There is a paper put on a table in a room with five doors, each taller than the one next to it. On the paper the text reads in an ancient Egyptian language:

"Behind the tallest door you will find the most precious stone."

A class of three literary students are asked to uses exegesis to determine what the stone is.

The first student argues that the word 'precious' used in the text (kariptka) is very similar in origin to the word 'kariptko' which means bright orange, derived from the use of a rare orange herb that was used to paint royal stripes on the faces of wealthy children. He says the intended meaning must therefore be gold.

The second student says one can't determine what stone is being referred to and is most likely merely representative of all valuable stones. The tallest door is an allegory for an opening extending to heaven. The statement simply means if you live a life that leads upwards it will bring you true riches.

The third student opens the tallest door and finds a large diamond inside. He takes the text to literally mean that there was a diamond placed in the room whose entrance had a tall door. The text called for external investigation and it was pretty obvious upon inspection.

Which (if any) of the three students used exegesis to arrive correctly at the meaning of the text?


4 Answers 4


Student 1 makes an attempt at exegesis, but fails on four counts:

  • He commits the exegetical "root word fallacy", trying to assign meaning based solely on etymology

  • He assumes the pericope is prose

  • He makes the blunder of calling gold a "stone," as rhetorician noted

  • He makes an unwarranted jump from objective observation to absolute certainty in his conclusion

However, kudos to Student 1 for at least considering the historical context of the writing.

Student 2 makes another attempt at exegesis, but fails on four counts:

  • She assumes the pericope is allegory

  • She makes the unjustified claim that "one can't determine what stone is being referred to"

  • She interprets "most precious stone" (which is grammatically singular and exclusive) as "all valuable stones" (which is plural and inclusive)

  • She provides an interpretation for her allegory that is unsupported by the text or historical context

Student 3's exegesis is implied by his action. He clearly assumed the pericope was prose, took the statement to mean that behind the tallest of the five doors he would find a precious stone, and went to investigate. What he found confirmed his suspicion, but everything that happened after he left the table to go investigate was subsequent to exegesis. Exegesis did not tell him the stone was a diamond; it merely told him where to look.


Students 1 and 2 attempted exegesis, but committed a number of blunders. Student 3's exegesis was not described, but with what little we know, it would appear he read the text correctly.

  • I think this is an acceptable analysis regardless of how you answer this follow up clarification. Q: Is it correct in your view then to say that it means in this example understanding the text as originally written by the author required more than exegesis (assuming of course that the writer intended the person to understand that it was a diamond which was the precious stone).
    – Mike
    Commented Jul 22, 2013 at 0:55
  • @Mike It depends on what you mean by "understanding the text." If the author intended for the reader to understand from the text that it was a diamond, then either (A) "the most precious stone" must already mean "diamond" to the author and intended audience, or (B) he should have written "diamond," and his text was flawed. If the author intended for the reader to make a connection once they saw the diamond, and then have an "aha" moment, then both exegesis and experience (working together) would be necessary for this to happen in the reader.
    – Jas 3.1
    Commented Jul 22, 2013 at 3:17
  • that seems reasonable
    – Mike
    Commented Jul 22, 2013 at 7:32
  • @Jas 3.1 Your interpretation of Student 3's actions, from the text, are eisegetical--you even presuppose that he even read the text. (He could have just been exploring the text's context and happened upon the door.) Just thought this was ironic. :) Commented May 30, 2015 at 5:24
  • @e.s.kohen Haha... True, I took it as a given that he read the text. Of course I did so because I know Mike & had a good idea what he was driving at with his question... which is an important part of exegesis. So maybe we could at least agree that I attempted exegesis? Mike's response would seem to indicate my assumption was correct and so I'd argue on that basis that I successfully attempted exegesis, and therefore I think it's safe to say I did exegesis. Thanks for the brain twister though!
    – Jas 3.1
    Commented Jun 28, 2015 at 2:56

Before I venture a guess to your question (which sounds to me like a trick question!), I suggest you change the word "stone" to "substance," since I don't think gold qualifies as a stone; it's a precious metal. Now if the gold is ensconced within a stone or there is an obvious vein of gold throughout the stone, then no change would be needed.

That being said, the second student is not on the right track, because he is conflating exegesis and hermeneutics. While the two processes have certain commonalities and are not hermetically sealed off from one another, they do have their differences.

Whereas both processes reflect a mutual interest in words as to their cultural/historical denotations, connotations, syntax, grammar, etymology, and more, hermeneutics is more interested in what a passage means than in what it says, and exegesis on the other hand is more interested in what the passage says than in what it means. (Obviously, both exegesis and hermeneutics are both concerned with meaning, in a general sense, because meaning is the foundation of any attempt at "languaging," whether of the written/verbal, oral, and/or nonverbal types.)

The second student, then, has bypassed exegesis and has suggested a hermeneutic prematurely, without providing a clearly established link between what the writing says and what it means. He also hasn't given a rational reason why the type of stone cannot be known; he simply assumes that it can't. He gave up too soon, in my opinion.

The third student was obviously able to read the writing (I assume all three students have the ability to read this ancient Egyptian language), but he bypassed exegesis and went directly to hermeneutics, and along the way he engaged in eisegesis, meaning he imposed his meaning of precious onto the text and then acted on that understanding. Who knows, perhaps what was considered a precious stone in ancient Egypt was something other than a diamond.

