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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

The Composition of the Book

The book of Jeremiah poses severe difficulties for modern readers. A brief, passionate poetic oracle may be followed by a prose sermon in the style of Deuteronomy, and then by a biographical account in the style of the book of Kings. Some passages are pure doom, whereas others speak confidently of restoration and rebuilding. What kind of editorial process produced a book of such diversity? Scholars have given much thought to the question, and their answers show a considerable range. For example, William L. Holladay's detailed two‐volume commentary (1986, 1989) believes that much of the material can be dated to specific moments in Jeremiah's life, whereas Robert P. Carroll (1986) regards the book not as a collection of Jeremiah's words and deeds but as a stream of tradition to which a variety of authors contributed, including postexilic authors wishing to legitimate the rebuilding of Jerusalem and Judah. Because the evidence is sparse, scholarly unanimity on the composition of the book is unlikely. Nonetheless, it is possible to give some account of the problem of the sources and their use in the book.

Scholars generally single out three categories of material in the book. The first category is the “authentic words” by Jeremiah, which are found largely in the poetic traditions preserved in chapters 1 through 25 . The second is the historical narratives about Jeremiah, for example, 19, 1–20, 6; 26; 28; 36; 37–38; 40, 7–43, 12 . These sections are usually attributed to Jeremiah's secretary, Baruch, who, according to chapter 36 , wrote down the preaching of the prophet. The third category is the “Deuteronomic” sections, sections that resemble the sermons found in the book of Deuteronomy, for example, 7, 1–8, 3; 11, 1–14; 18, 1–12; and most of chapters 32 through 35 . Scholars disagree whether the sermons and other prose pieces are based directly on Jeremiah's oral preaching (perhaps even written down by the prophet) or whether they are free compositions written long afterwards by others.

The first and the third category deserve comment. Regarding the first category, Jeremiah's alleged authentic words, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to get at the very words of any ancient teacher, especially in the ancient Near East. Teachers stood within a circle of disciples who carefully pondered and then repeated, sometimes with variants and illustrations, their master's teachings. “Authentic” and “inauthentic” mean something entirely different in that world than in ours. Poetic form as such is no guarantee that Jeremiah is the author, nor does prose form prove he is not. It is likely that most of the poetic oracles in chapters 1 through 25 are from Jeremiah; their reiterated themes and consistent viewpoint expressed in ever fresh images and new angles suggest as much. It must be admitted, however, that followers of Jeremiah might have learned the style, and that some of their work, “elaborations of the work of the master” they would have called it, made it into the final collection. The third category, the “Deuteronomic sermon,” requires more precision. “Deuteronomic” is used of both the book of Deuteronomy (especially of its law‐based sermons in 5–26) and also of the Deuteronomic History (Deuteronomy–Kings). Both works contain preaching typical of the period prior to and during the exile (late seventh to sixth centuries BC). It is not surprising that the sermons in Jeremiah resemble other sermons written at the same period. The inconsistencies in the oracles and the sermons can be explained by the different demands of the genre and the different periods in which they were written. That some sections offer hope and others speak unrelievedly of doom is not necessarily a sign of multiple authorship. Jeremiah, like other prophets, regarded divine judgment as a process that established justice on earth. Destruction was not its goal but the means to a just and peaceful world. For Jeremiah, doom was not the last word of God. Though he saw the Babylonian invasion with all of its horrors as inevitable, it was not for him ultimate. For this reason, oracles of salvation in the book should not too quickly be judged “late” or “secondary.”

There are three sources that do not fit into the categories mentioned above and deserve special treatment: the laments in chapters 11 through 20, the Book of Consolation in 30 and 31, and the oracles concerning foreign nations in 46 through 51 .

