looking for authorship in the Christian world, pt. 2

For one seeking a definite claim of God’s authorship, or at least dictation, in scripture, the first chapter of Jeremiah must be the gold standard. Like Deuteronomy, Jeremiah begins by announcing the date and place of the revelation:

The words of Jeremiah, the son of Hilkiah, one of the priests who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, to whom the word of the LORD came in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign. It came also in the days of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah, and until the end of the eleventh year of Zedekiah, the son of Josiah, king of Judah, until the captivity of Jerusalem in the fifth month.

But Jeremiah then goes on to explicitly and deliberately use the first person in reference to the revelation:

Now the word of the LORD came to me, saying….

Recall that Deuteronomy begins and remains in the third person:

These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan in the wilderness…. In the fortieth year, on the first day of the eleventh month, Moses spoke to the people of Israel according to all that the LORD had given him in commandment to them…. Beyond the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to explain this law, saying….

Three times the text refers to Moses in the third person; three times it claims to be a record of the words that Moses spoke to the people of Israel, but nowhere does it claim that the person recording the words is also Moses.

Comparatively, then, Jeremiah is unmistakable, while Deuteronomy can only be portrayed as the word of Moses if we put Him in the unusual position of having referred to Himself exclusively in the third person in the narrative portions. This is possible, of course, but why should we bully the text around in this way merely to preserve the tradition, nowhere claimed in the book itself, of Mosaic authorship? Is it not enough that Moses should be the Author (and through Him, of course, the Lord) of every law and precept contained in the book?

Jeremiah, it must be said, is not unmistakable, either. The beginning is very strong, but soon the author begins to swing between first and third person on a somewhat regular basis. Now it will be, “The word of the LORD came to me,” then later, “The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord.” (See 2:1, 7:1, 11:1, 11:6, 11:18, 12:14, 13:1, 13:8, 14:1, 14:11, 15:1, 16:1, 17:19, 18:1, 18:5, and many, many others.) On closer examination, this is clearly revealed to be a literary device. Jer 18:1-6, for example, shows that although he is, for some reason, referring to himself in the third person, the author is still very much claiming to be Jeremiah the prophet:

The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: “Arise, and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. And the vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to do.
Then the word of the LORD came to me: “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the LORD. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel….”

Moreover, the whole text is clearly a tripolar conversation between Jeremiah, Israel & Judah, and the Lord. At times, Jeremiah addresses God directly, either to admit his own smallness and inadequacy (1:6), or to plead for Judah (4:10, 14:13, 14:19-22), or, eventually, to condemn her (18:19-23).

But beginning in chapter 19, the narration frequently shifts to third person for long chunks. We return to the first person frequently when announcing long quotes from the Lord (24:4, 25:15) and for certain narrative events (24:1-3), but there is certainly a dramatic increase in third-person narration. Chapter 28, the story of Hananiah, is told exclusively in third person, and from that point forward we seem to leave the idea of a first-person book behind entirely. Chapter 29 begins with the text of a letter sent by Jeremiah to the exiles, and after that we have a series of “word[s] that came to Jeremiah from the Lord,” but with a great deal of history about Jeremiah interspersed.

Finally, in 51:64 we read:

Thus far are the words of Jeremiah.

This is followed by a final, entirely historical chapter describing the fall of Judah which, as we can see, is clearly not intended, in any way, to be understood as being the words of Jeremiah.

Again, we are faced with a question. How do we reconcile the claim that “Thus far are the words of Jeremiah” with the obvious fact that half the text is written in the third person about Jeremiah? If it were fraudulent (i.e., if someone were trying to convince us that this were a text written by the prophet from beginning to end, when, in fact, it was not) we would expect the defrauders and interpolators to write in the first person as well. On the other hand, if it was written by Jeremiah, why does he go out of his way to call himself by the third person? In the first section, as we have seen, the third-person references are transitory and stylistic, but in the latter section, they are narrative and consistent.

Yet there is a fairly reasonable explanation for all this. Suppose we call the book from chapters 1-18 a straightforward book by Jeremiah. It is full of warnings and relatively free of history. Chapters 19 and 20 do contain a short narrative section about Jeremiah’s sufferings at the hands of Pashhur the priest, told in the third person, bracketed by the word of the Lord, but this is followed by a verse section in the first person. We then have a few chapters of, let us say, “ambiguous” sections, words of the Lord to Jeremiah not clearly set into a first- or third-person narrative. Chapter 24, the story of the figs (similar to the story of the potter and the story of the loincloth, which we will examine later), and chapter 25 are clearly first-person (and also includes an explicit reference to “this book”), chapter 26 is more third-person history, and 27 returns to first-person. We can call this middle section the “ambiguous” section. Meanwhile from 28 to 51 we deal exclusively in the third person in the narration, although there are plenty of words from the Lord to Jeremiah.

