Commentary Magazine

Doing Justice to the Bible

The Hebrew Bible is not the first known work in history to have been translated; that honor goes to one of several Sumerian narrative poems, like the Gilgamesh epic or “Ishtar's Descent to the Underworld,” that were put into Akkadian at the start of the first millennium B.C.E. The earliest Bible translation, produced by Jews in Alexandria, was the third-century B.C.E. Greek version known as the Septuagint. However, the Bible is the first book to have been translated into more than one language (the next was Aramaic in the second century C.E., followed in the fourth by the Latin of the Christian church father Jerome), and it is certainly the book that has been translated into the most languages. English alone has dozens of Bible translations, it being often difficult to determine what constitutes a new translation and what a mere revision of an old one.

And yet there is something contradictory about the large number of English Bibles.

This begins with the fact that the same linguistic features of the Hebrew Bible that have facilitated its repeated translation have also made most translations of it redundant. In conventional terms, the Bible is not, apart from its prophetic and a few other books, a difficult work to translate. Its vocabulary is small, its syntax is simple, its verbal embellishments are few, and its occasional obscurities are rarely a hindrance to understanding the passages they occur in. Compared with other classics of the Western tradition, the possibilities for significant variation in Bible translation are small. Why keep re-translating a book when most translations of it end up reading like most others?

The obvious answer is that the Bible is not just a book. It is, for many readers, the word of God, every new translation of which, no matter how minor its differences, may bring one closer to what God has said. One can tire of looking for fresh nuances or greater readability in translations of The Iliad or The Divine Comedy, but not in divine revelation. The Bible, despite its outward simplicity, is the one book that cannot be translated too much.

But this only heightens the contradiction. For if the Bible is the word of God, its translator must stick as closely as possible to God's way of putting things, avoiding the creative liberties that might be taken with other texts—and this will only make him even more likely to repeat previous translations that have taken the same approach. Once again, then, it must be asked: what language needs so many Bible translations?

Indeed, the truth of the matter is that the Bible has not been continually re-translated into English. There have been two great ages of translation activity, the 16th century and the 20th, with little in between.

The first of these ages, triggered by the Protestant Reformation, which strove to break the Catholic Church's monopoly on Scripture by making it available in the vernacular to every Christian, saw a burst of English Bibles. In less than a hundred years English readers were given, by translators representing Lutheran, Calvinist, Catholic, and Anglican outlooks, the Tyndale Bible, the Coverdale Bible, the Matthews Bible, the Geneva Bible, the Douay-Rheims Bible, the Bishops' Bible, and finally, completed in 1611, the King James Bible. While some of these translations drew freely on others, each ultimately based itself, in its “Old Testament” portion, on the Masoretic Hebrew text.

All of these translations were fairly literal, so that once the King James Version achieved canonical status, subsequent ages of English-speaking Protestants rested content with it. Even the Revised Standard Version of 1885, the first English Bible to challenge the King James in nearly 300 years, was little more than an updating that replaced archaic vocabulary and constructions, changing “thee” and “ye” to “you,” cutting down on the ubiquitous “and” that links biblical phrases and sentences, and so on.

It was only a decade or two later that a wave of brand-new Bible translations began. Far outnumbering the 16th century's, these were driven by two motivating forces: the desire to apply to Bible translation the new philological, archeological, and historical knowledge that modern scholarship had made available, and the wish to adopt a freer approach to a Hebrew and Greek text no longer considered the revealed Truth but rather, in the spirit of the 20th century, a great cultural and spiritual document composed by different authors in different periods and best approached with the flexibility that any good literary translation should have. New translations of the Bible were called for precisely because, for many people, the Bible had ceased to be the word of God.

Thus, the two great ages of English Bible translation have been inspired, the one by an ardent faith in the divine authorship of Scripture, the other by an erosion of this faith. Surely there is something contradictory about this, too.


