What principles are used in biblical exegesis?
The word "exegesis" refers to an explanation. Biblical exegesis is the work of investigating the biblical text in order to understand and provide an explanation concerning it. A person who conducts biblical exegesis may be called an exegete.
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The actual process of biblical exegesis is referred to in Scripture. Second Timothy 2:15 commands readers, "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth." The longest chapter of the Bible, Psalm 119, focuses on God's words and the importance of studying them properly in order to honor God with one's life.
A variety of principles are generally used when seeking to produce good biblical exegesis. These include being grammatical, literal, historical, socio-cultural, and to synthesize Scripture with other relevant Scripture.
The grammatical principle focuses on understanding the meaning of the original language, grammar, and syntax of the words being used in a particular passage. For the Old Testament this includes investigation of Hebrew and Aramaic languages. For the New Testament the Greek language is used. Grammatical study focuses on the use of individual words as used in a particular context, their relationship to surrounding words and phrases, particular points of grammar or syntax, and the theological significance a word may carry. For example, the word "son" generally refers to a male child of a parent. However, when "son" is used in reference to "Son of God" one must take into consideration additional information.
The literal principle simply seeks to take a biblical text at face value unless the context gives a reason to understand it otherwise. When a passage speaks of a boat, then the understanding is that a literal boat is in mind. However, some passages, especially in Bible prophecy, may speak of an idea figuratively. For example, Revelation 12 speaks of a woman and a dragon, but does not speak literally about an actual woman or dragon. Instead, these two words are used in reference to other ideas.
The historical principle focuses on interpreting the Bible within its original historical setting. This takes into consideration the location, audience, and time of the book's writing. For example, in the time the Gospels were written a person who washed the feet of another person was considered a servant. John 13 therefore shows Jesus as a servant who washed the feet of His disciples. Today, many people in modern society would not see this practice as an act of service, yet other forms of service exist that could serve as a modern application of the principle of serving others.
The socio-cultural principle focuses on understanding the society and culture in which a biblical passage took place. For example, in the New Testament accounts women were the first to see Jesus after His resurrection. This would have been especially significant in a time when society viewed women as being of less value than men. Jesus specifically and intentionally appeared first to women who had served as His followers, offering a powerful insight to early readers. The appearance of the angels to shepherds on the night Jesus was born in Bethlehem is another example. Shepherds were unlikely candidates to first hear the good news of Christ's birth, yet were selected as those who represented God bringing His good news to all people, regardless of their place in society.
Finally, the idea of synthesizing Scripture with other Scripture focuses on understanding less clear passages in Scripture with clearer passages. The Book of James, for example, seems to focus on works for salvation. However, Ephesians 2:8-9, John 3:16, and many other passages clearly note salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus. The focus of James was to motivate people who were already believers to live in ways that reflected their salvation.
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