The definition of exegesis is Bible leaning and thus is not a word many outside of the church are familiar with. And yet people can understand the idea of trying to interpret a text as the author or authors meant it to be understood. This applies to the US Constitution.

Is there a familiar word that is used by secular society that means to understand what the authors meant when they wrote a text?

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    "Exegesis" doesn't have to be about the original author's intentions. It's about explanation or interpretation in general. If you come to the conclusion that a passage has a hidden meaning that the author was unaware of, that would still be "exegesis". Oct 1 at 18:38
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    You already use the word interpret, so I assume it’s not the answer you are looking for. Can you explain why?
    – Wrzlprmft
    Oct 2 at 8:28
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    critical exegesis is used of texts, whether secular or sacred.
    – TimR
    Oct 2 at 11:13
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    Is that "Bible leaning" or 'Bible learning'?
    – Joachim
    Oct 2 at 13:43
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    Please add the default meaning of 'exegesis', and any signs that a dictionary (or better, dictionaries) license application outside Biblical exposition, Mario. Oct 2 at 14:23

4 Answers 4


(This answer was given and accepted while it was still in the Christianity.SE site. High Performance Mark's more recent answer is much more deserving of the check-mark.)

The word might be "originalism":

Whereas textualist approaches to constitutional interpretation focus solely on the text of the document, originalist approaches consider the meaning of the Constitution as understood by at least some segment of the populace at the time of the Founding. Though this method has generally been called "originalism", constitutional scholars have not reached a consensus on what it means for a judge to adopt this methodology for construing the Constitution’s text. Disagreements primarily concern which sources scholars should consult when determining the fixed meaning of the Constitution. Originalists, however, generally agree that the Constitution’s text had an "objectively identifiable" or public meaning at the time of the Founding that has not changed over time, and the task of judges and Justices (and other responsible interpreters) is to construct this original meaning.

Original Meaning and Constitutional Interpretation | Constitution Annotated | Congress.gov | Library of Congress

  • Thank you. That sounds about right.
    – Mario
    Oct 1 at 15:46
  • As @DJClayworth said, this question would have been more appropriate for English.SE (or Politics.SE). ¶ Aside: not being American, I find it difficult to understand why any country would allow its constitution to be interpreted in any way other than originalism. Words often tend to change their meaning with time (e.g. in my dictionary, using "gender" to refer to a person's sex is marked as "only jocular"). Allowing society to amend the constitution by changing the meaning of its words is quite a strange concept, especially when the change is unintentional. Oct 1 at 19:01
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    originalism is a view of the US Constitution and has zero to do with the art of interpreting text per se. It is a judicial philosophy so this answer is not accurate.
    – Lambie
    Oct 2 at 13:44
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    @RayButterworth with a more modern constitution, a textualist approach is more often the right one - the law does what it says it does, is written in modern legal language, and usually there's little need to divine what the congresspeople voting on the articles really meant. US is a bit of a special case - the constitution is both ancient and holds a special reverence in the shape it's in, so it ends up interpreted very vaguely, not unlike a religious text. Oct 2 at 13:47
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    @Mario: This is really not accurate. Exegesis has long been widely used in secular contexts, not just scriptural; while originalism is very recently-established, and very rarely used in contexts outside American constitutional law.
    – PLL
    Oct 2 at 16:27

I, armed with the following from the OED, dispute the assertion that exegesis means Bible learning. OED tells me the word means

An explanation or interpretation of a text, esp. of scripture or a scriptural passage. Also more generally: a critical discourse or commentary.

so the word is especially but not exclusively applied to the study of scripture.

(I also dispute that many outside the church are unfamiliar with the word.)

So exegesis is available to be used when making a critical reading of a text, religious or otherwise. And in this degraded age, when so few are concerned with the study of scriptures, I don't see why we secularists oughtn't to say

Hang on a minute, that's a useful word, we'll have that back from the believers. Why, I might call my next PhD thesis The Exegesis of Elon Musk's Twitterings.

And, while I'm in the mood for an argument, I'll take a wee swipe at originalism and textualism as replacements for exegesis. They are, rather, approaches to exegesis.

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    Exegesis is definitely used more widely than the Bible, although it's a specialized word (I'd guess more people understand exegesis than originalism, as the latter is linked specifically with US legal theory and in that sense is quite recent). Also, contrary to the question, exegesis doesn't necessarily mean interpreting solely according to authorial intent.
    – Stuart F
    Oct 2 at 8:43
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    To provide some supporting evidence; "The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick", which was his analysis of his own mystical experiences, partially, but not completely through the lens of Christianity. Oct 2 at 8:50
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    The word in the OP is "leaning", not "learning" -- they're saying that it tends to be used mostly related to the Bible.
    – Barmar
    Oct 2 at 14:12
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    @Stuart F Biblical exegesis that doesn't accurately reflect Authorial intent is heresy. Oct 2 at 14:27
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    @Mario I misread your question. Completely agree with HighPerformanceMark's answer. See my comment under my answer for the plan to extend HPM's answer. Basically, even in Biblical exegesis there are 3 major camps: 1) historical (emphasis on authorial intent, roughly parallel to Originalism), 2) textual (emphasis on ahistorical aspect of the text as Word of God constrained by inherent grammar and intertextual features, roughly parallel to textualism), 3) reader-response (prioritizing the needs that reader has when engaging with the text) Oct 4 at 16:53

This is a question for literary theory, which is a field that is much more general than the theory of Biblical interpretation (Biblical hermeneutics) which in turn underwrites the many methods of Christian exegesis. The term you're looking for is authorial intent:

In literary theory and aesthetics, authorial intent refers to an author's intent as it is encoded in their work. Authorial intentionalism is the view that an author's intentions should constrain the ways in which a text is properly interpreted.[1] Opponents, who undermined its hermeneutical importance, have labelled this position the intentional fallacy and count it among the informal fallacies.

  • Exegesis is far broader than authorial intent. Oct 4 at 16:29
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    @TimothyAWiseman Agreed. I misread the question. I'm planning a revision to explain that 1) OP misunderstood Biblical exegesis; 2) exegesis is more general than Biblical exegesis but use the same technique; 3) an element of exegesis (Biblical or otherwise) is authorial intent; 4) there are parallels between interpreting the constitution and interpreting the Bible by the various camps using different hermeneutical principles that give different priority to authorial intent. Oct 4 at 16:46

I think HPF has the correct answer, that you've misunderstood the meaning of the word.

However, it does indeed often imply application to The Bible in particular. If you want a term for doing the same thing without that implication, the process in general is called textual criticism, or more generally source criticism. This is what we say we are employing when we use similar analysis techniques on other works, like perhaps the Iliad. The process of trying to gather history from ancient sources through methods like this is called The Historical Method (meant to imply similarity as much as feasible to The Scientific Method)

Note that "a text as the author or authors meant it to be understood" can itself be problematic for anything that was primarily hand-copied throughout its early history. Any such work of any size will have changes/errors in every copy made. Figuring out what was likely the original text (if there even was one) of such a work can be quite a challenge, and that's a challenge that we simply do not have with works from the mass-printed era, such as the US Constitution. This is probably the main distinction between textual criticism and source criticism.

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    Again, I think HPF has the correct answer to the question as currently stated. I'm trying here to answer what I think the OQ was actually wanting to know about.
    – T.E.D.
    Oct 2 at 20:08

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