The Problem Of New Testament Exegesis -- By: I. Howard Marshall

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 017:2 (Spring 1974)
Article: The Problem Of New Testament Exegesis
Author: I. Howard Marshall

The Problem Of New Testament Exegesis

I. Howard Marshall

University of Aberdeen, Scotland

The problem of interpreting a passage from the Bible is one to which we would all like to find the key, some simple and easy formula that will enable us to approach any text of Scripture and quickly establish its meaning. Alas, there is no such simple answer, but it is possible to indicate some general principles and types of approach which will enable us to wrestle with the text and come to an understanding of it.

The problem of course is not one confined to study of the New Testament or indeed of the Bible as a whole. It is part of the general problem of hermeneutics, i.e. the attempt to understand anything that somebody else has said or written. It follows that much of what will be said here would also apply to any other material that requires interpretation, especially to similar texts from the ancient world. The New Testament, however, poses distinctive problems because of its own individual literary characteristics and also because it is in some sense the Word of God. Our discussion, therefore, will concentrate on the problems of hermeneutics as they apply to the New Testament in particular.


In order to appreciate the nature of these problems it may be useful for us to examine a passage from the New Testament. For this purpose let us look at John 4:1–45, a passage which has the merits of illustrating a variety of points and also of being a fairly familiar story: How does one begin to understand it?

The starting point is no doubt to establish the correct wording of the passage by textual critcism. Different editions of the Greek New Testament vary in their wording according to their editors’ estimate of the relative reliability of the early manuscripts. So far as the present passage is concerned, it may be assumed that the average modern Greek New Testament gives the text with sufficient accuracy.

A second stage consists in understanding the vocabulary, grammar and syntax of the passage in order to give a good translation of it into English.1 It is to be feared that many of us start from the English text, and, to be sure, one does not need to know Greek in order to understand the New

Testament; at least, the individual may not need to do so, provided that in his language group there are others who do possess and share this knowledge with the rest of the community. Translation is of great importance, and there is a case that it is the goal of interpretation rather than a preliminary...

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