Harold Bloom's book, Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds, was named a New York Times "Notable Book of the Year" in 2002. It is, without doubt, a monumental achievement of scholarship and work of considerable genius itself. Bloom, who holds dual appointments as Yale University's Sterling Professor of Humanities and New York University's Berg Professor of Humanities, has authored more than twenty-five books, most of which have been greeted by critics with wild accolades. Yet even an intellect so learned and fecund as Bloom's can betray signs of inadvertent influence, if not entrapment, by uncritically received ideological trends of his age. His treatment of St. Paul, whom he considers a genius and compares to Muhammad, is telling in this regard.
In twelve short pages (133-142), Bloom offers a widely ranging, idiosyncratic interpretation of St. Paul, drawing on unconventional and esoteric as well as the expected sources. In the course of his analysis, his discussion betrays the influence of some of the most radical trends in contemporary hermeneutics. One finds postmodern tendencies stemming indirectly from the influence of the French deconstructionists, such as Jacques Derrida, and from the legacy of Nietzschean thought, which Alasdair MacIntyre classifies under the rubric of historicist "Geneology." (Excellent critical analyses of these currents of influence can be found in Alasdair MacIntyre's Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry, Allan Megill's Prophets of Extremity: Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida, and John Martin Ellis's Against Deconstruction.) One also finds radically desconstructive tendencies of biblical interpretation, such as one finds today in the works of Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, and Burton Mack, which can be traced back to earlier influences from the Enlightenment critics and the development of a decidedly anti-supernaturalistic historical-critical approach to the Bible such as one finds in classic Protestant Liberalism. (Excellent critical analyses of these currents of thought can be found in Roy A. Harrisville's and Walter Sundberg's The Bible in Modern Culture: Theology and Historical-Critical Method from Spinoza to Kasemann, J. C. O'Neill's The Bible's Authority: A Portrait Gallery of Thinkers from Lessing to Bultmann, and Luke Timothy Johnson's The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels.)
The following is a page-by-page analysis of Bloom's twelve pages on St. Paul:
Here Bloom suggests that both the Corinthians and Paul had Gnostic qualities, which Bloom associates with the phrase, "Jesus first rose, then died." This latter phrase is typical of Gnostic beliefs, which often take the biblical story and turn it on its head--for example, suggesting that the Genesis 3 story of the Fall in the Garden of Eden was actually the first step of salvation, since Eve was responding to the Serpent (seen as the embodiment of wisdom) who offered Adam and Eve knowledge, whereas the repressive 'god' who had forbidden them to eat of the Tree wished to keep them in ignorance. Eve's sin thus is interpreted as the first step of 'obedience' in the occult plan of 'salvation' through knowledge (=Gnosis, the root word from which we get "Gnostic"). Yet I see no evidence that the members of the Corinthian church believed anything of the kind, and certainly not Paul.
Further, Bloom describes Paul as a Hellenistic Jew who followed the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the LXX, or Septuigint), as opposed to the Torah, and as repudiating the notion of a reciprocal covenant implicit in the Torah in favor of a plan of redemption imposed by God's will (divine voluntarism). Thus, Bloom claims that Paul misreads Judaism, placing him (Paul) over against the Hebraic or Jewish paradigm, as a representative of a new Hellenic paradigm in the development of 1st century AD religious ideas. Hence, Bloom calls Paul, "not the second founder of Christianity, but the first," suggesting that orthodox Christianity as it eventually developed was a Hellenic distortion of Hebraism. But, again, I see no evidence whatsoever that one should think that. Rather, Bloom's whole construction at this point is highly reminiscent of the very influential neo-Hegelian school of classic F.C. Baur's Protestant Liberalism at Tubingen, which, following the triadic pattern of the Hegelian dialectic, interpreted the development of historic Catholic Christianity as a hybrid resulting from the synthesis of (a) Hebraism, stemming from the Torah and manifest in the more 'Jewish,' earlier religion of Jesus in the Gospels and NT writers like Matthew, Mark, John and James, and (b) Hellenism found in first-century Mediterranean culture, and allegedly exhibited in Paul's writings. But, again, I see no reason for accepting these neo-Hegelian philosophical interpolations. It is a fact that the NT was written in Koine Greek, that Paul and the other NT writers used it, etc. But none of this requires the absurd supposition that their thinking was not typically Jewish or infected by the categories of Greek philosophy.
