As a result of recent debate over whether certain answers would be considered acceptable on this site, we posed the question "What are we looking for in answers?". In my foray into the issue, I noted that of the two main classes of questions we field (questions about the field of hermeneutics and questions asking for exegesis of a passage), it is answers to the exegesis questions that we need to give some extra guidance to. My proposal for what makes a good vs a bad answer seems to be almost universally* well received.

The major thrust of my proposal was that in order to be instructive in the field of hermeneutics, rather than just dishing out the doctrinal conclusions that are the result of exegesis, answers must show their work. This builds on the idea we long ago settled that our exegesis questions must arise directly from a textual issue rather than being topical as can happen on the religion specific SE sites. I proposed that answers must pick up directly from the text rather than skipping ahead to a doctrinal point, even if that doctrinal point is seen in that text by some hermeneutical approach and doctrinal framework.

In short, the hue and cry seems to be that we support a "show your work" policy/guideline for answers. The question now is, what does "show your work" actually look like? Are there specific features of an exegetical answer that qualify as showing your work? Are there any universals that must be present in order to do this properly?

I am primarily asking for an ideal description here, but it might also be useful to describe some gradations of "showing work" and identify at what point the qualifications would be considered not met. Please answer this question as if you were using it to communicate to a new user who is not familiar with our policy of requiring "show your work". What should people be doing here to fulfill our "show your work" policy?

I also suggest that discussing what "show your work" looks like is a prerequisite to discussing what action should be taken by high-rep users and moderators on answers that don't meet the guidelines. The discussion of how to handle people missing the mark should be reserved for a future question independent of how we define "show your work".

* I realize I'm not a neutral party to declare that, but if anybody wants to contest this being identified as community consensus you should be over on that question voting, answering and commenting to make your voice heard.

Conclusion

The most lenient answer (top-voted at the time of this edit) will be our minimum standard. In a nutshell, you have to show a logical path from the text to your conclusion or quote sources that do so. The next-most-voted answer is what we aspire to and is a little stricter: if using another source you need to show the logic it uses, not just cite it, and, further, claims that don't arise from the text (such as assertions of historical fact) must be sourced. Answers that satisfy the more-lenient requirement are considered acceptable, but ones that satisfy the stricter requirement will likely fare better in voting and acceptances.

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5 Answers 5

Exegesis of Biblical texts is also on topic for several other StackExchange sites whose respective scopes are limited to a particular religious tradition. What makes us different from those sites is that here, our focus is primarily on the process of hermeneutical analysis, not the final output of that process.

This distinction is significant and critical for users of this site to understand, but in practice the degrees of implementation are often subtle. In order to highlight the issue to see the essence of the distinction more clearly, allow me to suggest the following hypothetical example that might appear on the Unix & Linux site:

Question:
I have a text file that has a list of items preceded by a number, like this:

4 small rocks
12 match sticks
2 rubber ducks

How can I get a copy of this list in numerical order?

Now let's think about what sort of answers this might draw, keeping in mind that we want to identify what it means to "show your work" on this site and why some answers are not acceptable to us. How does this answer strike you?

Answer:
This is a great question and I agree it is really important to keep your inventory in order. I have studied this matter in light of the numbering scheme my business uses in their documents and found that the correct ordering is:

12 match sticks
2 rubber ducks
4 small rocks

I hope you find this enlightening.

Do you see how this manages to 'answer' while not actually answering the original question at all? This is the classic issue faced on this site1 where doctrine heavy 'answers' neglect to teach us anything about hermeneutics at all.

So lets try another one.

Answer:
Ordering a list in numerical sequence can be done with the use of a sort program. In the case of your question I've used a standard numerical algorithm on your list and the output is:

2 rubber ducks
4 small rocks
12 match sticks

Note that some lists involving numbers might not actually work with a purely numerical algorithm, such as dates that don't use sane patterns.

This is better in the sense that it suggests a method that arrives at the correct output and even notes some anecdotal stuff that might be useful for future cases, yet on a fundamental level this still does not answer the question because it does not show how it was achieved. The person answering could clearly be considered an expert, but this is not the sort of answer we are looking for.

