Page 6, 24th May 1991

24th May 1991
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Page 6, 24th May 1991 — For Christians a first Jewish book
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For Christians a first Jewish book

'the Book of .1 translated From the Hebrew by David Rosenberg, interpreted by Harold Bloom (Faber, 14.99).

Charles Smith PIUS Xll's encyclical of 1943, Divino Afflante Spiritu, might almost have been interpreted as a centenary celebration of Wellhausen, the German biblical critic and originator of the four document theory of the origin of the Pentateuch.

Much water has flowed under the critical bridges since his day, indeed since 1943, and J E D and P (with the addition of R, or Redactor) are part of the ordinary stock in trade of Old Testament students. Modern scholars would think of them, at least the earliest of them, as traditions rather than documents, and would date the earliest of them to the 10th century BC. At what point they became "documents" is a matter on which a diversity of opinions is only to be expected.

The Book of J attempts to reconstruct the earliest of these sources. It is not a work of biblical scholarship in the technical sense, but incorporates a translation of "J" from Genesis, Exodus and Numbers by David Rosenberg, and an interpretation by Harold Bloom. Both are Jewish writers, and so have a profound knowledge of, and reverence for, the Hebrew text.

"Reverence" does not mean a religious veneration, for it is precisely the interpretation by Jewish rabbis and Christian theologians which has obscured the true grandeur and worth of J prom us.

Harold Bloom believes that the author was a member of King Solomon's court, living close to the royal household, and was, moreover, a woman. She had a great veneration for David, and looked back with longing to the Davidie kingdom which she saw disintegrating under his successors. Fortunately, the author himself can refer to this as a fantasy, which we need not accept to appreciate the literary and human quality of J.

It is one of the great works of world literature, ranking with Homer, Dante, Shakespeare and Tolstoy. Nobody would question the tremendous significance of this three thousand year old "book", for the creation of Eve, the tree and the serpent in the garden, Jacob and Esau, Moses and the hurried exodus out of Egypt, with much else, are part of our western, and not only religious, thought world.

The translation deliberately retains the roughness, the disjointed quality, of the primitive original. So the reiterated "now look" instead of "behold" of the older translations is something of a surprise, although David Rosenberg holds that some of the tonal nuances of the Hebrew are conveyed in the King James Version (for which both writers in this book have great respect), but diluted beyond recognition in the modern translations.

One is surprised to find Esau groaning "was he named Jacob . . . that he might jaywalk behind me twice?", but modern Americanisms are few.

Harold Bloom's commentary, and his After Commentary, dealing with the representation of Yahweh ("an even more formidable and daemonic personality than Lear") are, in their way, as theological as St Paul or St Augustine. They are the interpretation of a late twentieth century, secularised, Jewish American, to whom the serpent in Eden is "smooth", "a charming imp".

Many, probably most, Christians have never read a Jewish book on the Bible. Scholars benefit from one another's researches, but the cultural impact of the Torah on the non-practicing, nonreligious Jew, like the impact of the New Testament on his Christian counterpart, is of great importance and interest. The Book of .1 does not require that we accept its authorship theory, but it is, in its way, a world we share with the authors.




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