Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten. (B.F. Skinner)

Guidelines for understanding biblical texts
(and for writing exegesis papers)

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Below are some things you should consider in your study of the assigned passages for discussion, as well as for your paper. These are suggested ways for you to engage the biblical text. Their purpose is to encourage your own critical thinking about, and interaction with, the biblical passage.


Your papers (and your comments during discussions) will be evaluated not so much on the results or conclusions you propose, but on how you have come to reach your interpretations or conclusions. I'm interested in seeing in your papers (and comments in class) the kinds of questions you posed of the text to extract meaning. I'm also interested in seeing how aware you are of the assumptions you bring to the text.


It is okay if your interpretation or conclusions differ from mine or that of the textbook authors, other biblical scholars, or other students. In fact, this would be desirable and could be wonderful. Just make sure you can explain or defend your interpretation using biblical texts and other evidence (historical, archaeological, etc.). The important thing is for you to encounter the biblical texts on your own, critically and imaginatively.


The suggestions below will equip you to get started with exegesis and organize your thoughts for writing your paper.



Address basic questions of the text. For example:

Who, what, when, where, why, how?

Who's talking?

Who's not talking?

What's there in the passage?

What's not there?

What are the key words, concepts, issues?


Literary (form-critical and stylistic) considerations:

Read the text aloud a number of times.

What features mark the passage as a separate unit, if it is one at all?

Does it have a clear-cut beginning and a recognizable ending?

Do you see an overall structure?

How are the parts of the passage related with each other?

What literary devices or techniques do you observe in the passage (e.g., repetition, use of imagery, play on words, recurrent motifs)?

What kind of effect do they create?

Is there any movement toward a climactic point?

Any resolution of tension?

Is there a central point, statement, verse, etc.?


Contextual (redactional) factors:

How is the passage related to what comes immediately before and after it?

How does the literary unit function within its larger context?

How is it related to the larger context in terms of vocabulary, themes, etc.?

Does the passage seem to have any previous history before it was appropriated into the present context?

What are the hints of a previous history or tradition (e.g., dissonance or inconsistencies, rough transitions or seams, literary peculiarities, theological overtones from the past)? How would you explain them?

Is there any tension or confusion in the text due to that process of incorporation?

What does the literary unit contribute to its present context?


Life situation (Sitz im Leben) questions:

What kind of historical or social setting does the passage reflect or presuppose?

Does it reflect a concrete situation in the life of a person or a group of people?

Can you think of any particular context in which the passage would function (e.g., treaty, baptism)?

Does it presuppose a cultic situation in life (i.e., religious practices)?

What is at issue for the author of the passage? For the intended audience?

Does the passage, when understood in its historical setting, transcend its time so that it speaks to distant ages including our own?

Do you see any realities or problems of human existence probed in the text?


Canonical considerations:

How is the passage related to the rest of the Old Testament or New Testament or both?

Are there other biblical passages that resonate or clash with the passage?

Focus on the biblical text with the questions above as initial guides to understanding the passage. Use


          1) the NOAB annotations,
          2) the textbook(s), and
          3) critical commentaries and reference materials in the library


to illuminate, test, and refine your reading, but only after you have wrestled with the passage on your own for a while.

For helpful tips go to: English Matters.


Also try this

(not everything applies, but most of it is very helpful).


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