Robert Alter

Robert Alter’s latest book, Ancient Israel: The Former Prophets, was published last April. He teaches at Berkeley.

Where’s Esther? The Dead Sea Scrolls

Robert Alter, 12 September 2013

The Dead Sea Scrolls, the first three of which came to light in 1947, were the most momentous manuscript discovery of the past hundred years. Almost from the beginning, controversy has swirled around them: who wrote the Scrolls; who carefully preserved them in jars in a series of caves at the northwestern corner of the Dead Sea; what can they tell us about the origins of Christianity and the...

Wrong Side of the River: River Jordan

Robert Alter, 21 June 2012

Rachel Havrelock’s River Jordan is broad in scope, subtle in interpretive detail and written in lucid prose, with an assured mastery of the relevant scholarship – all the more remarkable because it is her first book. What she has done in effect is to invent a new kind of historical analysis, which I would call cultural cartography, with culture comprising ideology and politics as...

José Saramago’s last work of fiction, published in Portugal in 2009, the year before he died, created something of a furore there. It is less likely to ruffle feathers in the English-speaking world, where scathing critiques of the Bible, in fiction and even in biblical scholarship, have been commonplace since the 18th century. Cain is obviously a companion piece to...

How to Hiss and Huff: Mann’s Moses

Robert Alter, 2 December 2010

Thomas Mann wrote this engaging novella in a few weeks in 1943. (The new translation by Marion Faber and Stephen Lehmann, which is brisk and direct, is a welcome replacement of the fussier and less accurate English version done by Helen Lowe-Porter for the original publication.) The novella was written after Mann helped pitch a film on the Ten Commandments to MGM. The film never got off the...

Committee Speak: Bible Writers

Robert Alter, 19 July 2007

This scrupulous study by the Dutch scholar Karel van der Toorn of how the Hebrew Bible was written and then evolved over time is in most respects finely instructive. Some of what Toorn has to say involves concepts long familiar to Bible scholars, though even in this regard he provides many fresh insights. Nearly all the book’s argument, moreover, offers a strong corrective to popular...

Ever since Mary Douglas’s anthropological foray into the laws of impurity in Leviticus in Purity and Danger (1966), her work on the Bible has been constantly stimulating and, at its best, deeply instructive. Over the past fifteen years she has devoted most of her still formidable energies to biblical topics, even acquiring a degree of competence in biblical Hebrew. The present volume...

Naming the flowers

Robert Alter, 24 February 1994

One of the most intriguing and in some ways bewildering aspects of the Hebrew language is that it has managed to stay in continuous literary use for over three thousand years; roughly the same length of time as Chinese and Sanskrit, the two other major ancient literary languages that are still in written use. The most dramatic changes that have occurred over the centuries have been the emergence of rabbinic Hebrew from Biblical Hebrew towards the end of the pre-Christian era; the complex encounter of Hebrew with Arabic poetry and philosophy beginning in the tenth century; and the early 20th-century revival of Hebrew as a vernacular in the new Zionist settlements, itself preceded – and made possible – by the revival in Enlightenment Europe of Hebrew as a secular literary language. In each of these historical transitions, the language went through significant changes in vocabulary, grammar, syntax, verb-tenses and patterns of idiom. Because of the authority of the Bible, however, orthography and morphology, as well as much essential vocabulary, remained relatively constant. And because Jewish culture as a whole clung so tenaciously to its ‘sources’ (as they are habitually called in Israeli Hebrew), the earlier strata of the language may have become in some ways antiquated but were never made obsolete. A literate speaker of modern Hebrew is probably no farther removed from the language of the Bible than a speaker of modern English is from the language of Shakespeare: the basic vocabulary is perfectly accessible, though a modern reader is likely to construe some terms anachronistically and puzzle a bit over the tenses (which may in fact be aspects – designating completed and uncompleted action – rather than tenses in the modern Western sense).’

