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Guide to
Biblical Exegesis

Richard Ascough

of New
and Greek

School of Religion

229 Theological Hall
Kingston, ON
Canada, K7L 3N6

(613) 533-6000

fax: (613) 533-6879



Exegesis - What is it?

The word "exegesis" is a Greek word that can be literally rendered "to lead out," "to explain," or "to interpret." Not surprisingly, not all biblical scholars agree on the overall purpose of exegesis or what it might look like in practice. Since my hermeneutical framework is predominantly that of a historian, I am most interested in determining authorial intention (what was the writer trying to say) and audience reception (how would the author's intended audience understand what she or he was writing). This is complicated in biblical studies (and many other writings) by the temporal and cultural distance between the modern reader and the ancient text, not to mention the fact that the texts are written in languages in which many of us are not fluent (biblical Hebrew and Koine Greek). In addition, all readers, past and present, have preconceived notions about the meaning of words or texts (especially biblical texts with which they may or may not have some familiarity) and these notions can bias our reading of a particular ancient text.

Unfortunately, we cannot fully escape our own personal, cultural, and historic predispositions. Fortunately, we can be attempt to be aware of the influence they have on our readings of a text. The process of "exegesis" helps us read texts by providing tools for working through the text and by raising awareness of the biases that are influencing the way we are reading the text.

With this in mind we can offer the following working definition of "exegesis": a systematic process by which a person arrives at a reasonable and coherent sense of the meaning and message of a biblical text.


  • for all readers: to explain what the text meant for its original writer and audience in its original literary and socio-historical setting.
  • for readers for whom the text is sacred scripture: to determine what the text means for faith and action in the modern period.

Academic Outputs

  • Observation & Interpretation: construct the original meaning of the text in its context
  • Communication: construct a means to convey this meaning to others (e.g., essay)

Theological Outputs (not appropriate in the Religious Studies setting)

  • Application: determine how the text applies to faith and practice for the believing community today
  • Proclamation: construct a means to convey this message (e.g., sermon)
Academic Output - Observation & Interpretation

Observation: "What does the author say?"

Begin by reading the text, perhaps a few times

  • use a good translation; it may help to read a few different types of translations
  • be sure to take account of the translation methodology
  • read the larger context of the passage; i.e., the chapter or letter or even the entire book

Determine the limits of the passage

  • where does the writer begin/end the thought / story?

Note your specific observations concerning the passage

  • what key words, images, symbols are used?
  • where else are key words used by the same writer? By other biblical writers? Outside the Bible?
  • what characters appear and what are their relationships?
  • what issues are addressed in the passage?
  • are there any variant readings noted in the footnotes? (=textual criticism)
  • is there a particular literary form (genre) to take note of (e.g., letter; healing; parable)? (=form criticism)
  • are there any structuring devices used in the text (e.g., parallelism; proofs)? (=rhetorical criticism)
  • did the passage have a source? do we have access to that source? (=source criticism)
  • what unique views or emphases does the writer place on the text? (=redaction criticism)
    • how has the writer used the sources?
    • what is the writer's life situation or theological outlook?
  • are there any parallel texts inside or outside of the Bible
  • what are the socio-cultural codes embedded in the text (e.g., honour/shame)? (=social-scientific criticism)
  • is there any independent confirmation of the events recorded? (=historical veracity)

Ask yourself what cultural assumptions you might be making; e.g., economic, health, family

Use exegetical tools (commentaries, dictionaries, atlas, etc.) only when necessary

Interpretation: "What did the author mean?"

Socio-historical context: What is the author's and audience's situation?

  • politics; geography; topography; demographics; customs
  • use a good Bible dictionary, atlas, encyclopedia
  • for whom was it written?
  • what issue(s) does the passage address?

Literary context

  • interpretation goes along with genre
    • is the passage narrative, poetic, parable, etc.?
    • should it be interpreted literally or figuratively?
  • focus on significant words, phrases, statements
    • what is its meaning (definitions; contextualize)?
    • what is its significance in the passage?
      • why would the author choose this way of expression?
      • does it have a special grammatical role?
      • does it make a difference if it were left out?
    • what is implied by the use of this term or phrase or grammatical structure?

Rhetorical context: what is the significance of the progression in the thought pattern?

  • what was the author trying to convey to the audience - e.g., theological truths, practical advice?
  • what types of responses did the author expect on the basis of writing this passage?

