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The purpose of conducting an exegesis is always to unearth layers of meaning within a text that may not be readily apparent to a reader who has not been trained in the relevant critical methods or background areas of knowledge. For example, the Bible is the paradigm of a work that can be subjected to exegesis; and a person with a working knowledge of Hebrew and Greek may notice meanings in the text that the lay reader may not.  

Understanding the definition

Perhaps you have heard the word exegesis before. But are you clear about the real meaning of the word? Exegesis refers to a critical exploration and/or interpretation of a given piece of text. Essentially, the assumption is that the text contains hidden meanings buried within it, and that by conducted an exegesis, it will become possible to unearth these meanings. 

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Here are some examples of the term exegesis being used in a correct way. 

"In order to prepare himself for his ambition of performing an exegesis of Homer's epic poetry, the graduate student decided to pick up a language textbook in order to brush up on his skills in reading Latin."

"The biblical exegesis put forth by the scholar was highly controversial: if the implications were followed, the necessary conclusion would have been than several traditional dogmatic positions were the result of little more than misunderstandings."

"The poet encouraged his students to avoid to temptation to conduct an exegesis of the poem and instead simply pay attention to the way that the sounds and cadences moved over the course of the text."

In case you are still a little confused about the meaning of the term exegesis, here are a couple rules you can follow in order to correctly make use of it. 

  1. An exegesis refers to the systematic explanation of a text, usually based on the principles of scholarship. Exegesis is thus a fundamentally rational process that is used to tease out the conceptual infrastructure of a more imaginative work. If the meaning of a text is straightforward on the surface, then it would be somewhat silly to speak of exegesis. 
  2. In general, biblical exegesis is the paradigm for exegesis of all other texts. Whenever exegesis is performed, there is a tendency to think of the relevant text as if it were a kind of scripture: it possesses an inspired but obscure meaning, and it becomes the role of the interpreter to elucidate what that meaning is.  

Biblical history of exegesis

Again, it is likely the Bible that has created such a strong conviction within Western civilization that performing exegesis on texts is in fact a valuable endeavor. This is for the simple reason that the emergence of the Bible placed a unique and previously unprecedented level of mystical emphasis on the written word—an emphasis that has by analogy lasted at least all the way through the era of classical modernity. It is taken as a matter of course that the written word often contains hidden meanings that are just waiting to be revealed by careful exegesis. 

Regarding modern exegesis using primarily rational-critical methods, an important turning point was likely the philosopher Spinoza's work known as the Theological-Political Treatise. In this work, Spinoza established the basic principles for biblical exegesis as people currently know it, including an emphasis on a thorough knowledge of Hebrew and Greek (the original languages of the Bible). Again, due to the close analogy between biblical exegesis and exegesis of other texts, this likely had consequences for all of modern exegesis in general.

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