How to interpret the Bible

Use ‘exegesis’ to interpret the Bible. Exegesis is where we draw out of the text what it is actually saying, using the original historical context, regardless of what we believe. Sometimes familiar stories are quite different than what we remember if read this way. After examining a Biblical passage using exegesis we may need to examine our other beliefs. Exegesis began with scholars studying the Bible and is now used in a variety of settings including art, film and literature. Exegesis is highly objective.

Many people use the exact opposite technique called ‘eisegesis’. Eisegesis is reading into a text the meaning we want it to have,  ignoring the original historical context and using a text to confirm our biases and predispositions. We can use eisegesis to prove anything we want to in a Biblical text. Eisegesis is highly subjective.

An example of the difference between these two techniques is contained in the phrase “Do we let our politics shape our understanding of the Bible (Eisegesis)?”  or “do we let our understanding of the Bible shape our politics (Exegesis)?”

Exegesis and eisegesis are mutually exclusive. They are not two ends on a continuum but two distinct ways of thinking, even if we are not aware of it. It may be best to learn exegesis during a specific course of study at a university or from someone who knows the differences between the two.

Here are some other considerations to keep in mind when interpreting the bible.

The Bible is not one book. It is made up of 66 different books, written over a span of time of 5000 years and many different authors. Most modern reproductions of the Bible print and bind all these separate books together. When they are all bound together we can easily gain the impression that the Bible is only one book with many chapters. A few churches add several more books to the collection of ancient biblical books resulting in special editions of the Bible peculiar to that particular church.

The Bible is usually printed in a set order. This order is not a chronological order as we modern people would expect. Some books are much older than the first book in the Bible. These books are the written down versions of stories told around a campfire and only written down when the technology of writing was invented. The book of “Job” is a good example of this process.

Each book in the Bible is written using a dominant style. These styles are narrative, history, prophesy, poetry, apocalyptic imagery, song, parable and many other styles as well. Many books of the Bible contain more than one style. If we try to interpret ancient poetical style as a modern historical text we may resort to eisegesis to make the passage fit into our way of thinking rather than using exegesis and letting the passage inform us.

The Bible is not history as we know it. It does have historical features mixed with religious thinking. Separating the two can be difficult. It is often not possible to formally assign a time or find any missing details or interpret many individual stories “literally”. We need to be comfortable with the doubt this raises.

Each book is shaped by the context of the time. An example of this is the ancient legal phrase, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” (Jesus in Matthew 5:38 cites this phrase from Ex. 21:24; Lev. 24:20; and Deut. 19:21). If you live in a peaceful and well-ordered society with little vengeance or violence then your context would suggest this phrase seems to be a barbaric teaching. If your context is to live in a society that is violent with people taking their own vengeance to extremes then this phrase limits how violent you can be. Context greatly changes the meaning of a passage.

For Christians, the Bible is a sacred text containing the Word of God. It is not a secular document. Many Christians are afraid to use modern literary techniques like exegesis to analyse it for fear they are somehow making God appear smaller. Another more healthy view (and the view at St John’s) is to use the best exegetical analysis possible, to fully engage our God given minds, as God would want us to.  Use all of God’s gifts for us to understand and worship God better.

The key to interpreting the Bible is to use exegesis when we read the Bible and to know both the ancient context in which the Bible passage was written and the contemporary context where we now live. We will need to know about many topics including history, politics, religion, linguistics, literature, languages, psychology, culture, geography, of both contexts. The more we learn of these contexts the more accurate our interpretation can be. While there is always more to learn about these topics, we may be surprised at how much we already know in our well educated society. Inaccurate interpretation is the result using eisegesis or ignoring one or both contexts. Accurate Interpretation uses exegesis together with knowing both contexts.

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