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Who’s your daddy? Aristotle or Moses? And why not ask who your mother is?

October 8, 2011

Harold Bloom’s name has come up three times now at the blog BLT. The first time, we found Bloom praising the King James Version of the Hebrew Bible especially and praising Herbert Marks for being the foremost literary critic of the KJV. The second time, we discovered Bloom meditating on the many places English translators in translating have bettered the Hebrew Bible and have improved on the aesthetics of the Greek of the New Testament. And most recently, we saw Bloom recognizing how Willis Barnstone, in particular, has with unparalleled eloquence restored the New Testament as a Jewish text.

Now, I want to consider Bloom’s line of thinking. How he has much to say about your thinking and mine! Especially when we start reading a text, the Bible for example, we show our tendencies to follow others in their thinking. Our epistemologies, whether we know it or not, derive from and descend down from and are developed by others, Bloom argues.

Now, immediately, you will want to be defensive. I feel the same way. Likewise, Thomas Ferrell seems defensive. But Ferrell is also grateful, is open to what Bloom has to say. Ferrell is very different from Bloom; Ferrell is a historian but a rhetoric scholar, not a literary critic like Bloom. Ferrell is Catholic; Bloom Jewish. And Ferrell, about Bloom, says this:

The Testimony of Harold Bloom

Harold Bloom is a [USA] national treasure to be cherished. I have always benefited from reading his books, even when I have found particular points to disagree with. In my discussion below, my disagreements with particular points that Bloom makes are highlighted. Despite my explicit disagreements, I am enormously thankful to Professor Bloom for having the courage of his convictions to say the very things with which I happen to disagree. If he had not said these things, then I could not disagree with him about them. For this reason, I am abundantly grateful to him for stimulating me to think about the very points with which I disagree. He has served as an excellent foil against which I have developed my own thinking about certain matters.

Now, I hope you see what I’m trying to do. Whether you are Catholic or Jewish or a-religious, I’m trying to get you, and me, to consider what Bloom sees. You cannot read Bloom, moreover, without taking what he says personally. Bloom gets us looking at who our influences are, and how those influences may have influenced us. And how they might influence us later today, or tomorrow, or next week, or next month, or next year. Another important question is who these influences are: “Who’s your daddy? Aristotle or Moses or Yahweh or Jesus?” And why not ask who your mother is? Bloom says when you read the Hebrew Bible you might want to ask.

So, without further ado, here’s Harold Bloom again:

“Whoever you are, you identify necessarily the origins of your self more with Augustine, Descartes, and John Locke, or indeed with Montaigne and Shakespeare, than you do with Yahweh and Jesus. That is only another way of saying that Socrates and Plato, rather than Jesus, have formed you, however ignorant you may be of Plato. The Hebrew Bible dominated seventeenth-century Protestantism, but four centuries later our technological and mercantile society is far more the child of Aristotle than of Moses.”
–Harold Bloom, Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine, 2005, page 146

“Frequently we forget one reason why the Hebrew Bible is so difficult for us: our only way of thinking comes to us from the ancient Greeks, and not from the Hebrews. No scholar has been able to work through a persuasive comparison of Greek thinking and Hebrew psychologizing, if only because the two modes themselves seem irreconcilable.”
–Harold Bloom, Ruin the Sacred Truths: Poetry and Belief from the Bible to the Present, 1991, page 27

“[T]he first author of the Hebrew Bible, the figure named the Yahwist or J by nineteenth biblical scholarship (the “J” from the German spelling of the Hebrew Yahweh, or Jehovah in English, the result of a onetime spelling error) . . ., like Homer, a person or persons lost in the recesses of time, appears to have lived in or near Jerusalem some three thousand years ago, well before Homer either lived or was invented. Just who the primary J was, we are likely never to know. I speculate, on purely internal and subjective literary grounds, that J may well have been a woman at King Solomon’s court, a place of high culture, considerable religious skepticism, and much psychological sophistication.”
–Harold Bloom, The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, 1994, page 4

10 Comments leave one →
  1. October 8, 2011 9:37 am

    J may have been a woman? That is interesting speculation. I’ve heard it suggested before that a woman might have written Hebrews or Ruth, but never before about a large part of the Pentateuch. I would be interested to see what evidence for this Bloom might have.

  2. October 8, 2011 10:26 am

    Bloom lays out his speculative but literary and historical evidence that J could be a woman in his book, The Book of J which contains a new translation by David Rosenberg. For a variety of reasons, critics have attacked Bloom and Rosenberg for this work. One critic asked Bloom why not call J Bathsheba, wife of Uriah, wife of King David, mother of Solomon. And so, in The Western Canon, Bloom does just that, further speculating what it would imply if Bathsheba were the Yahwehist. Bloom’s main evidence is the literary construct of the male Yahweh and the imagination about what sort of person(s) such an anonymous author of that construct might be.

  3. October 8, 2011 1:42 pm

    Thank you, Kurk. Interesting, but surely no more than speculation.

