Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The Jeremiah Essays: Of Manuscripts and Chaos

Josiah's Reforms Start The Briefest of Histories

There is a problem with the text of Jeremiah that, for me, adds a dynamic element to its understanding. But first, some background to help you understand the problem.


Somewhere between 300 and 200 B.C. the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek. This translation is known today as the Septuagint--named for the 70 translators purported to have worked on it. At the time this translation was made, Greek had become the language for international discourse. Consequently, the translation provided a means by which Jews who were losing their Hebrew fluency could read the Scriptures and it had the effect of raising interest in God and Judaism among the Gentiles. It is worth noting also that New Testament quotes of the Old Testament are quotes from the Septuagint and that the Septuagint aided the spread of Christianity among the Gentiles. It is the first demonstration that a translations of the Scriptures into contemporary language, even if imperfect, encourages the spread of the knowledge of God.

The Problem with the Text of Jeremiah

We no longer have the Hebrew text used by the Septuagint translators. Today's translations of the Old Testament are based on the Masoretic Hebrew text whose earliest copies date from about 900 A.D. For the most part there is good agreement between the Masoretic Hebrew text and the Septuagint Greek text. A notable exception is the book of Jeremiah. The Septuagint is missing 12% to13% of the material included in the Masoretic text and some of the chapters have a different arrangement. This amounts to perhaps over 2000 missing words. Here is an example:

Then I spoke to the priests and to all this people, saying, "Thus says the Lord: Do not listen to the words of your prophets who prophesy to you, saying, 'Behold, the vessels of the Lord’s house will now shortly be brought again from Babylon'; for they are prophesying a lie to you. Do not listen to them; serve the king of Babylon, and live! Why should this city become a ruin? But if they are prophets, and if the word of the Lord is with them, let them now entreat the Lord of hosts that the vessels which are left in the house of the Lord, in the house of the king of Judah and in Jerusalem may not go to Babylon. For thus says the Lord of hosts concerning the pillars, concerning the sea, concerning the stands and concerning the rest of the vessels that are left in this city, which Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon did not take when he carried into exile Jeconiah the son of Jehoiakim, king of Judah, from Jerusalem to Babylon, and all the nobles of Judah and Jerusalem. Yes, thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, concerning the vessels that are left in the house of the Lord and in the house of the king of Judah and in Jerusalem, 'They will be carried to Babylon and they will be there until the day I visit them,' declares the Lord. 'Then I will bring them back and restore them to this place.'" (Jeremiah 27:16-22)

The section in bold italics is missing in the Septuagint.

There are some who look at these differences and suggest that it calls into question all Scriptural reliability. For an example, see The Jeremiah Dilemma which states:

Because of the damage these facts inflict on the inerrancy doctrine, Bible fundamentalists will, of course, resist the obvious conclusion that they lead to, but until the inerrantists can produce a Masoretic copy of Jeremiah that antedates the Septuagint, they will find it hard to defend their claim that the Bible text we now have is essentially the same as what was written in the "original autographs.

Farrell Till, the author of The Jeremiah Dilemma sees a conspiracy that emended the text:

These omissions have grave implications for the inerrancy doctrine, because they suggest that significant editing occurred in at least one Old Testament book after completion of the original manuscript. So what exactly are we to conclude from this? After verbally inspiring Jeremiah to write his manuscript, did Yahweh decide he could improve on the original and then direct someone to reorganize the material and insert the passages that weren't available to the Septuagint translators or to the scribe who made the Qumran copy? If so, what does this say about the omniscience of Yahweh that we hear so much about? Or if the changes didn't happen under Yahweh's direction, did some scribe or committee of scribes just take it upon themselves to do the editing? Either way again, the proponents of Bible inerrancy have a serious problem on their hands. They preach a doctrine that simply cannot be squared with known facts.

Do Farrell Till and others who draw similar conclusions have a good case? If not, why do they not? There is a twofold answer. The first has to do with the assumption behind this statement, "After verbally inspiring Jeremiah to write his manuscript,..." The second has to do with Jeremiah's time.

The Nature of Jeremiah's Manuscript

To say, "After verbally inspiring Jeremiah to write his manuscript" implies that Jeremiah wrote a book in a manner similar to to books like 1 & 2 Kings, or Esther, or Song of Songs, or any of the New Testament books. By this I mean that the book is a unified work rather than a compendium. Jeremiah is a compendium.

Evidence for Jeremiah as a compendium of material can be seen by comparing Jeremiah 39 with 2 Kings 25. The wording and verse ordering are quite similar. Did Jeremiah also write 1 and 2 Kings? Did someone include this section of 2 Kings in Jeremiah to add context to the book? In either case, it demonstrates that Jeremiah is not a single manuscript that Jeremiah sat down and wrote.

Evidence for Jeremiah as a compendium of material can be seen by noting that Jeremiah chapter 30 contains the text of a letter that he sent to the early exiles before the siege of Jerusalem began.

Evidence can be seen by noting that Jeremiah 36 contains a reference to a single prophecy that Jeremiah dictated and sent to King Jehoiakim--only to have the king burn it up. Jeremiah had to dictate the prophecy again. The prophecy is, of course, included in Jeremiah. However, it is also clear that Jeremiah consists of scores of such things.

The fact is that the Lord inspired Jeremiah to speak and write messages and letters throughout his 40 plus year ministry and our book of Jeremiah is a collection of those messages. Furthermore, Jeremiah has a very loose arrangement and much of the material is not in chronological order. To see this note down the order in which the kings of Judah served: Josiah, Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah. Then note how they are referenced in chapters 21-39. The first 19 chapters are a diverse collection of messages without chronological markers.

So, given that the Masoretic text and the Septuagint differ both in amount of material and arrangement and given that Jeremiah is a collection of messages, which is the more likely? That the Masoretic text represents later additions or that the Septuagint and Masoretic text represent to differing collections of Jeremiah's inspired writings with the Masoretic text being more complete?

Jeremiah's Time

This brings me to Jeremiah's time. In his days, Jerusalem was demolished and most of its people deported to Babylon. Jeremiah stayed behind with the poorest of the land, but the continuing political upheaval forced his move to Egypt. It is easy to imagine that Jeremiah's writings and material went to Babylon with the exiles. It is also easy to imagine some going with Jeremiah to Egypt. There is no requirement that the material was identical. The inspiration of Scripture does not demand it. 

Far from subtracting from the reliability of Jeremiah, the so called textual problem adds a deeper dimension to the times in which he lived. It speaks of the chaos and upheaval and change. It is a key factor to keep in mind as you study Jeremiah.

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