Review: The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary

The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary
The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary by Robert Alter

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If I must judge this book in terms of quality, I can only say that it is the best worst translation of the Books of Psalms I have yet encountered.

It is the worst because it seems that Alter intentionally — even gleefully — goes out of his way to render some of the best known passages in a way that makes them anywhere from slightly different to altogether unrecognizable. His favorite targets for “correction” are any verses that Christians have traditionally pointed to as Messianic and/or Eucharistic. There is hardly a verse of this sort that is not the target of Alter’s alterations.

One particularly atrocious example is Alter’s translation of Psalm 2:12. Where nearly all English translations of this verse have something like “kiss the son lest he be angry and you be lost,” Alter renders the verse entirely differently: “with purity be armed, / lest He rage and you be lost on the way.” His justifies this innovation with a lengthy footnote that amounts to saying that his worldview cannot handle the verse as it lays so he has chosen to alter the Hebrew word bar (son) to bor (purity) and depart from what even he refers to as “the usual sense of the verb nashqu” (to kiss) to an infrequently used meaning of “to bear arms.” The result is what even he admits is “an idiom … not otherwise attested to in the Bible.” In short, he’s altered, gone with a minority use of a word, and created an idiom that doesn’t exist, all to avoid the obvious translation of the text because it shakes up his assumptions. Further examples are unnecessary to this review, but rampant throughout the text.

The positive side of the book, and why I say it is “the best” (in a sense), is also because it is, as can be seen from the example above, often so different from what we are used to. This difference forces the reader to slow down and look deeper. It forces us to reevaluate the text and our preconceived notions of it. I just wish Alter had more frequently reevaluated his preconceived notions of it.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in an alternative perspective on the Book of Psalms and the opportunity to get to know it a little deeper. If you do decide to read it, I highly recommend reading this translation alongside at least one or two others, such as those offered by the Orthodox Study Bible (which relies on the Septuagint to the exclusion of the Masoretic) and, of course, the poetic and influential King James Version. With these alternatives side-by-side, one is given the opportunity to delve with much greater clarity and depth into these 150 wonderful poetic expressions of the human experience.

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Review: The Nature of the Gods

The Nature of the Gods
The Nature of the Gods by Marcus Tullius Cicero

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a magnificent book from beginning to end. Cicero, a generation before Christ, takes on the eternal question of the existence and nature of the divine. To do so, he presents us with a dialogue between representatives of the three greatest traditions of early Roman philosophy: Epicureanism, Stoicism, and the Academy of Athens. The three participants discuss whether there are gods or is a God, what their or his nature might be, what their or his relationship(s) to men might be, and many more questions of a similar nature. The arguments used by all sides sound remarkably modern, demonstrating the unchanging nature of humanity and the questions we face.

The introduction provides a succinct tour of Greco-Roman philosophy, of Cicero the man, and of this particular work. The appendix, a theoretical continuation of the dialogue in the afterlife, is a masterpiece in itself.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in eternal questions, which should be everyone.

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Review: The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade

The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade
The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade by Susan Wise Bauer

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This was a truly ambitious project on the part of Bauer: a history of the world over a period of approximately 800 years. It is quite a feat that she was able to condense this broad (both geographically and chronologically) swathe of history into less than 700 pages of readable, informative, and interesting narrative.

Unfortunately, it is this very broadness that leads to the two great faults of the book:

1. It is too often too broad to be useful. As the say goes, a jack of all trades is an expert of none, and that seems to be the case with Bauer. Her treatment of the area in which I have the most knowledge and experience (the history of Christianity, especially in the early Middle Ages) is deeply flawed. One outstanding example is her confusion (on page 122) of the Syriac Orthodox Church for the Assyrian Church of the East. Both groups broke from the imperial Church over disagreements with the christological definitions of Chalcedon, but they are at opposite ends of the spectrum of christologies. Confusing these two is something like an unpardonable sin for any theologian or, for that matter, anyone interested in the history of Christianity. This is only one example, but it is a major and glaring one.

2. If she must be broad, she must be broader. The book rotates between the Roman Empire, the Islamic empires, India, China, Korea, and Japan, with a few brief detours into other realms (pre-Columbian America, for instance, is finally mentioned in conjunction with the Viking expeditions to Vineland). Entirely unmentioned are the Sub-Saharan African empires of the era. Why she would discuss medieval Korea and Japan but not, for instance, the Ghana Empire, is beyond me. I don’t disagree with a Euro-centric approach to history (for reasons I have described elsewhere), but, in the grand scheme of things and especially if one is going to take a broad approach to the history of the world as she is ostensibly attempting to, to leave out any mention of the Sub-Saharan African kingdoms is beyond unreasonable. In very short and at a minimum, the identification of Sub-Saharan Africa with material wealth by medieval Europeans is a substantial contributing factor to the eventual colonization of Africa by European powers and the rise of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Surely this is of more significance than the extensive treatment Bauer gives to the squabbles of the various petty kingdoms and chieftains of the Korean peninsula. The only reason I can think of for Bauer’s attention to certain areas and complete inattention to others is potential book sales. Her book is far more likely to be translated into Korea and read by Koreans (in fact, it has been) than it is to be translated into any of the languages of Sub-Saharan Africa and read by the inhabitants of that region. If it is anything, Bauer’s book is perhaps a good case study in the incompatibility of capitalism and scholarship.

Unfortunately, I have no alternative to suggest. Aside from textbooks (and all textbooks are bad by definition) I know of no volume which is quite as ambitious as Bauer’s. In spite of my inability to propose an alternative, I nonetheless do not recommend Bauer’s book. Rather, I suggest that anyone interested in the history of this period throughout the world instead find a number of good books each of which focuses on some specific area of the world during this period. And don’t forget the Ghana.

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Henry Adams on Ulysses S. Grant

I present here a short gem from the good old days when politicians and other public figures knew how to sling some zingers like pros. These are the thoughts of Henry Adams, a writer and historian as well as the grandson and great-grandson (respectively) of presidents John Quincy Adams and John Adams (sixth and second President of the United States, respectively), on Ulysses S. Grant, the Union Civil War general and president, as recorded in his autobiography.

He had no right to exist. He should have been extinct for ages. The idea that, as society grew older, it grew one-sided, upset evolution, and made of education a fraud. That, two thousand years after Alexander the Great and Julius Cæsar, a man like Grant should be called—and should actually and truly be—the highest product of the most advanced evolution, made evolution ludicrous. One must be as common-place as Grant’s own common-places to maintain such an absurdity. The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant, was alone evidence enough to upset Darwin.