There have been, since the late 19th century, six English translations of the Hebrew Bible by itself, minus the New Testament. All six have been by Jews. Four are of the Hebrew Scriptures in their entirety: M. Friedlander's 1881 Jewish Family Bible, the Jewish Publication Society Bibles of 1917 and 1985, and the 2001 Stone Edition of the Tanach. The other two are just of the Pentateuch, the Bible's first section, which is read portion by portion in the synagogue over the course of the year: Everett Fox's The Five Books of Moses (1995) and, now, a new translation of the same books—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—by the well-known literary critic Robert Alter.1

Alter, who has written extensively on the European novel, is also a leading figure in the literary criticism of the Bible—a field, in part pioneered and developed by him, that analyzes biblical texts with little attention to their historical formation or religious content and using the same linguistic and structural methods that are applied to other great works of literature. Besides being the author of several volumes of such criticism, he has in the past published separate translations of Genesis and of the two books of Samuel. Readers familiar with these translations will be prepared for the fact that his English Pentateuch, far from being innovatively “post-faith” in character, retains the literalism of faith-driven translations.

In his introduction to The Five Books of Moses, Alter explains why, despite his secular point of view, he has avoided the freer approach of many modern Bible translators—translators who, as he observes, have sought to adjust the Bible's sentence structure to the norms of contemporary English diction, to “disambiguate” its unclear passages, to use different English words where Hebrew repeats the same one, and to substitute modern idioms for English calques of biblical expressions. For him, a maximal adherence to the Bible's phrasing and vocabulary has nothing to do with religious belief. It is a purely literary decision, based on the assessment that the Bible's narrative style, once judged rudimentary by sophisticated standards, is in fact a supremely artful medium whose techniques and strategies call for faithful reproduction.

A great deal of modern translation, Alter holds, shows disrespect for the Bible's artistry by aspiring to improve on it by means of the “heresy of explanation,” the “abomination of elegant synonymous variation,” the “translation of terms on the basis of immediate context,” and the “repackaging of biblical syntax for an audience whose reading experience is assumed to be limited to Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times.” What we are given by such translations is not the experience of the Bible but its semantic contents in nondescript language. Indeed, Alter declares, despite its “frequent and at times embarrassing inaccuracies . . . archaisms . . . and insistent substitution of Renaissance English tonalities and rhythms for biblical ones,” the King James Version has remained to this day “the closest approach for English readers to the original.”

Why then not stand pat with the King James or make do with updating it once more? Because, Alter asserts, it is not, for all its excellence, good enough. If the problem with most modern Bibles is their “shaky sense of English,” the King James has a “shaky sense of Hebrew” that cannot be rectified by a superficial touching-up. The prose of the Hebrew Bible is full of fine discriminations—of “a distinctive music, a lovely precision of lexical choice, a meaningful concreteness, and a suppleness of expressive syntax”—that the King James often misses, as do the other translations of its day executed by Christian scholars whose Hebrew education was imperfect. As great an achievement as it is, it can be surpassed. Alter's Pentateuch sets out to do just that.


Not all of the Pentateuch, of course, is of equal literary interest. Alongside the extraordinary narratives of Genesis, the first half of Exodus, and parts of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, there are lengthy passages of a legal or ritual nature that the merely literary reader of the Bible rarely bothers with. It is a tribute to the comprehensiveness of Alter's ambition that he skips not a verse of these, even if this means repeating twelve times, for each chieftain of the twelve tribes of Israel in the book of Numbers, “His offering was one silver bowl, a hundred thirty shekels its weight, one silver basin, seventy shekels by the sanctuary shekel, both of them filled with fine flour mixed with oil for a grain offering.” Yet it is not, obviously, by such passages that his translation needs to be judged. For that, one has to turn to the great biblical stories—for example, to that of Joseph and his brothers, to which Alter devoted an entire chapter in his The Art of Biblical Narrative (1981).2

Let us compare several versions of the beginning of this story as told in chapter 37 of Genesis, starting with the King James Version:

These are the generations of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was feeding the flock with his brethren . . . and Joseph brought unto his father their evil report. Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age, and he made him a coat of many colors. And when his brethren saw that their father loved him more than all his brethren, they hated him and could not speak peaceably unto him.

The Revised Standard Version has:

This is the history of the family of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers . . . and Joseph brought an ill report of them to their father. Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a long robe with sleeves. But when his brothers saw that his father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peaceably to him.

