Review of M.J. Gorman, Elements of Biblical Exegesis

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 9 (2009) - Review

      
Gorman, Michael J. Elements of Biblical Exegesis: A Basic Guide for Students and Ministers (Revised and Expanded Edition; Peabody MA; Hendrickson, 2009). Pp. xii+286, Paperback, US$19.95, ISBN 978-1-59856-311-5.

Gorman’s work is a revision of his Elements of Biblical Exegesis (2001), which itself was a revision of his Texts and Contexts (1994, 1998). Gorman tells us that the “most significant change” between this edition and the previous one is the revision and expansion of his chapter on theological interpretation (p. xiii).

Gorman has produced a very practical book to guide those who are interested in learning the tasks of biblical exegesis, within the context that he envisages. The book is divided into three parts: 1) Orientation (chapters 1 and 2), 2) The Elements (chapters 3 to 9), and 3) Hints and Resources (chapters 10 and 11 with four appendices). Each of the first nine chapters end with “review and study” expressed in three parts: 1) a chapter summary, 2) practical hints related to the use of what has been discussed in that chapter, and 3) a section entitled “for further insight and practice” which takes students to various biblical texts to put into practice the insights from that chapter.

In Part One (chapters 1 and 2) Gorman discusses the task and text of exegesis. In chapter one he briefly defines exegesis before discussing the strengths and weaknesses of various ways in which exegesis has been done. He compares and contrasts the synchronic approach (focusing on the final form of the text as seen, for example, in narrative-critical, social-scientific, or socio-rhetorical readings) with the diachronic approach (the historical-critical method) and the existential approach (his name for readings which focus on hermeneutics, transformation, or theology, such as missional interpretation, sacred readings, postcolonial criticism, or liberationist exegesis). He argues for an eclectic approach in which synchronic exegesis is the first among equals. In chapter two Gorman focuses on the selection of an English translation for exegesis. He expresses a preference for formal-equivalence translations and divides translations into four categories: 1) preferred for exegesis (NRSV, NAB, TNIV, and NET), 2) useful for exegesis, with caution (RSV, NIV, NASB, REB, ESV, HCSB), 3) unacceptable for exegesis, but helpful in others ways (NLT, NJB, CEV, GNB, The Message), and 4) unacceptable for exegesis (KJV, NKJV, LB).

In Part Two (chapters 3 to 9) Gorman walks the reader through the seven elements of biblical exegesis: 1) the survey (first impressions), 2) contextual analysis (historical, socio-political, cultural, literary, rhetorical, and canonical contexts), 3) formal analysis (form, structure, and movement of the text), 4) detailed analysis of the text (“careful scrutiny of every word, phrase, allusion, grammar point, and syntactical feature”), 5) synthesis (determining the main point[s] of the text), 6) reflection: theological interpretation (determining the meaning of the text “for readers other than the original ones”), and 7) expansion and refinement of the exegesis (using the tools and work of biblical scholars for further clarification).

Part Three includes: 1) a brief summary of errors to avoid in exegesis, 2) a 52-page annotated bibliography of resources for exegesis, 3) tables which compare and contrast synchronic, diachronic, and existential methods for biblical exegesis, 4) a step-by-step summary of the tasks involved in writing a research exegesis paper, 5) three sample exegesis papers written by students, and 6) selected internet resources for biblical studies.

There are many very helpful aspects of this book. Perhaps the most useful is the step-by-step guide for those writing an exegesis paper (Appendix B) which complements well the very clear explanation of the components of an exegesis paper (Part Two).

It makes a lot of sense to include an annotated bibliography within an introductory work on exegesis so that students are able to apply the principles of this book under the guidance of excellent scholarship. Gorman has done a very good job of directing exegesis students to the most helpful resources for the task. Gorman’s annotated bibliography includes his comments on resources which focus on: exegesis, translation, text criticism, Bible software, O.T. and N.T. introductions, one volume commentaries, Bible dictionaries, historical and sociopolitical contexts of both the O.T. and N.T., atlases, books on the forms, genres, structures and other literary aspects of the text, semantics, linguistics, intertextuality, social-scientific approaches, redaction criticism, narrative criticism, ideological criticism, concordances, grammars, lexicons, bible encyclopedias, journals, commentary series, theological interpretation, the use of the Bible for preaching and teaching, and bibliographical resources. Gorman’s comments include a very useful synopsis of the various foci of the journals devoted to biblical studies.

