Amid sundry witty warnings delivered in verse to the Harvard graduates of 1946, W. H. Auden recommended shunning "such/As reading the Bible for its prose." The suppressed adverb, of course, is "only," and on those terms it would be hard for anyone who takes the Scriptures seriously as a religious document to feel comfortable with the reductionism often implied in "Bible as Literature" courses. On the other hand, Scripture scholars themselves have in recent years begun to appreciate just how literary the Bible is and how valuable the tools of literary analysis can be for understanding its religious message.
Reynolds Price is no reductionist. Indeed, in the long and brilliantly argued introductory essay to this collection of his own Biblical translations, he comes close to being a literary fundamentalist. Of the Resurrection accounts he writes: "I, like millions, am convinced and have always been by the stories themselves - their narrative perfection, the speed and economy with which they offer all the heart's last craving in shapes as credible as any friend's tale of a morning walk." The sacred inheres in the test itself, providing its own grounds for belief quite apart from any extrinsic allegorizing. This is to take narrative very seriously indeed, to see it as fundamental to our becoming human, to trace in its various forms mankind's "all but unanimous testimony" that life, despite its caprices and tragedies, is finally neither absurd nor demonic.
A large claim for narrative, but Price sustains it well. What interests him as a novelist in these texts is their enduring power to compel belief, a power he sees rooted in their naked matter-of-factness. By hewing as closely as English will permit to the sensory language and uncluttered syntax of the originals, Price hopes to startle the reader into rediscovering that narrative power. He has certainly chosen splendid stories, in both Testaments, from Abraham and Isaac through Joseph and his brothers to Jesus' Resurrection. Often his strategy works marvelously, as in this translation of Jesus' anguish at the tomb of Lazarus: "he howled in his soul and harrowed himself. "But it sometimes misfires as well, for example in his curious reduction of the Greek verb metanoeite (literally, "change your mind," usually translated, "repent") to the simple physical command, "turn." Readers of Greek or Hebrew will doubtless have other quibbles, but few will deny the cumulative power of these stark renderings. Such an interest in the Bible's prose would have won a blessing not a curse from Auden, I am sure. (Atheneum, $8.95)