Wellhausen Goes to Yale

by Christopher Seitz

Christopher R. Seitz teaches Old Testament at Yale Divinity School.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, January 30, 1991, pp. 111-114. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.


Seitz, in his review of The Book of J by Harold Bloom and David Rosenberg, takes both authors to task for essentially dismissing over 100 years of scholarship in order to present their thesis that the author of the J portions of the Pentateuch was both a woman and a secularist.

Who, or what, is this Jahwist? Out of what bottle was he released, by whom and for what purpose? Why has he left the arid climes of historical readings of the Bible--a different kind of bottle--to emerge into fuller prominence as a Kafka-cool "J"? What sorts of wishes has he granted in the past, and what does he–or she–now promise?

These questions receive a fresh and provocative answer in The Book of J, by Harold Bloom, Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale University, and David Rosenberg. By arguing that the Bible's first "author" was a woman, Bloom has breathed a kind of new life into the dusty old Yahwist, that hybrid creation of rationalism, historicism and romanticism usually associated with the name of Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918).

Because historical analysis of the Bible now possesses its own venerable history, one must speak of the History of the Jahwist (or Jehovist, Yahwist, "J" or other such neologisms of modernity). That history is rich and variegated, even as it is probably obscure to the general reader.

For the 17th-century Roman Catholic Richard Simon, the Jahwist was simply proof of the Bible's inner inconsistency; because he existed along with other "authors," disagreeing and diverging superintending hand of church tradition was vindicated. For Spinoza and emerging critical Protestants, the Jahwist was one of several successive phases of better–or worse–history writing to be detected below the surface of the biblical narrative. In this critical view, J's contribution was vastly overshadowed by the Priestly writer (called the Elohist because of his preference for the generic term for God, "Elohim"), whose foundational document preceded the Jehovist's by centuries and provided the scaffolding on which the intriguing but minor contribution of J was hung. It was the further division of this Priestly source into an early and late Elohist, together with mounting evidence for the late date of the legislative core of P, that brought about a shift in the controlling critical consensus.

The major beneficiary of this shift was the Yahwist. Freed from the stifling "anxiety of influence" (a Bloomian concept) of his parent P (as well as the Deuteronomist, source "D"), the Yahwist suddenly burst into prominence as the first original, not a second or third derivative source. In step with the rich themes of Genesis itself, the younger brother swiped the blessing intended for the older and proceeded to show forth his superiority in a manner that would have made even the young Joseph wince.

In Wellhausen's reconstruction, the venerable old Elohist turned out to be a dolt: repetitious, obsessed with genealogy and legal minutia, lacking narrative "voice," and worst of all for Protestants, a priest. His usefulness as an historical source (the governing concern of the period) was judged to be nonexistent; worse still was his studied disingenuousness as a writer of history. Wellhausen, who is rightly credited with recognizing in the Yahwist a budding historical ingenue, spoke of the Priestly writer as a deceiver, as one who sought to disguise his true historical distance from the matters he was reporting in order to trick his leaders into thinking they had before them accurate historical records. On this score the Yahwist is more honest, and it is just such honesty that demonstrates the true originality and naive genius of the first "uninfluenced" source.

Where Wellhausen left off, Bloom has picked up–only dismissively sensitive to the fact that a century of scholarship has passed since Wellhausen did his work, picking and choosing from the intervening period as he sees fit. Bloom acknowledges himself as a lineal descendant at one juncture. He is able on the one hand to condemn Wellhausianism as anti-Semitic Hegelian idealism, while confidently asserting on the other his finesse at skimming off the true Yahwist from all the anti-Semitic underpinning. The result is, not surprisingly, a curious form of 20th-century American idealism, but with a chic twist: now we have a cultured, urbane Yahwist, Master of Irony, secularist sophisticate (one is reminded of Albert Schweitzer's Quest of the Historical Jesus–the Yahwist lives in New Haven!). And to top it off, the Yahwist is a woman. Wellhausen rediviva.

Whether Bloom's project finally escapes the charge of anti-Semitism is difficult to judge, and is probably not for a Christian reviewer to say. It does remind me of a public lecture in which Harvard biblical scholar Jon Levenson, who is Jewish, once defined anti-Semitism as "hating Jews more than is necessary", obviously the kind of remark whose success as comedy turns on the context in which it is spoken and the one who speaks it. Many defended Wellhausen against charges of anti-Semitism by correctly pointing out that he was evenhanded in his negative judgments: his hostility was directed at all forms of orthodoxy, as he defined these. Thus he followed up his penetrating analysis of Judaism and the Old Testament with similar studies of Christianity and Islam, the New Testament and the Koran. By this logic Bloom would also have to be judged innocent of charges of anti-Semitism because of the evenhanded character of his assault on orthodoxy and piety, whether Jewish, Christian or otherwise.

