General Letters: Exegesis

Timothy J. Finney

Table of Contents

1. How To Do Exegesis
1.1. What Is Exegesis?
1.2. Basic Steps
1.3. The Class Handout
1.4. Textual, Grammatical, and Lexical Issues
1.5. Winds of Change
2. Assessment of the Major Exegesis Assignment
3. Two Exegesis Outlines
3.1. 1 Peter 1
3.2. 1 John 2.15-29

1. How To Do Exegesis

1.1. What Is Exegesis?

According to Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart,

Exegesis is the careful, systematic study of the Scripture to discover the original, intended meaning. This is basically a historical task. It is the attempt to hear the Word as the original recipients were to have heard it, to find out what was the original intent of the words of the Bible.[1]

1.2. Basic Steps

As with most things, the only way to learn exegesis is by doing it. Gordon Fee's New Testament Exegesis, an excellent introduction to the topic, recommends the following steps. Please note that my comments are simple rewordings of what Fee says better.[2]

  1. Survey the historical context in general: Read the entire letter and note any clues about: the author; the recipients and their relationship to the author; where they were; what were their circumstances; what historical occasion prompted the letter to be written; the author's purpose.

  2. Confirm the limits of the passage: Is the passage a self-contained unit? (Note that in this course the passage you are assigned may cross natural divisions in the text. If it does, be sure to say so.) What comes before and after, and how does the passage fit into its surroundings? For example, 1 Peter 1.3-12 is an argument that comes after the letter's opening and before the exhortation of 1.13-25.

  3. Become thorougly acquainted with the passage: [All] Read the passage in several translations, noting any places where they convey significantly different meanings. You might try to determine whether these differences are due to textual, grammatical, or lexical (i.e. dictionary-like) alternatives. [Greek] Make an initial translation.

  4. Analyse sentence structures and syntactical relationships: [All] Write out the passage in a structured form using your own words. The structure of the passage will sometimes be simple, other times complex. Look for literary cues such as inclusios, repeated words or phrases, and chiasmus. [Greek] Perform a grammatical analysis of the sentences in the passage, identifying the parts of speech and how they relate to each other.

  5. Establish the text: What was the author's text? The transmission process has introduced textual variations. When there is a textual variation at some site, it is necessary to decide which reading (i.e. which alternative) is original, if indeed that can be established. [All] Note any footnotes in English translations which alert the reader to differences of this kind. Such a note will typically say, Some manuscripts have... Commentaries sometimes give English translations of significant alternatives. [Greek] The United Bible Societies Greek New Testament shows which variations are significant for the purposes of translation. These should be listed along with your own translations of the alternatives. Make an attempt to decide which alternative is most likely original. Do the alternatives say significantly different things?

  6. Analyse the grammar: [All] Are there grammatical issues which affect the meaning of the passage? An English Bible may provide an alternative way to construe the text in a footnote. For example, the main text may have whatever you permit on earth will be what is permitted in heaven while a footnote has whatever you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven. [Greek] Identify any grammatical issues which are significant for translation. For example, is there more than one possible antecedent for a relative pronoun? Books in the United Bible Societies Helps for Translators series are helpful in this respect but should only be consulted after you have thought about it yourself.[3]

  7. Analyse significant words: [All] This involves isolating key words or phrases and thinking about their intended meanings. Some words are of great importance to the meaning of the passage: these are the ones to look for. They may have a range of possible meanings: which one does the author intend in this context? Not every word should be treated this way; instead, focus on the handful of crucial players in the passage. Beware of etymology: tracing the derivation of a word can be enlightening but can also be misleading. The important thing to determine is what a word or phrase meant to the author and audience. [Greek] Look up the crucial words in Bauer's Greek-English Lexicon.

  8. Research the historical and cultural background in general: [All] What contemporary events might be relevant? What cultural practices and understandings might be presupposed? How did the author and audience think? That, is, how did they decide what was worth acting upon? How did they understand the world to operate? What was authoritative for them? What echoes of other texts (e.g. Hebrew Bible, other New Testament writings) might be evident? The margins of the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece list possible references to scriptural passages.

