Two Scrolls? The Perplexing History of Jeremiah’s Composition.

By Walter C. Kaiser Jr., with Tiberius Rata, adapted from Walking the Ancient Paths: A Commentary on Jeremiah.

Editor’s note: the textual issues surrounding Jeremiah are among the most difficult in all the Hebrew Bible. For a deeper look at its background and composition, read this Lexham Bible Dictionary entry.

Short answer

It is not unreasonable to assume that the text of Jeremiah, as we have it, was in existence somewhere around 580 BC, with the possible exception of Jeremiah 52, which probably came later. (In fact, note Jer 51:64c, “The words of Jeremiah end here.”) But this does not mean that there is a chronological order to all the contents of this book. Chapters 36 and 45 are both dated “in the fourth year of Jehoiakim” (605/604 BC), but the intervening chapters, 37–44, report incidents that occurred in 586/7 BC and following.

Two scrolls

There still is the issue of the two scrolls. Clearly, chapter 36 tells how Jeremiah was ordered by Yahweh to prepare a scroll with “all the words I have spoken to you concerning Israel, Judah, and all the [other] nations from the time I began speaking to you in the reign of Josiah until now” (Jer 36:2). Baruch, the son of Neriah, assisted Jeremiah in this task: “Baruch, at Jeremiah’s dictation, wrote in a scroll-book all the words of Yahweh which [Jeremiah] spoke to him” (36:4). When it was read several months later in the presence of the king, he nonchalantly tossed away each section, after it was read, into his winter fireplace (36:22).

Jeremiah, however, as a result of King Jehoiakim’s insolence, was ordered by God to prepare a second scroll, and “write on it all the former words that were on the original scroll, which Jehoiakim, king of Judah, burned up” (36:28). So that is exactly what Jeremiah did, but 36:32 notes, “And in addition to that, he added many words similar to them.” But in what sense were these words added? Were they an appendix to the contents of the first scroll? Or were they inserted into the body of what had been the existing material of the first scroll?

This has opened the tempting prospect that perhaps scholars can trace the origins of both of these scrolls in our existing text. Due to the late setting for chapter 21, the search for distinguishing the two scrolls has focused on the earlier section of the book of Jeremiah (for example, chaps. 1–20), but no scholarly consensus has been achieved.

Those who have attempted to trace such minute distinctions have ended up with results that appear to be too elaborate and complex to be convincing, but a generality from this research might plausibly conclude that the first scroll ended with Jeremiah 7:15, and the second extended it to the end of Jeremiah 10.

The most convincing mark of such a distinction between the two scrolls may be found in the fact that the prophet is told, “Do not pray for this people; do not lift up a plea or prayer on their behalf; do not plead with me, for I will not listen to you” (7:16). The logic here is that at 36:3 there still was a possibility that “perhaps if the citizens of Judah hear of all the evil that I plan to do to them, each of them will turn from his wicked way, and then I can forgive their wickedness and their sin.” Even though this may not be an absolute change, it could be the place where the second scroll came into being.

The content of Jeremiah 11–20 dates to the time up to the end of Jehoiachin’s reign and has also been assigned to the period when Jeremiah and Baruch were in hiding and secluded from the public, even though the events it records took place years prior. But nothing definite can be determined on this matter either. The only point worth mentioning about this section is that it ends in chapter 20 on a very pessimistic note and might fit the mindset of one who believes all is now lost after the king’s infamous penknife antics as he read the newly discovered book of the law. But again, it is a case based on assumptions, not explicit texts.

Poetry and pose

There has been a long tradition in Jeremian scholarship that has focused on the poetic oracles of Jeremiah as distinct from the prose sayings and oracles, especially those poetic portions of Jeremiah 2–25. Already in 1901 Duhm (xi–xx), positing a link between prophetic inspiration and the so-called gift of poetic inspiration, limited the original sayings of Jeremiah to 280 verses of poetry. The prose sections Duhm attributed mainly to Baruch (220 verses) and to a long line of exilic supplementers (850 verses).

Sigmund Mowinckel1 attempted to improve on Duhm’s work by identifying four literary sources for Jeremiah’s work: Source “A” was the poetry in the book; source “B” was the biographical prose narratives, mostly in 19:1–20:6; 26–29; 36–45; source “C” was late Deuteronomistic additions; and source “D” was the late additions of hope, such as those found in chapters 30–31. Many scholars have accepted Mowinckel’s undocumented sources with some variations.2

However, the separation of poetry and prose in any of the prophets’ works, as we have already noted, depended on old distinctions that have largely been rejected or forgotten. Jeremiah’s prose seems to accord quite well with the ordinary Heb. written in this period, as seen, for example, on the archaeological find of the Lachish ostraca.

