Top of the Charts
The Five Books of Moses
Translation and Commentary by Everett Fox
(New York: Schocken Books, 1995) 1024 pp., $49.50
Translation and Commentary by Robert Alter
(New York: W.W. Norton, 1996) 352 pp., $30
Do we need another translation of the Torah? Do we need two? Everett Fox’s The Five Books of Moses and Robert Alter’s Genesis are recent additions to the already stuffed shelves of biblical translation. The former, in particular, has garnered unprecedented publicity: prominent reviews in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Newsweek, Cleveland Plain Dealer, and Jewish and Christian publications; interviews on National Public Radio; a publisher-sponsored gala reading at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (by no less than Ruby Dee, David Dinkins, Mia Farrow, Billy Graham, Tammy Grimes, Anne Jackson, Jesse Jackson, James Earl Jones, Ed Koch, Norman Mailer, Jessye Norman, George Plimpton, Patrick Stewart, Gay Talese, Eli Wallach and others!)—even a presentation to the Clintons at the White House. Co-distributed by Schocken Books, which specializes in Judaica, and Word Publishing, a conservative Christian publishing house, sales reportedly exceed 50,000 and climbing. What’s the big deal?
Fox’s work is not exactly new. Preliminary editions of his Genesis (1983) and Exodus (1986) translations received middling attention in the popular and scholarly press. But editor Arthur Samuelson of Schocken Books has scored a marketing coup with this massive, gilt-edge, large-print, handsomely illuminated designer book.
The sales record proves that Fox and Schocken have caught the cresting wave of publication about religion. In the last decade of our millennium, people are mad for books about God: God and literature, God and physics, God and history, even a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of God.a Fox’s volume, the product of 25 years of labor, could not have appeared at a more auspicious moment.
Moreover, it’s terrific. According to an (untranslatable) Italian saying, traduttore traditore, every translator is traitor—but some are more treacherous than others. Fox convincingly indicts his predecessors of flagrant betrayal: of replacing Hebrew’s simple syntax and limited vocabulary with all the variety European languages afford. In particular, English translations since the 1960s have rendered scripture in an idiom more suited to Newsweek than the Good News, as if hoping readers will forget they are reading a translation. Such an approach may be desirable for modern works. But for an ancient classic, the result is a misleading minimization of the cultural gap between ourselves and the author(s). There is something—dare I say?—imperialistic in a Bible that sounds as if written by a contemporary, upper-class American. Part of Fox’s appeal, I think, is that he taps the multicultural zeitgeist.
In fact, we need both types of renderings: those truest to the language of translation, which make the text comfortable, and those truest to the original, which make the text strange. For the Bible, we have many examples of the former approach; Fox’s is a first attempt at the latter, at least in English (notable predecessors are the Greek translation by Aquila [second century C.E.], the German translation by Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Buber  and the French translation by A. Chouraqui ).
Accordingly, Fox recasts the Queen’s English, boldly reasserting the 014sovereignty of Hebrew style. Imagine that Moses (or whoever wrote the Torah), instead of fleeing to Midian, came to America at age forty and attended night school. His broken immigrant’s English would be suffused with the idiom and rhythm of his mother tongue, yet it might possess its own exotic power. In fact, the creation of a Hebreo-English dialect makes Fox not just traitor but double agent. He plays equally false with Hebrew and English—but equally true, too.
Fox sets out his translation in lines that resemble poetry. At first, this seems an odd choice; most of the Torah is prose. Fox demonstrates, however, that the special rhythm of the Hebrew narrative is best conveyed through this format. His edition is particularly intended for reading aloud—although the very bizarreness of its diction may hamper comprehension.
Somewhat unusual is Fox’s transliteration of Hebrew proper names (such as Yitzhak) instead of the familiar Anglo-Latin forms (Isaac). This will be an inconvenience for some readers, a welcome improvement for others. Fox never explains, however, that the Hebrew he transliterates comes from the Middle Ages. We are uncertain of ancient pronunciation, but it certainly was different.
