New Testament exegesis

principles of interpretation  

drs Gijs van den Brink, 1998



Different exegetical approaches


Does a scientific exegesis exist that is biblical at the same time?  This question is less strange than it seems.  Many think that `scientific' and `faithful to the Bible' are characteristics which are mutually exclusive.  This is particularly the case because the term 'scientific' is associated with 'value‑free', and the term 'faithful to the Bible' is associated with religious conviction. However, these associations are not justified.  I would like to demonstrate this by looking into the different presuppositions which play a role in the interpretation of a Bible verse. There are different exegetical approaches. 

In 1953, the American Abrams wrote his well‑known book The Mirror and the Lamp.  In the introduction[1] he gives a beautiful and simple explanation of the different components which are of significance to the criticism of a work of art in general. He differentiates these four: the work of art itself, the reality or the universe,   the artist and the audience[2].  Each of these components also plays a role in the criticism of a literary work of art and thus in the exegesis of the Bible as well[3].  In the case of exegesis, the parts are: first, the Bible text; second, reality or the historical events and divine truths; third, the Bible writer, and fourth, the hearer or reader[4].

These four parts explain the differences which exist in an exegetical approach. In fact, exegesis can concentrate on one of these four parts more than on the other.  We see that reality was central in the pre‑critical period.  One read a text because of its information about reality.  This changed with the coming of historical‑critical exegesis.  The concern lies then, in particular, with the intention of the writer, the author's intent. 

The reader or hearer receives a great amount of attention in the so‑called `materialistic' exegesis, which has played a large role in liberation theologies. Here the following is stated: the message of the text does not exist, but only several readings, several interpretations of the text, in which the interpretation is dependent on the context of the hearer. 

The last part, the text itself, is claimed by the so‑called `structuralistic' exegesis, which thinks it is able to throw out the other three components and presents itself as `objective criticism'.  But then, what is a biblical approach? 


A biblical approach


Each of the approaches has the same starting point of the text, but they differ in their view concerning the function of the text. For one who believes that the Bible is the Word of God, the function of the Bible text is consistent with the general view of the pre-critical period. The Bible gives information about reality from God's point of view. The believing exegete ultimately wants to explain what God has to say to Israel, to the Church and to the world.

But then what about the place of the writer and the reader? In connection with scientific knowledge, it is impossible for us to ignore these areas, which is what happened in the pre-critical era. But it is just as impossible to regard these areas as the starting point or goal of exegesis because in our view the text is the starting point and the reality of God is the main goal.

What then remains is to see both as a means to the understanding of the words and works of God. So far as the author is concerned, it is not difficult to see that matters, such as the language of the writer for example, are of importance for the understanding of the Biblical text. But what about the function of the reader or the hearer?

Here two things are of fundamental importance. First, the reader--or in our case, the exegete--must strive for objectivity. He must investigate how the first listeners percieved the words. This can take place through a historical investigation of the context, also the religious context of the first listener. Second, the personal belief of the interpreter plays a role. An unbelieving exegete may speak about myths and theological ideas of the Bible writer, where the text speaks about salvation-historical events and divine truths.

An approach which is faithful to the Bible has the Bible as the starting-point, the writer and reader as means and the understanding of the divine reality as the goal.




If we are in agreement over these very approaches just mentioned, it does not yet mean that we can actually use these same principles in the process of exegesis.  We must also closely examine a number of fields of exegetical research in the area of presuppositions[5]

The most well‑known are the differences in approach found within historical research.  We will look into this in somewhat more detail.  We are concerned with the problem of the historicity and authenticity of written events and spoken words.  Concerning the gospels, with many the question remains:  did Jesus Himself actually speak these words? 

Central to this discussion are diverse criteria which are applied in order to prove authenticity.  The modern critical method of Bible study[6] has principally two criteria:  `multiple attestation' and `criterion of dissimilarity'.  The former states that a text appears in different independent sources. 

The latter states that the content of a saying of Jesus does not agree with ideas in Judaism or the early church.  There can be much criticism offered regarding these criteria[7]. The most fundamental criticism is that, in line with modern scientific philosophy, we are of the opinion that it is not the authenticity that must be shown, but the unauthenticity[8].  The reliability of the transmitted texts should not be verified but falsified.  It must be proven that the texts do not give a trustworthy representation of the issues.  That means that the burden of proof lies with the critics.

Historians are familiar with two basic criteria for the demonstration of unreliable information.  The first criterion is the lack of correspondence with reality.  For example, this is the case in using contrary evidence from archaeology[9].  The second criterion is lack of coherency or agreement with data from other texts, for example, discrepancy with the context.

Let us explain the difference between verification and falsification by applying both to the Great Commission of Jesus found in Matthew 28:16-20.  According to the researchers who want to see the authenticity of Jesus' words here proven specifically through the criteria of `multiple attestation' and of `dissimilarity', the Great Commission is not authentic.  In fact, we only come across this command in Matthew 28 and because of the trinitarian baptism formula the words are strongly harmonizing with the theology of the early Christian church. 

Those who want to demonstrate the unauthenticity of the command bring two points in particular to our attention.  The first point is that Matthew 28 with the appearance of Jesus in Galilee does not agree with the Gospel of Luke, who only reports appearances in Jerusalem.  The second point is that from the missionary motivation of the apostles in the Book of Acts and their letters, it does not appear that they were familiar with these words of Jesus. 

The question as to whether these objections are valid is not under discussion here[10].  We are concerned about the difference between both approaches:  verification originates from the view that the words of Jesus are not reliable;  falsification originates from the view that the words of Jesus are reliable.