The tables which compare synchronic, diachronic, and existential methods for exegesis (Appendix A) provide brief but excellent summaries to assist the reader not only in understanding various exegetical methods, but also in highlighting their respective strengths and weaknesses. The sample questions are one of the most helpful parts of the book for those attempting to put into practice these methods. One could only wish Gorman had more space to include additional sample questions here, though many other questions can be found scattered throughout Part Two of his book.

I want all of my exegesis students to become familiar with Gorman’s selected internet resources for biblical studies (Appendix D). Despite instruction to the contrary, some of my students submit papers dependent upon internet resources which are of little benefit in understanding the biblical text. Gorman has provided a very helpful list of internet resources that will be useful for beginning, intermediate, and advanced exegesis students.

The three essays in Appendix C are helpful for showing how various students have applied Gorman’s teaching. They are especially beneficial for showing new exegesis students the kinds of questions they should address in their study and writing.

One of the significant ways in which Gorman has strengthened the 2008 edition of his work is the development of his discussion of theological interpretation. He has done a superb job of discussing the necessity and limitations of sacred hermeneutics.

There are a few problems that Gorman might want to address in a subsequent edition of this book. Overall, Gorman does a good job of offering both Hebrew Bible and New Testament examples throughout his book, though it is quite odd that when he discusses structure, rather than taking us to one of the Hebrew prophets, he offers the reader an outline of a hypothetical text from the prophets (p. 90). It is hard to understand why he has done this.

Gorman does a very good job of illustrating his comments throughout the book, though exceptions to this are annoying. When discussing the value of the NIV for exegesis, he tells us that “occasionally the theological perspective of the translators (or perhaps reviewers and editors) colors the translation a bit too boldly” (p. 47), but he provides no examples to indicate where this can be found in the NIV. Likewise, it would be helpful if he told us which of the Anchor Bible commentaries he thinks are “disasters” (p. 221). Illustration could also clarify his observation that “some basic literary genres, and the principles of interpretation that accompany them, are common from culture to culture” (p. 99).

Some readers might be uncomfortable with the categories Gorman uses to classify various works included in his annotated bibliography. For example, at times he categorizes resources based on the religious tradition of the author (Baptist, evangelical, Catholic, Jewish, conservative, ecumenical). At other times he ranks resources based on their size (basic, brief, slim, concise, thorough, massive, in-depth), importance (standard, classic, important, groundbreaking, substantive), helpfulness (excellent, good, superb, first-rate, superior, masterful, helpful), thoroughness (detailed, comprehensive), newness (unconventional, ambitious, provocative), or some other category (well-written, sophisticated, insightful, authoritative, accessible, readable, creative, delightful, technical, balanced, user-friendly, affordable, or impressive).

On several occasions Gorman’s discussion leaves the reader longing for further clarification. He briefly discusses Daniel Patte’s consideration of the relationship between what an author says and “what the author means not to say” (p. 116). This clearly needs further explanation or illustration. At the least, Gorman might consider discussing what he himself is not saying in this portion of his work.

Gorman points out that Christian readers of Psalm 137 normally adopt a counter-exegesis to the text by reading it in light of Jesus’ teaching on love of enemies (p. 165). It would be helpful to the reader if he indicated a source where this and other imprecations are analyzed more thoroughly. Likewise, when he mentions that he lacks space to discuss stand-alone commentaries in his annotated bibliography (p. 220), he should direct the reader to a place where this information can be found.

These few problems should not detract in any substantial way from Gorman’s clear, helpful, practical, and reader-friendly guide to exegesis for (Christian) seminary students and ministers. These students and ministers will benefit greatly from the book if they follow Gorman's instructions as they engage in exegesis.

Nathan Patrick Love, Ambrose Seminary