Everett Fox gives us:

These are the begettings of Yaakov. Yosef, seventeen years old, used to tend the sheep along with his brothers. . . . And Yosef brought a report of them, an ill one, to their father. Now Yisrael loved Yosef above all his sons, for he was a son of old age to him, so he made him an ornamented coat. when his brothers saw that it was he whom their father loved above all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak to him in peace.

The translator Stephen Mitchell's contemporary version of Genesis omits the story's opening entirely:

Now Jacob loved Joseph more than all his other sons, because he was a child of his old age, and he made him a coat of many colors. And when Joseph's brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his other sons, they hated him, and they would not even greet him.

And here is Alter:

This is the lineage of Jacob—Joseph, seventeen years old, was tending the flock with his brothers. . . . And Joseph brought ill report of them to their father. And Israel loved Joseph more than all his sons, for he was the child of his old age, and he made him an ornamented tunic. And his brothers saw it was he their father loved more than all his brothers, and they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him.

In comparing these translations with each other and with the original Hebrew, one's first observation is that Alter's is syntactically the most literal, more so even than the King James. Thus, whereas all the other English versions seek to mitigate the repetitive Hebrew “and” (the King James replaces it once with “now” and eliminates it a second time by subordinating “they hated him” to “when”), Alter alone preserves each of its six appearances.

In his introduction, Alter justifies his systematic retention of the biblical “and,” despite its seeming monotony, by pointing out quite correctly that it is not just a formal grammatical element but an important stylistic device that “makes manifest in a narrative . . . a series of more or less discrete events, or micro-events, in a chain.” Indeed, one might go beyond this and argue that much of the power of biblical narrative depends on this discreteness, which dramatically foregrounds each event—“And Joseph brought ill report. . . . And Israel loved Joseph. . . . And his brothers saw it was he their father loved”—against a cloudy background whose details the reader is imaginatively forced to fill in.


This is an excellent illustration of why Alter is right to believe, on purely literary grounds, in the importance of close translation of the Bible. The empty spaces between one “and” and the next lure us into them; they are as much responsible for the enormous amount of exegesis that the Bible has attracted as are its religious claims. By subordinating “they hated him” to “when his brethren saw that his father loved him more,” the King James is telling us why Joseph's brothers hated him—committing the “heresy of explanation,” in Alter's words—instead of letting us draw our own conclusions (which may be the same as its, but are ours), as the biblical narrative wishes us to do.

Lexically, too, Alter sticks close to the Hebrew text, sometimes with marvelous results. A few verses further on, for instance, after relating Joseph's dreams of future grandeur, the Bible tells us how his brothers, seeing him come looking for them while they are pasturing their father's flock, say, “Here comes that ba'al ha-halomot!” Halomot are dreams, while Hebrew usage permits ba'al to be translated in one of two ways—either literally, as an independent word meaning “owner of” or “master of,” or as a grammatical marker like the English “-er” in “farmer” and “singer.” From Jerome on, we find all Bible translators opting for the latter, that is, for “dreamer”—all except Alter, whose “Here comes that dream-master!” perfectly captures the bitter scorn that Joseph's brothers feel for him.

Elsewhere, on the other hand, Alter has borrowed freely from his predecessors, as when he follows the Revised Standard Version (which is in turn based on the King James) in translating the Hebrew va-yavei et dibatam ra'ah as “brought ill report of them,” or Everett Fox (who took the phrase from the 1985 Jewish Publication Society Bible) in rendering k'tonet pasim as “ornamented tunic.”

Both of these borrowings are curious. “Ill report” for dibah ra'ah, which means slander or evil talk, is hardly idiomatic English today and makes Alter appear inconsistent. Why, if he preferred William Tyndale's homey “could not speak one kind word to him” to the King James's “did not speak peaceably to him” (which adheres more or less to the Latin Vulgate's nec poterant ei quicquam pacificum loqui, itself a literal translation of the Hebrew ve-lo yakhlu dabro le'shalom), did he not choose something more natural like “said evil things about them”? (Tyndale's “brought unto their father an evil saying that was of them” could have served as the basis here, too.)

