The following is an excerpt from Essayists and Prophets (Bloom's Literary Criticism 20th Anniversary Collection), a fantastic piece of literary criticism that I have been enjoying reading for a few days. One pleasant surprise for me was the opening essay, which it a literary critique of four books of the Bible (Job, Song of Songs, The Gospel of John, and Revelation). This excerpt focuses on the Gospel of John and is one of the most poignant and erudite rejections of Christianity I have come across in quite a while. I found it so moving that I decided to transcribe it and share it here.
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“Your father Abraham rejoiced that he had to see my day; he saw it and was glad.” The Jews then said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8:56–58)
This exchange from the Gospel according to St. John will be my text. In the Christian triumph over the Hebrew Bible, a triumph which produced that captive work, the Old Testament, there is no more heroic stroke than the transumptive trope of John’s Jesus: “Before Abraham was, I am.” Too much is carried by that figuration for any range of readings to convey, but one reading I shall give is the implied substitution: “Before Moses was, I am.” To my reading, the author of the Gospel of John was and is a more dangerous enemy of the Hebrew Bible than even Paul, his nearest rival. But I can hardly go on until I explain what I intend to mean by “an enemy of the Hebrew Bible.”
It is now altogether too late in Western history for pious or humane self-deceptions on the matter of the Christian appropriation of the Hebrew Bible. It is certainly much too late in Jewish history to be other than totally clear about the nature and effect of that Christian act of total usurpation. The best preliminary description I have found is by Jaroslav Pelikan:
"What the Christian tradition had done was to take over the Jewish scriptures as its own, so that Justin could say to Trypho that the passages about Christ “are contained in your scriptures, or rather not yours, but ours.” As a matter of fact, some of the passages were contained only in “ours,” that is, in the Christian Old Testament. So assured were Christian theologians in their possession of the Scriptures that they could accuse the Jews not merely of misunderstanding and misrepresenting them, but even of falsifying scriptural texts. When they were aware of differences between the Hebrew text of the Old Testament and the Septuagint, they capitalized on these to prove their accusation…The growing ease with which appropriations and accusations alike could be made was in proportion to the completeness of the Christian victory over Jewish thought.
Yet that victory was achieved largely by default. Not the superior force of Christian exegesis or learning or logic but the movement of Jewish history seems to have been largely responsible for it."
Pelikan’s dispassionate judgment on this matter is beyond disputation. Though the Christians were to “save” the Old Testament from those like Marcion who would cast it out completely, that is precisely what they saved—their Old Testament. The New Testament is to a considerable extent a reading of that Old Testament, and I would judge it a very mixed reading indeed. Some of it is a strong misreading, and much of it is a weak misreading, but I will concern myself here entirely with strong misreadings, because only strong misreadings work so as to establish lasting enmities between texts. The author of the Gospel of John is an even stronger misreader than St. Paul, and I want to compare John’s and Paul’s strengths of what I call poetic misprision before I center upon John. But before commencing, I had better declare my own stance.
“Who is the interpreter, and what power does he seek to gain over the text?” That Nietzschean question haunts me always. I am an enemy of the New Testament. My enmity is lifelong, and intensifies as I study its text more closely. But I have no right to assert that my own enmity carries the force of the normative Jewish tradition, because I am not a representative of that tradition. From a normative Jewish perspective, let us say from the stands of the great Akiba, I am one of the minim, the Jewish Gnostic heretics. My own reading of the Hebrew Bible, even if I develop it into a strong misreading, is as unacceptable in its way to the normative tradition as all Christian readings necessarily are. I state it is not the posture, but to make clear that I do not pretend to the authority of the normative tradition. In my view, the Judaism that moves in a continuous line from the Academy of Ezra through the Pharisees and on to the religion of my own parents is itself a very powerful misreading of the Hebrew Bible and so of the religion of the Yahwist, whatever we might take that religion to have been. But my subject here is not the text of the Yahwist.
