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Arguing with God

1.

Jesus and Yahweh adds one more to the long list of books in which Harold Bloom demonstrates that a formidable degree of learning can coexist with exceptional boldness of imagination. His prose style is by now familiar to a largely admiring readership: it could be described as at once dogmatic and discursive, serious though on occasion whimsical, engaging but exasperating, generous but verging on the narcissistic. He means to give you the world according to Bloom, and that world is one in which Bloom cannot help being a celebrity, A scholar of extraordinary range and productivity, he speaks with confident authority, indifferent to dissent, yet usually seeming aware that even the impressive weight of his learning cannot entirely control his addiction to the fantastic and the astonishing.

Some years ago he was deeply interested in those parts of the Hebrew Bible (parts of Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers) attributed by scholars to an author known as J, the Jahvist or Yahvist—so called because, unlike the authors who, over several centuries, provided the rest of the Five Books of Moses, he referred to God by the name Yahweh. J’s language and style, much admired by Bloom, has long been distinguished from that of those other authors, and his is much the oldest strand of the text, probably written about the time of the reign of Solomon, around 1000 BCE.

Bloom was attracted by the idea that J was likely to have been “not a professional scribe but rather an immensely sophisticated member of the Solomonic elite, enlightened and ironic”—a civilized courtier who could perfectly well have been a woman. His next step was to treat this as not just a guess or a fancy but a fact: J was indeed a woman. Reasons for embracing this notion are concisely set out in his introduction to The Book of J (1990). Bloom’s thought is progressive; he stands by the principles summarized in that introduction, and he moves forward to apply those principles, braving all pettifogging objections. When another historian of Yahweh, Jack Miles, playfully suggested that the female author could perfectly well have been Bathsheba, certainly a powerful figure in Solomon’s court, Bloom was happy to adopt the suggestion. He expected, he wrote, that the Bathsheba idea would be condemned as an improbable fiction, but that was no deterrent. In his new book he had no real need to raise the matter, but again takes pleasure in doing so. It is impossible to decide whether he’s joking or wholly serious; he would probably regard the issue as irrelevant.

Every biblical scholar, he argues, has a myth, and that J was a woman is part of his. “All our accounts of the Bible,” he remarked in The Book of J, “are scholarly fictions or religious fantasies,” a view which does much to explain his general attitude toward texts regarded as sacred—to the way they are read and misread, and to their relationship with such works as The Divine Comedy and King Lear, which possess “literary sublimity” but happen not to have the sanction of a major religion, Jewish, Islamic, or Christian.

The point is important, for his new book regularly speaks of great works that are not so sanctioned as if they had similar claims, while assuming that religious texts, with valid institutional guarantees of authority, can nevertheless be treated in the manner appropriate to Dante, Shakespeare, or Blake. Many of Bloom’s readers will agree that it is fair enough to submit the religious works to the same literary-critical scrutiny as the others, but some will undoubtedly find the notion disagreeable; and it is a point to be borne in mind by all readers of a book about Yahweh and Jesus in which Shakespeare and his characters, especially Hamlet, make surprisingly numerous appearances. But the fact is that Bloom the biblical scholar and Bloom the Shakespearian and Bloom the Romantic critic really are creatures of one substance.

The ground plan of Jesus and Yahweh, as distinct from its elaborate development, is fairly simple. It deals with not two but three persons, all, in their different ways, more or less fictive. They are Yahweh; Yeshua (“Jesus” in Greek), a Galilean visionary of the Second Temple period, a vaguely historical figure commemorated in the Gospels; and a Jesus who is an entirely theological construct, wholly alienated from his Jewish original by the industry of generations of gentile scholars. These three persons have nothing in common, though Yeshua calls Yahweh his father, and the Christian creeds claim that Jesus Christ is of the same (or similar) substance with the Father. The Yahweh of J has no superstructure of theology. He is ironic, mischievous, uncanny, best thought of as “a stern imp” alternating between “mischief and moral terror,” “all-too-human.” Add that he is inquisitive, jealous, turbulent, and “fully as personal as a god can be.” Nor can he be thought trustworthy in his dealings, being inclined to break covenants. He could hardly be less like the Father of the Christian Bible.

Yahweh, for Bloom, has nothing whatever to do with the complexities of Christian doctrine, whether concerning Incarnation and Resurrection, or the mysteries of the Trinity (of which Yahweh is supposed to be part). Bloom admires intellectual complexity, but he seems to have trouble believing that all this theology has much to do with anything, certainly not with Yahweh and not even with the quasi-historical Yeshua, or with his most influential exponents, Saint John and Saint Paul. Moreover, the Trinity can be suspected of signaling a reversion to polytheism, a point made by Muslims; and it is in any case an unstable concept, too recherché for ordinary use. Popular American religion has simplified all this theology by abandoning Yahweh and concerning itself either with Jesus alone or with the Pentecostal spirit, in either case, Bloom writes, encouraging enthusiasm, that menace to civilized religion.

