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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