“Ornamented tunic” is even more puzzling, inasmuch as, standing at a junction of translation history and biblical scholarship, it rejects a phrase—Joseph's “coat of many colors”—that has spoken evocatively to generations of English Bible readers.

The precise meaning of the Hebrew k'tonet pasim, the biblical term for the luckless garment that Jacob gives Joseph as a token of his love, is undeterminable; although kutonet clearly denotes a coat or tunic, the meaning of pas, of which pasim is the plural, has never been clear. Alongside an early rabbinic interpretation as “stripes,” there is another of “fine, thin material,” and still another of “long-sleeved” (hence the Revised Standard Version's rendition). The great medieval Bible scholar Abraham ibn Ezra thought it meant “embroiderery.” The Septuagint translates it as poikilon, “many-colored,” and the Vulgate as polymita, “richly patterned.” The Septuagint also influenced Martin Luther's bunten Rock, a “colorful coat,” which suggested to William Tyndale his “coat of many colors,” subsequently taken over by the King James.

Contemporary scholars are not sure what a k'tonet pasim was, either. The 1985 JPS Bible, which came up with “ornamented tunic,” adds in a note that Egyptian tomb paintings show “Semitic men and women wearing multicolored tunics draped over one shoulder and reaching below the knees.” Alter's own note to this verse cites an ancient cuneiform text suggesting that a k'tonet pasim may have been “a tunic with appliqué ornamentation,” although there is also “a 14th-century B.C.E. Egyptian fresco showing captive Canaanite noblemen adorned with tunics made of longitudinal panels sewn together”—in other words, vertical stripes.

Alter's adoption of the JPS wording strikes one as mistaken; the scholarly evidence supports “coat of many colors” just as well, and, as one of the best-known English biblical phrases, it has a tender and lively pathos, lacking in “ornamented tunic,” that turns to heartbreak when the same garment is returned to Jacob smeared with blood. Still, this is not really the point; the best translators can and do err. More noteworthy is the intricate play between the Bible translations of the past and the contemporary translator, who can hardly make a move without following in the footsteps of some of them.

Sometimes these footsteps show us one translator after another heading down the same false trail. The Hebrew of Genesis, for instance, tells us that Joseph was cast by his brothers into a bor in the midbar—two words that Jerome, who lived in Palestine and knew its landscape and way of life, accurately translated as cisterna vetera, an old water cistern (the narrative tells us it was dry), in solitudine, in a lonely place. But because the word bor in Hebrew can also denote a plain pit, and midbar can signify, besides semi-arid grazing land, actual desert, the great Protestant translators of the 16th century, who lived in a Europe where cisterns and gradations of arid zones were unknown, had Joseph thrown into “one of the pits in the wilderness,” leaving the reader to guess why his brothers and their flock wandered off into a wasteland full of holes.

These words have survived in every notable English Bible translation to this day, and Alter, perhaps out of sheer inertia, has gone along with them, even while observing in a note that Joseph's “pit” was a cistern. In the grand sense, it would seem, originality in Bible translation is no longer possible; the translator struggling to find his own voice repeatedly finds it drowned out by what the critic Harold Bloom has called “belatedness,” that dilatory arrival upon a scene in which all that can be said and done appears to have been said and done. At most, a new word here, a different turn of phrase there: what more can another Bible translation offer?


In fact the Alter translation offers a good deal. It is generally sensible, it is fluent, and it strikes a judicious balance between an English that is contemporary and one sufficiently old-fashioned to convey that it speaks of events happening long ago in a world far removed from our own. when Alter's Joseph says to his brothers, “Listen, pray, to this dream that I dreamed. And, look, we were binding sheaves in the field,” “pray” does the work of distancing the story while “look” creates a sense of immediacy. We can actually feel Joseph's excitement—what Alter, in his unfailingly intelligent commentary that is itself worth the price of the volume, calls the young dreamer's “wide-eyed amazement and perhaps naiveté.”

Nevertheless, Alter's own rules get in the way here. After Joseph has repeated “look” twice more in the same sentence (“and, look, my sheaf arose and actually stood up, and, look, your sheaves drew round and bowed to my sheaf”), we begin to feel that the translation is overdoing it. Wide-eyed amazement has become a verbal tic.