Yet this is a very new form of hostility, modern and quite sophisticated. It had become a commonplace, in the spirit of German idealism, to give privileged status to the reconstructed "original" and to view later developments as diversions from the pure, the objective, the reportially close, the historical. Hence the higher regard for J than for P.

One clear sign of progress in the study of the Pentateuch since Wellhausen's time is the refusal to follow this sort of idealistic logic, with all its attendant reductionism. Later "sources" began to be appreciated for what they were, in no small part because it was seen that the Yahwist was not an author in the modern sense of the term, but one "under the influence" of traditions handed down to him. Form criticism cut its teeth on just this kind of observation. Even Gerhard von Rad, who held the Yahwist in highest esteem, still regarded his genius as having to do with providing a conceptual framework into which diverse, pre-existent traditions could be placed, once these had been loosed from their prior social settings. The Yahwist was not the composer of the material with which he worked, and what skill he possessed as an author it could be said the Priestly writer and the Deuteronomist possessed as well. These creative endowments came as a result of historical and social factors, unique theological insight and literary and editorial skill. In the past two decades of biblical studies, whether in the work of Samuel Sandmel, Brevard Childs, Robert Alter, Rolf Rendtorff, Earhard Blum or even John Van Seters–and these are only a handful among many others–the interest has shifted away from discrete, historically unfolding "sources" toward an appreciation of the internal relationships of diverse traditions in their final canonical (received) form.

With Bloom's "J" we are whisked backwards a full century and with an intensity that would have taken Wellhausen's breath away. Even the format of the book is straight out of the 19th century. We have a preface where the "facts" and matters of terminology are set forth. This is followed by a Chronology Chart where all the proper dates are set out: J, the E revision, the notorious P text, the Redactor, Canonization, and so forth. In the preface we learn that the "Christian Bible" is a "very severe revision" of the "Bible of the Jews"; that the New Testament regards the Old Covenant as "superseded"; that the proper term for the New Testament is the Belated Testament (since what is earlier is Best, the Hebrew Scriptures are the Original Testament); that Jesus was confessed as Messiah by Christians (were Jesus and the Twelve not Jews?), and other matters of theological significance we need to be straightened out about–all before Bloom introduces a secular Yahwist and insists that he himself is not interested in theological matters. We also learn in this preface that verse divisions in the Bible are "purely arbitrary" and "do not reflect the intentions of the original authors" (whoever they are) and that scholars agree that the "Book of J" is "the oldest strand in the Pentateuch." It reminds me of a famous boxing trainer who introduced his remarks to the press by saying, "I don't want to tell you any half-truths unless they are completely accurate."

The disturbing superficiality of the discussion here and at other points gives the book a kind of "sound-bite" quality, like a half-hour TV program on how to perform brain surgery. Popularizations often have this effect, but Bloom is a major figure and a serious literary critic (jacket-cover blurbs rightly identify him as "America's pre-eminent literary critic" and "the critic of our time"), so in trying to comprehend the level of the argument I found myself opting at times for disingenuousness, bombast or simple ignorance of the field of biblical studies. Biblical scholars have been and will continue to be chided for taking issue with Bloom about this book, both by him and by those who read negative remarks as scholarly jealousy. But for the first time I understood why the psychoanalytical guild was so upset by Jeffrey Mason's

tweaking of them several years ago. He knew just enough to expose certain weaknesses, but not enough to convey honestly the true level of complexity that surrounds issues of psychoanalytical discussion. Bloom has taken a concept used by biblical scholars and popularized it. He may very well regard this as a despoiling of the Egyptians, but the Egyptians have every right to wish him banished and to question what kind of new golden calf is being made out of their jewelry.

The heart of the book is Bloom's introduction and commentary notes, which precede and follow an innovative translation of "The Book of J"; there one sees how devoted Bloom is to the notion of Original and Belated. Running sotto voce throughout his exposition is the cry: they have mishandled and misunderstood the uninfluenced Yahwist, Master of Irony, secular creator of a secular Yahweh. When it comes to judging the weak efforts of all who follow the great J, Wellhausen's diatribe cannot compare with that of Bloom, who speaks of "the long, sad enterprise of revising, censoring, and mutilating J"; where Alter, talks of "composite artistry" in describing the juxtaposition of J and P in the opening chapters of Genesis, Bloom sees deliberate replacement, correction and supersession due to the "revisionary labors" of pious morons. "Exuberant varnish" frequently "discolors" the victimized Yahwist. No wonder feminists have been reluctant to feel rewarded by Bloom's designation of J as a woman (such as it is: "my personal fiction"–no sooner is the ink dry on her Book of J than she is attacked and mutilated by every soul drawing a pious or orthodox breath. The final assault comes from the Redactor (better, the Terminator) who is "a formidable fellow" and "the villain of this link."

