The Form and Structure of the Book of Jeremiah
The modern reader of the Book of Jeremiah is faced at the outset with a difficult task. What has survived is not a book, in the normal sense of that word; it does not move from beginning to end, following a clear logic and inner development. Indeed, the major portion of the substance of this “book” was never designed for the literary context in which it has survived; the stuff of which Jeremiah’s book is constructed started life in various contexts, ranging from public proclamation to private diary. What we are dealing with, then, in reading the Book of Jeremiah, is a work that is essentially an anthology, or more precisely an anthology of anthologies. And the collection of anthologies brings together a number of sayings and writings that were associated with the prophet, binding them together in a single volume. But whereas a modern anthology provides guidance to its readers by the extensive use of titles, notes, and headings, only a few such aids to reading have survived in Jeremiah. Furthermore, the logic by which this collection of anthologies was compiled can be only partially reconstructed, so that the reader cannot always determine the reason for the sequence and arrangement of the materials that comprise the whole.
The data that provide the clues to the character of the book are contained within the text itself; a few examples follow. (i) 25:1–14 contains a narrative which suggests strongly that it is a conclusion to a collection of oracles, yet clearly the extant book continues for many more chapters. (ii) 30:1–2 is in the form of an introduction to another “book,” probably chaps. 30–33. (iii) 46:1 appears to be the introduction to a further anthology, namely a collection of oracles addressed to foreign nations (46–51). These three points are merely clues to the smaller anthologies within the larger anthology. Yet within each of these subunits, it is clear that a further anthological character can be determined. Jeremiah’s book, in other words, is a collection of other anthologies, the smaller units in turn containing collections of sayings and various types of written materials.
Furthermore, there is considerable variety in the literary forms of the various parts of the book that constitute the whole. Traditionally, three principal types of material have been distinguished, labelled Types A, B, and C, respectively. (The three types were recognized as early as B. Duhm, Das Buch Jeremia, 1901, and designated A, B, and C by S. Mowinckel, Zur Komposition des Buches Jeremia [Kristiania: J. Dybwad, 1914]). (i) The prophet’s oracles, recorded in poetic form, are designated Type A material. (ii) Prose narratives, which are essentially biographical and historical in character, written with references to Jeremiah in the third person, are designated Type B material. (iii) Speeches or discourses, which are in prose rather than poetic form, and which have a distinctive literary style, are designated Type C material. This threefold classification of the principal literary forms of Jeremiah is useful, though not comprehensive; some materials (e.g., the so-called Confessions, commonly labeled Type A) do not easily fit into any one of the classifications.
These preliminary indications as to the character of the Book of Jeremiah are confirmed partially by the substance of the book itself. Chapter 36 contains an account of the prophet dictating to Baruch, his scribe, the substance of his early oracles. When the scroll containing this early compilation was destroyed, a further scroll was compiled, this time with additions (36:32). It is not possible to determine the content of either of these scrolls, beyond the reasonable supposition that it is contained within chaps. 1–25, but we know that considerable later additions have been added to that initial collection. The significance of the story in Jer 36 is that it provides partial insight into the process of the compilation of materials. Prophecies that were delivered in the first instance orally were later recorded in writing; whether they were recorded from memory or from notes cannot be known.
It is not our intention at this point in the Introduction to volume 1 of the commentary on Jeremiah to provide a full hypothesis of the form and structure of the Book of Jeremiah and the process by which the book came into being. The data for such a hypothesis are contained in the notes under Form/Structure/Setting throughout the two volumes of the commentary. In the chapters that follow, the reader will find detailed notes on the form of each literary unit and on its relationship to the larger literary context. However, it is necessary to provide some general directions to the reader, in order to set an overall framework of understanding within which to read the book.
It is clear that the book assumed its present form either very late in the prophet’s lifetime, or more probably after his death. It is also clear that the process of compiling the book involved many stages of editorial collection and arrangement; the incident described in Jer 36 is but one, and not necessarily the first, of numerous stages in a complex process. It is also perhaps wise to recognize from the beginning that insufficient data have survived from which to reconstruct accurately the process of the composition and compilation of the book. With these precautions in mind, it is nevertheless possible to proceed cautiously with an attempt to understand how the book reached its present form.
