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Guidelines for Exegetical Papers

Dennis Bratcher

These are basic guidelines to assist in interpretation of a biblical text, not rules to be followed. While the actual process of analysis of the text may not necessarily follow this order, these steps provide a basic structure to develop and write an exegetical paper. Since the kinds of passages vary widely, some may require a slightly different presentation of the results of exegesis. Also, the individual parts of the format may need to be adjusted to suit the needs of the individual text. For example, some texts will involve more attention to structure while others will require more attention to historical background. However, this format should provide the basic structure of the paper. While these guidelines were formulated specifically with Old Testament passages in mind, they can vbe used for New Testament passages as well. The guidelines in Stuart (Old Testament Exegesis, pp. 21-43) and Fee (New Testament Exegesis, pp. 25-50) will also provide guidance.

As a reminder, the five basic steps in exegesis are: 1) textual/translation, 2) literary context, 3) historical context, 4) theological communication, and 5) application (see A Model for Biblical Exegesis).

1. The Text

This should be a personal translation of the text either from the original languages or from a comparison of several modern English versions (Jerusalem Bible, NRSV, NASB, NEB, NIV,etc. No paraphrases!) to identify any problems of translation which might affect the communication of the text.

This translation should be accompanied by a set of notes, designated by numbers (1, 2, etc.). These should discuss or explain any major textual problems in the Hebrew text and how you (or others) have dealt with them, as well as identifying and discussing any problems of translation where the sense of the text is not adequately communicated by the single English word or phrase. (Note: not all passages will need many notes; some may need many.) If the passage is long (as in some narrative texts), the translation itself may be omitted, but important facets of the text should still be discussed. Don’t include notes simply for information; they should only be used where a problem or ambiguity will affect the communication of the text, or where terms need clarification.

2. The Structure and Composition of the Text


This is an analysis of the physical organization of the unit. This assumes a canonical shape for most passages; that is, that the structure is deliberate and is related to the communication of the passage. The aim here is to begin hearing the text on its own terms.

a. the limits of the unit, the reasons for setting them (as chosen, given, or changed), and how this might affect the communication of the passage. This would include the use of rhetorical devices (inclusio), narrative breaks (time, characters, location), formulaic constructions, or other devices that help define the unit.

b. a sentence outline of the passage identifying major parts, their components, and any other elements that play a role in the structural composition of the unit. This outline should clearly delineate the flow of thought of the passage. Any deliberate structural patterns, such as an acrostic, chiasmus, parallelism, etc., should be made clear here.

c. the function of the parts in the unit as a whole. This should (usually) be a short paragraph summarizing how the unit is organized, and how the various parts of the outline fit together. This will be quite easy in some texts (narratives), and will be more difficult in others (proverbial sayings).

d. points of emphasis in the passage that are highlighted by the structure. What does the analysis of structure begin telling you about what this text is attempting to communicate?


This section should include the identification and relevance of those features which begin to pull the reader (hearer) toward the message of the passage, including:

e. key words and phrases and their significance in the passage. Don’t include words here simply for information; identify key words that directly bear on the communication of the passage, and explain why you think they are key terms. If necessary, you may need to define precisely how the terms are used in the passage, especially if they can have a range of meaning (words like nephesh, mishpat, chesed, ruach, sarks, harmartia, etc.). In some cases, you may need to compare terms in this passage with how they are used elsewhere.

f. compositional techniques such as repetition of words, catch phrases, refrains, etc., and their relevance. Be sure you show how these techniques are used, and why; that is, how are they used as a means of communication.

g. literary devices, such as metaphor, imagery, word play, rhetorical questions, etc., and their significance in communication.

h. the significance of formulaic phrases, such as "Woe!" or "Thus says YHWH" or "this happened so that it might be fulfilled." How are these used in the passage, what effect do they have, and how do they help us understand the communication of the passage?

i. the genre that is most closely associated with these features. This should include not only the identification of the genre, but also how it has been altered and adapted into the present context and its function in the present context. If possible, this should be a specific genre that goes beyond "narrative" or "poetry." However, in many passages, the exact identification of genre, although perhaps interesting, is not crucial to understanding the passage. You will have to determine if it is important or not.

j. other sources that can be identified in the text, such as oral tradition, other documents or quotations, redacted elements, the use or re-use of other biblical traditions, etc., and how this identification affects the communication of the passage. This will vary widely depending on the passage. For example, most Psalms or Romans, will have few redacted elements. However, many prophetic books, historical narrative, and some legal traditions, as well as teh Synoptic Gospels, may have elements that need to be identified. Again, don’t just include this for information; include it only if it helps understand the communication of the passage.

3. Context: The Setting of the Passage


This section should include an analysis of the physical context of the passage within Scripture, most importantly in terms of its immediate placement as well as it relationship to larger literary contexts; the focus here should be on significance for interpretation.

a. the relation of the passage to its immediate literary context. How does the passage fit into the flow of thought of the preceding and following passages? Is this passage integral to a sustained coherent idea, or does it stand somewhat disconnected from its context and function independently? How do preceding or following passages affect how this passage is heard?

b. the role of the passage in the larger composition of which it is a part, either a large literary unit or the book as a whole. How does the passage fit into the overall flow of thought of the larger units of the book? Is there a discernible macro-structure of which this is a part?

c. the place and role of the passage in the entire canon of Scripture. (This is an important step for a full exegesis. However, for most exegetical exercises this is simply beyond the scope of what can be done in a limited amount of time. The lack of experience of most students in doing exegetical work would also make this very time consuming.)


