Exegesis vs. Eisegesis: Undoing how Church has Taught us to Read the Bible

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Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46951/humpty-dumpty-sat-on-a-wall

When you read this nursery rhyme, think about any crystallizations of the story you have in your mind. Maybe you have read it before. Maybe it’s been read directly to you. Maybe you already have it memorized from childhood. But, what I want you to do: ask yourself, who is Humpty Dumpty? It may sound silly, but I promise this has an important point. What does Humpty Dumpty look like?

Is your answer “an egg”? That’s just fine. You are like most of us. Illustrations in nursery rhyme books always typically depict Humpty Dumpty as an egg. We’ve probably seen it more than a dozen times. It makes complete sense that when you hear or read this nursery rhyme your mind may give shape to the character of Humpty Dumpty as looking like an egg. It may even have a little outfit on it and a hat!

However, if you have determined that Humpty Dumpty is indeed an egg, then you have read your interpretation into the story and into the text. Or, you have believed the interpretations of others about the story. But, here’s the thing, where in the story are we ever told that Humpty is an egg? There is no textual evidence, or any other evidence within the story itself which proves that Humpty Dumpty is anything at all. So, if you were to ask someone the same question I’m asking you and if their answer were to be “Humpty’s an egg” you can tell them that this is classic eisegesis at play.

Eisegesis is simply rendering your own personal meaning, understanding, or vision to any kind of story or text. When this is done with the Bible or any other form of writing or story, the interpreter is taking a great risk of misinterpreting the text entirely. Now, this is okay when we’re reading something like Harry Potter. The point of Harry Potter is to have freedom which allows the reader to creatively imagine what the characters might look like, what Hogwarts looks like, or what it feels like to be on the run from Voldemort.

However, when it comes to texts like the Bible, we need to be more careful. If our desire is to properly exegete the Bible, we cannot read it in the same ways that we read Harry Potter or nursery rhymes. This is obvious, but untrained pastors and theologians make these kinds of mistakes all of the time. Shockingly, some theologians and pastors are not even trained in the original languages of the biblical text (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek). This is a problem. But, what’s amazing is that we have tools available to us to examine the text carefully, and more importantly, to be able to know when something has been properly exegeted.

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The fundamental aspects of exegesis are these: the word itself means “to come out of, or, lead out of.” The purpose of exegesis is to objectively extract the facts within the writing from the writing itself. That means that we pay attention to the original language and what different meanings any particular word may have in its original form (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek). For example, the word for Spirit in Hebrew (רוּחַ, Ruach), means a few things: spirit, breath, and wind. It is the same definition in Greek. These various meanings can be used literally, figuratively, and even symbolically. Exegesis aids in determining how a word like this was being employed by the author.

Furthermore, we examine the author themselves and try to get into their psyche. Who is the author? What time was this book written in? What social circumstances are influencing the story? Is the author themselves taking a stance on a political topic or view point? What are the author’s biases?

In addition, we look at other critical pieces such as historical context and setting, the grammar, syntax, style, and the literary methods employed by the author or authors, etc. Once we have completed all of these steps (and they are lengthy) then we can begin to piece together what the text is trying to say. And much, much later in the process, a pastor can begin to apply a modern application that holds value and meaning today through a sermon, etc.

A good exegete allows the text to speak for itself and acts merely as a messenger. Eisegesis is exactly the opposite; it already has a point it wants to make and uses the text improperly to make that point. Eisegesis is entirely subjective and steals from the text and uses it as a kind of prop. All of the work that should go into exegeting is never accomplished because the purpose is to buttress the idea of the one performing eisegesis. Does this sound like any pastors or theologians you know?

An example of Eisegesis performed using texts from the Bible is by making the claim that “homosexuality” is a sin. Exegesis, however, would prove to you that this word never existed at all in the original languages of the text. In fact, this word wasn’t even invented in the English language until the late 19th century; centuries after English translations of the Bible were already produced, including the famous KJV. What’s more is that this word was never even used in a modern version of the Bible until the 1950’s. So, why then do pastors and theologians speak about it as if it’s perfectly clear that this is mentioned in Scripture. I argue that their evidence is so poor on the topic that the burden of proof is theirs to demonstrate otherwise.

The next time you read something from the Bible, try doing what we did earlier with the Humpty Dumpty story and ask yourself a few things: what does the text say? who is mentioned in the text? who is not mentioned? who is speaking? who is not speaking? are geographical locations mentioned? Are there repeated words or themes? You want to try to objectively discern these pieces as much as possible without allowing your imagination to dictate how you feel about what the passage is saying. Many times, we have to undo habits that we have been trained to do in order to accomplish this goal. But, if you can successfully imagine that Humpty Dumpty is not an egg at all, then you are on your way!

My next piece will treat the next step in interpretation: Hermeneutics and the basic hermeneutical methods! Happy Pride!

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