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The Shadow of a Great Rock

The Shadow of a Great Rock: A Literary Appreciation of the King James Bible

Harold Bloom
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 320
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    The Shadow of a Great Rock
    Book Description:

    The King James Bible stands at "the sublime summit of literature in English," sharing the honor only with Shakespeare, Harold Bloom contends in the opening pages of this illuminating literary tour. Distilling the insights acquired from a significant portion of his career as a brilliant critic and teacher, he offers readers at last the book he has been writing "all my long life," a magisterial and intimately perceptive reading of the King James Bible as a literary masterpiece.

    Bloom calls it an "inexplicable wonder" that a rather undistinguished group of writers could bring forth such a magnificent work of literature, and he credits William Tyndale as their fountainhead. Reading the King James Bible alongside Tyndale's Bible, the Geneva Bible, and the original Hebrew and Greek texts, Bloom highlights how the translators and editors improved upon-or, in some cases, diminished-the earlier versions. He invites readers to hear the baroque inventiveness in such sublime books as the Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, and Job, and alerts us to the echoes of the King James Bible in works from the Romantic period to the present day. Throughout, Bloom makes an impassioned and convincing case for reading the King James Bible as literature, free from dogma and with an appreciation of its enduring aesthetic value.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-18001-5
    Subjects: Religion, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Introduction The Bible as Literature
    (pp. 1-24)

    The two central masterworks of English literature emerged together in the years 1604–11: the Authorized Version, or King James Bible (KJB), and the plays of Shakespeare’s major phase, fromMeasure for MeasureandOthellothroughKing Lear, Macbeth,andAntony and Cleopatraon toThe Winter’s TaleandThe Tempest. The King James Bible was completed in 1611, the same year thatThe Tempestwas performed, the last drama Shakespeare composed by himself. (King James I had commissioned his Authorized Version in 1604, the year ofOthello.) Four centuries later the sublime summit of literature in English still is...


    • The Five Books of Moses
      (pp. 27-80)

      The five scrolls (pentateuch,from the Greek) or Books of Moses long ago were called the Torah, mistranslated by Christians as “the Law.” Accurately,Torahmeans “the Teachings,” and mostly it is a story, from the Creation on to the death of Moses, who is not allowed by God to enter the Promised Land.

      Though the Pentateuch early assumed Judaic primacy, it was not the first part of the Hebrew Bible to be composed. An archaic text like the magnificent War Song of Deborah (Judges 5) comes out of a world where Moses is absent and the Twelve Tribes of...

    • Four Heroines
      (pp. 81-96)

      We remember the book of judges for its most eminent leaders: Deborah, Gideon, Samson. The historical era depicted is Iron Age (1200–1100 b.c.e.), yet we are not given history but highly picturesque fiction. An anonymous scribe, writing during the Babylonian Exile, puts together both traditional and recent material. But I am concerned with Deborah and her magnificent War Song, which must be the oldest poem in the Hebrew Bible, going back to at least 1200 b.c.e.

      The prophetess Deborah (whose very name means “utterance”) dominates her stalwart general, Barak (“lightning”), who will not risk battle without her heroic presence....

    • David (1 and 2 Samuel to 1 Kings 2)
      (pp. 97-110)

      The dominant figures in tanakh after Yahweh are Moses the prophet and David the king. They are the central heroes of Hebrew tradition, transcending even the glory of the patriarchs Abram/ Abraham and Jacob/Israel. David’s story is closer to us because so large a part of European secular literary tradition stems from him. Of all the Bible’s protagonists, David is the most novelistic, though no great novel has yet been founded upon him to rival Thomas Mann’s tetralogyJoseph and His Brothers. But then, as I read and interpret the J Writer, her Joseph is a surrogate for the beloved...