What kind of authority can a literary critic, whose subject is the secular literature of the English language, bring to a reading of the New Testament, particularly to a reading that sees the New Testament as a text in conflict and confrontation with the Hebrew Bible? I cannot speak for other literary critics, as here too I am a sect or party of one, and have no authority other than whatever my ideas and my writings can assert for me. But the central concern of my own literary theory and praxis, for some fifteen years now, has been the crisis of confrontation and conflict between what I have called strong poems, or strong texts. I cannot say that my formulations in this area have met with a very amiable reception, even in the most secular of contexts, and so I do not expect an amiable response as I cross the line into the conflict of scriptures. Still, I have learned a great deal from the response to my work, a response that necessarily has become part of my subject. One lesson has been that there are no purely secular texts, because canonization of poems by the secular academies is not merely a displaced version of Jewish or Christian or Muslim canonization. It is precisely the thing itself, the investment of a text with unity, presence, form, and meaning, followed by the insistence that the canonized text possesses these attributes immutably, quite apart from the interpretive activities of the academies.
If so many partisans of Wordsworth or Whitman or Stevens find the offense of my work unbearable, then clearly I must expect a yet more pained response from the various custodians of the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament. I won’t take more space here for unhappy anticipation or personal defense, yet I do want to make the modest observation that several years spent intensely in reading as widely as I can in biblical scholarship have not left me with the impression that much authentic literary criticism of biblical texts has been written. To make a clean sweep of it, little seems to me to have been added to by recent overt intersections by literary critics, culminating in Northrop Frye’s The Great Code, a work in which the triumph of the New Testament over the Hebrew Bible is quite flatly complete. Frye’s code, like Erich Auerbach’s figura, which I have attacked elsewhere, is only another belated repetition of the Christian appropriation and usurpation of the Hebrew Bible.
But these matters I will argue elsewhere. I come back again to the grand proclamation of John’s Jesus: “Before Abraham was, I am.” What can an antithetical literary criticism (as I call my work) do with the sublime force of that assertion? Or how should that force be described? It is not the New Testament’s antithetical reply to the Yahwist’s most sublime moment, when Moses agonizingly stammers: “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ What shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” This is the Revised Standard Version, and like every other version, it can not handle Yahweh’s awesome, untranslatable play upon his own name: eyeh asher eyeh. I expand upon a suggestion of Martin Buber’s when I render this as “I will be present wherever and whenever I will be present.” For that is the Yahwist’s vision of olam as “a time without boundaries,” end of the relation of Yahweh to a dynamics of time that transcends spatial limitations.
The Yahwist’s vision of his God certainly would seem to center with a peculiar intensity upon the text of Exodus 3:13–14. But the entire history of ancient Jewish exegesis hardly would lead anyone to believe that this crucial passage was of the slightest interest or importance to any of the great rabbinical commentators. The Exodus Rabbah offers mostly midrashim connecting the name of God to his potencies which would deliver Israel from Egypt. But eyeh asher eyeh as a phrase evidently did not have peculiar force for the great Pharisees. Indeed, Jewish tradition does very little with the majestic proclamation until Maimonides gets to work upon it in The Guide for the Perplexed. One of my favorite books, Marmostein’s fascinating The Old Rabbinic Doctrine of God, has absolutely not a single reference to Exodus 3 in its exhaustive 150 page section on “The Names of God.” Either we must conclude that eyeh asher eyeh has very little significance for Akiba and his colleagues, which I think probably was the case, or we must resort to dubious theories of taboo, which have little to do with the strength of Akiba.
This puzzle becomes greater when the early rabbinical indifference to the striking eyeh asher eyeh text is contrasted to the Christian obsession with Exodus 3, which begins in the New Testament and becomes overwhelming in the Church fathers, culminating in Augustine’s endless preoccupation with that passage, since for Augustine it was the deepest clue to the metaphysical essence of God. Brevard Childs, in his commentary on Exodus, has outlined the history of this long episode in Christian exegesis. Respectfully, I dissent from his judgment that the ontological aspects of Christian interpretation here really do have any continuity whatsoever either with the biblical text or with rabbinical traditions. These “ontological overtones,” as Childs himself has to note, stem rather from the Septuagint’s rendering of eyeh asher eyeh as the very different εγω ειμι ο ων and from Philo’s very Platonized paraphrase in his Life of Moses: “Tell them that I am He who is, that they may learn the difference between what Is and what is not.” Though Childs insists that this cannot be dismissed as Greek thinking, it is nothing but that, and explains again why Philo was so crucial for Christian theology and so totally irrelevant to the continuity of normative Judaism.
