An inclination to dig

The last post consisted of strong support for the primacy of exegesis, which might be simplified to “digging.”  Well-conducted exegesis includes a range of sub-disciplines, including investigation into the historical and cultural backgrounds of the author, the text, and the original audience, along with analysis of grammatical and syntactical features in the text itself.

Often, I muse on things in the exegetical vein, but self-imposed constraints lead to time for but one exegetical post here at the end of September.  What should it be? . . .

Maybe some current work from 1Corinthians (I’m engaged in this study with a group)?  Something from past digs in Ruth or Galatians?  I could merely list some links to previous posts that demonstrate exegetical concerns.  I have a whole list of items to take up from the Gospel of John.  Maybe one of those, as an example?  Or—just today, I got very excited again about Philemon . . . I read the decades-old Moffatt translation of that beautiful letter today and thought that it might be the best published translation I’ve seen.  Of course, my own modification of my friend Greg Fay’s translation is even better.  🙂  How about a post on Philemon?

What I’ve come down to is none of the above; instead, I’ll share a question or two, and an observation or three, arising out of an Acts group study in which I have the pleasure of participating this fall.

  1. In Acts 13-14-15, author Luke has Paul and Barnabas starting and finishing a “missionary journey.”  That there is something of a full circle in this section may be seen by comparing 13:1-2 with 14:26-27; an inclusio may been observed here.  Although this is certainly no epiphany, and although it may be seen just as well in English as in Greek, noting the beginnings and ends of sections can help immeasurably in interpretation.
  2. Various themes and emphases may be observed in Acts, e.g., the work of the Spirit, the missionary activities from Jerusalem through Judea and Samaria and beyond.  Also, throughout Acts, thoughtful readers will see a wealth of material that treats the move from Jew to non-Jew (gentile).  This topic is no mere trifle to be ignored; it is arguablyjew_and_gentile a major theme of Acts, seen in Paul’s synagogue preaching and yet-obvious push toward non-Jews, the Jerusalem conference, and more.  At that point in history, the group of believers was both Jew and non-Jew.  One thing dawned on me for the first time tonight in this light:  from a literary standpoint, certain repetitiveness in Acts texts may constitute a strong emphasis on the move from an Israel- or Jew-centric faith toward one that is inclusive of all non-Jews, as well.  Consider these three examples:
    • In chapter 10, Peter has the vision/dream/trance that leads to the evangelization of Cornelius’s household.  The next chapter involves a significant amount of repetition as Peter retells the incident.
    • In chapter 15, the Jerusalem conference involves some repetition (cf. 15:19 and 15:22-29).
    • Chapter 21 involves repetition of chapter 15’s themes.
  3. Further on the Jew==>gentile theme. . . .  In 15:14, James (this one is presumed to be Jesus’ brother and is not, in any event, the apostle James who had already died) used the name “Simeon” instead of Peter”—perhaps pointing up a Jewish emphasis before heading down the gentile path later in the verse.  The choice of “Simeon” over “Peter” or “Cephas” may hint at the major transition that was occurring over time, not to mention that it may also show James’s wisdom in noting Peter’s Jewishness for the sake of any hard-line “circumcision party” members in the group.
  4. There is some evidence in chapter 15 of standard rhetorical forms of the day, leading the reader to see even more emphasis within a) the actual discussion/debates that occurred, and b) Luke’s depiction of them.
  5. On a smaller scale, but related to #2 above, I note that presbuteros (elder), a word used sparingly by Luke, appears in Acts 15:7:  “And the apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter.”  It strikes me to ask of Luke’s text whether there is any reason we should assume these elders are elders in the “Jerusalem church” as such.  Could this use of “elders” be more respective of synagogue/Jewish tradition?  Not that those referred to weren’t Christ-ian; everyone involved in these discussions and debates would have been believers in Jesus as Messiah.  But perhaps those referred to as “elders” here were not appointed as church elders in the same sense as those of 14:23;  maybe these were simply Jewish old men (≈ “elder,” not necessarily a churchy word) who has accepted Christ.

What I hope, based on the above questioning, is that

  • this has shown my own inclination, although inadequate, to dig into the actual text of scripture, gleaning from each text on its own
  • it also has moved some readers to incline themselves even more toward this type of study

And, to the point that was made in the last post about not rushing to apply texts before we understand them: 

It is incumbent on us to make observations about a text, understanding it as thoroughly as we can, before we try to make an exemplary pattern for all time.

One highly significant thing to be observed throughout Acts is that there was a rather seismic shift taking place among the believers in Yahweh, in the 30s, 40s, and beyond.  This shift was, simply put, the inclusion of gentile believers in the group of God’s people.

B. Casey, 9/16/15

P.S.  For understandable, responsible, overview information on Acts, I recommend these bite-sized videos (3 minutes each, by Dr. Gary D. Collier) on sections of the book:

First things first

The task of the exegete is to understand the text, its author, and its first readers.  He must understand, but he must neither philosophize nor preach.  However important these later processes may be, a text must be understood before it is used for purposes of philosophy or preaching.  Otherwise purely arbitrary decisions will take the place of that understanding which restricts the exegete’s use of text to what is real or possible.

