The Bible and the Narrative Tradition
Until recently, studies of the Bible centered on finding sources for historical knowledge, theological insights, or ethical advice, overlooking the true beauty of the words in the “book of books.” This collection of six essays by noted literary critics and biblical scholars–including Harold Bloom, Hans Frei, Frank Kermode, James Robinson, Donald Foster, and Herbert Schneidau–breaks new ground by exploring the Bible as poetry, rhetoric, and narrative. The authors treat such issues involved in biblical narrative as its genesis, its revisionist dynamic, its fictional character, its interpretive nature, and its contradictions, prejudices, and claims. McConnell’s lively, readable introduction elucidates and unifies the book’s themes.
Early on in the Mahabharata, the great Hindu epic and arguably the greatest of all epics, the monk Utanka announces that “whatever is found in this story may be found somewhere else; but nothing found anywhere else will not be found in this story.”
It is an astonishing claim—”I am the book of books”—and an unprecedented one. A book, for once, not only admits that it is a book, but announces itself to be the book of books, the compendium and summary of all the stories of mankind. Where else do we find such arrogance?
In the Koran, maybe. The second chapter or sura of the Koran— the first sura being merely a traditional, ritual prayer to Allah— begins, “This book is not to be doubted.” Nowhere—not even in the Mahabharata—do we come across such an unmediated assertion by the text itself of its own holiness. Indeed, later on the Koran will promulgate the doctrine of the Ijaz: that is, the article of faith that the style of the Koran is inimitable, a doctrine that has exercised a permanent (and not altogether felicitous) influence upon Islamic poetry.
But the Mahabharata is an epic—a narrative poem with no serious claims to sacredness. And the Koran is a sacred text—a book to which narrative is merely an incidental concern. Both these strong works have their claims to a kind of cosmic encyclopedism. But the Indian epic makes that claim in terms of mythmaking, while the Islamic gospel makes it in terms of divine revelation. A story may summarize all the stories of the world, in other words; and a prophetic utterance may utter the essence of all previous prophecies. But, we are bound to ask, could there be a book which did both at once—which could at least claim to be the essence of story and the kernel of prophecy?
Of course there is such a book, and its permanent presence in and pressure upon our civilization is the theme of the essays in this collection. The Bible spans the gap between narrative and prophecy (we will invent more complex terms for them later). It begins, Bereshit, “In the beginning,” which may be the most wholly satisfactory opening any story can have; compare, for example, that opening favored by the world’s best critics of storytelling, “Once upon a time.” And from that absolutely narrative opening it moves, through the most complex of structures, toward the mighty and stunning assertion that is almost the last sentence of the book of Revelation: “If any man take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life.” The book has become an equivalent, in its sheer existence, to the salvation of the soul or of the people. This is a cultural phenomenon of the most cataclysmic order.
From folk-tale to structural self-consciousness, as a modern might say: the Book has the arrogance both of the Mahabharata, epic of epics, and of the Koran, a sacred text defining its own sacredness. That is the course, and the awesome range, of the book, the text, the immitigable presence we domesticate by calling “The Bible.” No book has exercised a stronger influence upon the whole course of Western writing. No book has been subject to—or generated?—a wider variation of interpretations and perversions. And no book— this may be the central point of the essays collected here—has been less a book and more a living entity in the evolving consciousness of Western man.
The Bible: the name itself is a paradox. It comes from the Greek, Biblia, “little books,” so that this most daunting of all texts is, really, an anthology. It is the one book we know which both is one, and is also the creation of a whole people. In 450 B.C.E., runs the legend, Ezra read aloud to the people of Israel the Torah—the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures—establishing thereby the first official text of the Jews. But it was not until the first century c.E. that the great rabbis consolidated the Torah with the books of the Prophets and those variegated books called simply kesuvim, or “writings”; thus establishing the Hebrew Bible, the Tanak, as we now know it. Even as late as the second century C.E., the Rabbi Akiba had to argue mightily for the inclusion of his beloved Song of Songs in the canon, as one of the kesuvim along with Esther, Ecclesiastes, Psalms, Ruth, and so forth. Akiba won his fight—and, as Harold Bloom observes in his paper here, orthodox Judaism today is fundamentally the religion of Akiba. But these side-skirmishes of textual inclusion or exclusion, fascinating as they are, mask a deeper truth, a truth about the self-invention of the text itself.