  9. Examine the historical context in particular: All of the New Testament letters were written for some reason; each had an occasion, a special set of circumstances that compelled the author to write. Knowing these circumstances helps understand what the letter is about. As Fee says, try to imagine what it would have been like to be sitting in an early Christian community hearing the letter read for the first time.[4] What hints and clues are there in the passage which indicate why the author is writing these things? Does some behaviour need to be changed? Is there a theological misunderstanding? Does the audience need to be prepared for action? Is the cause of trouble inside or outside the community?

  10. Determine the formal character of the letter: Some letters have a specific occasion, some are ad hoc, and some seem like tracts with letter-like beginnings or endings. Does the passage fall into one of the normal subdivisions of a Christian letter (e.g. greeting, introductory thanksgiving, introductory prayer, body, final greetings, benediction)? Is the passage part of a rhetorical structure (e.g. a section of teaching, a section of exhortation)? Does the form (i.e. the literary conventions followed by the author) affect the meaning?

  11. Determine the literary context: To do this, one must learn to THINK PARAGRAPHS. [5] See how your passage fits into the surrounding context at the paragraph level. What are the preceding and following paragraphs about and how does your passage relate to them? In other words, how does your passage fit into the logical progression of the letter? Writing down the main points of these paragraphs in your own words will help.

  12. Consider the broader biblical and theological contexts: How does what this passage says fit with what the rest of this book, the New Testament, the Bible, and Christian theology says? How does this passage compare with similar ones in the New Testament? Does it raise any difficulties? Has it been understood in different ways at different times? What would be lost if we didn't have it? Does our understanding of other things depend on how we understand this passage?

  13. Consult secondary literature: Investigate what others have said about the passage. Up until now you should have been thinking for yourself rather than relying on others; now it is time to consider other viewpoints and to adjust your findings if necessary. Commentaries are a useful starting point in discovering the range of prevailing opinions in relation to your passage.


    What Fee says regarding critical assessment of other views, when to quote, and how to use annotation is really worth knowing.[6]

  14. Provide a working text: [All] Establish a text to work with. For English, this may involve choosing one translation of the passage or even constructing your own hybrid of the ones you have checked. [Greek] Provide a polished translation of the passage.

  15. Write the exegesis: All of you are required to do this. If you have done the preceding steps you will have plenty of material to work with.

1.3. The Class Handout

Part of your major exegesis assignment is to present a class handout on your passage. As a service to fellow students, the handout should include the following elements relating to the passage:

  1. A list of the main points of the passage written in your own words. This should conform to any structure that you notice.

  2. A list of key words and concepts.

  3. A list of textual, grammatical, and lexical issues.

  4. A list of theological issues raised.

  5. Any clues about the cultural and historical setting that emerge from your passage. This should include a list of any sources used.

  6. Any general background or other issues relating to the passage.

  7. A bibliography.

Point form is fine and only a few points are needed under each heading. Seeing that everyone will have read at least one commentary on the passage in preparation for the class, be ready to update your own copy of the handout as the discussion proceeds.


Be sure to leave plenty of time for the class to talk. Devote half of the time to your presentation and the rest to group discussion.

1.4. Textual, Grammatical, and Lexical Issues

Books in the Helps for Translators series contain much useful information concerning textual, grammatical, and lexical issues.[7] Even though a certain proficiency in Greek is assumed, it is by no means required. For this reason, all students, whether equipped with Greek or not, would do well to consult them. (It's an easy way to improve your exegesis.)

Concerning textual issues, students should also consult the United Bible Societies Greek New Testament (UBSGNT) and its companion volume entitled A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament.[8] These relate to a selection of places where textual variation occurs made chiefly on the basis of their exegetical importance to the translator and student. [9] The UBSGNT gives readings (i.e. alternative texts) and attestations (i.e. lists of supporting witnesses such as manuscripts, versions, and Church Fathers) for those variation units (i.e. places where the text differs between witnesses) that it covers. The UBSGNT seldom covers more than a handful of variation units in a passage of the size students are assigned for exegesis in this course (about twelve verses). For every one of these variation units, the Textual Commentary provides reasons why the editors of the UBSGNT chose the reading they view as most likely to be original.

