How do we use unbelieving scholars in our Bible study?

I’m reading The Art of Biblical Narrative, a fascinating book by Robert Alter addressing the Bible’s precise literary techniques used to convey meaning and emphasis. His works seems pretty groundbreaking (according to Alter :grinning:) in terms of how we can read the Hebrew Bible. I’m gaining a lot of insight in the use of direct speech, the lack of scenic detail, and the patterns and repetitions in words and phrases.

However, the author also prefers to refer to the Old Testament as historicised fiction, and doesn’t hold to the belief that the Bible is divinely inspired. He places the books of the OT in a spectrum of narratives, each end representing disorder and design. He writes,

Somewhere toward the middle of this spectrum would be Genesis, where the sketchiness of the known historical materials allows considerable latitude for the elucidation of a divine plan… [In] the Book of Ruth, Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz are fictional inventions, probably based on no more than names, if that, preserved in national memory…. while the Book of Esther seems more a comic fantasy utilising pseudo-historical materials. (Chapter 2 Sacred History and the Beginnings of Prose Fiction)

I’ve seen Robert Alter quoted by Bible scholars quite often, which is why I’ve picked up his book to read. However, I wondered how others who have encountered this type of perspective have handled the denial of scripture being God-breathed, as I take this to be? Understanding the cleverly laid out narratives as exquisite examples of literature is genuinely fascinating, but knowing this was under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit makes it mind-blowing. I feel like this sense of awe has been lost when removing the supernatural element.

Just wondering on people’s thoughts on this, and how you have read around this issue?


Hi @Alison,

There is a need for wisdom in knowing how to handle new claims made by unbelieving scholars and I appreciate your question. There is a danger of being swept away by new claims if we are uncritical in our approach. Once we start doubting God’s word, it can hinder our ability to receive from it and weaken our prayer life as believers. Unbelievers too can contribute to important new research and information, but all work needs to be assessed individually on a case-by-case basis. I think one place to begin is to consider what other scholars in academic circles with alternate beliefs have to say on the same subject.

Hershael York’s article, Robert Alter’s Landmark Work Sheds Fresh Light on Old Testament, is a helpful one. The work being referred to in the article is Robert Atler’s solo translation of the Hebrew Bible, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary

The result of Alter’s self-imposed Sinaitic confines is a translation both literal and literary, original but faithful. Though accessible to contemporary English readers, it retains the diction and rhythm of the underlying Hebrew, refusing to make the rough places plain with linguistic botox.

Alter’s translation, however, is only half of the treasure in this work. His commentary is rich with attention to nuance, structure, and literary devices that often get lost in English translation.

In fact, the measure of Alter’s triumph in these volumes is that his textual commentary points out the observable and apparent features of the passage in such an accessible manner that the reader responds with a “Yes, I see that!” instead of “I’m glad I have an expert to tell me this, because I could never otherwise know it.”

Hershael York then goes on to comment on how Christians can benefit from a non-Christian’s translation. He shares how even Atler sees Jesus’s words on the cross as fulfillment of Psalm 22:1. He says -

The Word of God is so powerful that Jesus can’t be eclipsed in any honest translation, even when the translator doesn’t consciously see him.

Consider Alter’s comment on Psalm 22:1, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”: These famous words are the ones pronounced by Jesus in his last agony—though in Aramaic, not in the original Hebrew. That moment in Matthew is a kind of pesher, or fulfillment interpretation, of this psalm, because there are other details here (for example, verses 16–19) that could be connected with the crucifixion.

That said, I think there are significant concerns you bring up about his belief in bible being historicized fiction, and his comment on the book of Ruth and Esther.

I think in principle as a lay believer, its best to be cautious of interpretations that go against the core tenets of the Christian faith.

The New Testament writers in several places allude to the fact that they regarded scripture, i.e. Old Testament, which was existent then, as something to be revered, was inspired and not just a fable (2 Tim 3:16-17, 1 Cor 15:3-8, 2 Peter 1:21, 1 Tim 1:4). Jesus himself affirms the events of the Old Testament in several places and the Old Testament as a word of God (Matt 15:3, Matt 22:31, Luke 17: 29, Luke 11:51, Mark 12:26, John 6:31-51, Matt 12:42)

I noticed Ruth is quoted in the genealogy of Jesus. Why was Ruth quoted by Matthew if she was just a fictional character? (Matt 1:5).

Also, there is extra-biblical external evidence for both Old and New Testament scripture. I found this video with regards to inspiration of scripture helpful.

Look forward to hearing your thoughts on the topic.


My first introduction to Alter was in a Bible Project class on the Hebrew Bible (a great course); Tim Mackie was the instructor; he cited Alter’s work enough to get my curiosity up, so I bought Alter’s The Hebrew Bible Translation with Commentary. I have not done a sit-down read, but I use it as a reference, and it does look good on my bookshelf. :grinning:
Years ago I won’t go near a book about the Bible that wasn’t written by a certified “born-again Christian”, whatever that meant to me at the time, not so anymore. In Alter’s case, he is an expert in Hebrew and comparative literature. Here is a link to an article from TGC and below is a quote from its author that asks your same question.