Fox’s Torah is remarkable for its pace. In general, English plods where Hebrew zips. The cause is Hebrew’s relative concision, contrasted with the inherent longwindedness of English. By devising a compressed idiom, and by omitting the interminable “and he…and he…and he” of the older translations, Fox has recaptured some of the original’s feel. Although they will annoy many readers, I particularly welcome his hyphenated neologisms (“started-early,” “ripe-age,” “blessing-of-farewell,” etc.). These have been deliberately coined to capture untranslatable Hebrew terms.
I will decline to quibble about details of interpretation, although there is occasional room for carping. Fox’s methodology is more important than his result. If others differ in their interpretation of individual passages or in overall feel for Hebrew, let them produce their own literalistic versions. My chief gripe is with the lavish format and the consequent cost. Fifty dollars is a lot to pay for only a third of the Old Testament. But if you reckon ten dollars for each of the Five Books of Moses, it’s almost a bargain.
Alter’s translation of Genesis has just been released. Given the fame of its author—he is Class of 1937 Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California at Berkeley—it is sure to receive much critical attention. Alter, like Fox, trumpets his breach with the past. Alter claims to have employed “language that conveys with some precision the semantic nuances and the lively orchestration of literary effects of the Hebrew and at the same time has stylistic and rhythmic integrity as literary English.” An admirable goal, I think, but quixotic. In a New York Times Magazine review, Alter tweaked Fox for his “monogamous attachment to the Hebrew.” Any reader of Genesis should recognize the perils of polygamy. Despite his well-known eloquence and insight as a critic, Alter falls short as a Bible translator, at least for me. His version is labored and frequently too loose. In particular, by retaining the “and…and…and” syntax of the King James Version (KJV) (for reasons he carefully explains), Alter’s rendering works a hypnotically soporific effect.
Nevertheless, I would encourage readers to examine both of these books and form their own conclusions. To give a foretaste, the sidebar presents three renderings of a famous scene, Genesis 25:28–34, in which Esau sells his birthright for a mess of pottage. The first is the KJV, the second is Fox and the third is Alter.
Fox uses 120 words, counting each 015hyphenated term as one. Alter uses 127. King James weighs in at 130. The Hebrew original: 80.
All of these, in my opinion, could be improved. No version is willing to translate verse 28 literally and let the reader puzzle over the meaning: “Isaac loved Esau, for hunted-game was in his mouth”—somewhat enigmatic, to be sure. In verse 29, Fox’s “boiling boiled-stew” conveys, at the expense of hyphenation, the common root of the verb for boiling (
So, do the translations by Fox and Alter deserve the hype? Sure. The Bible always deserves hype. In attempting to break with the past, Fox and Alter have made a real contribution. I hope further translators of the Bible and other ancient classics will follow their precedent.
Creation Accounts in the Ancient Near East and in the Bible
Richard J. Clifford
(Washington, DC: Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1994) 217 pp., $9 (paper)
Since the discoveries of Babylonian myths of creation in archaeological excavations of the mid-1800’s, biblical scholars have tried to trace the connections between these and other ancient myths to the biblical accounts of creation. The Bible presents a multiplicity of views of creation: It is the result of God’s word (Genesis 1) or actions (compare Genesis 1 and 2), or it arises in the wake of God’s victory over primeval sea-monsters (see Psalms 74:12–17, 89:6–15; Job 26:7–14 and other texts). This plurality of views is related to Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Canaanite mythologies. In some ancient Near Eastern texts, the creator god creates by words, in others by actions, and in at least one case creation is a direct consequence of victory over primeval sea-monsters.
Now there is a book in English that does justice to the nuances and complexity of these creation texts. Richard Clifford, a professor at the Weston School of Theology in Boston and an accomplished Old Testament scholar, has written numerous articles on creation in biblical and Canaanite traditions. His years of research have culminated in this learned and insightful book. This will be 016a standard work on the topic, and it is even affordable!
Clifford covers an amazing amount of material without stunning the reader. In the first half of the book, he discusses the major texts and concepts of creation in Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Canaanite traditions. In each of these sections, he includes translations of selected texts, generally following the best modern translations and treatments by acknowledged specialists in the field. Because Clifford has pondered the nuances of these texts and is familiar with their difficulties, he is able to present their ideas clearly, without oversimplification or distortion. The sometimes bewildering world of ancient Near Eastern thought is explored sympathetically and carefully, two qualities often lacking in treatments of these texts by biblical scholars.