Bloom is clearly skeptical about the "historical Jesus," by which he means he is skeptical of the historical reliability of the Gospel accounts of Jesus' life and ministry. This skepticism, again, reflects a pattern of influence stemming from Enlightenment skeptics like David Hume and Immanuel Kant, whose arbitrary bifurcation between (a) "historical, natural empirical fact" and (b) "untenable superstitions of faith in the supernatural" led to the classic Liberal Protestant distinction between the "Jesus of History" and "Christ of Faith." The latter ("Christ of faith") was consigned to a realm beyond historical data, evidence, and rational debate, but the former ("Jesus of History") was also rendered inaccessible by arbitrarily disqualifying the four distinct Gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as historically unreliable because--it was alleged--as men of faith, they imputed properties of the "Christ of Faith" to the "Jesus of History," such that we can't admit their accounts as reliable testimony. However, can you give me one good reason why such a supposition shouldn't be dismissed out of hand as so much rubbish? Why should the reliability of an historical witness be impugned because he is a man of faith rather than a skeptic? The problem is not that the man of faith is a gullible fideist (blind believer) while the skeptic is a reasonable and judicious fellow; rather, the problem is that the skeptic is no less biased by his commitment to his disbelief in the supernatural than the man of faith is. There's no more reason for writing off the witness of the Gospel writers, who were by all accounts men who put their lives on the line for what they believed (John was the only one of the Twelve who was not martyred), than for putting our faith in the trendy-lefty spin-masters of the The New York Times, network television news, or National Public Radio. The ultimate question is: whose witness do you trust? And that question can't be answered apart from a personal commitment.
Here Bloom suggests that Jesus' baptism by John the Baptist implies that Jesus was some sort of "disciple" of John, that since John's baptism was a "baptism of repentance," this whole relationship is "embarrassing" to the Christian community, who professes the sinless divinity of Jesus. Bloom even suggests that the NT writers are "evasive" about Jesus' relationship to John. But, yet once again, I find not one shred of evidence for this assumption. It strikes me, rather, as a rather cavalier and free-wheeling reading of the Gospels, much like the deconstructive interpretations of texts, which invariably ignore authorial intent (which is declared to be inaccessible) and consequently conclude by doing violence to the text.
Along these lines, Bloom playfully suggests that God and Jesus are both "literary characters," much as Hamlet is. Jesus is a character, or better, a "construct" of the apostle, Mark; just as YHWH (Yahweh) is a "construct" created by the "Yahwist" (one of the purported authors of an OT fragment or document); and that the "genius of Jesus" is therefore something parallel to the "genius of Hamlet." In other words, Bloom seems to be suggesting here that we can have no more access to the "historical Jesus" than we can to the "historical Hamlet," since both are "constructs," works of "fiction" "created" by authors. Yet the rub comes in the fact that postmodern writers like Bloom do not necessarily contast "fiction" with "reality"; at least the most radical deconstructionists insist that there is "nothing outside the text," by reference to which one can adjudicate its authenticity, no "transcendental signified." Thus all are left with, on this reading, is a web of texts that refer to one another, but not decisively to any "historical reality" beyond them. Michel Foucault, one of the most radical deconstructionists, even views history as "fiction," so that he felt little compunction about re-writing history in imaginative ways that depart grossly from traditional accounts.
"So as to avoid all churches and their polemics," he says, Bloom here quotes the words of Jesus from The Logia of Jeshua (the publication spells the name Yeshua), "a little volume blessedly free of theological tendentiousness." This implies that the four traditional Gospels of the Church, then, must be "theologically tendentious" and unreliable. But why think this? The Logia of Jeshua, which Bloom favors, draws its "sayings of Jesus" from sources such as the quasi-Gnostic pseudo-Gospel of Thomas, regularly put to use by the so-called Jesus Seminar in behalf of lunatic fringe interpretations of Christianity that fly in the face of academic sanity. Why should Bloom turn to these sources rather than traditional Christian ones? Because he doesn't believe Christianity is true; and since the Gospel writers were obviously believers, this "prejudices" their accounts, rendering them "unreliable." But why should orthodoxy render someone's testimony "unreliable," and heresy render it "reliable"? What nonsense! At the very least, he should be willing to give even-handed treatment of all sources. (It is noteworthy that in Marvin W. Meyer's edition of the Gospel of Thomas: The Hidden Sayings of Jesus an appendix appears offering "A Reading by Harold Bloom, in which he states that Meyer's rendering of Jesus' Zen master-like sayings offer a gospel that "spares us the crucifixion, makes the resurrection unnecessary, and does not present us with a God named Jesus. No dogmas could be founded upon this sequence (if it is a sequence) of apothegms. If you turn to the Gospel of Thomas, you will encounter a Jesus who is unsponsored and free.")