– Johannes Munck, Preface to The Anchor Bible:  The Acts of the Apostles, 1967

This statement is strong and might not need (as if anything does) a comment from me, but I’m thinking this scholar-writer’s last sentence might lose something in translation (from a Germanic mind, not the language per se), so let me try to re-order and paraphrase:

An exegete who preaches or philosophizes too soon will undoubtedly make arbitrary, unwarranted decisions as he seeks to “apply” the text—decisions that are impossible to make based on the text itself.

The point here:  we really shouldn’t rush to “apply” biblical texts before we understand them.  And I mean really understand them.  Exegesis comes first.

Of communicating and emphasizing

In a recent Bible teaching opportunity, I prefaced the exegesis¹ with a general spotlight on communication.  In particular, I was attempting to show how concepts might be emphasized in scripture.

Now, way back when, I was actually considering getting a graduate degree in communication and sat in on a communication theory class at the University of Delaware.  I don’t think I would have lasted in that program, although much of the theory and praxis is still very intriguing.  I’m glad I chose music for graduate studies, not only because it is the so-called universal language, but because I’m better at it.  J Regardless of educational and career paths, I’ve for decades been interested in the nature and flow of communication.

Music communicates; spoken and written language communicate; gesture and other nonverbal signals also communicate, and scripture is worth little if it does not communicate.²

The question here is this:  what are some of the methods that scripture authors might employ in order to communicate emphasis?

I just chose a method in the last line:  italics.  We can do that in written language these days, thanks to technology.  (Hint to Facebook:  add some rich-text capability, and I might write more there to friends.  We can’t be as communicative when we can’t bold and italicize things.)

Here are some ways that I think can be used in communicating emphasis.  Many of these—some more than others—are used by scripture authors.  Only a few of these are specifically known as “emphatic” devices in biblical Greek, but this category used by linguistic and syntactic experts doesn’t rule out other aspects and manners of communicating important things.


  • Word choices (strong? unusual/new?)
  • Syntax, e.g., intentional word order (promoting, delaying)
  • Repetition
  • Helping words that precede or follow (may be language-specific)
  • “Apostolic authority” phrasing (epistles)
  • Negation
  • Linear progression
  • Inclusios, chiasmus, and other rhetorico-structural “sandwiching”

Specific to Oral Communication

  • Rhyme, consonance, alliteration
  • Voice tone
  • Voice pitch
  • Physical gesture

Specific to Written Communication

  • Bold, italics, underlining (writing)

For a 20-minute video lesson on some of the communicative features of a tightly constructed portion of Paul’s 1st letter to the Thessalonians, please go here.  It’s by no means a professional presentation, but it’s got some good stuff in it, and I tried to re-communicate some things Paul was trying to communicate.


¹ Some level of exegesis should always  come before application.  Pure reading will likely come before exegesis, but, in any event, we ought to try to understand the original text before attempting to apply it to ourselves or to some aspect of the current era.

² A brief post in two days will follow up on this sentence.

Two births

I might more aptly have titled this “Two Generations,” but I didn’t want to imply I was talking about parents/children or genealogy, as such.

It isn’t my intent here to toe any party line (or even to rebel against one) around concepts like regeneration or being “born again” or baptism.  My interest in those things is strong (see footnote 1 for links to prior essays, if interested), and some of that may well be predicted here, but . . . this is intended simply to exegete a short John text within the complete document. 

I find that John 1:13 contrasts two senses of being generated or born.  This text appears (although it might not have been originally scripted  in this sequence) pre-Nicodemus, and long before any 16th- or 19th- or 20th/21st-century concepts, e.g., of being “born again.”

Here is the NASB95 rendering of verses 12-13 together:

But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

And here is my attempt at a word-for-word, interlinear Greek-English rendering of the last part of the same verse:

who   not   out of     bloods
οἳ     οὐκ     ἐξ          αἱμάτων | haimaton — pl., think hematology, the study of blood

not    out of    will              of flesh
οὐδὲ   ἐκ         θελήματος   σαρκὸς | sarkoscf. sarcoma, a flesh-eating tumor

not    out of     will               of man
οὐδὲ   ἐκ        θελήματος     ἀνδρὸς | andros — think androgen, a male sex hormone

but    out of   God’s    generating
ἀλλ᾿   ἐκ        θεοῦ    ἐγεννήθησαν | egennethesan — see below

Although most English translations don’t render these thoughts in a way that shows the parallelism, the connections are there.  The word choices and syntax in this remarkable text are . . . well, remarkable.  So I am remarking!  🙂

The only bona fide verb in 1:13 is the final word.  It comes from γεννάω | gennaoto become the father of, to produce  (BAG Lexicon 1957).  Taking this range of meanings perhaps a step further in English, we might add to generate.  The aorist tense of this verb is not particularly significant; it indicates, relatively simply, that something was done in the past.  The “mood” of the verb is passive, and that aspect seems more significant here:  God is the active agent, and the human is simply the passive  recipient of God’s productive/fatherly action.