I admit a feeling of unease that someone who doesn’t profess to be a Christian could feed my soul so sumptuously. How can I revel in this scholar’s translation of the Hebrew Bible when his commentary is devoid of the Christ to whom I know it points? I came to realize, however, that this paradox is itself a testimony to the power of Scripture. The Word of God is so powerful that Jesus can’t be eclipsed in any honest translation, even when the translator doesn’t consciously see him.

I will be curious as to your thoughts on the Ten Commandments of Bible Translation in the above article. :grinning:

One final comment on Ruth: according to Alter it is one of the few books in literature that portrays rural life as idyllic with good people, where landlords and workers greet each other with blessing in the name of the Lord, where levirate traditions are observed and where all the character have a high moral standard and there is a happy ending sort of like ‘Mayberry’ in the Andy Griffin TV series of the 60s.


Thank you @lakshmi and @jimmy for your replies and for sharing the TGC article.

This is something I’m aware of. As I’ve read this book, I’ve constantly asked myself “if this means something to a non believer, what more can I take from this as a believer?” In fact, as Herschel York states in his article, Alter’s work is particularly nourishing for Christians in their Bible study.

What I have gained from Alter’s book is the fact that whilst he considers the Bible a compilation of prose fiction, he has a genuine interest to understand what the Bible reveals about the character of God (even if he considers this God fictional, although he hasn’t stated this in so many words). There is a sympathy for the words of the Bible and he is motivated to take the Bible seriously and enjoy reading it; a goal that would resonate with anyone serious about scripture. In the conclusion to The Art of Biblical Narrative, he finishes by saying;

Subsequent religious tradition has by and large encouraged us to take the Bible seriously rather than to enjoy it but the paradoxical truth of the matter may well be that by learning to enjoy the biblical stories more fully as stories, we shall also come to see more clearly what they mean to tell us about God, man, and the perilously momentous realm of history.

This is exactly my introduction to Alter too, I think after you recommended this course. I’m now very curious to see his commentary!

After reading his book, I fully comprehend the significance behind these Ten Commandments! The Hebrew text is deliberately concise, or reticent, as Alter frames it. Meaning is carried through absence of narration or commentary. Words are repeated for a reason.

  1. Thou shalt not multiply for thyself synonyms where the Hebrew wisely and pointedly uses repeated terms.
  2. Thou shalt not replace the expressive simplicity of the Hebrew prose with purportedly elegant language.
  3. Thou shalt not betray the fine compactness of Biblical poetry

Mark Ward gives an interesting review on Alter and weighs up the nuances that every translator and commentator will employ in reading scripture, that there is no perfect one. He addresses all the accepted translations along the word-for-word/meaning spectrum. However, after reading Alter’s work, I realise how much we lose with the super modern translations like the Message (and the attempt by the author of The Passion translation) that other than the story lines, these versions lose everything that the ancient authors were implying in the way they wrote scripture. What strikes me is that it takes a non believer to highlight the significance of how translations by some believers can potentially damage our understanding of scripture and it leaves me to conclude that God can use anyone to communicate and preserve his word carefully and faithfully. I think Alter teaches some essential principles and skills that every Christian should be aware of when reading scripture, and that it could well affect the outcomes of ultra modern translations.

This was a thought had too. However, Alter’s book focuses only on the Hebrew texts and I was unable to gain any insight on how his their affects the genealogies of the NT. This is something I will look into more.


Hi @alison,

Thank you for sharing the review by Mark Ward. It was good to be informed about the considerations around readibility, accuracy and literary structure that go into translation. I am now more curious on how faithfulness to the literary structure enhances our appreciation and intended meaning of the text.

Considering the Message bible has much interpretation added into the text, its author Eugene Peterson sees his work as a paraphrase and not a translation. Peterson’s goal was to, “bring the New Testament to life for two different types of people: those who hadn’t read the Bible because it seemed too distant and irrelevant and those who had read the Bible so much that it had become ‘old hat’.” So, I can see some value in using it in certain contexts though we may miss out on some of the original meaning of the text.

But as you know that’s not the case with the Passion Translation (TPT), and it is in a different category altogether. Brian Simmons not only thinks of his work as a translation but claims divine inspiration for his translation! He talks about receiving downloads from Jesus himself and this Jesus had taken him to a heavenly library and shown him a whole new book not in our bibles, John 22. More on this is available in Holly Pivec’s article. Its very troubling to me that he trusted this Jesus who went against the revealed word of God in the Bible (Rev 22:18-19, Deut 4:2, Prov 30:6). Mike winger also has a series called “Before you use the passion translation watch this” for anyone who wants to understand the problems behind it.

I think this is certainly the case with TPT!