Religious belief has traditionally treated the Bible as a coherent, divinely inspired historical document. But in the 19th century, German philology began an archaeological excavation of the text, discerning in its varied styles, its different terms for God and its expressions of opposing interests, the hands of four authors who wrote their accounts over the course of centuries - multiple sources out of which redactors created the pastiche we now read.Registration is required to read the whole thing. (If you're reluctant to register for fear of spam: I haven't been, but I don't know if this is typical.)
For a century, philological research laid bare the biblical text, illuminating its crevices, dating its shards, explicating its contradictions. After millennia of religious commentary by Jewish and Christian scholars, this was a form of secular compensation. Philology turned the Bible into a text about its own construction.
But Mr. Alter, beginning with "The Art of Biblical Narrative" (1981), undertook an extraordinarily powerful project of restoration. The redactors, he claimed, were not merely curators: they were creators. Their choice of words, their juxtaposition of passages, their respect for ambiguities - nothing was arbitrary. But the Bible is not just a religious masterwork, Mr. Alter argued; it is also a literary one: pay close attention to the text and it will yield its secrets. Out of perceived patterns, analysis of word usage and attention to rhythm, insights into character and narrative and purpose will emerge.
Wednesday, December 29, 2004
The NYT on Alter's New Translation of the Torah
The New York Times reviews Robert Alter's "The Five Books of Moses: A Translation With Commentary." An excerpt: