Literature as the Bible

The Literary Guide to the Bible

edited by Robert Alter, edited by Frank Kermode
Harvard University Press (Belknap Press), 678 pp., $29.95


What happens when we attempt to read the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament in some of the same ways that we read Homer or Shakespeare, Wordsworth or Proust? Is such an attempt legitimate? Should we say that the distinction between sacred and secular literature is wholly social and political, and so is not a literary distinction at all? The ancient vexed relation between poetry and belief perhaps reduces to the question of whether any single poem or story can be more sacred than any other. I myself have come to the opinion that it makes sense to assert that all strong literature is sacred, and just as much sense to insist that all of it is secular. What is less sensible, I think, is to say that some great literature is more sacred or more secular than some other.

No aesthetic criterion could have admitted Leviticus to the Hebrew Bible, and yet it would be astonishing if the Song of Songs had become canonical on any ground except that of aesthetic judgment. The great Akiba, the dominant rabbi among those who formulated Judaism in the second century of the Common Era, acted as a superb literary critic when he insisted that the Song become part of the canon. Most of the Hebrew Bible indeed seems to reflect a powerful series of aesthetic judgments on the part of its canonizers. The J writer or Yahwist, the originator of most of what we now call Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, is a maker comparable to Homer, Shakespeare, and Tolstoy, and in his expressive power surpasses any other biblical author, including his revisionist, the E writer or Elohist.

The J writer is believed to have done his work in 950–900 BCE, whereas the E writer, who revised him severely, wrote one hundred years later. The Elohist or E Source, as sometimes he is called, can be said to have begun that long process in which the audacities of J were tempered into what eventually became Rabbinical tradition. But so uncanny is the Yahwist in his portraits of Yahweh that only the literary power of the writing could have preserved so shocking a vision of God from being erased completely by later editors, who must have felt Him to be too much an impish and willful personality, and not sufficiently abstract. The Hebrew Bible, from its origins onward, is anything but a theological library; it is the product of aesthetic choices.

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. Their joint “General Introduction” is in what Emerson called the Optative Mood and expresses the modest hope that their choice of contributors, of “literary critics interested in the Bible and competent to discuss it, and…biblical scholars interested in literary criticism,” has brought about “a happy union of the two disciplines.” Unfortunately, an authentic literary criticism of the Bible is still in its infancy, by which I mean a criticism as precise as we rightly expect when the subject is Shakespeare or modern poetry.

With only one or two exceptions everything of high literary critical value in this huge volume happens to be written by the two hard-working editors. Alter and Kermode get high marks for their own insights, but are their contributors really the best literary critics they could find? A literary guide to Genesis and Exodus is crucial for everything else that follows, from Leviticus to Revelation. The rest of the Bible relies upon the personages and events at the origins, and these are set forth in Genesis and Exodus. To provide a guide Alter and Kermode give us J.P. Fokkelman, an obsessively technical Dutch scholar of the Bible, who generally carries his elaborate interpretations to an extraordinary degree of baroque complication. Knowing his exhaustive and exhausting Narrative Art in Genesis (1975) and Narrative Art and Poetry in the Books of Samuel, Vol. I: King David (1981), I approached Fokkelman with a certain wariness, prepared to be numbed by Structuralist fireworks. I regret to report only boredom, while I seriously doubt that Alter and Kermode could consider this, the concluding sentence of Fokkelman on Genesis, to be the helpful literary criticism that they promise buyers of their book:

Thus the theme of brotherhood, a metonymy for the bond that links humanity, is handled with growing complexity from the beginning of Genesis to the end.

You could substitute almost any other work, of any place or any time, for Genesis in that sentence, and you would be just as enlightened.

