Robert Alter on the King James Bible

Students of the Hebrew Bible are familiar with Robert Alter’s contribution to the study of the Hebrew Bible.  He has published many influential studies and translations of the Hebrew Bible.  All of Alter’s books deal with the literary artistry of the Biblical texts.

Alter’s most recognized works are The Art of Biblical Narrative, published in 1981 and The Art of Biblical Poetry, published in 1985.  These two books have opened new avenues of research for people who are interested in the literary study of the Bible.

Robert Alter has applied his skills in the areas of Biblical narrative and Biblical poetry and written an article in which he evaluates the literary features of the King James Bible and the contribution it has made to the English language and to religious life in general.  Below are a few excerpts from Alter’s article:

If there is a single attribute large numbers of readers attach almost reflexively to the King James Version, it is most likely eloquence. The warrant for this attribution is abundantly evident. Eloquence, a term associated with oratory, especially delivered orally, suggests a powerful marshalling of the resources of language to produce a persuasive effect, and that quality is manifested in verse after verse of the 1611 translation.

It is an intrinsic quality of this English rendering of the Bible that no doubt has been heightened by the virtually canonical status the King James Bible came to enjoy and by the performance of passages from it in ecclesiastical settings or on other solemn occasions.

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The King James translators, by following the syntactic contours of the Hebrew, achieved a new kind of compelling effect, at once lofty and almost stark. The antithetical strategy of modern translations of the Bible by sundry scholarly-ecclesiastical committees has been to repackage the syntax of the original in order to convey a sense that it might have been written in the twentieth century. What is lost in eloquence is palpable.

Compare, for example, “And the waters prevailed, and were increased greatly upon the earth; and the ark went upon the face of the waters,” with the rendering of the Revised English Bible: “The ark floated on the surface of the swollen waters as they increased over the earth.”

The modern version is clear – the pursuit of perfect clarity being one of the great fallacies among modern translators of the Bible – and has a certain succinct tidiness, but it loses all the high solemnity of the King James Version.

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Note in our passage how “the flood was forty days upon the earth” and how “the ark went upon the face of the waters.” The taut eloquence of the narrative inheres partly in the use, faithful to the original, of such simple primary terms – here, the verbs to be, to go.

Alas, modern translators, evidently feeling that this is not the way they would have written the story, have not been able to resist the temptation of improving the original. Thus, as we have seen, in the Revised English Bible, the ark is made to “float,” not “go,” upon the waters, and in a still more fanciful exercise of editorial license, the New Jewish Publication Society translation has the ark “drift.” (Are we certain that Noah’s craft was rudderless?)

Alter’s discussion of Psalm 23 and of the book of Job shows the strengths and weaknesses of the King James Bible.  However, in the end Alter praises the work of the translators of the King James Bible.  He acknowledges their commitment to the original meaning of the text and how their translation has affected the imagination of the readers.

If you like the works of Robert Alter, you will love his review of the King James Bible.  If you have never read Robert Alter before, this article is a good way of introducing you to his works.

In other words, I am encouraging you to read this article.  I truly enjoyed reading Alter’s evaluation of the King James Bible.

Read Alter’s article here.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

This entry was posted in Hebrew Bible, Job, Psalm and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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