Ancient history Old Testament

Robert Alter and the Hebrew Bible

Alter’s attention to the literary form of Hebrew helps bridge the gap between contemporary readers and ancient writers.

Robert Alter recently completed a translation of the Hebrew Bible. The Old Testament work is widely respected by scholars, including some who think it’s the most accurate Bible translation in English. Alter’s attention to the literary form of Hebrew helps bridge the gap between contemporary readers and ancient writers. In this interview, he talks about his multi-decade translation of the Hebrew Bible.

Read the book by Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary.

Robert Alter's Hebrew Bible translation includes the entirety of the Old Testament.
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Table of Contents

What’s unique about Robert Alter’s translation of the Hebrew Bible?

What may make my translation unique is the attention to the literary form of the Hebrew, which I have tried to convey in English to the extent that the differences between the two languages will allow. I believe this is crucial to a perception of what the Hebrew writers are saying about God, human nature, history, the realm of morality, and much more.

I came to this project more or less by accident.

For reasons we cannot fathom, many of them were brilliant poets and masters of narrative art, and it is through their artistry that they chose to convey their understanding of the monotheistic vision. The artistry is important for seeing the subtlety and depth of what they are saying.

How does Robert Alter’s Hebrew Bible translation compare to those done by committees?

The sundry translations by committee done in the second half of the 20th century are blind to all this. Altogether, I do not find that translation by committee has proved to be much of an advantage. The committees were formidable concentrations of scholarly expertise, but their results are unimpressive, not only stylistically but rather often in regard to philology as well.

I had no intention to replace the King James Bible.

These leaves from the King James Bible are the result of translation by committee, according to Robert Alter.
The King James Bible was produced by a committee with exceptional academic credentials. However, Robert Alter also suggests that the KJV suffers stylistically due to its “translation by committee” approach.

Is Robert Alter a biblical scholar?

Although I have no advanced degree in biblical studies, as an undergraduate I spent three years studying biblical texts rigorously with H. L. Ginsburg, one of the leading philological scholars of the Bible of his generation.

In addition to biblical Hebrew, I know Aramaic (rabbinic as well as biblical) and have a reading knowledge of Ugaritic.

And, of course, I have kept up with scholarship in the field.

What is the backstory for The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary?

I came to this project more or less by accident. My doctorate was in modern comparative literature, but in the late 1970s I published an article on the need for a literary perspective on biblical narrative. That turned into a book on the subject, followed by another on biblical poetry. (Both have been continuously in print since their initial publication, respectively, in 1981 and 1985.)

In the 1990s, a New York editor proposed that I do a book that would involve Genesis. I proceeded to do my own translation as a kind of experiment. When it turned out better than I had hoped, I went on to do another book of the Bible and eventually translated the whole Hebrew Bible.

Robert Alter discusses challenges and surprises from his translation of the Hebrew Bible on the BYU Maxwell Institute podcast.

Is Robert Alter’s Hebrew Bible intended to destabilize other translations?

I had no intention to “destabilize” the Bible or to replace the King James Bible (which, with many reservations, I admire). However, my effort to get at the precise original meanings of Hebrew terms may have at some points had a destabilizing effect.

In the 23rd Psalm, for example, everyone follows the choice of verb in the KJV, “Thou anointest my head with oil.” There is only one biblical verb for “anoint,” which is cognate with the noun from which we get “messiah.” It is used only for the consecration of high priests and dedication to the throne of kings.

The verb actually used, dashen, means, roughly, “to make luxuriant.” Thus, there is no sacerdotal, political, or messianic suggestion in the Hebrew, and I rendered it as “moisten,” reflecting the here-and-now emphasis of the Hebrew—rubbing the head with fine olive oil is a feature of the good life, as in Homer.

Robert Alter’s translation of Psalm 23

The Lord 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.
  He leads me on pathways of justice
      for His name's sake.
Though I walk in the vale of death's shadow,
   I fear no harm,
      for You are with me.
Your rod and Your staff—
   it is they that console me.
You set out a table before me
   in the face of my foes.
You moisten my head with oil,
   my cup overflows.
Let but goodness and kindness pursue me
   all the days of my life.
And I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
   for many long days.

Tell us more about the notes in The Hebrew Bible.

As to the notes, my original intention was to provide an occasional translator’s note where it seemed necessary. But I had barely got through half of the first chapter of Genesis before I realized that there were all sorts of interesting things going on in the literary shaping of the text that had not been discussed in the existing commentaries.

It was bringing them closer to the religious vision of the original writers.

So, I ended up producing a commentary. I also had to explain all the places where, as in Psalm 23, I offered versions that clearly diverged from the consensus of translations.

Does Robert Alter’s Hebrew Bible include any theological biases?

My translation has no theological bias, other than to attempt to restore the distinctive religious sense of the Hebrew. Spirituality in Psalms, for example, is not at all other-worldly and is anchored in the human body, something I sought to convey in my translation.

How often did Alter edit the Hebrew Bible during his translation?

In all that I have written, I have done little revision, and the same is true of my translation.

Who is the intended audience?

I did not have a clear sense of what audience I was addressing when I began the project, except perhaps for a vague notion that it might be of special interest to literary readers.

What most surprised Robert Alter about the reception of his Hebrew Bible translation?

What took me by surprise was the many enthusiastic emails I have received from people of faith—a Baptist minister, a Presbyterian organist, an Episcopalian nun, modern Orthodox Jews.

My conclusion from this response from believers is that many religious readers have felt there was something lacking in the English Bible at their disposal and that a translation that respects the literary fashioning of the Hebrew was bringing them closer to the religious vision of the original writers.

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About the author

Robert Alter is the author of The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary, published by W. W. Norton & Company. The are several other Bible-related Robert Alter books, including a translation of Genesis, and treatises on the art of biblical translation and poetry. Alter received his doctorate from Harvard University and is a Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. He also holds honorary doctorate degrees from institutions such as Yale University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Further reading

Robert Alter Bible resources

These resources include Amazon Affiliate links. As an Amazon Affiliate I earn on qualify purchases.

  • The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary (Set)
  • The Art of Bible Translation (Book)
  • The Art of Biblical Poetry (Book)
  • Genesis: Translation and Commentary (Book)
  • Ancient Israel: The Former Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings: A Translation with Commentary (Book)

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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