So the main point, as expressed in the early pages of the book, is that “Jesus, Jesus Christ, and Yahweh are three totally incompatible personages.” Of the first we know nothing reliable, the second is “smothered beneath the superstructure of historical theology,” and the third is difficult, erratic, and untrustworthy. Bloom grapples with him but cannot forget his power (the gift, after all, of J) and finds him so troublesome that he “essentially usurps this book.”

So far all is reasonably straightforward. So, too, is Bloom’s view of the relation between the Hebrew and the Christian Bible. “At seventy-four,” he writes, “I continue my own quest to resolve some of the enigmas of the influence process”—a quest he began over thirty years ago in The Anxiety of Influence. The relationship between the two Bibles offers a fine example of some aspects of that influence. The Christian Bible is “belated,” i.e., it suffers from comparison with the Hebrew texts that went before it, and this produces both an “anxiety of influence” on the part of the authors and, possibly, “a strong misreading.”

Sometimes the misreading of a belated text can be so strong that it prevails over its precursor. When the Hebrew Bible becomes the Old Testament, a book of which the significance ultimately depends on the New Testament, the Old Testament can be said to have made the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible its slave or prisoner—“a captive work dragged along in triumph by Christianity’s Greek New Testament.” The Christian version imposes alien meanings on the older text, kidnaps its whole significance, and even rearranges the Hebrew order of the books to make it comply with the assumption that the importance of the “Old” Testament lies entirely in its prefiguration of the “New.” But if the New Testament (and the Koran) “have pragmatically eclipsed the Hebrew Bible…these successes are neither aesthetic nor necessarily spiritual, and Yahweh may not yet have spoken his final word upon this matter.”

Sometimes remote, uninterested, Bloom’s Yahweh can nevertheless still be thought capable of decisive interventions in history. Though he had long “exiled himself” he still saw fit, Bloom believes, to return to Israel in 1948, and he may well do so again. If he is partly fictive he can still be awesome. To Bloom there is actually no need to decide whether Yahweh is fact or fiction. Either way he’s real and alarming, and Bloom just hopes he will not demand his Temple again, for the al-Aqsa mosque stands on its site. And there are fanatics, adds our author, who are already breeding pure red heifers as potential sacrifices when he decides to resume residence.

Bloom’s own political comments, sometimes couched in this way as comments on the behavior of Yahweh, are generally related to religious differences which he seems to think beyond reconciliation. He foresees an apocalyptic conflict with Islam. The Iraq invasion is “a parody of the Crusades.” Road maps to peace, like covenants, are untrustworthy. Jews, now an extremely small part of the world’s population, are likely to suffer once more.

That he thinks rather ill of the “belated” New (Christian) Covenant does not give him sufficient reason to trust the old one, for Bloom finds Yahweh troublingly ambiguous. He says he is personally not “a normative Jew, being Gnostic in my deepest self” and therefore also liable to be as ambiguous as Yahweh. About his dislike of Christianity and its incompatibility with Judaism there is no room for doubt. “Judeo-Christian” is an expression he condemns; it is a way of talking about European history that pretends to be just and fair, but in fact there is nothing in common between the faiths and their histories. Judaism is not the parent of Christianity, and the religions are irreconcilable. And if one compares their foundation documents it is reasonable to claim aesthetic superiority for the Hebrew Bible over the New Testament. This is a perfectly plausible claim but it adds to the difficulties of Bloom’s task when he feels obliged to give some respectful attention to an allegedly inferior work for much of which he feels some contempt.

He confesses, not unexpectedly, to a great dislike for John and Paul, and argues that by far the most remarkable of the gospels is Mark’s, matched in quality only by the Gospel of Thomas, a Coptic document dug up in Upper Egypt in 1945 and 1946. Its original Greek form is thought to belong to about 140 CE. Unlike the canonical gospels, it contains no narrative, being a collection of teachings and parables and cryptic sayings attributed to Jesus, some having no parallels in the canonical gospels and some so obscure that Elaine Pagels compares them to Zen koans.

This is a gospel that begins by declaring itself to be secret, whereas the canonical gospels are essentially proclamations. Since it is a prime text of early Christian Gnosticism, suggesting a very different version of Jesus, Bloom’s admiration for the Gospel of Thomas is entirely understandable. Christian scholars, whom he loves to challenge, may be less willing to applaud his choice of Mark as the greatest of the canonical four.

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