The NASB, the NIV, the ESV, and other English translations I glanced at have all opted to insert the idea of being born/birthed at the beginning of this verse.  This word-order inversion isn’t necessarily a bad idea if one is interested in the general import.  It does, however, obscure some of the specific beauty of this text, which contrasts two births/”begettings” and delays mention — with strong effect — of the supernatural one:

  1. the one that arises out of blood, out of flesh, and out of the sexual desire or will² of a male
  2. the one that arises out of God (the last four words in the original)

It appears to me that the idea of being begotten/produced is significant — both in the literary micro-context and in the book-level context of John.  A similar word (see footnote below) is used six times prior to v13.  Furthermore, these notions of being begotten/produced/birthed/generated appear first in v12, with a somewhat related idea in v13, followed by a repetition of the v12 idea in v14:

12 to them He gave the right to become ____,

13 those who have been begotten  by God

14 the word became  flesh

In the above verses, the words for “become” and “begotten” are not the same.  Please see footnote 3 below if interested in more detail here.  At the least, the verbs in vv 12 and 14 are the same, and they flank the important notion of being fathered/begotten by God.  This insight into generative origin may be just as theologically significant as the more-often-quoted, poeticized v14 in its entirety.

Via e-mail, Dr. Paul Pollard has made this observation about the micro-context of v12:  “. . . that for those who have received him (12a), and continue to believe in him (12c), they are entitled to become God’s children (12b).  Verse 13a then shows that becoming the children of God is not by appeal to family connections, or genealogy. . . .”  Exegetically derived points such as this are always, always helpful in our efforts to read the text — and to hear God — more thoroughly.

The word ἀλλ’ | all’  (the antecedent of “but” at the beginning of the last phrase in v13) is considered to set up a strong contrast with what has gone before.  There is another word that could have been used here, if the contrast weren’t so clear-cut, so emphatic.  What the text of John has is something like this (ignore the redundant English, if you please):  ” . . . but instead were begotten by God.”

The two kinds of begettings/births are distinct.  It is my hope that this little insight about God’s action in spiritual birth has brought someone closer to this great Father.  It has done that for me when I needed it today — to the point that I regret that I now need to do some work that I get paid to do.

Brian (1/9/15)

¹ Here are three links that refer to, and/or attempt to explicate, portions of the interaction between Jesus and Nicodemus:

That Christianese wasn’t original with John

Rebirth, as Jesus taught it

The misread part of John 3

² Here, some might choose the word “lust” for “will” or “desire” — but presumably not in a negative sense.  Immediately prior, “flesh” appears to be used without the later, negative Docetist or Pauline connotation — e.g., in Romans 7 and 8, where it is contrasted with the πνεῦμα | pneuma (spirit) nature.  It is significant that, in the next verse, Jesus is said to have become (ἐγένετο | egeneto)  flesh.  Neither flesh nor a man’s will appears to be cast negatively here.

³ The ice is getting thin, and my ear for similar sounds and potential Greek etymological connections has gotten me in trouble before, but the ideas of the ginomai and gennao word families seem related.  In other words, to become (a being verb) seems possibly connected to the original begetting, which endowed them with the right to become/be in the first place.  I am becoming damp here and may soon be “all wet” — and not just for mixing English ice/water metaphors.  🙂  The abridged Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the NT gives this gloss for ginomai (vv 12 and 14):  “to be born” (adding very little other than the mention of John 8:58 — ” . . . before Abraham was born, I am“), where both the contrast and connection again appear).  Kittel’s gloss for gennao (v13) is “to bear, beget.”  Moreover, in Warren Trenchard’s Complete Vocabulary Guide to the Greek New Testament, these two words are shown in the same “cognate word group.”  Essentially, I would suggest that, though the two verbs may be as distinct as the two births I’m attempting to delineate, the verb-concepts are at least syntactically related in John.

John 11 — thoughts and questions

For foundational reading for this blogpost, I would point non-regular readers also to the prior posts:

So many good church kids memorize John 11:35.  Do you remember what that “verse”¹ states?  More important:  do you have a sense of its context?  What is John saying about Jesus in this section of the gospel?  There’s more than the act of weeping here.

Ratcheting up.  It seems to me, having spent some time in John 8 through 11 during the last couple of months, that chapter 11 constitutes some ratcheting-up.  Incidentally, a similar chrono-literary phenomenon may be seen in passages from Mark, as Jesus tells the disciples what’s going to be happening to Him.  In each successive telling (8:31-32, 9:31, and 10:33-34), the details are clearer, and the mood, heightened.  Here in John, we have a rather extended focus on a single incident, not unlike chapter 9’s healing of the blind man.  But the rhetoric in chapter 11 heightens the intensity, edging us toward the (literal)² “belief crucible” that is to come at the time of the Passion.  We might say that the magnifying glass comes out, and we look more intently into the faith of Mary and Martha than we looked into that of the blind man.  The comparison is sharp in 11:37, where Jesus’ power is figuratively “thrown down” for both them and us to believe in (or not).  The tenor of chapter 11 is more intense, more theological, more personally consequential.

