As a divinity student in 1980 I came across the term ‘exegesis’ in reference to the exegesis of Scripture. It means ‘drawing out’ the meaning of a written text and Scripture in particular.
I was aware of the common problem of people reading into Scripture their own opinion and thus putting into Scripture something that was not there. The danger of this is that it clothes the wrong idea with the full force and authority of Scripture.
For example: ‘A bishop must be … the husband of one wife’ 1Tim 3:2. Instead of reading this in the light of polygamous practice, some have interpreted it as if it reads ‘only one wife during the whole of their lifetime’ so that people who have divorced and remarried are excluded from office, interfering with the lives of multitudes of Christians. There are other ideas read into this verse with similar unhappy results.
Another example is Mat 7:14 ‘ strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leads to life, and few there be that find it.’ This is commonly read and preached as if it says: ‘there will always be few that find it.’ It doesn’t. This is reading one’s own ideas into the text rather than drawing out of the text its full and proper meaning.
This mistake was so common that I realised that I needed a term to describe it, so I coined the term ‘eisegesis’ in the mid-1980s – reading into the text ideas that were not there.
There are multitudes of examples. The Thessalonians misunderstood Paul’s first epistle as if he had said that Christ would return soon, whereas he had said suddenly, so he corrects their mistake in his second epistle 2Th 2:2, a correction that multitudes of biblical documentary makers have still to notice.
Many people read ‘But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup’ 1Cor 11:28 as if it means ‘and therefore let him eat’, whereas the original Greek text shows that it means ‘and in this self-examining manner let him eat’.
The Greek prepositions ex – meaning ‘out of’ – and eis – meaning ‘into’ – give us these two terms:
Exegesis: drawing out of (ex-) a text what is its full and proper meaning.
Eisegesis: reading into (eis-) a text one’s own ideas, prejudices, suppositions and interpretations, which may or may not be scriptural, and which may or may not be in the text.
If we read into Scripture what we already know, we will not learn anything new. But the value of exegesis is that one draws out of Scripture what one may not know – adding to one’s knowledge.
Thus Jesus said: ‘Every scribe who is instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like a man that is a householder, who brings out of his treasure things new and old’ Mat 13:52.
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