Monday, July 30, 2007

History of Jeremiah

I'm still on camp, but here's a response to something I read a few days ago...

The book of Jeremiah in the Old Testament has some very interesting features, some of which are also very unusual. One of them is to do with the idea of early editions.

Pretty much everyone agrees that some of the material in Jeremiah dates back to the 500s BC. I think all of it does, and I think the arguments against it are pretty flimsy. Pretty much everyone also agrees that the book was written in Hebrew.

The earliest copies or bits of copies we have of Jeremiah are from the Dead Sea Scrolls (stored in about 70AD, written down before then). Just for reference, that's a lot lot earlier than any of the copies we have of classic Greek literature of the same sort of period. But at that stage, there seem to be two separate editions of Jeremiah – a shorter one and a longer one. When the Jewish scribes translated the Old Testament into Greek in about 100BC, they translated the shorter version of Jeremiah. The one that is printed in most Bibles is the longer one. The longer version doesn't seem to have bits in that the shorter version doesn't – it's just more long-winded, especially with titles for God. It's also structured in a more complicated way.

Most “critical” scholars seem to suggest that this means the book of Jeremiah developed slowly, with different people editing and compiling it, and that the process was still going on at the time of Jesus. They suggest that the shorter version is the older one, and that people added to it – for example the longer titles for God and so on, as a result of more complex liturgy.

I'd like to suggest an alternative.

In the modern world, we see two difference processes happening with books changing over time. We see people improving on and lengthening books – second editions and so on. But we also see people shortening long-winded books to create abridged versions which might fit better into a sensible-sized paperback.

In general, lengthening books results in extra chapters being inserted, and some bits not changed at all. But abridging books tends to result in long-winded bits being shortened and maybe the structure changing to make it simpler.

My suggestion is that what seems to have happened with Jeremiah fits the idea of abridging better than the idea of lengthening. So I argue that the longer version is the original, and the shorter version is the later abridged version – maybe it fit better onto a single big scroll or something. The longer version is, after all, the longest book in the Bible.

The problem with all attempts to reconstruct the history of literature when editions aren't dated and all you have is fragments and copies of earlier scrolls is that it isn't easy to tell the difference between the two ideas. It is amazing therefore that so many “critical” scholars hold onto their own pet theories so fiercely. My theory of an original compiled by one or two people (e.g. Jeremiah and his secretary Baruch), then later abridged because some people thought the original was a bit long-winded makes at least as much sense as the various critical theories, and has the advantage that it fits with the traditional view of the book as by Jeremiah. So I'll stick with it for the time being.

Post a Comment