Finer points.  The themes of death and resurrection are of course present in this story, and the death concept might be even stronger when specific words are noticed — such as the four different (primarily, two) Greek words translated “death,” “die,” etc.  The topic is present in many of John’s sections:  chapters 4,5,6,8,11,12,18,19,21; concentrations may be seen in chapters 8 and 11-12.  Following the crucifixion, we also have the curious conversation with Peter that mentions three times the kind of death he was to die.  Sleep and waking, by the way, are not major concepts in John, appearing only here in chapter 11.

11:9-11 seems to recall the events and words of chapter 9:3-5.  In both places, Jesus calls attention to light/day vs. dark/night, and doing the works of God in the day.  The thrust of making the most of time by working is present, as is the implication that Jesus is the light of the world — which harks³ back to the chapter 1 prologue.

We cannot miss the obvious prefiguring of Jesus’ tomb in 11:38-39.  Compare 19:40-20:10 . . . although it seems, at a glance, that Matthew and Mark make more of the stone and the tomb than Luke or John.

The glory of God is again a theme, manifested in the words of 11:4 and 11:40.  (In a negative sense, in 9:24, the Jews had pointed to God’s glory.)  There seems to be a literary development to note:  here, for the first time in 11:4, the glorification of the Father is tied to glorification of the Son.  Actually, more accurately, I should say that the stage was set for this linkage way back in 1:14 and 2:11, but in the narrative progression, Jesus is not again linked to glory — a concept that, not inconsequentially, has some strong Jewish background — until 11:4.  Then, here in 11:40, God’s glory is notably enveloped in belief — belief in what the Son is about to accomplish.

The narrative’s drama has reached its apex as Jesus commands loudly, “Lazarus, come forth.”  The details provided by John are matter-of-fact, yet significant: 1) Lazarus had died, and 2) his feet and hands were bound, and his face was wrapped.

11:45 points up the continuing, conflictual separation between those that believe and those that don’t.  The latter individuals become the tattlers, and the Jews convened a council.  The major Bible versions are divided on whether this reference is to the Sanhedrin or a common-noun, ad hoc sort of council.

The very prophetic words of Caiaphas (“. . . expedient . . . that one man should die for the people . . . “) are intriguing.  Further investigation is called for:  e.g., into

  • the use of prophecy in John
  • the portrayals of Caiaphas and the S/sanhedrin
  • any other “legal proceedings” in John’s narrative.

Moreover, the mention in v. 52 of gathering together all the children of God seems to hint at inclusion of more than merely the scattered Jews, a la the “other sheep” of 10:16.

The starkly described homicidal plot (11:53) is not lost on even a casual reader, but the exegetically based student of the book-level context of John can discern more in terms of narrative progression in the final section of John 11.

As the murderous intent is solidified, and as we are told that Jesus no longer appears publicly, we are brought to a time just one week out from the crucifixion — reminding us that timetables and sequences in gospel records are not “to scale.”  In other words, the last 10 chapters (nearly half) of John are given to the last week of Jesus’ life.

Next in series:  John 5-7


¹ “Verse” is here in quotes because there were no verse delineations in the original text, and I think it does us good to realize that these sometimes-artificial designations can serve as distractors.

² “Crucible” is of course related to “crucify” and “crux.”  This use of “literally” is appropriate, I suggest — unlike so many others.  (“I was, like, literally pumped up after we won the game.”  “I’m literally as healthy as a horse.  The doctor said my heart could literally pump rainwater back up the downspout.”)

³ I like indulging in minor notes on punctuation, capitalization, and usage from time to time — in the midst of more important matters.  (This potentially annoying tendency on my part has become a trademark, I suppose.)  “Harks back” means what I want it to mean here, while the more common “hearkens back” is a misuse.  “Hearken” means “to listen.”  Reference.  While I’m here . . . “refer back” is redundant.  “Refer” by itself is always sufficient.

John 10 — thoughts and questions

Below are some thoughts/questions I had when beginning to dig in to John chapter 10.  For foundational work, I would point non-regular readers also to the prior posts on John:

Digging in: John 9 (1000)

A very good place to (re)start (John 8)

Right out of the gate (pun-pardon, please) in chapter 10, I quickly become confused in the metaphors of sheep, gate/door, sheep fold, shepherd, and bandits.  For instance, Jesus is both gate and shepherd.  On one hand, this chapter seems a bit less complex than 8 or 9, but its imagery may be somewhat lost on the 21st-century reader.  I’m also reminded not to press specifics too far when analyzing parables and other metaphors and similes.

The “other sheep” . . . admitting a bias by which most others wouldn’t be bothered, I assert that this “other sheep” group in 10:16 has nothing to do with the so-called Latter-day Saints.  (They are fond of saying that the text is about them.)  In its historical context, this reference to “other sheep” should probably be viewed as referring to something the original hearers and readers could conceive of:  probably, the non-Jews!