Alter's thrice-repeated “look” is his translation of the Hebrew word hineh, which literally means “here” but functions in this passage, as it often does in the Bible, to introduce a narrative shift from the past tense to the present and back again. (The actual sequence of Hebrew tenses in this passage is: “And Joseph said [to his brothers], “Listen, pray, to this dream that I dreamed—hineh we are binding sheaves in the field, and hineh my sheaf arose and actually stood up, and hineh your sheaves drew round and bowed down to my sheaf.”) The possibility of free movement between past and present is a characteristic feature of Hebrew prose and has something of the effect of a zoom lens; when the lens is snapped into place, often by hineh, the distance between us and the story collapses. In English, on the other hand, although this can be done colloquially (e.g., “I was walking down the street and along comes this man and says that he knows me”), it is impermissible in formal prose, in which all the Bible translator has to work with is the hineh itself.

In the King James, hineh is generally translated as “behold,” at times varied with “lo,” so that Genesis 37:7 is rendered: “For, behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and, lo, my sheaf arose and also stood upright, and, behold, your sheaves stood round about and made obeisance to my sheaf.” William Tyndale, going a step further, omitted the third hineh entirely, while Martin Luther outdid him by omitting the last two while translating the first, in imitation of the Latin Vulgate's putabam, as mich deuchte, or “methought,” as Tyndale has it elsewhere. The 1985 JPS Bible follows this double omission while beginning the verse, “There we were binding sheaves in the field. . . .” Each of these solutions is better than Alter's, whose second and third “look” seem more a matter of abstract principle than of verisimilitudinous speech. A touch of “synonymous elegance,” or of “translation of terms on the basis of immediate context,” would not have hurt here.

On the whole, though he is right in a general way, Alter makes too much, I think, of the refusal of older translations to tamper with the Bible's diction. In point of fact, every one of the modern “sins” he enumerates can be found in the ancients, too. The repackaging of biblical syntax? “Videntes autem,” Jerome's Latin says, “fratres eius quod a patre plus cunctis filiis amaretur oderant eum”: “Thus seeing that their brother was more loved than all his sons by their father, they hated him.” The heresy of explanation? The Hebrew Bible's “And Reuben returned to the pit and, behold, there is no Joseph,” became Martin Luther's “Als nun Ruben wieder zur Grube kam and fand Joseph nicht darin”: “Now when Reuben returned to the pit and did not find Joseph in it.” The abomination of synonymous elegance? Tyndale, who gave us “a coat of many colors,” translates it further on in the same chapter, when it is handed bloodied to Jacob, as “that gay coat.”

Good translators cannot be dogmatic; there are no rules they may not break when it works. Yet what “works” with the Bible is a difficult question, because, as Alter's introduction points out, it is often debatable “what level, or perhaps levels, of style is represented by biblical Hebrew.” Translation is ordinarily a kind of impersonation in which the translator pretends to be the author writing in another language. But whom, whether we call him Moses or J, E, P, or D, as the supposed different strands of biblical narrative are labeled by historical “source criticism,” is one impersonating when one translates the Pentateuch? Its world is so different from our own—far more than Dante's, far more even than Homer's—that we cannot know. Although Alter declares that “It is well-known that in biblical dialogue all the characters speak proper literary Hebrew, with no intimations of slang,” can we really be so sure that when Joseph brings his father “an ill report” of his brothers, the biblical audience did not hear that he “badmouthed” them?

In the end, we are trapped in a circle: a translation of a biblical passage “works” if it corresponds to the “level of style” we suppose biblical narration to have been using, but our notion of what this “level of style” is depends on which translations of it “work.” Bible translation is inductive, a matter of hit-or-miss rather than of the pursuit of a pre-conceived ideal that is the literary translator's normal mode of operation. Is Alter's Pentateuch better than the King James? In places it is and in places it isn't, just as the King James sometimes does and sometimes does not improve on Tyndale, and so on down the line. Perhaps the ultimate English Bible will not have a single innovation of its own. It will simply be a culling of the best choices that preceded it, its compiler a systematic anthologist.


