I remember enjoying Robert Alter‘s translation of the biblical books of Ancient Israel several years ago. Now Alter has finished his decades-long project targeting the entire Hebrew Bible. Meir Soloveichik of Commentary magazine offers the final product a less-than-glowing review.

This staggeringly ambitious project took three decades to complete. But for whom exactly has this translation been made? Who is his audience? Who does Alter hope will use his version of the Bible?

Alter makes clear that his translation, commentary, and interpretive method are premised on a rejection of all that traditional Judaism, and much of traditional Christianity, believes the Bible to be. He begins his introduction to the Pentateuch by stressing his acceptance of the documentary hypothesis that the first five books of the Bible were not written by Moses at all: “Scholarship for more than two centuries has agreed that the Five Books are drawn together from different literary sources.” What he seeks, in this work, is an appreciation of the Bible not as revelation but as literature. The Pentateuch, he insists, “is a work assembled by many hands, reflecting different viewpoints, and representing literary activity that spanned several centuries.” Still, in his view, the redacted text “creates some sense of continuity and development,” yielding “an overarching literary structure we can call, in the singular version of the title, the Torah.” This translation, it would seem, is for the secular reader of the Bible, who seeks not prophecy but literary splendor. ….

… Alter’s version of the Bible has a contradiction at its core; it seeks readers who are reverent of the Bible but builds its entire method on denying all they believe about the Bible.

And this is why Jews who read scripture in the way that their ancestors did can love the King James version of the Hebrew Bible despite its inaccuracies in a way that they never can love Alter’s.