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Being a Bible Scholar

Brigitte Kahl on how Bible scholars approach and think about biblical texts.

Folio from Papyrus 46
Folio page from Papyrus 46

(Adapted from audio interview, 2013)

Well, basically what I understand myself to be doing is really to listen to texts, to listen to what these texts are saying and what it means and why it matters. I think these are my big three questions. And then, of course, in order to find that out, you do a lot of things. And, it is amazing how many different things you really do as a biblical scholar. You start as a translator, even earlier you look at strange letters in Greek or in Hebrew that don’t look like our letters, and you, you kind of look at punctuation and at accents. And then you see how these letters merge into words, and then you look how the words function: you look at cases and declension and there’s the grammar of text and how does the text make sense.

Then, of course, you have to go outside the text; you have to look at other texts that talk to our texts. You have to look at sources. And you not only have to look at written sources, I believe, but also at visual sources. I mean, so you have architecture that you know was around at Paul’s time, for instance, or Jesus’s time. And then you ask yourself, what does this architecture say about how these people saw the world? And you have images. And you have passageways, and you have spaces that are structured in a certain way, and all that gives you a more comprehensive image of the world that is around the words and that helps us read the words.

You have to know about how the texts have been interpreted throughout history, what they meant to different people. And also, how they have harmed people, not only how they have healed, but also how they have hurt, and what we have done with these texts and how, I mean—and that is a terrible chapter—but that our texts are sometimes really drenched in blood. So, what they are carrying is historical baggage: colonialism and kind of forced Christianization and all these things. So … and then you eventually end up in present time and then the question, what, what are people doing with these texts today and how should we responsibly read them today? What is the word of God today, and what does it mean if we—if you—look at our time and our struggles and our concerns and crises?

  • Brigitte Kahl

    Brigitte Kahl is professor of New Testament at Union Theological Seminary in New York. A native of East Germany, her research interests include the relationship between the New Testament and the Roman Empire. Her most recent book is Galatians Re-Imagined: Reading with the Eyes of the Vanquished (Fortress Press, 2010).