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Exegesis (derived from the Greek for "to lead out") refers to a process of intense study and interpretation of a literary text. It is a subset of hermeneutics, which refers to interpretation in general.
Exegesis in religion
Its greatest utility is in a field where entire lives can hang on the omission or misplacement of one word; namely, the study of holy books. To understand how important exacting textual analysis is in these matters, one might consider the examples of the Wicked Bible and the Fools Bible, where the misplacement of two words might have resulted in whole legions of faithful unwittingly going to hell in a dizzying whirl of adulterous debauchery and atheism.
The scholarship required for exegesis also greatly reduces the possibility of certain parts of a text being read the wrong way. For example, a naïve reading of Exodus 21:23-25 would suggest that it is an exhortation for people to go out and avenge themselves bloodily on anyone who does them wrong. However, exegesis will allow the reader to discover that back in those days, such quests for vengeance were a given, and the verse is in fact of an old principle known as the lex talionis, which was meant to limit the scope of such quests to keep the severity of the punishment equal to the severity of the offense. This in turn makes it much more understandable when Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, cites these verses as justification for a categorical condemnation of revenge.
|—Edgar Allan Poe|
As the whole purpose of exegesis is to bring out meaning in a text that is not facially evident — and, indeed, may facially appear to contradict itself — it is very easy to read whatever you first thought of into the text. This possibility has been heavily exploited in the arena of Biblical exegesis. When you go so far that even other Biblical scholars notice you're doing this, the proper term is "eisegesis".
The use of bullshit in exegesis is by no means restricted to Biblical exegesis. A current fashion today is to take some ideology and fashion a literary school-of-thought out of it by running the entire corpus of literature through the lens of the ideology. The transcendentalists were an early example of this tendency, as they believed that morality could be read everywhere in the world and consequently read much more meaning into works than was actually there. A more modern example is postmodernism, in which hermeneutics (the local term) involves examining the hidden assumptions and philosophical underpinnings of a work, the exact nature of these hidden assumptions and philosophical underpinnings having been largely pre-determined.
- Edgar Allan Poe, Never Bet the Devil Your Head