GRAMMATICAL-HISTORICAL EXEGESIS
of the BIBLE

Bruce Terry


The purpose in grammatical-historical exegesis is to understand to the extent possible the original intention of the author. Although it is impossible to get in the author's head and know for certain what he meant, by studying background and grammatical conventions it is often possible to come to a similar system of shared meanings and thus correctly infer the author's intent. The order of the following steps may vary from text to text.

  1. Love the truth (2 Thess. 2:10-12), want to do God's will (John 7:17), continue in Christ's word (John 8:31-32), ask God for wisdom (James 1:5), study daily (Acts 17:11), and handle the scriptures rightly (2 Tim. 2:15).

  2. Recognize your own pre-understanding, if any, to help control any bias you may already have. Approach the study with as much of an open mind as possible and be willing to change previous ideas.

  3. Read the passage in question over several times, including the greater context (at least the chapter it is in; preferable the whole book). Read it in as many translations as you can find, including a literal translation (such as the American Standard Version). Read it in the original if you can; if not, consult a Greek-English or Hebrew-English interlinear and read it in that way. If you have some knowledge of the original language, make your own translation.

  4. List all the possible meanings that you can think of, even those that seem obviously wrong. List all the areas that may cause problems of interpretations. Look at the problems associated with possible meanings and try to think of possible solutions. Commentaries may be used to learn possible meanings, but it is dangerous to be influenced by them at this point in making a decision about what the passage means.

  5. Consult the footnotes of the UBS and Nestle-Aland Greek New Testaments and BHS Hebrew Old Testament for textual variations. List the manuscript evidence for various readings and note the textual families and ages of the manuscripts. For the New Testament, consult Metzger's Textual Commentary and/or Terry's Student's Guide. Critical commentaries may also be used for both Testaments. Try to determine what might have caused scribes to change various readings. Decide upon the most likely original text. Vary from the experts' opinion only with caution and good reason.

  6. Study the historical background of the author and his intended readers, to the extent that this can be determined. This includes trying to determine the author, his readers, the date and circumstances of the writing, information about any individuals and places named in the text, social customs, and the world view and cultural facts of the people of that time and place. Study the events of the historical background of the text and its historical foreground as well (i.e. the events that happened before and after the writing).

  7. Try to identify the literary type (genré) and text-type (narrative, expository, hortatory, persuasive, procedural) of the text. Try to identify the characteristics of such a work and the extent to which this text follows standard conventions at the time and place of writing.

  8. Outline the passage. If it is only part of a larger text, outline the entire text. Look for patterns of repetition (such as parallelism, cycles, and chiasmus) and progression of thought. Summarize the passage and any greater text of which it is a part. Be alert for any symbolism and figures of speech which may occur, such as similes, metaphors, allusions, personification, metonymy (associated thing), synecdoche (part for whole or whole for part), overstatement, and understatement. Give special care when working with poetry (note how word order and choice is affected).

  9. Analyze the grammatical structure of the passage. Identify nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and other parts of speech. Note the tense, voice, person, and number of the verbs and gender, case, and number of nouns and adjectives (Freiburg's Analytical Greek New Testament can help). Identify main clauses and dependent clauses, with the subjects and predicates of each. Diagram the sentences if necessary. Decide what modifies what. Try to explain any unusual occurrences of word order. Be aware of any ellipsis or other kinds of missing text, which the author expected his readers to infer. Do this step in Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic if at all possible; use an interlinear if you must. The only English translation that approaches usability for this step is the American Standard Version.

  10. Analyze the vocabulary of the passage. Look up the meaning of key words in dictionaries, lexicons, and wordbooks. Use a concordance (an analytical or Greek-English/Hebrew-English is best if you cannot use a Greek or Hebrew concordance) to study all the occurrences of the key words and phrases of the passage in the passage, the greater text, other writings of the author, and the literature of the time. Try to determine the range of meaning which each word can have, and its meaning as limited by context in the passage under study. Use the lexicons in the original language if possible (Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich-Danker [BAG or AGD] is best for the New Testament; Brown-Driver-Briggs [BDB] is best for the Old Testament); if not, use books such as Vine's Expository Dictionary.

  11. Study the context of the passage in any greater text or collection of texts. Consider any parallel passages. Check quotations and allusions to the Old Testament. Look for other passages on the same general topic. Understand an ambiguous passage in the light of clearer ones. However, note that a passage is not ambiguous just because it contradicts any pre-understandings that you may have had of it. Check to see whether seemingly contradictory statements may be talking about the same general subject but with different directions of emphasis. Not all Bible subjects are so simple as to be discussed from only one perspective.

  12. Pay special attention to the emphasis. What is the author's main point? The meaning of a smaller passage should not contradict the meaning of a larger text, unless the author is using it for illustration of an idea with which he disagrees. Pay special attention to any quoted material, especially as to whether the author agrees or disagrees with what is being said.

  13. Consider prevailing thought of the time of writing in the field in which the writing occurs and try to decide whether this text is saying something similar to or different from it.

  14. Note the answers to the questions what, where, when, who, why, and how as relates to the passage. Especially ask: 1) Who spoke it? (Christ, Paul, Satan, Job's friend); 2) To whom was it spoken? (Christians, Jews, Noah); and 3) What were the circumstances? (a flood coming).

  15. As the next to last step, consult what others have said about the passage. Commentaries can be consulted at his point. Make any revisions to your views as necessary, but do not accept something just because an "expert" says it means something. After all this work, you are something of an expert yourself. However, be critical of any conclusion that you come to which no one else holds.

  16. Write up the results of your study. An exegesis is not complete until it is in written form. Often writing helps to clarify one's thoughts.

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Last updated March 21, 2003.
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