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RTS2300 Introduction to the New Testament (Spring 2022)

What is an Exegesis? (Union Presbyterian Seminary)

Exegesis is listening carefully to a text in order to grasp its meaning and experience its impact. In one sense, an exegetical procedure asks questions of ancient texts so that they might once more speak with clarity and coherence. Exegesis “slows down” the reader and fosters patient, attentive listening to the text so that its inner movements and effects can be observed. In this way, a sort of dialogue between text and exegete is established.

The purpose of exegesis is to reach a critically informed and theologically sensitive understanding of the text, appropriate in and for the life of the church in its engagement with the world. The goal is not to establish the once-and-for-all-time meaning of the text, but to discern the message of the text for a particular occasion and context.

Choose a Passage (University of St. Thomas Libraries)

Suppose you are interested in studying the story of Jesus' Transfiguration. That is in Luke 9:28-36. So you could write your paper on that passage. Alternatively, you could write on a passage that contains a theme you want to study. Suppose you want to learn about Jesus' attitudes towards money, but you do not know where in Luke's Gospel to look for a passage about money. You can solve this by using a concordance.

A concordance is a tool that lets you look up a word, and see that word in its context in every place it occurs in the Bible. Since English versions of the Bible differ sometimes in how they translate words, you need to pick a concordance that matches your Bible version. (This assumes you are not working directly from Hebrew or Greek, which have their own concordances.) 

Next, you need to determine if the passage is of reasonable size. Suppose you have to write a paper that is ten to twelve pages long. That would be about the right size for a passage that is around eight to fifteen verses long, depending upon the genre of the passage. An argument from Romans would probably take more space to interpret than a story in 1 Samuel, though this may not always be true. If you choose a passage that is too short, your paper will probably be too short, e.g., writing on John 3:16 would be a fairly short paper. On the other hand, Luke 1:1-80 is far too long. You could spend thirty pages on that and not be done. It depends in part upon the complexity of the passage. 

In order to decide the number of verses to choose, you need to validate that you are doing a complete passage, not starting or stopping in the middle of a narrative or argument. In the case of Luke 1:26-38, you can tell that v. 26 is an appropriate beginning for this short narrative (called a pericope in biblical studies) because v. 26 provides a statement that indicates a new event is happening at a point later in time than 1:5-25. In Luke 1:26 it is stated that the angel Gabriel, six months after promising Zechariah that John would be born, was sent to Nazareth in Galilee by God. At the beginning of Luke 1:39, we again read about a transition to a new location, as Mary leaves to go visit her cousin Elizabeth. That makes Luke 1:38 the end of the announcement to Mary by Gabriel. This is fifteen verses, which is about the most you should consider doing for a typical exegesis paper. Shifts in time ("and it came to pass"), shifts in location ("went up to Jerusalem"), and shifts in topic ("There is therefore no condemnation to those who are in the Messiah Jesus") all indicate the beginning of a new narrative pericope or a new topic. Look for those as you seek the beginning and end of your passage.

You could verify the boundaries of your passage by finding a Bible that divides the text into paragraphs and seeing how it divides this passage. You should plan, however, to describe why you have chosen a particular set of verses and not more or less. The paragraphs are only the view of one modern editorial team, not part of the Bible itself. The chapters and verses in modern Bibles were put in many centuries after all the books of the Bible were written.

Examine the Historical, Cultural, & Literary Background (University of St. Thomas Libraries)

You have now chosen a passage. Now you need to learn about the world of the text. What can be known of the historical situation prior to and during the time the biblical book was written? How did society function at that time, e.g., what was the status of women, children, or slaves in the culture, what religions existed at the time of writing, or what were the main cultural values in society? What other texts might be like the book that contains your passage from the same time period? Are there other texts that might help you understand your passage? The Bible did not float down from heaven untouched by human hands. Rather, it was written over a long period of time, by real people. who lived in real homes, with real families in real cultures. While there is overlap between these categories, they may be conveniently divided into:

  • Historical Background
  • Cultural Background
  • Literary Background

Historical Background

Our example passage, Luke 1:26-38, takes place at a specific time and a specific place. It happens during the reign of Herod the Great (Luke 1:5), who reigned 37-4 B.C. It takes place in Nazareth, a town in Galilee. In order to understand this story better, you need to learn about Herod the Great (as opposed to the other Herods who appear in the New Testament), Galilee, and Nazareth.

The best tool for this general information would be a Bible dictionary or encyclopedia. Ask at Ireland Library for suggestions.

As a rule, the more recent a work is, the better the information in it, if it is of comparable size to other works. Using such a work will enable you to get a sense of the historical situation of the time. For example, the full significance of what Luke wrote becomes apparent only when you understand the status of Nazareth and of young, unmarried Jewish women in Galilee in this period.

Cultural Background

Like our world, the world of the New Testament authors involved many competing cultural values. Given that the New Testament writers, and the people about whom they wrote, lived in a world where multiple cultures met, Jewish, Roman, and Greek, at least, it is important to understand those cultural values because even if they are not directly stated in the text, they do still have relevance to the meaning of the text.

