Let's Dig a Little Deeper with Exegesis

Let's Dig a Little Deeper with Exegesis

As Christians delve deeper into the Word of God, they are often inspired to learn more. They want more than a superficial understanding of the basics of their faith. Learning techniques and knowing how to conduct research to enhance one’s knowledge of the Bible is a worthwhile endeavor.

One way of gaining a better understanding of the Bible is a critical reading technique called exegesis, “critical explanation or interpretation of a text or portion of a text, especially of the Bible.” It is analyzing the text in such a way that one draws out the information, morals, and messaging from the Bible. A key element is understanding what the verse, chapter, and book of the Bible meant in its original context.  

Where Did This Concept Originate?

Exegesis is, in many respects, a close-reading of a religious text. In many ways, it is the precedence for the 20th century academic concept of close-reading that came from the New Criticism movement.

Close-reading is the practice of a careful and sustained look at a passage of a text. Exegesis is similar in execution, but applied to a religious work. Examples of these types of studies on theological texts go as far back as ancient Mesopotamia. Many faiths have exegetical commentary on them including Judaism, Islam, Zoroastrianism, and Christianity. It involves a strict study of the passage of scripture, reading and re-reading it several times to glean as much information as one can.

After this reading, one has to ask certain questions about the text. These questions include, but are not limited to:

  • What is the genre of this book of the Bible?
  • Who was the human author of this book?
  • What is going on in the chapters around this passage?
  • What language was this written in?
  • When was this written?
  • What was the purpose of this text?
  • How does this passage, and this book of the Bible, fit in with the rest of God’s Word?

Researching the answers to these questions can provide important insights into what God wants the reader to understand.

What Is the Purpose of Exegesis?

Because exegetical interpretation is done by drawing from the text in its original context, it informs an understanding of the work that is not based on personal ideas or beliefs. It also should help with anachronistic readings. Anachronism is defined by Dictionary.com as, “something or someone that is not in its correct historical or chronological time, especially a thing or person that belongs to an earlier time.” Taking virtues and behaviors from one time period and applying them to the wrong one can lead to a misunderstanding of important concepts. 

One of the primary purposes of exegesis is to read the text with the author’s intent in mind. This goal of understanding authorial intent is one of the primary examples of where exegesis and modern close-reading are different from New Criticism, as those academic movements tend to shy away from authorial intention. Instead, they embrace an approach known as death of the author, which comes from literary critic Roland Barthes’ essay La mort de l’auteur - The Death of the Author which argues against understanding the text through the life of the author. In theological exegesis, understanding the author’s purpose is important, and understanding the culture and language in which the writer lived, is key.

What Is the Difference Between Exegesis and Hermeneutics?

While exegesis is one of the primary ways pastors and theologians approach Scripture, there are other interpretation styles. Eisegesis is the opposite of exegesis. Rather than approaching the text in its own context, the reader asks what the passage means personally, regardless of the context. This style is not used often. 

Hermeneutics is the field of study under which exegesis generally exists, and exegesis is one of the tools through which hermeneutics can be applied. Under this academic study, there are several disciplines that can be applied, either exegetically or not. For example, the historical-grammatical approach examines the structure of the original language and historical context to come to an opinion about the meaning of a verse.

A different form of hermeneutics that is less related to exegesis is dispensationalism. Under this approach to understanding the Bible, throughout history, there have been different dispensations - ways of dealing with people groups and their salvation. One way was dispensed before the law, after the Mosaic law, and so on.

There are many other forms of hermeneutical studies, which can provide unique insight into the Bible.

Photo credit: Unsplash/Alexis Brown

Why Is Exegesis a Reliable Way to Read the Bible?

Exegesis provides a way to approach the Bible that reduces the risk of misinterpretation. It requires the person engaging with the Biblical text to do a little research. Rather than guessing what a passage or verse means, it is knowing how to use the tools to find out.

If there appears to be a contradiction between something in the Old Testament and the New Testament, it is useful to see both in their cultural context, as well as how translating the Hebrew passages versus the Greek passages into one language may have influenced the way the passage appears. For example, some of what Jesus critiques as the law in the Gospels, is not the law as seen in the Mosaic texts, but rather centuries of added tradition. Without knowing the Pharisaical created traditions that got incorporated into the law, these critiques may seem contradictory with the Old Testament.

It can also make an individual re-think the instinctive reaction to something that seems foreign, strange, or uncomfortable for the modern reader of the Bible. Rather than reading one’s own feelings into the passage, stopping at a confusing section and taking the time to understand what the passage is actually saying in context can clarify practices that may otherwise have no meaning in today’s culture.

Academically, it is helping individuals from one culture understand another. Spiritually it helps the believer understand God’s Word, as spoken by God.

How Can Regular People Practice Exegesis?

Practicing exegesis at home begins with understanding the Bible as a work created by someone different than themselves, God, through many individuals across many centuries. Once that is understood, the believer can read the Bible understanding certain passages may have implications or meaning that are lost in translation or no longer prevalent in modern society. When coming across a passage that presents a challenge, the reader can begin to research the context of that passage. This research can begin with historical and Biblical commentaries that illuminate what the original language may have said, or what a culture may have valued. Online lectures and articles can also be very informative.

Reading the Bible carefully, with the intention of understanding God’s message and will, is the best first step to practicing exegesis. Understand that some concepts may require further study, and carefully research passages that present challenges. There are even short books about how to properly exegete the Bible, which can be a good resource for someone who wants to learn more about their faith.  


Barthes, Roland, F. Bovon, F.J. Leenhardt, R. Martin-Achard, and J. Starobinski. Structural Analysis and Biblical Exegesis Interpretational Essays. Eugene: Pickwick Press, 2007.

Bruns, Gerald L. Hermeneutics Ancient and Modern. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.

Gorman, Michael. Elements of Biblical Exegesis A Basic Guide for Students and Ministers. Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 2008.

Hayes, John H. and Carl R. Holladay. Biblical Exegesis, Third Edition A Beginner's Handbook. Louisville: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, 2007.

Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Justin Kendra

Bethany Verrett is a freelance writer who uses her passion for God, reading, and writing to glorify God. She and her husband have lived all over the country serving their Lord and Savior in ministry. She has a blog on graceandgrowing.com.