I have spent the last two weeks working on two different exegetical papers, one for my New Testament class and one for Hebrew Bible (what we used to call Old Testament). An exegesis is a close reading. It was some of the most intense reading and writing that I've ever done. You might say, "Wait, didn't you earn a Ph.D. in British Literature? And you didn't do the same kind of close reading?"
No, we really didn't. It was a different kind of close reading, and many of us did more close readings of the secondary sources than the primary texts. I felt that twinge during the past week when I looked at secondary sources that explored the book of Joshua. I thought, I'll never be able to look at a critical mass of these secondary sources. Then I reminded myself that a review of secondary sources was not part of this assignment.
Let me describe the process for the exegesis for my New Testament class. From a choice of 3 passages, I chose Matthew 3:1-17, the passage that describes the appearance of John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus. Step 1 was to write about myself and what attracted me to the passage.
In Step 2, we turned to the text for our first close reading. We made a list of “'speed bumps'—details that slow you down, demand your attention, evoke strong feelings, seem out of place or confusing—such as specific words, actions, characters, situations." I made a list that included items like these:
--What made John the Baptist so appealing to his contemporaries? It sounds like they would have had to make significant effort to see/hear him. What made the people go out to the wilderness?
--Do others see the dove? Do others hear the voice?
Step 3 was a different kind of close reading of the passage. We chose three different translations, and we had instructions about the spectrum of translations needed. One needed to be a word for word translation (I used the NASB), one thought for thought (I used the CEV), and one in the middle (I used the NRSV). I looked at them side by side, and happily, the Bible Gateway site makes this easy. I found the word choices fascinating, and I could have spent twenty pages noting and analyzing those choices. But again, that would not have been the purpose of this exegetical assignment.
We outlined the passage and made a list of key words.
We then did work with the concordance, and again, I felt fortunate to be doing this in a time of so many online tools that are free. I could lose the rest of my life wandering through Blue Letter Bible. We chose one word; I chose "wilderness." We looked to see meanings of the word in Greek and where it shows up elsewhere.
For my New Testament exegetical assignment, we then moved to step 4, which was a comparison of the same story in a different gospel, so I looked at Mark 1:2-11. We looked at the order of events in each gospel, and at where the story falls in each gospel, what's going on before and after the story. We looked at the differences in each version. We thought about why we had each gospel and what the story provides to each gospel.
Then we wrote a conclusion, met as a class, met in small groups, and then wrote another conclusion. It was intense all along the way, and I learned a lot, not only from my own work, but from having the small group meeting with my classmates who studied the same passage. It was a passage that I have read and heard proclaimed from pulpits for my whole life, so it's intriguing to me that I can learn so much new from such a familiar text.
I say that I've never had that experience of close reading before, but that's not exactly true. In my undergraduate English classes, my favorite English teacher would do something similar. I took a Romantics class, and we spent weeks on one Wordsworth poem. But she did much of the work, the digging for meaning, the presentation of the background information that helped us understand the poem.
I had forgotten how it makes me feel alive in such a unique way, to be doing this kind of deep dive. I hope I get to keep experiencing this on a regular basis.