You can approach this two ways. First, you can identify a specific cultural or social value or practice and find a resource that deals with it. The second approach is to consult a tool that talks about cultural values that may or may not talk about your passage specifically. Or, having observed that Luke 1:26-38 focuses upon a woman, you could look at one of the many works on women in the Bible and Luke-Acts specifically. Spiritually faithful women are one focus of Luke-Acts and many books consider their role in Luke's narrative. 

Literary Background

Documents, including each book in the Bible, have a given genre, or category, to which they belong. Literary works without an identifiable genre would be incomprehensible because you would not know how to read or interpret them. So identifying the literary genre of the book that your passage is in, and considering similar documents from the same period, may help you in understanding your passage. This can become fairly complicated but at its most basic level, you want to be able to distinguish an account that seeks to describe an event in Jesus' life from a parable that Jesus told (which is not meant to tell about an actual event) from an argument in Romans that is not about history but concepts.

Some genres, like parables (such as the parable of the Lost Coin), or apocalyptic (the books of Daniel and Revelation) have many books devoted to understanding these genres and those can be found in the online catalog by an Advanced Boolean or Subject search.

All of this reading should enable you to write a 1-2 page section on the historical, cultural, and literary background of your passage. There is no guarantee that a specific passage will have important elements in each of these categories, but there will definitely be at least general historical, cultural, or literary aspects to your passage. Research on our example passage would show that Luke's Gospel is almost certainly an example of Hellenistic historiography, or, less likely, biography, but clearly not fiction. The story of the annunciation to Mary of Jesus' forthcoming conception and birth has elements of both the announcement of a miraculous birth to a pious, childless couple, and of a "call narrative," such as those of Gideon. This illustrates that a book may have one general genre, while smaller units within it may have a different, more specific genre.

Perform Exegesis of Each Verse (University of St. Thomas Libraries)

Exegesis is best done one verse at a time, though of course the meaning of one verse can and should influence your understanding of the verse around it. Two main activities are involved in performing exegesis: close reading and consulting conversation partners.

Close Reading

When you write an exegesis paper, part of the interpretation of any given verse should be your understanding of the verse. The most important thing you can do to gain a good understanding of a passage is by performing a close reading. This means to read through a passage slowly and carefully, noticing the tense of verbs (e.g., "he is calling," "Jesus died"), the arrangement of words, transitions in an argument (e.g., "for," "therefore"), words and expressions that seem important (e.g., "redeemed," "raised from the dead"). You also want to note places in the text that raise questions. In our example passage, Luke 1:26-38, these questions might include "why would Luke name Nazareth?" or "what does Mary's final response to Gabriel indicate about her?" Reflect on the passage and see if you can develop tentative answers to these questions. They often will point to important aspects of the passage's intent.

You may benefit from looking up some of the important words in the passage to see what you can learn about them. This is important because you should not assume that whatever some word means in English is what its Greek equivalent meant to someone in the first century. While Luke 1:26-38 might not have many of these, there are passages that do have words that need to be looked up. For example, Rom 3:23-26 is full of words that have specialized and often debated meanings. There is currently an ongoing debate among New Testament scholars as to what the Greek verb dikaioĊ means in Rom 3:24. Does it mean "justify," "acquit," "declare righteous," "pronounce righteous" or something else? In Leviticus, what does the word kiper mean, when it is used of what sacrifices do? Does it mean "atone" and if so, what does that actually mean? To answer these questions or at least get an idea of the sides of the debate, you will likely want to consult some tool that discusses the meaning of individual words. There are specialized tools that you can use if you know Greek and Hebrew, you can still do what is called a "word study" with only English.

After you have reflected on the text and potentially studied significant words in your passage, you would begin writing up what you think each verse means. The simplest approach is to start writing one paragraph per verse, perhaps labeling each paragraph (e.g., "Luke 1:26"). This is not your final statement about the whole passage but your initial thinking about the passage. Later you will add more as you look at secondary literature on the passage, but you want to start with your own thoughts and then refine them as you study. Biblical scholars do the same thing. They do not have any magical way of determining the meaning of a verse that you do not have.

As you work through the passage, you want to have both a micro- and a macro-view of each verse. On the micro level, you want to know what a verse means. On the macro level, you want to know how this verse fits into the author's overall goals or themes.In Luke 1:26-38, Luke narrates the story of an angel going to a girl (probably around age twelve) and telling her that she is going to have a baby. In her culture, Mary has essentially no status or power. In Mary's song, Luke 1:46-55, the theme of role reversal, of the lowly being exalted and the high being brought low, is emphasized. The story of the announcement of Jesus' birth through Mary is an example of this, so the story contributes to showing this theme of exalting the lowly, which is very important throughout Luke's Gospel.

