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You can call me J...
am 2. Februar 2006
Harold Bloom's 'The Book of J' caused quite a stir when it first was published. The book contains both introductory essays on authorship, a discussion of the theory of different texts being used to make up the books of the Bible (the Documentary Hypothesis), some historical context, and translation notes.
The bulk of the book consists of David Rosenberg's new translation of the J text, that text having been separated and isolated from the other source texts of the Torah (first five books of the Bible).
The concluding section contains essays by Bloom on different characters and themes in the text, as well as some modern theoretical analysis of the text, isolated as it is in this volume from the greater mass of material in the Bible.
There is a brief appendix by Rosenberg with notes specifically geared toward translation issues and difficulties, as well as source materials.
First, for a little background: since the 1800's, much of Biblical textual scholarship and analysis has subscribed to the theory that most books were not first written as integrated wholes, but rather, consist of a library of amalgamated texts, largely put together by a person who goes by the title Redactor, or R, for short. This was (in terms of Hebrew Bible timelines) a relatively late occurrence. Prior to this, there were various sources, including the J (J for Jehovah, or Yahweh, which is what God is called in these texts), but also E (Elohist, which is what God is called in these texts), P (Priestly, which largely comprises Leviticus), and D (Deuteronomist). The separation of these strands is controversial, and will probably never cease to be. But with literary and linguistic analysis, certain traits can be discerned of each of the particular strands.
The most controversial conclusion which Bloom advances in this volume is that J is a woman, who lived in the courtly community of King David, and that her stories are not only a retelling of the ancient stories which would have been known commonly, but is also a satire and indictment of courtly life as she finds it.
'J was no theologian, and rather deliberately not a historian.... There is always another side of J: uncanny, tricky, sublime, ironic, a visionary of incommensurates, and so the direct ancestor of Kafka, and of any writer, Jewish or Gentile, condemned to work in Kafka's mode.'
Bloom's assertion that J is a woman consists of several 'telling' ideas, not least of which that the J text seems to have no heroes, only heroines.
'Sarai and Rachel are wholly admirable, and Tamar, in proportion to the narrative space she occupies, is very much the most vivid portrait in J. But Abram, Jacob, and Moses receive a remarkably mixed treatment from J.'
Also, on the basis of sensitivity to subject and social vision, Bloom argues for a female J. Of course, women in positions of authority (as any courtly author or historian would have to be) were very rare in ancient Middle Eastern culture, but not unheard of; of course, literacy rates for women were incredibly low, and there has always been the unspoken assumption that, naturally, the authors of all ancient texts are men.
Whether or not you subscribe to this (and I must confess, I am less than convinced, clever and interesting and thought-provoking as Bloom's essay may be), both on the person of the author of J, as well as many of his other equally unorthodox views, this text still provides much food for thought, and an interesting side text with which to read the accounts in Genesis and Exodus.
Reading Rosenberg's translation is, likewise, an interesting exercise. I would wish for footnote or some key to be able to follow along in the Bible, but Rosenberg's purpose was to let J stand as its own text, on its own merits, and thus, without interruption, he has done that here. A refreshing look at familiar texts, Rosenberg's new translation will give things to think and argue about for some time.