The late Samuel Sandmel, in his great book on The Hebrew Scriptures, puts it succinctly and powerfully. After the destruction of the Temple by the Romans, writes Sandmel, the older religion of animal sacrifice was supplanted by the veneration of the Book itself. “The Tanak,” writes Sandmel, “became subtly changed from a prescription for how people should worship into almost an object of worship.” The destruction of the cultic center meant the end of the old priesthood; but, by one of the miracles that sometimes convince us that human culture is human, the death of the cult was actually the birth of the rabbinical tradition, a vastly nobler thing.
There is probably no equivalent phenomenon among the other great religious traditions of the world. The Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis, formulated by two brilliant philologists in the nineteenth century, argues that the history of Judaism, as we can reconstruct it from the textual evidence, is a three-phase affair. It began as a primitive, desert religion, evolved into a moderately urban society dominated by the shamanic utterances of poets and prophets, and finally hardened into a priestly theocracy. The hypothesis still retains its brilliance, but—as Sandmel and others have pointed out— is wrong in one essential detail, and that detail is the fourth phase.
What began as mythology grew into poetic and prophetic utterance, solidified into ritual, priestly observance—and then, through a disaster which was actually a kind of blessing, transfigured itself into an intellectual tradition which is, simply, the basis of all Western commentary on literature and the use of literature—including, by the way, the formation of the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis. Whether we read St. Augustine on the Fall of Man, Freud on the use of religion as social glue, or Jacques Derrida on the ontological primacy of writing over speaking, we are reading attempts to grapple with, to use literature as equipment for living: attempts which owe their urgency and passion to the urgency and passion they inherit from the great Rabbis and the early Fathers of the Church. This is a point made with great subtlety and conviction in Hans Frei’s essay in this volume: that the intellectual future, as well as the exegetical past, of our culture is inextricably tied in with the tradition of scriptural-analytical thought. Of few, if any other books, may we say that to learn to read this Book is to learn to read. But that is only part of the story of this volume, as it is only part of the story of the Bible and its influence upon Western storytelling. We have referred to the Tanak, which is the real name of what Christians (with unintentional prejudice) refer to as the Old Testament.
But the Bible, in Western tradition, is not only one book— The Great Code, as Northrop Frye calls it in his recent study—it is one book frequently at odds with itself. I do not mean simply those ethical and narrative dissonances and contradictions which so disconcerted nineteenth-century scholars of an excessively literalistic bent. I mean the central fissure between the story of the people of Israel and the story of the radical preacher called Yeshua, or Joshua, or Jesus. I am aware, by the way, that in the very way I have articulated things, I have caused—not, I hope offense—but at least mild unease among some of my readers. That is not sheer perversity, but simply an attempt to indicate that Jesus is what St. Paul—that canniest of literary critics—called him: a scandal. Frank Kermode observes, in his book The Genesis of Secrecy, that only once in the history of culture has a book had its entire meaning altered simply by renaming it: by renaming it, to be specific, the “Old” Testament.
Renaming, that is, is re-interpretation. This is a fact so common as to seem almost trivial, but nevertheless a crucial one for our understanding of the culture we create and the culture that creates us. To put the matter in its simplest terms: you can make a movie called Star Wars, and it will be a good or a bad film. But, then, what if you make a sequel? Are you continuing the story, or are you, in fact, reinterpreting the story by extending it?
Canon-formation, in other words, involves one of the deepest questions of cultural self-genesis. Are the great texts innately great, or is “greatness” simply the imposition and gift of societal consensus? Kermode’s description of the exegetical feud between Childs and Barr, in this volume, is an intriguing and disturbing continuation of the inquiry he began in The Genesis of Secrecy: what does canonize a text—make a sacred text sacred?
As usual when I read Kermode, I was struck by the subtlety of the observation. And then I realized that Kermode was being more than subtle. He was being—as perhaps all good critics should be—both profound and threatening. Consider the enormity of the transformation involved in that single act of renaming. How can you say that the whole long, intense, tragic, tortured, glorious, epic, inarticulably difficult struggle of that people, that produced that book, should come down to the maunderings and meanderings of an itinerant faith-healer from the sticks? How dare you say it?
