How Bible Scholars Study a Text by Carol Bakhos


You can’t come to the text with a preconceived notion of the text or a question to which you already have the answers; that’s not what we do. We experience the text and the text unfolds and the text has many levels to it and it’s a constant engagement; how often have I read the Noah story and yet, and yet, every time I come back to it, I see something new, something different, something pleasant, something disturbing. Every new conversation I have with students is a new experience of the text.

An article I’m working on now is on the interpretations of the flood narrative in the three traditions and, in particular, how they address the question of the destruction of the animals. So, I spend my day reading, I read the Qur’anic account.

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And then I go to the interpretative sources—a look at Philo for example, an ancient first century Jewish thinker, exegete, philosopher. So, I’ll read various ancient sources to see to what extent they deal with the question, the death of the animals. I’ll also look at the New Testament to see if there’s any reference to it there. I’ll go through the rabbinic texts and then I’ll turn to the Islamic sources, the Tafsir and the Kisah Al-Anbiya’, the stories of the prophets to see if they’ve dealt with this particular question, and then you collect your sources and reflect on them.  

You might well imagine that one of the problems is what sources do you leave out? You know, where do you stop? Do you stop at the medieval period? Do you go into the modern period; modern scholars, and exegetes, theologians must deal with the question of the death of the animals.

But when you’re doing the history of interpretation, you move to the next step. How did they, how did the ancients come to understand these thorny questions? What are the cultural contours that shape their understanding of a biblical passage? What are the burning issues of the day for a particular interpreter? Are those issues the same issues we have? Case in point, I mentioned the animals. By asking, “Why did God punish the animals?” I was asking the wrong question; that’s not the question that the pre-modern interpretive tradition was asking. They were asking why did God destroy His creation. Because…and the difference is the following, I’m a vegetarian, very sensitive to animals and I read the story and thought this is not fair! What did they do? The flood is God’s punishment for the evil ways of the people. He regretted that he had made them. They were sinful and he was going to destroy them with the flood; but he also destroyed animals. Why? That’s not fair!

Again, that’s not the question that pre-modern interpreters understand because they don’t see the world that way. They see the world hierarchically ordered. Animals are subjects subservient to humans; humans are subservient to God; all creation is subservient to God. If you, according to Philo, he uses the analogy, if you cut the head off, the body is no longer of use. So, too, if humans are destroyed what use are the animals? I found this really striking.

So showing those differences isn’t just about the Bible but it’s about understanding how we are in the world, how we read, and how our being in the world shapes the way we read and the questions we ask and it also is an opportunity to appreciate how pre-moderns lived in the world and were shaped by their cultural context.


Carol Bakhos

Carol Bakhos
Associate Professor, University of California, Los Angeles

Carol Bakhos is an associate professor of Late Antique Judaism and Jewish Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. She currently researches late Antique rabbinic compilations and Medieval Jewish and Islamic scriptural interpretation.

Edward Hicks, The Peacable Kingdom. Oil on canvas, circa 1834. National Gallery of Art, Washington.

People who study a text from historical, literary, theological and other angles.

Of or relating to the Middle Ages, generally from the fifth century to the fifteenth century C.E. and overlapping somewhat with late antiquity.

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

A Jewish philosopher who lived from roughly 20 B.C.E. to 50 C.E. whose writings bridge Greek culture and Jewish thought.

Related to the rabbis, who became the religious authorities of Judaism in the period after the destruction of the second temple in 70 C.E. Rabbinic traditions were initially oral but were written down in the Mishnah, the Talmud, and various other collections.

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