1.5. Winds of Change

Every generation has its philosophies. Being so diverse, some elements of the Christian community are quick to pick up on a new idea while others are slow. Take existentialism as an example. Rudolph Bultmann interpreted the New Testament from an existentialist viewpoint. He saw it as a book to get the reader enlightened, to see things in the new way the people who wrote the New Testament wanted them to see. Whether what the New Testament said was actually true was not so important as getting the audience to the desired endpoint. Existentialism came and went. The really strange thing is that one of the last places it went was among Christian theologians. So we seem slow to pick up on things and equally slow to let them go once everyone else has moved on.

A recent philosophy is postmodernism, where the only thing that matters is what I believe. If someone else has a different idea, that's OK because we are all human beings and who is to say that one person's view is better than another's? To a point, we as interpreters of the Bible can gain something from this way of thinking. It allows everyone to become an interpreter instead of only someone with special training. However, there is a weakness as well. If God speaks then it is advisable to listen. If knowing the circumstances in which a particular piece of God's speech happened helps us understand it better, then that knowledge is worth having.

Another emergent philosophy is atheism, which says religion causes a lot of trouble and should therefore be avoided. A Christian response might be, if God is there then that changes everything. God said, I am.

Atheism and postmodernism will strut and fret their hours upon the stage and then be heard no more. Religion, however, will continue. Some forms of religion are tales told by idiots, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.[10] But true religion is based on God's speech, which underpins everything and endures forever. Christ's ability to bring about real and beneficial change in people is a surprising reality. The challenge is to communicate this truly good news to a world that has different ideas about religion. Being able to discover what God says through the Bible is an important part of this enterprise.

2. Assessment of the Major Exegesis Assignment

I will assess the major exegesis assignment according to demonstrated mastery of the following elements, which relate to the selected passage alone unless otherwise specified:


Relationship to context at paragraph and broader levels.


Genre of entire document (e.g. letter, tract, sermon); structure of passage; genre of passage (e.g. exposition, exhortation, both); rhetorical devices (e.g. chiasmus).


Factors relating to historical setting, cultural background, and thought world of recipients that would affect their understanding; sources of quotations; clues relating to authors and recipients.


Grammatical, lexical, and textual issues that affect meaning; alternative interpretations.


Important theological terms and concepts; theological contributions and issues raised.


Original, intended meaning and purpose.


Relevance of the text to the present; strategies for handling sensitive issues.


Logical structure, clear expression, correct grammar, correct spelling.


Appropriate use; acknowledgement of secondary literature; correct presentation.


Adequate range of secondary literature; correct presentation.

3. Two Exegesis Outlines

3.1. 1 Peter 1

3.1.1. Structure

  • Opening (1.1-2)

  • Affirmation (1.3-12)

  • Exhortation (1.13-25)

1.22-25 forms a bridge between what goes before and what follows. This is a rhetorical device.

3.1.2. Main Points

Suffering is associated with election. Neither Christ nor his people receive the crown of glory without the crown of thorns.[11]

The result of conversion is unfeigned and intense love of fellow-Christians without ulterior motives. Love which crossed class and sex boundaries was seen negatively by pagans around the church.[12]

The Gospel is God's regenerating word.

3.1.3. Key Words and Concepts

Christian are called sojourners. What does this mean?

What does holy mean?

What is the New Covenant?

Peter is fond of the term anastrophe (life-style). It occurs as many times in 1 and 2 Peter as in the rest of the New Testament.

3.1.4. Textual, Grammatical, and Lexical Issues


3.1.5. Theological Issues

How are the Holy Spirit and the Spirit of Christ related?

Being Christian does not mean special treatment on the Day of Judgment.

3.1.6. Cultural and Historical Setting

Possible and actual resonances: Ex 24.3-8; Dan 4.1, 6.25; 2 Thess 2.13-17; 2 Cor 1.3; Wisd. 3.5-6 (LXX); Sir 2.1-5 (LXX); Lev 11.44-45. Quotation of Isaiah at 1.24-25 is from the LXX with some minor grammatical and stylistic changes.