Well, we have. At least, for two millennia now, we have insisted that the Sacred Book of all Sacred Books is in fact composed of two unequal but equal halves, the one being the record of a people’s discovery of the Law and the other being the record of an individual’s discovery of himself as Son of God. How can epic collapse so irrecoverably into mere biography; or how can folk-sociology evolve so stunningly into existential self-discovery? A lot depends on which of those questions you ask; for the one you ask determines how you really think of the relationship between the two Testaments. And, of course, if you choose to be really civilized, you must learn to think both ways at once.
If Moses, as St. Augustine argued, was simply a “type” or “figure” of Jesus, the real leader of the people out of bondage, then the mighty tale of Genesis and Exodus is transformed, at a stroke, into allegory. Or, to put it the other way round, from the Jewish perspective: if the Gospels and the Pauline epistles insist so strenuously that Jesus fulfilled, to the last jot and title, the ambiguous sayings of the Prophets about the Messiah, then must he himself not be a convenient, cultic fabrication—rather like a back-formation in linguistics?
Most cultures would resolve this tension—and it is a tension—by simply treating the Scriptures as separate entities. The highly mystical Tao Te Ching makes, after all, numerous references to, and commentaries upon, the very practical Confucian Analects—almost all of them uncomplimentary. But no sane man would think of binding the Analects and the Tao Te Ching together as a single, unified literary utterance.
Perhaps this would have been the simpler thing to do with the two parts of what we call the Bible. The Tanak itself is confused. Ever since the discovery and discrimination of the famous four sources of Torah—Yawhistic, Elohistic, Deuteronymic, and Priestly —scholars of the Tanak have been unearthing more and more variant sources in that part of the book alone. And, as James Robinson demonstrates in his essay here, the same intricate, often baffling process of redaction and conflation of sources seems to have produced what we think of as the canon of Christian Scripture. The Bible as a whole, old and new Testaments, can be described not so much as the utterance of a single Author, or even series of Authors, but rather as a formation like the accumulation of geological strata. And given such complex histories of canon-formation for two texts so subtly at odds one with the other, it would make elegant sense to issue them, simply, as separate, if related, books. But this is not what we have done. And by not doing it, we have created the literature of the West.
“Intertextuality” is a phrase much bandied—or shuttle cocked— among critics with a yen for the fashionable these days. Like most such phrases it is not only phonetically ugly but, semantically, virtually null. If it does have a meaning, though, it appears to refer to the ways a given text refers to itself, within itself, as a text: or as a “heterocosm,” to use another fashionable term—that is, a verbal universe that equals or rivals the “real” universe of our experience. But is this not the Bible? I repeat myself: to learn to read this book is to learn to read. And, at least for Western man, to learn to read is to learn something about how to live: or so we trust.
The “intertextuality” of the Bible, then—if we must call it that—may be taken as the paradigm for that “intertextuality” which, though only recently named as such, has in fact determined the course of Western storytelling. Does the “Old Testament” simply anticipate the “New”? Or does the “New Testament” simply parrot and attempt to fulfill the “Old”? Trivial sectarian quarrels aside, the answer of course is that neither assertion makes sense. It is precisely the tension of the text that makes it live—and that makes it a source of life for later, secular writing.
A comparison with the transmission of classical literature can be instructive here. We all know that the Aeneid of Virgil is an attempt—and a glorious one—to equal or surpass the Homeric epics. And we know that even a later book, like the Argonautica of Appolonius of Rhodes, is in its way an attempt to rescind, comment upon, perhaps even parody the pattern of classical epic established by Homer and Virgil.
But this is not “intertextuality”—at least, not in the sense in which the Bible gives it to us. Virgil may try to overcome Homer, and Appolonius may try to parody both. But in no case in classical writing do we find storytellers, from widely variant historical and cultural contexts, contributing mutually toward the creation of a single utterance which shall be the utterance of a whole world-view. We may speak of the classical world-view, in other words: but only by a process of agglomeration. But we must speak of the Judeo- Christian vision, because the text, in all its counterpoint, demands that we do so.