In the second half of the book, Clifford turns to his real strength, the exploration of biblical themes of creation in the context of Near Eastern religious thought. He convincingly explains that accounts of creation, both in and outside the Bible, are concerned not just with the creation of the physical world but with the establishment of order in the human world. In other words, creation is not complete until the principles of justice and harmony are established in nature and in culture and are placed under beneficent divine rule.
By clarifying the connection between the creation of the physical world and the establishment of a lasting moral and social order, Clifford is able to make sense of the wide range of creation imagery in the Bible. The anthology of narratives in Genesis 1–11 trace creation from its initial acts to the drama of human societies. In several Psalms the problem of chaos in the life of the individual or of the community is expressed through appeals to God’s first acts of creation, by which he vanquished chaos and established order. The imagery of the Exodus merges with that of the initial acts of creation, as the creation of the social and moral order of the Israelite people extends the creation of the universe. In these texts there is no contradiction between “myth” and “history” because the process of creation unites and encompasses both.
In Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40–55) and in Job, the imagery of creation is also prominent, as both books explore the ramifications of suffering and injustice in a divinely ordered world. Second Isaiah projects the process of creation into a future New Creation and New Exodus, showing the people in exile a way to re-create their world by a momentous return to Zion.
I have only been able to hint at the range of themes and insights available in Clifford’s tour of creation in the ancient Near East and the Bible. He presents a wealth of material in an accessible and thoughtful manner, with many fresh insights to ponder along the way. This book is a boon for readers interested in biblical texts of creation, a topic which never ceases to fascinate.
What Really Happened to Jesus: A Historical Approach to the Resurrection
(Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1995) 147 pp., $12.99 (paper)
Seeing the Lord: Resurrection and Early Christian Practices
(Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994) 375 pp., $20 (paper)
Resurrection Reconsidered: Thomas and John in Controversy
Gregory J. Riley
(Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995) 222 pp., $17 (paper)
“Rethinking the Resurrection,” the title of the cover story of the Easter 1996 Newsweek, subtly captured a Christian dilemma in a scientific, historical age. How shall Christians think or talk about an “event” that by the rules of scientific and historical method is impossible? The Biblical scholar, Gerd Lüdemann, caused a stir in Germany two years ago when he analyzed the New Testament testimonies and stories concerning the risen Jesus and forthrightly concluded that “the tomb of Jesus was not empty, but full, and his body did not disappear, but rotted away” and that “a consistent modern view must say farewell to the resurrection of Jesus as a historical event.”
The stories of Jesus’ appearances to his disciples derive from ecstatic experiences, visions, hallucination and mass 017psychoses. The disciples “saw” Jesus in this way and created stories to support and communicate their experiences. Lüdemann successfully maintains the modern commitment to an independent, empirically known world and lays to rest the conflict between reason and faith, but at the cost of withdrawing faith and the resurrection from the world of the senses into the inner world of mind, emotion and non-rational conviction.
Lüdemann’s conclusions are neither surprising, novel nor helpful in “rethinking the resurrection.” If you accept science as the only kind of valid knowledge and the empirical world as a mechanistic closed system of physical causes and effects (an increasingly inadequate rationalist model for the world), any divine influence is automatically excluded, including bodily resurrection. Though many pose the question of the historicity of the resurrection as Lüdemann does, a serious inquirer may respond, “Been there, done that!” Lüdemann’s problem and solution repeat that of another German Biblical scholar, David Strauss, who wrote his Life of Jesus Critically Examined in 1835, much to the dismay of government, church and society. Though the bifurcation between science and theology, reason and faith, which generated the discussion of resurrection, began four centuries ago, Lüdemann does little to address these fundamental issues.
Criticism of Lüdemann is not approbation of a naive affirmation of the resurrection of Jesus as some kind of “literal, objective fact” perceptible to all. In the New Testament the risen or revivified body of Jesus is never accessible to all. Most important human experiences, relationships and realities, along with the resurrection, cannot be perceived and photographed like a school graduation. The New Testament gives firm and wise guidance by neither narrating nor empirically defining Jesus’ resurrection. The resurrection is not fact or history in the modern sense, nor fiction or fantasy either. Neither the affirmations of simplistic literalism nor the denials of simplistic science will do. The modern Christian tensions over the resurrection are endemic to the whole tradition. Lüdemann’s analysis of the New Testament resurrection traditions, especially in his more scholarly study (The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology [Fortress, 1994]), which preceded What Really Happened to Jesus, as well as those in the books by Marianne Sawicki and Gregory Riley, testify to the multiple and varied understandings of Jesus’ resurrection and its implications in the early church.
