Alter met his terrific challenge with terrific taste. But parataxis can be defended on aesthetics alone.
Alter believes in poetic parataxis, not pious parataxis. The volumes, it must be said, are laid out in a slightly daunting way, with minimal line and paragraph breaks among the parts. This is in keeping with the Hebrew original, but in places—particularly in Proverbs, where one wants a breath between what are clearly independent thoughts—it can be headache-inducing. Still, one turns the pages eagerly, looking for the good parts and, yes, for the naughty bits, too. The tests of a Biblical translation are like the tests of a Shakespearean actor.
With the Bible, we want, above all, to see how the translator will handle the set-piece poems we know—from the Psalms and the Song of Songs—along with the Book of Job and the early chapters of Genesis. Some of his work in Proverbs clearly surpasses the King James Version. Where the K. How she sits alone, the city once great with people. She has become like a widow. Great among nations, mistress among provinces, reduced to forced labor. She weeps on through the night, and her tears are on her cheek. She has no consoler from all her lovers. Yet, as English poetry, the K.
Its version of Psalm 22, the sorrowing that will be echoed by Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, begins:. My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? O my God, I cry in the daytime, but thou hearest not; and in the night season, and am not silent. My god, my god, why have You forsaken me? Far from my rescue are the words that I roar.
My God, I call out by day and You do not answer, by night—no stillness for me. Although English has, in the centuries since the K. The phrase is more strange than beautiful. Alter renders perhaps the most famous poetic lines in English with an admirable deference to the K.
Mnemonic devices for the Bible
The L ord is my shepherd, I shall not want. In grass meadows He makes me lie down, by quiet waters guides me. My life He brings back. Your eyes are doves through the screen of your tresses. Your hair is like a herd of goats that have swept down from Mount Gilead. Your teeth like a flock of matched ewes that have come up from the washing, all of them alike, and none has lost its young. Like a scarlet thread, your lips, and your tongue—desire. Like cut pomegranate your cheekbones through the screen of your tresses.
Something of the lulling Jacobite music is gone; it is difficult to imagine someone reading aloud the Alter version to a lover, as so many have read aloud the K. Like a flock of ewes! Like a cut pomegranate! The notes are not neutral exegesis but richly explanatory and argumentative. Sometimes, as Freud famously said of cigars, a navel is just a navel, despite the inclination of some interpreters to see it as an image of a different body part.
Nevertheless, the filling of a receptacle with liquid has a certain erotic resonance. But the intention of the line is more general: just as the crescent concavity of her navel should always be filled, she is never to be arid and empty. One should note that this poetics has no particular commitment to metaphoric consistency. How could they not? The King James Version reads, in key respects, like poetry from a period when Shakespeare and Donne and Herbert were all writing.
It seems right that, in an age when the center of gravity for serious reading has shifted into the classroom, we would produce a seminar Bible, in the best sense—a version of scripture made not to be obeyed or scrutinized for lessons but to be studied and shared through the pleasure of pluralist interpretation and constant cross-referencing. This Bible is aware of how much awareness reading a sacred text demands. The fact that ancient scriptural style can be defended by reference to the fictional monologue of an Irish woman relating the details of her many-sided sex life in turn-of-the-century Dublin is a sign of the luxuriance of our own culture, which no longer builds high walls, as Catholic Ireland did for so long, between the sacred and the profane.
When it comes to the Quran, the adjacent, later holy text, we are in deeper waters, where citing Molly Bloom, or her Islamic equivalents, is unlikely to help us penetrate its meanings or find neat analogues for its beauties. Weighing in at nearly a thousand pages of translation and quotation and citation and argument, it is never relieved from the pressures of contemporary perplexities, political and rhetorical.
Such a reader, approaching from outside the scholarly and scriptural field, can only sense the audacity of his project, the hazards it must navigate. To make the Quran a dependency of the Bible can be seen as a form of colonialism. Every step is considered, and the performance is carefully constrained by parentheses and negative constructions. He obviously thinks that the Quran has had multiple authors and editors, rather than, as Muslim tradition holds, having been dictated directly by the Angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad, but no positive assertion could be more cautiously wrapped in qualification.