And yet, again, it is a unity founded upon a special kind of internal disunity. Consider the Islamic doctrine of the Ijaz, the inimitability of the style of the Koran. Any orthodox Muslim will tell you that to read the Koran, you must read it in Arabic. And with less rigidity, but equal earnestness, a Hindu will tell you the same about the Upanishads, or a Taoist about the Tao Te Ching. These are sacred texts whose sacrality resides, to a large extent, within the original text itself. But, from the Septuagint to the Vulgate to the King James to such contemporary versions as Good News for Modern Man, no book has been translated as variously or as frequently as the Bible. And the translatability of the book is special to its own central kind of sacredness. For it is a sacredness not only “intertextual”— that is, grounded in the story and the doctrine of the book. It is also—to coin a phrase nearly awkward enough to sound legimate— “extratextual,” open-ended, infinitely and necessarily translatable both linguistically and culturally, just because its central core of meaning resides in the tension, rather than the intension, of its significance. We can say that it is about, among many other things, the creation of a sacred text.
This is really less complicated than it sounds. Without undue chauvinism, we may say that Western writing displays a tendency toward variation, growth, exfoliation unprecedented among most of the great literary traditions of the world. This is not to claim superiority; merely difference. Harold Bloom describes this process as the “Anxiety of Influence,” that is, the compulsion of strong poets to equal and overcome the vision of their “precursors,” or major influences. Thus—greatly to oversimplify Bloom’s argument— Wordsworth struggles to “overcome” his strong precursor Milton, and Wallace Stevens struggles to “overcome” his strong precursor Walt Whitman. Obviously, this idea of the struggle with the precursor—or symbolic father—has deep connections with Freud’s myth of the parental, Oedipal conflict: father and son fighting for possession of the maternal Muse, if you will. But it has an even closer homology with one of the truly uncanny moments of Genesis: Jacob’s all-night wrestling match with the Nameless One from among the elohim, after which he wins his new name, Israel. Bloom discusses that incident in his essay here, as part of his fascination with the Yahwist, the earliest source of biblical narrative, and one of the few authors (Shakespeare being the only other) who seems absolutely without precursors in Bloom’s sense of the word.
But is this not a version of canon-formation which is “extratextual” in our sense? The Yahwist’s narrative is qualified by the later stories of the Elohist narrator, both of which are expanded upon and reinterpreted by the Deuteronymic and Priestly authors. To be sure, all ancient texts can be analyzed—like layers of geological strata—in terms of gradual accretions of meaning. But nowhere is the process so much an explicit part of the meaning itself of the text. If to learn to read the Bible is to learn to read, then we can also say that to read the Bible in terms of its self-evolution is to witness the birth of textuality itself.
The techincal term for what I have been calling “extratextuality” is Midrash. Roughly, it means the process whereby a later writer revises or even reverses details of an earlier tale to make it conform to the growth of ethical doctrine. Sandmel in The Hebrew Scriptures, for example, speculates that the figure of the patriarch Abraham, pious and noble, may be a midrashic back-formation, developed as a counterpoint and “precursor” to the earlier-invented and disconcertingly tricksterish Jacob. Or, applying the concept—which is really the concept of Western literature itself—to a “secular” text, we can say that Paradise Lost is Milton’s seventeenth-century, Puritan midrash on the Yahwist text of the Fall, bringing that most primal of tales into synchronization with his own, baroque radical Puritan Christian interpretation of the facts of the case.
The recent discovery of the Gnostic Gospels—the Nag Hammadi Library—indicates that much the same process went on with the Christian half—or part—of the Bible. James Robinson, the guiding force behind the translation of the Gnostic Gospels, examines in his essay here the way in which the formation of the Christian scriptures is also a kind of “midrashic” process of composition. Particularly with reference to the Gospel of John, that most troublesome of all the Gospels, he explains with rare tact and clarity how an originally Gnostic, that is, heterodox, version of the life of Jesus is “naturalized” for inclusion in the canon, and then, paradoxically, by its very inclusion regains the Gnostic, or Gnostic-like, mysticism that its revision was originally meant to eschew.
The sacred canon—the Tanak and the Christian scriptures—is of course closed, and has been definitively closed since about the fourth century C.E. But, as Frank Kermode insists here, the “open” tradition of modern Western writing is actually a kind of derivation from, or analogy to, the idea of the sacred canon. Kermode examined this analogy in his previous book, The Genesis of Secrecy, and develops it here to invoke what amounts to a redefinition of the literary tradition in terms of a biblical-canonical model. The “Anxiety of Influence,” in other words, might also be imagined as “the self-expansion of inheritance.”
