The most intriguing section of Atheism in Christianity is the one before Bloch dives into the biblical texts, one that draws out the political implications of critical biblical scholarship at that time. This scholarship is nothing other than the great, initially German, enterprise of historical-critical biblical studies that came to a slow dominance from the middle of the nineteenth century and is now in an equally reluctant decline. For Bloch, however, such biblical criticism is detective work, one that operates in five zones that I will unfold as I proceed. Yet, I find myself providing a background to Bloch's text, a context within biblical criticism for his own comments on the discipline.
Bloch is no slouch in regard to biblical criticism, for the first three items in his investigation of biblical criticism as detective work - vagaries of writing, oral and written texts, and forces of redaction - relate directly to the biblical sub-disciplines of source, form and redaction criticism. Concerned respectively with literary sources, oral tradition and genre and the editorial process of putting the various texts in the Bible together, the three approaches formed the core of what became known as historical criticism or simply critical biblical scholarship. The drive behind historical criticism was twofold: the reconstruction of the Bible's literary history from the first oral units to the final form of the text, and the use of the Bible as evidence, however slippery, for the reconstruction of Israel and early Christianity's history.
In many respects, Bloch is indebted to what was at first regarded as a threat to faith until its co-option within the ecclesial system. However, I will argue that there is an internal theological logic to historical criticism that has ramifications for Bloch's own use. Further, his appropriation unavoidably takes up some major assumptions of biblical criticism, particularly in terms of its deeper drives to literary and political history that I will also want to question. Yet what interests me is the way Bloch encounters historical criticism and how he develops it. Thus, on the question of writing - source criticism - he begins: 'There is nothing that cannot be changed somehow, for better or worse'.34 For it is precisely the changes, the various overlays and efforts to adapt texts that show the seams and contradictions on which biblical criticism fixes. These problems have been noticed ever since the text began to be studied. But the questions and methods with which interpreters came to the text - for instance, medieval allegorical exegesis or the Reformers' theological drive to literal -have varied, and it was the new questions of literary sources and historical formation, derived from wider practices in philology and literary criticism, that led biblical historical criticism forward. Now the seams and contradictions pointed to various written sources behind the final text - most famously the four sources (JEPD, the Yahwist, Elohist, Priestly and Deuteronomistic sources) in the Pentateuch or Torah - a theory that provided a new explanation for the nature of the text.
Apart from the detective work required to unearth such sources, Bloch is interested in the political, rather than merely theological, reasons for the origins and subsequent adaptations of these sources. And so, he traces two ways in which these sources are altered. First, 'each change in the text should keep whatever was good and make it better and clearer, not pervert it'.35 This is alteration without distortion, something of an ideal that just cannot apply with a text so ideologically loaded. Thus, secondly, once appropriated in another text the author's voice of the original source becomes suppressed and falsified. Here, Bloch sees the value of biblical detective work, a search for the distorted voice. But, by now, he has already made a shift, for he is interested not only in the conventional sources uncovered by biblical criticism, but even more the repressed sources that express subversive politics, one that sits ill with the later reactionary editing of the biblical material. Thus Bloch seeks for subversive currents in the sources of the Bible, and he finds these by means of the category of class conflict.
I will return to the question of class conflict in a moment, but, in his own way, Bloch moves to the second string of biblical historical criticism, form criticism. The appeal lies in the emphasis on oral texts, a long and indistinct period of a text's production that leaves traces all over the later written text, for the oral continues alongside the written as alternative readings, pronunciations or commentary. Bloch is less interested in the two other major emphases of form criticism, the concern with genre or Gattung and the setting in life [Sitz im Leben] of such genres. For Bloch, these oral traditions are the tales and songs of the people before the scribes got hold of them. These are the stories repressed in the revisions made by the priestly scribes. But, here, Sitz im Leben becomes important for Bloch, since the social and political setting for these oral texts is among the peasants, those dissatisfied with the political and economic structures under which they were forced to live.
