Bible Stories

John Barton

  • The Book of God: A Response to the Bible by Gabriel Josipovici
    Yale, 350 pp, £18.95, November 1988, ISBN 0 300 04320 1
  • Who wrote the Bible? by Richard Elliott Friedman
    Cape, 299 pp, £12.95, June 1988, ISBN 0 224 02573 2

Hegel, says Kierkegaard, presents us with history seen in terms of its ends, as a story which we, from our privileged vantage-point, can decipher. But, says Kierkegaard, that leaves out of account precisely what it means to live in the world. It leaves out of account the choices men always have to make without any knowledge of ends, and it leaves out of account the directions not taken, relegating to darkness those who have made the wrong choices or the choices not condoned by history. Ultimately, it leaves out the fact that we each of us have one life and one death, which is ours and no one else’s.

The Book of God

Most ways of reading the Bible within the Judaeo-Christian tradition have been, in the sense deplored by Kierkegaard, Hegelian. From the vantage – point offered by a theology which claims to ‘make sense’ of human history, the life of the individual and the divine plan for all created things, believers have turned to the Bible to fill in the detail of this grand design. The Bible has traditionally been assumed to be congruent with the religious system (variously Jewish or Christian) in conjunction with which it has been read. In the last few years literary critics have been engaged on what many of them see as a raid on the treasured possessions of the theologians. They have, they would say, taken the Bible out of this charmed circle and rediscovered its literary power. They have recaptured the sense that it is not the preserve of the religious traditions from which it comes and within which it has usually been read: instead, it belongs to the world of ‘literature’.

Gabriel Josipovici’s luminous and gentle book stands in an oblique relationship to this literary rediscovery of the Bible. Superficially it clearly belongs to the ‘Bible as literature’ movement, and shares that movement’s characteristic impatience with theologians and all their works – especially with the styles of Biblical criticism which have grown up among scholars whose primary interest in these texts is theological. Those who (like the present reviewer) come from that background are likely to think that he, like the other contributors to works such as The Literary Guide to the Bible, has us out of focus – a point I shall return to. But appearances are deceptive: part of Josipovici’s thesis is that most ‘literary’ readings of the Bible are just as much in the grip of a desire to impose order on chaos as any theological hermeneutic has been.

As he sees it, modern literary approaches to the Bible have been anxious to read the Biblical narratives and prophecies as forming coherent wholes. Closure and ‘making sense’ have dominated interpretation. The result can be illuminating, and can restore our faith in the unity and wholeness of portions of the Bible that theologically – motivated critics have too often been ready to dissect, detecting interpolations, inconsistencies, and inconsequentialities where a finer literary perception can rightly see order and pattern. Literary readings are a remedy against the philistinism of traditional ‘historical’ criticism of the Bible, very much as they can be against comparable nit – picking in the study of Homer. Yet, says Josipovici, it is time for literary critics to go a step further. In the end, the Bible is not literature after all, if by ‘literature’ we mean texts marked by closure and well – rounded form. Its untidiness and open-endedness are irreducible. There are characters in the stories who have no narrative function: he instances the boy in the shirt in the garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:51-2), discussed at length by Frank Kermode in The Genesis of Secrecy, and the man Joseph meets in a field at Shechem while he is searching for his brothers (Genesis 37:12-18). These characters should not be seen as interpolations, or as survivals of some earlier and more coherent tale, as is commonly supposed by historical critics. Nor should they be seen as deeply significant pointers to some deeper meaning, as they are both by the allegorical interpretative tradition of church and synagogue and by modern literary critics. If they are there for any reason, it is to defeat all our interpretative strategies, ancient and modern, historical – critical and literary – aesthetic alike. They are there to remind us that the Bible does not ‘make sense’, that it resists encapsulation in a formula. In its clear-eyed realism, the Bible recognises ‘the choices men always have to make without any knowledge of ends’.

All this seems to me profoundly true and important. One aspect of recent literary approaches to the Bible which saddens and perturbs so many in the field of traditional ‘Biblical studies’ is that they seem to us so simplistic. Despite the superficial complexity of many ‘literary’ interpretations, deep down they often work with a single, simple dogma: that the text is much less difficult than stupid theologians and Biblical critics since the Enlightenment have thought. All that is needed is a good dose of literary theory and/or properly trained aesthetic judgment for the knots to unravel, the scales to fall from our eyes, and the meaning of the Bible to become as clear as day. We find this irritating, and not only because it seems to undermine the tradition of study in which we have been trained. It is possible, thinkable, that the books of the prophets, for example, are models of clarity and good order, or that the narrative books have not the slightest inconsistency or blemish; that the received Hebrew text of the Old Testament never needs emendation; that the techniques of Hebrew verse or Greek epistolography, once properly understood, will turn out to have no finer representatives than those very Biblical books that critics have so often seen as muddled and obscure. It is thinkable, but we find it hard to believe that it is likely. Most of us continue to believe that it makes sense to dig beneath the surface of the text, to ask questions about its authors, and to see these authors as highly diverse, even incompatible in their intentions. In a very straightforward, unliterary, yet, I believe, convincing way, this is demonstrated in Richard Elliott Friedman’s book Who wrote the Bible? He shows that the critics’ questions about date, authorship and original use of the various Biblical books are sometimes answerable and, what is more, worth answering: it is not a matter of complete indifference whether a book comes from one hand or four, whether it was planned as a unity or has become one in transmission.

