If you ask secular, well-educated people how well they know the Bible, odds are you’ll be met with blank stares, possibly even sneers. This is perfectly understandable. And it may not even stem from anti-religious sentiments — after all, there is only so much time we have, and there are so many other worthy texts to read.
But what if some of those worthwhile secular texts — ones by Melville and Faulkner, say, or by Marilynne Robinson and Cormac McCarthy — cannot be fully understood without a genuine knowledge of the Bible? What if reading the Bible isn’t only important, but essential for a full appreciation of certain secular texts?
That is the argument that has sustained much of Robert Alter’s career. One of the great biblical and literary scholars of the last half-century, Alter, 76, a professor at Berkeley, has published several widely praised translations of the Hebrew Bible.
In his recent book “Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible” (2010), as he has in so much of his writing, he argues forcefully that other English translations of the Bible — namely, the King James Version, first published in 1611 — inform many of the great works of Western literature.
“As a matter of fact, I think you have to say that the English language would not be the same without it,” Alter told me recently, referring to the King James Version. “Warts and all, it’s a great achievement of English style.”
Yet his own translation of the Jewish half of the King James Bible — that is, the Five Books of Moses — eschews the 17th-century and implicitly Christian-oriented language of the King James Version. Instead, he tries to recapture the primitive earthiness of the original Hebrew, stripping it of its Christian theological allusions.
For instance, the Hebrew word “nefesh,” often translated as “soul,” is jettisoned, since the idea of the soul is a Christian one. Instead, Alter prefers something like “life’s breath,” which approximates the literal Hebrew more closely. “Another meaning [of ‘nefesh’] might be ‘throat’ or ‘neck’,” he said. “It’s very concrete and it’s very physical,” Alter said of the original Hebrew, “and I try to recover that in my translation.”
Alter will be at the 92nd Street Y at the end of the month, giving a seminar on one of his favorite Bible narratives: the story of King David. The reason for the course is that, after his book “The David Story,” which translated the texts about David into English, came out in 1999, he wanted to do a full translation of The Prophets. (No firm date is set for its publication.)
If you go to Alter’s seminar, don’t expect to hear about the King David you probably know about from Hebrew school. This is not the glorious, Goliath-slaying hero, who is equally adept at poetry and music, and who founded a great nation. As Alter wrote in “The David Story,” the original Hebrew shows King David to be a much more shrewd, calculating political actor — “the first full-length portrait of a Machiavellian prince in Western literature,” he wrote.
I asked Alter whether he feels the critical praise for his translations has something to do with the primal, almost pagan-like nature of his work. After all, isn’t it easier for a God-wary audience to embrace a book that seems downright sacrilegious? He conceded that this was possible. But he insisted that his translations come across the way they do because, well, that’s how the language itself sounds in its original form.
Moreover, he does not come to the Bible from a skeptical, strictly secular perspective. He grew up attending a Conservative synagogue in New York, and learned Hebrew mainly through summers at Camp Ramah. And while he is not traditionally religious, he does belong to a Conservative synagogue in Berkeley, Calif., and retains “an attachment to Jewish tradition,” he said.
His translations themselves also fight against the aim of most biblical scholarship, which is to determine the book’s historical accuracy. He is less interested than some in whether King David actually faced off against Philistines in the Valley of Elah, for instance. What matters to him is making King David’s language accessible through a translation that captures his worldview truthfully.
Whether by chance or by choice, Alter’s translations may do more to convert Bible-wary skeptics than even the most hip and modern young rabbis. For what comes through in his work is the sheer human frailty of the biblical characters, something any secular humanist can relate to. Or, as Alter said about King David: “He’s represented as having all-too-human weaknesses … as a man in the political world, and a human life evolving over many years.
“I think it’s one of the most brilliant narratives to not only come out of the Bible,” he added, “but also the whole ancient world.”
Eric Herschthal covers arts and culture for the paper.