Robert Alter

Robert Alter is an emeritus professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at Berkeley. His translation of the Hebrew Bible appeared in 2018.

Where’s Esther? The Dead Sea Scrolls

Robert Alter, 12 September 2013

The Dead Sea Scrolls, the first three of which came to light in 1947, were the most momentous manuscript discovery of the past hundred years. Almost from the beginning, controversy has swirled around them: who wrote the Scrolls; who carefully preserved them in jars in a series of caves at the northwestern corner of the Dead Sea; what can they tell us about the origins of Christianity and the...

Wrong Side of the River: River Jordan

Robert Alter, 21 June 2012

Rachel Havrelock’s River Jordan is broad in scope, subtle in interpretive detail and written in lucid prose, with an assured mastery of the relevant scholarship – all the more remarkable because it is her first book. What she has done in effect is to invent a new kind of historical analysis, which I would call cultural cartography, with culture comprising ideology and politics as...

José Saramago’s last work of fiction, published in Portugal in 2009, the year before he died, created something of a furore there. It is less likely to ruffle feathers in the English-speaking world, where scathing critiques of the Bible, in fiction and even in biblical scholarship, have been commonplace since the 18th century. Cain is obviously a companion piece to...

How to Hiss and Huff: Mann’s Moses

Robert Alter, 2 December 2010

Thomas Mann wrote this engaging novella in a few weeks in 1943. (The new translation by Marion Faber and Stephen Lehmann, which is brisk and direct, is a welcome replacement of the fussier and less accurate English version done by Helen Lowe-Porter for the original publication.) The novella was written after Mann helped pitch a film on the Ten Commandments to MGM. The film never got off the...

Committee Speak: Bible Writers

Robert Alter, 19 July 2007

This scrupulous study by the Dutch scholar Karel van der Toorn of how the Hebrew Bible was written and then evolved over time is in most respects finely instructive. Some of what Toorn has to say involves concepts long familiar to Bible scholars, though even in this regard he provides many fresh insights. Nearly all the book’s argument, moreover, offers a strong corrective to popular...

Praise Yah: the Psalms

Eliot Weinberger, 24 January 2008

Out of the mouths of babes; apple of the eye; fire and brimstone; out of joint; sleep the sleep of death; sweeter than honey and the honeycomb; whiter than snow; oh that I had wings like a dove for...

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In the beginning was not the word, or the deed, but the face. ‘Darkness was upon the face of the deep,’ runs the King James Version in the second verse of the opening of Genesis....

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Vendetta: The story of David

Gerald Hammond, 7 September 2000

Robert Alter established a whole school of literary appreciation of the Bible some twenty years ago with a pioneering book on Biblical narrative. Now he gives us his own translation and...

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Reading the Bible

John Barton, 5 May 1988

‘Everyone communes with the Bible,’ wrote Marilyn Butler recently in her Cambridge inaugural lecture, commenting on the recent re-inclusion of the Biblical canon in the canon of...

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The Bible as Fiction

George Caird, 4 November 1982

When three distinguished literary figures are impelled to write about the Bible, it is clear that this strange library of books has lost nothing of its perennial fascination. All three grapple...

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Englishing Ourselves

F.W.J. Hemmings, 18 December 1980

Henri Beyle was born in what could reasonably count as Year I of the modern era, since it was then, in 1783, that the independence of the United States was formally recognised by the European...

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