Sample Paper on Religious Study

Create a handout or PowerPoint presentation (12-15 slides including title and reference slides) in which you explain the exegetical fallacies noted in the lecture and readings. The wording should be your own and explained in a way that you can use it to teach others. Illustrate with examples from the epistles.

Use three to five academic sources in your paper to support your findings.

While APA format is not required for the body of this assignment, solid academic writing is expected and in-text citations and references should be presented using APA documentation guidelines, which can be found in the APA Style Guide, located in the Student Success Center.



Textbook1. Introducing New Testament Interpretation

Read chapters 5-6.
  1. Greek for the Rest of Us
Read chapters 16-24.


Lecture: Exegeting the Epistles


Most of the New Testament consists of letters written to various churches, individuals, and groups of believers. In one sense, the New Testament epistles are easily translated into the present day because they are addressed to Christians and are mostly didactic in nature. However, in another sense, they are difficult to make applicable today because they are addressed to a specific place and time to a specific set of people. This lecture will contain broad guidelines to help navigate the tricky waters of epistle exegesis by dealing with context, the situational nature of the epistles, and common exegetical fallacies.

Historical Context

Although most students will become greatly annoyed at the redundancy of the first guideline, it is by far the most important and must not be forgotten: context. The epistles must be read in both historical and literary context. First, there is the historical context to consider. These are influences outside the text that affect the interpretation of the epistle. Under the umbrella of historical context falls the author’s cultural and personal context, situation or occasion for writing, and the cultural context of the addressee. It might be difficult to determine the author’s context externally (outside of the letter itself) but there are often clues internally. However, if the exegete is reading a Pauline epistle, the book of Acts will often provide a context for when and whence the epistle was written. After determining and researching the author of the epistle, the next question is about the addressees, both the cultural context and the occasion for the letter being written. This should include especially the question of the ethnicity of the addressee: Jewish, Gentile, Roman, and Greek. Probably the most important tip for determining the occasion for the letter is for the exegete to ask the question: What question would the recipient be asking or what actions has the church done in order to get the answer or rebuke found in this passage? For an explicit example, see 1 Corinthians 5, where Paul explicitly describes the situation in the Corinthian church that he is addressing (Cf. 1 Corinthians 7:1; 1 Thessalonians 4:9, 13; 5:1). Often, this is not nearly as explicit and the interpreter must deduce from the evidence in the text what the situation would have been to which the author is writing. Commentaries can often help in determining this context.

In between historical context and literary context falls the issue of who the author is. Recognizing the author is helpful in determining what the author means by certain words and concepts. Paul may in fact use the word faith <Insert BIB650.v10M7.IMG3> in a slightly different way than say Peter or the author of the epistle to the Hebrews, and so the interpreter must work from the corpus of the author before moving to the rest of the Scriptures to determine the meaning of a concept.

Literary Context

On the other side of the context coin from historical context is literary context, the second important exegetical step in interpreting the epistles. In this step, it is very important for the exegete to be able to determine where a passage begins and ends, and the given chapters and verses in English Bibles are often unhelpful in this endeavor. The traditional chapter divisions are usually correct but wrong enough that the exegete should not blindly follow them when determining the parameters of a passage or argument. When talking about literary context, it is never sentences only but paragraphs and larger units of thought to which one refers. This is because even sentences can have different meanings depending on the context. If a larger portion of text is looked at, the reader is less likely to misinterpret. Each sentence should properly and sensibly fit into the purpose of the paragraph and the paragraph should sensibly fit into the entire argument as well as the entire book. All of these smaller contexts, such as sentences and paragraphs, should flow seamlessly into the argument(s) of the author.

Situational Aspect

Probably the most difficult aspect of the epistles in interpretation is the fact that they are situational or occasional works of literature. That is to say, they were written at a specific time and in a specific place to address a specific set of questions and concerns. How is the modern reader supposed to know which parts of the New Testament are supposed to be left in the 1st century as part of a bygone culture and how does the interpreter apply the parts that remain? First, it is important to determine the differences between the culture of the first century and the modern day with respect to certain passages. If the author addresses an issue that is still an issue to Christians in the interpreter’s context, then the bridge will be short and easy to cross. In many instances, it is simply a one-to-one correspondence. However, if the issue is foreign to the interpreter, it will be important for the interpreter to be able to take off the cultural husk and expose the theological principle of the text. Again, as when interpreting Law texts, this does not mean that there are Platonic theological principles up in the sky somewhere, but the principles are really just the character of God, and whom this God is we are trying to emulate. However, since this is the New Testament, it corresponds to Christ, who is the fullest revelation of God the world will ever see. In any case, the bottom line is that what is applicable for Christians at all times and in all places is the person and character of God in Christ. It is this interpreter seeks and must be able to derive from the cultural covering of the New Testament letters. However, God has chosen to give Christians the Scriptures in the form that they are in so it isimperative that a person first determine what the text meant to the original audience, in all its historical situated-ness. This then provides the framework for determining a legitimate interpretation.