More about the “other sheep” appears in 26ff.  Jesus appears to be stressing this idea.  I am driven to ask this:  if Jews are supposedly safe because of their Jewishness, what do we do with this passage?  Not even these pre-crucifixion Jews, which many of us have tended to sanctify neatly because of the chronology, seem to be in a good soteriological place in this text!  I acknowledge that concerns over today’s geopolitical Israel, Jerusalem, etc., were not the concerns of Jesus or John.  We should take care in applying scripture to problems unknown in the original context, and yet some timeless principles certainly appear — such as the imperative to believe in the One God sent.

Now looking at verses 17-19:  I initially wondered whether there might be any structural relationship between the idea of laying down one’s life and something in chapter 8.  What I found is an identical expression (ἀπʼ ἐμαυτοῦ — ap emautou — “from myself”) in 8:42 and 10:18.  These verses are respectively approximately the same “distance” from chapter 9.  (See prior thoughts on the center/core.)  Hmmm. . . .  In the first case, the expression has the negative particle attached to it:  I have not come from myself, or on my own.  In the second instance, we might have a positive, complementary thought:  I lay [my life] down on my own.  Time for a word search. . . .

My software tells me I had missed this same expression a few verses earlier, in 8:28.  The words also appear in 5:30, 7:17, 7:28, and 14:10 — a total of 7 times, somewhat concentrated in the middle of the gospel.  Further, a variant of the same expression is used in 10:18.  That text might well involve an intentional, emphatic structure of some kind, if not a chiasm.  Let’s look at it more closely.  Expanding to include verse 17, a semi-literal translation of 10:17-18 would run something like this:

therefore me the Father loves because I lay down the life of me that again I might take it

no one takes it from me
but I lay down it from myself

authority I have to lay down it
and authority I have again to receive it

this the command I took from the Father of me

This wording appears to be intentionally structured —  very striking!  The colors may help to see the relationships that don’t always come through in English translations.  For instance, forms of the verb “to take” are used in 10:17, but in the NIV and NASB, they are translated “take” and “receive,” respectively.  I used the teal color to show a possible relationship with both the blue and the green.

In the person of Jesus, there is of course a rock to stumble over.  The Jews here are presented as deaf/blind stumblers, if not obtuse:  they do not grasp the core truth that He is, in fact, the Christ of God.  This crux — belief in Jesus as God’s Messiah — figures in prominently throughout much of John.  While one might think, duh, that’s obviously the point of each of the canonical gospels, not so.  Mark’s emphases are different, for example.

Why did Jesus go back to the far side of the Jordan?  Is there a large-scale structural significance at the literary level of the entire gospel?  The references to John, initiatory immersing, and the Jordan are in chapters 1, 3-4, and 10.  (John is also mentioned in chapter 5, without express mention of baptism.)  I expect that more study will reveal contextual significance here.  I’ll specifically be observing the material that follows each of these sections, wondering whether each one serves to initiate something substantial.

In praise of exegesis (999a)

If you’ve got a detail in a score that’s hard to hear, that’s not an excuse for not hearing it!

– Ken Ward, The Bruckner Journal, Vol. 12, No. 1 (March 2008), p. 41

Spoken with reference to complex musical texts (a/k/a “scores”), the above is also easily applicable to investigating the riches of scriptural texts.

[This is blogpost #999a.  (#999b has now been inserted, but that’s a dull story.)  As I write, I have a rough idea of what #1000 will be, and then I’m going to take a break, probably posting some more “voices” from the past, things I read, etc. — but not doing much new, original writing for a while.  I have loose plans for some beginning to write three different series, but no one will see those for weeks or maybe months.]

Anyway, it seemed appropriate that this near-last (for a while) post be on biblical exegesis — a topic close to my head and heart.  This is no primer on exegesis; I wouldn’t be able to write one if I tried.  It is merely intended to 1) motivate by highlighting the importance of the topic, and 2) offer a few particulars.

wpid-2013-02-19_17-22-52_366.jpgI believe that Christians should be consistently engaged in seriously investigating — and submitting to — scripture texts.  Toward that end, to state a sort of conceptual baseline:  we may not elevate any scripture text out of its historical and literary contexts, in order to respect a specific religious tradition or an individual interpretation.  Neither may we discard a text for those reasons or any others.  (The problem comes not so much in the positing or the believing or the dreaming, but in the doing.)

I suppose that, given my book-oriented Christian upbringing, I ought to feel I’ve studied scripture more than most.  But the more I come to understand the exegetical mindset and mode, the less I think I’ve actually studied scripture exegetically in the past.

Exegesis is not a particularly “religious” word but has perhaps come to be associated more with the serious study and interpretation of biblical texts than other types of texts.  Exegesis is not hermeneutics, exactly, but the two are related.  Exegesis is inextricably associated with the enterprise of digging into a specific text, and using available means to understand that text on its own terms.