Riley first reviews the multitude of ideas and convictions concerning afterlife in the Bible, Second Temple Judaism and the Greco-Roman world, including Sheol and Hades, immortality of the soul without the body, Paul’s notion of a “spiritual (literally, soulish) body” in 1 Corinthians 15, exaltation and transformation of a person into a heavenly being and bodily resurrection. Bodies in antiquity were not limited to one chemical, biological system, but came in several heavenly and earthly varieties. Disputes in early Christian literature show that Christians embraced disparate understandings of Jesus and his resurrection. The earliest Christian teaching did not uniformly stress the physical body of the risen Jesus, as modern Christians often imagine. Riley shows effectively and clearly how the stories about “doubting Thomas” in the Gospel of John encoded a dispute over the resurrection and risen body of Jesus. The Gospel of Thomas preserves traditions to which John was opposed. One 018saying captures the thrust of its position: Jesus’ disciples “are like little children who inhabit a field which is not their own. Whenever the owners of the field arrive, they will say, ‘Release our field to us.’ They strip naked before them in order to release it to them and give their field to them” (#21). This narrative is not a prelude to an orgy, but an allegory of life. When the disciples die, they take off their bodies and give them to the rulers of the world before they ascend to a heavenly world. When these texts discuss resurrection and the body, they are not discussing physics, but human nature, the place of the world in the universe and ultimate human destiny.
Can Christians legitimately “rethink the resurrection” and, like the early church, “see the Lord”? What is the way forward? According to Marianne Sawicki, the way is a complex but rich analysis and critique of both the tradition and twentieth century Christian presuppositions about knowledge, humans and the world. Her sprawling, diffuse discussions lack the unity and edge of a tightly reasoned hypothesis, but reward the persistent reader with a wealth of perspectives which challenge stale assumptions and open new paths. Historical questions and studies work to support analyses of communicative, educational, liturgical, feminist, philosophical and theological strategies for understanding the role of resurrection and body in the Christian community. The core concern of resurrection is the availability of Jesus bodily after his death, both in the early churches and in the present. Sawicki writes out of the same liberal historical tradition as Lüdemann, but she narrows the limits of historical questions and transcends them much more effectively. The disputes among Christians then and now concerning the resurrection involve how Christians see Jesus.
Like Lüdemann, Sawicki will concede that a historical reconstruction of Jesus’ burial should probably include the confiscation of his body by the authorities and its decomposition in a tomb. But this historical reconstruction is not relevant to resurrection as taught by the New Testament and early church. The road to resurrection faith is not empirical history nor a series of extraordinary, non-rational psychological events. The inadequacy of Western psychological theory for explaining ancient and non-Western cultures is notorious. Rather, a complex, pre-canonical, communal “learning to see the risen Jesus” developed among his followers. This process founded Christianity and continues to operate today. For example, the women disciples grieved for Jesus’ suffering and death, as Jesus had grieved for Lazarus’ death (John 11). The experience of confronting Jesus’ suffering and their own was expressed in the stories of the women at the tomb.
Those Christians who affirm the resurrection in a lively and effective way today also confront and grieve for the sufferings of human society. Similarly, Luke connects recognition of the resurrection with meals in the stories of the disciples traveling to Emmaus and the disciples gathered after the resurrection (Luke 24) as well as in the story of girl raised to life (8:55), the Pharisee who is promised resurrection for feeding the poor (14:14), the prodigal son whose father gives him a feast because “he was dead, and has come back to life” (15:32) and the poor man Lazarus who was denied food in this life and feasts in heaven (16:19–31). Similarly, modern Christians recognize and experience the risen Jesus when they eat Jesus’ body in the Lord’s supper (Luke 22) and when they care for those in need. Body, then, both the risen body of Jesus and the human body, is not a simple physical entity to be weighed and photographed, but the whole person, constructed by social, economic, gender, cultural and political understandings, but still transculturally and persistently demanding recognition and response. Such bodies interact with Jesus’ body in resurrection faith and the development of these interactions in text, cult and community was and is the task and reality of Christianity.
