Arts & Culture

Bloom on the Bible

Book review.

Hannibal Hamlin ’00PhD teaches at the Ohio State University, is coeditor of The King James Bible After 400 Years: Literary, Linguistic, and Cultural Influences, and is finishing a book on the Bible in Shakespeare.

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Of the making of books by Harold Bloom, there is, seemingly, no end. At the age of 81, still teaching at Yale, he is also still writing, with two new critical works this year: The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life, a summa of Bloom’s critical theory and practice; and The Shadow of a Great Rock: A Literary Appreciation of the King James Bible, Bloom’s contribution to the growing bibliography celebrating the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible (KJB). (In the interest of full disclosure: I have a hand or two in a couple of such books myself.)

The Shadow of a Great Rock is organized along the lines of the Bible itself, following its (Protestant) Christian organization of two Testaments with apocryphal material sandwiched between them. Bloom’s naming of these Testaments pointedly resists the Christian tradition, however: the Hebrew Bible, which he also refers to as Tanakh, and the Greek New Testament, which he also calls the Belated Testament. After a brief introduction on the “Bible as Literature,” Bloom offers remarks on passages in books from the Pentateuch to the New Testament.

Bloom stresses that The Shadow of a Great Rock is a “literary critic’s book,” concerned with aesthetics rather than theology, and he confesses his unbelief in and, at times, downright hostility to the biblical writers’ various religious views. He notes, however, that “a literary appreciation of the KJB need not exclude the spirit.” If Bloom takes pains to clarify the “literary” in his title, he also explains “appreciation,” derived from theAppreciations of nineteenth-century aesthete Walter Pater, one of Bloom’s favorite critical predecessors. “To appreciate is to be fully aware of quality,” Bloom writes; “perception is of the essence.”

Bloom’s perceptions are often interesting; we sense in the background a lifetime of reading and writing about the Bible—among other books—as when he compares the biblical Proverbs and William Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell” in terms of German Romantic critic Friedrich Schlegel’s comparison of aphorisms to porcupines; or discusses the adaptation of the Joseph story in Thomas Mann’s four-volume novel Joseph and his Brothers. As for his favorite books and passages, Bloom engages them in greater depth: the sections on Ruth, Ezekiel, Job, and Ecclesiastes are especially thought provoking. “The dread of time” in Ezekiel’s apocalyptic prophecy, he remarks, “is so intense as to prelude Macbeth’s.” In his section on Ecclesiastes Bloom suggests that “the book’s presence in Tanakh is itself an irony, reminding us that the Hebrew Bible anthologizes a people as well as a Covenant.”

Such engagements are brief, however, and few. In the midst of all the appreciations, The Shadow of a Great Rock offers little criticism. For much of the book it is as if Bloom has pulled us up beside him as he sits by the fire to show us all the bits in the Bible he really likes: now here’s Isaiah—“sublime”—and Amos—“strong”—and Ecclesiastes—“magnificent”! And he quotes us the passages themselves, many extensively. Indeed, more than 100 of the book’s 295 pages are taken up with biblical quotations. Considering the five blank pages between sections and additional quotations from other writers (a two-and-a-half-page block from Mann, for example), only slightly more than half of the book gives Bloom’s thoughts.

Bloom regularly offers value judgments about which translation wins the prize in the aesthetic race (for Bloom it’s always a competition)—the Hebrew, the Greek, the King James Bible, or its English-language precursors. Hebrew and KJB are often neck and neck by Bloom’s judging, and all early English versions consistently beat out the Greek. These personal judgments are seldom explained or supported with evidence, however. Furthermore, Bloom’s deeper appreciations often have nothing to do with the KJB translation, despite the book’s subtitle. “Both J and whoever wrote Mark are uncanny writers,” we are told, for instance, yet this is presumably true in English as well as Hebrew or Greek. In his remarks on Job, Bloom notes the significant wordplay inherent in the Hebrew names, which is interesting but lost in translation. Bloom also cites Calvin and Kierkegaard on Job; again interesting, but neither one read Job in the KJB. When Bloom does specifically address matters of translation, his claims are sometimes peculiar. Of William Tyndale’s English translation of the Pauline Epistles, he writes: “The mastery of figurative language is overwhelming in Tyndale and only tentative in Paul.” But surely any metaphor in the former is taken directly from the latter, given that Tyndale, like the KJB teams he preceded, translated literally, word for word.

One reason Bloom may be relatively uninterested in the King James Bible as such is because he is, proudly, “addicted as a reader to the personal,” while the KJB is known as the greatest book ever written by a committee. Individual creative genius had little to do with the KJB’s achievement, which was more about linguistic scholarship and minutiae of revision. Many of the literary strengths of the King James Bible, as a revision of previous revisions—or indeed the Hebrew and Greek originals, composed, compiled, revised by many unknown writers over centuries—are not the creation of an individual genius.

Thus, rather than being a work of literary criticism, The Shadow of a Great Rock is more akin to an anthology—like the long-forgotten little volume Passages of the Bible Chosen for their Literary Beauty and Interest (1895) by Sir James G. Frazer (more famous as author of The Golden Bough). Both Frazer and Bloom lament, over a century apart, that few people read and fully appreciate the King James Bible. Their selections and their commentaries aim to remedy this, which is a good enough goal. Isaiah had the same idea, albeit with a less literary emphasis: “Seek ye out of the book of the Lord, and read” (Isaiah 34:16).  


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