Exegesis (Guide)


1) Select a biblical passage and identify the literary context (immediate, local, global)

a. Delimit the passage

  • What dramatic and stylistic indications exist to delineate the passage from the surrounding ones? What holds the passage together?
  • [Note that literary units are not fixed, but dynamic; they vary in length, depending upon which questions are being asked of the text by the reader.]
  • Stylistic devices (inclusion, repetition, transitional words, aporia, abrupt transitions, inconsistencies, and anomalies (e.g., now, therefore, etc.)
  • Changes of theme, subject, characters, time, etc.

b. Establish the text (textual criticism)

  • Are there any significant textual  variants?
  • What effect, if any, do they have on the meaning of the text?

c. Consider the relationship/ connections of the passage to its biblical surroundings.

  • Is the passage essentially dependent or independent of the rest of the book?
  • The placement of the passage within the document helps determine its significance.
  • Immediate Context—what precedes and follows in the text itself.
  • Global Context—within the whole book and/or in relation to one or more of the other books, letters, etc…

2) Determine the Sitz im Leben (situation, setting in life), literary form (genre), authorship, situation of the writer and the readers[1]

  • Can the passage be linked with a genre of expression? Which one? (i.e. parable, genealogy, narrative, doxology, prophetic oracle etc…)
  • What recognizable literary forms or types are present in the passage under study?
  • What is the function of the particular form utilized by the author?
  • Does the text at hand show any divergence from the usual form? What effect do the divergences have on conveying the author’s message?
  • What issues are being addressed? How does the form contribute to the author’s response to the issues?
  • What context in the history of Israel and/or the early Church did it arise from? What situation in time did it connect with? How does the text reflect its culture? Is it liturgical, social, legal, or kerygmatic (sermonic)?
  • Identify sources and parallels (Source  Criticism) (i.e. Mk, Q, M, L: etc…)
    • Does the document under study have a source?
    • What did the source say?
    • How has the author used the source?
    • What elements do the two texts have in common, and at what points do they differ or contradict one another?
    • What is the historical or theological significance of the changes made by the author?
  • Who is being addressed? What was the meaning and possible significance of what is being said in its historical context?
  • What is the author’s theological outlook?
  • In brief: who, what, where, when, to whom, why, how?
  • If determinable, how does the author select and interpret historical events theologically?
  • 3) Close Reading of the Text

    a. Examine significant words (repeated, theologically important)

    • Where else does the word appear, and what does it mean there (In Hebrew, in Greek, elsewhere in the author’s work[s]; denotation and connotation)?
    • What meaning does it have in this context?
    • Where does this instance stand in the term’s history or pattern of appearance?
    • Identify any semantic fields: word groups linked to a common notion or idea (eg. seeing=see, watch, look, appear, eye etc.)

    b. Identify literary characteristics

    • Literary techniques: chiasm, parallelism, inclusio, ellipsis, merism, etc…
    • Characters: who are the various persons involved in the passage and how do they interact with each other?
    • Setting: Where do the events take place? Does the location add significance to the meaning?
    • Point of view: whose perspective does the reader share?
    • Action: What is the succession of events within the narrative? Is there an active movement, a change of mood or a development of thought within the passage? What causes or brings about any change, if any, within the narrative?

    c. Determine the meaning of each sentence.

    • Discern the relationship between parts of a sentence, the importance of different word order, the effect of certain clauses, and how the sentences are joined together into larger units of meaning.
    • How does the author employ connecting words (and, but, or, for, because, so, etc.) to express      opposition, contrast, continuity, result, consequence, or purpose.

    4) Determine the major focus of the text

    • What unique views or unusual emphases does the author place on the sources?  How does the author’s unique theology add to the tradition? (redaction criticism)
    • What is the literal sense of the text?

    5) Determine the theological dimension and its practical applications[2]

    a. Theological Dimension

    • How does the literal sense (the sense intended by the author) of this text assist us in discovering the message of salvation—the meaning of the Word of God in itself and both in relation to men and the work of evangelization today?
    • How does this text relate to the rest of the Cannon of Scripture?[3]
    • Does this text have a prophetic (unfulfilled) dimension?
    • How might this text be seen in the light of eternity?
    • Is there an eschatological dimension to the text
  • How has this passage been read within the life of the Church? (Ecclesial Context/rule of faith)[4]
    • Compare different eras (Patristic, Medieval, Critical, Modern) to see how opinions may have developed and/or remained constant over time.
    • How has it been used within the Liturgy (i.e. particular feasts, connections made within the lectionary).
    • What have scholars (and theologians) said about this text in the past, particularly in the context of the whole of Revelation?
    • Is there a spiritual sense[5] that flows out of the literal sense? (i.e. Christological, Moral, Anagogical).

    b. Practical Applications

    • What do we bring to the text?
    •  How can people be helped to enter into the text and hear Christ speak to them?
    • How ought this text be applied to the Christian today?


    [1] “To search out the intention of the sacred writers, attention should be given, among other things, to ‘literary forms.’ For truth is set forth and expressed differently in texts which are variously historical, prophetic, poetic, or of other forms of discourse. The interpreter must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed in particular circumstances by using contemporary literary forms in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture.  For the correct understanding of what the sacred author wanted to assert, due attention must be paid to the customary and characteristic styles of feeling, speaking and narrating which prevailed at the time of the sacred writer, and to the patterns men normally employed at that period in their everyday dealings with one another” (Dei Verbum 12).

    [2] Engaging the bible in our lives, does not mean creating our own meaning, rather it means allowing ourselves to read the bible within the Church.

    [3] “Holy Scripture must be read and interpreted in the sacred spirit in which it was written,  no less serious attention must be given to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture if the meaning of the sacred texts is to be correctly worked out.” (Dei Verbum 12).

    [4] “The living tradition of the whole Church must be taken into account along with the harmony which exists between elements of the faith.” ( Dei Verbum 12).

    [5] The spiritual sense, meaning that goes beyond what the human author intended,  is not necessarily found in every text; nor is it arbitrary—it is rooted in a canonical and ecclesial reading of the text.