None of these analyses and solutions sweeps away the tensions and uncertainties of Christian thought and faith in the resurrection. In the early nineteenth century the German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher proposed that resurrection meant that Jesus lives on in the action of the Christian community. David Strauss criticized him by defining resurrection in a strictly literal and supernatural way (and then rejecting both notions of resurrection). These three evaluations of Jesus’ resurrection, as a physical body, a reality within a believing community and an ancient, outdated myth, live on in the late twentieth century.
On the Genre and Message of Revelation: Star Visions and Sky Journeys
Bruce J. Malina
(Peabody, MA: Hendrikson, 1995) xvii + 317 pp., $19.95
At first glance, Bruce Malina seems to be moving into a new area of study with his book on astrology and the Book of Revelation. His earlier, significant studies have shown how contemporary cross-cultural approaches can make sense out of early Christian literature, which is otherwise either alien or misunderstood. This new study exemplifies the strengths and weaknesses of those approaches to early Christianity that Malina and others have made popular today.
There is much to appreciate in this book. Malina introduces Hellenistic astrology, which without a doubt shapes some of the ideas and images in Revelation. He makes accessible previous research on astrology and Revelation, especially Franz Boll’s valuable 1914 study, Aus der Offenbarung Johannis(From the Revelation of John). Malina’s book contains a rich supply of quotations and references to visionary and astrological texts, including five appendices with selections from Firmicus Maternus, the Treatise of Shem, the Letter of Solomon to Roboam, Dio Cassius and Nechepso-Petosiris. Finally, by focusing on astrology, Malina expands on recent studies that emphasize cosmological (concerned with the heavens) rather than eschatological (concerned with the end of history) themes in apocalypses (See Sacred Places and Profane Space, ed. by Jaime Scott and Paul Simpson-Housley [Greenwood Press, 1991]).
Malina argues that John is an astral prophet who relates to and reads the sky, as do all astral prophets of his time. Objects and characters in Revelation (throne, lamb, pregnant woman, dragon, altar) refer literally to constellations, comets and other aspects of the visible sky. John, then, appropriates his sky readings to Israelite and Christian religious notions.
Malina gives a tour of Revelation’s five sectors, locating in each the literal, astral meanings of the key players. Sector 1 (Revelation 1–3) introduces “The Cosmic Role of Jesus the Messiah,” “a constellation in human shape framed in by the seven planets” interpreted in Christian terms. Sector 2 (Revelation 4–11) centers upon God’s dealings with Israel before 70 A.D., when the Romans destroyed the Jerusalem Temple. It opens on the other side of the vault of heaven, but action soon shifts to the heavens over Israel. In these chapters of Revelation,
After touring Revelation with Malina, its complex language is simplified. Obscure or odd objects and actions fall into place when read as astral phenomena. The speaking altar in Revelation 16:7, for example, refers to a constellation, which ancients saw as a living being. When present-day readers stop trying to find in Revelation symbols and allegories and “recover some adequate ancient model of an earth-centered total system of the universe,” then the simple, literal meaning of John’s language becomes obvious.
While reading Malina’s book, I recalled a phrase of Kenneth Burke, “rotten with perfection.” By that phrase, Burke recognizes that constructing frameworks and building models—defining and simplifying a situation through scientific nomenclature—is an essential human drive. But by the same phrase, Burke recognizes that to simplify is to select, and to select is to deflect and distort. Nonetheless, the lure of a perfect explanation with every elegant implication is intrinsic to all defining and simplifying.
Malina’s book is “rotten with perfection.” He carries out every implication of his model. In his relentless drive to perfection, virtually every term in Revelation is given a specific reference, each with its own address in the universe. Yet, that simple elegance, that tidiness, leaves behind the messiness of John’s actual language. For Malina’s book to be successful, his profound appreciation of models needs to be balanced by a profound appreciation for the specific language of Revelation. Nonetheless, readers will value this book—if they recognize it for what it is.
Top of the Charts
The Five Books of Moses