Robert Alter

Biblical scholar Robert Alter considers himself a “literary archaeologist.” In his award-winning translations of the Hebrew Bible, he aims to reconstruct and restore the poetry and prose style of the original ancient text. Alter joins us to discuss his latest installment, “Ancient Israel,” a translation of “The Former Prophets,” the Biblical books Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings.

Robert Alter’s ‘Ancient Israel’ 3 April,2013forum

Robert Alter, professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at UC Berkeley

  • thucy

    I can totally understand why Alter would want to take refuge in ancient history just for a break from the infighting and soul-searching around the offices of Commentary in the second half of the 20th century
    Hope you can ask him about his years at Commentary and how the mag shifted from left to right (partially covered in the doc “Arguing The World”)? Does Alter recommend any memoirs or books that describe this in greater detail?.
    All that great Hebraic soul-searching deserves more than the gag line in “Annie Hall”: “I hear Commentary and Dissent are merging – the new mag will be called “Dysentery.”

  • Joey B.

    The closeness of the friendship between David and Jonathan has been troubling to many. Are the translations accurate?

  • menloman

    Would the guest care to comment about Deuteronomy 23:1.

    “A eunich whose testicles have been mutilated, or whose penis has been cut shall not enter into the kindom of the Lord.”

  • LLE68

    I appreciate the preservation and enhancement of ancient texts, but I fear that their elevation may lead to a misunderstanding of factual history and the implied earth history – especially since these texts are so chronologically impossible. Can Professor Alter be asked if he believes all of these texts?

  • Guest

    What role, if any, does the historical function of these ancient texts play in Mr. Alter’s work? Why did these writers write these stories? What motivates your guest to do this work?

  • avi

    please comment on the political bias of Samuel 1 and 2
    thank you

  • Guest

    As you have discussed, languages are constantly changing. The work of any translator, just as the text s/he is translating, therefore has a limited shelf life. How does Mr. Alter make peace with the fact that his work will itself become antiquated?

  • David Kelley

    I have a hard time using your guests knowledge a dependable hearing that he is not a believer in the supernatural when I myself have experienced the supernatural personally myself and for the dumbing down God or His relationship to people who had in the old testament had a close relationship with God, if Robert does not believe in God then the literal in itself is null in void due to existence of God in the Bible, in summary I feel Robert is misdirecting and creating a limited relationship for people who are searching Biblical answers for the existence of God and no one should use Robert as a reliable resource since the bible in Roberts vocabulary sounds mystical and not to be taken literally

    • I have a hard time believing (although I would like to) that you saw anything supernatural as I have not. I would think with the millions of “supernatural” events happening – based on all the believers – at least one would reveal itself to me. I have read the bible and believe in much of the lessons – as I believe in many books that I have read. If you can only believe those who share your experiences – correct or not – how can you learn? Do you believe in talking snakes, that there are no metaphors in the Bible, or no misinterpretations?

  • Thomas

    I would love to hear Pr. Alter’s views on how the Old and New Testaments do and do not fit together. The message of the Old Testament (vengeful God) never seemed in concert with the New Testament (forgiving God). Thank you.

    • Frankish

      They fit together in the sense that religion is 100% nonsense and make-up stories.

    • Bob Fry

      @Frankish: haha, common but shallow statement wrt religion. Yes, the bits about god or gods are unlikely to be correct, but the ancient peoples were very observant of human nature and their religions incorporate some good ideas.

      As for the OP’s statement that the OT god is vengeful while the NT god is forgiving, I don’t think it’s true. Often enough in the OT god’s compassion is stated, while in the NT, Annanias and Saphira were struck dead for holding back some of their money. Revelations is filled with judgment and punishment.

      • thucy

        that is a really interesting take on it, I’ll check it out, thanks.

  • Heteroscedastic

    Dear Mr. Alter,

    Voltaire once said that the Bible will perish
    during his lifetime. Considering the irony that Catholic nuns used his
    estate after his death to publish Bibles demonstrates the mortality (or
    dare I say the immortality) of the Bible. I am confident that it will
    last longer than your recent book. You cast your own interpretations
    and doubt on a document that persevered through time. What are your
    sources by which you claim that it’s not historical? Don’t you say them
    because they’re just your interpretation? Why should we believe you?
    You obviously have great motivation to publish your work–notoriety and
    money for retirement. People throughout the past two milleniums died
    for the Bible, believing that it’s true. Will you die for you claims?
    Obviously, you’ll profit from them, but will you die for them? You
    obviously have no credibility. I am ashamed to be a part of the same
    Cal community as someone who will ALTER history to make money.

    • Is the truth of a text proven by people dying for it? (That makes Mein kampf a powerful book), or by how many uneducated – non literate – people believe it over the ages? I know nothing of RA’s profit motive, but have read much of the profit motive of most religions in the past (and present) and the fact that much history has been rewritten (and suppressed) to preserve religious beliefs (creation museum)….

  • Thank you for this enlightening discussion. In light of the recent fundamental push in politics and a push away from separation of church and state I feel I have to push back. Although I take no pleasure in undercutting anyone’s beliefs, but when they force their fantasies and fairy tales upon me and try to rewrite history I have very little choice. Robert Alters’s information sheds great light on the “reality” of the text’s and the background stories upon which they were created – thank you.

  • Atillahn

    NPR/Forum – you might want to change your description to “All religion all the time” So interesting and informative. I hope you will have a guest soon to discuss the catholic soul of The Amazing Spiderman.

  • menloman

    Dear KQED moderator, Why was it necessary to not post my comment asking for a discussion about Deuteronomy 23:1? Are you an anti-Semite?

    • KQED_Forum_Intern

      DISQUS’s filter marked it as spam because of the reference to male genitalia. The comment has been approved and you should now be able to view it.

      • Menloman

        Okay thanks. I hereby absolve you of my cheap and tawdry reference to the false charge of anti-Semitism. It was merely an attempt to shame. I’m not proud of that, but, hey, as we’ve all been shown, sometimes that works.

        • Chris OConnell

          About 99% of claims of anti-Semitism are cheap and tawdry and thus that slur has been rendered meaningless.

          • Dr. M. Otero

            Perhaps from your vantage point, but others who have been on the receiving end may have sharper, sharpened sensibilities.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor