A Beginner’s Guide to New Testament Exegesis: A Review

Richard  J. Erickson, A Beginner’s Guide to New Testament Exegesis (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005); 239 pages, $20.00.

Erickson’s A Beginner’s Guide to New Testament Exegesis is intended as a friendly and non-frightening approach to the exegetical method. Erickson reflects on his many years of teaching at Fuller Theological Seminary using Gordon Fee’s New Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors. Though he commends the excellence of Fee’s work, he found it too ambitious and intimidating for students new to the exegetical art. Erickson writes, “In other words, as I have experienced it from a teacher’s perspective, Fee’s Handbook gives too much meat to beginners in need of milk” (14). In light of this, Erickson distinguishes between the task of the professional scholar and that of the student/pastor. Though one can always go deeper into the scholarly abyss, Erickson provides his readers with the foundation.

Erickson acknowledges that he is writing for a particular audience. As such, he brings a number of assumptions that would not be accepted by the larger scholarly world. Some of these assumptions are that the bible is the Word of God, that God has inspired his Word, that his Word is inerrant, and that it presents a unified theological understanding of who God is, though each human author might have specific theological nuances.

The book is divided into ten chapters. Chapter one serves as an introduction. What is the exegetical method? Why should we care? What, broadly speaking, are the major components?

Chapter two is composed of two main sections: textual criticism and the tools for the exegetical task. Having walked the reader through the definitions of important terms such as original text, copies, translations, and modern editions, Erickson lays out the basic principles for resolving textual issues: external and internal evidence. External evidence is concerned with manuscript evidence, textual families, geographical representation, the age of and reliability of individual manuscripts. Internal evidence is comprised of possible intentional or accidental scribal changes as well as theological and stylistic concerns. Erickson’s section on textual criticism concludes with a discussion of textual errors relevant to beginning students and pastors. Only variants that have exegetical significance and textual support should concern us. This alleviates the student/pastor from the burdensome task of reconstructing the entire passage under consideration. The second half of the chapter quickly highlights the resources needed for the exegetical task: Metzger’s textual commentary, a concordance, a Septuagint, dictionaries, encyclopedias, atlases, Gospel synopses, primary literature (Pseudepigrapha, Apocrypha, Josephus, Philo, etc.), and secondary literature (articles, journals, commentaries, etc.).

Chapter three is a overview of the theory behind discourse analysis. Readers presuppose that a text coheres. This means that it makes sense as a whole. The parts fit together like a jigsaw puzzle into a coherent picture. The task of exegesis is to understand how the mountains, the passage under consideration, fit within the larger puzzle. Just as you would begin constructing a puzzle, looking for edge or framing pieces, so also with a biblical passage. We must start from the top down. Where are the framing pieces? As we continue, we notice that certain puzzle pieces have flowers, others have sky, others have a road. Understanding how these units fit together and how they fit within the grand scheme is an indispensable tool available to the interpreter in understanding the text.

Chapter four digs a bit deeper into the principles of discourse analysis. Here Erickson defines important terms. Letters are clumped together in order to form words. Words, in turn, form phrases (incomplete thoughts lacking a verb). Phrases, when joined with verbs, form clauses. Clauses can be either independent or dependent. Dependent clauses signal a relationship that exists between itself and the independent clause on which it hangs. Understanding how clauses relate to one another is an important step in understanding the way author’s create. Yet, that is not all. Sentences relate to one another and contribute to the overall meaning of the discourse. These relationships, according to Erickson, are signaled by conjunctions, chiasm, inclusio, verbal clusters, repetitions, etc.

Chapter five moves into the historical realm. Discourse units do not exist in a detached universe. There are both general and specific cultural settings in which discourse takes place. It is the exegetes job to try and understanding the historical milieu as best as possible and to understand the specific situation surrounding an author’s desire to write. The first of these tasks is aided by knowledge of the primary literature discussed in chapter two. Understanding biblical texts in their cultural setting is also aided by a knowledge of the Septuagint, biblical vocabulary, and a careful analysis of word usage (aka word studies properly done). All of this will allow an exegete to understand the culture surrounding a text and transfer it, appropriately, to his own context.