  4. October 9, 2011 8:12 pm

    I think that to succeed as a famous literature professor in the US today, one must be outrageous. (Certainly Bloom qualifies, as does Stanley Fish, etc.)

    But in fact, it is interesting that in our lifetimes to see the widespread decline of the Documentary Hypothesis. While the high point of the DH was arguably represented by Otto Eissfeldt’s Einleitung in das Alte Testament, it has clearly been in decline since then. For me, the most articulate criticism of the DH is represented by Cassutto’s The Documentary Hypothesis but I have noticed widespread interest in Whybray’s Making of the Pentatuech or van Seters’ The Edited Bible. These are no faith-based criticisms, but rather point out the arbitrariness of Wellhausen’s criteria and the anachronism of applying a Renaissance redactor model onto ancient authors (a theory that has already been fully discredited in Homeric studies.)

    In fact, I have quite a bit to say about this, so perhaps i will write a post soon.

  5. October 10, 2011 3:22 pm

    Isn’t speculation about Torah’s authorship all we have?

    What’s refreshing about Bloom’s outrageous claim is not that it hangs by or even hangs onto some discredited non-faith-based Wellhausenian or Wellhausen-ish (or Graf or Vatke) DH theory.

    Of course, Bloom is speculating. Of course his speculation is outrageous (but not because of DH). It’s outrageous for two other reasons: (1) it views Yahweh through literary eyes; (2) its yahwist is a woman, not a Jewish man.

    That one would disagree with Bloom does not require that one must dismiss him so easily. Just because he’s speculating, we dismiss his speculation? Just because he’s entertained one hypothesis, we discredit his speculation as outrage?

    Notice, he’s calling the author (or group of authors) no longer just “J” but also Bathsheba. And, worse, therefore, he’s no longer saying she might be Jewish; this woman (or group of women) is not even a Hebrew writer of the Hebrew Bible. Why?

    Please hear Ferrell again, Ferrell who disagrees with Bloom:

    For years now, Bloom has been intrigued with the anonymous biblical author known as the Yahwist, the author of the oldest parts of the Hebrew Bible, the parts known for their use of the tetragrammaton YHWH to refer to the monotheistic deity, which is Englished as Yahweh. Famously, or infamously, depending on your point of view, Bloom claims that the Yahwist was probably a woman. For among other things, the Yahwist undercuts the pretensions of men. Of course it is impossible to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the Yahwist was a woman, just as it is impossible to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the Yahwist was not a woman.


    Bloom is intrigued with the voice of the Yahwist. The Yahwist constructed the character known in English as Yahweh, just as Shakespeare constructed the character known as Hamlet. The character Yahweh has a voice, just as the character Hamlet has a voice. At one time, Bloom put his trust in Yahweh. But Bloom reports that he no longer puts his trust in Yahweh or in the covenant. Fair enough. He is being honest and candid in telling us where he now stands. However, as we listen to Bloom’s voice as a literary and cultural critic, we should notice how his personal cynicism is expressed in certain points in his cultural criticism. In short, Bloom is far more reliable as a literary critic than as a cultural critic. As a result, I find Ong preferable to Bloom as a cultural critic. Bloom is unsurpassed as a literary critic.

  6. October 10, 2011 5:08 pm

    Yes, I guess all we have is speculation if we reject the only non-speculative evidence we have, which points to Moses as the author. I’m sure that is not the whole story, but it may well be more of it than the DH speculators liked to admit.

  7. October 10, 2011 6:03 pm

    Kurk — I disagree with you here. There is no novelty in viewing the Bible as literature — that has been done many times. The novelty is Blooms claim for a female author of J.

    But this is entirely wrapped up in circular logic. Bloom bases his analysis not on the entire text, but on the “reverse engineered text.” And how was that reversed engineered text created? By literary (DH) analysis.

    Now you can see the problem. Bloom does not claim the Pentateuch was authored by a female, but part of the Pentateuch. And he then uses a highly reduced part of the Pentateuch, using literary analysis. He then claims literary features for this selected part — ignoring the fact that he selected for literary features.

    For example, some have made the claim that in English, female authors use pronouns significantly more often than male authors. Now suppose I claim that the Shakespearean plays were redacted from multiple authors (I am going to ignore the fact here that there actually probably were co-authors to many of the plays in the Shakespearean corpus), and then use pronoun frequency as my criteria for separating the different sources, one of which is “W” (low pronoun use) and the other is “S” (high pronoun use). But since high pronoun use is a sign of a female author, I then conclude that “S” was a female.

    As a work of literature, certainly the Bible should not be divided up on a word-by-word basis to attempt to distinguish strains and then be subject to the claim that those strains represented different literary styles. It is OK to make cruder divisions (it is pretty clear that Song of Songs is a different literary style than Chronicles) or even to make divisions within books (e.g., the Song of the Sea). But Bloom’s thesis is entirely dependent on DH, and his conclusion is in fact a subtle restatement of the DH.

