Is Exegesis Always Good and Eisegesis Always Bad?
Bible interpretation is one of my favorite topics. If Christians should spend time studying the Bible (and we should), it’s equally important that we know how best to interpret the Bible.
When we study this topic, we quickly encounter big words beginning with…
Hermeneutics: The art or science of interpretation.
There are two primary ways of doing hermeneutics, including…
Exegesis: Drawing meaning out of the text.
Eisegesis: Putting meaning into the text.
That was easy, right?
For the purpose of this article, we need to have no doubt about this, so let’s consider the root meanings. Both words start with the Greek word hegesthai, meaning “to lead, guide.” The prefixes are ex (“out”) and eis (“in, into”), respectively. So again, when doing exegesis, we extract meaning from a text. The opposite of that, eisegesis, is adding meaning to a text.
Exegesis looks like the only right approach to take, doesn’t it? After all, when it comes to the Bible, we want to draw meaning out of the text. We should never read into the Bible any idea from outside the Bible, right? (Note: This is a loaded question, which I’ll soon answer).
Most Christian scholars agree that we should never do eisegesis. This is evident in the following quotes and definitions:
eisegesis occurs when a reader imposes his/her interpretation into and onto the text. – Bereans Desk
eisegesis: Reading into the Biblical text what isn’t there in order to conform the interpretation of the text to certain preconceived ideas or theories. – Agape Bible Study
eisegesis: Is the antonym for exegesis, which means reading into a text something that simply is not there. – The Catholic Treasure Chest
eisegesis: the interpretation of a text (as of the Bible) by reading into it one’s own ideas – Merriam-Webster
eisegesis: misinterpreting a text by reading into the text one’s own ideas – Definition-Of
eisegesis : personal interpretation of a text (especially of the Bible) using your own ideas – Princeton’s WordNet
…While exegesis draws out the meaning from a text in accordance with the context and discoverable meaning of its author, eisegesis occurs when a reader imposes his or her interpretation into and onto the text. As a result, exegesis tends to be objective when employed effectively while eisegesis is regarded as highly subjective. – Wikipedia
eisegesis: An interpretation, especially of Scripture, that reflects the personal ideas or viewpoint of the interpreter; reading something into a text that isn’t there. – Wiktionary
eisegesis… is the interpretation of a passage based on a subjective, non-analytical reading. The word eisegesis literally means “to lead into,” which means the interpreter injects his own ideas into the text, making it mean whatever he wants. – GotQuestions?org
As you can see, Christian, and even secular sources seem to agree that eisegesis is always wrong. But is that really the case?
We need to know for certain because the accusation of “doing eisegesis” is being used not only against cult members, but also against Christians. I’ve been accused of doing eisegesis simply because I used “unrelated” scriptures to shed light on another verse.
Interestingly, the idea that we should compare scripture with scripture is another widely accepted rule of hermeneutics. Does that contradict the rule which says we should never do eisegesis? After all, my critic was correct in the sense that I did impose meaning on a text from an outside source. A verse in one book of the Bible is external to those that we find in other books.
This brings us to the problem that comes with the idea of condemning all eisegesis. The idea makes no sense because…
We ALL Do Eisegesis!
Even though we shouldn’t read anything into the Bible that is unrelated to it, a surprising number of things may be related to any given scripture passage.
The fact is, we all get vast amounts of information about the Bible from outside sources—so much that without it, we could hardly understand the Bible. We readily bring this information to the Bible, even when we don’t know for sure whether or not it is entirely reliable. Here are some examples of…
Things We Read Into Our Bibles:
Whenever we read the Bible and think, “I’ve felt exactly the same way as this person,” we’re effectively reading ourselves into the Bible. How can we be certain that our own life experience is like that of anyone in the Bible? We cannot. Nonetheless, God wants us to relate our personal feelings and experiences to those of Bible characters (Jas. 5:17).
We may also read about God speaking to someone in the Bible, and feel as if God is saying that to us. “No,” you may think. “He’s not saying exactly that, but something like that.” What? Didn’t you just change the words and intent of the Bible to selfishly apply it to your own circumstances? That is tongue in cheek because I believe in doing that myself, as the Spirit leads me.