Moreover, the third student may have been correct in his assumption that the stone must be a diamond, but can an exegete ever reach a level of absolute certainty? To do so would require he or she engage in time travel and confirm or disconfirm his or her theory of what an ancient text means by literally opening a door within the ancient setting to see what's on the other side of the door. The best an exegete can do is to 1) do his homework; and 2) see what happens when he shares his findings in the marketplace of ideas within his discipline.

The first student, to me, seems to be on the right track. First, she "argues" her case, which is critical in any exegesis. Language by its very nature can very often be ambiguous, and good exegesis provides with it reasons why a certain reading is preferable to a different or conflicting reading.

In a sense, rhetoric is the tool by which one makes his or her "case." One argues one's case and then gives someone else (a peer, for example) the chance to poke holes in it and perhaps come up with a better one. (Sorry, but this is the perspective through which I have been trained to see phenomena. "Facts," as good as they are, are a dime a dozen; how they fit into a cohesive theory or explanation for--in this case--what a writing says, requires rhetoric (i.e., persuasion), albeit a measured and suitably "scientific" one. After all, if you are going to persuade your teachers or peers of your reading of a text, you need to have done your homework. Then, as you lay out your findings in a socially approved way and within the framework of your discipline's accepted paradigms, you make your case. Rhetoric isn't just an adjunct to the process of reporting the findings of one's research; it is part and parcel of the process.)

So, did student number one do her homework? It would appear so, at least partly anyway. Her assumption that there may be an etymological link between kariptka and kariptko is perhaps warranted. However, the student needs to defend her choice of gold as the "precious stone," since it appears to have been based on no more than an etymological similarity between the two words. That similarity may not be enough to warrant her reading.

In conclusion, the second student gave up too soon and conflated exegesis and hermeneutics. The third student may have engaged in eisegesis, which is, of course, taboo. My vote, therefore, is for student number one. My vote is not without certain reservations, but of the three students she seems to have hewn the closest to some of the basic rules of exegesis. Her use of the words "must therefore be gold," however, begs to be proved.

  • I enjoyed reading your analysis. It's pretty good considering it's a made-up scenario with little information. Your analysis confirms my suspicion that following exegesis without any eisegesis may lead to the obvious wrong answer. I never realized before but it seems eisegeis is sometimes required to understand text that 'has an injunction within it'. For example, 'taste that the Lord is good' or prophecy of future events requires our own investigation which might deposit back a resulting eisegesis into our understanding of the text.
    – Mike
    Commented Jul 22, 2013 at 1:34
  • @Mike Following exegesis didn't lead Student 1 to the wrong answer, deviating from strict, careful exegesis led him to the wrong answer. Good exegesis may not answer all of your questions, but it will always lead you in the right direction.
    – Jas 3.1
    Commented Jul 22, 2013 at 3:07
  • @GoneQuiet - Good point - that's why I am struggling with the term to use. I have to call it something else. I think I will raise another question that get's more to the heart of the matter.
    – Mike
    Commented Jul 22, 2013 at 6:39

The room has five doors. The students are actually in the room. Their task is to determine the unfolded exegetical meaning of the text. Determination of the identity of the "stone" from the text alone cannot be obtained. The historical-literary province of the text is not given: allegory, poetry, history, science, civil document; this is important in semantical determination of the text. Prima facie the nature of the stone cannot be determined solely from the uncontexted content of the text alone. Text-type might determine the historical period; the historical context of the period and the majority of kind of documents produced at that time might determine the kind of literary writing (prose, poetry, symbolic allegory of one of the ancient mysteries schools); the in situ locale might be determinative, the architectural period of the room and the five doors in the room, if these are indeed the five doors referenced in the text; information on if the text was taken from a more complete known document, and what that document was. If the students presented the text are knowledgeable re these things, or are given this information, then conclusions drawn by them based on the historical relevance of the ancient text type and where it was found will be highly suggestive, but they finally cannot with certainty from the textual data alone determine the nature of the stone behind the tallest door. The knowledgeable student will submit that the task as stated cannot be fulfilled, and with respect will state the reasons, as here given. More data must be supplied by the examining instructor, or the exegesis will be inconclusive. Is the instructor assessing their academic honesty? All three failed exegetical identification of the stone from the text alone: number 3's "field-research" disproved the conclusions of numbers 1 and 2 as empty ignorance without substantiation (not stupidity, which is not the same thing at all). I conclude from 3's actions that 3 is the more intelligently scientific exegete in an implicit acknowledging of indeterminacy re the stone, and following through to determine the available extra-textual facts, whether or not in fact the text was truthful. However large the diamond behind the ancient Egyptian door proved to be, it cannot be established that this particular diamond is the most precious stone (in the whole of creation, or in the entire Egyptian kingdom at the time of writing), and that too is another matter: the writer may have been boasting, lying, or ignorant of the existence of a more precious stone. - Michael Paul Heart


I just wanted to throw a different view point out there, (to get get some corrections)--although a completely different answer has already been accepted.

  • Student 3: What student 3 did, or did not do, must be inferred, read into the text by the reader, ("we" engage in Eisegesis), and therefore no analysis can be done. They could have just wandered around the room to explore the context of the text, and happened upon the door, or just copied from another.

  • Student 1: Makes a logical fallacy, deriving a deductive conclusion, (must be), from an inductive premise, (a probability based on similarity).

  • Student 2: Makes an inductive argument, which can be appropriate, a valid argument, asserting the probability of inconclusivity. Regardless if their premises were wrong, (that the context was poetic, etc), Bad Exegesis, is still Exegesis. An argument can be valid, but still wrong.

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