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John Goldingay

Dichten = Condensare

Robert Alter's artful guide to unpacking the Psalms.

Robert Alter made his way into Biblical Studies in the 1970s, when still in his first decade of teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, where for forty years now he has been a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature. That involved him in teaching and writing about modern literature, including modern Hebrew literature; one of his recent works compares Franz Kafka, Walter Benjamin, and Gershom Scholem. But he made the logical if unconventional move to looking also at the ancient Hebrew literature that Christians call the Old Testament. In a series of ground-breaking articles in the journal Commentary that led to his books The Art of Biblical Narrative (1981) and The Art of Biblical Poetry (1985), he asked the kind of questions one might ask of other literature: How does the Bible's narrative work? How is its characterization effected? What are the techniques of Hebrew poetry? How does it use metaphor?

These studies came out at a propitious moment for Alter to be taken seriously in Old Testament study, a time when scholars in the field were becoming aware of the limitations of the dominant contemporary approach and were looking in new directions. Hans Frei had chronicled how 18th-century biblical scholarship became newly aware of the gap between the story the Bible tells and the events that actually happened, and had to make up its mind which it was interested in. There was no contest. History was God in those days, and narrative was abandoned for the quest to locate the actual events. (The only difference in conservative scholarship was continuing to insist that the story and the history were the same, or nearly so.) If you had a copy of John Bright's History of Israel on your shelves, so the assumption went, you had what you needed for understanding the Old Testament.

By the 1970s and 1980s, the downside to that choice of focus had become apparent. If Alter had published his innovative studies a decade or two earlier, in the world of Old Testament scholarship ...

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