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Jesus and John and Harold Bloom: Bloom (Part 1 of 3)

September 1, 2010

In 2004, noted literary critic Harold Bloom published a book called “Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine”.  Bloom avers that his favorite literary characters are first, Yahweh and second, Jesus.  (Hamlet is third.)  In an earlier book called the “Book of J” he describes the character of Yahweh–fierce, personal, creative, passionate–  as primarily and most grippingly the creation of an immensely talented scribe attached to the Solomonic court, a scribe he likes to identify as ‘probably a woman’.

In this book he is most interested in Jesus, whom he sees as perhaps the most ardent and sincere lover of Yahweh around, and a person greatly to be admired for the extent of his devotion…yet at the same time someone who differs profoundly from the figure he is made out to be by most Christians.  He likes to note that Jesus came to fulfill the law, not to abolish it.  He prefers Mark’s portrayal of Jesus.  He loathes John’s.

John is hard on Jews

It is difficult to read John’s gospel as a Jew.  I’m more Jewish than anything else, ethnically speaking, and I ‘get’ this at a gut level; my ear is if nothing else at least aware of a Jewish audience.  In John’s gospel Jesus says things that seem rabidly anti-Semitic. Just the initial emphasis on the Jews as an ethnic group seems strange:

When it was time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem.  In the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!”  His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”  Then the Jews demanded of him, “What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” (John 2:13-18)

The disciples are Jewish after all, as are all the men selling animals in the temple. The oddness is usually explained by modern scholars as an effect of the fact that John’s gospel was written later than the Synoptics, around 80-90 AD, and by an author who was not the “Beloved Disciple” John.  The lateness of the account then explains both the distinction between the Jews and the disciples (at that time there was growing hostility to the new sect within the mainstream Jewish community) and the revealed eschatology and Christological emphasis of the gospel.

Bloom does not play the game of getting technical about when and by whom the gospel was written.  What he wishes to point out is the anxiety that underlies what he reads as its hostility.  This anxiety he attributes to the gradual death of Messianic hopes for an immanent apocalypse.  The hostility he reacts to is not limited to a mere repetition of distinction, the word “Jews” or “Jewish” as in the passage above.  It could be argued that the fact of such a distinction must necessarily strike a post-Holocaust ear– or indeed any ear attuned to the text’s shameful use in any number of pogroms in ages past– differently than it did when it was written in the first century.

What shocks Bloom, and might naturally shock anyone, are passages like this one, in which, at the end of a long hard-fought argument about the origin of his authority, Jesus ends up accusing the Jews of being children of Satan:

The Pharisees challenged him, “Here you are, appearing as your own witness; your testimony is not valid.”

Jesus answered, “Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid, for I know where I came from and where I am going. But you have no idea where I come from or where I am going. You judge by human standards; I pass judgment on no one. But if I do judge, my decisions are right, because I am not alone. I stand with the Father, who sent me. In your own Law it is written that the testimony of two men is valid. I am one who testifies for myself; my other witness is the Father, who sent me.”

Then they asked him, “Where is your father?”

“You do not know me or my Father,” Jesus replied. “If you knew me, you would know my Father also.”

Then they asked him, “Where is your father?”

“You do not know me or my Father,” Jesus replied. “If you knew me, you would know my Father also.” (John 8:13-19)

It should be mentioned, too, that the emphasis John’s gospel lays upon the divinity of Christ is in itself difficult for the Jewish ear.  This group appears genuinely confused at his insistance that he is not witnessing on his own behalf, but rather on authority from above.  Now he goes further and tells them they are slaves, not sons, though they did not know it:

he continued, “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins.”

“Who are you?” they asked.

“Just what I have been claiming all along,” Jesus replied. “I have much to say in judgment of you. But he who sent me is reliable, and what I have heard from him I tell the world.”


To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

They answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?” (John 8:23-33)

They protest again that they are Abraham’s children, and that they follow God truly:

Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. I know you are Abraham’s descendants. Yet you are ready to kill me, because you have no room for my word. I am telling you what I have seen in the Father’s presence, and you do what you have heard from your father.”

“Abraham is our father,” they answered.