Finally, here is a sample answer that shows its work:

Answer:
Text lists like yours may be sorted by piping them through a variety of programs that re-arrange the lines. The simplest such program that would handle this case is the sort command. While it will sort alphabetically by default, this will not work for your case of sorting numbers with a variable number of digits. To get a numerical sort you can use the -n flag. Assuming your list is in the file myitems.txt, you could use this command:

sort -n mylist.txt

This will read the contents of the file and output the results based on a numerical sort of the first word of each line.

For the example input you gave, this will produce the following output:

2 rubber ducks
4 small rocks
12 match sticks

There are also more advanced options for sorting based on other criteria (e.g to sort for abbreviated but human readable numbers such as '2K' after '1999', use the -h flag). The man page for your sort program will list the options, but for the example you gave, sort -n should suffice.

Observe that while this answer gives the same final output as the previous answer, it only does so to illustrate the results of a method which is detailed in such a way that the person asking can now go and do likewise. If they are inept at using a shell they may still fail to exactly duplicate the process, but at least the main points of the process have been spelled out. The final output could have just as easily have been left off and the answer would still be valid.

Based on my experience reviewing answers on this site this is the most common problem we face. It is harder to see when neither the final output nor the process is quite as clearly defined as POSIX shell usage is2. I realize that not all hermeneutical methods are perfectly reproducible (if indeed any are). On the other hand I think it is vital to realize that this site is where people come with questions about the process. If they just wanted the output they would be better off getting it from their respective traditions. Here, all answers are expected to spell out or demonstrate the process so that readers are informed about the process of hermeneutical analysis more than they are the take away meaning of any given passage.

In conclusion, I propose this lesson: as a way to evaluate answers here if you mentally strip away the final output portion of an answer and find that there is nothing left, such a post is Not An Answer for the purposes of this site however true or relevant the content may be.

1. When we remove these sort of things as Not An Answer, as often as not the authors cry 'censorship' and 'just because you don't agree with my view doesn't make it not true' when the reason for deletion is just that they missed the point of the question—and indeed of this site.

2. For a good laugh, see If UNIX were a religion.

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Absolutely brilliant. –  Jon Ericson Jan 3 '14 at 10:32
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<slow clap>.... This is pure gold. –  Dan Jan 5 '14 at 6:48
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I also wanted to reprint one of Jon's comments elsewhere for preservation: " I think I know what my problem is: if we can't reproduce the logical argument of a commentary, it might be useful as a historical source, but it doesn't (in itself) count as an answer that is backed up. For some questions, that might be the best we have, I suppose. But in general, we should be able to reproduce the work that a commentator did to arrive at their answer. If we can't, the answer fails to show it's work even if the conclusion is correct. No commentator is authoritative enough to be above this standard." –  Dan Jan 11 '14 at 21:14
    
This example of "show your work" amazed and shamed me. Understanding the Bible has to be worth as much effort, or so it seems to me. –  Davïd Jan 14 '14 at 1:09
    
This is complete crap. People vote based on the information provided, and the claim "show your work" is just there to censor conclusions you don't like, because you can declare that they are unsupported, downvoted, and to the upvoters, you are out of your mind. –  Ron Maimon Jan 27 at 9:35
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@RonMaimon You're so full of baloney dude! Don't you get tired of crying wolf? As often as not this site's "show your work" policy does just the opposite: it serves as a crutch to give a platform to answers that would otherwise be discarded as complete balderdash. There are all manner of conclusions (including some of yours) presented around here, some of which one or more mods find ridiculous and would just assume pitch. But, thanks to this policy, anything with a half baked line of reasoning showing how the conclusion was arrived at working up from the text gets a pass. So catch a clue ;-) –  Caleb Jan 27 at 10:02

what does "show your work" actually look like?

The ideal answer is one that has a train of reasoning that can be understood. Claims that don't arise from the reasoning itself need support. This is what 'showing your work' looks like.

What is a "train of reasoning that can be understood"?

