Historical-critical Exegesis

Exegesis (from the Greek: ἐξηγεῖσθαι, exēgēisthai; “to lead out”) is a critical explanation, exposition, commentary or interpretation of any text or specific parts within, especially religious books such as the Bible or Qur’an. A person who is skilled in the science of exegesis is known as an exegete. The opposite of exegesis would be eisegesis.

Historical-critical Exegesis

The attempt to find the original authors intended meaning is also referred to as historical-critical, authorial intent, originalist or reading the Bible in high context. There are literary and theological criticisms differing by substantive knowledge that is used to facilitate a historical method of biblical exegesis. Philological criticism is the study of writing style and grammar within exegesis and literary criticism tries to deduce original authorship and audience. There is also redaction criticism that involves the way the author structures narrative for theology (significantly used within Christian theology) and finally form criticism which presupposes the Bible as written through a revered oral tradition passed down for generations.[1][2] In their cohesive form they constitute biblical criticism and form the base of exegesis. Incorporating many disciplines help create a wide spectrum to inform the historical-critical or historical-grammatical method of hermeneutics.

Exorcising the historical-critical method allows the Bible to speak for itself and is an important way of reading ancient documents in general by allowing immediate internal context of the specific verse or verses in question. Following logically where the context takes the exegesis is determined by what criticisms are employed. As the exegesis of particular passages develops so does contextual scope based in the authors situation, contemporary generation and surroundings. This inherently demands a varied spectrum of knowledge bases that can be utilized when author background studies reveal the various contexts. The culture of the author, scientific discoveries, laws and theories, prominent philosophies, social structures as well as political and economic surroundings are all necessary to some extent. In short it is the socio-historical contexts of the author that a skilled exegete or student of Scripture uses to describe derive accurate exegesis. The critical investigation into the author of a text can sometimes be referred to as background studies.[3] The ultimate goal of the historical-critical exegesis is to eliminate potential for eisegesis.

The Bible clearly assumes a supernatural cause for a Christian cosmology and origin of life, and attempts to present the history of Israel and even the greater ANE as well as Jesus of Nazareth and the early Christian church. The historical-critical/grammatical method is the most logical and scientific way to present the intended meaning. As Andrew S. Kulikovsky states in An Evaluation of historical-critical methods:

The overall purpose of historical-critical methods is to investigate what actually happened in the events described or alluded to (Marshall 1985, p. 126). Krentz (1975, p. 35-36) gives the following goals of historical investigation:

# Present a body of facts that show what actually happened and why.
# Illuminate the past, creating a comprehensive picture of a culture’s own record of history.
# Understand the significance of events and interpret them.
# Understand motives as well as actions.

Marshall (1985, p. 128-130) points out that reading Biblical accounts raises the following historical problems or questions:

# Discrepancies with parallel Biblical accounts.
# Discrepancies with non-Biblical material.
# Historical improbabilities.
# Supernatural occurrences.
# Creation/Modification by the early church
# Literary genre.
# Insufficient evidence.[4]

Literal in the Literary sense

Taking the Bible literally in the correct literary sense does not deny that figures of speech are used, but that those figures somehow disallow any literal truth intended. Specific types of rhetorical or literary genres or styles (historical narrative, biblical types, parables, metaphors, prophecy, poetry and idioms) are taken into consideration based upon context. Understanding the philological aspects of context in the Bible is common when exorcising the historical-critical methodology. Surrounding internal context beyond even immediate context maybe required to critically determine what particular style was used. An incorrect literal meaning is derived from isolating a figure of speech and concluding out of context that it is outside the realm of reality. To say that no portion of the Bible is to be taken literal is misleading, however cherry-picking verses out of context to prove irrational teachings in Scripture is misleading and also dishonest.

A proper hermeneutics is reliance upon context. First allowing the text to define itself as either structurally and physically literal speech or figures of speech. Literal interpretations by the anti-Christian/liberal Christian take unnecessary issue with exegetical foundations of further study. Alleged contradictions arise making the Bible seem inconsistent and inaccurate. Attempts are made sometimes to determine the true nature of a verse through correct means, however anti-Christian critics use these correct means to usually point out manufactured inconsistency elsewhere by using incorrect means.[5]

Textual Criticism

Textual criticism is the attempt to piece together surviving fragments of copies of manuscripts, in order to represent accurately the original manuscript or what is called the autograph.[6][7]

Liberal Christian Theology

Liberal Christianity, liberal Christian theology or just liberal theology are the terms used to articulate and define assumptions of eisegesis that have been historically inherited by celebrating mans reason alone as the sole authority. Embraced during The Age of Enlightenment (18th and 19th century), a time when the superior view of mans reason encroached into everyday life welcomed with broad adoption of its philosophical principles lifting man up to a point which he was ultimate. Inevitably introduced into all realms of life including religious, enlightenment radically changed cultural, social and political milieus that ran counter to the reason of man. Thus governments adopted a secular mindset that pushes further into religious institutions and faith based organizations founded within the age of modernity.

Literal reading out of context

There are competing connotations of literal, effectively they are two unique interpretive approaches based in philological criticism. One literal reading of the Bible is conducted through a literary historical-critical method while another through a type of postmodern intellectual bias.[8] The result is far-reaching and fundamentally different paths that shape the subsequent, overall more in-depth interpretation of the Bible. The incorrect literal interpretation that disregards context can usually be found within popular Christian critics arguments demonstrating the lack of historical-critical methods that convey the intended meaning.[8] A specific verse of the Bible is used, for example Matthew 5:30 or 5:34, to show internal inconsistency among other verses and even external inconsistency among modern materialistic science as it is practiced.[5]

30″If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell. Matthew 5:30 (NASB)

34″But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, Matthew 5:34 (NASB)

These particular passages in the Bible as presented above would imply as critics contend that a Christian should cut off his/her hand if they sin, accordingly in verse 34 Jesus explicitly teaches that no Christian may make an oath.[5] Eisegesis formulated by proof-texting can indeed lead to irrational and inconsistent interpretations of specific parts of Scripture. The passages have also been shown to contradict OT Law, a line of argument developed soon after Jesus’ time which is not foreign to the philological criticisms of modern biblical exegesis.[9] Grammatical structure can and usually does differ considerably when it is derived by historical-critical methods that demand inclusion of context.