One way of envisioning this type of goal is articulated by Dr. Greg Fay in his forthcoming two-volume series on the Bible (and here, I’ve taken a couple liberties with his statement):

The challenge is to stop interrupting God when He’s speaking to us — digesting scripture fully, even holistically, in its historical, literary, and sometimes very personal contexts, as if we were present in the defining moments of God’s first conversations with his people.

One way of “interrupting God” is pasting a “verse” (yanked from here or there) on top of another “verse” that comes from a completely different context.  Or, as Gary Collier’s imagery has it, we get things mixed up when we put a bunch of different text-ingredients into a blender and press “puree.”  If on the other hand we get into a single text and attempt to understand what it is about, we stand to gain immeasurably.  We may use various ways and means, including reading and re-reading the text itself, reading multiple Bible versions in English, delving into the original languages, investigating the cultural/historical background in which the text was written, highlighting recurring words, analyzing the structure of the text, reading multiple commentaries, and more.  (A sample listing of some possible exegetical tools may be found here, and a portal to many others, in the red section of this page.  A Christian college offers a master’s-level concentration in Biblical Exegesis; oh, that this were a required concentration for the majority of those training for jobs in official Christian capacities.)

When you think of exegesis, you might think “Exodus,” when the people came out of Egypt. The literal roots of the word “exegesis” have to do with being 1) guided or led 2) out of something.  So many people seem to want to read onto or into (eisegeting) instead of drawing a well-founded interpretation out of (exegeting) a text.  This trend is as disconcerting from a broad perspective as it is unhelpful to the individual who wants to continue in the way of discipleship.  Initially, at least, exegetical study is the way to go.  It does not preclude a more subjective, devotional approach, but some solely devotional approaches can be wispy and not true to the text.  It can be very exciting to dig into the original texts more intentionally, peering over the obscurant mountain built by centuries of ignorance and decades of Christian marketing.

Effort is required in digging into texts, extracting their riches.  But as the writer said in relation to a musical score, having to expend some effort for the reward is no excuse for not expending said effort.  The details can be incredibly illuminating!

One aspect of digging into some texts involves, conveniently enough, digging!  (Excavating and exploring uncharted territory may add to the imagery here.)  Biblical archaeology (which is a bit of a clumsy term that refers to excavating sites of biblical significance, not to digging into the Bible itself) can be an enticing field, and I recently had opportunity to hear Dr. John Monson in an insightful (online) lecture on the value of “Physical Theology.”  I’d like to offer the following quotes as appetite-whetters, hoping you’ll click the link below when you have time to listen to a lecture online.

Increasingly, the academy and the church are propelled by the prevailing intellectual trends of our time.  Many scholars and theologians discount such concepts as reliable history and purposeful text, while the community of faith is often complacent toward biblical context as the Bible’s central role continues to decline.

The urgent quest for personal religious experience often displaces Scripture, not to mention the archaeological and linguistic material that can elucidate and enliven the biblical text.  It is a supreme irony that the Bible’s original context is often dismissed or discounted by the academy and the church precisely at the moment that corroborative evidence abounds like never before.  – Dr. John Monson, lecture, “Physical Theology: The Bible in its Land, Time and Culture,” Feb. 11, 2012, Lanier Theological Library lecture series (web-housed recording accessed 3/13/13)

Origin as a theme in Galatians

As I become more familiar with the text of Galatians, I’m finding that where things come from might be a theme or motif.  Consider these:

  • 1:1 — “sent not from men nor by men, by by Jesus Christ …
  • 1:6-9 — origins of the gospel message
  • 1:12 — ditto
  • 1:15 — origins of God’s purpose in Saul/Paul
  • 2:20-21 — the root of life, i.e., not law but identity in Christ
  • 3:19-4:31 — the “seed” idea as seen in the Law’s relationship to the Christian Way, and as illustrated in Hagar and Sarah (note particularly the use of the Gk. sperma in 3:29 – often obscured in English translations)

This theme, if indeed it is one, appears to drop off in the “praxis” section of the letter, chapters 5 and 6.

Now speaking devotionally:  whether I’ve identified anything of merit or not, it seems good to consider often where we come from.

We are not self-made in any deep sense.  We are created beings, and wonderfully made.  We owe our life, our breath, and everything else to the God Who made the world and everything in it.  In a gloriously beneficent turn of redemptive history, this great God chose not to live in temples made with hands, but to draw near to humans — so that they might reach out for Him and find Him, and so that He would ultimately be able to make His home in our hearts.  In a sense, this indwelling has the potential to create a “full circle”:

  1. God creates mankind
  2. Mankind leaves the Point of origin, in a sense forgetting where he came from
  3. God “travels,” bring the great Original into proximity with the subsequent, the created
  4. We, apprehending Him, sense that He is Source; we choose whether or not to allow Him in again

In the words of Joseph Addison (1712),

The spacious firmament on high,
With all the blue ethereal sky,
And spangled heavens, a shining frame
Their great Original proclaim.

. . . 

In reason’s ear they all rejoice,
And utter forth a glorious voice,
Forever singing as they shine,
“The hand that made us is divine.”