We are dealing, then, with two complementary—or opposed?— ideas of the nature of writing in the West, and of the relationship of that writing to what is, for us, the Text of texts. As Kermode puts things, is canon—the official establishment of a set of “authoritative” books—a curse or a blessing? It was Mark Twain who defined a “classic” as a book that everyone admired and nobody read. But that is not just a good punchline, it is an encapsulated history of biblical exegesis. What is the meaning of Scripture, and where does that meaning reside—in the text itself or in the acceptance of the text by the community of belief? If the Judeo-Christian Bible is “extratextual” in the sense I have tried to indicate, does this not mean that, somehow, the whole idea of the text dissipates? All of our writers in this volume confront, in their various ways, the uncomfortable contemporary conviction—exported mainly from France—that the “meaning” of literature may be simply the infinite reassertion of the structures of consciousness itself, that “meaning” itself may indeed be the central myth or self-delusion of our culture. It is a seductive idea, for it is an absolutely unitary one: it explains everything, at a stroke. But does it not also impoverish the infinite variability of the canon—sacred or secular—as we have it? One is reminded of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s parable of the last demon in Poland. Since people have ceased believing in them, the demon population has radically depleted; and the very last demon takes refuge in a single letter of the one remaining copy of the Talmud. It is an aleph.
This is not to claim that Singer’s fable refutes the elegant phenomenology of Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, or their cohorts. But there is some point, I believe, in insisting that our sacred texts be allowed to retain their sacredness, their demons hiding in the alephs. Otherwise, in Mark Twain’s terms, we need not read the “classics” anymore, we need simply to acknowledge their primacy. And to acknowledge their primacy under those conditions is to lose it.
Of course, you will have noticed that I am using the term, “sacred text,” in an increasingly loose sense. By “sacred text” do I now mean Genesis, the Gospel of Mark, or The Divine Comedy—or even, for that matter, Finnegans Wake? Perhaps the most exciting and challenging idea to emerge from the essays collected here is the sheer problem of deciding what makes a text “sacred”—or, conversely, what “sacred” can possibly mean when applied to a written text. Both Schleiermacher and Coleridge, the two great architects of modern exegesis, insisted, in their different ways, that any text, if read in the right spirit, is religious. The text finds you, as Coleridge was fond of saying. Alice in Wonderland, that most intrepid of mental adventurers, frequently saves herself from spiralling into madness by repeating the most boring, tautological of propositions. Are these, then, “sacred texts”?
Is a sacred text, in other words, anything that gets you through the night? A comic book, a TV show, a postcard from a friend—a glass of gin? You see where we have come to. To examine “The Bible and the Narrative Tradition” is, ultimately, to examine the nature of Western identity itself. V. Piatagorsky, the regnant genius of the Tartu School of linguistics, has devoted much of his career to defining what it is that gives a text that peculiar, evanescent quality of sacredness.
And one of Piatagorsky’s findings is echoed and elaborated hereby Hans Frei. A sacred text, Frei insists, is sacred because a given community believes it to be sacred, and accepts and declares it as such. In other words, at a single brilliant and admirable stroke, Frei resolves the problem of textuality and canonicity by saying that the canon can only be established within a community of believers—in a Church, in other words.
Frei takes a highly, and articulately, conservative stance toward the relationship between “sacred” and “secular” writing. A minister himself, he opts for the primacy of private interpretation as the real “meaning” of Scripture, a creative interchange between text and reader. But the central point of his complex and brilliant essay is that it tries to make this whole book irrelevant. For if Frei is correct, then the only future possible for biblical exegesis is an irrevocable fissure between cultural acceptance and cultic acceptance of the “truth” or “meaning” of the Bible. The alternatives are, that is, belief in the literal meaning of the text within a community of faith, or analysis of the “outside” meaning of the text from the viewpoint of an abstract, disengaged cultural anthropology.
It is instructive to compare and contrast Frei’s comments on the “innerness” of the biblical canon with Frank Kermode’s attempt to interpret that “innerness” from the point of view of one outside the community of belief. They are antithetical propositions, and in the tension between them resides much of the energy of argument in all the essays collected here. Can there be a sacred text without a Church to accept it as such? That is the real question posed by all of our writers: Does the demon (who might also be an angel) really reside in the aleph, or do we have to convince ourselves that he is there?