Unfortunately, Bloch assumes what was a bulwark of form-critical studies, namely the reliability of oral tradition over against the written. For biblical scholars, the theological motivation for such a position should be obvious, and it derived from a wilfull ignorance of folklore studies that showed time and again the profound malleability of oral tradition, its sheer inventory power and ability to forget. This means Bloch's argument that distortions took place in the editing of written texts is on thin ground. What he wishes to preserve are more reliable oral traditions, but also the first written text in which an oral text writes itself: the truth of the oral text 'did not change till the written texts were re-copied, or till they were put together to form a new book'.36 In many respects, Bloch replicates the assumptions of source and form criticism, for corruption occurs after these earlier moments, when redactors can get their unskilled hands on the material and bend it to their political wills. However, the notions of pristine oral texts or first written texts are highly problematic, for vested alteration along with unavoidable sloppiness is there from the beginning.
Yet, Bloch has a slightly different task in mind, and, here, the detective comes onto the scene. He discerns a more sinister and deceitful pattern of textual alteration, pretending to be sloppy and innocuous but working the text towards the official party line. In fact, rendering a text illegible, such as the book of Job, may be seen as a subtle way of neutralising protest, of preserving a revered text while blunting its critique. If this smacks of conspiracy theory, then Bloch's question has not been asked often enough: Cui bono, for whose benefit? His surprise is that precisely within biblical criticism - 'as the most famous of all philological activities' this question has not seemed rel evant.37 Historical criticism has provided the tools for uncovering what has been repressed. What it has not done is carry out such an investigation at a political level. It seems to me that this question remains pertinent despite the futility of the wish for a pristine moment of oral and written texts before the great corruptions of the redactors. However, this means that Cui bono? applies just as much to the oral units and traditions as to the later revisions that Bloch finds so objectionable. But Bloch has also fallen prey to the deeper logic of historical criticism, namely a search for origins that replicates in so many ways the biblical text itself, with its desire to locate the origins of human beings and their world, but above all the state of Israel or the Christian Church.
I have unavoidably moved into redaction criticism, the third element of historical criticism of the Bible. The end run of the other methods, with their search for the underlying written and oral sources, redaction criticism traces the myriad alterations, rearrangements and ideological agendas of the long editorial road from origin to f nal form. But Bloch wants the moment of f rst distortion, when the untampered text was altered for distinct religio-political reasons, and he finds it in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, circa 450 BCE. Ezra, the scribe and 'Church Commissioner' appointed by the Persian imperial government, marks the definitive moment of canonisation, with its process of excision and alteration in light of a theocratic agenda whose manifesto was the 'Book of Laws'. The popular, non-conformist texts that Ezra excluded took on a life of their own, disappearing into the unrecorded realms of oral literature, some of them turning up in the Haggadah, but none of them in the official version of Ezra. Or, for the New Testament, it is Paul with his sacrif cial-death theology and the concerns of a missionary movement that sets up the depiction of Jesus in the Gospels, which were, in fact, written after Paul's letters.
It would be too easy to point out that the historical reconstruction around Ezra and Nehemiah is a pious fiction, or that the critical image of Paul is but one of a number of possibilities. As for the Hebrew Bible, the theory of a significant canonisation with Ezra belongs to a biblical criticism that still held the text itself to be a somewhat reliable source of information. However, the only evidence about Ezra and Nehemiah is in the books that bear their names, and this is always a problematic procedure. And yet, although biblical scholars have given away the notion of a distinct redactional and canonising process with Ezra, many of the theories about the formation of the text suggest that much of the activity of writing took place at some time in the Persian period (537-333 BCE).38 The particular names have gone, the pre-existent sources have disappeared, but the importance of the period remains. In the end, this is a historical hypothesis upon which nothing too solid must rest, yet it does away with any notion of pristine earlier texts, of long stretches of oral tradition. Or, more cautiously, it points out that we just do not know about anything prior.
What are the implications for Bloch's method in Atheism in Christianity? He predicates his reading of the Bible on a condemnation of 'redaction by reaction',39 of the (not so) pious distortions of subversive passages or their complete removal. Bloch feels that the high form of historical criticism that he witnessed in Germany at the time provides him with the tools to uncover vast slabs of subterranean material that run against the official theocratic line of the Bible. It seems to me that both the material and the possibility of finding it have dwindled significantly, that the findings of any detective work will be slim indeed. But what has happened in the biblical criticism that remains concerned with the origins of the texts - I think of those who suggest the origins of the texts in the Persian period - is that the question 'for whose benefit?' has become central. This is still historical criticism, but now the ideological and political reasons for writing have come to the fore: the question of the ideological dominance of a text as crucial as the Bible dominates such considerations.
