1992-03-06: Book of J

The Book of J (1990)

translated by David Rosenberg (?), interpreted by Harold Bloom (1930-)

Bloom has a Point Of View which he would like to spread.  Since it is about the Bible, it is bound to be resisted strongly by those people who believe in the divine inspiration of the Hebrew scriptures.

Bloom’s approach treats the text as text, by human authors (or editors).  Scholars have generally identified five hands (some of which may be multiple persons) in the so-called books of Moses: J, the Yahwist; E, the Elohist; P, the Priestly author; D, the Deuteronomist; R, the Redactor.  Bloom is interested in the earliest of these, J, whose original work has been modified by and interwoven with the work of others.

Bloom includes a summary of his ideas, Rosenberg’s translation (in American idiom), a chapter by chapter interpretation, and a commentary.  His basic idea is that J was a young member of Solomon’s court, and witness to the division of the kingdom under Solomon’s son, Rehoboam.  (His most controversial speculation is that J was a woman, but that is really of minor importance to most of the interpretation.)  He is greatly taken with what he calls J’s irony (the word irony appears more often than in any other book I have read), by which he means the contrast, conjunction or comparison of incommensurates.  He takes the view that J was not writing Holy Scripture, but was composing an account, drawing on earlier sources and her imagination, of the beginning of the people of Israel.  Further, this account was deliberately composed to contrast the weak character of Rehoboam with the far greater character of David.  However, this is done in an oblique way, without ever mentioning him; the text stops at Moses’ burial.

Bloom’s main point is that J was writing in her own context, with an archaic Judaism tradition, but nothing like what is now considered Judaism.  J created (but did not invent) a coherent story of the Covenant between Yahweh and the Israelites.  This story includes a portrayal of the deeds, and implicitly the character, of Yahweh and his chosen men and women.  As Bloom says, this would be considered blasphemous today.  It was not then, simply because the normative traditions had not been created yet; indeed those traditions were based on J and others, often contradicting and replacing J with later authors’ works.  The effect of the canonization process on the shape of what was originally a literary work has been to drastically modify the composite work of which it is a part, and to distort most readers’ view of that work.

The points and the translation are interesting, but the greatest value may be to make people consider the notion that the writings now taken as canonical are the result of many editorial changes, each with their own Points Of View.  Bloom’s argument is excessively scholastic, bogging down in a maze of _ic _isms.

The notion that J was a woman seems strongly put.  J’s portrayal of Yahweh and the patriarchs and matriarchs decidedly favors the matriarchs.  A fair evaluation of most of Bloom’s interpretations would require considerable effort and reading of many other works, but this part of his Point Of View is accessible to any reader.  The reading of any text results in some mental picture of the nature of its author.  An interesting exercise would be to take extracts of various authors and submit them to a variety of readers, and then question them about the nature of the author.  I think a great many, if not most, would agree that J was a woman (provided their biases about the material were bypassed).

There are some frustrating points in Bloom’s commentary.  He refers several times to parts of J’s text which do not appear in Rosenberg’s translation, apparently because Bloom considers certain fragments to belong to J that the scholarly community does not; Rosenberg used the accepted identification.  These are relatively minor, however, and can be pursued by a more avid reader.

Bloom provides a chronology of some relevant events:

B.C.E.

  • 1800-1700 Abram (Abraham)
  • 1700-1600 Descent of Israel into Egypt
  • c. 1280 The Exodus
  • c. 1250-1200 Conquest of Canaan
  • c. 1020-1000 Samuel and Saul
  • c. 1000-961 United Monarchy of David
  • c. 961-900 Empire of Solomon
  • c. 950-900 Book of J
  • c. 922 Death of Solomon; division of the kingdom
  • c. 922-915 Reign of Rehoboam in Judah
  • c. 922-901 Reign of Jeroboam in Israel
  • c. 850-800 E revision of J
  • c. 722-721 Fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel (Samaria)
  • c. 650-600 Deuteronomy
  • c. 587-538 Fall of Jerusalem; the Babylonian Exile
  • c. 550-500 The P text
  • c. 538 The Return
  • c. 520-515 Rebuilding of the Temple
  • c. 450-400 Ezra and Nehemiah
  • c. 400 The Redactor
  • c. 250-100 The Septuagint
  • c. 90 Canonization of the Hebrew Bible completed

C.E.

  • c. 400 Saint Jerome’s Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible
  • 1530 William Tyndale’s Pentateuch
  • 1534 Luther’s Bible (Old Testament)
  • 1535 Miles Coverdale’s Bible
  • 1560 Geneva Bible (Shakespeare’s Bible)
  • 1611 King James (Authorized) Version
  • 1952 Revised Standard Version
  • 1966 Jerusalem Bible (Catholic)
  • 1970 New English Bible (Protestant)
  • 1982 New American Jewish Version

 

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