I’ve started a year-long project to work through Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong (you’re welcome to join me here).
A word that is used more than once in the text is exegesis. I’ve heard that word before, because I know how to pronounce it. But I’m not sure how often I’ve read it and I’m pretty sure that I never looked it up. Here are bits from the paragraph that finally got me to investigate:
Christians were equally selective in their exegesis of the Hebrew Bible, focusing on texts that seemed to predict the coming of the Messiah…and paying little attention to the rest. . . . Christians in Europe were taught to expound every sentence of the Bible in four ways: literally, morally, allegorically, and mystically. . . . For the Christians as for the rabbis, charity was the key to correct exegesis. Saint Augustine (354-430), one of the most formative theologians in the Western Christian traditions, insisted that scripture taught nothing but charity. Whatever the biblical author may have intended, any passage that seemed to preach hatred and was not conducive to love must be interpreted allegorically and made to speak of charity. (p. 57)
I went to the Oxford English Dictionary, on-line at the library, to learn about exegesis. It’s an academic word borrowed from both Latin and Greek, meaning exposition in Latin and interpretation in Greek.
The definition is: “An explanation or interpretation of a text, esp. of scripture or a scriptural passage. Also more generally: a critical discourse or commentary.”
Since it relates to my exploration of compassion, I’ll share this quote among the several listed in the OED to illustrate the meaning of exegesis. It’s from Philosophical and Phenomenological Research, the March 1948 issue, in a review of Works of Love by Soren Kierkegaard:
A brilliantly written exegesis of the New Testamental texts on Christian love in general and love of neighbor in particular.
Is exegesis a word that you know and love? Under what circumstances would you use the word exegesis instead of the more widely understood word interpretation?
I have a feeling that I’ll be using one or both of those words again this month as the first step in Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life asks me to explore my own tradition. I want to figure out why the exegesis of the New Testament as a treatise on love and charity that I was taught as a child no longer shows up as the face of Christianity in the media.