and inner meaning of the Qur'an .
See article on Zoroastrian exegesis from Encyclopædia Iranica.
Exegesis in a secular context
Several universities, including the Sorbonne in Paris, Leiden University, and the Université Libre de Bruxelles (Free University of Brussels), put exegesis in a secular context, next to exegesis in a religious tradition. Secular exegesis is an element of the study of religion.
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- Traina, Robert (1952). Methodical Bible study : a new approach to hermeneutics.. Ridgefield Park? N.J.; New York: [distributed by] Biblical Seminary in New York.
- VanGemeren, Willem (1997). New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Pub. House. ISBN 0310481708.
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