  8. October 10, 2011 6:36 pm

    By the way, I am not claiming here that Shakespeare did not author the Shakespearean corpus. (I am not a Shakespeare-denier!) Rather I am referring to the widely held theories that at least some of Titus Adronicus, Timon of Athens, Pericles, Henry VIII, and Two Noble Kinsmen were co-authored. See, for example, Brian Vickers’ study.

    (Also , several female authors have been theorized for the Shakespearean corpus, including Mary Sidney Herbert; and rather surprisingly, Amelia Bassano Lanier, who was also reportedly secretly Jewish. One highly innovative theater group, the Dark Lady Players, performs works based on the theory of female authorship. I’ve seen some of their performances and they are pretty wild — unlike the Shakespeare you are used to!)

  9. October 10, 2011 6:45 pm

    Peter — The evidence, in part, gets Moses writing on Moses’ death, doesn’t it?

    Theophrastus — I agree with you that Bloom relies on a “literary (DH) analysis” to warrant his claim for the likely female author. But is he, as you do in your imagined English hypothesis, saying that she (or that they, the group of women) is likely female because of surface features (i.e., English pronoun frequencies in your speculation-analogy)? No. Bloom does let DH demarcate the Pentateuch (by surface features of Hebrew); and yet he’s interested, instead – or also, in the construct of the male Yahweh (where the already-hypothesized J writes Him). Bathsheba might just fit here.

    “Her dark view of Solomon’s catastrophic son and successor, Rehoboam,” Bloom suggests, “implied throughout the Yahwistic text [more than coincidentally], is thus highly explicable.”

    Bloom goes on:

    so is her very ironic presentation of the Hebrew patriarchs, and her fondness both for some of their wives and for such female outsiders as Hagar and Tamar. Besides, it is a superb, J-like irony that the inaugural author of what eventually became the Torah was not an Israelite at all, but a Hittite woman. In what follows, I refer to the Yahwist alternately as J or Bathsheba . . . the original author of what we now call Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers, but what she wrote was censored, revised, and frequently abrogated or distorted by a series of redactors across five centuries, culminating with Ezra, or one of his followers, in the era of the return from Babylonian exile. These revisionists were priest and cultic scribes [necessarily males, not females], and they seem to have been scandalized by Bathsheba’s ironical freedom in portraying Yahweh [as] … human — all too human; he eats and drinks, frequently loses his temper, delights in his own mischief, is jealous and vindictive, proclaims his own justness while constantly playing favorites, and develops a considerable case of neurotic anxiety when he allows himself to transfer his blessing from an elite to the entire Israelite host. By the time he leads that crazed and suffering rabblement through the Sinai wilderness, he has become so insane and dangerous, to himself and to others, that the J writer deserves to be called the most blasphemous of all authors ever.

    Note the narrative irony, the plays against patriarchy, which Aristotle himself might protest as loudly as he does the tragedies of Euripides and the lyrics of Sappho.

    Now, here’s where Bloom, sounding rather blasphemous himself, gets away from DH (two paragraphs later) and shows himself standing on more solid, literary ground. Bloom writes:

    Ambivalence between the divine and the human is one of J’s grand inventions, another mark of an originality so perpetual that we can scarcely recognize it, because the stories of Bathsheba told have absorbed us [i.e., readers of canons in the west]. The ultimate shock implicit in this canon-making originality comes when we realize that the Western worship of God–by Jews, Christians, and Moslems–is the worship of a literary character, J’s Yahweh, however adulterated by pious revisionists. The only comparable shocks I know come when we realize that the Jesus love by Christians is a literary character largely invented by the author of the Gospel of Mark, and when we read the Koran and hear one voice only, the voice of Allah, recorded in detail and at length by the audacity of his prophet Mohammed. Perhaps some day, well on in the twenty-first century, when Mormonism has become the dominant religion of at least the American West, those who come after us will experience a fourth such shock when they encounter the daring of the authentic American prophet Joseph Smith in his definitive visions, The Pearl of Great Price and Doctrines and Covenants.

    Of course, Bloom is attacking his critics here (and is hoping they’ll accuse him of profaning perhaps) in The Western Canon, pages 5-6.

    And yet, he’s also talking to us about how we read (not just about how texts are formed or what surface structure features might reveal). I don’t yet think Bloom’s retreated from his statement, “Frequently we forget one reason why the Hebrew Bible is so difficult for us: our only way of thinking comes to us from the ancient Greeks, and not from the Hebrews.” I’m less interested in what he gets from DH and much more interested in how he goes beyond it.

    [Comment update: Theophrastus, I just read your note about the female Shakespeare theories and probably agree with you. The Countess of Pembroke as the Bard is fantastic imagination, but maybe Shakespeare and she did write in similar ways.]

  10. October 11, 2011 4:46 am

    Kurk, I’m not sure if any of the evidence actually claims that Moses wrote every last word of the Torah. But I know some people have believed this. The internal evidence of Deuteronomy has Moses speaking nearly all of the book, but not the first few verses and the last chapter or so.

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