These prejudices that Bloom brings to his reading of the literature about Jesus leads him to make such astonishing statements as the following: "We know more about James the Just, 'the brother of Jesus,' than we do about Jesus"! This is preposterous. There are four separate biographical treatments of Jesus (the four Gospels), and only a few statements in them about James. We know comparatively little about James. The only thing that can lead Bloom to make such an assertion is his prior judgment (pre-judice) that the testimony of the four Gospels are "biased" and therefore must be written off as historically worthless. This prejudice comes out of the skeptical and anti-supernatural tradition of Enlightenment scholarship that has led to sharply distinguishing between the "Christ of Faith" and the "Jesus of History" (as discussed above), but there is absolutely no reason for accepting such a distinction. Thomas Jefferson literally took a scissors to his copy of the New Testament and cut out all the supernatural references, which he considered unbelievable. Needless to say, the pages that remained were very few in number and a relative bore to read: a colorless figure named Jesus walked here and spoke there, saying a few nice things
about loving others. This is what Bloom is buying into: the view that we really know almost nothing about Jesus.
This is why Bloom goes on to say: "Paul, who was the earliest New Testament author, had virtually no interest in the historical Jesus, probably because those who had known Jesus were almost all opponents of Paul"; and then immediately suggests, incredibly, that the historical Jesus has about as much to do with Paul's (and Christianity's) Jesus Christ as the historical Simon Magus has to do with the legendary Faust, for whom he was ostensibly the inspiration!
First of all, one cannot possibly say that "Paul had no interest in the historical Jesus" unless he has already bought into the fable that the supernatural Jesus of Paul's epistles is a later fabrication of having no credible relationship to the Jesus of history, and that any support for Paul's Jesus found in the supernatural Jesus of the Gospels is discredited because it is a still later fabrication by the community of believers duped by Paul's vision. Secondly, one cannot say that "those who had known Jesus were almost all opponents of Paul," unless one is already committed to the premise that those who knew Jesus believed he was only a man and witnessed none of the healings and other miracles such as the Resurrection attributed to Jesus in the Gospels. But again, why should anyone want to think that unless he's committed to the premise of rejecting anything supernatural? Thirdly, the whole notion that Paul's beliefs about Jesus are opposed to those of the eyewitnesses of Jesus is a convoluted fabrication of the historical-critical tradition of skeptical scholarship honed to a fine Hegelian point in F.C.Baur's Tubingen School. But there is plenty of evidence in Paul's own writings that this kind of opposition between the beliefs of Paul and that of the earlier disciples cannot be sustained. For example, at the end of Galatians ch. 1, Paul relates how, after his conversion, he spent some years in Arabia (probably in a kind of spiritual retreat, collecting his thoughts after his life-shaking encounter with Christ on the Damascus Road). Then he writes: "Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas, and remained with him fifteen days." Now this is worth stopping to ponder: here's Paul, the most brilliant protege of Rabbi Gamaliel, with a sophisticated education in theology, going up to Jerusalem to meet with the leader of the disciples, Peter, who is an uneducated, common fisherman! Why would he do this? Paul refers to him by his Aramaic name, "Cephas," which means "Rock," for which the Greek translation, of course, is "Petros," and is anglicized as "Peter." His name had been "Simon," but Jesus had renamed him "Cephas" (or "Peter") in the famous incident recounted in Matthew 16:18. Re-naming a person was a divine prerogative, and a gesture that always signified something momentous (as when God renamed Jacob "Israel" in the Old Testament). Jesus had changed "Simon's" name to "Peter" to signify that he would be the "rock" upon which He would build His Church. This is why Catholic teaching names Peter as the first Pope. The word "Pope" in Italian is "Papa," and means nothing more than that the man occupying that office is the visible head of the household of Faith. If Paul's beliefs about Jesus were different from earthly eyewitnesses of Jesus, such as Peter's, he would have had nothing to do with Peter. Obviously, the reason he went up to Jerusalem and spent fifteen days with him was because he recognized