Saturday, November 26, 2011

Exegesis, Eisegesis, and Hermeneutics

OK, these are three fancy words that biblical scholars like to use, but they are of great importance, for they speak to one of most critical tasks of Christians, and that is Bible interpretation.  What does the Bible mean.  When we read the text, as Christians, what does it mean.

It would be nice if the proper meaning of any given text just jumped out at us, but, as Christian history, and the multiplicity of denominations, have demonstrated, the text can be interpreted in different ways.  So, how do we go about trying to interpret any given text properly?  Enter these three fancy terms: exegesis, eisegesis, and hermeneutics.

First: exegesis.  This term comes from the Greek verb ἐξηγέομαι (exegeomai) which literally means "to lead out."  In the process of exegesis, the biblical interpreter tries to lead something "out" of the text.  That is, they are trying to find out what is already in the text at hand.  At its most basic, one performing exegesis, also called an "exegete," is trying to find out what a text meant in its original context.  An exegete must also beware not to import anything foreign into the text that was not already there.

This leads us to the second term: eisegesis.  Eisegesis comes from the Greek verb εἰσηγέομαι (eisegeomai) which literally means "to lead in" and is thus the exact opposite of exegesis.  Eisegesis is an interpretive vice in which a biblical interpreter (usually unknowingly) leads or brings meaning into the text that is actually foreign to the text itself. Eisegesis happens all of the time.  A reader of the Bible will come to a text, and they think they already know what a text means before they have even read it carefully, and therefore they bring a foreign meaning to the text, and then they say, that is what the text means.

One way that this often happens is to bring certain meanings of words into the text.  Here is one example.  For many Christians, the word "gospel" has a specific meaning.  The "Gospel" is the message of salvation for individual humans.  Specifically, it is the message that Jesus died on the cross for the sins of the world and therefore salvation is available for those who would confess belief in Jesus.  If that is the meaning of the word "gospel" for the biblical interpreter, then, when one comes upon that word in a biblical text, that definition is brought with the interpreter into the text.  The problem is, that is not the meaning of the word gospel.  That is one specific theological interpretation of the word, but it is not the meaning of the word as I hope the following example will show.

Let's take a look at Matthew 4:23
Jesus was going throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness among the people. (New American Standard Version).
What gospel is Jesus preaching in Matthew 4:23?  Is he preaching the gospel as defined above, that Jesus died for the sins of the world?  NO!  He is preaching the coming of the Kingdom of God, which included the healing of sick people.  You see, having a ready definition of gospel in hand and then bringing it into the text, doesn't even make sense here.  Eisegesis does violence to the text by bringing in foreign concepts.  It also causes people to miss the actual meaning of the text, because by importing foreign concepts, you actually miss what the text is actually saying.  In the text above, you might miss that indeed Jesus did have a gospel (good news) to preach, and it was not that Jesus died for the sins of the world, but rather, it was good news about the Kingdom of God.

So, exegesis tries to get at the original meaning of a text, that is, the meaning in the original context.  So, exegesis only takes us so far in biblical interpretation.  It only tries to get at what a text meant.  But that only answers half of the question of biblical interpretation, because any biblical interpreter is more interested in what a text means for them, here an now, than in what a text meant in its original context.  We are separated from that original context by 2000 years.  Is what it meant for them, necessarily what it means for me today?   Maybe not.  Enter our third fancy term: hermeneutics.  Hermeneutics, which comes from the Greek verb ἑρμηνεύω (hermeneuo), literally means "to translate."  Thus, the biblical task of hermeneutics is an attempt to translate what the text meant to what the text means for us today.  Yet, one cannot even start to translate if one does not know the original.

Therefore, the primary and most important task of the biblical interpretation is exegesis, finding out what the text meant in its original context. Only then can one even begin to decipher what a text means for us, here and now.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Science Fiction vs. Fantasy

I attended the SBL/AAR conference in San Francisco this last weekend, and the most anticipated session for me was the Science Fiction session in the AAR.  This was a wildcard session, an exploratory session to gauge interest in the topic in hopes of creating a program unit (which I heartily hope comes to pass).

I thoroughly enjoyed the session and the talks of the four panelists.  One thing that struck me though was the seeming sharp distinction between the science fiction genre and the fantasy genre.

Rudy Busto, of UCSB, the first panelist, seemed to draw this distinction most starkly.  He claimed (and I am not quoting here, but doing the best I can from memory), that in Fantasy, one just has vampires and werewolves running around, while in Science Fiction, there is a scientific basis for the incredible events that occur. 

So, in both genres, incredible events occur, but in one, the explanation is pure fantasy or "magic" while in the other, the explanation is science.  Yet, while this might be true on the surface, I would challenge the validity of such a claim.

It is true, on the surface, Fantasy makes no real attempt to explain such incredible events.  Rather, the world which the Fantasy genre creates is one of magic and the incredible, while the Science Fiction genre in theory operates in our world of scientific cause and effect.  I say "in theory" because, while that is the assumption, just saying that the scientific world of cause and effect is the basis of the film does not make it so.  While there is this generic assumption that the incredible things that happen have a basis in science, often little effort is put into explaining how this is the case.  It is as if the general claim "this world is based on scientific cause and effect" then justifies all of the incredible things that happen.

