Friday, July 29, 2011

Exegesis, Eisegesis, Sensus Plenior

Scripture scholars make a careful distinction between exegesis and eisegesis.

Exegesis is the practice of drawing out the meaning of a Bible passage, unlocking what the author intended to say. Eisegesis is the practice of reading something into the passage which the author did not intend.

A person who does exegesis is an exegete. A person who does eisegesis is an eisegete or "a poor exegete."

Exegesis of the Book of Genesis 1:1 to 2:4a suggests that the author intended to say that God existed before all else, that God is creator of the universe, that the sun and other created things which some people worship as gods are in fact created by God.

Eisegesis of Genesis 1:1 to 2:4a says that God made the world in six twenty-four hour periods and that the theory of evolution is clearly wrong in the light of the Bible's creation story.

In this case the eisegete's misinterpretation of the author's meaning stems largely from his imposing science upon a faith book.

The author of the biblical story of creation was not a scientist nor did he intend to write a science book. The exegete respects the book for what it is: an expression of a faith conviction that God made the world and everything in it.

In preparing a homily for Mass one day I asked myself if I were guilty of eisegesis when I interpreted the Gospel's parables about the treasure in the field and the pearl of great price as examples of God's great love for us.

Matthew 13: 44-46 tells the stories: The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it.

For decades I have interpreted those parables as encouragement for us to be willing to give up all and everything for the sake of the kingdom. God's will is so important that we should be willing to pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship (apologies to President John Kennedy) to be faithful to our God.

But it occurred to me on this occasion that perhaps the parables were really about the price, burden and hardship that God has been willing to muster up to save us. God has certainly gone to extremes to assure us that we are precious in his sight. If Jesus is a good shepherd, can he not also be a merchant in search of a fine pearl?

I was a bit uncomfortable with my interpretation. Was I practicing eisegesis?

I thought so until I read the first reading for that day's Mass, the story of Moses' hiding his face behind a veil because it shone so brightly after his face-to-face encounter with God.

I was sure that the author of Exodus 34:29-35 intended to say that God's glory was radiating from Moses' face, and that Moses had to cover his face with a veil because the radiance of his skin frightened the people.

The author clearly intended to express the transcendence of God and to emphasize how honored Moses was to see God's face.

That, I thought, was the proper exegesis --until I read St. Paul's interpretation in 2 Corinthians 3:12-18. There he says that Moses' veil was a symbol of the Jews' failure to recognize Jesus! "To this day, in fact, whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their hearts."

That interpretation seems to me more like eisegesis than exegesis. I sincerely doubt that the author of Exodus intended the conclusion Paul drew.

Aha! May I then conclude that Paul is guilty of poor exegesis --that he is an eisegete?

No, I am not permitted that criticism, for Scripture scholars come to his rescue, explaining that some passages have a meaning that the original author did not recognize. As the experts put it, there can be an interpretation fuller than the literal. They call this kind of interpretation "sensus plenior" --the fuller sense.

And there you have it.

If I see more in a passage than the author intended, it is eisegesis. If Paul does it, it's sensus plenior.

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