For Bloch, the Bible must be approached by the critic as detective, its redactional overlays removed in order to catch glimpses of the fuller stories of subversion and protest. I have already suggested some problems with this - the
38 See, for instance, Davies 1992.
39 Bloch 1972, p. 73; Bloch 1985, Volume 14, p. 102.
futile search for purer origins, the theological motivation behind this, and specific problems drawn from historical criticism ('reliable' oral material, the shaky hypothesis of Ezra-Nehemiah) - and I will draw these together a little later. Although the main impression is that Bloch searches for the pristine texts of protest, he does allow that later usage may render a text subversive.40 That is to say, apart from the production of these texts as slave talk, their usage also comes into play. Thus, certain texts may take on a new life when reread, such as those of Balaam (Numbers 12), whose mix of curse and blessing becomes a means for cursing the local lords while apparently blessing them. But there is a difference between arguing for the initial function of texts as surreptitiously subversive and the subsequent use of texts for a similar purpose.
Once he has cleared his political way through the methodological assumptions of biblical criticism, Bloch outlines in a broad sweep the development of biblical criticism. I suspect this is for a readership - Marxist and otherwise -less familiar with the findings of biblical criticism. There is little point reiterating the discrepancies of the Bible, some samples of which Bloch rolls out before us, or even the signal moments on the way to a fully-fledged historical criticism from Spinoza to Hermann Gunkel. These are the standard moments in historical-critical work on the Pentateuch (Torah), and Bloch uses them as a series of examples for his own agenda. Let me cite but one: the book of Job, whose textual mess can best be understood in terms of a source hypothesis. The dislike of pious editors can hardly hold off for more than a page or two:
the editor must be thought of not so much as 'mechanical' but rather as a member of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, with the law-book De Puritate Fidei in his hand, proceeding against this heretical text by pruning where he cannot condemn, and by inoculating all he opposes.41
In fact, Bloch argues that it is precisely with texts such as Job, or Genesis about Cain, Jacob's struggle with the angel, the serpent of Paradise or the Tower of Babel, among others, that the editorial activity is strongest because of the buried message of protest. But, here, the problem of the vanishing redactor becomes apparent: the more sophisticated and comprehensive the redactor
40 See Bloch 1972, pp. 13-14; Bloch 1985, Volume 14, pp. 29-30.
41 Bloch 1972, p. 78; Bloch 1985, Volume 14, p. 107.
has carried out his task, the less obvious, the more seamless and smooth, is his work. Redaction criticism can only operate with all the breaks and seams of what is a messy text. And this has led biblical critics into a divide over the dull and mechanical redactor who does a sloppy job, or the highly skilled redactor who works very subtly with precisely those breaks and gaps in the text. But, even here, the problem returns, for one of the logical outcomes of the skilled redactor is a move away from redaction criticism to the narrator or writer of a text produced out of whole cloth.
For Bloch, the many problems are sufficient evidence for sources and redaction, especially for the weighty redactions of politically sensitive material. Bloch is less interested in the everyday breaks that show the hand of the redactor with monotonous regularity. Rather, he wants to focus on the relatively few political texts, the ones written over and neutralised by the counterrevolutionary priestly redactors. The leitmotiv for these texts is the hint of rebellion against Yahweh, however subdued it might be.
In the end, the key feature Bloch wishes to introduce into historical criticism is the category of class, since the Bible is very much a text of both those who labour and those who live off that labour. In all its variety, there are stories in the Bible that have become homely in the smallest of peasant households, but also those used by overlords and religious professionals. And such class differences do not merely indicate different modes of reading the Bible: the texts themselves speak with a double voice, one that is and is not fully for the rich and powerful. The Bible is then riven with class conflict: not a conflict that may be read in terms of bourgeoisie and proletariat alone - although it does that too - but in terms of the basic Marxist category of class difference, however that may be articulated historically, between exploiters and exploited. And Bloch finds that the deepest affinity of the Bible, despite its 'adaptability to select master-ideologies',42 is to ordinary, uneducated people, who took the stories as their stories.
