This is the second portion of my previous piece about Exegesis. Please feel free to reference that prior to reading this. Here, I will explicate the basics on what kinds of questions and interests an exegete should have when reading the biblical text.
Have you ever read Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare? You may have been forced to in high school like I was. This story is iconic and most people know the general plot of the tale. My focus, however, is not on the original. My focus is on adaptations of the classic Shakespearian piece, of which there are several. The movie, West Side Story, is an example of an adaptation of the original. It views the Romeo and Juliet through a different lens; a lens of the 20th century, urban, immigrant, Person of Color; specifically, Puerto Rican-Americans and their rival White gang. The various themes within WSS are race, socioeconomic status, love, etc. THIS is a great example of how Hermeneutics works by showing that different adaptations of stories are just as authentic as the real thing. After all, West Side Story won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1962.
Hermeneutics, like West Side Story, is simply a lens by which we read something. And these lenses are vast. Personally, I can read from a woman’s lens, a Queer lens, a feminist lens, a White-passing, Mexican-American lens, a lens of erasure, a middle-class lens, etc,. And, to be clear, you cannot read from the position of a lens that is not your own. If you are not Black, then you cannot speak to the experiences of other Black people, their station, or their history. That is their lens. You can be educated on it, read it, retain it, work to incorporate principles from it to aid in liberation of oppression, etc. But, it cannot be yours.
There are Queer lenses, heteronormative ones, Christian ones, Atheist ones, African-American ones, poor ones, immigrant ones, LatinX ones, etc. Begin by asking yourself, “What are the lenses by which I see the world and make decisions about the world from?” “How do my lenses shape the way I read?”
Can you interrogate yourself and your biases prior to reading about other races, cultures, and experiences? All of this encompasses hermeneutical principles. The greatest treatise on hermeneutics comes from Hans-Georg Gadamer. He is the one who came up with the idea regarding Romeo and Juliet and the various adaptations that humanity can create from the original.
Hans George Gadamer’s basic thesis regarding how we interpret anything we read or see is this: We are inadvertently immersed into several situations and traditions when we are born. We can call these “lenses.” These factors influence everything in our lives including the way we read, especially the Bible and how we understand what it says.
What are the factors? Religion, or lack thereof, race, sexuality, socioeconomic status, gender roles, familial structures and roles, geographical location, ability or disability, etc. There are numerous variables you cannot control when you are born. These variables force you to see the world a certain way. Even you can create an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet from your own personal world view, beliefs, and experiences. Stories in the Bible work the same way.
Gadamer believes that there are multiple “renditions” of famous stories like Romeo and Juliet. There are several biblical ones: Creation, Flood Narrative, parables of Jesus, etc. In order to have an authentic rendering of this narrative the fundamentals of the narrative must meet certain criteria in order to become authentic in our own lives and context. We render true meaning and robust meaning to the text when we also use integral tools.
The primary foundation of hermeneutics is exegesis. There is little difference between the two, however, you cannot interpret before you exegete. Exegesis properly executed must come first. Likewise, accurate translation of original languages is the foundation of hermeneutics. Think of it as a pyramid. At the bottom is Translation; second, Exegesis; third, Hermeneutics. There are rules to exegeting and questions you must first ask in order to apply a hermeneutic that is impactful and does justice to the text in its original form.
The three main points to look at are these: *These points are not limited here. There are many subsets of these points that are utilized in exegetical and hermeneutical method.
World behind the text: (Historical Critical Method):
–– Understanding the historical context of the story provided within the text. For example, when we read Genesis, we will also want to know the ins and outs of the ancient Near East, comparative religions and their literature, surrounding civilizations, time-frames, geography, etc.
For the New Testament, we do the same; what century are we in? What landscape? Who is in power, etc.?
World within the text: (Literary Critical Method)
–– Knowing the Author and their biases. For example, who is the author? Can we even identify a true author? Have they edited the work? Have other sources edited the work? What language are they using? Is the language within the specified time-frame of the setting, or is it more modern/older? What is the worldview of the author?
What grammatical styles does the author use (poetry, parallelism, acrostic formulas, chiastic structures, syntax, etc.)? Who is speaking in the text? Who does not speak? Who is mentioned? Who is not mentioned (example: if a story is about a woman, is there a woman character with a voice? And, in the entire book of Esther, the author never mentions God who is completely absent from the story!) Does the author have biases, prejudices, or favor certain people? Is the written author correlated correctly to who scholars deem as the writer?
––example: Tradition tells us that Moses is the sole author of the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). However, most biblical scholars do not believe this to be true or possible because of a wide range of evidence including the recording of his own death in Deuteronomy. General scholarly consensus is that multiple sources had their hands in writing the Torah; a Yahwistic source, a Priestly source, the Elohist source, and Deuteronomistic source!
World in Front of the Text: (Reader Response and Cultural Criticism)
–– Your personal station in life and perspective which influences how you read and render meaning to the text. This is when you have done the work of the previous examples and use them in conjunction with your view to render personal meaning and application from the text. In the same ways we interrogate the author, the translators, even the committees who put together Bible translations like the NIV, NRSV, and ESV, we must interrogate our own selves, our biases, and prejudices while reading.
These are the building blocks to becoming an exegete and a hermeneut! I encourage you to read hermeneutical works outside of your worldview for a robust take on the Bible and its meaning. More importantly, Gadamer believed that you can and should change your traditions and should be changed by the ones you were immersed in. We all know those folks who are stuck in their bias when reading the biblical text. We should move beyond ourselves and our lenses in order to properly love ourselves, God, and neighbor. The biggest takeaway––interrogate yourself and your own traditions.
My next posting will be on free, online resources for exegesis so that you can apply everything discussed here, as well as a booklist for hermeneutical works you may be interested in to further your studies and growth.
For more specific questions, feel free to contact me here!
Finally, I am leading private Bible Study Sessions and Group Sessions in September. If you want to take part, fill out the contact sheet. Visit my Patreon page to support this project or sponsor someone to be in the sessions with my promotional $7 tier! https://www.patreon.com/ErinGreen
Grace and peach to all of you! Yes. I said peach.