The continued puzzle, then, is the total lack of early rabbinical interest in the eyeh asher eyeh text. I labor this point because I read John’s greatest subversion of the Hebrew Bible as what I call this transumption of Yahweh’s words to Moses in that extraordinary outburst of John’s Jesus, “Before Abraham was, I am,” which most deeply proclaims: “Before Moses was, I am.” To me, this is the acutest manifestation of John’s palpable ambivalence toward Moses, an ambivalence whose most perceptive student has been Wayne Meeks. John plays on and against the Yahwist’s grand wordplay on Yahweh, and eyeh. However, when I assert even that, I go against the authority of the leading current scholarly commentary upon the Fourth Gospel, and so I must deal with this difficulty before I return to the Johannic ambivalence toward the Moses traditions. And only after examining John’s agon with Moses will I feel free to speculate upon the early rabbinic indifference to God’s substitution of eyeh asher eyeh for his proper name.
Both B. Lindars and C. K. Barrett in their standard commentaries on John insist that “Before Abraham was, I am” makes no allusion whatsoever to “I am that I am.” A literary critic must begin by observing that New Testament scholarship manifests of every impoverished notion as to just what literary allusion is or can be. But then here is Barrett’s flat reading of this assertion of Jesus: “The meaning here is: Before Abraham came into being, I eternally was, as now I am, and ever continue to be.” Perhaps I should not chide devoted scholars like Lindars and Barrett for being inadequate interpreters of so extraordinary a trope, because the master modern interpreter of John, Rudolf Bultmann, seems to me even less capable of handling trope. Here is his reading of John 8:57–58:
"The Jews remain caught in the trammels of their own thought. How can Jesus, who is not yet 50 years old, have seen Abraham! Yet the world’s conception of time and age is worthless, when it has to deal with God’s revelation, as is its conception of life and death. “Before Abraham was, I am.” The Revealer, unlike Abraham, does not belong to the ranks of historical personages. The εγω which Jesus speaks as the Revealer of the “I” of the eternal Logos, which was in the beginning, the “I” of the eternal God himself. Yet the Jews cannot comprehend that the εγω of eternity is to be heard in a historical person, who is not yet 50 years old, who was a man is one of their equals, whose mother and father they knew. They can not understand, because the notion of the Revealer’s “pre-existence” can only be understood in faith."
In a note, Bultmann too denies any allusion to the “I am that I am” declaration of Yahweh. I find it ironical, nearly 2000 years after St. Paul accused the Jews of being literalizers, which of course the great rabbis never were. I cannot conceive of a weaker misreading of “Before Abraham was, I am” than Bultmann’s sneering retreat into “faith,” a “faith” in the “pre-existence” of Jesus. If that is all John meant, then John was a weak poet indeed. But John is at his best here, and at his best he is a strong misreader and thus a strong writer. As for Bultmann’s polemical point, I am content to repeat a few amiable remarks made by Rabbi David Kimhi almost 800 years ago:
"Tell them that there can be no father and son in the Divinity, for the Divinity is indivisible and is one in every aspect of unity unlike matter which is divisible. Tell them further that a father precedes a son in time and a son is born through the agency of a father. Now even though each of the terms “father” and “son” implies the other… he who was called the father must undoubtedly be prior in time. Therefore, with reference to this god whom you call Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that part which you call father must be prior to that which you call Son, for if they were always coexistent, they would have to be called twin brothers."
I have cited this partly because I enjoy it so much, but also because it raises the true issue between Moses and John, between Abraham and Jesus, which is the agonistic triple issue of priority, authority, and originality. As I read John’s trope, it asserts not only the priority of Jesus over Abraham (and so necessarily over Moses), but also the priority, authority, and originality of John over Moses, or as we would say, of John as writer over the Yahwist as writer. That is where I am heading in this account of the agon between the Yahwist and John, and so I turn now to some general observations upon the Fourth Gospel--observations by a literary critic, of course, and not by a qualified New Testament believer and/or scholar.