Theological context: what do you know about the author's theological perspective?

Hermeneutical issues:

  • what are the challenges in moving from one social context (the ancient world) to another (ours)?
  • what blinders might have prevented me from seeing things in the text
  • what can modern contextal approaches tell me (e.g., liberationist; feminist; post-colonial)?

Investigate the secondary literature; compare and adjust your own observations

Concisely summarize the primary ideas of the text; what is the author trying to convey?

Academic Output - Communication: Writing An Academic Exegetical Paper

The goal of the academic exegesis paper paper is the commuication of the first outcome of exegesis: to explain what the text meant for its original writer and audience in its original literary and socio-historical setting.

An academic exegetical paper is not to be a sermon/homily. The emphasis should be on communicating your interpretation of the text, not on preaching the passage. The paper should concentrate on findings from the observation and interpretation steps and should only include an application if the instructor has requested it explicitly.

In writing the paper ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do I understand the text or texts I intend to discuss?
  • Are my notes clear and complete, allowing me to describe and respond to key features in the text(s)?
  • Does my opening paragraph lead to a specific and precisely formulated thesis that anticipates the main points of the argument of the essay?
  • Do my topic sentences reflect a logical development of that thesis?
  • Are there smooth transitions between paragraphs and sentences?
  • Do paragraphs cohere, usually around a single idea?
  • Is the meaning of each sentence clear, and are the structures of sentences varied?
  • Are general or abstract observations supported with concrete examples?
  • Have I carefully proof-read and revised for grammatical, spelling, and typographical errors?
  • Have footnotes and quotations been double-checked for accuracy and proper placement?
  • Has proper footnote and bibliographical form been followed?

The structure of the paper depends on the passage. Some texts unfold an argument in a step-by-step manner. They can be discussed in a verse-by-verse format. Others, especially narrations, work best if handled in a theme-oriented structure. Always allow some time between your research and your writing for this analysis stage to gell (summarized from Hayes and Holiday 2007:184-189).

See further Research and Writing Research Papers for the process and Assignment Assessment Criteria for the grading rubric for written work.

Theological Output - Application and Proclamation

This process involves the move from text to sermon or Bible study and should only be employed if it is speficially requested by an instructor or if you are undertaking the study of the Bible withing the framework of a faith community.

You can begin by asking whether the passage contain "universal truths" (applicable in all ages) or "contextual truths" (applicable for a certain period of history)? Know how and why you make the distinction between these two "truths."

You also need to determin how the passage fits with the whole message of the Bible.

Next, ask yourself the following questions around the issue of "what does it mean for me?":

  • what am I to believe?
  • what am I to do (actions, attitudes, sin)?
  • what do I learn about relationships?
  • what is the good news for me?

Now ask "how would that be initiated in my life?"

    Beware of reading modern cultural norms into a passage. However, do use your imagination to apply the passage to contemporary society. This helps identify what some of the issues in the text might be.

Ask how you can address your particular audience

  • how can you best explain the original meaning of the text?
  • how can you help them connect with the truths of the text?

Be sure to understand your ownaudience as best you can.

Use a format appropriate for your audience (e.g., sermon/homily; Bible study; case study; drama)

Guides for Biblical Exegesis

Danker, Frederick W. 1993. Multipurpose Tools for Bible Study. 4th edition. Minneapolis: Fortress.

Fee, Gordon D. 1993. New Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors. Revised edition. Louisville: Westminister John Knox.

Fee, Gordon D. and Douglas Stuart. 1993. How to Read the Bible for all its Worth. Second edition. Grand Rapids. Zondervan.

Hayes, John H. and Carl R. Holladay. 2007. Biblical Exegesis: A Beginner's Handbook. 3rd edition. Louisville: Westminster John Knox.

McKenzie, Steven L. and Stephen R. Haynes. 1999. To Each Its Own Meaning: An Introduction to Biblical Criticisms and Their Applications. Revised and Expanded. Louisville: Westminster John Knox.

Rohrbaugh, Richard, ed. 1996. The Social Sciences and New Testament Interpretation. Peabody: Hendrickson.

Schneiders, Sandra M. 1999. The Revelatory Text: Interpreting the New Testament as Sacred Scripture. Collegeville: Liturgical Press.

Soulen, Richard N. 1981. Handbook of Biblical Criticism. 2nd edition. Atlanta: John Knox.

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Revised Dec. 19, 2011