Literary critics rarely become household names, let alone find themselves at the center of theological controversy. But then again, most literary critics are not Harold Bloom. Bloom has been turning his attention to religion--usually, though not always, the Bible--throughout his career, in works such as "The Book of J," in which he argues that the writer of much of the Hebrew Bible was a woman. His latest work, "Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine," is likely to be equally controversial, and Bloom seems primed for the fight. In the book, he offers character studies of the two figures references in the title, though neither Jews nor Christians are likely to see in his sketches much they are familiar with. Along the way, he comments on the Judeo-Christian tradition (he thinks it's a fiction) and the state of religion in America (frighteningly veering toward theocracy), also touching on Freud, Marx, Shakespeare, and the ancient Jewish sage Rabbi Akiba, among many other seemingly unrelated topics . Bloom spoke with Beliefnet on the morning that the fall semester began at Yale--where he was starting his 51st consecutive year of teaching.

Why did you decide to write a book about Jesus and Yahweh?

I think I've always intended to write such a book. When I wrote the first draft of what became, in January 1973, a rather small book called "The Anxiety of Influence," it had a section on the actual relation, as compared to the stated relation, of Tanakh--the Hebrew Bible--with the New Testament. That section, I remember, went on to a character and personality analysis of both Jesus and Yahweh.

But it had begun a long time earlier than that, when I was just a small child in the Bronx, and we grew up all of us speaking Yiddish in that neighborhood. I had been born in the United States but didn't know any English because none was spoken at home or in the streets. We were a solid enclave of some 600,000 Eastern European, Yiddish-speaking Jews. But I still remember one day that a missionary came to the door with what I still have my copy of: a Yiddish translation of the New Testament. There's a kind of grim joke in that, isn't there? In the mere existence of it. It shows the hopelessness of the Christian quest to convert the Jews. Indeed, it reminds me of Andrew Marvel's "Splendid Seduction" poem to his coy mistress, "You should refuse, should you choose, until the conversion of the Jews." But which implies the lady will eventually yield.

And then I remember taking as an undergraduate--out of real curiosity--a course in New Testament Greek and read the entire Greek Testament and got to know it pretty well and got more and more puzzled by something: How can it possibly be that we don't have an Aramaic Gospel of Jesus Christ? All the scholars agree that he spoke Aramaic to his disciples, who would have known no other language, and to the crowds in Galilee, who clustered around him, and they knew no other language. If you believed that this particular personage from Nazareth, whom I refer to in the book as a "more or less historical figure"--if you believed that this was indeed God or the son of God or the anointed Messiah, how can you fail to preserve the actual words, sentences, that he had spoken? How could you not commemorate his discourses literally? Why is there no Aramaic gospel? And what makes me especially suspicious from the start is, as you know, scattered through the gospels are some seven or eight Aramaic phrases, which have been put in more or less, as it were, to spice it up or authenticate it, though it's never explained why they are there. That they did not preserve an Aramaic gospel makes me very suspicious indeed.

I decided not to repeat this question in this book because I figured it was already going to be, no matter how I tried to restrain it, very offensive to a great many Christians and a great many Jews, which isn't my fault, but theirs. That's a rather harsh statement on my part.

What do you mean by that?

I mean that both Christians and trusting Jews over-literalize biblical text, read metaphors as though they are facts, maybe don't know how to read, even when they are celebrated scholars, they really have no idea what reading is all about.

Will he yet make a covenant with us that he both can and will keep?

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  • In the book, you talk about both Christianity and rabbinic Judaism both as reactions to the times--what was going on in Palestine...

    Yes, but another oddity of the book is that I point out that, contrary to what we normally think, Judaism, what we call Judaism, is a younger religion than Christianity. St. Paul did not inaugurate Christianity. He was converted, probably in Aleppo, though he says his experience was in Damascus, by a Hellenistic, probably Jewish-Christian community to a doctrine that already existed. He became the apostle or great propagandizer of it, the traveling salesman for it, as it were.

    But what we call Judaism does not begin until the second century of the common era, with the rabbis clustered around Akiba and Tarfon and Ishmael, and the great sages.

    I am curious about your use of the term Yahweh to refer to the Jewish god. Again, something that is not normative.

    I am talking about the actual text of the Tanakh. There are thousands and thousands of times in that text the name Yahweh occurs. It became a tradition very early on among normative Jews that this was the unspeakable name of God. But nevertheless, that is the name, and the name seems to have been inaugurated by the J writer or the Yahwist, when Moses is going to be going down into Egypt rather reluctantly and says, "They'll laugh at me. Who shall I say has sent me?" and gets the massive punning answer, "Say that ehyeh asher ehyeh has sent you," which is invariably translated as "I am that I am" but actually means "I will be that I will be"--or to put this into English so it is coherent, "I will be present wherever and whenever I choose to be present."

    And as I grimly keep repeating throughout the book quite deliberately, that necessarily also means, "And I will be absent wherever and whenever I choose to be absent." And there's a lot more evidence in the last 2,000 years for the absence of this personage than the presence.

    Yahweh certainly doesn't come across as a sympathetic character...

    You have to be absolutely a bad reader or crazy or so bound by Judaic tradition of that kind which produces Satmars or Orthodox... how can you possibly like him? He's very bad news.

    Yet you seem to have a certain affinity...

