It’s Not the End Time

I’ve read the first half of Harold Bloom’s Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine, his meditation on the figure of Jesus, and found him at his incisive, dyspeptic best in his critique of what he finds in the New Testament that’s not Jesus:

For Paul, the Resurrection, or Christ event, proclaimed the death of Torah: since the end of all existence was very near, moral law became irrelevant. Two thousand years after Paul, it is a little bewildering to absorb what cannot be termed a mere delay in finalities.

…I am not impressed when scholars argue that James and Paul subtly can be reconciled. Martin Luther’s anti-Semitic diatribe against James counts far more: he reacted with fury to the Epistle’s “a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (2:24), a manifest repudiation of Paul’s “a man is justified by faith and not by works” (Romans 3:28).

However one judges the New Testament, whether as literature or as spirituality, it is historically the most totally successful makeover ever accomplished. Since Christians worldwide now outnumber Jews by more than a thousand to one, you could assert (if you wished) that the New Testament rescued the Hebrew Bible, but you would be mistaken. Christians have saved their Old Testament…

…about a third of the New Testament is Pauline. Between his priority, his centrality to the text, and his reinvention of much of Christianity, Paul is its crucial founder. Yeshua of Nazareth, who died still trusting in the Covenant with Yahweh, cannot be regarded as the inaugurator of a new faith.

Can anyone like Paul? Only my dedicatee, Donald Akenson, shows a wry affection for the Apostle in Saint Saul (2000), pointing out accurately that Jesus Christ, in the Gospels, has become a divinity, while Paul “is a jagged, flawed, and therefore totally convincing human being.” …George Bernard Shaw compared Paul to Karl Marx, finding in each a fantastic builder of error that exiled all moral responsibility. That seems about right to me.

Yahweh and Israel, Paul implies, will work out the Chosen People’s Redemption. Did Paul, who must have died still expecting Christ’s return, really believe that Israel would accept Christ at that moment? I have no answer, except that Paul’s Messiah certainly has little in common with what the Jews expected, since they awaited a victorious warrior. But then his Christ also has not much in common with Yeshua of Nazareth, in any of his Gospel versions, even in John. Paul’s delusion (what else could you call it?) is that he lives in the End Time.

Yeshua of Nazareth, descendant of David, habitually addressed Yahweh as father (abba), but stopped short of reducing Yahweh to the single attribute of being “our father who art in heaven.” That reduction is Christian, and Yeshua, as we ought never to become weary of recognizing, was not a Christian, but a Second Temple Jew loyal to his own interpretation of the Law of Yahweh. Above all, Yeshua was not a Trinitarian, a statement at once obvious yet also shattering in its implications.

Were Christianity a Broadway show and these hundred pages its opening-night review, it would have closed almost immediately. Though these issues that Bloom takes with Christianity sound more philosophical or theological than literary, his central motivation is his understanding of literary influence, particularly his trope of “belatedness,” which Frank Kermode glosses as follows:

The secret of the relation between “strong poets” is that one has the misfortune to come after the other, and the belated must seem to establish his own priority. “What is pleasure for a strong poet, ultimately,” asks Bloom in a very revealing sentence, “if it is not the pleasure of priority in one’s own invention?”

Or, as Bloom puts it in this book, “though all of Christian theology… avers otherwise, nevertheless no later text ever has ‘fulfilled’ an earlier one, or even ‘corrected’ it.” And as he resoundingly demonstrates, the New Testament is indeed belated with respect to the Jewish Bible, and even with respect to the Christians’ own reworking of the Jewish Bible as the Old Testament. To convincingly portray Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, which is the founding belief of Christianity, requires a very strong “misreading” (which, according to Bloom, is the response of strong poets to their belatedness) of the Jewish Bible. Bloom makes much of Jesus’ claim that “before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58) as an attempt at such a misreading. This gets at one of the central questions of Christianity for outsiders (along with the question of how all-powerful God can be murdered): Why did Jesus appear when He did?