The question needs to start from a text, the answer needs to answer the question, but the journey from text to question to answer should be a series of steps that a reasonable mind can comprehend. If most people are left thinking "How on earth does X lead to Y" then the answer is not ideal.

A simple example [1] :

Q What is the opinion on Jesus's use of the phrase "the eye of a needle" in Mark 10:25, Could it refer to the small gate which required a camel to unladen and cross through on its knees or could it be an extreme analogy?

A If it did refer to something that was merely difficult, the immediate reaction of the disciples would be incomprehensible:

26And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, "Then who can be saved?"

Here the logic is a single step from the context of the text in question (actually the following verse). Many other answers require more than a single step from text to conclusion, but the principle is the same: help us understand each step to your conclusion.

When showing steps from the text to your conclusion, it does not matter if the reasoning you present is your own or someone else's. If you draw from other sources (such as commentaries), quote or paraphrase the passage so we can see the logic for ourselves. What matters is that the argument is logical and understandable, leading us step by step to your conclusion.

In this example, the answer is a combination of original reasoning and quoted commentary that knit together to support the conclusion of "provoking" to What does “put the branch to their nose” in Ezekiel 8:17 mean?. Do the two sources of reasoning complement each other and take us step-by-step from the text to the conclusion? That is the basis on which the answer should be judged as "showing it's work". It should not matter whether a quote is included from an 'authority', as all the words quoted are logical reasoning from Biblical texts. What matters is whether the reasoning makes sense.

How should claims that don't arise from the reasoning itself be supported

Another answer to the Eye of the Needle question takes a factual approach:

A The idea of the "eye of the needle" being a gate apparently had its origins in the Middle Ages.

This argument does not arise from a train of reasoning, but makes a truth claim, for which supporting evidence is provided. If we make factual claims we should back them up with credible sources.


1 I've taken some liberties with the question and the answers to help me make my points!

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My personal criteria

My problem with this question is that I have a fairly well-defined standard for myself, which may or may not be appropriate to apply to other people and other hermeneutics. I believe mine is a high standard and that the community standard might be somewhat less strict.

Exegesis begins with observations from the text and sourced information about the historical situation of the text in order to build a logical argument for one answer to the question at hand.

Observations

Practically anything about the text is fair game for observation, but when we talk about the text, we are talking about a reconstruction of what originally existed in , , or . That means is required and that observations in English may be trumped by observations in the original. (For people such as myself who operate exclusively in English, that means relying on the work and notes of expert translators.)

The entire corpus of an author may be used as evidence, but priority must be given to observations in context. Common observations my include word choice, repetition, logical constructions, identification of tropes typical for the genre, literary structures, quotations of outside texts, etc. and so on. Allusions to other Biblical texts are important to identify, but we must be sure the reference is backwards and not forwards (I.e., Isaiah might be calling-back to Moses, but not the other way around.)

Historical situation

We are no longer connected to the period of time in which our texts. An honest examination of questions should consider and the of the author and his audience. Sources should be evaluated according to the historical method, which is to say: primary sources are better than secondary and so on. When historical claims are made, answers should reference (and perhaps quote) the relevant source.

Logical argument

Putting those pieces together in a way that answers the question, may require a valid deductive argument. While we don't need every answer to connect all the prepositional dots, we need to be able to follow the steps. This bit is like doing math homework: if you show your work evaluators can give you partial credit. Jumping right to the conclusion may mean that you will be downvoted even if your answer is right!

Commentaries

Referencing the work of other commentators can be useful if they also show their work. Since some commentators are themselves secondary sources, they may be useful for understanding the historical situation of the text. But no commentator is above criticism. Therefore, we should used commentaries as confirming evidence rather than to provide the main argument.

Allegory

While allegorical interpretations are currently not much in favor, they certainly can meet the above criteria. Ideally, allegorical answers would survey example texts that illustrate how the particular words or images may be interpreted consistently across the canon of scripture.

Conclusion

Above all, if our answers must begin with the text, all observations from the text that are required to support an answer must be laid out explicitly.