Context: pre-knowledge

Even in areas of life other than scriptural/spiritual ones — musical, in the case below — it must be recognized that understanding something thoroughly necessitates grappling with its context.

Beethoven’s Eroica  . . . is more than a mere piece of genius music; it’s got a position within the system of cultural development of its time, of which the composer could not have any knowledge.  But when analyzing a piece of the past, it is so important to be aware of what the piece means to us today and what it meant to people then.  That’s the main thing that a performer has to have internalized before producing one note of the Eroica — because the revolutionary aspect of this work today is almost impossible to recreate without this pre-knowledge.

– Vladimir Jurowski, Music Director of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, quoted by James Naughtie, BBC Music Magazine, November 2011

We could debate the significance of Beethoven’s lack of knowledge of his own present, and of the future trajectory of his music — and how parallel all this does, or doesn’t, run to the experience of the apostolic writers of New Covenant scripture.  The analogy would seem to break down on the point of recreating, which isn’t an often-applied description of what biblical interpreters do, but which is often stated as an aim of performing musicians.

The main parallel is in interpretation:  a performer of Beethoven’s Eroica symphony is an interpreter, and so is a reader of scripture.  What Jurowski called “pre-knowledge” of the original meaning could be rendered “contextual awareness.”  Knowledge and awareness of the original historical and literary contexts is integral in valid interpretation.


Prior posts related to context in scripture:

Quiet time (4) — the hermeneutics of it all

In what will probably be the last post on this subject for a while (rather than thinking and writing about Quiet Time, if I have the time, I probably need to use it as Quiet Time!), I want briefly to treat the notion of “following Jesus’ example” as a subtopic of hermeneutics.

First, to retrace a few steps.  (Skip this paragraph and the next one if you’ve been with me all the way.)  I suggest that Quiet Time (hereinafter “QT”) is, to some extent, a creation of the marketable Christian world and is not, as such, a requirement put forward by scripture.  As support for this, I call attention to the facts that a) supposed “habits” of Jesus cannot be assumed based on scripture, and b) nowhere in the NC writings — in either a general imperatives or a specific, problem-addressing context — have I found an injunction that says “Christians are to have a regular, set period of quiet time.”  I quickly acknowledge that my particular personality type needs QT–however one defines it and works it out–more than I take or get it.  18% of me also suspects, on some gut level, that I would be better off spending this time right now in QT activities as conceived by Christendom than in explaining why QT is not a law.  While for me it is an imperative to resist attempts to legislate doctrines and practices not legislated by scripture, I do acknowledge that, in general, QT is a good idea.  The devoted advice “if Christ did it, we should do the same” is eminently well-intended, but the assumption that our Christ did QT regularly is just that–an assumption–thereby weakening the supposed imperative.

The verb tense in Luke 5:16 is ambiguous:  when the wording in English is “But he would withdraw into the lonely places and pray,” the Greek tense does not necessarily imply a habitual activity on Jesus’ part.  It doesn’t preclude a habitual action, but it doesn’t require one, either.  Even less to the point, Mark 1:35 mentions one instance and brings to the scenario no implication of a regular practice.  In my lifetime, I’ve probably heard 101 sermons and devotional talks that encouraged regular QT, and many of them appealed, obliquely, to English translations in these isolated verses.  Those appeals are largely bogus.  Now, if I had to guess about Jesus’ habits while on earth, I would suspect that He often, or at least periodically, had QT, but I seriously doubt that He always prayed for 30 minutes at 7 a.m. or before going to bed, or that He read a Torah chapter per day.

Now, for the new stuff:  hermeneutics. I think I learned this word when I was in college, and it’s been with me ever since, as my perspectives grow.  Not merely a religion word, it derives from Greek; a relationship may be seen with the name Hermes, the messenger “god.”  Hermeneutics, put succinctly, is the science of literary interpretation.  (Pause for excursion into Wikipedia land, where I just spent a few minutes making minor edits on the hermeneutics page!”)

In the American Restoration Movement tradition, a somewhat standard biblical hermeneutical formula emerged and has endured, to an extent:

  1. command
  2. example
  3. necessary inference

Although I am no real student of hermeneutics, I have been around long enough to observe the effects–both positive and negative–of adherence to this formula.  (Many more aspects and questions come into play in hermeneutics; in no way do I suggest that these three items encapsulate it all.)  Initially, it seems sound to categorize in this way, and I have assumed that those who propound this method of interpreting scripture view it as hierarchical, i.e., that commands come above examples, and examples, above inferences.  In actual working out, the 3rd level–the necessary inferences–have proven divisive within the ARM, even creating branches and sub-branches of denominations, while the 1st- and 2nd-level commands and examples are more universally problematic.  Stated another way:  while few outside the ARM care much about provincial “necessary inferences,” there is sufficient disagreement on the nature and implications of “commands” that plenty of arguments can occur there without descending to the 2nd and 3rd levels!