A reader looking for literary guidance in reading Genesis and Exodus needs as much help as she can get, including a simple explanation of just what kind of palimpsest (by at least three authors) she is struggling to read. Fokkelman begins by dismissing the Higher Criticism, the long line of philological and historical investigation that has taught us to distinguish the very different narrative strands in Genesis and Exodus. Certainly that tradition of scholarship has been reductive and has substituted a supposedly sacred history for the text itself. But Fokkelman, and After and Kermode in printing Fokkelman, simply disregard the major narrative, authorial voice of Genesis and Exodus, J or the Yahwist. If you wish to object that the Yahwist is only a scholarly hypothesis, well then what is Homer? Is it the function of a literary guide to be so synchronic (as Fokkelman is) that the rivalry and differences among authors who follow one another in time are merely ignored? If a reader who purchases the Alter-Kermode Guide wants to know why there happen to be such conflicting visions of God—the one, a surprising personality, the other, an abstract force working for justice—in Genesis and Exodus, shouldn’t the thirty dollars of the purchase bring the buyer a little help?

Some parts of the Hebrew Bible go back 3,300 years. A reader needs all kinds of assistance now in trying to comprehend these early texts, which have become familiar in the wrong way, as it were, because of the squabbles of belief and disbelief. Genesis and Exodus are read as though they were intended to be theological documents rather than narratives. And yet biblical men and women tend to resemble Shakespeare’s characters and Freud’s descriptions of the psyche precisely because the Bible, more than Homer or the Athenian tragedians (except for Euripides), has invented our literary sense of human personality, and so has bequeathed to Shakespeare and to Freud alike what remains our universal sense of human experience. Achilles is half a god, yet when he confronts the Olympians he acknowledges crucial limits, and does not feel the necessity to be everything in himself, and also need not fear that he is nothing. The Hebrew patriarch confronting Yahweh, as Abraham does on the road to Sodom, must argue with God as though he, Abraham, is an equal, while knowing his incommensurateness with God. Hamlet, confronting his father’s ghost or meditating upon death, thinks of himself simultaneously as if he were everything and nothing, a stance as Freudian as it is biblical. A literary critic guiding us through the early books of the Hebrew Bible must explain this duality, and in some dark way even exemplify it, because that is clearly part of the power that Genesis and Exodus have upon us.


My observation that an authentic literary criticism of the Bible barely has begun is hardly an attack upon Alter and Kermode, since I do not hesitate in awarding them the palm as the best guides we have so far in English. There have been more ambitious critics who have written on the Bible, including Erich Auerbach in his Mimesis (1953) and Northrop Frye in The Great Code (1982). Frye’s The Great Code is a work in which the triumph of the New Testament over the Hebrew Bible is complete. Frye’s code, like Erich Auerbach’s employment of what he calls figural interpretation, is only another belated repetition of the Christian appropriation and usurpation of the Hebrew Bible; the Christians set out to “save” what they called the Old Testament from being cast out completely. But that is precisely what they saved—their Old Testament. The New Testament is to a considerable extent a reading of that Old Testament, and it is a very mixed reading indeed. The function of that reading, taken up in more literary terms by Frye and by Auerbach, is to replace a book with a man, the book being the Hebrew scripture and the man being Jesus Christ of Nazareth.

The triumph of the New Testament depends upon its insistence that it fulfills and to some degree cancels its precursors. Try the experiment sometime of calling the Old Testament what it actually is, the Original Testament, and its Christian “completion” the Belated Testament, since that is what it was and is in relation to the Hebrew Bible. But criticism that looks for archetypal patterns, practiced by both Auerbach and Frye, claims that a later text of the Bible “fulfills” an earlier one, rather than revises or distorts it, as is the actual case. Auerbach subtly Christianized the Hebrew Bible by emphasizing elements in it, such as the suffering of individual human beings and the pathos of divine sympathy with human suffering, that count for much more in the Gospels, while Frye frankly does away with the Hebrew Bible, melting it down in the Blakean furnaces of visionary Toronto until it assumes the archetypal contours of Christian myth.