Consulting Conversation Partners

It will probably come as no surprise to you to learn that Jews and Christians have been performing exegesis of the Bible for hundreds of years, beginning well before there was a New Testament. So when you write an exegesis paper, you are going where many others have gone before you. You do not want to ignore them because they may have insights that you have not thought of, they may have knowledge of the original languages or of approaches to the text that you are not familiar with 

or they may disagree with your view and you need to know why.

When you write down what you think a verse means, you need to explain the verse, not merely rephrase it. When Luke 1:35 states that the Holy Spirit will come over and overshadow Mary, your explanation of this verse should not be "This verse means that the Holy Spirit is going to overshadow Mary." No, that is not what the verse means. That is what it says. You need to explain those words. When you offer your explanation, you need to be able to explain the words, explain why you think the words mean that, and talk about alternative views. If all you do is say "Luke 1:35 means the Holy Spirit will anoint Mary" but do not explain why that is what the verse means, then you have not given a reader any reason to accept your view. The issue is not whether your reader (your professor) is convinced by your reasons. The issue is that you can explain why you hold your view, demonstrating that it is not simply the first thing that popped into your head.

At the same time, others have written on these verses before you. What did they have to say? Maybe they disagree with you. Maybe they agree with you. Either way, you need to show what others have said about this verse. In the case of Luke 1:35, this might not be very controversial. Other passages, however, are very controversial, such as 1 Tim 2:13, 1 Cor 11:10, Gen 1:1, or Matt 24:28. You certainly do not want to argue for a view that some previous scholar has shown cannot be correct.

These scholars are "conversation partners." Think of them as exchanging ideas back and forth with you as you think about your passage. When you read the biblical text, or indeed any text, you do so as someone who lives in a particular social location. You will read it as someone living in the early twenty-first century. You might read it as a middle-class white male American. Or you might read it as a poor black female teenager living in Ethiopia. Your age, your upbringing, the cultural values you absorb from others around you that affect how you look at life, and a whole host of other factors influence how you read the text. By having conversation partners in the form of biblical scholars, you help yourself avoid interpretations that reflect your social location rather than the meaning of the text. You can access these conversation partners in three primary ways:

  • Commentaries
  • Monographs / Books
  • Journal Articles

Involve "Conversation Partners" (University of St. Thomas Libraries)


A commentary on the Bible, whether it is a one-volume commentary on the entire Bible, which will have little detail on a specific verse, or a multi-volume commentary on the Greek text of Romans, filled with lots of details, seeks to do the same thing that your paper is doing for one small passage. It seeks to provide exegesis of the biblical text.

The best approach for performing detailed exegesis is to get several commentaries that each cover only one biblical book, such as Luke's Gospel. For some books, you will find multiple small books covered in one commentary. It is typical, for example, for one commentary to cover 1, 2, and 3 John. However, you want to avoid commentaries that treat the whole Bible because they will not have adequate detail for writing an exegesis paper.

It is best to use academic commentaries. These are written in light of what has been learned over time about the world of the Bible and about the meaning of the books of the Bible. These tend to be focused in one of two directions. Some commentaries focus on the original languages of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. One example would be the volumes in the Word Biblical Commentary series. Others, such as the volumes in the New International Commentary on the Old Testament and the New International Commentary on the New Testament, focus on an English translation of the book from Hebrew or Greek, usually reserving the discussion of the original language to footnotes, if the book mentions Hebrew or Greek words at all.

Monographs / Books

Commentaries should be your main tools for writing an exegesis paper. Sometimes, however, other books, including those on one specific, narrow topic, called a "monograph," may be helpful. Technically not all books on a biblical text besides commentaries are monographs.

You can probably find a book that at least mentions your passage, even if it is not about your passage. There are books that might be about your specific passage.  The issue is not whether there is a book that in some way deals with your passage so much as it is discovering one or more books. There are multiple approaches, from searching on your own to asking a reference librarian for help. Being able to locate a book yourself will enable you to be more efficient doing research, so here is one way that you can approach this search.

Look at your passage. What are some of the ideas in it? In our passage, there is an angel, Mary the mother of Jesus, Nazareth, and the "annunciation" of Jesus' future conception and birth. You would go to the online catalog and do a "Keyword" search. Part of the process of cataloging a book that deals with the Bible is to add information about what parts of the Bible it touches so that you can search on the biblical passage. So if you enter "Luke 1" into the search field and click "search," you get back several results. Although some of them may be commentaries, others are more focused.

Journal Articles

A third place to look for information is in journal articles. Articles tend to be on a specific passage. Since articles typically focus on only one passage, they tend to have much more to say about a given passage in the Bible than a commentary does because the commentator was limited in how much space could be used for a given verse or verses. Journal articles typically do not have this limitation.

To find a journal article, the most efficient way is to search our online databases or MackSearch

Another consideration is whether the article looks relevant or not. An article on the meaning of a word in your passage is obviously relevant, but an article that uses your passage in discussing some modern issue, for example, is not going to be very relevant to exegesis, even it is helpful for a different assignment. One final thing to consider is that journal articles and monographs, like commentaries, become less relevant with age. You should normally avoid any materials for your paper that are over about twenty-five to thirty years old.