John does seem to me the most anxious in tone of all the Gospels, and its anxiety is as much what I would call a literary anxiety as an existential or spiritual one. One sign of this anxiety is the palpable difference between the attitude of Jesus toward himself in the Fourth Gospel as compared to the other three. Scholarly consensus holds that John was written at the close of the first century, and so after the synoptic Gospels. A century is certainly enough time for apocalyptic hope to have ebbed away, and for an acute sense of belatedness to have developed in its place. John’s Jesus has a certain obsession with his own glory, and particularly with what that glory ought to be in a Jewish context. Rather like the Jesus of Gnosticism, John’s Jesus is much given to saying “I am,” and there are Gnostic touches throughout John, though their extent is disputable. Perhaps, as some scholars have surmised, there is an earlier, more Gnostic gospel buried in the Gospel of John. An interesting article by John Meager of Toronto, back in 1969, even suggested that the original reading of John 1:14 was “And the Word became pneuma and dwelt among us,” which is a Gnostic formulation, yet curiously more in the spirit and tone of much of the Fourth Gospel than is “And the Word became flesh.”
The plain nastiness of the Gospel of John toward the Pharisees is in the end an anxiety as to the spiritual authority of the Pharisees, and it may be augmented by John’s Gnostic overtones. A Jewish reader with even the slightest sense of Jewish history, feels threatened when reading John 18:28–19:16. I do not think that this feeling has anything to do with the supposed pathos or problematic literary power of the text. There is a peculiar wrongness about John’s Jesus saying, “If my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews” (18:36); it implies that Jesus is no longer a Jew, but something else. This unhappy touch is another sign of the pervasive rhetoric of anxiety in the Fourth Gospel. John’s vision seen to be of a small group--his own, presumably--which finds its analog and asserted origin in the group around Jesus two generations before. In the general judgment of scholars, the original conclusion of the Gospel was the parable of doubting Thomas, a manifest trope for a sect or coven undergoing a crisis of faith.
It is within that anxiety of frustrated expectations, perhaps even of recent expulsion from the Jewish world, that John’s agon with Moses finds its context. Wayne Meeks has written very sensitively of the Fourth Gospel’s ambivalence toward the Moses traditions, particularly those centered upon the image of Moses as prophet-king, a unique amalgam of the two roles that John seeks to extend and surpass in Jesus. My interest in John’s handling of Moses is necessarily different in emphasis, for I am going to read a number of John’s namings of Moses as being tropes more for the text than for the supposed substance of what the New Testament (following the Septuagint) insists upon calling the Law. I myself will call it not Torah but J or the Yahwist, because that is where I locate the agon. Not theology, not faith, not truth is the issue, but literary power, the scandalous power of J’s text, which by synecdoche stands for the Hebrew Bible as the strongest poem that I have ever read in any language I am able to read. John, and Paul before him, took on an impossible precursor and rival, and their apparent victory is merely an illusion. The aesthetic dignity of the Hebrew Bible, and of the Yahwist in particular as its uncanny original, is simply beyond the competitive range of the New Testament as a literary achievement, as it is beyond the range of the only surviving Gnostic texts that have any aesthetic value--a few fragments of Valentinus and the Gospel of Truth that Valentinus may have written. But I will return at the end of this discourse to the issue of rival aesthetic achievements. John’s struggle with Moses is at last my direct concern.
There are so many contests with Moses throughout the New Testament that I cannot contrast John in this regard to all of the other texts, but I do want to compare him briefly with Paul, if only because I intend later to consider some aspects of Paul’s own struggle with the Hebrew Bible. I think there is still nothing so pungent in all commentary upon Paul as the remarks made by Nietzsche in 1888, in The Antichrist:
"Paul is the incarnation of a type which is the reverse of that of the Savior; he is the genius in hatred, in the standpoint of hatred, and in the relentless logic of hatred… What he wanted was power; with St. Paul the priest again aspired to power,--he could make use only of concepts, doctrines, symbols with which masses may be tyrannized over, and with which herds are formed."
Of course Nietzsche is extreme, but can he be refuted? Paul is so careless, hasty, and inattentive a reader of the Hebrew Bible that he very rarely gets any text right; and in so gifted a person this kind of weak misunderstanding can come only from the dialectics of the power drive, of the will to power over a text, even when the text is as formidable as Torah. There is little agonistic cunning in Paul’s misreadings of Torah; many indeed are plain howlers. The most celebrated is his weird exegesis of Exodus 30 4:29–35, where the text has Moses descending from Sinai, tablets in hand, his face shining with God’s glory--a glory so great that Moses must veil his countenance after speaking to the people, and then unveil only when he returns to speak to God. Normative Jewish interpretation, surely known to Paul, was that the shining was the Torah restoration of the zelem, the true image of God that Adam had lost, and that the shining prevailed until the death of Moses. but here is 2 Corinthians 3:12–13:
"Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not see the end of the fading splendor."