Josipovici clearly sees the difficulties we have all grappled with, and does not want to explain them away from the lordly heights of a higher literary sensibility. He shows us that there are indeed literary problems in the Bible, but problems to which there is no literary solution. If anything unites the Biblical books and makes it hard to believe that they are merely an accidental collection of early Jewish and Christian documents, it is that in almost all of them there are difficulties of just this kind. The Biblical writers are, for the most part, not trying to tell a story with a punchline or fairy – tale ending, but are concerned to mirror the brokenness of human life. Of course, as Josipovici himself points out, this requires literary artifice, every bit as much as does closure: ‘realism’ is a function of literary conventions, and writing which refuses to be literature becomes literature as soon as someone reads it. Theologians who protest that the Bible is misunderstood if read ‘merely’ as literature are reminding us of something important about these particular texts. If we wish to avoid the paradox of saying that texts can be ‘not literature’, we might say that Biblical texts operate with literary conventions much more alien from our own than we commonly realise. However we put it, we have said something which unites the ordinary religious reader of the Bible who feels frustrated by the strange windings and doublings-back of the Biblical story, the historical critic nosing out textual and interpretative cruces, and the literary interpreter looking for the sense of an ending and being disappointed. That is no small achievement.

The most memorable chapters of The Book of God art those in which Josipovici moves away from attacking other critics (whether historical, theological or literary) and seeks to capture the distinctive flavour of the Bible. He considers both the (Protestant) Old Testament or Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament, it is the older collection that calls the tune, and it is really Hebrew literary culture that he is analysing.

‘Memory, Genealogy and Repetition’ concentrates on three features of Hebrew narrative usually said to be alien to the modern reader, and therefore liable to be ‘corrected’ or explained away by over – helpful scholars: the need ceaselessly to recall the past – not just the stories of heroes but the past of every person, the past which unites the community; the desire to link past to present by lists of names, lists that bored no one and were rolled with relish around the tongue; and the delight in exact verbal repetition, so puzzling to many modern readers and so self – evident to anyone who shares in the liturgical tradition of either Judaism or Christianity.

‘The need to utter’ reminds us that what matters in the Bible is not to convey a ‘message’ – as though the Bible were a book of dogmas or a handbook of useful religious information – but, primarily, simply to speak: ‘only by speaking can one discover what it is one wants to say’. It is because the Bible’s speech is so compendious, and not restricted to the articulation of doctrines to be obeyed or orders to be followed, that it so often fails to answer our questions. To make it our own (whether as religious believers or as literary critics) we have to listen to its characteristic modes of discourse, and forget our desire to get to the point – as if there were one. There is an indiscriminate quality in the Bible’s compulsive desire to recount and to recall everything that happens, and not to pass judgment. ‘The Bible does not discriminate ... either between classes or between good and bad deeds: the sins and errors of Adam and Jacob and David are as important as the humility and obedience of Abraham and Moses.’ There are, of course, moral judgments in the Bible, but the Bible is not a moral tale, a collection of exempla, for all that Jews and Christians alike have often read so. Nor is it a book of comfort, showing how good will triumph over evil in the end: ‘those who think they are privy to God’s word – Joseph, Saul, David ... have to learn that this is not the case: no one is privy to it, not even the reader himself. The narrative refuses its comforts to Joseph, to David, to Jesus, and to us.’

This theme is continued in the chapter ‘Dialogue and Distance’. Like Auerbach before him, Josipovici notes how much of the ‘action’ in the Hebrew Bible is carried by dialogue; he also notes that this can be a device for concealing, or refusing to supply, the ‘meaning’ of the action. We are told what God said, and what this or that character replied. What lies behind the words is seldom revealed. In this chapter Josipovici begins to deal with a general problem in talking about what ‘the Bible’ says or intends: the difference between the Testaments. For him, the Gospels seem to belong in the Old Testament world. Their narrative conventions, their characteristic mood and flavour, he seems to believe, are really Hebrew, even though they are written in Hellenistic Greek. (This point was a favourite one in the theological world in the Fifties and Sixties.) The divide runs between the Gospels and the letters of St Paul (even though these are earlier than the Gospels, and so nearer in time to the Hebrew Scriptures): Paul really does believe in clear – cut meanings, answers, solutions to mysteries whereas the Gospels share the open – endedness of Hebrew narrative. There is a case to be made here, though it is a fragile one, for, as Josipovici observes, the Gospels are classic examples of narratives with an ending, and to add them to the Hebrew Scriptures is to transform the older, more non-committal collection into a straightforward comedy, and to dissolve the riddles. ‘In the Gospels meaning is spelt out, the author appends his signature to his book. And this exclusivity of meaning will be taken further in the later books of the NT, until the book of Revelation merely adds the final full stop.’ Yet even here, in the Christian Bible whose articulation is so different from that of the Hebrew Scriptures, tradition has (perhaps despite itself) interposed to prevent the Bible from becoming The Guinness Book of Answers: ‘For one thing, there are four Gospels, not one. This already acts as a brake on the centralisation of meaning. For another ... the canonical Gospels, and especially that of Mark, leave us with a strong sense of precisely that distance, that primacy of dialogue, which we saw to be so integral a part of the historical books of the Hebrew scriptures.’

The Book of God is full of such insights, which deserve and need to be pondered by both literary critics and Biblical scholars of the traditional sort. The conflict between the concerns of these two groups has, I believe, been grossly exaggerated, each side painting the other in lurid and exaggerated colours. Of course, there are absurdities on both sides, but there is brilliance too, and a dialogue is essential. Josipovici’s book is one of the first which suggests to me that this is beginning in earnest. One misses that note of implacable hostility which mars the otherwise creative and convincing work of Robert Alter.