    • The Prophets
      (pp. 111-168)

      The hebrew prophets necessarily are distorted in any Christian context, such as the KJB. Tanakh goes from Torah on to the Nevi’im and only then on to the Kethuvim, which includes Daniel, who is not a prophet in Jewish views. Nobody knows why Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings came to be called “the former prophets,” preceding Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve Minor Prophets (“minor” only in regard to the brevity of their texts). Joshua, though chosen by Moses, is a soldier, and only Deborah of the so-called Judges has prophetic status. Samuel is a prophet, but his two books...

    • Psalms 1
      (pp. 169-179)

      The longest book in the hebrew bible, Psalms, also is the most influential throughout the ages, alike upon Jews and Christians. Aside from its liturgical employments, it has been an immense stimulus to lyric poetry, both secular and devotional. There are 150 psalms, composed across six centuries, from 996 to 457 b.c.e. Perhaps a few were written by King David, though some others may also go back to the Davidic period. Here I intend to appreciate two groups of psalms, chosen for their aesthetic splendor: in this chapter 18, 19, 22, 23, 24, 46, 68, 69, and in the next...

    • Psalms 2
      (pp. 180-188)

      In england, psalm 100 is known affectionately as “the old Hundredth” and more formally as the “Jubilate.” It is sung in the morning at services whereThe Book of Common Prayer(1559) is employed, in the version of Miles Coverdale:

      O be joyful in the Lord all ye lands: serve the Lord with gladness, and come before his presence with a song.

      Be ye sure that the Lord he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves, we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.

      O go your way into his gates with...

    • Proverbs
      (pp. 189-198)

      No precise english title for the book of Proverbs will work; the literary materials involved are too diverse. In Hebrew the title isMishlei Shlomo,more or less “Proverbs of Solomon.” None whatsoever are by Solomon.Mishleiis the plural ofmashal,a word whose scope embraces aphorisms, parables, proverbs, and oracles, many of them ironic.

      The opening nine of the book of Proverbs’ thirty-one chapters are later in composition than those that follow, and of greater literary interest. They are peculiarly zestful in warning foolish males against madly attractive “strange” women:

      3 ¶For the lips of a strange woman...

    • Job
      (pp. 199-207)

      By common aesthetic judgment, the book of Job is the crown of the Bible’s poetry even as the Yahwist’s strand is the sublime of biblical narrative. Paradoxes crowd about this received truth: the Hebrew text of Job is difficult and sometimes obscure, and perhaps in a few places incoherent. Even when linguistic problems are overcome, the poem defeats the subtlest and best interpreters. Its premises are contradictory. Is it rightly a justification of the ways of God to man¿ John Calvin thought so, William Blake did not. Søren Kierkegaard changed the question to one of whether Job’s spirit had been...

    • Ecclesiastes
      (pp. 208-214)

      Hebrew tradition ascribed to the eighty-year-old Solomon, nearing the end of his half-century reign, this strikingly heretical meditation upon wisdom. I find it equally magnificent in the original and in the KJB, which transcends Geneva here and achieves astonishing literary power.

      The speaker is given the Hebrew name Koheleth, the “assembler” of these aphorisms, which is more suitable than Ecclesiastes, Greco-Latin for the Preacher to a congregation. Of this most searingly eloquent of speakers, we can begin by observing that his skepticism exceeds Montaigne’s and that of Montaigne’s disciple Hamlet. So radical is this skeptic that we cannot know the...

    • The Song of Songs
      (pp. 215-222)

      The final days of passover in Jewish circles throughout the ages are the context for reading the Song of Songs. Yahweh at Sinai appeared as an older man, but at the parting of the Red Sea as a young man of war. Solomon’s Song, to certain early exegetes, celebrated Yahweh in love. In Kabbalah the object of Yahweh’s love is within him, the Shekhinah, what Walt Whitman called his Fancy, the Real Me or Me Myself, and Wallace Stevens celebrated as the Interior Paramour.

      Saul Lieberman, in an appendix he contributed to Gershom Scholem’sJewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism and Talmudic...