There isn’t any way to save this, even by gently calling it a “parody” of the Hebrew text, as Wayne Meeks does. It isn’t a transumption or lie against time, which is the Johannine mode; it is just a plain lie against the text. Nor is it uncharacteristic of Paul. Meeks very movingly calls Paul “the Christian Proteus,” and Paul is certainly beyond my understanding. Proteus is an apt model for many other roles, but perhaps not for an interpreter of Mosaic text. Paul's reading of what he thought was the Law increasingly seems to me oddly Freudian, in that Paul identifies the Law with the human drive that Freud wanted to call Thanatos. Paul's peculiar confounding of the Law and death presumably keeps him from seeing Jesus as a transcending fulfillment of Moses. Instead, Paul contrasts himself to Moses, hardly to his own disadvantage. Thus, Romans 9:3:
"For I could wish that I myself were accused and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen by race."
It may seem at first an outburst of Jewish pride, of which I would grant the Protean Paul an authentic share, but the Mosaic allusion changes its nature. All exegetes point to Exodus 30 2:32 as the precursor text. Moses offers himself to Yahweh as atonement for the people after the orgy of the golden calf. “But now, if thou wilt forgive their sin—and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written.” How do the two offers of intercession compare? After all, the people have sinned, and Moses would choose oblivion to save them from the consequences of their disloyalty. The allusive force of Paul’s offer is turned against both his own Jewish contemporaries and even against Moses himself. Even the Pharisees (for whom Paul, unlike John, has a lingering regard) are worshipers of the golden calf of death, since the Law is death. And all Moses supposedly offered was the loss of his own prophetic greatness, his place in the salvation history. But Paul, out of supposed love for his fellow Jews, offers to lose more than Moses did, because he insists he has more to lose. To be cut off from Christ is to die eternally, a greater sacrifice than the Mosaic offer to be as one who had never lived. This is what I would call a daemonic counter-Sublime of hyperbole, and its repressive force is enormous and very revelatory.
But I return again to John, whose revisionary warfare against Moses is subtler. Meeks has traced the general pattern, and so I follow him here, though of course he would dissent from the interpretation I’m going to offer of this pattern of allusion. The allusions begin with John the Baptist chanting a typical Johannine metalepsis, in which the latecomer truly has priority (“John bore witness to him, and cried, ‘This was he of whom I said: He who comes after me ranks before me, for he was before me’”), to which the author of the Fourth Gospel adds: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:15, 17). Later, the first chapter proclaims: “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth” (1:45). The third chapter daringly inverts a great mosaic trope in a way still unnerving for any Jewish reader: “No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the son of man be lifted up” (3:13-14). John’s undoubtedly revisionary genius is very impressive here merely from a technical or rhetorical point of view. No heavenly revelations ever were made to Moses, whose function is reduced to a synecdoche, and indeed to its lesser half. To use one of my revisionary ratios, Jesus on the cross will be the tessera or antithetical completion of the mosaic raising of the brazen serpent in the wilderness. Moses was only a part, but Jesus is the fulfilling whole. My avoidance of the language of typology, here and elsewhere, is quite deliberate, and will be defended in my conclusion, where I will say a few unkind words about the Christian and now Auerbachian trope of figura.
The same ratio of antithetical completion is invoked when Jesus announces himself as the fulfiller of the sign of manna, as would be expected of the Messiah. But here the gratuitous ambivalence toward Moses is sharper: “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world” (6:32-33). As the trope is developed, it becomes deliberately so shocking in a Jewish context that even the disciples are shocked; but I would point to one moment in the development as marking John’s increasing violence against Moses and all the Jews: “Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died… I am the living bread… if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh” (6:49, 51). It is, after all, gratuitous to say that our fathers ate the manna and died; it is even misleading, since had they not eaten the manna, they would not have lived as long as they did. But John has modulated to a daemonic counter-Sublime, and his hyperbole helps to establish a new, Christian sublimity, in which Jews die and Christians live eternally.
