The Book of J
translated by David Rosenberg, interpreted by Harold Bloom
Grove Weidenfeld, 340 pp., $21.95
I remember my surprise when a student of mine wrote a paper about the book of Job, and referred to the author throughout as “he or she.” Perhaps such even-handedness is now standard in North America, but it certainly isn’t in Oxford. But I realized that I had simply assumed the author was male, without examining the reasons. Nonreligious feminist critics become angry at the patriarchal attitudes in much of the Bible, while Jewish and Christian feminists often argue that, within the assumptions of an admittedly patriarchal society, the Bible scores quite highly for its treatment of women. But until now no critic known to me has argued that any substantial part of the Bible had a woman as its author.
Professional scribes in the ancient world were men: so much we know or think we do. But was every book in the Bible written by a professional scribe? Probably not. Were women literate? Some, perhaps. By arguing that a singularly important section of the Hebrew Bible may have been written by a woman, Harold Bloom enlarges our ideas about ancient Hebrew literature. The balance of probability is against him, but the idea is intriguing and must not be dismissed.
Bloom thinks an important strand in the early part of the Bible, designated by many scholars as “J,” was written by a princess of the line of King David, probably in the early years of David’s successor but one, Rehoboam (922–915 BCE). She had lived through the golden age of Solomon (961-922 BCE), David’s son and heir, and then had seen Solomon’s achievements squandered by the ineptitude of the new king. The detailed history of this period can be found in the latter part of the Second Book of Samuel and in 1 Kings 1–12. Most of 2 Samuel was written by her contemporary, the so-called “Court Historian”: Bloom thinks they used to compare notes. Be that as it may, the existence of the Court Historian is accepted by most biblical scholars, though they do not always agree about how close he was to the events he chronicled. Bloom here builds on a theory of the German biblical scholar Gerhard von Rad, still widely influential among students of the Hebrew Bible, that the age of Solomon was a period of cultural “enlightenment,” worthy to be compared with the European Enlightenment: a somewhat secularized era, in which many old beliefs were questioned. It is from this age that many of the best narratives in the Bible come: works with as much power as the Homeric poems, yet even earlier in date.
But where in the Bible is the work of “J”? “J” belongs to a hypothesis about the composition of the Five Books of Moses (the Pentateuch, or Torah as the Hebrew Bible calls them). Even if one reads the Pentateuch in the sonorous King James version, one soon becomes aware that it is a very strange work to have been written by Moses or …