According to the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, this book, which purports to be the work of Baruch, Jeremiah's friend and secretary (Jer. 32.12–16; 36.4–32; 45), is a work of canonical scripture, but Protestants include it among the Apocrypha. For Jews it is no more important than any other pseudepigraphical writing from antiquity. As even the casual reader will note, it is divided into at least three distinct parts (1.1–3.8; 3.9–4.4; 4.5–5.9), each with its characteristic style and point of view. This observation leads naturally to the view that Baruch is not a unified composition, but a compendium of works from several authors. The only unifying factor is the supposed common background of the Babylonian exile.
The first part (1.1–3.8) is in prose and tells how Baruch, in Babylon, composed a prayer of confession and petition (1.15–3.8), which he read to the deposed king, Jeconiah (or Jehoiachin; 2 Kings 24.8–17), and the other exiles. The prayer was then sent to Jerusalem, with an explanatory letter (1.10–14) giving directions as to when it should be used. The second part (3.9–4.4) is a poem in the style of the wisdom literature, in which Israel is reproached for having forsaken the wisdom that God had given her, which is then identified with the Mosaic Law, the Torah (4.1; see Sir. 24.23). This act of apostasy is said to explain Israel's unhappy lot in exile. The third part (4.5–5.9) is a poem, partly in the style of Isaiah 40–66, encouraging the exiles to believe that God will not only deliver them but provide for them a glorious future. Characteristic of this poem is the repeated exhortation, “Take courage” (4.5, 21, 27, 30). In the first part of Baruch, the deity is frequently referred to by the title “Lord” (equivalent to Hebrew “Yahweh” or “Adonai”); the title does not occur in the rest of the book. In the third part, God is several times described as “the Everlasting” (e.g., 4.10, 14; 5.2). The Letter of Jeremiah, although plainly a separate book, is included in Baruch as chap. 6 by the Vulgate and by translations dependent upon it, as well as by Luther and the King James Verson.
The usual critical questions of date, authorship, original language, and provenance must be raised in connection with each of the individual parts of the book, though evidence with which to answer them is on the whole rather sparse. The date of the completed work is obviously later than that of the latest of its component parts.
The explicit claim that Baruch is the author appears only in the opening verses (1.1–10), but the context in which it appears is marked by such imprecision and demonstrable error that it can hardly be taken seriously. The fact that the book was never accepted into the Jewish canon is strong evidence against any part of it being the work of Baruch, Jeremiah's companion. Modern commentators are almost unanimous in regarding this attribution as fictitious and the work as a typical pseudepigraphon.
All extant texts and versions of Baruch are based upon the Greek of the Septuagint. Nevertheless, scholars are generally convinced, on the basis of internal evidence, that the original language was Hebrew or Aramaic, most probably the former. A frequently quoted example of the kind of evidence for this is found in 3.4, where the inappropriate word “dead,” if translated back into Hebrew, would be represented by a word, almost identical in appearance, that means “men” (NRSV: “people”), which is almost certainly the correct reading, the difference being a single vowel. The assumption is that the Greek translator, using a Hebrew text without vowels, misinterpreted the form. Baruch, moreover, is full of Hebrew constructions and turns of phrase.
If the book was written in Hebrew (or even Aramaic), it follows that the various authors were Palestinian Jews, and there is no evidence to controvert that supposition. The first and last sections of the book have close affinities with prophetic traditions, but the middle section (3.9–4.4) is unmistakably a product of traditional Israelite wisdom, with obvious points of contact with works such as Job and Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), but not with the more Hellenistic Wisdom of Solomon. The author of this section must have been a “wise man” of the type of Ben Sira. While the dates of the various sections of the book cannot be determined with any precision, most scholars would date them within the second or early first century BCE. The parallels alleged between the prayer that begins in 2.6 and the similar prayer in Daniel 9 have sometimes been adduced to date at least this section later than the Maccabean revolt of 164 BCE, with which the book of Daniel is certainly connected; unfortunately, through, even this evidence can be interpreted in a variety of ways.
Despite the ostensible setting of Baruch in the Babylonian exile, its purpose seems to have been to bring a message of reconciliation and hope to the worldwide Jewish community of the Hellenistic period, in which exile, in a sense, had become permanent. The book is not marked by any great originality of thought, and its language is undistinguished and filled with expressions derived from older literature. This no doubt explains the relatively few references to it in early Christian writers. The one passage that had special significance for the church is 3.37, where the subject of the words “appeared on earth” was mistakenly taken to be God rather than Wisdom (the passage is so translated in the Vulgate and Peshitta) and the verse was therefore understood as a prophecy of the incarnation. From the historical point of view, 4.1 provides important confirmatory evidence of the growing tendency to identify the personified Wisdom (see Proverbs 8 and 9) with the Torah.
In addition to this book of Baruch, several other books of that name were at one time in circulation, of which by far the most important is an apocalypse in Syriac, often designated as 2 Baruch and generally dated late in the first century CE.
Robert C. Dentan