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Summary:

'Show your work' should mean logically showing the route from the text in question all the way up to your conclusions without assuming much knowledge except a familiarity with the Biblical Texts.

When showing our work, we might assume this much knowledge of the Biblical Texts:

slight                                                     v        perfect   
<=========================================================================>

and assume this much intelligence, command of logic, command of English, common sense:

slight                                         v                    perfect   
<=========================================================================>

and assume this much knowledge of the religious traditions and personalities, history, jargon:

slight     v                                                        perfect   
<=========================================================================>

I think it would be wise to try and learn from the experience on Sketptics.SE, so I'm going to quote a bit from their meta.

First, from their FAQ:

Skeptics is about applying skepticism — it is for researching the evidence behind claims you encounter. It is not for speculation, philosophical discussions or investigating original claims.

Then from the meta post linked in the FAQ excerpt above:

The biggest surprise to new users is our insistence on references in the answers. Many forums will appear to simply accept at face-value the word of a random internet denizen. Here, we expect to be able to independently check what you are saying — that is a key aspect of being a skeptic — as we want to chase down the evidence, rather than relying on authority or personal expertise. You should expect that people will actually follow up and check your references say what you claim they say.

That means anecdotes, personal stories and testimonials are to be avoided. Answers that rely on logic need some evidence that the premises/assumptions are valid. Ideally, we would like to see links to peer-reviewed empirically-based evidence. This makes writing an answer much harder, but the good answers are appreciated much more.

And from the answers on the 'references' linked meta post, firstly the accepted answer:

Users are required to reference all significant claims they make in their answers.

There are some types of questions that we can safely answer without needing references, however, such as claims that blatantly violate some laws of nature or known scientific facts (around high school level). For example, debunking a claim about a perpetuum mobile, linking to Wikipedia's article about the laws of thermodynamics might be advisable, but only for the reader's convenience.

Bad:

  • "...since I have personally experienced it numerous times"
  • "Anecdotally, I've seen it..."
  • "I heard that it was also caused by ..."
  • "I'm not sure if this idea comes from some research"

Good:

  • "There is a fairly comprehensive article on the topic at..."
  • "A recent Argonne National Lab study concluded that..."
  • Even better, multiple sources

now the other answer (which has roughly twice the votes and is well worth reading in full):

1) That logical argument - i.e. drawing conclusions using logic based on agreed premises - be accepted without requiring references.

and finally, a salient word of caution from one of the comments:

Citation are not facts. Worse, they are really mere arguments from authority which are the very antithesis of skepticism. A true skeptical argument should stand on its own. Every major bad idea of history e.g. eugenics, was once rigorously supported by the intellectual and scientific authorities of its day. The claim that a "skeptical" argument hinges on whether someone took the time to slap up a Wikipedia page is risible. It raises the question of why anyone should bother to contribute to site when they can only provide answers available by a google search.

I don't know for sure how much the experience of Skeptics will be useful here, but I think we'd be ill-advised not to consider the road they've trodden if we are thinking of travelling even a short way on the same path.

My view is that we do need to move in this direction, but not quite as far as Skeptics has gone. For example I think the four top answers on the Eye of the Needle question all show their work in different, and equally acceptable ways, whereas the fifth clearly does not stem from and work up from the text. It looks at other texts but only passingly and superficially at the text that raised in question.

That wording, "stem from and work up from the text" is perfect. 'Showing your work' should mean showing how your answer stems from and works up from the text: connecting the dots along the way.

I'd also like to see one of the Skeptics proposals implemented here in a different form, namely "That logical argument - i.e. drawing conclusions using logic based on agreed premises - be accepted without requiring references". In particular, whereas I think we should not assume anything about the communities knowledge of extra-Biblical jargon or people (eg Martin Luther or Rashi), the Biblical texts themselves and logic that clearly stems from them should not always need to be spelled out. If there is an answer on one of the 12 books used by the Eastern Orthodox church that I have never read, the onus should be on me to read and familiarise myself with those texts or ignore the question. Similarly answers which draw from the Christian New Testament texts should not be required to assume readers need a link to the Paul the Apostle page on Wikipedia if they mention Paul, neither should they need to justify claims such as 'Jesus is God' which are explicitly and clearly supported in texts that are on-topic here. Likewise everything in-between.