This is the crucial quarrel of biblical exegesis, at least since Erasmus defended the Catholic, textually-centered interpretation of Scripture against Luther’s orally-centered romanticism. Where is the text? In the letters on the page? In the mind of the reader? Or somewhere—but where?—in between? Students of contemporary literary criticism will recognize that, mutatis mutandis, this is also the crucial question asked by our most distinguished readers of the “secular” canon—for example, Wolfgang Iser in The Act of Reading, Roland Barthes in S/Z, or Jacques Derrida in Writing and Difference. In the midst of all this complication, it is worthwhile to remember that Martin Buber, one of the great modern commentators on the Tanak, assumed that the fictionality of Scripture—its resonance as cult and culture—is, far from being a disadvantage, its real normative triumph: “Scripture does not state its doctrine as doctrine,” writes Buber, “but by telling a story, and without exceeding the limits set by the nature of a story. It uses the methods of story-telling to a degree, however, that world literature has not yet learned to use. . . . Hence, it remains for us latecomers to point out the significance of what has been hitherto overlooked, neglected, insufficiently valued.”
Buber’s comfort is absolute, in other words, with the tension between story and sacredness with which we began: or, if his comfort with that tension is not absolute, at least it is absolutely asserted by his prose. But our authors, in their various ways, are concerned with examining the stresses that Buber, not ignores, but heroically denies. I began by asserting that the Bible is both the story of stories and the Text of texts. But one way of reading the essays assembled here, in their various brilliancies and various countertensions, is as a lengthy and intricate examination of the question, How can a book be both those absolutes at once? Inevitably, we are approaching the idea of Gnosticism. And all the essays here deal variously with the issue of a Gnostic as opposed to a conservative or legalistic approach to Scripture—and, by extension, of course to secular Scripture.
It may help clarify things, at the outset, if I admit that I do not know what Gnosticism really is: nor does anyone else, including practicing (practicing?) Gnostics. But, relying on the splendid historical/ cultural research of scholars like Hans Jonas and Gershom Scholem, we can at least say that Gnosticism is the belief that the real meaning of a text or a world (the gnosis—the Greek word for knowledge) is always concealed behind or within the ostensive meaning of that text or world. To be a Gnostic, then, is to be— * literally—”in the know” about the secret meaning of the text or the universe (and, of course, to a true Gnostic those are always equivalent terms).
Gnosticism has lately become a very fashionable term and concept among literary critics. And the discovery of the Christian Gnostic scriptures is, to be sure, one of the most important literary/ archeological discoveries of the last two centuries. The issue (or doctrine, or attitude) of a Gnostic reading of the text, in other words, spans, in its very complexity, the gap between the secular and the sacred.
But there is another attitude: not superior, but antithetical to the Gnostic stance toward writing, and I am happy to give it a name which has a kind of punning reference to the idea of the gnosis. Nostos is the Greek word meaning “return home” or “homecoming,” the root of our word “nostalgia.” It is the word traditionally applied to the moment in the Odyssey when Odysseus reestablishes his kingship of Ithaca and, implicitly, the order of the universe. Both gnosis and nostos are un-biblical terms. And if the former implies a journey of knowledge and enlightenment beyond the boundaries of the known or the articulable, the latter is its ideal complement in implying a journey home past the ineffable back to the certitude of the quotidian.
Herbert Schneidau, in his book Sacred Discontent, discusses and examines this tension in Scripture by arguing that the real point of the Hebrew Tanak is its anti-mythic stance: that is, the Tanak for Schneidau is ultimately defineable as an insistence upon the historicity, rather than upon the mythic circularity, of God’s action in the world—more nostos than gnosis, in other words. And his essay here continues the argument of Sacred Discontent, while expanding and refining it. Schneidau is concerned with narrative as narrative—with the fundamental process of storytelling itself. Narrative transcends theology, insists Schneidau early on in his essay. And he eloquently demonstrates that, as Coleridge would have said, the Biblical texts are best understood as narrative, and narrative itself is best understood as a form—perhaps the inescapable form—of sacred utterance. Analytic and deconstructionist as he is, Schneidau nevertheless returns us to the world of myth. Gnosis and nostos are one, here, not because of their innate resonance, but because of the pristine, adverting mind of their critic and commentator.
