An Interview with Robert Alter
This issue features a “micro-interview” with Robert Alter, conducted by Rich Cohen. The micro-interview consists of five exchanges distributed throughout the print magazine. Alter, a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at Berkeley, is the greatest translator of biblical literature in modern times. His English versions of the Psalms, the five books of Moses, and the stories of the little brother who became King David, are definitive and fascinating, as are his introductions and commentaries, as well as his books of criticism, which include The Art of Biblical Narrative and The Art of Biblical Poetry. He is the closest thing we now have to the old sages who used to sit in huts on the edge of town, on the edge of the steppe, re-reading the Scriptures, contemplating man, and God, and law. And yet, not discounting the old-world nature of the discussion, the interview was conducted entirely via email, which is how, given all options, Moses would probably have preferred to converse with the stiff-necked Hebrew people.
THE BELIEVER: Do you see your work as an effort to scrub the Jewish Bible of all the Christian notions that have colored it over years of history and translation?
ROBERT ALTER: I did not consciously set out to reclaim the Hebrew Bible for the Jews. But I guess I am, as a translator, what in constitutional law would be called an “originalist.” That is, I want to try to convey in English what I think were the actual values and mind-sets of the ancient Hebrew writers, which is also, in the poetry, inseparable from the concreteness of their language and the compactness and rhythmic force of the poetry they wrote. Jews as well as Christians have imposed very post-biblical theologies and concepts on the Bible, but these have often been articulated in commentary far more often than in translation, because through the centuries most (not all) communities of Jews were not dependent on translations of the Hebrew. In the English-speaking world, the versions of the Bible we have had have certainly been suffused with Protestant theology, and, as an originalist, I have tried to scrape all that away.
BLVR: Does it diminish or change the Psalms knowing they borrow from or incorporate poems that were written to earlier, alien gods? How can the same words be spoken to icons as to the infinite without diminishing the infinite?
RA: All literature, even the most original, is created by the inventive recycling of antecedent literary texts. That’s the way the literary imagination and literary tradition work. It therefore in no way diminishes the Psalms that the Hebrew poets should have borrowed generously from antecedent pagan tradition. As is generally the case in the engagement of a poet with his predecessors, this is creative borrowing that by and large uses the materials of Canaanite mythology for monotheistic poetic purposes.
BLVR: Do we have any idea who wrote the Bible? Or the first five books?
RA: The Bible is of course not a book but an anthology of books and poems that spans almost nine centuries, so there are many authors. The same is true of the first five books, which scholarship long ago agreed are stitched together out of several different sources. Fierce debates rage among scholars about the dating of many of the books and their constituent sources. Since biblical authors, except for the Prophets, remained anonymous, we know nothing about their personal identity, and even in the prophetic books there is an abundance of later material and interpolations attached to the book of the named prophet.
BLVR: How do you explain the continuing mystery and fascination of the Bible? Is it a case of literary power, or is there something else?
RA: The literary power in itself is extraordinary and surely has a lot to do with why these texts are still riveting. There is surely no greater poetry that has come down to us from anywhere in the ancient world than the Book of Job, or the fi nest of the Psalms, and no more brilliant and probing narratives than the stories of Jacob and Joseph and of David. This is great literature, but also literature that (like Tolstoy or Kafka) asks us to examine our lives and reconsider what our vision of reality is. Also, I would emphasize that there is no such thing as a biblical world-view but, in this far-reaching historical anthology, a whole spectrum of different and, at times, competing views. The priestly writers had a different sense of the world from that of the writers-scholars designated as J, and both Job and Ecclesiastes in very different ways challenge the assumptions of both. It’s this variety that makes reading the Bible so rewarding.
BLVR: Is there any way in which the literary style, which is admired by people who also believe in the truth of the Bible, also carries the meaning?
RA: The biblical writers were, it’s safe to assume, focused on religious doctrine, but they were also powerful writers. They chose to cast most of their religious vision either in artful prose narrative or in poetry, and the magnetic appeal of these texts as works of literature surely has something to do with the way they were treasured and preserved through time. For this reason, I like to speak of a “double canonicity” of the Hebrew Bible—doctrinal and literary. But the two can’t be absolutely separated. If you learn to follow the minute workings of the poetry and the deployment of narrative techniques and conventions, you come away with a much more nuanced picture of what the Hebrew writers wanted to say about God, Israel, creation, history, and human nature. The idea, for example, of man created in the image of God is complex, elusive, and perhaps even ambiguous, and I would suggest that the subtle and profound representation of individual character in biblical narrative is a way of seeing what this means.