Bible translators sometimes do a little eisegesis to help us associate our knowledge and experiences with the Bible. For instance, “Whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (GW) has alternately been translated, “Everyone who calls, ‘Help, God!’ gets help” (MSG). Is salvation the same as getting help with something? That may be an extreme example, but my point is that every Bible translation will inevitably contain some eisegesis.
As we all know, the Bible didn’t come with its own maps. The Bible seldom provides extensive detail when describing locations. Sometimes it describes landmarks that no longer exist, such as a well or a tree. That’s got to be pretty frustrating for map makers.
Most of our geographical knowledge comes from historical maps, local stories, and archaeological digs. The people who make Bible maps try to place cities on them, even when they can’t be certain about the exact locations. You may even see the Garden of Eden plotted on a map. (I might know where the Garden of Eden was located, but many people have their theories).
Most of what we know about Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and Greece doesn’t come from the Bible, but it does allow us to better understand the Bible. People decide which information is both accurate and relevant to the Bible, and which isn’t.
Non-Christians usually trust archaeology more than the Bible, but even Christians sometimes rely too heavily on the opinions of archaeologists. Dr. R. Albert Mohler described archaeology as “largely a matter of historical reconstruction, often with little actual evidence.”
The best source of learning about the language of the Bible is the Bible itself. Our lexicons and other linguistic aids routinely use extra-biblical information. This is needful, but it can lead to misunderstandings. In particular, the early Christians didn’t always use Greek words in the same way as their Roman neighbors.
Reconstructions of biblical timelines may come from a combination of textual analysis and historical research. In any case, scholars can’t always agree on when things happened, or in what order. For instance, some say that Jesus was crucified on a Thursday, and others that it was on a Friday. Whatever the truth may be, these scholars have to do eisegesis since exegesis doesn’t provide all the answers.
The most prominent example of Bible symbolism is typology. For example, you’ve probably been taught that Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac was intended by God to point the way forward to Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf. What you may not know is that this is only an assumption, based on parallels between two very different events. It’s not based on any literal statement in the Bible. I don’t dispute the interpretation, but we should acknowledge that it’s based on eisegesis.
Another form of symbolic analysis is numerology. If we state, rather uncontroversially, that the number seven represents completion or perfection in the Bible, we’re doing eisegesis because the Bible doesn’t literally say that.
The “Bible code,” which allegedly reveals secret messages in the Scriptures, is in my opinion, an improper means of doing eisegesis.
Finally, we find many types and symbols in prophetic texts such as Revelation. Anyone who wants to understand prophecy must do a great deal of eisegesis. Nonetheless, God didn’t put prophecy in the Bible to confound us, but to inform us.
Someone may reply that if they have properly interpreted Revelation, they will only have done exegesis. This seems like a self-justifying way to use that word because their hermeneutical method will inevitably look like eisegesis.
We all do this with certain verses in the Bible. For instance, Mark 16:18 says we won’t be hurt if we pick up serpents in our hands or drink deadly poison. Fortunately, few Christians take this literally, as if it were a command from God. Instead, we do eisegesis by completely leaving the chapter and comparing this verse with verses such as Matthew 4:7.
Many Christians, though they claim to reject eisegesis, like to read science into the Bible. They try to reconcile Genesis 1 with science, either through creation science or through a progressive creation theory.
Along with many other Christians, I think both groups are reading science into a chapter in which God never intended to provide a scientific account. The core problem is not in using an interpretive aid such as in this case, science, but in failing to recognize that the text doesn’t support a scientific reading. Therefore, instead of accusing my brethren of doing “eisegesis,” I try to show them the poetry and symbolism in the text (see Part 5 of Return to Genesis).
Some Christians are always trying to associate Bible prophecies with current events such as things happening in the Middle East or the alleged identity of the Antichrist. In some ways, “prophecy experts” such as Tim LaHaye (author of the Left Behind novels) set the stage for the Gulf War by demonizing Saddam Hussein and his so-called “Babylon.” Tragically, they weren’t talking about wicked people, but (relatively) innocent Iraqis, many of whom had never heard the gospel. This is definitely not how God wants us to do eisegesis.
Study Bible Notes
We’re all “guilty” of having done eisegesis by reading explanatory notes in our Bibles. The notes can shed much light on the text, or may only give us the opinions of fallible men. Some Christians don’t study the Bible apart from a Bible study book or guide.
At times, we all need teachers to explain the Bible (Neh. 8:7-8, Matt. 28:19-20). However, they tend to give us a lot of extraneous information, which amounts to eisegesis.