It is not just that J has been insufficiently appreciated for her literary talents or even her femininity. Since the publication of J, Bloom has stated that he wished less attention would be paid to J's gender and more to her skills as a secularist. This is what all the "exuberant varnish" of the Bible hides: that "J did not think in terms of sacred texts"; that "J is not a religious writer"; that "Yahweh of the Yahwist has very little to do with the God of Ezra or the God of Akiba"; that "J neither loved nor feared Yahweh"; and that "Yahweh is less mature and sophisticated than the aristocratic ironist J." Not surprisingly, this kind of thinking would have proven difficult for those who actually believed not only that YHWH was their God but that YHWH was God, and not a trope, "the work of men's [sic] hands."

The idea is so outrageous that one wonders if Bloom is serious. It may be that he is too busy clothing J in his dress of many colors to have asked the obvious question: was it really possible to write secular literature about God in antiquity? Is this in any way a meaningful genre? That "secular" literature might have meant something to someone in Solomon's court has been argued from time to time about certain proverbs and wisdom texts, but not about texts where God is the main actor in the story–and certainly not in the manner of Bloom, where J suddenly sounds like a skeptical college professor who is much more "mature and sophisticated" than the believers in his midst and their God.

Certain very basic historical and sociological questions come to mind: Who was Israel worshiping in temple and shrine before YHWH was conceived in the mind of J? Why would later pious souls have bothered to preserve this "rather annoying if colorful remnant of weird anecdotes" or see the portrait of YHWH as a faithful rendering of their God? These sorts of questions are the stock and trade of critical method–or they were before 1950–but because Bloom plays so loose with biblical scholarship it is not surprising that this deja vu experience is lost on him.

But to take him on his own terms, what would it have meant–politically, religiously, morally–for any Israelite to "neither love nor fear YHWH and to write a book where this is the main theme? We are apparently to feel that Bloom has done J a high honor by comparing her literary skills to those of Shakespeare (a cursory reading of the translation hardly bears this judgment out). But this is an odd sort of praise since it comes at the cost of dismissing the very thing which gives this "literature" its heart, something even Wellhausen did not fail to recognize: its serious portrayal of a God who stands over and goes before its "author." In praising the unique skills of its secular author, Bloom has demoted the author's chief subject matter to the lowliest estate, "less mature and sophisticated than the aristocratic ironist J." It is an odd day when the Bible is commended as a readable classic–on par with Shakespeare!–yet its depiction of God, hidden under pious varnish, is reduced to "extravagant strangeness" and "a raging Yahweh out of control even by himself."

So thorough is Bloom's draining of any religious sentiment in J that one might rightly call this book a manifesto. One summary statement among many serves as representative:

To read the Book of J, we need to begin by scrubbing away the varnish that keeps us from seeing that the Redactor and previous revisionists could not obliterate the original work of the J writer. That varnish is called by many names: belief, scholarship, history, literary criticism, what have you. If these names move or describe you, why read the Iliad, or the Commedia, or Macbeth, or Paradise Lost? The difference is that those works have not been revised into creeds and churches, with a palimpsestic overlay of orthodox texts obscuring what was there to be revised. Recovering J will not throw new light on Torah or on the Hebrew Bible or on the Bible of Christianity. I do not think that appreciating J will help us love God or arrive at the spiritual or historical truth of whatever Bible. I want the varnish off because it conceals a writer of the eminence of Shakespeare or Dante, and such a writer is worth more than many creeds, many churches, many scholarly certainties.

This is Wellhausianism with a vengeance. It escapes the charge of anti-Semitism or anti-Christianity only by dint of being thoroughly modern and consistent with the view that religious beliefs are not constitutive of, but only negotiable bits and pieces of, community identity. One is apparently to regard the lavish praise of the author J as an acceptable substitute for praise of God, without bothering to consider what the fictional "J writer" might have thought of such a distinction. Or how would Shakespeare have reacted to the commendation that the Bible–though only parts of it–is as good as himself? My guess is he would have regarded it as blasphemous, but then again the term is largely without content in the modern intellectual West, and would be altogether nonsensical for anyone who speculates that "J did not think in terms of sacred texts."

It would be difficult to take up the details of Bloom's historical and sociological reconstruction of the J writer, such as it is, and evaluate it according to some recognized canon of historiography. Just about the time one gets ready to seize upon an interesting detail, for good or ill, Bloom makes reference to the detail as "my fiction." It is not clear to me what genre of writing this is. On other occasions Bloom has spoken of "misreading"; perhaps this is "miswriting." One takes historical stands (J is a woman; she is of the royal house and not a scribe of Rehoboam; she makes this or that wordplay) but then describes these as personal fictions and states with conviction, "I am not a biblical scholar."