Robert Alter, in his own numerous studies of biblical narrative, sophisticates Schneidau’s argument by pointing out that the prose of the Bible alternates between the circularity of pure myth and the open-endedness of pure chronicle, never deciding fully which it is. But Schneidau and Alter, and all later commentators are preceded here by the first man to comment upon the entire range, Hebrew and Christian, of Scripture—and therefore, in his way, the first truly Western literary critic. I mean Saint Paul, who wrote even before the Gospels were produced, and who insisted in letter after letter that the Law and the Gospel—the nostos and the gnosis—were best understood not as antagonists but as a creative tension generating a new culture. Writing to the Corinthians, those proto-gnostics, Paul can sound very legalistic indeed: and writing to the Romans, he can sound very much like a Gnostic himself. In his subtlety and his understanding of the complexity of interpretation, perhaps he should be made the patron saint of literary critics.
I do not know which phase, gnosis or nostos, best describes the use Scripture has for us now, though I suspect they both do, particularly if taken together. In this volume, at least, both attitudes are presented, and presented brilliantly.
James Robinson, a scriptural scholar of authority, examines here ways in which the techniques of literary criticism might be applied meaningfully to biblical exegesis. Frank Kermode moves in the opposite direction and attempts to employ our knowledge of biblical canon-formation to the idea of the invention of a secular culture.
Hans Frei questions—and questions brilliantly—the whole enterprise of Robinson and Kermode. Can we, he asks, really use the methods of philology and textual commentary as a method of dealing with what is fundamentally a literature of belief? And Harold Bloom, if he does not quite answer Frei’s question, nevertheless provides an utterance about the power and uncanniness of the earliest scriptural author which is not so much an argument as it is a demonstration of what an adverting mind can make of the Text of texts. Donald Foster, in his fine essay on the Gospel of John, turns the insights of Robinson and Bloom to original and, I believe, portentous use for further biblical studies. John’s gospel has always been the most curious of Christian scriptures—among other reasons, because of its edgy relation to Gnostic traditions. But by combining Robinson’s perceptions of canon formation with Bloom’s important idea of literary “belatedness,” Foster manages a reading of that complex text which is both faithful to the best traditions of exegesis and an act of creative critical understanding. Foster, the youngest of the contributors to this volume, augurs strongly for the perennial energy of the methods explored here by his senior colleagues.
Too often, Jewish and Christian texts are regarded as propositional disputations, quasi-metaphysical arguments about what is or is not, cosmically speaking, the case. The essays collected here, like much other recent work, help disabuse us of this notion. Comte insisted that the evolution of human thought is from a mythic, through a metaphysical, into a scientific or “positivistic” state of reason. But our scholars and critics suggest that the “mythic” level of thinking—the realm of storytelling—is more central and more perennial than Comte’s simple-minded scientism suggests. We perceive, and share, the human state of things by narrative much more than by objective discourse: not, that is, by arguing about what is, but by trading tales about what, in the time of origins, happened. A valuable collection like Willis Barnstone’s recent anthology of Gnostic and acpocryphal texts, The Other Bible, indicates the degree to which the formative quarrels of our tradition are, not about heresy, but about midrash, about alternative narratives to the (sometimes shakily) canonized narrative we accept “as Gospel.” Literary criticism and scriptural exegesis, in other words, are not so much to be wedded as to be reunited after a—surely rather long—trial separation. The essays gathered here are, or can be regarded as, a set of epithalamia to that happy remarriage.
Martin Buber, in an unforgettable phrase, described the mythmaking of the Bible as a “legitimate stammering”: a hopeless babbling, that is, that still in all its hopelessness tries to name the Unnameable and, perhaps, praise the Unapproachable. The great liberal Protestant theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, argues much the same position in Beyond Tragedy when he examines the stories of the two Testaments as images of the unimaginable truth. As storytellers we are, in Niebuhr’s Pauline phrase, “deceivers, yet true.” Whether or not Western writing since the opening of the common era has sustained that holy task is a matter for debate. But the essays collected here suggest that we have, for all our confusion, continued to stammer, and to do so legitimately. Or, to paraphrase the Mahabharata, nothing that we stammer will not be stammered elsewhere, but nothing stammered elsewhere will not be uttered among us.