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Book of Books Books

The World of Biblical Literature

by Robert Alter
Basic Books, 225 pp., $23.00

Reading the Book: Making the Bible a Timeless Text

by Burton L. Visotzky
Anchor, 240 pp., $12.00 (paper)

The Hebrew Bible is so called because the Greek “ta biblia” means “the books.” These books were written during a period of more than a thousand years, from the thirteenth to the second century BCE (Before the Common Era). The canon of the Hebrew scriptures was established about 100 CE. It consists of three parts, the Torah (the Law), the Nevi’im (Prophets), and the Ketuvim (Writings). In 450 BCE the prophet Ezra read to the people of Israel the Torah, that is, the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. His reading established the primary text for Jews. In the first century CE certain rabbis consolidated the Torah with the Nevi’im (the books of the Prophets, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings) and with the Ketuvim (diverse writings that included the Psalms, Song of Songs, Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Ruth, Esther, Ezra, Chronicles, and Daniel). These three groups of writings constitute the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh.

Scholars of the Tanakh claim to be able to distinguish, on the evidence of vocabulary and style, four authors or schools of authors: J, so called because he or she or they used the divine name Jehovah or Jahweh; E, because this writer called God Elohim; D, author or authors of Deuteronomy, and P, Priestly, author or authors of most of Leviticus. In addition to these books there is midrash, the rabbinic practice of commentary, exemplification, narrative interpolation so closely related to the Torah that it can hardly be separated from it. Jews who read the Bible in this spirit and articulate their interpretation of it in detail are engaged in midrash.

Christians refer to the Tanakh, invidiously, as the Old Testament, but their access to it is not to the Hebrew or Masoretic text but to a Greek translation, the Septuagint, made in Alexandria between the third century BCE and about 132 BCE. Translations into Old Latin of the Septuagint and of the Greek of the New Testament were superseded by Saint Jerome’s Latin version in the last decade of the fourth century. Jerome had good Latin and Greek, and he learned enough Hebrew to decide that the Septuagint was unsatisfactory. His Latin translations gradually took hold, despite the fact that Augustine preferred the Septuagint, and they became by the beginning of the eighth century the basis of the Vulgate. The New Testament was established as a gathering of twenty-seven writings: the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, Epistles of Paul, John, and Peter, and the Acts of the Apostles. These circulated not only in Greek and Latin but in Syriac, Arabic, Coptic, Armenian, and many other languages. In 1516 Erasmus produced an edition of the Greek text of the New Testament with a new Latin translation that held the field for centuries. In England it gained enough credence to become the basis of the King James or Authorized Version, translated in 1611, although that version was also much indebted to William Tyndale’s of 1525. Roman Catholics, or some of them, prefer the Douai-Rheims version (1582–1610) or one of several modern translations, probably Ronald Knox’s New Testament (1945) and Old Testament (1949).

Like any other document of religious import, the Bible may be read in various ways. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the faithful read it as holy writ, divinely revealed vision of the world, source of belief, morality, doctrine, and the sense of community. Outsiders, and insiders who don’t believe, read it as a good book, a sublime poem, but not the Good Book. I don’t think they take it as pure fiction but as sayings, lore, moral parables, what one might murmur in the middle of the night without being accountable in the morning: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.” It is also possible to read it opportunistically, as I once read the Brihadaranyaka-Upanishad in the hope of understanding what Eliot did with it in the fifth part of The Waste Land.

The modern phase of the literary interpretation of the Bible began with a few pages in Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis (1946). In a chapter otherwise concerned with narrative methods in Petronius and Tacitus, Auerbach drew attention to the episode in Mark (14:54–72) in which Peter denies Christ three times. Analyzing the use of dialogue, Peter’s emergence as a tragic figure despite his lowly station, and Mark’s telling the story not externally but as if he were “at the core of what goes on,” Auerbach argued that the scene “fits into no antique genre.” It is

too serious for comedy, too contemporary and everyday for tragedy, politically too insignificant for history—and the form which was given it is one of such immediacy that its like does not exist in the literature of antiquity.

But Auerbach didn’t say a word about the episode as part of a larger story calling for belief. At the end of the chapter he made an abrupt and to me implausible comment about an alleged antagonism in the Christian view of reality between sensory appearance and meaning. But he left readers free to read the chapter in Mark as if it chiefly belonged to the history of narrative method.

I don’t see any objection to Auerbach’s procedure. It is impossible to control the way a particular reader chooses to read the Bible. Priests offer interpretations, but can’t enforce them. The authority claimed by the Roman Catholic Church in the interpretation of the New Testament applies only to its members. On the other hand, those who read the Bible as literature shouldn’t get cross with those who take it as gospel.

