Modern languages are vanishing, Latin is off the map, but the single most lamentable difference I notice between my education in the 1970s and my children’s today is the disappearance from the classroom of the King James Bible, replaced by recent translations. I grew up in an atheist immigrant household, cultured but lacking familiarity with the English classics. At school, the first great literature I heard – crucially, it was read aloud, for all to know – was the KJB. It not only opened a door to the workings of language at its richest, most mysterious and eloquent; it echoed with and later made understandable four centuries of literary creation, from Milton to Charlotte Brontë to Ruskin to Jeanette Winterson.
A believer assumes the Bible is the Word of God, and some still consider the KJB itself, first published in 1611, to be divinely inspired. Although its popularity took some decades to become established, this version enjoyed a virtual monopoly in British homes, churches and schools from the 18th century until at least the 1960s. The Victorian age of dissent and relativism brought the first appreciation of its literary as well as theological qualities – “It lives on the ear, like music that can never be forgotten, like the sound of church bells,” wrote 19th-century priest Frederick Faber – but powerful Christian arbiters of scholarship including C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot argued against the Bible as a subject for textual criticism well into the 20th century. “The Book of Job” joined Columbia University freshmen’s “great books” course – including Homer, Aeschylus, Dante and Tolstoy – in 1940, but when I studied English at Oxford in the 1980s the KJB was never mentioned.
American critic Harold Bloom writes that “it should in time seem as odd to speak of ‘the Bible as literature’ as to say ‘Shakespeare as literature’.” But we are not there yet, and Bloom’s impassioned, daringly personal appreciation comes at a moment when the King James text as a basic cultural resource is doubly threatened. From one side, fundamentalists, with their insistence on a narrow literal reading of the Bible, are increasing. From another, politically correct educational bureaucrats, in the patronising, mistaken belief that a “newer” Bible will widen access, have scrapped the KJB – and with it the aesthetic strength that declares the Bible to be poetry, not dogma. Bloom’s book answers them both.
Bloom, pre-eminent Shakespeare scholar and author of anti-theoretical criticism such as How To Read and Why, argues that the KJB belongs with Shakespeare as “the culmination of one strand of Renaissance English culture”, and approaches it with the recalcitrant insistence on character, plot and language that he brings to his discussions of the Bard.
He sees God, or Yahweh, as “a great creature who contains Falstaff’s vitalism, Hamlet’s ontological denials, Iago’s destructiveness, and Lear’s jealous furies and shattering madness”. David is “Shakespearean, inward and multi-selved ... a masterpiece of contraries” heralding the heroes of the 19th-century novel. Judith’s “violent glory” resembles that of the Icelandic sagas. “The Song of Songs” anticipates the melancholic ecstasies of Spenser, Shelley, Yeats, Dylan Thomas. All bid for immortality: “Literature, in this high sense, is the Blessing: it represents the fullness of life and can give more life.”
Bloom, born in 1930 in the Bronx, read Hebrew as a child, and is acutely aware of the paradox by which his faith in literature’s transcendental value comes from his Jewish upbringing. “Against those who decry an aesthetic secularization of the Bible, I myself advocate reading Shakespeare and Whitman as Scripture,” he writes. So common is that transference of spirituality from religion to art among American Jews of his and the previous generation – Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Meyer Shapiro – that it helped define mid-20th-century modernism; Bloom is one of its last outposts.
His familiarity with Hebrew lends conviction to his book-by-book exegesis here exploring the influence of earlier translators on the multi-authored KJB, and to his assessment of William Tyndale, for mastery of rhythmic prose and direct expression, as the “authentic genius” of the entire endeavour to “reshape English so that it could adopt itself to Hebraic idiom”. On the other hand, his recourse as an atheist to textual criticism – in English, Hebrew and Greek – to justify a reading of the Old and New Testaments as oppositional texts is, I think, deeply specious. He savages the great gospel of John, reckoning it an irredeemably anti-Semitic tract in the original that has “alas” achieved prominence as “a major piece of world literature” through Tyndale’s too-effective translation.
He again “must commend Tyndale over the apostle himself” when it comes to the “dreadful ,,, sublimely intemperate” Paul, whom he likens to Dickens’ creepy Uriah Heep. And he reckons – in the final test case for the New Testament to fulfil the Old – that “Revelations” fails on “aesthetic” grounds because “the citations from Isaiah, Ezekiel, Hosea and even Daniel are much stronger than the text that seeks to appropriate them”.
Both Old and New Testaments, of course, are the works of many minds, and Bloom’s prejudices against some of them do not prevent exquisite analyses of numerous of the Bible’s varied, overlayered styles and sensibilities: Deborah’s archaic war-song; the “aristocratic, sceptical, humorous” “Yahwist” composer of the Pentateuch, possibly working at the court of King Solomon, who “believing nothing and rejecting nothing ... imagined a totally uncanny god, human all-too-human”; and above all the late, ironic, tragic “vanity of vanities” voice of Ecclesiastes.
“I brood, at eighty and counting, daily on these verses,” Bloom concludes. “Spring will begin again (in Jerusalem) ... but the burgeoning grass will bring no seasonal renewal to desire, because the ‘long home’ (a KJB trope for the eternal grave) is prefigured by my generation’s mourners.” Product of decades of thought, this is an old man’s book – wise while verging on the sentimental, pared down yet also self- indulgent, sometimes belligerent or desperate – whose overarching message should resonate nevertheless with readers of all generations.
The Shadow of a Great Rock: A Literary Appreciation of the King James Bible, by Harold Bloom, Yale, RRP£20, 320 pages