  • 1. The personal laments (confessions) of Jeremiah with their divine responses are found in 11, 18–23; 12, 1–6; 15, 10–21; 17, 14–18; 18, 18–23; 20, 7–13; and 20, 14–18 . Some scholars have regarded them primarily as autobiographical, that is, the record of the inner anguish of a gifted and sensitive soul. Such a judgment does not explain, however, why the record of purely private grief would end up in a book dealing with national issues. The confessions are rather petitions of a beleaguered prophet employing the lament style of the Psalter and Job. Suffering under the burden of a prophetic commission he cannot renounce, Jeremiah confronts evil embodied in enemies who seek to silence, imprison, and even kill him. He struggles to understand how God could have left him alone to face enemies of the prophetic word. What is especially striking is not that Jeremiah composed and used these laments (every human being at some point probably uses such prayers), but that he made them public. They are part of his preaching and have a dual purpose. First, Jeremiah wants to differentiate himself from false prophets by showing that his word does not come from himself but from God. Why would he ever put himself in such danger and anguish by speaking an unpopular message? Second, he himself is an example of one who is suffering divine judgment. His anguish will later be every Israelite's, and he wants to show the people how to suffer faithfully and not lose hope that the destruction is only the first stage in the process of divine judgment that will end in redemption. His laments are interspersed throughout the section chapters 11 through 20 and are perhaps meant to complement the similarly interspersed prophetic actions described in 13, 1–14; 16, 1–13; 17, 19–27; 18, 1–12; 19, 1–20, 6. Both lament and prophetic gesture illustrate the process of divine judgment.

  • 2. Chapters 30 and 31 are known as the Book of Consolation, and the same theme of restoration is continued in chapter 32 (Jeremiah's purchase of a field in view of eventual return) and chapter 33 (promises of restoration). As already suggested, 30 and 31 were originally addressed to the Northern Kingdom of Israel during the reign of Josiah, which in 722 had come under Assyrian rule, to assure her that she still had a future as part of the chosen people. References assuring Judah that she too could look forward to a similar bright future have been added (e.g., “Israel and Judah” in 30, 1.4 ). Though some scholars deny chapters to Jeremiah because of their alleged Deuteronomic phraseology and theology, it is hard to understand it as a purely sixth‐century exilic piece. Why, for example, would an exilic author use chiefly Ephraimite (northern) traditions and appeal to the old Northern Kingdom rather than to all Israel, north and south? The adjective “Deuteronomic” does not necessarily imply a sixth century date. The most satisfying explanation is that the core ( 31, 222.31–34 ) was written by the young Jeremiah to support Josiah's restoration of the old Davidic empire by inviting people of the former Assyrian provinces in the north (2 Kgs 23, 19; 2 Chr 35, 17 ). Jeremiah 31, 31–33 is the famous reference to the new covenant: “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah … not be like the covenant I made with their fathers the day I took them by the hand to lead them forth from the land of Egypt.… I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” It appears to be related to the discovery of the ancient law book in the Temple in 622. With the death of Josiah and collapse of his reform, Jeremiah applied the promises to the far greater dispersion of the sixth‐century exile in the belief that God's words must ultimately prove true.

  • 3. Oracles concerning or “against” (the Hebrew preposition has both meanings) foreign nations occur also in Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Amos. In the Greek version of Jeremiah, these oracles appear in the middle of the book (as they do in Isaiah and Ezekiel), following immediately after 25, 13. Some scholars believe collections of oracles against foreign nations were in general circulation, and that editors of Jeremiah simply selected preexisting material to insert into the book. The oracles in chapters 46 through 51 , however, are compatible with Jeremiah's views, for example, the oracles concerning Egypt in chapter 46 . Although the hostile pronouncements against Babylon in chapters 50 and 51 differ sharply from the more positive view of Babylon elsewhere in the book, it is possible that Jeremiah regarded Babylon in the same way as Isaiah regarded Assyria: as the Lord's instrument of judgment that would itself fall under judgment because of its excesses. There is, however, material found also in other prophets, for example, passages about Moab in 48, 1–47 has strong similarities to Isaiah 15–16 , and the passage about Edom in Jeremiah 49, 7–22 is similar to Obadiah 1–10 . Collections of poems against Israel's enemies might have been drawn upon to complete the book.

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