In many circles, academic and ecclesiastical, eisegesis is bad news. You are always told not to do it, and when you do, you are condemned. So what is eisegesis? It is reading your personal interpretations into the Biblical text. The “correct” way to read Scripture, say some, is using exegesis, which is bringing out the supposed “clear” meaning of the text or the intention of the author. I often find that nobody really does eisegesis, if you ask them at least. Exegesis is what you do with Scripture; eisegesis is what your opponent does.
I bring this up because I was in a conversation last night where a non-Catholic accused Catholics of being eisegetes for “finding” Mary in the Old Testament. Mary, according to “sound exegetical principles” is not in the Old Testament, he reasoned, therefore we have no right to use Old Testament Scriptures to back up “clearly unbiblical ideas” like Mary’s assumption and queenship.
At this point, I realized that I had a grave confession to make: I have no problem using eisegesis (there goes any chance of me getting into a Biblical Studies PhD program!). The thing is that I believe everyone is an eisegete. From the Baptists who claim to “just follow Scripture” to the United Church of Christ scholar who claims the same thing: every last one of us uses eisegesis. Can we ever approach Scripture totally objectively? Is there even an “objective” meaning (from a purely scholarly standpoint) to the text, since both the Old and New Testaments were written for living, religious communities, and the texts were intended for these communities only. So can a scholar in the 21st century really objectively find the meaning of the text? Maybe, Maybe not. Also, even the most objective researcher has biases that will, even subconsciously, be read into the text.
Additionally, we Christians are the original eisegetes: we read Jesus into the Old Testament. I hate to break it to everybody, but Jesus isn’t in the Old Testament if you strictly exegete the text, otherwise every Jew would have accepted Jesus as the Messiah, because his name and location would have been clearly spelled out. Basically we have to read Jesus into the Old Testament. The Church has consistently found Jesus (and Mary and all sorts of New Testament concepts) in the text where Jewish exegetes did not find him. My response to all of this: good! We Christians believe that Jesus is the interpretive lens through which we are to read Scripture. So yes, we are interpreting Scripture though a very biased lens, but if it is the right lens, then we are safe. We are truly eisegetes, by modern academic and certain Protestant standards, but what is wrong with that? If Jesus himself truly is the Word (logos), then it makes perfect sense that the Old Testament be read typologically to find Jesus there. From our standpoint, Jesus is there, and thus we find him everywhere we can, whether his presence is clear to all modern “exegetes” or not.
Now, I am not saying all interpretations are right, or that eisegesis itself is a divinely inspired concept or anything. There are limits to eisegesis, and the community that produced the texts, the Church, sets various limits on how its own documents may be read. So while we are obvious eisegetes by modern academic standards, as Catholics we are not permitted to “read into” Scripture anything that contradicts Apostolic Truth. In other words, we find Jesus in the Old Testament because he is truly there. So maybe (and I am thinking out loud here) Catholics tend to operate outside the strict modern categories of exegesis and eisegesis when reading, interpreting, and preaching Scripture. This is because we believe that we truly are finding the actual meaning of the texts when we read them with the Apostolic Church in light of the person of Christ. However, this seems like eisegesis from the perspective of non-Catholics, when it is really a sort of “Apostolic exegesis.”
Ultimately, the idea that we can use exegesis to neutrally find the objective truth of the Bible has led to various contradictory readings of Scripture. This means that the Jehovah’s Witnesses are “just using sound exegesis” when they conclude Jesus is Michael the Archangel, and so is the Jesus Seminar, when they conclude Jesus was just a good man. In fact, unchecked exegesis has certainly contributed to the myriad Christian denominations we now have.
So, I stand by my beliefs: I am an unrepentant eisegete! I read Scripture with the community that wrote it, through the lens of the Word of God. I find all sorts of Apostolic Truths in Scripture. Biased? yes. Right? I hope.
Note: this post was edited/updated for clarity.