The litmus for such a method - very much part of Bloch's utopian herme-neutics - is the conflict between the Reformer Luther and the peasant leader
Thomas Munzer, worked out in detail in his earlier Thomas Munzer als Theologe der Revolution.43 While the former could invoke Paul and the cross of Christ as the lot of all, the latter called upon the Exodus and the Bible's anger 'against the Ahabs and Nimrods'.44
As for Atheism in Christianity, Bloch seeks to uncover both the way ruling-class ideologies have been imposed on the text, and to examine the strategies of subversive slave talk. The overlays and myriad complexities of such materials require readings that attend to the subtle shifts that have taken place. Thus, Bloch is not interested in submissive slave talk (and so the Psalms do not appear),45 but, rather, subversive texts that have subsequently been altered and which may be recovered, as well as texts that have been rendered subversive through later usage. What survives is the masked or underground text. Such texts have a double function, a 'sly irony', appearing to appease the rulers while openly criticising and lampooning them. 'Men often spoke in parables, saying one thing and meaning another; praising the prince and praising the gallows to prove it.'46
As an example of such a text, Bloch offers an interpretation of Korah's rebellion in Numbers 16. As it is now, the text speaks of a priestly rebellion, centring on the issue of ritual and incense, which is crushed through divine intervention. In this form it is an account of a 'premature palace revolution'47 within the priestly upper class, but what catches Bloch's attention is the way the revolt is dealt with: God opens the ground which swallows up Korah and his conspirators as an example to anyone else who would rebel. This is not a God of war, waging a fight for survival, but a God of 'white-guard terror',48 one who emerges from the redactor's pen. For Bloch, an echo of political rebellion reverberates through the text. Not only does the punishment signal this, but the perpetual recurrence of the Israelites' grumbling throughout the chapter indicates, for Bloch, a rebellious anti-Yahweh voice that has been
43 Bloch 1969, see Bloch 1985, Volume 2.
44 Bloch 1972, p. 23; Bloch 1985, Volume 14, p. 44.
45 Bloch extends such an analysis to the use Nazis made of Christian stories for children. For instance, in 'The Foreign Child's Holy Christ', the frozen child starves to death only to be drawn up into the bosom of the angels, where the unbearable life on earth is forgotten (see Bloch 1998, pp. 56-7; Bloch 1985, pp. 71-3).
46 Bloch 1972, p. 15; Bloch 1985, Volume 14, p. 31.
47 Bloch 1972, p. 80; Bloch 1985, Volume 14, p. 109.
turned into something else - the sign of disobedience and recalcitrance on the part of the people themselves.
Bloch undertakes this kind of reading again and again throughout the book, reading with the assumptions and strategies of biblical historical criticism in one hand and the hermeneutics of class in the other. And it leads him to argue for two concepts of God, one 'which has the Futurum as its mode-of-being' and the other that 'has been institutionalized down from above'.49 The latter, with its radical transcendence, submission and atonement, is the one against which the rebellions are directed.
Throughout the rest of the book Bloch pursues this bifurcation along class lines: 'murmuring' versus submission or tail-wagging. One of the criticisms levelled at Bloch is the difficulty of finding such a continuous theme inside and outside the Bible. So let us consider this more closely. Initially, he suggests two principles in tension with one another - Creation and Apocalypse. In regard to Creation, Bloch dips into conventional German biblical scholarship of the time to argue that Yahweh emerges from being a local, tribal deity to become the all-encompassing creator. The move from henotheism to monotheism effectively cut off any protest, 'the pot arguing with the potter'.50 The priestly creation story of Genesis 1 is its prime mark - its calm, untroubled 'behold it was very good' (Gen 1: 4, 10, 12 etc.) is profoundly suspicious. The problem that arises almost immediately in Genesis - the wickedness of human beings in the Fall, the reason for the flood and so on - has a convenient scapegoat in Genesis, namely, the serpent and human beings themselves. In this way, the Creator absolves himself from anything that mars his creation. Bloch follows this creator god from his murky origins as the demiurge of Middle-Kingdom Egypt to the sculptor-god Ptah who becomes the creator of all Egypt. Thence onto Israel, for whom the creator God moves ever higher into the heavens, shedding the other gods around him.