21″You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ 22″But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell. 23″Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering. 25″Make friends quickly with your opponent at law while you are with him on the way, so that your opponent may not hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. 26″Truly I say to you, you will not come out of there until you have paid up the last cent. 27″You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY’; 28but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29″If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30″If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell. 31″It was said, ‘WHOEVER SENDS HIS WIFE AWAY, LET HIM GIVE HER A CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE’; 32but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. 33″Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT MAKE FALSE VOWS, BUT SHALL FULFILL YOUR VOWS TO THE LORD.’ 34″But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is THE CITY OF THE GREAT KING. 36″Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37″But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is of evil. 38″You have heard that it was said, ‘AN EYE FOR AN EYE, AND A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH.’ 39″But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. 40″If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. 41″Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. 42″Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.43″You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.’ 44″But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46″For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47″If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48″Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5:21-48 (NASB)

When the reader allows the text to speak for itself by including verses 21-48 it declares that the writers audience was familiar with ancient sayings of ancient peoples. In verse 21 the “… ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.” The historical consideration and position taken within the text by the author towards the audience being written to compares “the ancients” against contemporary Christians during the time of writing. Because of the reference to the Old Testament verses of Exodus chapter 21, the ancients alluded to within the New Testament were Hebrew speaking Israelite ancestors of either the writer or his audience, or both. The seriousness of lust within ones heart is figuratively compared to the shortcomings of being maimed to atone for sin. Obviously by plucking out one eye, or it even goes so far as to say, by chopping off one hand, to rid yourself of the source of sin, will not do anything for the other hand or the other eye. Punishment of the flesh for sin is meaningless because the sin is committed “in his heart” already (verse 28). Verse 33 by adopting its natural flow and plainly reading through the context of verses 21-48, the interpretation teaches that Christians should be straight-forward and honest, making sure vows be fulfilled to the Lord. However the writer of Matthew goes further to suggest that vows never be uttered, instead a Christian should speak clearly, “‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’.” So much so is this of importance that in verse 37 it says, “anything beyond these is of evil.” This also leads to an important verse many tend to read their own reasoning into. Verses 38-42 detail the popular “‘AN EYE FOR AN EYE, AND A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH'” saying. When taken out of context, the saying allows just as radical of a literal interpretation as verses 27-30 would allow. What is lacking is the immediate internal context that interprets itself explaining how the Christian should act and maintain an attitude that is Christ-like, who is the fulfillment of what the common sayings of the ancients required. The proper reading, as opposed to cherry picking Matthew 5:38, concludes that the writer is using figures of speech, as many people commonly do when speaking or writing, to provide emphasis or deeper clarity diverging from literal meaning of the words or language.[10] The writer even seems to interpret the reference to Exodus within the NT by relating verse 38 to the acts of giving and following legal ethics insisting the Christian not match, “‘AN EYE FOR AN EYE, AND A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH'” but to go even further. Do not just give what was asked for, or what has been legally determined by courts, but to give even more. It is common for the offended to overreact and enact equal punishment against the offender. The method for the outcome should not be vengeance but forgiveness. Verses 43-47 are again detailing the life of a Christian to suffer any injury for peace. Plucking out an eye or chopping off your own hand for doing something that is considered illegal or a sin, attempting to sacrifice yourself for your sins is worthless. What matters is a change of heart by faith in Christ which will produce acts of peace, not brutality as critics would derive literally. As verse 48 states it is striving to be perfect, “as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Jewish Exegesis


Literature that expounds on the classic Jewish Scriptural interpretation methods and the challenges it presents.

Early Creationist Exegesis

The principle of giving credibility to contemporaries or who are assumed to be the generation or generations historically closer to the subject help attain a more consistent reading and interpretation that was originally meant. The young age view was held by the early church as well as early Jewish religious leaders. Some individuals take issue with the views espoused by early church fathers and Jews because it is alleged that their idea and understanding of critical scientific thinking was primitive.[12][13]


  1. EXEGESIS, n. Columbian cyclopedia, Volume 11. Published by Garretson, Cox & Company, 1897
  2. “exegesis”. Britannica Concise Encyclopedia. pg. 649
  3. THE CHALLENGE OF CANONICAL CRITICISM TO BACKGROUND STUDIES By Randy W. Nelson. Journal of Biblical Studies. 6/1 (June 2006) 10-34.
  4. An Evaluation of historical-critical methods By Andrew S. Kulikovsky B.App.Sc(Hons). January 20, 1997
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Biblical Literalism By Steve Falkenberg, professor of religious psychology at Eastern Kentucky University. 2002
  6. “textual criticism.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2010. Merriam-Webster Online. 26 July 2010 <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/textual_criticism>
  7. M-A-P-S: To Guide You Through Biblical Reliability by Hank Hanegraaff
  9. Origen Against Celsus. Book VII. Chapter XXV By Origen
  10. Figure of Speech By Wikipedia
  11. King James Version Bible Commentary pg. 1177
  12. The Early Church & the Age of the Earth by Robert I. Bradshaw. 1998
  13. Genesis – Chapter 1 (Parsha Bereishit) Genesis chapter 1 with Rashi commentary
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