    • The Hidden Books
      (pp. 225-225)

      The sixteenth-century protestant leader Andreas Bodenheim von Karlstadt first called the varied works gathered together in the margins of the canonical the Apocrypha (hidden). This naming is hard to dislodge even though the books involved are not secretive. The KJB followed the Geneva Bible in retaining the Apocrypha but printing it separately, in defiance of strict Calvinist practice, which excluded it. Geneva and the KJB were thus in accord with the Lutherans.

      The book of Judith I have discussed earlier, and I will make some comments on 2 Esdras and on the charmingly comic Tobit and the delightful History of...

    • Esdras
      (pp. 226-228)

      Rather oddly combined, and written two and a half centuries apart, 1 and 2 Esdras (Ezra) form a complete contrast as visions of ancient Jewish history and destiny. The first Esdras, a source book for the Judaic quisling and historian Flavius Josephus, evidently was composed in Aramaic about 150 b.c.e., essentially as a chronicle of the destruction of the First Temple and its restoration by Nehemiah and Ezra. I find it of no particular literary appeal.

      Far different is 2 Esdras, an apocalyptic work, particularly in chapters 3–14. It is more or less Jewish Christian, written after the fall...

    • Tobit
      (pp. 229-230)

      About 300 B.C.E. a jewish writer composed the book of Tobit, a somewhat zany romance novella that continues to entertain lively readers. Its most distinguished admirer was Søren Kierkegaard, who exalted its hapless heroine, Sara. Seven husbands, each in turn, are murdered by the demon Asmodeus just before they can embrace the beautiful Sara in her marriage bed. This delightfully outrageous story centers upon Tobit, a Joblike exemplary sufferer who has been exiled to sinful Nineveh in the realm of the Assyrians.

      Blinded in the course of virtue, Tobit prays for death, as does his kinswoman Sara in Media. Tobias,...

    • The Wisdom of Solomon
      (pp. 231-233)

      Shakespeare must have had his own copy of the Geneva Bible because his allusions to it are incessant. Though his ultimate achievement,King Lear,shatters the limits of art, you can trace much of its origin to biblical promptings. SinceKing Learis “a pagan play for a Christian audience” (William Elton) this can become an imagistic puzzle. The most tragic of all tragedies, the play cannot sustain a Christian interpretation. Shakespeare borrows the plain style of Tyndale in certain crucial passages, and also echoes Geneva’s Job and Jeremiah.

      The models for Lear are Solomon in advanced old age, Koheleth...

    • Ecclesiasticus: The Wisdom of Ben Sira
      (pp. 234-239)

      In the anchor yale bible Wisdom of Ben Sira (1995), the learned Franciscan Alexander Di Lella speculates upon the original Hebrew title of the book, since neither the title nor the first chapter has been recovered. The author, Yeshua the son of Eleazer Ben Sira, a scribe by profession, uniquely signed his own name as author to his massive book. Under correction, I would venture that this is the first assertion of pride as a writer under one’s own name in Jewish tradition. The Greek translation of the book was done by Ben Sira’s grandson, a proper tribute for a...

    • The History of Susanna
      (pp. 240-242)

      Shakespeare, with what i have to regard as viciously cruel irony, has Shylock hail Portia, disguised as a male, Balthasar, as “a Daniel come to judgment” (4.1.220). This first allusion is to the moment in the book of Daniel when the prophet arrives under the name of Balthasar at the court of Babylon’s king in order to defend the Jews. The monstrous anti-Semite Gratiano, who would have graced Himmler’s S.S., gleefully repeats “a Daniel come to judgment” after Portia defeats Shylock. Gratiano’s allusion is to the Daniel who saves Susanna from the lustful elders in one of the Apocrypha’s additions...


