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How to Write an Exegetical Paper

Exegesis is the most comprehensive form of Bible study. It gathers together nearly every Bible study task—word studies, translation comparison, research, and more—for a thorough examination of a biblical passage.

While there is no singular process of exegesis, there is a general progression most follow. This page will introduce you to it.

When it comes to an exegetical paper, you are revealing only the highlights of your process (or whatever your professor asks you to report). This page will focus primarily on the exegetical process, ending with a section on how to present your findings in a paper. This guide assumes you've been assigned a particular passage. If you haven't, choose a passage that interests you or presents well-known interprative challenges (such as Heb 5:11–6:12).

Survey the Passage

The first step is to get familiar with the passage—simple reading and initial observation. Try the following to make your reading more productive:

Resources for Scripture study

Logos Bible Software
Logos Bible Software – Translation Comparison

Even the free version of Logos Bible Software, Logos Basic, allows you to easily compare Bible translations for side-by-side reading. You can also document your insights by highlighting and noting the text as you go.

Explore Logos 8 Basic

Explore Context and Genre

People love to skip this next part—at their own peril. They've just come from reading their passage, and they're eager to chase down answers to their questions. But if they go without context and genre, they'll go in the wrong direction!

Here you are establishing some basic parameters for interpreting your text.

Resources for Scripture study

Reading the Bible as Literature Series
Reading the Bible as Literature Series

This six-volume series by Leland Ryken is a one-stop shop for a lifetime of better Bible reading through knowledge of genre. Learn the rules of interpreting literature to better interpret the Bible.

Explore the Reading the Bible as Literature series
Literary Styles in the Bible

This introduction to genre by The Bible Project is helpful for a simple grasp on the different literary styles found in Scripture.

Explore the rest of this series

Analyze the Text

Here we get to the true heart of biblical exegesis: textual analysis. Here you are dissecting the text, turning over every rock to discover what it communicates.

Resources for textual analysis

Biblical Exegesis Bundle
Biblical Exegesis Bundle

Take two digital courses in Old and New Testament Exegesis for a truly thorough understanding of the interprative process for both testaments. These will introduce you to the essentles of genre, context, textual analysis, and more.

Explore Old and New Testament Exegesis
Lexham Methods Series (4 vols.)
Lexham Methods Series (4 vols.)

The Lexham Methods Series is designed for exegetes who need to learn, refresh, and master the tools of biblical scholarship. The books present scholarly information in an easy-to-understand format and focus on cutting-edge methods for biblical interpretation while avoiding jargon. The four volumes give you a complete overview of every major type of biblical interpretation, featuring history and key figures, methods and terms, and a how-to section, giving you a strong foundation for further research.

Explore the Lexham Methods Series
Look at the Book

One of the best ways to learn to analyze and interpret Scripture is to learn from people who've been doing it for you. This resource from Desiring God takes you into John Piper's study process in a quick, accessible way. Watch even three of these, and you'll learn some of the most basic, critical steps for analyzing a text.

Explore Look at the Book

Interpret the Passage

This emerges quite naturaly from the previous step, and yet it's a distinct step.

Above, you are asking, "What do I see?" Here, you are asking, "What does it mean?" Try just writing out your answer. "In this passage, [author] says..." and explain it as if you were summarizing the passage to a friend. To truly synthesize your work, try to put it down in one sentence, too. For example, you might summarize Colossians 3:1–17 as, "Since we've been raised to new life with Christ, we must put away the old way of living and put on the new."

You want to walk into your commentary research having your own take on what the passage means, so don't skip this process. But also recognize this is a provisional interpretation.

Tip: Try to summarize the passage such that someone who knows the Bible very well would say, "Ah, that's a summary of [insert passage]." For example, in the example above, I used the language of Colossians 3:1–17 to summarize it. As a professor once told me, "Try and say it in a way that could only describe your passage, and no other."

Consult Commentaries

This is where you bring your work before other scholars as if to say, "Here's what I see. What do you see?"

Consult is the word. You are an interpreter, too, so you're not farming out the process to scholars. But, recognizing they've spent literally years studying Scripture, their insights are invaluable. Here are some tips for using commentaries effectively:

Resources for choosing commentaries

In addition to the blogs above (especially the first and third listed), these resources will help you choose and use commentaries wisely.

Old Testament Commentary Survey, 5th ed.
Old Testament Commentary Survey, 5th ed.

This commentary survey from Tremper Longman III reviews the most widely known and published commentaries on the Old Testament.

New Testament Commentary Survey, 7th ed.
New Testament Commentary Survey, 7th ed.

In the same vein as the Longman’s Old Testament Commentary Survey, D. A. Carson wrote a companion volume for New Testament commentaries.

Bestcommentaries.com

This site has aggregated reviews on thousands of commentaries to come up with a well-regarded list of the top commentaries for every book of the Bible.

Denver Seminary recommendations

These bibliographies from Denver Seminary categorize their recommendations by different types of commentaries.

Refine Your Interpretation

Now that you've cast new light on your interpretation, refine it. You likely had some questions answered and assumptions corrected. Note those changes, because they are probably going to be the most interesting parts of your paper.

Reflect Theologically

So far, we've been squarely in the realm of textual interpretation. A big part of interpreting a text properly, though, is doing theological reflection—asking questions like:

For all of these, commentaries and theological dictionaries can be helpful for you. Typically you can find a "Theology" section in a commentary that speaks to these questions.

Resources for theological reflection

Every good Bible reader needs to have an arsenal of theological resources, especially systematic theologies. There are hosts of systematic theologies, which is why our first recommendation is the Theology Guide in Logos.

Logos Theology Guide

The Theology Guide collects and displays key information related to all the major topics in systematic theology. It provides a brief introduction to each topic and links directly to systematic theologies in Logos.

Explore the Theology Guide in Logos
Ranked systematic theologies

This impartial list from Bestcommentaries.com ranks systematic theologies by popularity, providing a wonderful introduction to the best systematic theologies. Tip: Purchase these in Logos.com so that they are linked with all your Logos tools for more seamless and thorough study.

Browse the systematic theologies ranking

Write Your Paper

You've studied, reflected, researched, and reflected more—now it's time to bring it all together.

Your paper should follow whatever parameters your professor sets out, so the below advice may not be relevant for you.

At any rate, here are a few pointers.

How to write a good paper

Here are three resources to help you write well on any topic, but especially the Bible and theology.

Tyndale Seminary: How to Write an Effective Paper

This is a mercifully short yet comprehensive guide, and it’s organized well. Consider it a crash course in the most important rules of theological writing.

Read the guide
John Frame: How to Write a Theological Paper

This short post by John Frame (adapted from a book) is more about the heart of a good paper than about the mechanics. Paired with the above article, you are nearly all set.

Read the guide
Elements of Style

This is a short, punchy, classic work about writing. It mainly covers grammar and style—from the right way to use commas to how not to be boring. If you ever write anything, you should read this book.

Explore the book

Behold Your Paper

That's a wrap! If you follow these steps, you'll have thoroughly examined a passage, invited the history of its intepretation into your own work, and reported your findings well to other. Now repeat for other texts to become an even better student and teacher of the Bible.