Interpretation 4: Basic Exegesis

The key to good exegesis and more intelligent reading of the Bible is to learn to read the text carefully and to ask the right questions. There are two basic kinds of questions to ask of every Bible passage: Those that relate to context and those that relate to content.

The Questions of Context are covered in two major areas.  The Historical and Literary Contexts.

The Historical Context

1) What is the time and culture of the author and his readers–that is, geographical, topographical, and political factors that are relevant to the author’s setting.

2) What is the occasion of the book, letter, psalm, and other forms of genre. 

It just makes all the difference in the world to know the personal background of Amos, Hosea, or Isaiah.  It makes a difference to understand that a denarious (penny) was worth a days wage.

The more important questions of context has to do with occasion and purpose of the book or what the situation was with the author when he wrote.  Most of these answers can be found in the book itself. We just need to read with our eyes open.

Some good tools to use are: Bible dictionaries, encyclopedias, commentaries (from various writers), Bible maps, etc.

The Literary Context

Words only have meaning in sentences, and for the most part biblical sentences only have meaning in relation to the preceding and succeeding sentences. 

The most important literary contextual question we ever ask is, “What’s the point?”  What is he saying and why is he saying it right here? Having made that point, what is he trying to say next, and why?

It is necessary in order to do this to use a translation that recognizes poetry and paragraphs. That’s the way we think.  Rarely do people use the King James Version in the cirlces I study with, but the KJV is an example of a Bible translation that does not recognize paragraphs.  When we read it it can become confusing because we treat each verse as a separate complete thought.  Doing this can really harm the understanding of the passage.  

The Question of Content

Content has to do with the meaning of words, the grammatical relationships in sentences, and the choice of the original text where the manuscripts have variant readings.

This has to do with questions of meaning that one ordinarily asks of the biblical text.

An example from Fee and Stuart’s book follows:  When Paul says, (2 Corinthians 5:16 NASB) “Therefore from now on we recognize no man according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him thus no longer.”  What does “according to the flesh” mean? It makes a difference in the text to know that it means “in a worldly way” rather than “when Jesus was walking on the earth.”  Most of the time, we need outside help in determining these answers.  That’s when we need to use the proper tools.

Having tools for any job, one wants the best tools available in order to do the best job. No less is true for good exegesis.  Fee and Stuart list the following as essential tools:  Bible Dictionary, Bible Handbook, A Good Translation (more than one), Good Commentaries.  They list commentaries last because they need to be the last resort in Bible study.  Commentaries, when used too often are a crutch that depends upon someone else’s exegesis, presuppositions and background.  It’s hard enough getting through my baggage, much less the baggage of others.

More later….


7 responses to “Interpretation 4: Basic Exegesis

  • Meowmix

    Okay, question regarding “according to the flesh.” It would seem to me that the phrase “in a worldly way” and “when Jesus was walking on the earth” would pretty much be the same thing. What is the difference, and is that difference essential to understand?

    I know that the Bible helps/aids are good, and that it is important to ask the right questions of a passage to study it in depth. We have so many good tools and instruction available now to help us study God’s word.

    Still, I can’t help but think of people in generations before us, my dad included, who had very little formal schooling. He and others like him had to be able to study the Bible, which he did, and understand enough to know what he needed to do to be saved…………………

    I’m not fussing or disagreeing, just asking a question and doing some thinking out loud. 🙂

  • Connie Lard

    Good stuff, Keith!

    To comment on Meowmix’s question. Perhaps what Keith (and Fee and Stuart) means is that the phrase “according to the flesh” means to look at things from the viewpoint of the world rather than from a spiritual viewpoint. It doesn’t refer to the time Jesus was on the earth in human form (which would be one way you might understand that phrase). It makes a big difference in the way that verse is understood.

    And, though you can understand enough to be saved without even being able to read (as did many generations before us), isn’t it great that we have the tools available to us today to help us understand more clearly His written word and His will for our lives? I think one fallacy of teaching by the 5-step plan (hear, believe, repent, confess, be baptized) is that it makes us think that’s all there is. There is really so much more depth to it than that! (Of course, later an additional step: “Live faithful until death” was added, then for sure that’s all there is, right?!) Just kidding. 🙂

  • Swindle

    That is right Connie. I find it amazing that every church has thier own Plan Of Salvation. Has anyone ever discussed God’s Plan To Save Man. I remember years ago a book entitled “The Scheme Of Redemption”. Don’t remember who wrote that though. Let’s get back to God’s way and not our way. Swindle

  • Keith Davis

    Thanks Judy for your question and thanks Connie for your post.

    The real bottom line with all of this is to be true to what we do know. I have grown up with a flawed view of how to interpret the scriptures. It doesn’t mean that all I learned was flawed, but it does call me to do what is right now as far as what I know now.

    I do not believe that all I learn about the scriptures is earth-shattrering and something that will matter in the larger picture of salvation. My call in these blogs for better interpretation is to help us treat the scriptures with the greatest care for all that we know. I don’t believe that anyone sets out to learn the wrong things about the scriptures. I don’t believe that our fore-fathers wil be judged harshly for having done all they knew to do with what they had. I just want us to do, with integrity, all that we can with the knowledge we have at our disposal now.

    That’s another “bottom line”–we need to be honest with ALL scripture. Not just that which we consider to be eternally significant.

  • Steve

    If you would like to read more about the human origins of the HBRCBFTD (hear, believe, repent, confess, be baptized, faithful to death) scheme, you can find it here:

    Walter Scott came up with what he called the “five finger exercise” to help school children remember his take on the salvation process.

    The clear, Bible wide teaching on salvation is by grace through faith. Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians make this point very clear.


  • Greg England

    I know it was probably just an oversight on your part, but when you mentioned a few of the “good tools” available, you failed to list the Spiritual Sword magazine from the Getwell Church / Memphis School of Preaching folks.

  • cwinwc

    Greg – Silly Keith.

    Steve – Thanks for the source.

    Keith – Keep it coming. I just finished my house today so I’ll try to catch up.

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