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SCRIPTURE AS LITERATURE,
This review is from: Lion's Honey: The Myth Of Samson (Myths) (Paperback)
There is another David Grossman, a very able and entertaining correspondent to the BBC's Newsnight, and I looked at this book thinking he was its author. That error of mine lasted only a second or two, but I followed it up with another: when I saw this book subtitled `the myth' of Samson, I jumped to the conclusion that this might be a work of textual criticism, or at least of historical investigation. It is neither of those. It is a piece of traditional lit crit (although an upmarket specimen), the sort of thing that used to be dished up by the erstwhile guru of Shakespearean criticism A C Bradley.
That kind of thing is all very well when the subject under consideration is ordinary literature. When the literature in question is sacred scripture, two unhealthy tendencies come into play. The first is that the commentary becomes a bit of a wallow - after all the holy books of people's religion are part of people's sense of their own identity, and every sentence will be pressed in pursuit of special significance. The other danger is that the earnest quest for deep meaning in the text may be squandered on textual readings that are dubious, incredible or downright wrong. I recall A E Housman recounting in his inaugural address at Cambridge how Swinburne had defended the published text of a poem by Shelley on the basis of his deep insight into the poet's style. Unfortunately for Swinburne his eloquent exegesis was of a misprint.
This David Grossman, even more than his namesake, is highly intellectual and mellifluous. He turns out to be a novelist, and this particular book has been translated (except for the biblical sequence at the start I presume) by Stuart Schoffman. Schoffman is to be complimented on his work. Good quality writing in the original language needs good quality when translated, and you would hardly know that this is a translation at all. The issue of the original text is a much deeper one. A story that has come down from antiquity is profoundly unlikely to have survived unchanged in the process. Alterations, additions and omissions are all more or less inevitable. The trouble is that where the text has been given biblical status, some version or other will have been deemed the Word of God, and not many have the chutzpah, or even the inclination, to perform textual criticism on something as awesome as that.
Someone who had those attributes in spades was J Enoch Powell, and I recommend his The Evolution of the Gospel to followers of Judaism as well as Christians. It was long after Powell's death that I got round to reading the work. I recalled that it had affronted many divines, but I have not attempted to retrieve their protestations. It seems to me simply that to deem a text to be correct based on theology or `faith' is back-to-front reasoning. Scribes have been fallible or motivated, and propagandists have been propagandists, since the dawn of writing if not indeed earlier. It should not have taken Powell to point out that Christ's `agony in the garden' ought not to have been so easily accepted as gospel considering that all those in attendance were asleep, to take just one glaring instance. St Matthew's gospel can never seem the same to anyone willing and able to let go of their teaching, their `sense of their cultural identity' and the rest of that chatter after exposure to Powell's lucid and learned reasoning. Is the story, the myth, of Samson to be considered exempt from a similar process?
In other words, I don't see how I can follow Grossman down his enthusiastic lines of explanation. I mean, how much of this actually happened? Even taking it as literary commentary, the thought will not go out of my mind that this is more or less bound to be a story compounded of various threads from unknown participants over a long period, and that for that reason it is a bit of a wasted effort to delve into the author(s) intention. What author(s)?
David Grossman can't restrain his own creativity, and I can picture him part-way towards a novel, or even the script for a play, at certain points. However the book I have just been reading is strictly for those already converted or convinced. One thing I should concede is that he is very readable even in translation. I suppose I may offer him the tribute paid in another work by multiple authors and echo what the Odyssey says about Nestor: `His speech ran sweeter than honey.'