Where Should I Start Reading the Bible?
Neither narrative nor obviously philosophical, it is a series of often disjointed-seeming exhortations and commands and hymns and images, with stories borrowed telegraphically from the Bible and then editorialized on by a divine voice. Although the Quran is part of an oral tradition of versifying much of it rhymes, though not in this translation , it is also purposefully opaque, enigmatic in execution, as a divine text should be. Alter emphasizes similar effects in the Hebrew Bible—the way in which passages in Lamentations, for instance, are shaped as acrostics.
The mystery is essential to the sacredness of the text. Tolkien began his series with an inscription in Orcish, which he did not expect his readers to understand; they were to pay reverence to the occult nature of his imagination even before they entered his books. The three holy texts—Torah, Gospel, and Quran—turn out to be tightly interwound, so much so that it is not entirely wrong to see the Quran as a long correction to and commentary on the Jewish and Christian scriptures.
There are abbreviated vignettes of Mary and Joseph and Jesus, of the other, earlier Joseph, of Moses and Aaron, and of Jacob and Isaac and Abraham, with echoes of the Psalms and the Gospels found everywhere. Countless are the points of contact, the small adjustments. One crucial early turn involves the Prostration of the Angels, in itself a beautiful title for a poem. In the Quran, adapting the Genesis story of creation, God, rather than Adam, names all the animals—yet the order of animal names is given to Adam before it goes to the angels, who are then asked to bow before Adam, conceding the superiority of man even to the celestial choir:.
We have no knowledge except what You have taught us. Indeed, You are the All-knowing, the All-wise. At the same time, Adam is assigned to a level not of subjection but of near-equality. They wandered in the desert for forty years during which time God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses until a new generation would be ready to enter the Promised Land of Canaan. The books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy discuss the relationship between God and His chosen people, the Hebrews, and give details of the Law that regulated almost every aspect of Hebrew life.
For a time, the tribes of Israel were ruled by a series of judges, and then came the monarchy of the kings Saul, David, Solomon and others. Israel was divided into two kingdoms and suffered a number of military defeats. Jerusalem was eventually destroyed and many captives were taken away to Babylon, although in time the people were allowed to return and rebuild Jerusalem and their civilization.
Of the Wisdom books , Psalms, Proverbs, Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach contain many sayings of practical wisdom to help live a happy, successful and holy life; Job and Ecclesiastes deal with the weightier issues of the meaning of life, the existence of evil and our relationship with God; and the Song of Solomon is a love song glorifying romantic love between a man and woman although it is sometimes interpreted allegorically as a story about the love of God for Israel or the Church.
Except for Lamentations and Baruch, each of these books is named for one of the well-known Hebrew prophets as well as several minor ones , who were called by God to give these predictions, messages and warnings to kings and other leaders and to the people in general. Matthew, Mark and Luke are very similar, but the Gospel of John is quite different, being much more of a spiritual and theological work, although it also relates many of the same events as the other three Gospels.
The Acts of the Apostles is a sort of sequel to the Gospel of Luke, written by the same author, and tells the history of the first 30 years of the Christian Church, mostly centered on the apostles Peter and Paul who were the preeminent leaders of early Christianity. The other Epistles by James, Peter, John and Jude were also written to encourage, instruct and correct the early Christians, and to encourage them to put their faith and trust in Christ and to put that faith into action through Christian love, kindness and respect for all people.
The Book of Revelation also known as the Apocalypse is also a letter of sorts, written by a man named John possiby the apostle John , but it is in the form of apocalyptic literature, which tells a story largely through dramatic symbols, images and numbers. Some denominations also incorporate additional books into their canons.
This accounts for a further 27 books as follows:. Around CE, St. Even St. The vast majority is written in prose, incorporating such prose features as plot, character, dialogue and timing, and prose is the form generally used when telling stories about people and historical events. It also employs features common to modern poetry, such as word plays, metaphors, rhymes and metre to communicate its message.
It was produced during a particularly fertile period for English literature within the lives of Shakespeare, Jonson, Webster, et al , but also a period when religion had become very politicized.