Letter of Jeremiah

JEREMIAH, LETTER OF jĕr’ ə mī’ ə (̓Επιστολὴ ̓Ιερεμίου). A short pseudonymous writing, known also as the Epistle of Jeremy, included in the Apoc. as an addendum to the book of Baruch. In the LXX, Lamentations is usually inserted between Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah, the three works together being appended to the Book of Jeremiah. In the Vul. (and KJV), the letter is reckoned as ch. 6 of Baruch (RSV follows this numbering, but titles it separately).

Content.

Despite the introductory assertion that it is a copy of the letter sent by Jeremiah to give instruction to those about to be deported to Babylon, this document is not by Jeremiah, nor is it really a letter. It is, in fact, a powerful exhortation against idolatry. The argument of the author, which is quite repetitious, focuses on the powerlessness of idols and the consequent futility of idol worship. Two main threads of mockery run through the course of the book. First, the utter inability of these gods to do anything for themselves. They cannot speak; they cannot hear; they cannot see; they cannot move. They cannot defend themselves against the robbery of unscrupulous priests. They cannot keep themselves clean from dust and tarnish; their garments rot upon their backs. They cannot protect themselves against termites and worms, nor from the defilement of all manner of birds and the prowling of cats. Finally, they are made only as men choose to make them. The second thread of mockery runs: If they are unable to help themselves, neither are they able to help others. They can in no way bless or curse a man. Therefore it is of no use to worship or fear them, and only humiliation awaits those who put their trust in them.

There is no logical development in the structure of the book, but the contents are punctuated by the repeated refrain “Since you know by these things that they are not gods, do not fear them” (which occurs five times with slight variations, and an additional five times in the form of a rhetorical question).

Origin.

This polemic against idolatry was easily set forth as a product of Jeremiah. Not only is Jeremiah known to have written at least one letter to the exiles (Jer 29:1ff.), but he was also the author of a similar diatribe against idolatry (10:1-10). The unknown author of this polemic seems indeed to have borrowed from this very passage (cf. Jer 10:5 with v. 70), and was possibly also influenced by other OT traditions on the same subject (cf. Isa 44:9-20; Pss 115:4-8 and 135:15-18). Either the author himself or a later editor added the opening sentence which identifies the treatise as a letter of Jeremiah.

Whereas the “letter” ostensibly attacks the idolatry of Babylonia, referring to sacred processions (vv. 4, 26), cultic prostitution (v. 43), the god Bel (v. 41), and the mourning for a dying god (prob. Tammuz, v. 31ff.), occasional lapses into pagan idolatry are known to have occurred among the Jews in Pal. during the 3rd and 2nd centuries b.c., and thus a Babylonian provenance for the polemic is by no means assured. If this is true, the addressees of the “letter” also remain unknown. Was it originally written for a particular community of the Dispersion, or for the Dispersion generally, or perhaps for Jews living in Pal.?

With regard to the dating of this writing, a clue is perhaps found in v. 3 where it is said that the exiles are to remain in Babylon “for a long time, up to seven generations.” Reckoned from 586 b.c., seven generations leads to about the beginning of the 3rd cent. b.c. This serves only as a probable terminus a quo, and the document has been dated by some as late as the 1st cent. a.d. It is similarly difficult to determine the original language of the “letter.” Arguments have been put forward for both Heb. (Aram.) and Gr. originals. In short, there seems to be no consensus of scholarly opinion concerning these various aspects connected with the origin of this document. The data remains insufficient even for the suggestion of probabilities.

Canonicity and text.

As one of the writings not contained in the Heb. Bible, the Letter of Jeremiah has never been accepted as canonical by the Protestant church. It is, however, accepted as fully canonical by the Roman Catholic Church (since the Council of Trent) where, following the Vul., it is reckoned not as a separate book, but as the concluding ch. of Baruch. The Gr. text of the epistle survives in the main LXX MSS (except Aleph) and is obtainable in the standard printed editions of the LXX (but regularly following Lamentations, and not Baruch). English trs. are ready at hand in the various editions of the Apoc.

Bibliography

C. J. Ball in R. H. Charles, APOT, I (1913), 596-611; W. O. E. Oesterley, The Books of the Apocrypha (1915), 506-508; E. J. Goodspeed, The Story of the Apocrypha (1939), 105-110; R. H. Pfeiffer, History of New Testament Times with an Introduction to the Apocrypha (1949), 426-432; B. M. Metzger, An Introduction to the Apocrypha (1957), 95-98; L. H. Brockington, A Critical Introduction to the Apocrypha (1961), 90-92; O. Eissfeldt, The Old Testament: An Introduction (1965), 594, 595; R. K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament (1969), 1242-1244.