However, the problem of misery opens up the other theme in the Bible -Exodus. Misery may be dealt with through evil spirits whom one could blame and from whom one sought salvation; or it may be traced to Exodus. Here, argues Bloch, lies not a directive from above, but one that 'is filled with the
49 Bloch 1972, p. 81; Bloch 1985, Volume 14, p. 109.
50 Bloch 1972, p. 29; Bloch 1985, Volume 14, p. 59.
hope that lies before us'.51 The Utopian dimension is crucial: the principle that leads out of this terrible world and into a better one cannot be the same principle as that which leads into this world - creation.
The hermeneutical principle of Creation versus Exodus/Apocalypse is a curious one, for it emerges as much from the Bible as from Bloch's philosophical, hermeneutical and aesthetic imperative to read for utopia. The Principle of Hope manifests this principle even more clearly. In 'The Bible and the Kingdom of Neighbourly Love' Bloch sketches out a line, responsible for the earliest form of social utopia, from the Bedouin nomadic communism of the desert, through the prophets and Jesus to early Christian communism (and then on into the work of Augustine and Joachim of Fiore).52 The sharp distinction between such a line and its opposite - Canaanite hierarchies, wealth and poverty, the church of Baal that runs through to the Christian Church, the 'ideologically profitable insurance company'53 - is both illuminating and problematic, not least because the initial distinction of nomadic/settled, Isra-elite/Canaanite can no longer be held (see further below). Yet, this distinction provides a basic structural element for Bloch's reading of the Bible. Often, Bloch does identify something central, but, as Geoghegan points out,54 the attempt to trace a structural dialectic throughout the Bible strains the text. Bloch is well aware of the complex and varying voices in the Bible, and I agree that a dialectical reading is able to deal with such voices better than any other approach. However, we need an even more sophisticated dialectical reading that accounts even better for the twists, curious alliances and changing oppositions of the text, one that reads back and forth between the Bible's ideological, social and economic contradictions.
Yet Bloch's own argument, let alone the Bible, has a distinct teleology. For he has an unflagging zeal for anything that values human beings, and it begins with the interpretive rule: 'only critical attention to the veiled and (in the book of Exodus) ineradicable subversion can bring to light the organon of the non-theocratic axis in the Bible'.55 All that rails against theocracy and its attendant hierocracy, against transcendence and obedience, and against the
51 Bloch 1972, p. 31; Bloch 1985, Volume 14, p. 61.
52 Bloch 1995, pp. 496-515; Bloch 1985, Volume 5, pp. 575-82.
54 Geoghegan 1996, p. 99.
55 Bloch 1972, p. 82; Bloch 1985, Volume 14, p. 110; translation modified.
diminution of human beings has a distinct logic that sends it on a trajectory beyond the Bible. He wants to bring the homo absconditus out of hiding and he does so through a number of strategies. One is a dialectical inversion of key theological categories, as we will see below: the Deus absconditus is in fact a cipher for the human being who remains hidden, the agent of suppressed rebellions. Another is the argument that the God-hypostasis needs to be placed on its feet, in the same way that Marx performed a podiatric move on Hegel's idealist dialectic: 'God' is merely a hypostasis of what human beings can and will be, the utopian possibility of a transformed human nature. This is a temporal, horizontal transcendence. A third way - the burden of Atheism in Christianity - is to argue that the protests against Yahweh or Elohim in the Bible are inherently a protest atheism. Impossible within the world of the biblical text, such atheism can only emerge when that world has closed down. For the protest against God carries with it the assumption that the full human potential can emerge only when subservience to a higher principal - divine or human - has been thrown off. The only religious literature that holds out such a promise is, for Bloch, the Bible.
Before passing on to the question of myth, let me comment on Bloch's method. It is too easy to criticise Bloch for either his lack of Marxist rigour or his lack of theological acumen - although his appeal is that he is remarkably astute in bridging both sides. On one side, his mystical millenarianism is too far from political analysis and action. On the other side, Bloch's dependence on biblical historical criticism leaves him vulnerable to many of its problems.
