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The Literary Guide to the Bible Paperback – September 1, 1990

4.8 out of 5 stars 8 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


Professor Alter is one of our foremost lay readers and expositors of the poetic and narrative genius of the Bible. He brings to his commentaries a knowledge of Hebrew and of Judaism together with an exceptionally wide literary awareness and authority of judgment. Professor Kermode has long been eminent among teachers and critics of English and European literatures from the Renaissance to Romanticism and the moderns...[The volume] contains much that is enlightening, convincing and finely argued. (George Steiner New Yorker)

Robert Alter, an outstanding biblical scholar, and Frank Kermode, one of the most notable of the literary scholars, have edited a virtual encyclopedia of literary approaches to the Bible. Readers looking for an overview of the literary turn in biblical studies could do no better than read the general introduction to The Literary Guide to the Bible (a fine, compact presentation by the editor of the book's justifications and goals)...The editors' stated purpose is to help individuals 'attune themselves' to the Bible in an age when literate people no longer have a daily intimacy with it on the basis of shared belief...Even though the task set for this book is enormous and enormously important, it is accomplished well, if not quite flawlessly...The publication of The Literary Guide to the Bible, however, marks an important moment in the history of Bible studies...This book invites the general reader, religious or not, to join in that discussion, to experience how new questions are opening up understandings of an old book. (Elizabeth Struthers Malbon New York Times)

This volume is a needed contribution to our appreciation of the Bible as a powerful work of literature and will quickly find its place on the shelves of those who respond to its ambitious themes. If this book does nothing else but restore the scriptures to their rightful place in our cultural consciousness, it will justify the honors that, on so many other grounds, it richly deserves. (Eugene Kennedy Chicago Tribune)

Robert Alter and Frank Kermode are literary critics of wide experience and formidable learning, and each has made considerable contributions to what they call the literary study of the Bible...I do not hesitate in awarding them the palm as the best guides we have so far in English. (Harold Bloom New York Review of Books)

One of the virtues of this book is that it sends one back to the reading of the Bible with clear eyes and critical instincts alert. (Anthony Burgess The Observer)

More than two dozen scholars in the United States (11), Great Britain (7), Israel (4), Canada (2), and continental Europe (2) contributed to this volume, representing a variety of academic disciplines such as English, comparative literature, and religion, under the direction of Robert Alter (Old Testament) and Frank Kermode (New Testament)...Far from being a reactionary return to the old ways of thinking, The Literary Guide to the Bible stands as a radical challenge to the scholarly establishment that has for so long dominated biblical studies...[The book] is...a distinct success in what it seeks to accomplish....Looking back over the experience of reading this remarkable volume of essays, I am inclined to recommend it highly--not so much for beginners, but rather for students acquainted with modern biblical exegesis who need another perspective. For readers frustrated by the disintegrative effect of modern commentaries it is a balm for the soul. (David C. Fowler Modern Language Quarterly)

Frank Kermode and Robert Alter, two critics who have given a new rigour and seriousness to the 'Bible as literature' movement, have brought together a constellation of literary and Biblical specialists, from both sides of the Atlantic, to explain the Bible from a literary standpoint...It is hard to see how the task could be performed better. At its best, the Guide does not merely introduce lines of interpretation unfamiliar to the nonspecialist, it also breaks new ground. (John Barton London Review of Books)

About the Author

Robert Alter is Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of numerous critical works, including the prize-winning The Art of Biblical Narrative.

Frank Kermode is Julian Clarence Levi Professor of English Literature, Columbia University, and a Fellow of King's College, Cambridge.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 696 pages
  • Publisher: Belknap Press (September 1, 1990)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674875311
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674875319
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.3 x 9.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #541,207 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
I've had this book for quite a while, but used it only as an occasional reference. I finally decided to read it all the way through, and I'm glad I did, though it definitely took a while. Perhaps two dozen authors provide coverage of nearly every book of the Bible, plus a collection of general essays thrown in at the end for good measure.

This collection­ isn't meant as a ministerial aid. It's a book-by-book journey into the richness of the Bible's presentation. The Old Testament coverage focuses heavily on the poetic structure and literary qualities of the writing. As a result, books you may consider dry--like Isaiah--become stunning in their literary beauty, while other books that contain fascinating stories and theological depth--like Genesis--can appear ugly and boring by comparison.

While the Old Testament focuses more intently on literary style and presentation, the tone shifts when the topic moves from the Hebrew Old Testament to the Greek New Testament. Here, the emphasis is more on historical-critical exegesis, and what the New Testament writers were trying to tell us about the Christian movement in their own day. While Christian writings do build heavily on an Old Testament foundation, they derive not from the poetic Hebrew but from the ghetto-Greek of the Septuagint. Thus, cadence gives way to content, but the coverage is no less interesting.

I toyed with the idea of doing two book reviews: one for the Hebrew Bible and one for the Christian writings. They are that different. My favorite topics, for four entirely different reasons, were:

Isaiah, by Luis Alsonso Schokel, which is a exquisite collection of poetry by three or more authors.
Jonah, by James S. Ackerman, is exposed as a literary masterpiece.
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Format: Hardcover
It's a major task "analysing" a book with so many variations and long historical scope. Limiting the parameters to "literary" aspects is hardly a pruning - even when historical elements are essentially stripped away. Alter and Kermode saved themselves some of the labour by farming out much of the analysis required for this job. The result is a collection of essays readable only in selected bits. The variety of approaches will perplex the reader experienced in biblical analysis. The newcomer, however, who perseveres with patience and a willingness to consult other resources, will find the full scope of the collection a worthwhile investment.

Selecting authors for these essays must have been daunting. They should each be familiar with the books and with the essentials of literary criticism. It's said that "anyone can be a critic", but approaching books held in such awe and reverence by large segments of the population takes a certain level of finesse. Most of these authors exhibit that capability. Alter and Kermode note that they don't demand "uniformity of style" in the entries, but the approach is uniformly constrained, but not narrow. The essays are not buried in arcane literary movements, such as structuralism, feminism or post-modernism, which were prevalent when this book was published. Alter and Kermode, in their introductory essays, acknowledge these movements, but they and most of the authors return to more a classical framework in their analyses. This approach is likely motivated by the use of the King James Version, with which most of their readers have at least passing familiarity.

The KJV foundation, however, restricts much of the appeal of this collection to Protestant Christianity.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is a great reference with fantastic, well written analyses of each book of the Bible. Very illuminating, no matter how many times you've been through the good book. On the other hand, for those with literary curiosities in the Bible, the book will also serve as a great introduction.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Good purchase and excellent service.
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