Tuesday, January 06, 2004

WHICH TESTAMENT AGAIN? Reader "Hershel" refers me to this New York Times column by William Safire on Howard Dean's comments on the Book of Job:

As he heads into what H. L. Mencken called the "Bible Belt," the candidate moved to plug an apparent hole in his r�sum� about an interest in religion. After hearing Dean's observation beginning "If you know much about the Bible � which I do," a reporter asked about his favorite New Testament book. Dean named Job, adding, "But I don't like the way it ends . . . in some of the books of the New Testament, the ending of the Book of Job is different . . . there's one book where there's a more optimistic ending, which we believe was tacked on later."

The candidate returned an hour later to confess error: Job was in the Old Testament, not the New. Beyond that slip, his recollection of "one book where there's a more optimistic ending" is muddled; the Book of Job in the Old Testament has an upbeat ending, with God doubling Job's former wealth and giving him new children for having sustained his piety through all his trials.

"Many people believe that the original version of Job is the version where . . . Job ends up completely destitute and ruined," said Dean in his correction. That's accurate, though there's no other Job book in Scripture with an optimistic ending other than the familiar one. I think he means that some scholars believe that the Old Testament Book of Job that we know was amended by later rabbis fearful of portraying God as unjust.

Many people believe," concluded Dean, presumably among them, "that the original ending was about the power of God, and the power of God was almighty and all knowing, and it wasn't necessary that everybody was going to be redeemed."

Let's not be too hard on Dean; we all make mistakes and people like him have to live with their mistakes being trumpeted across the world at the speed of light. And I do give him credit for fessing up promptly and offering an - admittedly incomplete - correction. Safire's further corrections are essentially right, although the final form of the Job was set centuries before there were any rabbis.

Bruce Zuckerman has a very interesting book on the historical development and redaction of the Book of Job: Job the Silent: A Study in Historical Counterpoint. He argues that the poetic dialogues (with the downbeat ending) are a satire of the story in the prose prologue and epilogue (which have the upbeat ending). So he thinks the downbeat version is a theological correction by someone who didn't like the original all-better-now happy ending.

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