If Jesus as savior is necessary for the salvation of all people, why did He appear only after so much human history had passed? Shouldn’t He have been available to everyone, regardless of when they happened to be born? To solve this puzzle, the New Testament “misreads” the Jewish Bible in such a way that Jesus becomes the Son, an aspect of the Yahweh who preceded Abraham. (Interestingly, the literary character of Jesus in the Gospels takes on all that is powerful about Yahweh in the Torah, leaving the Father as a distant and not very compelling character.) The Covenant with Yahweh (who included Jesus) was the salvation of all who were a party to it, which was only the Jews up to that point in history. The Incarnation occurred when it did because Jesus was Messiah, come to announce the End Time and make redemption available to all. In essence, the New Testament sought to remove Jesus from a moment in history and place him at the beginning and end of history, before and after the Jewish Bible.

The New Testament was certainly an audacious misreading of the Jewish Bible, but was it successful? Works like Paradise Lost suggest that the New Testament may have been convincing in its attempt to locate Jesus prior to the creation described at the opening of the Jewish Bible. But the attempt to place Jesus’ coming at the end of history, as Bloom rightly points out, was a gamble that failed. Does this make the New Testament a weak misreading of the Jewish Bible? Ultimately, I think it does, and Bloom seems to think so as well, but that’s a literary judgment. The early Christians picked up this incoherent mass of failed prophecy and other contradictions and, over the last two thousand years, they and their successors have built it into one of the world’s great religions. That it fails as both literature and theology is of no concern to Christians. As far as I can tell, their response to this, after desperate rearguard actions such as the Trinity, is that faith is all that matters–Paul won that contest with James.

As a lifelong outsider to Christianity, I’m left to ask why Christians bother with scripture and theology after all. Christianity cannot be made to work logically or philosophically, as some of the greatest minds in history–from Augustine to Kierkegaard–have demonstrated, without ultimate recourse to faith. Without faith, Christianity can’t be understood, but with faith, understanding is beside the point. Yet faith isn’t the end product of reasoning, discourse, or experience–it’s divinely instilled. What then is the point of all the proselytizers I pass on the streets? If I have faith, their efforts are unnecessary, but if I lack faith, their harangues won’t grant it to me.

I look forward to what Bloom has to say about Yahweh.

5 Replies to “It’s Not the End Time”

  1. Having been surounded by Christians all of my life, I think I speak correctly for them in saying that they believe that if you sincerely ask for faith (and forgiveness and salvation), it will be given to you. This is how one becomes ‘born again’. That this never worked for me was one of the first signs that I was going to have trouble following the religion. I can remember telling a Bible camp counselor that I had tried a second time (I must have been 7 or 8 years old), and she accused me then of not trusting God. Alas.

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  2. But that’s a tautology, isn’t it? What is sincerity (or trust in God) if not faith? In any case, that sincerity (or trust in God) isn’t likely to be the result of either a naive or a close reading of Christian scripture or subsequent theology. Alas, I fear you and I are, to use the old Protestant term, preterite.

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  3. I tend to agree that the Old and New Testaments cannot be reconciled. The attempt to mold Jesus into a Jewish Messiah obscures the essentially Greek-pagan roots of the Christ myth.

    A few suggestions for further reading… Jack Miles (Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God) addresses the problem of why Jesus appeared when he did from a literary perspective of a character who realizes he’s made a terrible mistake. Jesus’ crucifixion, he argues, is Yahweh’s suicide. It’s a view of God which both Jews and Muslims (and frankly, your average Christian) would find intolerable. You might also be interested in Friedman’s Hidden Face of God which examines the near simultaneous development of Christianity and rabbinical Judaism.

    [As for preterism, it is apparently also Anne Rice’s preferred interpretation of the Gospels.]

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  4. I read the first Jack Miles book (God: A Biography) and really liked it, but I didn’t get the second one. I vaguely remember it getting bad reviews at the time, especially from people who liked the first one. But Bloom refers frequently to both of them. He also mentions Friedman’s book.

    I first encountered the notion of preterism in Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, in which it’s a recurrent theme. Coupled with the idea of paranoia, perhaps the theme for Pynchon throughout his work, it makes for a fascinating understanding of contemporary history.

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