    • The Literary Merit of the Greek New Testament
      (pp. 245-247)

      I remind my reader that this book is a literary appreciation only, and neither a polemic nor a defense of the Jewish people. No one who has read the Hebrew Bible and the Greek New Testament closely and has any skill or experience as a literary critic will find much affinity between the two works. The Greek New Testament is mostly composed by people thinking in Aramaic or Hebrew but writing in demotic Greek. David Norton, inA History of the Bible as Literature(1993), tells us that the three great scholarly saints—Ambrose, Augustine, and Jerome—all of them...

    • Mark
      (pp. 248-256)

      Like the j writer’s yahweh, Mark’s Jesus is both a person and a personality. You cannot apprehend either J’s Yahweh or the Marcan Jesus by employing theology: it would not work. Both J and whoever wrote Mark areuncannywriters, but J is sublime and Mark is weird. I intend no deprecation of Mark by that distinction. J is a great writer, comparable to Homer and Tolstoy, while Mark reminds me of Edgar Allan Poe, a bad stylist who yet fascinates. Both dream universal nightmares.

      The Gospels in their present form were written from thirty years to more than fifty...

    • John
      (pp. 257-262)

      Each time i reread the gospel of John, I am detoured by its anti-Semitism. I agree with Robert Carroll in hisWolf in the Sheepfold(1997) when he writes, “I know many good Christian scholars have found it possible to exonerate the New Testament writings from all blame in this matter of Christian anti-Semitism. I do not find it easy to separate biblical rhetoric from the consequences of people taking such rhetoric seriously.” A literary appreciation of the KJB Gospel of John should not set that aside and yet needs to place emphasis elsewhere.The Merchant of Veniceis a...

    • The Writings of Paul
      (pp. 263-281)

      Much of whatever i can understand of Paul I have learned from reading Wayne Meeks, who tellingly named the apostle “the Christian Proteus.”

      Not only are the earliest writings in the New Testament Paul’s, but they occupy a third of the text when taken together with the book of Acts, essentially an account of Paul’s life and work. He cannot be called the inventor of Hellenistic Christianity, with its substitution of Greek theological philosophy for the teachings of the rabbi Jesus. In fact, he wasconvertedto that religion, perhaps seventeen years before he wrote his epistles. Originally Jews of...

    • Hebrews
      (pp. 282-288)

      The epistle of paul the apostle to the Hebrews is not an epistle, not by Saint Paul, and perhaps not directed to Hebrew Christians or to any other Jews. Rhetorically it is impressive, better written in the original Greek than anything else in the New Testament. Each time I reread it, I find it ultimately less and less persuasive, but its eloquence, enhanced by Tyndale and then the KJB, renders it of real literary interest.

      Whoever wrote Hebrews, he was a dogmatist through and through, and neither perceptive nor loving in his relation to Tanakh. As a misreader of the...

    • James
      (pp. 289-292)

      Only with james am i at rest in rereading the Greek New Testament. Martin Luther hated this Jewish Christian sermon and deplored its presence in Scripture, calling it “an epistle of straw.” Its Greek, unlike almost all the remainder of the New Testament, is quite good. James the Just, reputed to be the brother of Jesus and the leader of the Ebionites, or “poor men,” could not have been the author, though he may well have preached this sermon or its model in Aramaic or Hebrew. Executed sometime between 62 and 67, James the Just was revered not only by...

    • Revelation
      (pp. 293-296)

      When i was a young literary scholar, I remember being fascinated by the genre of apocalypse. I turned eighty just two days ago and find I now have a certain distaste for apocalyptic literature. I have just reread Revelation in the demotic Greek original, and then its remarkable transmutations by Tyndale, Geneva, and the KJB. Very aware of its influence upon Dante’sPurgatorioand Blake’s brief epics, I cannot dispute its effect upon a tradition of great poetry, but in itself it threatens readers who do not share in its dogma.

      Composed probably in Asia Minor as the first Christian...

  7. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 297-298)
  8. Index
    (pp. 299-311)