Harold Bloom, professor of humanities at Yale University, has become one of the foremost thinkers of our time. So, when he publishes a new book, it is difficult not to take notice, and Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine is at least his 30th.
“Literary critic” seems too narrow a designation for Bloom, but it is accurate enough to say that his thinking and writing begin with literary criticism.
More widely known as a Shakespearian scholar, Bloom made a bit of a splash in the world of biblical studies in 1990 when he published The Book of J, along with David Rosenberg. This book was an attempt to isolate, translate and interpret the Yahwistic source behind the final form of the Pentateuch.
What aroused attention was Bloom’s bold claim that the Yahwistic narrative was composed by a woman writing within the Solomonic court in 10th century Israel.
This was a remarkably historical assertion for a work of literary scholarship, and it is uncertain to what extent Bloom was just playing with our heads. The rejection of this claim by biblical scholarship was largely based on its purely speculative nature, but it did not help that Bloom was an outsider to this scholarly community.
In Jesus and Yahweh, Bloom still sprinkles wild, historical claims. But this time they do not override his remarkable literary sensitivity or his capacity for theological reflection.
Perhaps unintentionally, Jesus and Yahweh issues an enormous challenge to contemporary Christian theology.
Bloom’s central contention is that the traditions and sacred texts of Judaism and Christianity produce three different gods.
The first of these is the Hebrew God, YHWH, which Bloom does not hesitate to vocalize fully in speech or in print as Yahweh. He is still preoccupied by the presentation of this character found in the Yahwistic narrative of the Pentateuch.
Bloom describes this character as impish, unpredictable and childlike, among other qualities. He is most captivated by this being’s enigmatic response to the question of Moses in Exodus 3:14.
The Hebrew phrase Ehyeh asher Ehyeh literally means “I am who I am,” but Bloom interprets the divine wordplay as “I will be present whenever and wherever I will be present.”
This interpretation also implies its contrast, “I will be absent whenever and wherever I will be absent.” It is precisely this capriciousness, Bloom says, that most defines this Hebrew deity.
A second deity is the one Bloom calls “Yeshua of Nazareth,” a character who is essentially historical but very hard to find.
Bloom is not impressed with much of the recent questing for the historical Jesus. He rightly argues that what the questers end up finding is themselves, though I would contend that such a find might have some value.
The closest one finds to the human Jesus in ancient Christian texts, he says, is the figure in the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mark. Bloom has significant interest in the latter, though he finds this character completely incompatible with Yahweh, particularly because of the impossibility of a divine suicide in the Hebrew tradition.
Shakespeare is Bloom’s model exegete, and this proves to be a great choice. Bloom reads the Hebrew scriptures through the lens of King Lear and the New Testament (especially the gospel of Mark) through the lens of Hamlet.
These are powerful interpretive moves, which yield astonishing results.
Mark’s Jesus is a brooding, enigmatic character, who speaks in dark sayings and riddles and utterly mystifies his disciples.
“Almost all new Testament scholars, and other believing Christians, think they are delighted and grateful insiders. Are they? Does their sainthood transcend that of the disciples? I hardly think we as yet have absorbed the discomfort that only what is demonic in us can accurately perceive the identity of Christ Jesus.”
With this statement Bloom demolishes the easy incorporations of the biblical Jesus into the classical formulations of Christian theology.
Even so powerful a concept as the Trinity is incapable of joining these two. In Bloom’s judgment “Jesus wants a more perfect God than Yahweh could ever be.”
In American Christianity, he says, Jesus has almost entirely eclipsed Yahweh, sending him off to be a distant, uninvolved “God the Father.” Further, this Jesus Christ is a Greek formulation, which is incompatible with the Hebrew God, Yahweh, with Jesus of Nazareth and with the character called Jesus in the Gospel of Mark.
Bloom presumes the advantage of working with a purified source deity, the Yahweh of the J source of the Pentateuch. Thus, he avoids the divine incompatibilities of the final form of the Hebrew Canon.
The grand and imposing God (Elohim) of Genesis 1, he says, is hardly compatible with the “impish” YHWH of Bloom and the J source.
These two deities each make their own creation, which merge in murderous fashion in Genesis 4. They destroy these creations by flood, more or less in unison, disagreeing only over the details like the length of the flood and the number of the animals on the ark, but these two deities clash fiercely in Genesis 22 over the loyalty of Abraham and the life of Isaac.
One could argue that YHWH wins this battle when Abraham obeys his command not to slaughter Isaac, thus ignoring the command of Elohim to kill the boy. Thus, the enormous literary tensions that persist between Judaism and Christianity are present within the Hebrew tradition.
The Christian Bible presents tremendous difficulties for anyone who would read it honestly as a literary work and try to make sense of the divine characters it presents. These difficulties are typically avoided either by very selective reading habits or by allowing preconceptions to obscure the text.
Many readers are likely to dismiss Bloom as some kind of infidel, but his troubling voice will not go away so easily.
The issues he raises reveal the inherent tensions between Judaism and Christianity, but an honest confrontation of them may provide a way forward in the dialogue between these two religions, and among these two and Islam.
We ought at least to agree that the question “Who is God?” is an important one, and that none of us is yet close to an answer.
Mark McEntire is assistant professor of religion at Belmont University.