Fields of exegetical research


Following this review of the historicity, we must also briefly examine the hypothetical aspects of the fields of exegetical research.  Under the term of historical research also falls comparitive-religious research, which is very useful as research into the religious context of the hearers.  But it becomes very hypothetical and dangerous if this study develops into a phenomenalistic approach, in which phenomena from heathen religions are used in order to elucidate biblical data.  Examples of this would be the use of mystery religions to clarify the teaching of Paul regarding baptism or the use of ecstatic phenomena in Hellenistic religions in order to understand the gift of speaking in tongues.

Also source-criticism is familiar with hypothetical variants.  The New Testament gives us four sources, four gospels, which inform us about the earthly life of Jesus Christ.  This is legitimate.  But modern critical Bible research generally originates from one or another theory of literary dependence, by which the one evangelist has copied and amplified or curtailed the other evangelist[11].  The two‑source theory which states that Matthew and Luke used Mark  and, along with that, still another source called Q, is very popular.  It is obvious that it is incorrect to base the explanation of a gospel text on an uncertain hypothesis. 

Form criticism is then also ambiguous.  Along with the valuable research as to the literary form of the text, it is also used to research the tradition-history. A saying of Jesus is then followed in its tradition in diverse contexts, such as that of the historical Jesus, the Palestinian church, the Hellenistic church, the Q source and the gospel itself.  The saying would continually change or at least take on another meaning.  This also presents itself as science, but it is very debatable[12]

The gospels only make a distinction between words of Jesus and words of the gospel writer.  Finally, redaction-criticism, that of studying a verse closely in its literary context, can also get us off the right track if it becomes absolutized, or in other words, if at the same time source research and historical research are not observed.  One lapses then into a mere theology of the writer without relationship with historical reality[13].


Textual analysis and textual interpretation


We must also discuss an important distinction, the difference between textual analysis and textual interpretation.  We can consider the analysis of a text as an exegetical pre‑study, in which the facts of the text are collected.  A proposal as to the interpretation is then done on the basis of these facts.   The Dutch literary researcher Oversteegen[14] gives the following definition:  An interpretation is a proposal as to the arrangement of textual information.  Interpretation consists  of the arranging of the collected data into a single meaningful cohesion and the making of choices from the different possibilities which the analysis provides.  We need to give serious thought to this last statement.

If the pre‑study gives rise to different interpretation possibilities, is that all there is to it or are there good and bad interpretations?  Oversteegen names four criteria to arrive at the most acceptable interpretation of a text[15].  First, he names the criterion of `covering the facts'.  The interpretation must do justice to as much textual data as possible.  Second, a simple explanation is given preference above a complicated explanation.  Third, all of the elements of the text must be integrated, as fully as possible, at the same level.  Fourth, there is the intention of the author which makes one explanation more likely than the other.

With regards to the Bible, we must add two criteria to this:  first, the coherency of the canon, or in other words, is a certain interpretation supported by other texts? Second, the religious experience of the exegete.  The same Spirit Who inspired the Bible writers also lives in the believing researchers of today.  These last two criteria can also be called Word and Spirit.  They play not so much a role in the analysis of a text, but very much so in the making of a choice as to different interpretation possibilities. 

Comparing Scripture with Scripture and the illumination of the Holy Spirit are therefore not the only methods of Bible exposition, but they are surely the final criteria for the most acceptable explanation of the Bible.



[1] M.H. Abrams, The mirror and the Lamp. Romantic Theory and the critical Tradition (New York, 1953) 6-7.

[3] J. Barton, `Classifying Biblical Criticism', Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 29 (1984) 19-35.

[4] In a diagram:

[5] For a discussion in depth, see I.H. Marshall, ed., New Testament Interpretation, Exeter, 1977.

[6] Historical-critical exegesis, esp. the school of `form-criticism'.

[7] For an excellent article about these matters see: S.C. Goetz and C.L. Blomberg, `The Burden of Proof', Journal for the Study of the New Testament 11 (1981) 39-63. They mention even 12 criteria, but reject at least 7 of them.

[8] K.R. Popper, `Unity of Method in the Natural and Social Sciences' in: The Poverty of Historicism, New York, 19642.

[9] E.g. anachronisms

[10] Against the first attempt at falsification, we contend that not only Matthew, but also Mark, records appearances of Jesus in Galilee (Mk. 14:28; 16:7).  Moreover, it is neither strange nor contradictory that Jesus also appeared before His disciples in Galilee, the province which played such an important role in His earthly ministry.  The fact that nowhere in Acts do we come across a reminder of the Great Commission can be explained against the background of the Old Testament.  The Old Testament expectation was that all the nations would come to Jerusalem.  See J. Jeremias, Jesu Verheissung für die Völker, Stuttgart, 19592.  We conclude that the proof for the unauthenticity of Jesus' words here is not convincing. 

[12] To maintain a difference between a hellenistic and a palestinian Judaism is impossible, see: M. Hengel, Judentum und Hellenismus (Tübingen, 19732) 191-195, 565-570.

[13] Even textual research is not `value-free'.  The value of textual arguments is dependent on a three-fold choice: 

  1. Forming of a theory with reference to historical facts:  to what extent are the dispersion and multiplication processes affected by historical events so that it is no longer possible to speak of a normal ongoing process?
  2. Method of research:  does one base his views more on the external witness of manuscripts or on the internal witness, on different readings in manuscripts?
  3. Confession of faith: attitude with reference to canon, inspiration and text. 

For two different approaches, see:  J. v. Bruggen, De Tekst van het Nieuwe Testament, Groningen, 1976, and K. Aland and B. Aland, The Text of the New Testament.  Transl. F. Rhodes, Grand Rapids/Leiden, 1987. 

[14] J.J. Oversteegen, Beperkingen (Utrecht, 1982) 204.

[15] J.J. Oversteegen, Lampas IV, 2/4 (1971) 132-146.