Please don't hear me saying that everyone here needs to believe all the texts we look at are inspired: I'm not suggesting an Atheist needs to believe that about the Tanakh, a Jew about Paul's letters or a Protestant about the Eastern canonical books. Nevertheless we should all treat any of these texts as respectable and acceptable sources, whether explicitly quoted or not:

We welcome Jewish, Christian, Atheist and other viewpoints as long as they take seriously the process of understanding the Biblical texts

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more good sense. –  Mike Apr 10 '13 at 10:36

I would like to explain what showing one's work is by using a sample text.

Therefore let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about cleansing rites, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And God permitting, we will do so. (Hebrews 6:1-3, NIV)

If someone asked for the meaning of this verse, it is hard. First, in English 'cleansing rites, laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment' do not seem to be the core topics new believers learn when becoming Christian. Cleansing rites, and laying on of hands are things many Christian never even talk about let alone consider as the basics of their religion?

To get a grip on what is being said we actually do have to take a peek into the original languages and when we do we will find the word order around the cleaning rites is unusual.

After consulting a few commentaries that refer to the original Greek, the explanation of the unusual word order provides a couple theories. I would chose the one that best fits my own view of the analogy of scripture (i.e. the one that does not contradict my understanding of other scriptures).

Principle one. Check if there is an original languages controversy and if you chose one over the other say why. It does not have to be a linguistic reason it can simply be an admission that Dr. So and So makes more sense in his linguistic analysis, when considering something else we believe.

Next from different interpretations of the original language and synthesis of other scriptural concepts held by the interpreter, the explanation will naturally try to explain how 'cleansing rites, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment' is Christianity 101? One theory, might be: 'the elementary concept of Christ to be found in the scriptures and then explained and received through the new baptism followed by the laying on of hands for the receiving of the Spirit, in order to put our hope in the resurrection and final judgement.' Now that seems more like the milk of Christianity 101. A review of history might even suggest this as an actual catechism for those undergoing baptism after repenting of their former life and clinging to Christ by their new faith. Yes this seems like Christianity 101.

Principle two The explanation is an option or a blend of options from other commentaries I have read. If I read it at some point but can't remember where, then I need to look it up and quote the idea from a commentary. I might explain why I prefer that explanation to another one I have read. I might refer to any history surrounding the subject from ancient church beliefs or quotes from relevant history recorded in a modern commentary.

Many questions are a lot easier then this example. Sometimes it is just a quick pointed question about original languages. Sometimes its a pointed question about one simple logical problem. Sometimes just looking for a little historical light about an ancient law or cultural practice. When this occurs only a little of one of the first two principles might work just fine.

Principle three When looking at the perfect answer we need not box ourselves in to a legalistic perfection, but feel free to break away from our own standards if we feel its all a bit of overkill, making the post too long.

Finally some questions are really looking for a 'logical synthesis' of a bible verse with an awareness of many other bible verses. They are looking for an understanding of the Bible that can't be easily identified by a set of exegetical or published hermeneutical approaches. Reason and knowledge at times are the 'thing' someone is looking for and most bible commentators and scholars actually run home to as the most persuasive remedy for a given question. Sometimes the commentaries do not directly discuss the question, so a knowledgeable person's thoughts are appreciated.

Principle four Logic clearly communicated from a given text with reference to other scriptures, without drawing upon original language, history, culture and even other commentaries might be highly respectable and very persuasive. This logic should arise from the text directly and might be clarified by comparing other texts. It needs to be solid if it is to stand all alone. This is the place that is the most easily abused in term of dishonest exegesis, illogical deductions and plain intellectual nonsense. When moral reason pounces upon a text without any seeming regard to it, that reason looses its moral strength. However, reason honestly derived from a set of texts, that appeals to our innate sense of conscience, is a very powerful and gracious lady. And yes, such logic has to bend a bit to the expected courtesies that others have, for good moral logic is kind and not rude.

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