A stray comment on the internet posed the question: which comes first, exegesis or hermeneutics?

I had to think about this for a minute.

Because admittedly, exegesis and hermeneutics are different.

The dictionary will tell us that they both have something to do with “interpretation” – but not quite the same thing. My dictionary defines “exegesis” as “critical explanation of the meaning of words and passages in a literary work, especially Biblical exposition or interpretation.” It defines “hermeneutics” as “the science or art of interpretation, especially of the Scriptures.”

This might seem like a somewhat subtle difference. Seeing it in action probably requires looking beyond the dictionary, to how people use the terms in real life.

I’ve had a couple of exegesis classes, and a hermeneutics class. Assuming we get to count classes as real life, the difference between those classes might be instructive.

The exegesis classes tried to teach us how to answer questions like:

  • What version of this text should we use, in light of the various issues with the text? Is one version more likely to be correct than another?
  • When do we think this text was written? What did these words mean in that context? What cultural, social, political information would help us understand what we’re reading? (e.g., What’s “barley” and what’s “the barley harvest” in early Iron Age Canaan, and when would that have been, and why would that have mattered for Ruth and Naomi?)
  • Where else is this particular word used? What does it mean there? What does that tell us about what it might or could mean here? (e.g., What’s a goel?)
  • What’s the larger literary context for this passage? What function does this passage perform in the larger narrative (or, work of literature)? What figures of speech does the author seem to be using? Is this poetry or prose? Is this a metaphor? How’s it working here?
  • Who edited this? What was going on when they did that, what issues did the editor probably have on his/her mind, and how might that editorial agenda have affected this text and what it means?

Etc. It’s hard to draw up an exhaustive list of exegetical questions, but you get the idea.

The hermeneutics class tried to get us to think about a different set of questions:

  • What’s a text? Is it an expression of the inside of an author’s mind, or heart, or does it also, or instead, reflect the time and place in which it was written? How? Or is it something else altogether?
  • Where does the meaning of a text reside? In the mind of the author? In the text itself? In the interaction of the text with its reader? Or maybe a little bit of all of that?
  • What’s the relationship of meaning to context? Does a passage of text take on its meaning only in relationship to “the whole” or does it have a stand-alone meaning? What’s “the whole” – the whole chapter? The whole book? The whole world in which the author was writing? The whole world that includes that little cultural world plus the world of the reader reading the text? Where does it stop – or does it?

Etc. Again, it might be hard to draw up an exhaustive list of hermeneutical questions.

Hopefully, we can see that the hermeneutical questions and the exegetical ones differ, and have some idea of how they differ.

The exegetical questions probably seem more … “nitty-gritty,” we might say, or “practical” or “concrete.”

We might be tempted to say the hermeneutical questions are more theoretical. It seems more precise to me, though, to say they have to do with our assumptions or presuppositions about the texts we work with. That is – we can think about those assumptions and presuppositions somewhat abstractly, theoretically. But those same assumptions and presuppositions are also always in operation as we are actually reading actual texts.

For instance, every so often I have to sort mail. In a way it’s an exegetical task: I glance at the size and shape of the piece of mail, I determine its genre (newspaper, magazine, letter, …), I grasp the meaning of individual words and pictures. But it’s also a hermeneutical task. Some mail I toss in the trash can unopened, because it has the look of “advertising,” for something I don’t care about. Some of it I recognize immediately as “a bill,” which I pretty automatically assume concerns me, is important and imperative, and needs to be treated in a special way. My favorite magazine I set aside (if I have that much self-discipline) for a good long read after I’ve finished the bills.

That is, I have a whole set of assumptions and presuppositions about text (hermeneutics) that are in operation when I sort mail, according to my on-the-fly interpretation of the specific words, logos, other marks, etc. that are on those physical bits of text (exegesis).

A passage of scripture is not a stack of mail, of course, but when I sit down to read the Bible, I also always have in mind some idea of what I’m looking at (“This text is …”) and how I’m supposed to deal with something like that (“Obey divine commands …”) as I wield my knowledge of marks on paper and definitions of terms and how metaphors work and so on and so forth.

And then, of course, as I do that, it may challenge my assumptions and presuppositions about this text (“God say whaaaat? …”) or how I’m supposed to deal with this text (“So, should I still try to get in on that collection for the saints in Jerusalem? …”).

[Along those lines – I appreciated this observation that there aren’t too many Bible memes for Job 2:9, which pretty much makes the point that not everything in the Bible is … shall we say, “road map” material.]

All of which is to say that it seems to me like exegesis and hermeneutics are a lot more like chicken and egg than they are like Step 1 and Step 2.

Almost like the professors meant it when they told us about the “hermeneutical circle.”


Bibles on a library shelf