Kermode reads the New Testament in the same empirical way that he reads Joyce’s Ulysses, with the realization that divine acts depend also upon the wills, positive and negative, of human actors. A similar close attention to the surface detail of a text is evident in his Genesis of Secrecy, with its memorable reading of “The Boy in the Shirt,” an enigmatic youth who appears in Mark 14:15–52, and whose presence there hints at a possibility of sexual scandal.

In the work under review, Kermode has written the essays on Matthew and John and a general piece on the biblical canon. Particularly in his reading of the Gospel of Matthew, Kermode shows us how the individual disciples differ from one another, and how these differences are crucial to the working through of the narrative of the Passion of Jesus. In so doing, he does not so much press upon us an awareness of the personalities of Judas, Peter, and the other disciples as compel us to reflect upon their individualities.

A similar restraint is exercised by him even in his reading of John, the fourth Gospel, and surely the most troublesome, particularly to a Jewish critic like myself. The Gospel of John, in Kermode’s overview, is by far the most suggestive and reticent of the New Testament narratives, and Kermode rightly implies that John is the most accomplished writer of a New Testament text, Paul presumably not excluded. I myself would judge John the strongest, because most vividly dramatizing, Christian revisionist of the Hebrew Bible, beyond Paul in this regard. Kermode shrewdly indicates just where John’s literary strength lies:

Like Wisdom again, the Word is known by its glory—doxa, a word of many senses in John as elsewhere, though John uses it as a poet might, exploiting its ambiguity. The glory of the Word is distinguished from the world’s glory; for example, in 5:41 Jesus says he receives not honor (doxa) from men, and in 5:44 that it is impossible for men to believe if they receive doxa from one another but do not seek the doxa that comes from God. There are other instances, as we shall see. The word doxa contains within itself antithetical senses, as antithetical as én and egeneto, the world of the dying generations. Doxa is related to the verb dokeo, which means “to seem” or “to appear”—it can be a glory by means of which being shines out amidst becoming, or it can be a mere semblance, an attempt on the part of becoming to simulate that true glory.

Kermode sees the interplay between antithetical senses of the primary word “glory,” characteristic of John, dispassionately revealing what a hastier reader might rush past. The concern of Jesus with sharing in the story of Yahweh is something that we, whether believing or unbelieving, are now too ready to take for granted.

Kermode’s limitation is the shadow side of his gift, since his own fairmindedness obscures for him the peculiar “anxious” tone or rhetoric of the Gospel of John. Indeed, John seems to me the most anxious in tone of all the Gospels, displaying an anxiety that is as much what I would call literary as it is existential or spiritual. One sign of this anxiety is the palpable difference between the grandiloquent attitude of Jesus toward himself in John and his humbler attitude in the other three gospels.

Scholarly consensus holds that John was written at the close of the first century, and so after the Synoptic Gospels. A century is certainly enough time for apocalyptic hope to have ebbed away, and for an acute sense of bereftness to have developed in its place. John’s Jesus has an overwhelming obsession with his own glory and particularly with what that glory ought to be in a Jewish setting. Rather like the Jesus of the Gnostic Gospels, John’s Jesus is much given to saying, “I am,” and there are other Gnostic touches throughout John, though their extent is disputable.

That is to say, there is a despair of history and of nature expressed in the Gospel of John, by a longing for apocalypse, that far surpasses any similar despair in the Synoptic Gospels. Such extreme despair is highly characteristic of the Gnostic movement, which assigned nature and history alike to the realm of the devil. There may well be an earlier gospel buried in the Gospel of John, and I myself believe that the original reading of John 1:14 was “And the Word became Pleuma [spirit] and dwelt among us,” which is a Gnostic formulation, yet more in the tone of the rest of the Fourth Gospel than is “And the Word became flesh.”

The plain nastiness of the Gospel of John toward the Pharisees is in the end an expression of an anxiety about the spiritual authority of the Pharisees. A Jewish reader with even the slightest sense of Jewish history feels threatened when reading John’s account of how the Jews condemned Jesus, 18:28–19:16. I do not think that this feeling has anything to do with the supposed pathos or the reputed literary power of the text. There is a peculiar wrongness about John’s Jesus saying, “If my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight that I might not be handed over to the Jews” (18:36); it implies that Jesus is no longer a Jew, but something else.

