Having graded several dozen exegetical papers for NT104, and NT105, I’ve seen it all: the good, the bad, and the σκύβαλα. There is, however, a consistent set of things that I write on paper after paper, and in the hopes of improving your grades (and easing the burden on some future graders!), I offer these tips for how to make your exegeticals shine. I’ve divided them into two categories: “basics” and “advanced.”
1. PROOFREAD!!! Even a cursory use of spell check would improve many papers (but watch out for Gentiles-Gentles, angels-angles). If English is not your native language, consider having a spouse, roommate, or friend help. But for those of us who have grown up speaking English and hold high school and university degrees, a basic level of editing for spelling and grammatical mistakes is the sine qua non of your exegetical. Note that in American English, periods and commas follow parentheses (like so). Formatting and abbreviations should follow department and SBL standards.
2. Follow directions. I can’t stress this enough: look through the grading rubric to make sure you’re doing everything asked of you. Your translation should be a free, “living” one that interprets all of the images and “Christianese.” Imagine translating the passage for those with no Christian background and with a simple literacy level. For your exegetical statement and outline, every point MUST take an adverbial subject (“The means…”). Make the headings in your commentary concise and catchy. Be sure to follow the recommended page length for each section: having outlines, word studies, and applications that are too long but a commentary that is several pages short is a sure way to earn a low grade.
3. Substantiate your claims with the proper tools. This means using lexical tools to make lexical claims, grammatical tools for grammatical points, and commentaries for broader insights. Make sure to use “cf.” when you’re citing a general point (e.g., the nature of the constative aorist) as opposed to a specific usage not given in the source (e.g., the aorist in Eph 5:24 means…).
4. Type Greek correctly. Make sure you use a Unicode font. Grave accents must be changed to acute accents when English follows (that is, at the end of a string of Greek text).
5. Significance, significance, significance. “X is the predicate nominative of Y” doesn’t really help me understand the passage any better: be careful of simply identifying morphological forms or syntactical categories. Be sure to explain the significance of anything you note. Also, make sure that your appendices (TC, word studies, and validations) state the significance of the problem for exegesis up front.
6. Use a variety of tools and reference materials. For lexical tools, use TDNT or EDNT instead of just BDAG (n.b.: BAGD is the older edition and should not be used). For grammars, go beyond ExSyn and use BDF or Robertson. And for commentaries, don’t just quote Hoehner or other conservative scholars: consider using Markus Barth’s Anchor Bible commentary, to give one example. The Bible Knowledge Commentary is NOT an acceptable resource.
7. Don’t short-circuit your validations. Make sure you evaluate the relative strengths and weaknesses of different arguments (don’t just list them). Bring up unresolved problems and surface problematic assumptions. Be thoughtful and thorough. Also, be advised that “context” is not enough of a validation: what specifically in the context are you appealing to and why?
1. Bring in backgrounds (remember NT113?). By backgrounds, I mean OT references or allusions, intertestamental or rabbinic Jewish literature, and Greco-Roman sources (especially in areas like rhetoric). Relevant archaeological data might also fit under this category.
2. Bring in secondary scholarly literature. Search New Testament Abstracts for journal articles on your passage. For NT studies, your best bet would be articles in New Testament Studies, Journal for the Study of the New Testament, Journal of Biblical Literature, and Novum Testamentum. Similarly, the library likely has several different published dissertations or volumes in major monograph series on issues related to your passage. Finally, consider monographs with a broader scope: for Ephesians or Romans, consider what James D. G. Dunn’s The Theology of Paul the Apostle has to say on the issues raised in your passage. For Romans, see also the very interesting new book by Douglas Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul. Consulting the Scripture indices in the back of these books can help save you time.
3. Bring in foregrounds. The current scholarly trends emphasizing reception history should be welcomed with open arms: other centuries of Christians might after all have something worthwhile to share with us! An easy way to do this is to find the relevant volume in IVP’s Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series and turn to the passage you’re working on. Other series focus on medieval and Reformation-era commentary. I’m most interested in patristic-era interpretation, but the more you can show awareness that there is not an “empty gap” between the writing of the biblical text and our day, the better.
4. Beware of generalizations. “The Jews were legalistic” or “The Jews hated Gentiles” unfairly group all Jewish people into one monolithic, negative entity. This is both unfair and inaccurate. As with all people groups, there were almost certainly some that felt this way. But, at the same time, there were many (perhaps a great majority) who did not. Imagine if years from now someone wrote “All DTS students were fundamentalists.” So try to add more nuance: “Paul challenges those Jews who viewed their circumcision as…” or “Hellenization led some elements of Jewish society…” In general, try to avoid beginning a sentence with “The Jews”; if Paul does groups “the Jews” together rhetorically, go with “Paul argues that ‘the Jews’…”