What is Biblical Exegesis? (The Three Worlds of the Text)

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Exegesis is the discipline of biblical interpretation conducted via a critical analysis of biblical texts using a framework.

A key framework for biblical interpretation is “Three Worlds of the Text” method which analyzes the “worlds” of a text: the world-behind-the-text, the world-of-the-text, and the world-in-front-of-the-text. Taken together these provide a helpful framework acknowledging the ways a text can be interpreted, for assisting the exegete (the scholar engaging in biblical interpretation) to ask the correct questions, and for bringing to light the scholar’s own presuppositions when interpreting texts written within foreign and ancient contexts. Professor Peta Goldburg says that,

“We use the worlds of the text as an approach to scripture because scripture is more than the words on the page, and so in order to interpret the words on the page we need to known something about where it has come from, what the words might mean, how its been used today, and how its been interpreted in today’s world” (1).

But what makes a careful interpretation important?

Perhaps the biblical texts’ most conspicuous feature is that they act as a form of communication between an author and an audience (receivers). There is almost always a reason why someone writes a text, which means behind the biblical texts there is intentionality. The author might try to get his audience to change behaviour or attempt to bring light to some important theme or topic. Biblical exegesis assists in attempts to discern these goals and purposes, while also helping to reveal the personal motives of the author himself. When one reads the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus we should expect him to have a motive for writing. We should also not expect his text to be free from bias and therefore absolutely neutral on the topics he has selected to write on. This does not imply an author is deceitful (which he could be) but it underscores the importance of the exegete taking these factors into account.

Exegesis is further important  because the biblical texts were not written to contemporary readers and therefore resemble foreign worlds. When Paul penned his letter to the church in Rome he was not thinking about 21st century Europe and its churches, but rather to very specific events and discourses relevant to the Christian community within Rome. This affirms the importance of interpreting a writer’s text within the cultural and historical context in which it was written. If the authors of the biblical texts lived in a world historically and culturally removed from our own (which they did), we should expect this to reflect within the texts themselves (and they do).

Finally, texts need to be interpreted because without interpretation they do not mean anything: they are simply objects. This highlights an essential dimension  to exegesis in that we need to allow texts to communicate with us. And allowing a text to speak to us requires some exercise in careful analysis one of which, as noted, is the Three Worlds of the Text:

The World Behind the Text allows the exegete to access the social systems, conventions and cultures of the author’s own day because of the need to understand his world in order to access his audience. One rightly assumes that the reason(s) for his writing will have been influenced by something going on in his world, and that by coming to a knowledge of these reasons one will understand his purpose and motives. Notice the importance of emphasizing his world (the world of the author), and not a contemporary European or some other world. If the exegete does not take careful steps on this dimension to the text he will likely misrepresent the author’s reasons and motives for writing.

The World of the Text invites the exegete to analyze the texts themselves. This is a careful and slow process which involves a very close reading of the text(s) or a select portion (referred to as a pericope) of it. A number of textual features are observed: how many times does the author repeat certain words? Is there a reason why the author does repeat words? What can one learn from tonality? What does the author’s tone say about her attitude(s) to those she is writing? Moreover, how does the text fit into the larger chapter or book? Are the chapters surrounding the pericope related in theme perhaps in the way of the author building an argument or making her case? What kind of response might one expect from the audience to whom the text is intended?

The World in Front of the Text transitions the focus from the author’s world to the contemporary world. One might want to determine how a biblical text is being applied in a specific setting, such as a city or a town in Kenya or England. How are Christians within these settings applying these texts to their lives? How do the texts shape these societies or groups of people?

References

1. BCEReligiousEd. RED Three Worlds of the Text. Available.

[Published: 04/27/2016. Edited/Republished: 08/21/2019]

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3 responses to “What is Biblical Exegesis? (The Three Worlds of the Text)

  1. it is interesting article on exegesis, but it also looks little bit inconclusive and deny the inspiration by highlighting as human authors. for instance.your words (However, we must remember that the Bible was not written with us 21st century westerners in mind. When Paul wrote his letter to the Romans he was not thinking about us. This suggests that we need to interpret his message so that we can understand it for ourselves (as God’s word), as well as understand his motives for writing). as A inspired word, the Bible is for all generation that we should know G_D and follow HIM.
    It would have been G_D honoring if Inspiration and revelation is highlighted and show how humans were instruments in writing these scriptures under guidance of the Holy Spirit.

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