On Eisegesis

” . . . [E]ven the most rigorously exegetical readers are eisegetical, or might be called so by someone more rigorously exegetical than thou. Everyone brings information to the text that is not in the text, and seeks to illuminate the text with light from outside. They fill in the gaps between words and sentences to produce a whole picture. That is perfectly fine and, I have been arguing, inescapable. What is not fine is the pretense that literal reading does not involve this process, the claim that a reading is doing nothing but getting what is there.

“It is quite common, for instance, to suggest that the setting for John 9 is in the temple precincts, and that this narrative forms the climax to a series of incidents during the Feast of Tabernacles. This seems perfectly reasonable, and illuminates several details of John’s account. But the fact is that John 9 nowhere says that Jesus is in the temple, or that it is the Feast of Booths. That has to be plucked up from the context and read into John 9. Such a procedure looks sleekly scientific, grammatical-historical, and literal. If one suggests that Jesus working with the clay should be read in the light of Old Testament potter-and-clay passages (as I will below), many would cry foul, or, more likely, ‘eisegete!’ In principle, though, there is no difference between reading the Feast of Booths into John 9 and reading Jeremiah 18 into John 9. The fact that one text is further away than the other appears to make on literal and the other arbitrary. But in principle, it is the same procedure, and Jeremiah 18 is no further from John than, say, Homer is from Virgil. Certainly Jeremiah 18 is at least as close to John as the Jamnia Council, that symbolic marker of the parting of the ways of Jews and Christians, which is often proposed as the master historical context for John’s narrative. Studying historical context, extrabiblical usage of words, archaeologythat all looks scientific and scholarly, but it is just as much eisegesis as apostolic allegory.”

Peter Leithart, Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2009), pages 116-7.

Allow me only to say that this is a fantastic book that should be read by everyone.

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6 responses to “On Eisegesis

  1. And when the “Jamnia Council” itself turns out to be an invention of eisegesis which in turn is used to explain the background of the Fourth Gospel, we end up in a delicious little mess!

    That sounds like a good book. Thanks for the notice.

    Living in Berkeley, I love it when people stick it to The (Hermeneutically Inept) Man.

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  2. It is a very good book and I would recommend it to everyone, but like all of Leithart’s book it has at least one crucial flaw. His idea that events “change” because future interpreters see them differently is absurd. If true, we merely await some future event that will turn the Resurrection into something else. Only Modernist say we ever got it right in the first place, such that would have to say the event itself changes with time. A slim nugget of truth from the Post-Modern camp is that we never escape our subjectivism. We can only trust God that he has spoken objective truth to us, never that we have found it ourselves. Still, an excellent book.

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  3. Kevin> Yes, precisely! I think that’s part of Leithart’s point there too — note his nuanced language when speaking of “Jamnia.”

    And you’re quite welcome, of course!

    Mike> Indeed — and also in his article The Case for Calvinistic Hermeneutics, for that matter.

    Nick> Get to it, then! It is really worth your while.

    Robert> Fair enough, I suppose, though I haven’t read Leithart enough to fully grasp his place on the debate over the issue you bring up or to form an opinion on his broader stance.

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  4. Pingback: Week in Review: 10.01.10 | Near Emmaus

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