“If you were Abraham’s children,” said Jesus, “then you would do the things Abraham did. As it is, you are determined to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things. You are doing the things your own father does.”

“We are not illegitimate children,” they protested. “The only Father we have is God himself.” (John 8:34-41)

But Jesus tells them they are wrong; God is not their father. In fact they are children of Satan:
Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now am here. I have not come on my own; but he sent me. Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me! Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don’t you believe me? He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God.”
The Jews answered him, “Aren’t we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed?” (John 8:12-42)
The Jews’ questioning of Jesus’ authority–a questioning which appears natural from a Jewish point of view– leads quickly to language on Jesus’ part that seems genuinely extreme.  It’s this passage which most upsets Bloom, and makes him really unhappy with John. Even the Pharisees only accuse Jesus of demon possession, yet Jesus claims their genuine parentage is infernal.  He goes on from there to provoke them to stone him:

“If I glorify myself, my glory means nothing. My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me. Though you do not know him, I know him. If I said I did not, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and keep his word. Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.”

“You are not yet fifty years old,” the Jews said to him, “and you have seen Abraham!”

“I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds. (John 8:54-58)

Why does he behave this way?

I’m not aware of a traditional interpretation–one that holds to the canonical view that John’s gospel really was written by John the Beloved Disciple, the one to whom Jesus entrusted his mother– that explains the depth of passionate rancor in this passage (and others like it). I think there may be an explanation, however.  It is slightly shocking (as perhaps a response ought to be for such a gifted provocateur as Bloom), though not by design.  Until I am corrected I believe it to be wholly orthodox.

Each of the gospel writers presents a slightly different portrait of Jesus–an account colored by the lens of each one’s experience and personality.   So–who is John, and what flavor does he bring?  Is he anxious?  Is he an anti-Semite?  Why does John’s Jesus insist on provoking the Jews theologically in the most extreme fashion and then insulting them thoroughly to boot?

John is soft on fallen women

Not everyone dislikes the Gospel of John.  Many love it, and many Christians find it to be it their favorite book in the Bible.  In part of course this is because it does articulate the plan of salvation in clearer language than any other gospel, and in ringing tones that reverberate to the beginnings and ends of the world.  But there are humbler reasons to adore the Evangelist, ones that would move even a literary critic left cold by Hellenized philosophy or beautiful sermons on love.  There are two parables that appear in John and nowhere else: the parable of the woman taken in adultery, and the parable of the Samaritan woman at the well.    The parable of the woman caught in adultery immediately precedes the very passage quoted above for its condemnatory tone, in which Jesus is questioned in his claim to be the light of the world.  He makes that claim just after these events:

But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger.

The poet Seamus Heaney wonderfully grounds the ethical ambition of all poetry in this quiet symbolic act of lacuna, when Jesus, apparently unmindful of the crowd’s tense expectation, bends down and begins composing in the dust.  If a poet does this with enough confidence, Heaney suggests, with proper timing and with ineffable grace, he may hope to distract the savage crowd and create space for reflection.

When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”  (John 8:1-11)

The universal appeal of this proverb requires no explanation.  A bloodthirsty Jew-hater?  A willing instigator of all the racial nastiness perpetrated with reference to his book?  We can only hope not.

Nor is this story an isolated incident. The parable of the Samaritan woman at the well is equally remarkable.

Now he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about the sixth hour.

When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)

The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)

Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

“Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and herds?”

Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”

He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”

“I have no husband,” she replied.

Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”

Not only is this a lovely story in its own right, it’s one in which John clearly acknowledges the primacy of the Jews.  The woman engages Jesus in theological debate:

Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”

Jesus answers her with a blunt affirmation of the prejudice she is challenging.

“Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.”

Although it is true hethen  goes beyond it and reaches for the universal:

“Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.” (John 4:4-18)

Still, this language is not uncomfortable in anything like the sense of the other passage.  Jesus’ whole demeanor here is remarkably soft.  In almost the same sense that the Jews asked Jesus if he was greater than Abraham, the Samaritan woman asks him if he is greater than Jacob.  He gives almost the same answer (I have water that wells up to life; if you come to me you will never see death).  Yet the tone of the exchange is completely different.  We understand both why the Pharisees stone him and why the Samaritan woman believes.

– to be continued


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