"By the sweat of your face shall you get bread to eat,
Until you return to the ground, from which you were taken."
                                                            Genesis 3:19

Departmental Exegesis Methodology
(adapted from John Donahue, S.J.)


The Initial Steps

1.         Do a careful reading of the text. If you know Greek, read it in this language. Pay attention to problems of punctuation and textual variants. If you do not read Greek, compare translations. This is a way of seeing the different possible meanings in the text. It will also alert you to places where there may be problems in the text.

2.         Try to formulate, in a preliminary way, what appear to be the main points of the passage.

3.         List the points in the passage where the translation is problematic, if there are any such. Or, if you are using translations, note those points where the translations most decisively disagree, and mark them for special study.

4.         Identify what seem to you to be the key words and concepts of the passage.

5.         Formulate some preliminary questions about the passage. Begin to look at secondary literature, particularly commentaries and scholarly journal articles.

6.         Ask where a passage comes in the total gospel/letter/book.

7.         Ask how it fits in or is related to similar passages in the synoptic gospels. Use of a concordance is most helpful here.

8.         Study the “background” of the text. See if there are any parallels or influences from the Hebrew Bible or other intertestamental books.

9.         Question the “pre-understanding” which the human biblical author may bring to the text. What does he presuppose as the common fund of Christian wisdom and experience?

10.       Study the “foreground” of the text, or its historical context: the context of the problems addressed and the situation faced in the community to which John is writing.

11.       What, as much as you can deduce, is the religious meaning of the text as heard by the first hearers? Exegesis is the attempt to say in my language what a text from another period of history said to its original hearers.

12.       Suggest a religious application of the text today. Hermeneutics is the attempt to say what a text from another period of history says to hearers today.

Practical Considerations:

1.         Organize your thoughts:

a.   Determine your major points and then arrange your material to prove them.

b.   Give background information first.

c.   Describe the various interpretations of the text including those with whom you disagree.

d.   Be clear about why you agree with one scholar over another; give clear conclusions.

e.   Make sure each paragraph and each section leads to the next so that there is a flow of ideas, with one idea leading into the next; don’t be scattered and unorganized!

f.    At the end, go back and delete anything not pertinent to understanding your passage.

2.         Proofread your paper:

a.   Make sure of the spelling of your words – do not rely solely on the spell checker because meat and meet are both spelled correctly, but one does not “meat a friend” or “eat meet.”

b.   Do not use double negatives.

c.   Be consistent in your use of tenses (don’t jump between past and present).

d.   Avoid split infinitives (e.g., wrong: to boldly go…better: to go boldly).

e.   Make sure each sentence is a complete sentence with a subject and a verb.

f.    Organize your thoughts into intelligent sentences and indented paragraphs of reasonable length.

g.   Use quotation marks whenever you use someone else’s words.

h.   Indent quotations of more than four complete lines.

i.    Do not underline anything: for headings use slightly larger text or bold face; for emphasis use italics; books and journals require italics and titles of journal articles quotation marks.

j.    To be clear, to demonstrate that you understand the scholars you are referencing, the bulk of the paper should be in your own words, which means more than just changing a word or two and pretending that the wording is your own.

k.   If you’re not a native English speaker have a native English speaker proofread

3.         Use MLA style for full footnotes (not endnotes and not parenthetical) and bibliography!

a.   If you don’t know what this means, go to the library and look it up.

b.   That’s part of your job as a student

c.   Recommended: use as many journal articles as allows you to know where scholars disagree, and to present a real argument.

d.   One footnote can contain the works of many different scholars who all agree.

4.         Demonstrate the following:

a.   that you are well educated and can take an intelligent position and defend it in a scholarly fashion;

b.   that you understand how to draw meaning out of a biblical text in a scholarly fashion, then integrate your technical knowledge with pastoral needs in your homily;

c.   that you are a person of both profound faith and intelligence (The church cannot afford spiritual but ignorant priests or leaders ─ see St. Theresa de Avila)

5.         Grading

a.   Give your educated interpretation on the meaning(s) of their passages, but only after laying a foundation of what the scholars say about the passage first

b.   Thus, you must refer to the scholars first.

c.   To get a “C” use commentaries intelligently and report what the scholars say (a collegiate level of engagement)

d.   To get a “B” use scholarly journals intelligently and both report and then comment on what the scholars say (a basic graduate level of engagement)

e.   To get an “A” also include the learned debates between scholars and resolving the issues themselves, intelligently

6.         Final form:

a.   Include a title page ─ it gives the professor a place to make comments.

b.   Give one inch margins everywhere, 12 point Times/Times Roman font for text; titles can be slightly larger or in bold; 10-12 pages of text, excluding title page and bibliography.

c.   After you have written the bulk of your paper, go back and write an “Introduction” that briefly explains your paper. (For consideration: If your “Introduction” does not flow or make sense, perhaps your paper doesn’t either.)

d.   Include every work cited, and only those cited, in a bibliography, in alphabetical order according to author’s last name, divided between books and journal articles. Do not include works in your bibliography works that you do not refer to in a footnote.