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Writing Exegesis Papers: Guide Home

   

Overview

This guide will take you through the main elements of an exegesis paper. It serves only as a general guide; your professor may have different instructions.

 

What is Exegesis?

The term "exegesis" is a loan-word from Greek (ek "out" + hegeisthai "to lead"), meaning "to lead out." Although it may sound unfamiliar, it simply refers to the discipline of studying to get meaning out of a text. Many find it helpful to contrast exegesis with "eisegesis" (a neologism, where the preposition ek [ex] "out" is replaced with the preposition eis "into"). While exegesis strives to have meaning come from the text, eisegesis is reading meaning into the text. People generally don't strive to do eisegesis; it is often a result of poor exegesis.

Following a set of clear steps can help you examine your text from multiple angles and avoid overlooking key issues. However, exegesis is only part science (orderly, yielding predictable results). It is also an art, inviting you to synthesize the data into an interpretation and application.

 

Outline & Example Papers

 

A Parable of Exegesis

The story below is a well-known illustration of the principles of exegesis. It is a short read that is worth your time.

Choosing a Translation

Your professor may give instructions to use a particular translation. If not, use a more literal translation such as the New American Standard Bible (1995 Update) or the New Revised Standard Version. This should be your base text, although you may have reason to compare translations (generally this is only done if you have command of the biblical languages).

 

Translating Your Passage

If you have the ability, you should strongly consider doing an original translation of your passage. You will need to consult with your professor to obtain permission.

A separate guide is available to help you use biblical languages in your paper.

 

Writing Your Paper

The first section of your paper should be the entire biblical text you are using. Be sure to format it properly. If you copied the text from a website you may need to change the font and remove hyperlinks. If your passage is poetry you will need to make sure it is presented in versified form (see the example papers provided at the beginning of this guide).

Your Thesis

The goal of writing an exegesis paper is simply to understand the meaning of a text. The introduction of your paper should grab the reader's attention and clearly state what you think your passage means. Everything that follows in your paper should serve to support your thesis statement.

Here are some general tips on writing a good thesis statement:

  • Your thesis statement should be concise
  • Your thesis statement should come at the end of your introduction
  • Your thesis statement should make a claim/argument
  • You may need to revise your thesis statement as you do more research

Literary Context

You will need to consider the overall context of the book you are using. Consider addressing some of the following questions:

  • What genre is the book where your passage is located? (Gospel, Epistle, Prophetic, Narrative, etc.)
  • What is the overall structure of the book?
  • How does your passage fit within the overall structure?
  • Do you need to address issues of authorship?

You will also need to pay close attention to the passages immediately surrounding your own. How does your passage relate?

The Bible is not a series of propositions (excepting some of Proverbs), but it is comprised of stories, letters, songs and more. A crucial part of exegesis is analyzing your text as the literature it is.

 

Historical Context

Not only was the Bible given to us as literature, it is also the product of real people in real historical circumstances. You will need to understand these realities to do good exegesis. However, be careful you do not mistakenly turn your exegesis paper into a history paper. Try to always ask: "How does this help me understand my passage?" If it doesn't or is relatively insignificant, it probably doesn't belong in your paper.

Here are four areas to investigate:

  1. Political: Who held political power during the period of time that your text addresses? If necessary, sketch the political background for the international and domestic scenes.
  2. Economic: What was the economic climate like during the time of your passage? Was it a time of prosperity or famine?
  3. Social: What social groups are significant to your passage, and what were they like at the time? Was there social injustice at the time?
  4. Religious: What was the religious atmosphere? Was there influence from other religious worldviews at the time?

Your Commentary

This section should be roughly half of your total paper. In this section you will want to work verse-by-verse through your passage, analyzing every detail. In a sense, this section is where you "prove" your thesis statement. The work you do in this section should also lay the groundwork for the section on theology later. Consult the example papers at the beginning of this guide to see how other students have approached this section.

 

Word Studies

Word studies can be a helpful way to gain new insights into your passage. A good word study will consist of three separate steps:

  1. Discover the original Hebrew or Greek term used in your passage
  2. Look up other passages which use the same term and compare/contrast
  3. Consult some of the major theological dictionaries that discuss your term

A separate guide is available to explain how to conduct a word study.

 

Formal Analysis

In the section on literary analysis you should have discussed the genre of the book where your passage is found. Formal analysis is similar, but on a smaller scale. Here you are looking at the form of the particular passage, rather than the genre of the whole book.

For example, the genre of the book of Isaiah is prophetic, while your passage's form may be a judgment speech or woe oracle. Similarly, the genre of Matthew is Gospel, while your passage's form may be a parable. Be advised that there is not a consensus among scholars on how to refer to these issues.

Consult the recommended sources at the end of this guide for more information.

 

Biblical Poetry

Approximately 1/3 of the Bible is written in poetry, which presents its own special issues for interpretation.

A separate guide is available to help navigate the issues of biblical poetry.

Overview

This section of exegesis is more nebulous and difficult to define. It can vary widely from paper to paper, depending on the passage selected for exegesis. Additionally, there may be significant overlap between this section and your detailed analysis. In general, there are two major considerations (discussed below).

 

Theology of Your passage

First, limit your discussion to the passage you are analyzing. You've already done a lot working through the context and details of your passage. Now you will need to summarize what your passage means. Here are some questions to help you start thinking: What does it mean? What does it teach us about God? Does your passage point to His love? His justice? His role as creator? His patience with obstinate people? His impatience with prideful people?

Hopefully, the claims you make in this section are well-supported by the previous sections of your paper (especially the Detailed Analysis).

 

Biblical Theology

The next step is to compare your text to other passages in the Bible. Begin with an investigation of other texts within the Testament of your passage (i.e., if your passage is in the New Testament, start with examining other New Testament passages, and vice versa). Your previous research in word studies should help you know what passages to consider.

Look for texts that contain similar theological ideas as well as texts that contain contrasting ideas. For instance, some passages might teach about how God has no tolerance for sin and injustice (think about Lot's wife, Ananias and Sapphira, or Uzzah). However, there are many passages that show God as patient and gracious (think about how he relented from punishment against Hezekiah, or his patience with David, or the conversion of Paul in the New Testament). The goal is to see how your passage fits within a balanced biblical theology.

Also, you should consider key passages to which your passage alludes. Are you working in a Psalm that describes God's work as creator? Then you may want to consider what Genesis 1 has to say. Are you working in an Epistle that makes reference to the work of Christ on the cross? Then you should probably read through the accounts of the crucifixion in the Gospels. Be careful that you do not make the assumption that the other passage necessarily was written first. In the case of the Gospels they were likely written after the Epistles.

Conclusion

This section will conclude your paper and offer an application of your passage. Summarize your findings and restate your thesis. If your exegesis raised new questions, state those areas which would benefit from further research.

Avoid vague or overly general applications and try to be specific in how your passage specifically applies.

 

Sermon Outline

Sermon outlines are a traditional component of exegesis papers, but not all professors require them. Be sure to check with your professor. They are typically included as an appendix to the exegesis paper.

The most effective sermons focus on a single idea from the text. Use your thesis statement to help focus your outline. Consult the list of resources at the end of this guide for additional help.

Handbooks and Primers on Exegesis

 

Be sure to consult the booklists found on the Biblical & Theological Studies guide, under the "Books" tab.

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