Let us then imagine this: suppose that after the fall of Jerusalem and after the passing of Jeremiah, various pieces of writing and “words from the Lord” known to be his were collected together. It would hardly be surprising if there were a number of books or collections of his sayings; the text itself makes reference to several different and distinct contexts in which Jeremiah’s revelations were written down. Chapter 29 is the text of a letter; in chapter 30, for the first time, Jeremiah is instructed to write “all the words that I have spoken to you” in a book; chapter 36 says that Jeremiah dictated a scroll to Baruch the scribe which was destroyed and had to be replaced; chapter 45 again refers to a dictation to Baruch; chapter 51 has Jeremiah dictating to a different scribe and instructing him to read the book once and then tie a stone to it and throw it in the sea. We may, then, guess from these passages that Jeremiah did not write his own scrolls — or at least that he at times dictated to other — and that there were several possible “books” of Jeremiah in existence during his lifetime. Even our modern Bible contains two books attributed to him. Certainly there were a number of texts. And it is almost beyond doubt that however we choose to read everything prior to it, verse 51:64 indicates that at least some historical contextualizing went on after Jeremiah had finished his revelation — namely, chapter 52.

Possibly the Jew or Jews who sat down to try to put his writings in order would have felt the need to justify him, to demonstrate conclusively that he was a legitimate prophet of God and that his message was born out by history. We can comfortably assume that those who undertook the task believed in him, for there can have been little use in recording such largely unpleasant words otherwise.

(Here we should address ourselves to those who believe, naively, that the Bible was written to justify power, whether earthly or clerical. There can have been no benefit for the kings, princes, and priests of Judah and Israel in collecting or saving — let alone fabricating — the words of Jeremiah, which can only have served as an embarassment to them. The Bible is very clear on this point: the legitimacy of kings and priests lasts only so long as they cleave to the teachings of the Lord. If they do not, God raises up a prophet to warn them, then eliminates them, usually through the intervention of foreign powers. This is hardly the sort of blanket authority upon which to rest tyranny.)

Yet a believer who wishes to record the words of God as revealed to a prophet will surely not interpolate his own words into the text without making a clear distinction between himself and the prophet — that would be tantamount to blasphemy.

So our imagined editor or editors, faced with various scrolls and writings, some of which were possibly quite long, others of which might only have been short notes. We don’t know and can’t know. But what we do see is one very unified section — the first part — which seems to suggest a single book dictated directly by Jeremiah (possibly with a historical introduction by someone else (1:1-3)), followed by numerous smaller sections which also contain small amounts of first-person narrative (but with occasional bits of third-person history thrown in), followed by a long string of sections simply purporting to be Jeremiah’s revelations from the Lord, with long third-person historical narratives added.

This seems a very curious scheme if Jeremiah is writing the book, but a very obvious scheme if some later editor is simply compiling every scroll and dictated saying of Jeremiah that he can find, and adding history as he sees fit to make the context clear. Sometimes the history is by way of letting us know the exact circumstances of the revelation of the text to follow (e.g., 29:1-3, 32:1-5, 33:1, 34:1); other times it seems designed to give us either a general context for Jeremiah’s words or to prove his prophetic powers. In all cases it seems clearly demarked by the shift in person, and in no case does it seem that the histories are deliberately being attributed to the prophet himself. In short, we find again the word of God in a book, yet there is nothing that compels us to see the book itself as written by God from beginning to end.

(The demarcation “Thus far are the words of Jeremiah” seems less a claim of authorship in light of the recurring phrases “The word of the LORD came to me, saying…” and “The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD…” which regularly introduce Jeremiah’s revelations in the voice of God — i.e., “words” here should probably be understood as “sayings” or “revelations.”)

What we are getting at here, then, is neither a denial of the general authenticity of the words of God’s messenger, on the one hand, nor an insistence, on the other, that God Himself has authored every word of the book, a claim which is not justified by the text itself. What we are getting at is an attempt to read the Bible sincerely — without attempting, as Enlightenment and post-Enlightment skeptics have wanted, to tear it down, but also without reading into the text things which are not there.

Part 1 of this series.

Part 3.

Part 4.

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3 Responses to looking for authorship in the Christian world, pt. 2

  1. John Bryden says:

    This whole series of articles seems very good and contains many interesting insights.Regarding shifts of point of view from first person to third person, this occurs frequently in the Qur’an. For instance, in the following verses that alternate, even within sentences, between referring to God as "He" and the royal "We".97. It is He Who maketh the stars (as beacons) for you, that ye may guide yourselves, with their help, through the dark spaces of land and sea: We detail Our Signs for people who know.98. It is He who hath produced you from a single person: here is a place of sojourn and a place of departure: We detail Our signs for people who understand.99. It is He who sendeth down rain from the skies: with it We produce vegetation of all kinds: from some We produce green (crops), out of which We produce grain, heaped up (at harvest); out of the date-palm and its sheaths (or spathes) (come) clusters of dates hanging low and near: and (then there are) gardens of grapes, and olives, and pomegranates, each similar (in kind) yet different (in variety): when they begin to bear fruit, and the ripeness thereof. Behold! in these things there are signs for people who believe. (The Qur’an (Yusuf Ali tr), Surah 6)I’m not drawing any conclusions in relation to your argument — just drawing attention to this similar phenomenon, which may be of interest.

  2. The Camel says:

    John,Thanks for commenting!Yes, you’re right — I’d noticed that, too, in the Qur’an, the occasional jumps from first to third person and from the singular to the plural. So there’s some argument to be made that this is a stylistic phenomenon in Scripture.On the other hand, some of the breaks in Jeremiah seem, to me, to be of a different kind, and that was the kind I was trying to get at in the above.

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