This section should include an analysis of the historical setting of the text (if apparent). An important part of this step is to decide the relative importance of historical issues for interpretation. The focus here should be on significance for interpretation

d. any pertinent data that can be deduced from the passage about the religious, cultural or sociological setting of the passage and its importance for interpretation. Do not include here a lot of descriptive historical material. In most cases it is sufficient simply to reference a period of time. However, some passages will require more specific data than others.

e. comparison of this data with the posited setting of the genre of the passage, as identified above. In most cases, this will not play a large role in the exegesis since most scholars have become pessimistic about their ability accurately to connect genre with a Sitz im Leben. However, if there is some consensus concerning your passage, it may be important to include. Be careful to show the relevance of this information to the text’s message.

f. any specific historical facts about the writing which bear directly on communication, such as author, the purpose of the book (or passage), the audience to which it was addressed, etc. Use only solid historical data here, and only if it is crucial for understanding the passage.

g. the world situation and political setting (if known) at the time of the passage and its significance for interpretation. Caution should be taken to use only well documented data and not speculative reconstructions of history. Again, some texts will require more of this larger context (Elijah narratives, Amos, Gospels) than do others (Psalms, Leviticus, Romans).

4. Communication of the Passage

This section should begin moving toward synthesis, a drawing together of the various parts already identified to see how they function to communicate a message. Be sure that your conclusions in this section are drawn rather directly from your analysis in the previous sections. There should be very little new material here. This is the place to pull together the various aspects of your analysis.

a. identification of the major concerns or issues being addressed in the passage. This should be done through a combination of several elements of your analysis above.

b. the ‘effect’ or impact of the combination of genre (or lack or adaptation of it), literary devices, and structure.

c. identification and summary of motifs highlighted by these features.

d. the relationship between the motifs and the concerns of the passage; that is, how the ideas highlighted by composition, literary devices and structure address the major concerns.

e. the relation of these motifs and concerns to the historical setting of the book; how can the historical setting further clarify the communication of the passage? This should also concern the effect of the passage in that particular historical setting; what did it speak to the audience then?

f. formulation of the communication of the passage into theological affirmations; what the passage says about God, what the passage says about us as human beings, and what the passage says about humanity’s relation to God. These should be short, concise statements of the theological dimensions of the text.

g. the relation between the theological affirmation of the passage and the theological perspectives of other books or traditions within the canon. (Here, too, while this is important for a full understanding of the passage, for most students, this lies beyond their expertise and may be omitted or done very briefly.)

5. Application: The Significance of the Passage

Simply put, this section should answer the question "What difference does it make?" This should be a carefully thought out judgment of the theological value (importance, implications, claim) of the message of the passage as an authoritative part of the canon of Scripture for the community of faith. This will, of necessity, be filtered through one’s own theological views, but should not be of a doctrinal or dogmatic nature. It should be one usage to which the particular passage can be applied in the life and ministry of the church. This should be the central idea around which an expository sermon on the passage would be constructed, although it should not be "sermonic." This is the last step you would take before the actual writing of a sermon. It may be necessary here to identify an "audience" to which your application is aimed.

Factors To Keep In Mind in Writing Exegesis Papers

1. The papers will not be able to show all of the exegetical work and analysis you have done; however, the conclusions should reflect the work. Put the conclusions in the paper with enough supporting evidence to show how you arrived at the conclusions. Don’t make sweeping statements without showing how you arrived at that conclusion.

2. Do not let the papers become simply descriptive. I can read what the passage says; I want to know what it means. Do not include information that does not help communicate the meaning of the passage. For example, the historical background is not important to the message of some passages.

3. These are not to be research papers in the sense of a survey and summary of other people’s opinions on the passage. While commentaries and other resources may be used (at a late stage in the exegetical process), the primary analysis of the passage should be yours, with the Bible as the primary source (inductive study). Again, I can read what commentators think of the passage; I want to know how you see it and how you would apply it. Do not forget to document carefully and accurately when you do borrow other’s ideas.

4. The primary purpose of exegesis is not to go through an academic exercise; exegesis is not an end in itself but is only a means to an end. It is a tool. The goal of exegesis is to gain disciplined insight into a theological truth (or truths) communicated by the Biblical text so that that truth can be applied in the lives of God’s people. Keep that goal in mind: Don’t lose the forest while looking at the trees!

5. Be aware of your own assumptions in doing theological exegesis; that is, know where you are coming from theologically. During the process of analysis, continually ask yourself questions like: Why am I seeing this passage in this way? Am I reading my own ideas into the passage or am I letting it speak on its own? Am I using the passage to argue my own prejudices or am I allowing the word (and the Word) to confront me with truth? Am I forcing the passage to speak to an issue that it really does not address? Am I glossing over problems of interpretation simply because I do not really understand the passage? Am I ignoring a particular interpretation because it does not fit within my ideas? How would people have heard (read) this passage in 400 BC or in AD 90? The primary rule here is: Stick to the text! As much as possible, try to hear the text on its own terms.

6. If we take the Bible seriously as God’s revealed word, there is always a dimension of interpretation that falls under the ministry of the Holy Spirit. While this fact is no excuse for inadequate or sloppy analysis from a human perspective, it requires a certain sensitivity and openness from the very beginning and at all stages of the process of interpretation. Always begin the interpretive task with a prayer for God’s leadership in your work: "Lord, help me understand!" And then as you do your work, listen for the text to speak His word, again!

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2018, Dennis Bratcher - All Rights Reserved
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