Who is Jesus? Who is God? Is it possible to discuss them apart from theological abstractions, as personalities with distinctly individual ways of seeing the world? And if so, do these personalities matter to us now in contemporary America? These are the questions that Harold Bloom addresses in his provocative new book, Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine.
Bloom comes to this task with an extraordinary pedigree. A professor at Yale, he is one of the most influential literary critics of the last forty years, the author of more than twenty books and the winner of numerous prizes, including a MacArthur “genius” award. In recent years, he has taken to writing for a general audience: The Western Canon, a guide to the great books of the Western tradition, and Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, on the Bard’s plays, were both surprise bestsellers. At the same time, Bloom has had something of a second career writing on religion. The American Religion directed an unsentimental gaze on the religious landscape in the Unites States today. The Book of J entered the controversy-prone world of biblical scholarship, suggesting that the Old Testament author conventionally known as “The Yahwest” was an aristocratic woman in King Solomon’s court.
Jesus and Yahweh has much in common with those earlier works: the vibrant intellect and extraordinary range of reference (Bloom seems to have read absolutely everything), as well as the love of controversy. But it is a darker book, shadowed by a story of spiritual hunger and doubt that gives unusual urgency to an otherwise scholarly enterprise.
Riddle and Paradox
The son of immigrants, Bloom grew up in New York City in an Orthodox Jewish household, speaking Yiddish. His first contact with the New Testament was in a Yiddish translation given to him by a missionary when he was a boy. It launched a lifelong fascination with the figure of Jesus, particularly as portrayed in the gospel of Mark: enigmatic, given to riddle and paradox, and above all supremely aware of how others are perceiving him. In a typical move, Bloom compares Mark’s Jesus to Hamlet, whose agonized self-questioning has more or less defined the idea of consciousness in Western culture. Like Hamlet, Mark’s Jesus struggles with the problem of who he is and what he must do, alternately concealing from and revealing to others his true identity.
Yet Bloom is equally compelled by what is simple and direct in Jesus’ character: his ruthless and uncompromising devotion to his abba, or father, Yahweh, the ancient God of the Israelites. For in Bloom’s view, Mark’s Jesus is still very much a Jew, “the greatest of Jewish Geniuses,” who sees himself as fulfilling rather than replacing Yahweh’s covenant with his chosen people.
Wherever and Whenever
What is most moving about Bloom’s portrait of Jesus is how it relates to Bloom’s own life story, as he freely admits that, unlike Mark’s Jesus, he no longer finds it possible to trust in the Jewish covenant with Yahweh. He is fascinated by Yahweh, haunted by Him, but does not trust or love Him. What hurts Bloom the most is Yahweh’s tendency to disappear when He is most needed, as evidenced by the long course of Jewish history. Where was He, asks Bloom, when the Temple was destroyed and thousands of Jews crucified by Hadrian after the Bar Kochba rebellion? Where was He when six million Jews were murdered in Nazi death camps? He returns again and again to the enigmatic and punning name that Yahweh uses with Moses, Ehyeh asher ehyeh, usually translated as “I-am-that-I-am,” but which Bloom translates more freely as “I will be present wherever and whenever I choose to be present.” Too often, says Bloom, Yahweh has been guilty of desertion.
Where does that leave Bloom? Unable to trust in the original covenant between Yahweh and his chosen people, yet equally unable to believe in the Jesus of Paul and John—the Christ who founds a new covenant to supplant the old—Bloom seems doomed to circle. The predicament is summed up beautifully in a passage at the end:
I wake up these days, sometimes between midnight and 2 a.m., because of nightmares in which Yahweh sardonically appears as various beings, ranging from a Havana-smoking, Edwardian-attired Dr. Sigmund Freud to the Book of Daniel’s silently reproachful Ancient of Days. I trudge downstairs gloomily and silently, lest I wake my wife, and breakfast on tea and dark bread while rereading yet once more in the Tanakh, wide swatches of Mishnah and Talmud, and those disquieting texts the New Testament and Augustine’s City of God….Yahweh, though evident only as a literary character, reduced us to the status of minor literary characters, supporting casts for the protagonist-of-protagonists in a universe of death. He mocks our mortality in the Book of Job: we are dramatically unpersuasive when we mock him, and self-destructive when, like Ahab, we harpoon Leviathan, king over all the children of pride.
Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine is not always easy going: Bloom’s prose can be repetitive and his argument disjointed; the book sometimes feels rushed, as if, at the age of seventy-four, Bloom fears that he is running out of time to say everything he needs to say. But Jesus and Yahweh rewards persistence. Bloom’s scholarly meditation is studded with challenging, provocative insights, and his story of spiritual struggle is deeply moving.