    He interests me greatly. I say toward the end of the book, I would like to tell him to just go away, since he's gone away anyway, but it isn't that easy. I end the book on a rather wistful note. There may be a little irony in the wistfulness, but I well remember the last sentence in the book, and it's very deliberately the last sentence, speaking of Yahweh it says, "Will he yet make a covenant with us that he both can and will keep?"

    You also describe a certain playfulness or impishness that you seem to have a soft spot for.

    There's a kind of scamp in there. But he also goes violently crazy as he leads the Israelite host in that ridiculous, mad 40 years wandering through the wilderness, trekking back and forth. He gets crazier and crazier and the poor things get crazier and crazier. One of my favorite passages in the book is what I am talking about--the ridiculous attempt on the part, first, of the neo-Platonising Jews like Philo of Alexandria, and then later the high rabbinical sages to get rid of what they might call the anthropomorphic element and say he isn't a man, he isn't a human, he doesn't do certain things, since it's made very clear that he's walking down the road frequently, that he's picnicking, that he's doing this, that, and the other thing, that he's burying Moses with his own hands, he is closing the door of the Ark with his own hands, and so on.

    Yahweh is a human, all-too-human, much, much too human God, and very scary. He is irascible, he's difficult, he's unpredictable, and he himself doesn't seem to know what he is doing.

    As for Jesus, there isn't any single Jesus. There are Jesuses and Jesuses and Jesuses and Jesuses. Indeed, here in the United States, it seems to me that every professed Christian has her or his own Jesus, just as every supposed scholar in that mad, quixotic quest--rather pathetic--for the historical Jesus, they always come up with a reflection of themselves in a concave mirror, a kind of distorted image of themselves.

    It is absurd to talk about a Judeo-Christian tradition.

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  • I am curious in light of the anecdote you tell in the book and that you mentioned earlier, about the Yiddish Bible and the futility of the Christian missionary effort, what do you think of the growing relationship today between evangelical Christians and Jews?

    It is absurd to talk about a Judeo-Christian tradition. I say this in spite of the political good that this does for the State of Israel or the remnant of Jewry. Nevertheless, it is an absurd fiction. There is no Judeo-Christian tradition. There cannot be. What is at the heart of the book is a very grim fact: As you and I talk to each other at the moment, we are in a cosmos in which there are 1 and a half billion people who call themselves Christians. One and a half billion people who call themselves Muslims. There are 14 million self-identified Jews. That takes care of Yahweh on the one hand, and that takes care of--since we're outnumbered 1,000 to one by each--that takes care of.... ah, never mind. I don't want to say the obvious.

    Why do you think America has become such a religious country, in distinction to all the other Western democracies?

    It all started back about 1801 in Cane Ridge on the Kentucky-Tennessee border [where a major revival helped spark the Second Great Awakening]. From then until now, this has been a religion mad country. It's an ongoing revival all the time. And what I call "the American Religion" is weird in the extreme. Every second year, the Gallup poll publishes a poll on religion in America. They always send me a copy, and I always turn to just one thing immediately, it never varies: 93% of Americans say they believe in God. I don't care about that one way or the other. 89%--almost nine out of 10 Americans--say that God loves him or her on a personal and individual basis. That's what this book is going up against.

    You mention in the book that Yahweh, because of the huge disparity in the number of Jews and Muslims in the world, mostly lives on in the Muslim Allah.

    The closest thing that we have, since the Christian God the Father isn't even a pale shadow of Yahweh, and Adonai--or whatever you want to call him, the rabbinical, normative God of what is now Judaism--has much more in common with the God of Deuteronomy or of the so-called priestly author strand in the Torah than the original Yahwistic portion. It is a very strange irony, that Allah of the "recital" or Koran has on the whole more features in common with the original Yahweh, though he's by no means identical with him.

    And what are some of those commonalities?

    Total authority, total demand for submission. Remember that Islam is a word meaning submission, and the Muslim is one who submits to the supposed will of God. It's the assumption of total authority.

    To switch gears a little bit, you talk a lot about your affinity for Gnosticism. Can you explain what Gnosticism is and why you find it attractive?

    The Gospel of Thomas, which is proto-Gnostic or quasi-Gnostic or a mixture of Gnosticism and ordinary Christianity shows it pretty clearly. Or what I would call "the American Religion" is clearly a Gnosticism: The belief that the best and oldest part of you, the most inmost part, is no part of the created world at all, that it is part of the original Godhead; the belief that except for that spark or breath hidden deep within the lock of the self and very hard to get at, that otherwise all divinity consists of is a good God who has either been exiled to or has exiled himself to the outer spaces, out beyond our cosmos, and he cannot get in touch with us, and we cannot get in touch with him or it or her or whatever you want to call him.

    Look at the epigraph of my book. There is a hidden purpose in that. It's from William Blake's "To the Accuser Who Is a God of This World." I quote the second stanza:

    Tho' thou art Worship'd by the Names Divine
    Of Jesus and Jehovah, thou are still
    The Son of Morn in weary Night's decline,
    The lost Traveller's Dream under the Hill.
    There's the essence of a Gnostic's stance. A god of this world, worshipped under the names of Jesus, Jehovah, Yahweh, Allah, call it what you will, God the Father, the Holy Ghost--which by the way is nowhere in the Hebrew Bible, it's a weird importation--they are cons who rule a ruined world.

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