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The Crucial Missing Elements: Review of Leithart, Deep Exegesis, ch 4

Peter J Leithart Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture, Baylor 2009
Chapter 4: The Text is a Joke

The subtitle for this chapter is “Intertextuality” (p109).  This chapter is an exploration of why some people will get a certain joke while others will not, and why some people can read things into texts that others simply can’t see. Leithart bemoans how students of the Bible are “usually inoculated against literary fancies early on in their training. The more expert they get, the more inoculated they become” (109). Of course this inoculation against eisegesis, that is reading things into the text that are not there, renders the exegetical methods of the patristic Fathers and the Bible itself alien, shocking and inaccessible to the modern interpreter (110). Leithart agrees this is well motivated, but that it has resulted in “drastically under-reading scripture” (111). As a positive example he quotes Dale Allison’s interpretation of Matt 1:1, “The interpretation of this line can be nothing other than the unfolding of what is not stated” (111). For Leithart this gets to the nub of the matter “Interpretation is all about tracing out the crucial missing elements that make the text mean what it does” (112).

Leithart moves on to an illustrative discussion of jokes and humour, finding much use in the movie Shrek, where most of the jokes in the movie rely on the viewer’s prior knowledge of fairy stories, nursery rhymes and other movies. At no point do those things get explained by the movie, but without them no one can “get” what the movie is about (113-15). Returning to the issue of exegeis he argues that “Even the most rigorously grammatical and historical exegesis of the Bible depends on connections between text and text, or text and speech, or text and extratextual reality” (116). Thus the distinction between exegesis and eisegesis is an unhelpful “pretense” (117).

Leithart continues to make his case with an example from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice’s use of the Bible and one from Eliot’s use of Dante’s Inferno (119-24). He argues that in the same way Scripture relies on such intertextual “jokes” to create its meaning giving examples, again, from John 9, in particular Jesus’ use of mud on the man’s eyes and relating it to God’s shaping of Adam from the mud and imagery of God as potter in Jer 18, etc (124-32). He then moves on to argue that what is taken to be a subjective literary reading is not really so different from a scientific historical one because they both involve the same process of “theory formation or hypothesizing” (133). Lest anyone faint at the expansive interpretive horizons opening up, Leithart discusses two constraints upon interpretive freedom: historical context and biblical conventions (136-37). Finally he discusses what kind of person makes a good interpreter, like someone who will get a joke, they need both the right background knowledge, that is comprehensive familiarity with the Bible, (138) but also the correct “hermeneutical equivalent to a good sense of humour” (139).

This was a good chapter, not least because I also love the movie Shrek. For me Leithart’s great strength is coming at familiar issues with bombast and originality. He is interesting and he provides you with a new perspective. In this chapter, with me reading, he was preaching to the choir, but I still learned from the way he illustrated and explained. Should Tim Bulkeley also read this book? I don’t know, are these issues that are bothering him? At the moment, for me, Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative is still a more useful and interesting book for a Biblical scholar to engage with reading the Bible literarily (as opposed to literally!). Deep Exegesis is perhaps more aimed at convincing an educated lay-person (perhaps with high brow literature tastes?), but I am finding it very helpful for my own thinking.

Let me know what you think :-)


  1. Since I am mentioned in the text, I must respond. The chapter sounds really good. But, a bit a case of going over familiar territory, a stroll in my local park... Perhaps having discovered literature reading Alter and his ilk in the 80s, and enjoyed intertextualities of many splendid varieties in the 90s, Leinhart in the second decade of the 21st C is surely preaching to the choir?

    1. Well, when you and I read him, probably, but I think he views the conversation as within his own North American Evangelical Biblical/Theological Scholarship. I think you would enjoy it, but I do not think you NEED to read it given the CV you outlined above! :-)


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