In scripture, at first blush, a command would appear to be just that–an authoritative instruction issued by the Father, the Son, an apostle, etc.–for us to follow, no questions asked.  However, it’s not that easy.  Jesus said “Go thou and do likewise.”  Does that mean I have to find myself a Samaritan?  When we read in Paul’s letter to the Romans, “Greet each other with a kiss,” should I pucker 77 times per Sunday, or are handshaking and hugging approved substitutes?


In scripture, we find abundant examples.  Which ones are meant for us to follow, and which are merely to be taken as records of other people’s behaviors?  (Before I write what I’m about to write, I want the world to know that I have called my old friend to warn him that I was going to do something like this, letting him hear the grin in my voice before I actually wrote this, tongue in cheek.)  When scripture tells us that Jesus once (or more) had QT, you tell me I should follow that example?  Yeah, I guess you’re right.  Pardon me first, though, while I go change a Brita water pitcher into one filled with Chardonnay, chuck demons into pigs, precociously ditch my parents, sting a flock of Pharisees with my sharp criticism, weep because of Jerusalem has rejected me, and get transfigured.  🙂

You get the point, I’m sure.  In the world of examples, we must interpret contextually.  Some examples are clearly meant to be followed, others are clearly not to be imitated, and a bunch of examples in the middle are left to our interpretation.  We must figure out if and when we are to follow this last group.


One question about so-called “necessary inferences”:  who decides whether they’re “necessary”? This question, for me, swings a heavy axe near quite a few roots:  of religious freedom, of the institutional church, of the clergy system, and even of the basic nature of Christian discipleship.  I may infer something that you don’t infer … or, you may infer it, too, but not find it as significant as I find it.  If it’s “necessary” for you, it may not be “necessary” for me, and after all, it was only an inference, not a clear statement.

Finishing off …

It’s not always easy to determine what falls in the command category,  the approved example category, or the necessary inference one.  I immediately think of a major area of Christian doctrine that is perpetually the source of significant disagreement and disunity.  In my estimation, for instance, Billy Graham was wrong in this area, having made little of the commands and examples involved, and not having inferred enough from the scriptural implications.  On the other hand, some in my tradition have been too insistent on particulars and have not found viable frameworks for Christ-centered unity, where sincere, studied differences surface.  For me, in this area, it’s a matter of a) what seem to be clear commands, b) supported by many examples, and therefore c) implications that are abundantly clear.  But for others, based on what I believe is  legacy-inflicted error, the commands are explained away, and the examples are neatly ignored … the inferences therefore become wispy to the point of non-existence.  A tough area for Christians, historically, and it all comes down to hermeneutics.

The “example” level in this ARM hermeneutical model–and particularly the assertion that “if Jesus did it, we should, too”–led me into this blogpost, but I’ve gone far afield of the initial topic!  One thing is certain:  heremeneutical differences create disunity.  How we handle that disunity, it seems to me, is highly significant.  For now, I’ll try to have more (and more focused) QT, and you have your QT … but please don’t try to require QT of everyone.  I know of no valid biblical hermeneutic or exegetical principle that requires QT or even suggests that it is to be a pattern.  At this juncture in my walk, I am opting for a more broad list of “devotional” practices, including communal experiences in Christian gatherings, worshipful noticements of nature on casual walks, special moments of closeness with God inspired by gratitude for private experiences of exercising gifts (such as musical gifts), biblical studies, some QT experiences, writing on things I believe are important to the Kingdom, and the like.

If I’ve annoyed or offended you in this essay, please know that two results of my thinking and writing about Quiet Time are

  • a greater consciousness of QT in general
  • a sense of increased need for QT in my own life

Quiet Time is no Christian law, period.  However, as one valid expression of the Christian disciple’s devotion, it can be highly valuable in deepening the connection with God.

If he propounded that …

There’s something to be learned from just about anyone.  I know enough, second- and seventh-hand, about the Pope and Romish religion to know I want nothing to do with him or it, and I ardently want to keep others from him and it.  Still, there are probably some things I can learn from the current Pope.  (I capitalize in deference to English language standards and not to the Roman institution.)

I probably have less grasp of the place and work of John Calvin, but I have grown to distrust anything associated with this man’s (or any other’s) name, mainly because of certain extremes he and his progeny espouse.  Still, there are some things I can learn from him.  In this case, I suspect, a bunch more than in the case of the Pope!

If John Calvin was half the exegete people seem to think he was, I can learn from him.  Below is a statement by partly Calvinist author Moises Silva, who teaches in a Calvinist institution.  This comes in the context of Calvin’s hermeneutics:

It is all too easy to become mesmerized either by exegetical problems or by perceived devotional needs; in both cases, we allow the central and simple message of the text to recede into the background.  If, however, we keep in mind that no motive is more important than the edification of the church–the basis for which is God’s own teaching and not our imagination–our efforts will remain focused on the historical meaning intended by the biblical text.  “The Case for Calvinistic Hermeneutics,” in An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics, p. 254

If that was a focus for Calvin . . . if he indeed propounded focusing on historical meaning intended by the biblical text, well, then, insofar as he did that, I’m for him!