SPidge Tales

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Exegesis Vs. Eisegesis

One of the areas of theology, of course, is Biblical Studies. And, one of the fancy terms used is exegesis, which people who search for the author’s meaning use when they want to sound smart. Exegesis is analyzing the meaning of the text, and figuring out what the author is trying to say, what the author’s message is. One of the problems with many biblical literary critics (and, I would imagine, of literary critics in general) is that instead of doing exegesis, many do eisegesis. An exegete reads out the inherent meaning and message in a text. An eisegete reads his own meaning, emotions, and political motivations, into the text. The appeal of eisegesis is obvious, especially when it comes to literary classics. “If this text is a classic, then of course the author must agree with me and share my viewpoints!”

In the story of Cain and Abel, God banishes Cain as a punishment for killing his brother Abel. However, he also places a mark on Cain so that no one else will kill or harm him. The message in this story is that, even though sin demands punishment and justice, we are not to exact revenge on a sinner. No matter how heinous the crime, a criminal, a sinner, never loses his human dignity. He deserves punishment, but his life still has value.

An eisegete would go beyond this analysis and interpret this story as a condemnation of capital punishment. The problem with this is that one would be reading too much into the text. It is not realistic to look at an author who wrote around 500 BC as sharing one’s modern day liberal sensitivities.

Another story that is used to support modern agendas is the parable of the talents. Jesus told of a rich man who loaned money to three servants. Two of the servants invested their share, and made a profit. The other one buried his share, then brought that same share back. The two who invested were given even more, but the one who buried his treasure had the little he had taken from him. Many neo-cons like to use this story to show that Jesus was a Capitalist and loved the free market. But, that is reading one’s own opinion into the text. All this text is saying is that we each have gifts and talents that we are given by God, and we are called to use our gifts.

I honestly do not think that most eisegetes really believe that the ancient authors shared their modern viewpoints. In fact, I think many modern eisegetes are snobs. They begin by neither doing exegesis nor eisegesis. They do not care what the ancient authors really had to say. They do not ask the question “what message is the author trying to get across?” Instead, they ask, “what does the text say about the author’s biases and prejudices?” Instead of, for example, commenting on what a biblical author is saying about human relationships or our relationship with God, they would hit upon a trivial point, such as the ancient author’s use of “man” or “mankind” for “human” or “humanity” and point out the author’s “patriarchal bias.” From there, they would then do eisegesis as a way to “save” or “rescue” the ancient author from his “bigoted” ways and give him a modern, sensitive, viewpoint, and adopt the few salvageable points of the ancient text for “progressive” purposes.


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