Is there, then, in the final analysis, any difference between a “faith translation” of the Bible and a good literary translation like Alter's? Does it matter whether the translator does or does not believe that the Bible is God's word?

Let us put the question more concretely. when Reuben, Joseph's oldest brother who hopes to rescue him and bring him safely home, returns to discover that Joseph has been sold in his absence to a caravan of traders descending to Egypt, Alter translates: “And Reuben came back to the pit, and, look, Joseph was not in the pit, and he rent his garments, and he came back to his brothers, and he said, ‘The boy is gone, and I, where can I turn?’ ” The King James has: “And Reuben returned unto the pit; and behold, Joseph was not in the pit; and he rent his clothes. And he returned unto his brethren, and said, The child is not; and I, whither shall I go?” Apart from the modernizing moves that Alter's translation makes—“to” for “unto,” “look” for “behold,” “brothers” for “brethren,” “where” for “whither”—do we experience these two translations differently?

Perhaps not—but this begs the question. It is because of Alter's modernizing that our experience is different. The ancientness of the King James invests it, for many readers, with a sacredness that Alter's The Five Books of Moses does not have.

And yet the King James, too, was “modern” when it first appeared, even if it permitted itself certain archaisms just as Alter permits himself “pray.” Does this mean that it was no more sacred then than Alter's translation is now, but has become so by a process of aging?

To this one must say yes and no—no, because in the early 17th century it was still universally acknowledged that a translation of the Bible was a translation of a sacred book; and yes, because time sacralizes. Consider two similar chairs, each with a plain back, seat, and legs, one newly made by a carpenter and one 400 years old. Does not sitting, however uncomfortably, in the old chair, its wood cracked and burnished by use, produce a shiver that the new chair does not? So many generations have sat in it and handed it down that it leads us back and back through time until something timeless adheres to us, too.

Words are like chairs in this respect, which is why, in the many contemporary controversies between religious traditionalists and modernizers over the wording of liturgies, the traditionalists nearly always have it right. It is precisely the archaic and the foreign in an ancient text—the uncomfortable—that communicates the holy. “Where can I turn?” does not make us shiver.

“Whither shall I go?” also approximates more closely the experience of reading the Bible in Hebrew. Although the story of Joseph is perfectly comprehensible in the original to the average Hebrew speaker today, its language too is archaic, the gap between it and modern Hebrew rather comparable to that between the King James's English and our own. Reuben's ana ani va, literally, “Where am I to come to,” falls on a 21st-century ear very much like a 17th-century expression.

The difference, then, is not so much the faith out of which the King James Bible was translated as the hundreds of years in which faith was put into it.

For Jewish readers of the Alter Pentateuch, this is no obstacle. Jews have only one sacred Bible, and it is the Hebrew one. Apart from the Aramaic Targum, no Jewish Bible translation has ever been venerated or regarded as more than a useful study aid. The most popular Pentateuch among English-speaking Jews today, now under challenge from its 1985 successor, is probably still the 1917 Jewish Publication Society Bible, an essentially Judaized King James that is, in its Soncino Press edition with facing Hebrew and English texts, standard issue in numerous synagogues. Published in a similar bilingual format, Alter's Five Books of Moses could compete advantageously with either.

For believing Christians, the King James Version remains unsurpassed. And for those who would read the Bible as mere literature? For them the biggest obstacle is the Bible itself, since, despite its literary brilliance, which Alter has helped us to see, it remains stubbornly resistant to being read in this way. “It is not you who sent me here but God,” Joseph says to his brothers when, now the most powerful man in Egypt beside Pharaoh, he reveals himself to them at the end of his and their great drama—and although he is not the most God-centered character in the Bible, any brother of his who dismissed this remark would be showing, in his eyes, a poor understanding of what happened. To read the Bible merely as literature is to read it not so much without faith as in bad faith, although what better faith can be hoped for from the faithless than the faith in literature, which alone holds that every word in the Bible counts even if it is not God's, would be hard to say.



1 The Five Books of Moses. Norton, 1,064 pp., $39.95.

2 This chapter, like several others in The Art of Biblical Narrative, was originally published in COMMENTARY—ED.


About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.

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