Monday, January 07, 2008

The Book of Psalms: An Alter-native Translation

How many times does a book in the biblical-studies category get a review in publications as different, and unlikely, as The New Yorker and The Jerusalem Post?

That's exactly what's happened in the case of Robert Alter's new translation of the Book of Psalms.

People who are into Bible study and who know the name Robert Alter probably met him through one of his most-popular books, The Art of Biblical Narrative. In it, the UC Berkeley literature professor shows that Old Testament narratives are not the result of clumsy cut-and-paste. Instead, lengthy sections of the Bible reveal a beautiful artistry, a sound to which modern, academic study of the Bible is practically tone deaf.

Since he wrote that book, Alter has produced translations and commentaries on the Five Books of Moses and the Book of Samuel. And now he's turned to the Psalms.

"Real" Bible scholars are forever pouncing on Alter for not knowing what they know. They don't seem to appreciate that he identifies aspects of the biblical text that, for all of their deep study, they've missed. I've heard that some people have questioned why a theological skeptic like Alter should be teaching the Scriptures. I just take his work for what it is: brilliant analysis of the Bible, and a fresh attempt to bring into English the most important words in the world.

About my pledge: I know, Alter's translation is new. And his commentary is new. And in 2008, I'm supposed to be reading books that are old. But the Book of Psalms is very, very old. So, this counts as one of the "old" books I'll be reading in 2008. Can't wait.

Oh, and you can read Alter's short article, "Psalm Springs: How I Translated the Bible's Most Poetic Book" here. To hear Alter reading his translation of Psalm 19, click on the link at this page.


Jim Martin said...

Frank--Thank you for this introduction into Alter's work. While I have seen his books, I have been unaware of him or the value of his work.

Frank Bellizzi said...

Jim, I think you'd really enjoy The Art of Biblical Narrative. It's nearly 30 years old now, but its observations about OT narrative haven't worn thin. Like many experts in literature, Alter is himself a fine writer, easy to read.

He does accept the general outline of the Documentary Hypothesis. Nonetheless, his observations lead to an inevitable conclusion: any redactional work on the Text that brought it to its final form was done so carefully and so very well that, as a consequence, identifying various sources behind the Text is impossible, not to mention beside the point.

Nowadays, you can't pick up a commentary on one of the Books of Moses without the author having to give his unique take on Source Analysis, while the beauty and power of the Text as it is gets mostly overlooked. In such a smoggy atmosphere, Alter is fresh, clean air.

preacherman said...

Thaks for the information.
It sounds like it is going to be a great read.
I will definately added to my other lists.
God bless brother.
In Him,
Kinney Mabry

Frank Bellizzi said...

Kinney, I think you'll really like either of the books mentioned in the post. Many blessings for a great new year.