This unhappy touch is another sign of the pervasive rhetoric of anxious expectation in the Fourth Gospel. John’s vision is of a small group—his own, presumably—that finds its analogue and asserted origin in the group around Jesus two generations before. In the judgment of most scholars, the original conclusion of the Gospel of John was the parable of Doubting Thomas, a manifest metaphor for a sect or coven undergoing a crisis of faith. I interpret this crisis as an anxiety of frustrated expectations, an anxiety toward one’s own narrative vitality and spiritual authority, perhaps even a reflection of recent expulsion from the Jewish world.

Yet I wonder when or if we will ever have another literary critic of the New Testament as keenly perceptive as Kermode, a critic alive to all the allusive possibilities that are being exploited by the text. The supporting cast he and Alter have gathered here is, as I have said, light-years away from him—John Drury on Mark and Luke, Gabriel Josipovici on the Epistle to the Hebrews, and Bernard McGinn on Revelation. It may be a touch unfair to go from McGinn to D.H. Lawrence’s Apocalypse, but McGinn is illuminating only when he goes outside the weird text of Revelation itself and discusses its effect upon Joachim of Flora and other visionaries.

The Revelation of Saint John the Divine (The Apocalypse) has had an influence out of all proportion to its literary strength and spiritual value. It is poorly written in the original, giving an unmistakable impression of its author struggling to fit his Aramaic syntax into a Greek vocabulary, and its sense of reality is neither coherent nor sane, unlike that of the Epistle to the Hebrews, its evident model for understanding the Hebrew Bible.

The first Christians evidently were apocalyptic Jews who expected the return of Jesus and an end to time within the span of their own lives. “Uncovering” is the meaning of the Greek “apocalypsis,” or in American “taking off the lid.” The Book of Daniel, composed during the rebellion of the Maccabeans against Hellenistic Syria, is the archetype for all later apocalypsis, including the Revelation of Saint John the Divine.

The Revelation, moreover, is oddly detached from the rest of the New Testament. Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews seems to hover in Saint John the Divine’s consciousness as his interpretative model for how to read the Hebrew Bible. It is from the Epistle to the Hebrews that all subsequent writers have learned to read the Jewish Bible as a forerunner of the life of Jesus Christ. The Hebrew Bible ends with 2 Chronicles and its great injunction to rebuild Jerusalem: “Let us go up.” But the Christian Old Testament concludes with the late prophet Malachi, whose God urges the hearts of children and of their fathers to turn to one another “lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.” That curse, averted at the close of the Hebrew Bible, is taken up by Revelation. The Revelation of John’s vision has given up all human hope of love and is concerned only with calling down the smiting of that curse. That is why the climax of Revelation is the ghastly apparition of the Whore of Babylon drunk with the blood of the saints, a vision that fills Saint John the Divine with an almost incredible masochistic ecstasy.

Revelation is a kind of jigsaw puzzle in which chunks of Daniel, Ezekiel, and Zechariah are oddly fitted together, until we are presented with a lurid and inhumane tapestry, barbaric and scarcely literate. Lawrence memorably remarked that “the Apocalypse does not worship power. It wants to murder the powerful, to seize power itself, the weakling.” Nietzsche’s pale ascetic priest exalting resentment, archetype of so many of our current younger academics, could not be better exemplified than he is by John of Patmos.

Resentment and not love is the teaching of Revelation, a book without wisdom, goodness, kindness, or affection of any kind, as Lawrence firmly indicated, thus performing an act of criticism, literary and religious. McGinn simply fails to come to terms with the pragmatic theme of overwhelming resentment that dominates the text of the work on which he is providing us with a commentary.