Peter, despite his lack of education, as having some kind of authority within the community of believers. This is further underlined in the opening verses of Galatians ch. 2, where Paul, after having launched in his missionary journeys among the Gentiles, relates a similar event: "Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem ... and laid before them ... the gospel which I preached among the Gentiles, lest somehow I should be running or had run in vain." Again, Paul checks in with the Church authorities (Peter, and James, who was the first bishop of Jerusalem) to make sure that what he has been preaching to the Gentiles is true to the apostolic teaching. What humility, on Paul's part! This hardly sounds like there was a radical difference between the beliefs of the earliest disciples and Paul! In fact, Paul declares that "when they perceived the grace that was given to me, James and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars [in the believing community], gave to me and Barnabas the right had of fellowship ..." (Galatians 2:9) But of course Bloom wouldn't buy this, since he's already committed to the Baur hypothesis that the division of labor between them--Paul to minister to the Gentiles, and Peter and the others in Jerusalem to the Jews--represents irreconcilable differences in their views about Jesus, a hypothesis I reject as preposterous.
Not surprisingly, given his presuppositions, Bloom here declares of Paul that "he never knew" Jesus. This pinpoints the difference between Bloom's standpoint of unbelief and the Christian believer's standpoint of faith. The only way Paul could have known Jesus, in Bloom's view, is for him to have spent time together with Jesus during His sojourn on earth. But in the Christian's view, one can also come to know Jesus (1) indirectly, through the testimony of trusted witnesses (as Jesus says to the doubting Thomas in John 20:29--"Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe"); , and also (2) directly, through personal experience (what Kierkegaard called experiencing the "contemporaneity of Christ"), as Paul did in his Damascus Road experience.
Here Bloom begins his excursus on Paul's personality, temperament, and genius itself. In keeping with his earlier-discussed premises, he views Paul, essentially, as the historical figure who supplants the merely human Jesus of history and proceeds to "invent both Jesus Christ and Christianity"! And to whom does Bloom turn for what he considers an insightful analysis he says "cannot be bettered" (p. 140)? To Nietzsche!
Nietzsche's account of Paul, which compares him to Luther, is based on his "hermeneutic of suspicion," according to which Christians (like the Jews) are animated by a basic impulse of resentment against all that is represented by power, wealth, and status. For the ancient Jews in captivity in Babylon, this was because they were an oppressed people who didn't have power, like their oppressors, and secretly wanted it. (For an excellent critical analysis of Nietzsche's concept of resentment, see Ressentiment, by Max Scheler, whom Ernst Troeltsch called "the Catholic Nietzsche.") And this translates, in Paul's case, just as in Luther's, into resentment against the Law (Torah), which represents a standard so high that it cannot be kept. Hence resentment stems from an unfulfillable desire. Paul and Luther desire to keep the Law, but can't, and therefore resent the Law. I find it presumptuous to think anyone can quite surmise what is going on in the soul, mind, or heart of another; and I am loathe to think that anything quite like this animated the thought of St. Paul, though I may be more willing to consider it in the case of Luther. In any case, Bloom is right in drawing, at least, some distinction between Luther, who denied that keeping the Law has any role in our salvation, and Paul, who stressed the "obedience of faith" under the aegis of Christ's reign, even while acknowledging our justification by faith apart from works of the Law of Moses, such as circumcision, which he relegated to the supplanted dispensation of the Old Covenant.
Here Bloom describes Paul as an arrogant man with a quasi-Messianic complex, wishing practically to supplant Jesus as the Christ. He suggests that Paul is angry because he is regarded as a comparative "latecomer" by the other apostles who knew Jesus from the beginning. He quotes Luther to this effect, for support. "Galatians seems to me a very angry epistle indeed," Bloom writes, "and I think Luther's hint as to the source of Paul's fury is accurate: the apostle Paul would not accept the idea that he was a latecomer. And yet, in relation to the Jerusalem Christians, he was a latecomer; unlike them, he had arrived long after the events of Jesus' life and death."