Rather than multiply instances of John’s revisionism, I want to conclude my specific remarks on the Fourth Gospel by examining in its full context the passage with which I began: “Before Abraham was, I am.” I am more than a little unhappy with the sequence I will expound, because I find in it John at nearly his most unpleasant and indeed anti-Jewish, but the remarkable rhetorical strength of “Before Abraham was, I am” largely depends upon its contextualization, as John undoes the Jewish pride in being descended from Abraham. The sequence, extending through most of the eighth chapter, begins with Jesus sitting in the temple, surrounded both by Pharisees and by Jews were in the process of becoming his believers. To those he has begun to persuade, Jesus now says what is certain to turn them away:
“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham, and have never been in bondage to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will be made free’?” (8:31-32)
It seems rather rhetorically weak that Jesus should then become aggressive, with a leap into murderous insinuations:
“I know that you are descendants of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me, because my word finds no place in you. I speak of what I have seen with my Father, and you do what you of heard from your father.”
As John’s Jesus graciously is about to tell them, the Jews’ father is the devil. They scarcely can be blamed for answering, “Abraham is our father,” or for assuming that their accuser has a demon. I look at the foot of the page of the text I am using, The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Revised Standard Version (1977), and next to verse 48, on having a demon, the editors helpfully tell me, “The Jews turned to insult and calumny.” I reflect upon how wonderful a discipline such scholarship is, and I mildly rejoin that by any dispassionate reading John’s Jesus has made the initial “turn to insult and calumny.” What matter, since the Jews are falling neatly into John’s rhetorical trap? Jesus has promised that his believers “will never see death” and the astonished children of Abraham (or is it children of the devil?) protest:
“Abraham died, as did the prophets; and you say, ‘If anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death.’ Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died?” (8:52-53)
Jesus responds by calling them liars, again surely rather gratuitously, and then by ensnaring them in John’s subtlest tropological entrapment, which will bring me full circle to where I began:
“Your father Abraham rejoiced that he was to see my day; he saw it and was glad.” The Jews then said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8:56–58)
It is certainly the most remarkable transumption in the New Testament, though I had better explained what I mean by transumption, which is a little exhausting for me, since I have been explaining the term endlessly in eight books published over the last nine years. Very briefly, transumption or metalepsis is the traditional term in rhetoric for the trope that works to make the late seem early, and the early seem late. It lies against time, so as to accomplish what Nietzsche called the will’s revenge against time, and against time’s assertion, “It was.” Uniquely among figures of speech, transumption works to undo or reverse anterior tropes. It is therefore the particular figure that governs what we might call “interpretive allusion.” Ultimately, it seeks to end-stop allusiveness by presenting its own formulation as the last word, which insists upon an ellipsis rather than a proliferation of further allusion.
When John’s Jesus says, “Before Abraham was, I am,” the ultimate allusion is not to Abraham but to Moses, and to Yahweh’s declaration made to Moses, “I am that I am.” The transumption leaps over Abraham by saying also, “Before Moses was, I am,” and by hinting ultimately: “I am that I am”--because I am one with my father Yahweh. The ambivalence and agonistic intensity of the Fourth Gospel achieves an apotheosis with this sublime introjection of Yahweh, which simultaneously also is a projection or repudiation of Abraham and Moses. I am aware that I seem to be making John into a Gnostic Christian, but that is the transumptive force of his rhetoric, as opposed perhaps to his more overt dialectic. His gospel, as it develops, does seem to me to become as Gnostic as it is Christian, and this is the kind of Gnosticism that indeed was a kind of intellectual or spiritual anti-Semitism. Obviously, I believe that there are Gnosticisms and Gnosticisms, and some might find considerably more attractive than others. Just as obviously, the Gnostic elements in John, and even in St. Paul, seemed to me very shadowed indeed.