Chapters six through nine address genre issues. Chapter six explores rhetorical criticism as used in epistolary literature. Erickson notes, in this chapter, that each letter is written to a specific church or community. They were intended to address the specific needs of that community. As such, we must be able to read in light of the author’s intent, be able to perceive the other side of the conversation (what the recipients of this letter would have said), and the cultural assumptions the author and reader shared, which are no longer assumed by modern readers.

Chapters seven and eight address narrative literature. The Gospels and Acts lay at the heart of these chapters. As one would expect, Erickson highlights the fact that the exegete should be aware of the Sitz im Leben of each Gospel, form criticism, source criticism, and redaction criticism. One of the great gems of chapter seven is Erickson’s explanation of how to use Aland’s Synopsis Quatturo Evangeliorum. He even provides an exercise/example from the “Peter’s Mother-in-Law” pericope. His discussion of narrative also includes a look at plot, characterization, and setting, a look at parables, allegory, and speeches/sayings.

Chapter nine looks at the genre and interpretive issues surrounding the book of Revelation.

The final chapter is designed to put the pieces back together. Now that we have done the task of exegesis (bombarding the text with text criticism, translation and grammatical analysis, boundary definition, structural and discourse analysis, historical-cultural background, word studies, literary context, theological context, redactional analysis, narrative criticism, and rhetorical criticism) it is time to recontextualize the message. Erickson is concerned with three perspectives: the minister, the congregation, and the word. Before preparing the message, the minister must be soaked in prayer. Next, the minister must consider his own culture and the culture of his congregants as well as their needs. The message must hit its mark. Finally, the minister must not be so concerned about the needs of his congregation that he neglects, corrupts, or skirts the Word of God.

In many ways Erickson has succeeded in his task of bringing the intimidating task of exegesis down to a lower shelf. He regularly employed helpful analogies. Textual criticism is likened to a Sherlock Holmes murder mystery. Each time one sees a textual critical mark in the NA27 or UBS4, it is the site of a “murder.” The possible culprits are listed in the apparatus. It is the exegetes task to look at the various clues (internal and external evidence) to determine the real culprit. Erickson illustrates discourse analysis by pointing to a building composed of stone walls. Mortar holds the stones together. Each side is an important element that contributes to the structure’s overall coherence.

Furthermore, every chapter is loaded with helpful information. One chapter has an excursus on how to avoid exegetical fallacies. Another has a page from the NA27 and UBS4 with accompanying explanations on their differences, similarities, and how to use them. In his discussion on word studies, he provides excerpts from BDAG and Louw and Nida’s semantically arranged lexicon. Furthermore, Erickson provides several step-by-step instructions and illustrations for how to do a structural analysis based on principles of discourse analysis. If all of this isn’t enough, online material is available. Student and scholar alike stand to benefit from Erickson’s work.

Despite these great strengths, at certain points I felt as if it was just too much. In most seminaries, hermeneutics is a pre-requisite. I can’t imagine too many situations wherein a Greek student arrives in an exegesis class without having learned the basic principles of hermeneutics, including a discussion of genre. For this reason, I think that Erickson could have done without chapters six through nine, provided his discussion on form criticism, source criticism, redaction criticism, rhetorical criticism, narrative criticism are preserved within the book under a different format.

Second, though all the material in Erickson’s book is introductory in nature, the vast number of topics he introduces makes the book somewhat unwieldy as an introductory work. That is not to say that it cannot be done (I finished the book in two days). Nevertheless, many seminaries bill third semester Greek as a syntax and exegesis course. This means students are expected to learn Wallace, or some equivalent, read books on exegesis, and write an exegetical paper. In such contexts, a more streamlined approach to the exegetical method might be desirable.

Otherwise, this is a great addition to your library. Erickson’s section on how to use the synopsis alone is worth the price of the book. As a matter of fact, I plan on keeping the book out on my desk as I await the arrival the newest edition to my library: Aland’s Synopsis Quatturo Evangeliorum.

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