I think this completely misses the nature of Paul's concern that animated his Epistle to the Galatians. There are indeed parts of this letter in which Paul "raises his voice," but to categorize it in terms of a Nietzschean psychology of resentment is to utterly miss the point. In the opening chapter of Galatians, Paul writes (Galatians 1:6ff.)--"I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel … But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed." We learn what this "other Gospel" was In Acts 15, which describes the proceedings of the Council of Jerusalem, which was called to address this problem. It is stated plainly in the opening verse (Acts 15:1)--"But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brethren, 'Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.'" Since the first Christians were predominantly Jews, it is natural that some may have held such views. And Bloom very likely assumes he finds support for his view that a fundamental difference existed between his own Gospel and that of the early disciples in a later passage (Galatians 2:11ff.) where Paul opposes Peter for his hypocrisy in eating with the Gentiles while visiting the Christians in Antioch, but then withdrawing from their company when Jewish Christians came, "fearing the circumcision party." But Peter's was a moral failure and not a doctrinal one, for he himself concurred in the decision of the Council of Jerusalem (of which he presided with James, the local bishop), which unanimously condemned these views. Those who held these views were called Judaizers, believing one had to first become, in effect, a Jew and be circumcised, in order to become a follower of Christ. Of these Judaizers, Paul even goes so far as to say (in Galatians 5:12) that he wishes they would "go castrate themselves"! This is strong language, indeed! But there is no hint of doctrinal dissention between Peter and Paul. This is clear from the earlier-cited passages in this same epistle where Paul declares that he went up to Jerusalem for fifteen days after his conversion and then, fourteen years later, once again to check in with the authoritative "pillars" of the believing community to see whether his preaching meshed with the apostolic Faith.
In conclusion, Bloom compares the genius of Paul with that of Muhammad, because he sees them both as founders of their respective religions. This view of Paul, which divorces his beliefs from those of the earliest followers of Jesus, is fundamentally flawed and contaminated by centuries of classic Protestant Liberal hermeneutics. There is no more need to discuss that here. However, one remark of Bloom's is right on the mark. He notes that "It is easy for many Americans to mistake Paul as a revivalist, whose total emphasis is upon rebirth through the forgiveness of sin. That is a weak mis-reading of Paul, who was more than an apostle of grace." This is certainly true. In fact, unlike Luther, it seems that Paul rejected only the continuing role of Mosaic law in the salvation of believers. Thus, when he declared in Romans 3:28 that we are "justified by faith apart from works of the law" (emphasis added), it seems apparent from the context that he specifically has in mind the "works" of the Old Covenant demanded by Judaizers--such as circumcision. There is no place in Paul's thought for the Lutheran interpretation of justification by faith alone. When Paul speaks of "faith" in 1 Corinthians 13, he distinguishes it from "hope" and "love," and says "if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing," and, in the comparison of the three virtues--faith, hope, and love--he insists: the greatest is love. In fact, while Bloom may be right in noting that James emphasizes more than Paul the need to care for the poor, orphans, and widows, he is wrong in supposing that the Christianity of James is fundamentally opposed to Paul's. True, the only place where the New Testament speaks of "faith alone" is in James' epistle, where James condemns the idea: "You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone" (James 2:24). But this is hardly opposed to Paul's Gospel in Romans when it is rightly interpreted, as suggested above. It is Paul who stresses, as we have seen, that love is greater than faith (1 Corinthians 13:13), and stresses the importance of the "obedience of faith" (Romans 1:5, and 16:26) and of "faith working through love" (Galatians 5:6).
For an excellent, if dated, classic rebutting the view that Paul's religion was somehow opposed to that of Jesus and his disciples can be found in J. Gresham Machen's The Origin of Paul's Religion, which is still given rave reviews and continues to be reprinted (as recently as 2002), although it first appeared in 1925. Machen, one of the conservative Presbyterian founders of the Westminster Theological Seminary, is a scholar of uncommon common sense who still deserves to be read widely.