Along these lines, one final thought before dealing with specific exegetical fallacies concerns the nature and genre of the epistles. These epistles truly are letters and as such, they are not intended to be systematic theology texts and cannot be read in such a way. They are pastoral in their approach and not systematic. Do not misunderstand. Most of the theology of the Christian faith comes through these epistles. But it was always theology with a purpose; it was theology in the service of orthopraxy. As such, avoid the first exegetical fallacy of eisegesis, or reading into the text things that are not there. The theology presented in the epistles is to be interpreted within the realm of what Paul intended it to mean to the original audience. And it is very doubtful that Paul intended to write systematic theology texts of different lengths to the various churches that he helped to found.

Exegetical Fallacies

Since the letters are mostly comprised of dense didactic material from which the Christian church gets much of its doctrine, these letters are often studied in the minutest detail; every word is scrutinized. It is therefore important for the exegete to be aware of and avoid some important, yet common, exegetical fallacies. In this lecture, only a select few will be discussed but a fuller description is available in D.A. Carson’s (1984) Exegetical Fallacies. These fallacies are classified as semantic fallacies. Under this rubric, there are three important mistakes to avoid regarding the meaning of Greek and Hebrew terms. This is helpful even if the student does not actually know the primary languages because established commentaries, Bible dictionaries, and even lexical works, will often be guilty of these fallacies.

First to be discussed is the root fallacy. In this fallacy, the exegete does not take into consideration that words change in meaning over time. Therefore, it is contingent on the exegete to determine the meaning of the word at the time of the most probable writing of the Biblical text. In so doing, one is assured of obtaining the most probable meaning of the term. In many cases, where a meaning is not known in Biblical Hebrew, it is possible to find a cognate in another ancient Semitic language from the same time period where the meaning is known. For example, the name for God that appears in Genesis (35:11) as El Shaddai<Insert BIB650.v10M7.IMG4>. This is translated into most English Bibles as God Almighty. The root meaning of Shadad<Insert BIB650.v10M7.IMG5> is to destroy or overpower. Based on this root meaning, the term has been translated, “Almighty,” in order to prevent the reader of Genesis making the association of God as the destroyer, which seems to be an incorrect translation based on the context of usage. On the other hand, in many passages one reads that the name El Shaddai is commonly associated with provisioning His subjects: “May God Almighty [El Shaddai] bless you and make you fruitful and increase your numbers…” (Genesis 28:3), “By the Almighty [El Shaddai] who will bless you with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that lies beneath, blessings of the breasts [shadayim] and of the womb [racham]” (Genesis 49:25). From Ugaritic, an old Canaanite language belonging to the West Semitic sub-family of the Semitic languages dating to the first half of the 2nd millineum, one notes that the Semitic root of Shaddai means the one of the womb or the one of the breast in association with the Cannanite mother-goddess Asherah (Lutzky, 1999). It is also interesting to note that shadayim in Classical Hebrew times (Iron Age II) means breasts (Albright, 1935). Based on this word etymology, one is safe in translating El Shaddai as the God who is provider.

The second fallacy is called semantic anachronism. In this fallacy, the exegete reads a later meaning of a word back into an earlier work. Oftentimes, this happens when rabbinic or early church literature is read back into either the Old or New Testament. It is always important for the exegete to determine when the proposed meanings were used and how chronologically far that is from the target text. For example, it is incorrect for a person reading the church fathers to impose most of the language about church polity and hierarchy back into the New Testament, although the same words may in fact be used. The second level of this fallacy, sadly enough, is when modern-day preachers try to convey the meaning of the Greek term with an English word that gets its etymology from the Greek term. D. A. Carson (1984) provides this example:

Our word dynamite is etymologically derived from du,namij<Insert BIB650.v10M7.IMG6> (power, or even miracle). I do not know how many times I have heard preachers offer some such rendering of Romans 1:16 as this: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the dynamite of God unto salvation for everyone who believes” − often with a knowing tilt of the head as if something profound or even esoteric has been uttered. (p. 32).

It is obvious that Paul did not have any inkling of dynamite in mind when he wrote Romans because dynamite was not invented until the 19th century. This example illustrates the importance of conveying the meaning of a term in the time period in which it was written.

The third important semantic fallacy is called illegitimate totality transfer. This fallacy is committed when an exegete ignores context as the determiner of meaning and allows a word to mean anything within its semantic domain. In other words, they pack everything a word can mean into what it possibly does mean in a particular passage. This fallacy is often committed because an exegete does not recognize the importance (daresay power) of context and that context definitively narrows down the meaning of a specific word in almost all cases.


Albright, W. F. (1935). The names Shaddai and Abram. Journal of Biblical literature54, 173−210.

Carson, D. A. (1984). Exegetical fallacies. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.

Lutzky, H. (1998). Shaddai as a goddess epithet. VetusTestamentum48, 15-36.