Jeremiah and Deuteronomy

Many scholars working in the book of Jeremiah have observed the large number of passages in Jeremiah in which the style, vocabulary, and perspective are similar to the book of Deuteronomy. As far back as 1895, S. R. Driver listed sixty-six passages in Deuteronomy that Jeremiah used some eighty-six times.3 This included not only distinctive phrases but also, in some cases, extended passages such as Jeremiah 3:1 and Deut 24:1–4, or Jeremiah 34:8–14 and Deuteronomy 15:2. So there seem to be strong patterns of thought, and even a structure or outline for teaching, linking the two books.

How should we explain this linkage? Conservative scholars have maintained that the book of Deuteronomy was much earlier since it claims to have been written by Moses. Moreover, if Deuteronomy was part or the whole of what was discovered in the scroll found in the temple in 622/621 BC, it would be strange if it had little or no impact on the people or the prophets of that day. This, then, would be part of the evidence that Jeremiah was aware of the finding of the book of the law and that he presumably used parts of it in his ministry (cf. Huey, 26–28).

However, for those who take a literary-critical approach, the book of Deuteronomy does not have a Mosaic provenance. Moreover, what was found in Josiah’s day was not simply the book of Deuteronomy but the “Deuteronomistic History” (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, referred to by scholars as “Dtr”). Accordingly, the stress on the broken covenant found in Jeremiah 11:1–17 is paralleled by the message of Deuteronomy and the concerns of Dtr. However, it is amazing that there is no reference to the prophet Jeremiah in the whole book of Kings, yet Kings has such extensive references to the prophet Isaiah (2 Kgs 19–20), a forerunner to Jeremiah. Jeremiah 52 also strongly resembles the ending of Dtr (2 Kgs 24:18–25:30).

So why is there no reference to Jeremiah in the conclusion to 2 Kings, which goes over most of the events surrounding the fall of Jerusalem, despite Jeremiah being most certainly one of the major figures in the events that led up to the fall of Jerusalem? This is puzzling indeed! Could it be that Jeremiah was the author of that final section in 2 Kings and therefore modestly deferred from making any mention of his own presence or contributions during that time? Or is there some other reason for his absence in the book of Kings?

Some argue that there was a real difference between the optimistic view of Jeremiah, of a final divine, gracious regathering in the future of Israel and Judah, and the more pessimistic view of Kings, which could be seen as taking the opposite position. Nevertheless, J. G. McConville argues that the hope Jeremiah expresses for the future is close to what Deuteronomy 30:1–10 holds out as well (McConville, 20). So Dtr fails to hold out hope for a return to the promised land of Israel, whereas Jeremiah, Deuteronomy 30:1–10, and Hosea express confidence and a strong hope for the future.

But even that conclusion seems to run counter to John Bright’s analysis. Bright argues that “both Jeremiah and his opponents [generally the people of Judah] were moved by strong theological convictions.”4 Bright sees Jeremiah’s experiences as the result of a collision in theology, wherein the people “stressed God’s election of Israel, his enduring purposes for her, and his sure promises to her, which nothing could cancel; the other [theological tack—Jeremiah’s emphasis] stressed the righteous commandments which [God] had laid before his people, and which they were obligated to obey if the covenant bond was to be maintained.”5

On this basis, Bright sees Jeremiah as rooted in the theological tradition of the Mosaic covenant, while the people relied on the surety of the Abrahamic/Davidic promises from God. This may explain where the people were coming from, but it is not a good explanation of the actual position found in the Scriptures.

Finally, the literary-critical reconstruction, over against a conservative position, calls for fairly late dates—into exilic and postexilic times—for some Jeremian sections […] and all too often fails to explain why they were originally written the way they were. Moreover, Deuteronomy’s preoccupation with pagan idolatry would not make sense if it were written in exilic or postexilic times since by then it had ceased to be an issue. By then, Judah wanted nothing to do anymore with idols. The times had seen to that.

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This entry is adapted from Walking the Ancient Paths: A Commentary on Jeremiah (Lexham Press, 2019).

 

  1. S. Mowinckel, Zur Komposition de Buches Jeremia (Kristiania, 1914).
  2. For example, see J. P. Hyatt, “The Deuteronomic Edition of Jeremiah,” in A Prophet to the Nations, ed. L. G. Perdue and B. W. Kovacs (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1984), 251. See also E. W. Nicholson, Preaching to the Exiles: A Study of the Prose Tradition in the Book of Jeremiah (New York: Schocken, 1971).
  3. S. R. Driver, Deuteronomy, ICC (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1895), xciii.
  4. J. Bright, Covenant and Promise (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976), 165.
  5. Bright, Covenant and Promise, 171