Earlier in this discourse, I confessed my surprise at the normative rabbinical indifference, in ancient days, to Yahweh’s sublime declaration, eyeh asher eyeh. If the great Rabbi Akiba ever speculated about that enigmatic phrase, he kept it to himself. I doubt that he made any such speculations, because I do not think that fearless sage was in the habit of hoarding them, and I am not enough of a Kabbalist to think that Akiba harbored forbidden or esoteric knowledge. To the normative mind of the Judaism roughly contemporary with Jesus, there was evidently nothing remarkable in Yahweh’s declining to give his name, and instead almost playfully asserting: “Tell them that I who will be when and where I will be am the one who has sent you.” That is how Yahweh talked, and how he was. But to the belated author of the Fourth Gospel, as to all our belated selves, “I am that I am” was and is a kind of mysterium tremendum, to use Rudolf Otto’s language. That mystery John sought to transcend and transume with the formulation “Before Abraham was, I am.” Prior to the text of Exodus was the text that John was writing, in which the Jews were to be swept away into the universe of death, while Jesus led John on to the universe of life.
This transformation is an instance of just how the New Testament reduced the Hebrew Bible to that captive work, the Old Testament. Though the reduction is necessarily of great theological influence, it of course does not touch the Hebrew Bible. I have read the Hebrew Bible since I was a child, and the New Testament since I first took a course in New Testament Greek as an undergraduate. Clearly, I am not a dispassionate reader of the New Testament, though I do not read the Hebrew Bible as the normative Jewish tradition had read it, either. I come back to the issue of the interpreter’s authority. When I read, I read as a literary critic, but my concerns have little in common with those of any contemporary critic. Idealizations of any text, however canonical, or of the reading process itself are not much to my taste. Emerson said he read for the lustres. I follow him, but I emphasize even more that the lustres arise out of strife, competition, defense, anxiety, and the author’s constant need for survival as an author. I don’t see how any authentic literary critic could judge John as anything better than a very flawed revisionist of the Yahwist, and Paul as something less than that, despite the peculiar pathos of his protean personality. In the aesthetic warfare between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, there is just no contest, and if you think otherwise, then bless you.
But surely the issue is not aesthetic, I will be reminded. Well, we are all trapped in history, and the historical triumph of Christianity is brute fact. I am not moved to say anything about it. But I am moved to reject the idealized modes of interpretation it has stimulated, from early typology on to the revival of figura by Erich Auerbach and the Blakean Great Code of Northrop Frye. No text, secular or religious, fulfills another text and all who insist otherwise merely homogenize literature. As for the relevance of the aesthetic to the issue of the conflict between sacred texts, I doubt finally that much else is relevant to a strong reader who is not dominated by extraliterary persuasions or convictions. Reading The Book of Mormon, for instance, is a difficult aesthetic experience, and I would grant that not much in the New Testament subjects me to rigors of quite that range. But then John and Paul do not ask to be read against The Book of Mormon.
Can the New Testament be read as less polemically and destructively revisionary of the Hebrew Bible than it actually is? Not by me, anyway. But don’t be too quick to shrug off a reading informed by an awareness of the ways of the antithetical, of the revisionary strategies devised by those latecomers who seek strength, and you will sacrifice truth to get strength even as they proclaim the incarnation of the truth beyond death. Nietzsche is hardly the favorite sage of contemporary New Testament scholars, but perhaps he still has something vital to teach them. What do Jews and Christians gain by refusing to see that the revisionary desperation of the New Testament has made it permanently impossible to identify the Hebrew Bible with the Christian Old Testament? Doubtless there are social and political benefits in idealizations of “dialogue,” but there is nothing more. It is not a contribution to the life of the spirit or the intellect to tell lies to one another or to oneself in order to bring about more affection or cooperation between Christians and Jews. Paul is hopelessly equivocal on nearly every subject, but to my reading he is clearly not a Jewish anti-Semite, yet his misrepresentation of Torah was absolute. John is evidently a Jewish anti-Semite, and the Fourth Gospel is pragmatically murderous as an anti-Jewish text. Yet it is theologically and emotionally central to Christianity. I give the last word to the sage called Radak in Jewish tradition, that David Kimhi whom I cited earlier. He quotes as proof text Ezekiel 16:53: “I will turn their captivity, the captivity of Sodom and her daughters.” And then Radak comments, rightly dismissing from his perspective all Christians as mere heretics from Judaism: “This verse is a reply to the Christian heretics who say that the future consolations have already been fulfilled. Sodom is still overturned as it was and is still unsettled.”
from Essayists and Prophets (2005) - pp. 8–22