3.1.7. General Notes

Did Peter write this?

About one tenth of the Roman Empire's population of fifty million was Jewish. About one million were in Judaea and about four million were outside it.

Peter transfers titles of Israel to the Christian community.

What are the economic implications of 1.13?

3.2. 1 John 2.15-29

3.2.1. Structure (including main points)


Do not set your heart on the godless world. It is passing away but the one who does God's will remains forever.


We have entered the last hour and Antichrist has appeared. There are many antichrists and they went out from us.


You (pl.) have χρισμα from the Holy [One] and you (pl.) know everything.


How to test for Antichrist: He denies that Jesus is the Χριστοσ. Anyone who denies the Son does not have the Father; one who confesses the Son has the Father as well. If what you heard from the beginning remains in you then you will remain in the Son and in the Father.


The χρισμα you received from him remains in you so you have no need of teaching. Just as it has taught you, remain in him.


Remain in him so that when he appears you may stand in confidence and not hide in shame. If you know that he does right then you know that everyone who does right has been born of him.

3.2.2. Key Words and Concepts

  • avoid idolatry (do not love the world)

  • the last hour

  • Antichrist and antichrists

  • the truth

  • what you heard from the beginning

  • μενει (remaining)

  • confession and denial

  • the χρισμα (anointing) you received from him remains with you and teaches you all things

  • the New Covenant

  • confidence and shame when he appears

3.2.3. Textual, Grammatical, and Lexical Issues

  • 2.18: that Antichrist | that the Antichrist | the Antichrist

  • 2.20: παντεσ | παντα

  • 2.25: to us (pl.) | to you (pl.)

  • βιοσ (2.16) can be translated as life but is used here in the sense of property, possessions, and riches.

3.2.4. Theological Issues

  • The antichrists went out from the Christian community.

  • What is the χρισμα (anointing)?

  • Is the χρισμα the agent of the New Covenant?

  • Everyone who does right has been born of him.

3.2.5. Cultural and Historical Setting

You were told that Antichrist was to come. Does this tell us anything about the circumstances of the audience?

3.2.6. General Background

What does anointing signify in Jewish culture?


Aland, Barbara, Kurt Aland, Johannes Karavidopoulos, Carlo M. Martini, and Bruce M. Metzger, eds. Novum Testamentum Graece. Nestle-Aland 27th ed. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1993.

Aland, Barbara, Kurt Aland, Johannes Karavidopoulos, Carlo M. Martini, and Bruce M. Metzger, eds. The Greek New Testament. United Bible Societies 4th rev. ed. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1993.

Arichea, Daniel C. and Eugene A. Nida. A Translator's Handbook on the First Letter from Peter. Helps for Translators. New York: United Bible Societies, 1980.

Bauer, Walter. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. Ed. Frederick W. Danker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Davids, Peter H. The First Epistle of Peter. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990.

Fee, Gordon D. New Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors. 3rd ed. Louisville: WJK, 2002.

Fee, Gordon D. and Douglas Stuart. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993.

Haas, C., M. De Jonge, and J. L. Swellengrebel. A Translator's Handbook on the Letters of John. Helps for Translators. London: United Bible Societies, 1972.

Metzger, Bruce M. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. 2nd ed. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994.

[1] Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 19; italics in the original.

[2] Fee, New Testament Exegesis, 6-37. Steps 9 to 11 are specific to New Testament letters: these steps differ for other genres such as gospels, Acts, or the Apocalypse.

[3] Arichea and Nida, First Letter from Peter; Haas et al., Letters of John.

[4] Fee, New Testament Exegesis, 18.

[5] Ibid., 19.

[6] Ibid., 32-35.

[7] Arichea and Nida, First Letter from Peter; Haas et al., Letters of John.

[8] Aland et al., The Greek New Testament; Metzger, A Textual Commentary.

[9] Metzger, A Textual Commentary, vii-viii.

[10] Apologies to Shakespeare for mangling his beautiful writing.

[11] Davids, The First Epistle of Peter, 64.

[12] Davids, The First Epistle of Peter, 77.