I can’t believe I am thisclose to graduating from seminary! I actually had to fill out my official graduation request yesterday so it’s getting real, friends. Three years have flown by; but, honestly, if I could I would keep registering for courses because there is still so much to learn!
One of the things we do as a Chapel staff each week is bible study and planning Sunday worship. It provides lots of opportunities to dive into the Word and wrestle with a phrase or a particular theme, setting, or — this week’s question of the day, for instance — why would Matthew put that paragraph there; it seems out of place? There is such rich and authentic discussion around the table each week, and as you can probably guess, a diversity of voices and perspectives — and I think Jesus would just love it!
This kind of examination of scripture is what theologians call exegesis (or as my husband likes to say: “exe-Jesus”). Exegesis is a fancy word that seminarians like to throw around, but it’s really a foundational practice of trying to understand what someone is communicating. You do exegesis every day! When you read or listen to someone speak you are, whether consciously or not, asking, What is being said? Is the speaker or author preaching, teaching, exhorting, singing, lamenting? What literary form is being used? What is the literal or nonliteral meaning? Who is the intended audience? In other words, what the heck is really going on here?
Biblical exegesis simply looks to interpret our sacred texts through different lenses such as history, form and function, tradition, original sources, textual variants, etc. It allows us to sort of interrogate the text, asking a variety of questions.
I recently studied a particular passage in Matthew (Chapter 22, verses 41-46 if you’re curious!) and used the Historical Critical method to do some exegesis for a paper. By employing the historical critical method we get to see not only the history in the text but the history of the text. For instance, the passage I studied deals in part with the relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees. Using historical information, we know the Pharisees were religious leaders, zealous in upholding religious laws of the Hebrew Bible and who were, perhaps, threatened by Jesus who claimed a new way of interpreting the law and who had amassed a large following. Historical criticism allows us to peek inside the first century and to understand the political, social, and economic climate of the times.
But it is the history of the text in question that is really bolstered by the historical critical method. Why did Matthew include this very short paragraph in his Gospel? By whom and for whom was it written? What is depicted in the exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees that may not be overtly described? Where (and why) is the story situated within history? Again, by examining the lives of first century Christians, both gentiles and Jewish Christians, and by acknowledging the long-standing religious assumptions of the Jews and the Pharisees in particular, we can better understand the historical situation out of which this biblical text arose. This is just one example of the exegetical methods theologians (that includes YOU!) use in interpreting scripture. For more exegetical methods….stay tuned next week. 🙂 I warned you there is a lot to learn!
Exegesis is a good reminder to me to expect the unexpected when reading scripture. It does not so much allow us to master the text as much as it enables us to enter into the text. I may have read a passage a hundred times before, but if I open my Bible with a new set of “lenses” on, I am opening myself up to new insights and perspectives. After all, the scriptures themselves tell us they are God-breathed; the Holy Spirit is constantly moving and shaping and speaking to us through them.