Why We Need Both Exegesis and Eisegesis
God wants us to think when we read the Bible. Thinking involves interactions such as getting knowledge and impressions from the text, and bringing questions, ideas, and outside knowledge to it.
Extra-biblical information can definitely help us understand the Bible. When we do research to learn more about the Bible, we fulfill the command to “rightly divide the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). Moreover, we naturally want to know how the Bible addresses topics that interest us, and God wants to answer our questions.
The stated goal of exegesis is to draw out the meaning of a text. However, we can’t expect to do nothing other than receive from God and His Word. The spiritual life consists of both giving and receiving.
As we study the Bible, we should be aware of multiple voices in the dialog, including the entire Bible (not just the passage being studied), the Holy Spirit, other believers, and sometimes even non-Christian voices. When we bring multiple resources to bear on a scripture passage, we do eisegesis by bringing information to the text. This helps us draw the best possible interpretation out of the text, which is exegesis.
Now that we’ve learned about the value of eisegesis, what about exegesis? Is that a nearly infallible source of information, as we’ve been taught?…
In fact, we can make mistakes even if we only seek to approach the Bible with a blank slate and draw information out of it.
First, nobody is a perfectly blank slate. Who would we be trying to kid? We all bring our own baggage and assumptions to the Bible.
Secondly, we could easily misunderstand a scripture passage by failing to do eisegesis. For example, we might need to know background information such as how, in Jesus’ time, the Jews despised the Roman occupation. The New Testament doesn’t go into much detail on that, but still it’s an important contextual element.
In addition, as conservative Bible scholars know, exegesis in the form of textual criticism has led to many mistaken assumptions about the Bible. Evangelicals have had a history of problems with exegetes ranging from liberal scholars to atheists. This supposedly infallible approach to the Bible has led to:
- Dissatisfaction with manuscript variations, however minor and inconsequential.
- The assumption that a “redactor” compiled and edited the Pentateuch.
- The rejection of some books of the Bible as alleged forgeries.
- The assumption that the gospels and Revelation were written after 70 AD since the authors clearly knew about the Roman conquest of Jerusalem.
Clearly, we have no reason to presume that eisegesis is always inferior and leads to error, and that exegesis is always a superior and more enlightening way of doing hermeneutics. Such assumptions are easily disproven when we look at the history of biblical research.
I, as much as anyone, would love to have the original manuscripts of the Bible, along with a perfect understanding of the original languages. However, even that vast exegetical knowledge would be incomplete apart from eisegetical information about culture, geography, and history, as well as a relationship with God and an understanding of people and other divine creations.
Here’s a question for any Christian who says we should only do exegesis: Does the Holy Spirit do eisegesis? To clarify, when we read a scripture passage and the Lord speaks to us about it, doesn’t that knowledge come from a source that is external to the text itself? That source is the Holy Spirit, Who dwells not in Bibles, but in human hearts.
With regard to eisegesis, it’s not about whether or not someone has read something into the text, but whether or not that something ought to have been read into the text. If someone appears to have erred, we shouldn’t use a meaningless label like “eisegete.” Instead, we should say, “I think you have read something into the text that may not belong there. May I explain?” This could open the door to a fruitful dialog with the person.
We now know that misinterpretation and eisegesis are two different things. People can make errors in eisegesis, but they can also make exegetical errors.
I think the worst thing we can say about eisegesis is that on balance, we may have to be a little more careful with that than with exegesis. However, we should always be very respectful of God’s Word, and extremely careful about how we interpret it.
Why the Language We Use Matters
Someone reading this may not fully understand why I object to the way Christians use (actually, abuse) the words exegesis and eisegesis. After all, they may say that language is a human creation, and that we can define words however we want. There’s no rule that says we always have to be faithful to the original root meanings behind words.
As I will explain, there are multiple problems with this objection…
First, we’re never free to do as we please without suffering the consequences of unethical actions. Even in how we define and use words, God requires that we be morally honest and upright.
Second, nothing is neutral, including language. Some words, as people define and use them, are good, and some are bad. The worst words have falsehoods embedded in them. As George Carlin said, “By and large, language is a tool for concealing the truth.”
George Orwell described the connection between control of a language and political control in his novel, 1984. He observed that language itself can corrupt our thoughts. He also wrote:
Political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.