One thing is clear, this sort of subtlety is not the stuff of marketing and advertising; even if Bloom would not have it so, the big selling feature of this book is that the Yahwist is a woman, not that a female J writer is Bloom's personal fiction (again one could raise a feminist objection to this sort of proprietary remark). Robert Coote recently wrote a book on the Yahwist, whom he regards as the Bible's First Historian. Perhaps he should have spoken of the Yahwist as a woman as well as the First Historian, if only as a "personal fiction." But then this reveals the difference between Bloom's approach and a more strictly historical sort that is amenable to review and evaluation.

It is also not clear how one is to evaluate the translation of David Rosenberg. My second-year Hebrew class was often just puzzled, as was I, in comparing portions of the translation with the Hebrew text. It is an interesting translation, unlike anything I have read in Hebrew or English, Yahweh says, "It is no good the man be alone," and I struggle to hear foreshadowings of Shakespeare, though Tarzan does come to mind. But the chief problem is that we are not told how Rosenberg is proceeding; there is no annotation or discussion of specific renderings into English. I would have appreciated an explanation of his translation at numerous points, but instead we have only a brief appendix where terms like "tonal nuance" and "near-rhyming texture of sound" are used. A separate review would have to be devoted to Rosenberg's English text. For the actual reconstruction of J–a problem under hot dispute today–Rosenberg relied on "the standard authorities in the field, as refined most recently by Martin Noth and superseded by the insights of Harold Bloom." So much for the dangers of supersession. I'm glad the "standard authorities" in the field finally agree on something, though this comes as news to me.

Biblical studies stand at a crucial juncture. Many feel the inclusion of new critical tools from literature departments represents a healthy enrichment of traditional historical method, if not a suitable replacement for such method. One sees in Bloom's The Book of J that discrimination is required, just as it was required in historical analysis, if the Bible is not to lose its theological voice in the name of secular worship of an author or an aesthetic ideal. Bloom's concern for "imagining an author" is important, however, in a day when the Bible seems ransomed to this or that reconstruction of primary and secondary levels of the text, to be understood and heard only in this or that historical context. In the pre-Enlightenment period, a notion like "Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch" did not function so much to invite inquiry into the mind, circumstances and psychology of Moses as it did to unite the literature under a single coordinating point of view, urging the reader to see a synthetic purpose within even the most heterogeneous and diverse collection of traditions.

One might ask in the modern period how the Pentateuch, in contrast to the Prophets, is able to function without an authorial fiction, and yet as a fivefold collection. What does it mean that the "titles" of these books are simply the first lines with which they begin ("In the beginning"; "These are the names")? What did a reader in antiquity expect from "literature" with respect to authorship? What does it mean for certain circles to call Moses the author and yet at the same time regard God as the true author of the material? How does one preserve an interest in authorial intention and purpose, as does Bloom, and yet do justice to the complexity of the literature in its final stabilized form? Is there any sense in which the final editor of the Pentateuch (Bloom's villainous Redactor) is also the first reader, not of a repristinated "Book of J" but of a rich combination of literary sources and traditions whose unity and coherence, while elusive, is also theologically profound?

These questions are not treated by Bloom, and there is no evidence he would find them intriguing. For they operate under the assumption that, if nothing else, the Bible in its developmental as well as its received form is a sacred book. This was once regarded as a truism. Now we see that in the hands of a skilled literary critic even this minimal expectation can–must, in Bloom's estimation–be called into question. Bloom did not initiate this line of interpretation, but he has certainly raised it to new heights, far surpassing the judgments of Wellhausen. We live in a curious age when the way the Bible gains fresh currency is by casting some new ironic light on its anthropological dimension, in this case with an ironist woman who possesses the literary skills of Shakespeare and the theological vision of Nietszche.

When all is said and done one is entitled to ask: have we really learned something about the Yahwist and the Bible or only something about the personal fictions of Harold Bloom? What puzzles me is whether such a question would finally matter to Bloom. When the anthropological dimension of the Bible becomes the end-all-be-all, is it any surprise that the interpreter is the only true object of interest? Of the J writer Rosenberg states, "I confronted her age, found her with enough experience of life and history to be just over forty, with a still vital appetite for life," and then he confesses, "I realized I was only identifying myself." While Bloom and Rosenberg may not mind this sort of self-referentiality, I find it boring. But then I go to the Bible to learn something about God, naive though that may be, not something about biblical interpreters who claim that the Bible is about themselves. The Bible's human dimension is undeniable. It may even be a cause for celebration. But not when it comes at the cost of slaying both Moses and God in order to exalt a Yahwist who turns out to be nothing more than the mirror image of two clever 20th-century readers. No misreading is that good.