Why a great Bible scholar thinks many translations are junk
February 25, 2023
The recent appearance by renowned biblical scholar Robert Alter (pictured here) at the Kansas City Public Library gave a large in-person and Zoom audience dozens of delightful moments from a serious man nearing the end of a terrific and consequential career.
As he acknowledged at the beginning of his remarks, a logical question is why anyone would do what he has done, which is to do a new translation of the entire Hebrew Bible. What's wrong with the old King James Version (KJV), which has been around since 1611? And what's wrong with the dozens of new translations that have appeared since the middle of the 20th century?
Well, let's start with the KJV, which Alter said he admires "in certain ways." But that old version, he contends, "is seriously flawed, not just archaic." And although he didn't mention it, it's also true that the translation team that produced it was working with far fewer and newer manuscripts than the more numerous and older manuscripts that have become available since then, especially with the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the 1940s.
Then let's consider what Alter, an emeritus professor at the University of California-Berkeley, calls the translations produced by "all these high-powered, denominational committees of scholars with degrees from Harvard and Yale and the University of Chicago and Oxford and Cambridge in England."
First, Alter said, the KJV "is better than all these translations-by-committee done in the second half of the 20th Century." There are, he said, "two things wrong in general with these translations. I have discovered as a translator of the Bible that it's a marvelous opportunity to conduct two simultaneous love affairs -- with the Hebrew of the Bible and with the English language. And what I find in the modern translations is no love for either of those languages. I don't mean there's ignorance of those languages. . .but the Hebrew language (in academic settings) remains an object of study and analysis but not something that gets you excited, not something that enthralls you. And you can see that in the translations."
Unlike the people who translated the Hebrew into the English of the KJV, he said, "the modern translators have a tin ear for the English language. . ." The result is that half of many verses sound like a "government directive" and half like a "daily newspaper," he said.
Because of all that, Alter concluded, "I view the modern translations as execrable." (If you need a translation of the word he used, try substituting the word "crap.")
As some of you know, I have a collection of Bible translations, including many that Alter would put in the execrable category. I find it's useful to check one against others to get a clearer sense of the meaning of a word or phrase. Sometimes I favor one translation over another but inevitably I'm disappointed in some aspect. As for paraphrases of the New Testament -- and, of course, a paraphrase is not a translation -- my favorite is the late Eugene Peterson's called The Message. He does some lovely things there.
If you watch Alter's entire library presentation, which you can do here, and which I highly recommend, you may agree with me that the thrust of it is a condemnation of biblical literalism, by which I mean reading the Bible as if every word were literally, historically and in all other ways accurate. That idea is called inerrantism, and it, too, is execrable. It leads people to imagine that the world was created in six 24-hour days and that God rested on a seventh 24-hour day. It leads people to imagine a real rib taken from a real man named Adam and that real rib being used to create a real woman named Eve. It leads people to imagine the entire globe was covered with water in the Noahic flood. It leads people to believe that the Bible says that David, and only David, killed Goliath (see II Samuel 21:19). And on and on.
I had a chance to have dinner with Alter after his Kansas City talk and I asked him whether I was correct to interpret his remarks as a rather harsh critique of biblical literalism. He agreed I was right. Then I asked him if there was anything useful we could learn from the literalists, knowing that often people with whom I disagree may still have something to teach me. Alter's answer: "No."
I'm not yet quite sure I buy his answer but I've never found a good way to refute it.
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GET CHARGED UP AT CHURCH DURING THE WEEK, TOO?
In this era when we're seeing electric vehicles growing in popularity, someone thinks church parking lots would make great charge station locations. The idea is that for most of the week their parking lots sit empty. Which tells you how much the people who have dreamed up the notion know about church parking lots during the week. At my church, the lot may not always be full on weekdays and weeknights, but it's never empty because of lots of things, including a preschool, that go on. Still, many people who think of Sunday worship services as a way to charge their personal or spiritual batteries might well take advantage of EV charging stations during the week. And while their vehicles are juicing up, they could come inside and do some volunteer work.