Looking for a Crucifixion

Robert Alter, 9 September 1993

This is a book that makes large claims both for itself and for the documents it presents. ‘The First Complete Translation and Interpretation of 50 Key Documents Withheld for over Thirty-Five Years’, the dust-jacket announces. As a matter of fact, about half these texts have already been published elsewhere, as the New York University Scrolls scholar Lawrence Schiffman has noted, so the rubric would be defensible only if the Eisenman and Wise interpretation were the first to qualify as ‘complete’. Then there is the question of whether many of these really are ‘key’ texts and whether they have been ‘withheld’ or rather, which strikes me as far more likely, left languishing through scholarly indolence. Withholding suggests the deliberate suppression of material that could be ‘explosive’, a favourite adjective of Eisenman and Wise’s. This notion of a scholarly conspiracy, hinted at in the text, has recently been trumpeted by the journalists Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh in The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception, which is largely a popularisation of Robert Eisenman’s theories. Unsurprisingly, Baigent and Leigh contribute an effusive blurb to this book. Eisenman for his part has been putting himself forward as the embattled champion of a campaign (crowned with success a year ago) to liberate the Scrolls from a scholarly monopoly which, he claims, has kept them from the public on grounds of their dangerous contents, which threaten to subvert accepted theories about Qumran, the sectarian community associated with the Scrolls, as well as cherished notions about Judaism and Christianity.

Paying for the paper

Robert Alter, 6 August 1992

It is a critical commonplace, often intoned with pathos, to insist on the absolute discontinuity between what occurred in the Nazi genocide and the realm of ordinary experience. Because of that discontinuity, it is sometimes claimed, the mechanised mass murders are an unimaginable and hence indescribable subject: any representation of them is bound to be a misrepresentation, or, to follow the logic of Adorno’s famous dictum about no poetry after Auschwitz, a misconceived and wrongly consoling aestheticisation. Perhaps there is a laudable motive of respect for the awful fates of the victims in this impulse to draw a categorical cordon around the death camps, but common sense suggests that if there were no strong continuities with the moral patterns of existence before the Holocaust, it could not have happened.

Outside the Academy

Robert Alter, 13 February 1992

These two meticulous surveys of modern criticism in all its vertiginous variety lead one to ponder what it is all about and where it may be heading. The book by René Wellek, focused on Central and Eastern European critics, is the penultimate volume of a vast project he began in the Fifties. The two previous volumes dealt respectively with English and American criticism in this same half-century, and chapters of the first four volumes of the series covered earlier critics that fall within the scope of Patrick Parrinder’s study. Authors and Authority in turn is an expansion of a 1977 book that stopped with the beginning of the 20th century. Now nearly twice its original length, it comes all the way down to the Yale Deconstructionists, the American proponents of cultural studies and the New Historicists. To judge by what René Wellek has observed elsewhere of these recent developments, he is no doubt quite happy to end his own account a generation before they all began.

Darkness and a slippery place

Robert Alter, 25 April 1991

Augustine’s Confessions, though frequently set at the beginning of a line of literary history that leads to Rousseau and Henry Adams, is a narrative of the writer’s life only in a highly intermittent and drastically selective way. Its aim, as has often been noted, is more spiritual exhortation then self-revelation, or, more precisely, it is an exposition of the divine scheme with reference to a particular life-experience. As Henry Chadwick observes in the judicious introduction to his useful new English version, in explaining the role of the philosophic Books X to XIII that constitute over a third of the whole, ‘the story of the soul wandering away from God and then in torment and tears finding its way home through conversion is also the story of the entire created order.’

Praise Yah: the Psalms

Eliot Weinberger, 24 January 2008

Out of the mouths of babes; apple of the eye; fire and brimstone; out of joint; sleep the sleep of death; sweeter than honey and the honeycomb; whiter than snow; oh that I had wings like a dove for...

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In the beginning was not the word, or the deed, but the face. ‘Darkness was upon the face of the deep,’ runs the King James Version in the second verse of the opening of Genesis....

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Vendetta: The story of David

Gerald Hammond, 7 September 2000

Robert Alter established a whole school of literary appreciation of the Bible some twenty years ago with a pioneering book on Biblical narrative. Now he gives us his own translation and...

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Reading the Bible

John Barton, 5 May 1988

‘Everyone communes with the Bible,’ wrote Marilyn Butler recently in her Cambridge inaugural lecture, commenting on the recent re-inclusion of the Biblical canon in the canon of...

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The Bible as Fiction

George Caird, 4 November 1982

When three distinguished literary figures are impelled to write about the Bible, it is clear that this strange library of books has lost nothing of its perennial fascination. All three grapple...

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Englishing Ourselves

F.W.J. Hemmings, 18 December 1980

Henri Beyle was born in what could reasonably count as Year I of the modern era, since it was then, in 1783, that the independence of the United States was formally recognised by the European...

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