I think a good example of this is the sonic screwdriver of the Dr. on Doctor Who.  I mean, beyond calling it sonic, and therefore having some basis in the scientific world of cause and effect, is there really any explanation of how this screwdriver can do what it does?  The most common use of the screwdriver, at least toward the beginning of the reboot series, is to lock and unlock doors.  Yet, as the series progresses, the uses of the screwdriver become more incredible and more magical. It functions as a medical scanner, and, at times, even a defensive weapon that disarms enemies' guns, all based on a "science" that is never explained. As James McGrath has said, "Is there anything fundamentally different between Harry Potter’s magic wand and the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver?" (McGrath, who was also a panelist in this AAR session, I think fundamentally agrees with me (or perhaps one should say that I agree with him), as you can see in his post here).

So, I would question the stark distinction between the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres.  While there is indeed a difference, I think it is far less than is usually posited.  I also think that future (hopefully) AAR program unit would be remiss to draw this distinction sharply and exclude the Fantasy genre from being part of the group's discussion.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Greetings from San Fran

I'm here listening to a talk on blogs and social media, so I thought I would really engage the topic. So, greetings fin the SBL.

Brooke and I walked down to the bay this gorgeous saturday morning.

Brooke with a strange statue we found.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Location:Folsom St,San Francisco,United States

Friday, November 18, 2011

iPhone revolution

I am sitting at the airport, waiting for a flight to San Francisco to attend this year's SBL conference.

I am writing this blog post on my iPhone. This really is an amazing device. Yet, sometimes I find it troubling. We are learning to communicate in truncated language.

I don't know about you, but most if the time I do all of my email on the iPhone. That way, if something needs a response I can just take care of it right then and there and put it put of my mind. Yet, I fall victim to this truncated language. I try to keep it short. I will often omit normal parts of a message, like any punctuation, salutation, addressee, and signature. I feel guilty omitting this stuff, but who wants to type any more than the bare minimum on an iPhone?

What are the long term effects of this communication revolution? One thing I am seeing is that my students can hardly make sense of sentences that have more than one clause. Is this due to the smartphone/texting/Facebook status update world we have created? Your thoughts?

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Monday, November 14, 2011

Harmonization and LOTR

As a New Testament scholar, and especially as a gospel scholar, one of my pet peaves is the practice of harmonizing the gospels.  That is, to fill in gaps from one gospel, say Mark, with elements from another gospel, say Luke.  This is done all of the time.  Mark says something like, Jesus speaks in parables in order to confuse those on the outside so that they won't repent and be forgiven.  Matthew comes along, and mutes this point, making the responsibility for being blind and deaf fall on the people, not on Jesus.

Harmonization also often occurs in the birth narratives of Jesus.  We have two accounts of Jesus' birth: one in Matthew and one in Luke.  Yet, they are quite different (See my previous posts on the birth narratives Here, Here, and Here).  We see this in our nativity scenes.  Only in Matthew do we get the wise men.  Only in Luke do we get the stable and manger.  Yet, in nativity scenes we see both side by side (and by the way, this harmonization does not really bother me in nativity scenes).

When we harmonize, whether it be to fill in missing information, or to reconcile apparent contradictions, we lose sight of what each individual author was trying to say.  There is a reason why Mark said that Jesus spoke in parables in order to confuse the people.  If we just jump to Matthew's account because it makes us feel better, we miss Mark's point. 

So, that said, why do we harmonize?  I noticed something the other night, while watching Lord of the Rings, the Fellowship of the Rings for the umpteenth time.  I was watching the scene in Bree, where the Nazgul come and drive their swords into the Hobbit sized beds, thinking that the Hobbits are laying in them.  This got me thinking: did this happen in the book?  Now, I am remiss, I have not re-read the books for a few years now, and I am rusty.  I could not remember the Bree sequence from the book, or I should say, I had an amalgam in my head, part book, part movie, and perhaps even part of my own construction that my mind had unknowingly crafted.  I was unconsciously harmonizing. 

Our minds are made to complete stories.  A Baylor colleague of mine, Kathy Maxwell, recently published her revised dissertation in which she argued just this.  She argues that in the ancient world, and I believe this holds in the modern world as well, that authors actually leave some information out of their narratives in order to invite audience participation.  Our minds naturally do this.  In any story, our minds subconsciously fill in gaps.  It is part of actively engaging in a story. 

This happens all the more when we are reading a story for which we have other versions in our head.  So, while watching Peter Jackson's film version of the Lord of the Rings, my mind will be unconsciously filling in gaps with information in my head from Tolkein's book, and vice versa.

While this is a natural and understandable tendency, I think we ought to try and fight it as much as possible.  To harmonize is to obliterate the unique point of view of each version of the story.  Jackson had a story to tell in his version of the Lord of the Rings, as did Tolkein.  To harmonize them is actually to lose the full power of either.  So too, with the gospels.  Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each gave us wonderful accounts of the life of Jesus.  To harmonize them is to perhaps lose the unique message of each.