The World of Biblical Literature is Robert Alter’s latest attempt to “fashion a new literary approach to the Bible.” It takes its place beside his earlier books, The Art of Biblical Narrative (1981), The Art of Biblical Poetry (1985), and the book he and Frank Kermode edited, The Literary Guide to the Bible (1987). The new book reprints two of Alter’s chapters from the Guide, three of his essays from Commentary, and four new essays on various aspects of the Bible as literature. Literary appreciation of the Bible, he maintains, “does not automatically contradict belief in the inspired character of the text, but it can manage quite comfortably without reference to belief.” This isn’t clear to me. It could mean that literary appreciation at some point or in some unautomatic way contradicts belief. I wish Alter would settle for the ecumenical position of saying that he chooses to read the Bible as a sublime poem and feels comfortable in doing so, but that he defends the right of other people to make a different choice.

But then he would have to give up the privilege of being testy with Jacob Milgrom, for instance, one of the authors of The JPS Torah Commentary (1989), who claims that his commentary on Numbers “offers reliable support to those who believe that this book and the Torah at large were divinely revealed.” Milgrom’s statement seems to me unexceptionable, since it allows for those who don’t believe anything of the kind. But Alter is spoiling for a fight:

It is hard to imagine what in his commentary, including the citation of Jewish sources, he thinks might confirm this claim. In fact, his painstaking accounts of trial by ordeal, ritual contamination by corpses and menstruants, hovering miasmas of impurity, the rite of the scapegoat, and much else bring us almost uncomfortably close to a thoroughly alien world in which pagan and magical notions have undergone no more than a first phase of monotheistic transformation.

I’m sorry that Alter has been made almost uncomfortable, but he has himself, as much as the Bible and Milgrom’s commentary, to blame. He is not in a position to know why other people hold their beliefs or what those people regard as sufficient reason for holding them. He’s always ready to lose his urbanity when he realizes that some people are not men or women of the secular Enlightenment. In this mood he sounds like Sir James Frazer in The Golden Bough huffing and puffing over the discovery that some people don’t think and act like Victorian gentlemen. Falling for the most hackneyed version of the Zeitgeist, Alter says that “at this late date in the process of secularization” the Bible doesn’t exert much moral pressure:

Given the twin erosion of plain knowledge of the Bible and of belief in the Bible as divinely revealed truth, the notion that the Bible has real prescriptive authority in governing our moral and political lives would seem to be restricted to fundamentalist groups. There are, of course, substantial numbers of nonfundamentalist Christians and Jews who try to take the Bible seriously, but in most instances they would ultimately fail the test of according prescriptive authority to Scripture. He could have left well alone, but he has talked himself into the surly position of saying: “I’m not a believer, so you’re not to be one either.” By “substantial numbers,” incidentally, I assume he means “millions,” the millions of people throughout the world for whom the Bible is the sacred book. These are the people Michel de Certeau had in mind in his L’Ecriture de l’histoire (1975), when he wrote of Jews making Scripture the substitute for the Second Temple, which was burned in 70 CE. The Bible, Certeau said, “takes the place of lost prophetic speech.” The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas has also written tenderly of those who “love the Torah more than God.” Alter’s use of “our” in the passage I’ve quoted and of “we” in every chapter demeans the experiences which Certeau and Levinas respect. “Our” and “we” are accurate only if Alter is addressing atheists, Low Church Protestants, and Jews who don’t believe or practice the faith.

So he reads the Bible as literature. Literary style, he says, “is an exercise of the expressive resources of language that seeks a nuanced precision beyond the reach of ordinary usage and at the same time exhibits a repeated delight in the sheer shaping of its materials, which is in fine excess of the occasion of communication.” The excess emerges “from the writer’s vivid intuition of a superabundance of possibilities suggested by the creative associations of his literary medium.” This has been the guiding axiom of Alter’s best secular criticism, a working principle that has served him well in many books and now in parts of this one. He wants the Bible to be another great poem, like the Iliad.

It is not surprising, then, that he becomes strident when he reads, say, Harold Fisch’s Poetry with a Purpose and sees Fisch arguing that God in the inscrutability of his absolute purposes is implicit in all biblical texts. Alter wants to see the biblical writers turning away from such divine opacity and taking pleasure in the internal possibilities of the medium, the Hebrew language. Sensitive to the practice of good writing, he has not found it necessary to go in for much theoretical nicety. He persuades by example, especially examples of excess, play, and copiousness. But the distinction he makes between ordinary usage and literary usage is hard to sustain. In religious literature especially, a writer may see possibilities of excess but may judge them temptations to be rejected, because saving his soul is more important than writing a poem.

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