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This review is from: Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine (Hardcover)In the introduction to "Jesus and Yahweh," Harold Bloom makes a big point of casting aside the "quest for the historical Jesus" for the arbitrary reason that little or nothing can be known about the man - a highly debatable proposition. Still, this assumption might seem more credible if anything that followed revealed more than a superficial understanding of New Testament history, or of scholarly studies of the Tanakh for that matter. The author's denial of history serves a programmatic purpose, however. If history has nothing reliable to say about Jesus or Yahweh, then one may treat the literature that tells us about them in the same "anything goes" manner as literary critics treat the purely fictional creations of Shakespeare, Melville, Milton, and Cervantes.
The problem for Dr. Bloom is that the trick doesn't work in this instance. A deep understanding of history is vital to his enterprise. The New Testament and the Tanakh were written by people whose cultures, languages, and world views were profoundly different from our own. Whatever we make of their narratives at present, these authors were writing about what they believed to be real events and real beings. If we ignore what historical analysis can tell us about them and the worlds they lived in, we forfeit our insight and flatten the intellectual landscape, destroying all that time and distance have done to separate our world from theirs. We then judge ancient writers almost entirely by our modern beliefs and assumptions - and lose contact with them in the process.
Because of this, Dr. Bloom's analyses of the gospels of Mark, John, and the letters of Paul are not even "bird-bath deep," to borrow a phrase from H.L. Mencken, and are filled with errors. Most of the insights in them are not new and they are deeply distorted by personal reactions that the author is proud to wear on his sleeve. His ruminations about Yahweh suffer from the same approach and are even more idiosyncratic. After dismissing the rabbis of the Midrash and the Talmud for "softening" the wild Yahweh of the Torah's "J" writer, he treats us to a strange excursus on selected Kabbalistic speculations about the nature of God, parts of which will seem incoherent to most readers, as they did to me. While not without its own enduring value, the gnosticism of the Kabbalah tells us no more about the Yahweh of the "J' writer than the baroque cosmological schemes of the Hellenized Christian gnostics tell us about the real Jesus who lived in the Galilee and died in Jerusalem. Dr. Bloom makes frequent use of the term "misreading" in several contexts throughout the book, but the great misreading here is his own, caused by his failure to paddle out beyond the shallow water in comprehending his primary sources. The author's true home, of course, is in the self-absorbed world of modern literary criticism. He is at his most comfy quoting somebody's analysis of somebody's analysis of somebody's analysis and seems to have trouble seeing a primary text apart from the layers and layers of scholarly commentary that often obscure as much as they reveal. This is where a stiff sentence on a chain-gang run by insightful historians would do him a lot of good.
That being said, there is something of value here. Despite the horror it must induce in many of his sophisticated intellectual colleagues, part of Harold Bloom still wants to go where the angels fear to tread. I found the book infuriating in many ways but it compelled me read on and to ask myself why I had such a vivid reaction. It may do the same for you and if so, it is no small accomplishment. If Dr. Bloom can produce such responses in even a handful of his readers, then it appears he has learned something important from Mr. Jesus and Mr. Yahweh after all.