If you turn back in the Alter-Kermode Literary Guide from the New Testament to the Hebrew Bible, you will discover a very good introduction by Alter, and a superb exegesis of the Book of the Twelve Prophets by a young critic, Herbert Marks. Marks shrewdly centers upon the prophets’ ominous alternative to our not changing our lives, not returning to the past of Yahweh, while Alter and Francis Landy each convey an acute sense of Hebrew lyric form. There are very useful exercises in biblical scholarship by David Damrosch, Moshe Greenberg, Shemaryahu Talmon, and other eminent hands, but these writers are scholars, not literary critics.

I find myself wondering whether Alter and Kermode would not have done better to give us a joint critical book, with Alter on the Hebrew Bible and Kermode on the New Testament. Alter, in my judgment, has a sharper awareness of how not to write a specifically literary criticism of the Hebrew Bible than anyone else now in the field. He is able to read the narrative achievement of the Hebrew Bible as astutely as he has analyzed narrative structure in the eighteenth-century novel, while not forgetting the role of the Bible in the spiritual life of Jews and Christians throughout the ages. Kermode is even more advanced in his perception of the New Testament because he has gone beyond any other literary critic in raising the question of the narrative power and coherence of the Gospels.

I hardly think that Alter and Kermode would have done better if they had opened their pages, as one reviewer has suggested, to the rabblement of lemmings who constitute what I have termed the School of Resentment. As editors, Alter and Kermode have spared us Lacanians, deconstructionists, Foucault-inspired New Historicists, semioticians, neo-Marxists, and latest-model feminists, all of whom are now converging upon the Bible, which they will find the most recalcitrant of texts, though that finding is not likely to deter them. The interesting question is not what Alter and Kermode have excluded, but rather why an authentic literary criticism of the Bible is so difficult to write, even now when the venture at least has made a tentative beginning.

The Hebrew Bible is more a library than a single book, while the New Testament is less than a library and something other than a book, since it bears witness, by its own argument, to a being who came to replace a book, though he said that he came to fulfill it. Even a library is something other than a canon, and the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, as we have them, are canonical works, or collections. Northrop Frye, certainly so far the major Western critic to take the entire Bible as his subject, concludes The Great Code: The Bible and Literature with an eloquent statement of the paradox he conceives to be the structure of the Christian Bible, Old and New Testaments:

Man is constantly building anxiety-structures, like geodesic domes, around his social and religious institutions. If Milton’s view of the Bible as a manifesto of human freedom has anything to be said for it, one would expect it to be written in a language that would smash these structures beyond repair, and let some genuine air and light in. But of course anxiety is very skillful at distorting languages.

Frye is a poignant idealizer of literary values, as was Milton. Nevertheless, Milton proudly invoked the heavenly Muse of the Hebrews in his adventurous song in order to pursue “Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme,” which must have also included everything attempted in the Five Books of Moses and the Gospels. In Frye’s ultimate idealization of literature is his Platonic faith that “imaginative literature” is not an “anxiety-structure.” Like Plato, Frye finds ultimate archetypes that are supposed to redeem us from the sorrows of our daily existence. He cannot or will not see that artistic institutions (including canons and academies and traditions) are necessarily anxiety-structures also. That is, they are structures founded upon our fears of what will happen to us later in our lives. The Bible, like any other canon, is an achieved anxiety, and not what it purports to be, a program to free us from anxiety. But any strong literary work necessarily is also an achieved anxiety. I speak of an “achieved anxiety” because literature, like any other cognitive structure, is a way of mastering our anxieties, not by dismissing them, but by giving a precise shape, color, and dimension to what it is that we most fear.

If the Bible is unique (in the West, except for the Koran), it is because we remain enclosed by it, whether we overtly believe in it or not. Shakespeare and Freud, rather than Homer and Plato, remain the Bible’s only rivals in enclosing us against our wills, determining our responses to life and to art. We do not contain the Bible, or Shakespeare, or Freud; they contain us. How do you criticize the structures that set most of the terms for order that allow you to read coherently, or teach you to approach experience in the light of literature?