February 22, 2019

A Guide to Reading Sacred Literature

“It is a brave critic who gives a bad review to Muhammad’s meters, a daring one who sniffs at Moses’ prose or returns Paul’s letters. When we enter into sacred texts as readers, rather than as worshippers—treating them, the way we might the Odyssey or “Beowulf,” as ancient vessels of meaning crafted by people who, like all writers, had their good moments and their misses—we gain much, but we lose much, too. We gain the freedom to read and roam for pleasure. But we forget at our peril that, through most of their history, these have been not books, to be appreciated, but truths, to be obeyed. The peril is double: there’s actual peril for those who do imaginative reading in the wrong place and time, and there’s also intellectual peril. When reading other people’s sacred texts, we too easily glide past difficulties, or propose aesthetic interpretations, in ways that lead us away from the obvious intentions. By searching around for the good bits, we read past the point, and past their point of view: intending to honor the texts by humanizing them, we insult them by aestheticizing them. When God’s the author, being pretty’s not the purpose.

Nonetheless, curiosity about what the sacred texts say, and about how we ought to read them even if we don’t think them sacred, is a persistent preoccupation of our era, and has produced not a few robust publishing projects. Of these enterprises, one that is genuinely worthy of some Old Testament term of praise is Robert Alter’s “The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary,” which Norton has just published in a handsome boxed edition, complete with Paul Klee-like semi-abstract jacket art adapted from the tapestries of the late Israeli artist Mordecai Ardon. The translation is divided into three volumes: “The Five Books of Moses,” “The Prophets,” and “Writings.” Most Biblical translations are teamwork; the so-called King James Version of the Bible was produced by forty-seven English churchmen. But Alter has, like Dr. Johnson with his dictionary, tackled the job on his own. The accomplishment, two decades in the making, is almost absurdly impressive. One wants to call it titanic or Olympian or even heroic, but those are the wrong words—pagan words. Alter will have to settle for one of the God-fearing Hebraic terms of praise that stipple his text: “righteous” or “strong” or, simply, “wise.”

In undertaking his translation, Alter recognized that he had a terrific problem. With Homer, we expect and get a fine new translation with each poetic period—George Chapman for the Elizabethan, Alexander Pope for the Augustan, Robert Fagles and Emily Wilson for our time—but with the Hebrew Bible in English we have one huge, unsurpassable masterpiece. The King James Version, which was produced at the Scottish King’s behest under the general leadership of the clergyman Lancelot Andrewes and appeared in 1611, is not just a great translation; it is, along with Shakespeare’s First Folio, published twelve years later, the bedrock of English literature.”

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