The first has been rehearsed often enough in Marxist debates,56 so let me dwell with the second. Bloch was unavoidably tied to the nature of biblical criticism at the time of writing: it was still the heyday of historical criticism, with its interaction between form, source and redaction criticisms. Anyone who dared to raise a critique of historical criticism risked being lumped with theological conservatives or an unredeemable fringe. So Bloch took on many of the assumptions of historical criticism, and yet, as he works inside the system he seeks to bring out its ideological and political dimensions.
However, the hegemony of biblical historical criticism at Bloch's time has now passed. A host of newer approaches no longer work with the assump
tions of historical criticism, raising new questions about the text and dealing with older problems in very different ways. For instance, if we consider the sources upon which Bloch relies so heavily - the famous JEDP of the Pentateuch - they become constructs of the critics. These sources, for which no evidence exists, become something that hovers between the biblical text and the critic's own writing, having the objectivity of neither. It is not that the idea of such sources is not interesting, nor indeed that it does not help in certain types of interpretation, but, once we add the concerns of feminism, poststruc-turalism, postcolonialism, new historicism and queer theory - to name but a few - a whole host of new questions that would never have been raised within historical criticism begin to emerge.
There are other problems as well, not least of which is the way historical criticism was predicated upon a search for origins - ur-text, earliest source, origin of Israel or the historical Jesus. Multiple factors played a role here, such as the political and ideological influence of the belated emergence of Germany as a nation-state under Bismarck, as well as, in regard to psychoanalysis and sexual difference, the perpetually transferred search for individual origin. But what historical criticism could not avoid was the way the text's own obsession with origins - of humanity, the world, Israel etc. - replicates itself over and again in the methods used to study it. Bloch falls prey to this with little sense of the ideological effects on his own writing. He too searches for origins, however subversive, which reach back to the earliest moment. Or, the genuine strata of protest against earthly and heavenly overlords lies beneath the redactors' hands, in the earliest sources or in the oral tradition. The surprising thing is that Bloch himself does not make such observations, even though Marxism provides the best analytical approach for doing so.
The question, then, is whether Bloch's method is bound to historical criticism. Certainly, many of his exegetical observations and conclusions rely on notions of sources, oral traditions and redaction. However, let me come at the problem differently. The question Bloch asks of the Bible - Cui bono? - still needs to be asked. Bloch insistently asked this question of the Bible itself, but he asks it all too rarely of biblical criticism itself. This surprises me, for, if the Bible is one of the most ideologically overdetermined texts we have, then we would expect its interpretation to be riven in similar ways.
Further, Bloch tries to account for the fact that the Bible is not merely a canonical text for the powerful, but that it continues to be a revolutionary text, that it has been so for the Levellers, Hussites, Munzer and his peasants (I might add political and liberation theologies today). This, he argues, is not just a misreading. Something ensures that the Bible does not 'work in the same way as every other religious book of the upper classes and of deified despotism'.57 Bloch's solution to that 'something' in Atheism in Christianity is 'to see through and cut away the Ezraean matter, and to identify and save the Bible's choked and buried "plebeian" element'.58 Beneath the priestly redactions, and over against the ideologues of the state like Paul in the New Testament, lies the origin of a revolutionary Bible.
I am not sure that this is the best answer, but I will outline a couple of possibilities to which I will return at the end of this chapter. A common argument is that as one of the prime ideological shapers of that world the Bible provided a language of revolt in which the Levellers, Hussites, peasants and others could express their political and economic grievances. Another angle is to argue that the Bible's transcendental perspective provides critiques of any form of oppressive politics and economics - the 'transcendental reserve'. It reminds us of the radical contingency of any human social and political form, but it falls into the trap of granting too much to transcendence. A third possibility is that the Bible does indeed enable a political agenda which, however flawed in terms of gender or race or sexuality, is opposed to exploitation and domination. That is, in a round-about way, Bloch may be onto something: in the complex ways in which texts respond to their social circumstances - reactions to a dominant way of thought, political pamphlets, escapism, crystallisations of what others feel at an inchoate level, providing a new way of thinking that points the way forward, efforts to provide ideological resolutions of social and political tensions, and so on - the oppositional politics that may be generated from the Bible are as much interpretations that respond to different situations as inherent in the text itself.
Was this article helpful?