The well-known literary critic Harold Bloom will no doubt provoke, as he clearly intends, a storm of excitement, consternation, and ire by proposing that the so-called J writer, usually thought to be responsible for the earliest strand of the Pentateuch, was a woman. The project of The Book of J,1 a work undertaken in collaboration with the poet David Rosenberg, who has done the translations of the biblical texts, bears a curious relation to that of Samuel Butler’s quirky book published in 1897, The Authoress of the Odyssey. Bloom makes no mention of Butler, but there is some kinship between the lines of argumentation of the two books. Bloom, however, is after bigger game than the mere discovery of the gender of a revered ancient writer masked in anonymity.
There is no reason to be startled at the possibility that J was a woman, a possibility also put forth—tentatively and cautiously—by Richard Elliott Friedman in Who Wrote the Bible?2 One might suppose that such an idea would be inspired by contemporary feminism, though Bloom actually positions himself as virtually an adversary of that movement, at least in its academic variant. As he spins out the hypothesis with his characteristic verve, wit, and flair for the unexpected, the hypothesis at moments becomes a beguiling one. We know very little about the education given the two sexes in ancient Israel, but both archeological evidence and certain indications in the biblical texts themselves suggest that literacy was quite widespread, and there are certainly no grounds for excluding altogether the idea that one or more of the biblical authors may have been female. What Samuel Butler roundly declared of the Odyssey is equally apt for the writings designated by scholarship as J: “It may be urged that it is extremely improbable that any woman in any age should write such a masterpiece as the Odyssey. But so it also is that any man should do so.” Thus, I do not think the claim that J was a woman is susceptible of refutation—a statement that can be made, incidentally, of many a latter-day theory about the Bible. However, what motivates Bloom to make the claim and what evidence he offers to support it (two rather different considerations) are questions worth pursuing.
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