Thirdly, while the meaning of words can stray from the original roots, the existing definitions assume that the present meaning remains strongly connected to the Greek language origins. That is, exegesis is drawing meaning from a text, and eisegesis is reading something into a text. Incidentally, eisegesis is a relatively new word, which was intentionally created with attention to the Greek language and to the word exegesis.
My point is that, given the root meanings that we all acknowledge, the added moral judgments—about exegesis always being good and eisegesis always being bad—fail to hold up under scrutiny.
This leads to my fourth point. Knowing that words can be good or bad, and that they can either reveal or conceal truth, the words exegesis and eisegesis are highly deceptive in the way they’re being used. This should be evident from what I’ve written above, but let’s review some of the reasons one by one. The existing definitions imply that:
- Good Christians don’t do eisegesis. Utterly false! Let’s not flatter ourselves (John 9:41).
- Eisegesis is always wrong. Also false!
- Whoever reads their own ideas into the Bible is always in error. False!
- Exegesis is the only proper way to interpret the Bible. False!
- There’s an in-group of Christians who properly interpret the Bible by doing exegesis. At the opposite extreme, there are people who are mistaken because they do eisegesis. Wrong again! Sweeping generalizations such as these ought to be explained and defended, not permanently enshrined in words and their misleading definitions.
The original Greek meanings of eisegesis and exegesis have been abused and distorted. Both words have been politicized and turned into falsehoods. This has led to pride, misunderstandings, judgmentalism, and division.
Since we all do eisegesis when we study the Bible, we should be honest about it. We can’t question the kind of eisegesis we’re doing if we’re in denial about the fact that we’re doing it. Eisegesis can certainly be a questionable activity, but let’s use this word to question ourselves, not only to accuse other people while justifying ourselves with the word exegesis.
As a Christian, I always want to defend Christianity. However, let’s face it. Religion, including Christianity, often looks like a racket. I’m not talking about something that the world might see as outrageous, such as sex scandals or warmongering, though those things are also shameful. The readiness on the part of many Evangelicals to label and condemn fellow believers bothers me as much as anything else.
Speaking of which, another word that conservative Christians routinely abuse is the word “literal.” Christians who claim to interpret the Bible literally often fault other Christians for not interpreting the Bible as they do. However, we all make decisions about what parts of the Bible to take literally or non-literally. Nobody takes every word in the Bible literally. Thus, anyone who idly accuses another of not taking a Bible passage literally begs the question of whether or not it ought to be taken literally. I have explained why I am opposed to biblical literalism here, and also in this post.
The most responsible approach to any text is to, as much as we can, view it through the eyes of the original audience. The Bible isn’t a science or history textbook, but is made up of literature. Accordingly, no Christian deserves to be caricatured as an “allegorist” or “spiritualizer” simply for having found metaphors or types in the Bible.
Labels are needed sometimes, and we do find some in the Bible. However, we need to be careful how we describe other people lest we become guilty of slander. Here are some more terms that Christians often use against one another in a pejorative manner:
allegorist, antinomian, anti-Semite, apostate, Arminian, Bible thumper, bigot, Calvinist, complementarian, creationist, egalitarian, eisegete, evolutionist, false teacher, feminist, frozen chosen, fundamentalist, fundy, Gnostic, heretic, holy roller, homophobe, hypocrite, legalist, liberal, misogynist, Pharisee, racist, sexist, spiritualizer, theocrat, Zionist
Some of these labels may accurately describe some people, but that doesn’t mean you or I will ever meet someone who can be perfectly stereotyped. Every person is an individual who deserves to be heard and understood.
It’s intellectually lazy to use labels instead of arguments, and it’s hypocritical to criticize others for doing the same things that we do ourselves.
We’ve learned that the label “eisegete” is intended to brand false teachers, only to learn that eisegesis is often necessary to understand the Bible. Every Christian does eisegesis by adding outside information to the Bible, and we all “spiritualize” some scriptures. It takes more humility to admit that we sometimes read ideas into Scripture from external sources than to claim (falsely) that all our theology comes straight from the Bible.
I pray that one day, people will find more truthful definitions when they look up words like exegesis and eisegesis in dictionaries. Then, as George Orwell would surely have agreed, we’ll also enjoy having less thought control, and greater freedom of thought.