The beginning point for such an inquiry, however, immediately presents us with a dilemma. Ideally one might wish to start with the book in its finished form and then work gradually backwards, trying to identify the origin and setting of each unit of the anthology, either in the life and ministry of the prophet, or in the editorial and redactional process that went into the making of the book. But in practice, we cannot easily start with the finished form of the book precisely because we are not sure of what that finished form was. The surviving form of the Masoretic Text differs from that on which the Septuagint was based in several radical ways, and both textual traditions have survived in the MS evidence from Qumran: see further “The Hebrew and Greek Texts of Jeremiah” (below). If we cannot start with the finished product, neither can we start with the initial units, for they are in a sense the object of the inquiry! We must begin, then, with a review of certain known factors and then attempt to move cautiously from there to formulate a hypothesis.
The starting point of the investigation is the observation that Jeremiah was a prophet; as such, he was engaged in public oratory, declaring God’s word to the people of Judah. The prophetic word was necessarily delivered orally in the first instance, for its message was addressed in public to the prophet’s contemporaries; what we cannot know for certain is whether the message was also written and, if written, whether it was written down before or after delivery. In some cases, it was clearly written down after the event, and after a considerable passage of time (Jer 36), though again the details are vague. Furthermore, when the process of writing entered into the preservation of the message, we are told that Baruch, Jeremiah’s scribe, was involved as a recorder, but we do not know the extent to which Jeremiah himself may have been engaged in the activity of writing.
The message itself is also the subject of some difficulty. Taking the text at face value, the prophet’s sayings have survived in two forms; some are poetic oracles, and some are prose narrative discourses. The uncertainty concerns, in part, the difficulty of knowing whether the prophet addressed the people in two modes, poetic and prosaic, or whether the different modes or forms of the oracles in the book simply reflect the manner of recording the prophet’s message (assuming for the moment that either or both types of message are authentic to the prophet). Various possibilities are open; it is possible that the prophet employed two different forms of language in public proclamation, either because of the nature of the message he received, or because the occasion on which the message was given demanded a different and appropriate kind of delivery. A second possibility is that the prophet spoke only in poetic oracles; in the recording, or recollecting, of the oracles, some were recorded in their original poetic form, whereas others were recorded in prose, in which an attempt was made simply to record the substance (not the original form) of the message. (The reverse possibility is also open, though improbable, namely that the prophet spoke only in prose form, but that the message was subsequently reworked into poetic form for ease of memorization.) In dealing with this second possibility, there are numerous difficulties. If some credence is given to the role of Baruch, as described in Jer 36, then it is possible that the dictation process resulted in the prose accounts of the prophet’s messages, and that the poetic oracles were written, or remembered, or recorded earlier (and closer to the time of delivery) by the prophet himself.
Still a third possibility is that one may be able to distinguish between authentic and nonauthentic prophetic utterances on the basis of their form. Those who pursue this line of reasoning tend to view the poetic oracles as being the genuine proclamations of the prophet, whereas the prose accounts, given their different literary style, are considered to be later productions—not of the prophet, but of those standing in the tradition of the prophet who sought to apply his message to other, or later, generations (e.g., those in the Babylonian exile).
The resolution of the various difficulties associated with each of these possibilities is not an easy task; indeed, a complete resolution is probably impossible, given the paucity of evidence, and at best we may hope for a reasonably persuasive hypothesis. If we begin once again with the prophet’s initial ministry, we must ask whether it is likely that he used only one mode of language (the poetic) or two (both prose and poetry)? While there is no certain answer to this question, the evidence of the other prophetic and historical books would suggest that two forms of address were open to the prophet, the poetic and the prosaic. With respect to poetic discourse, one might suppose that the form would continue to be preserved at the point at which that discourse was reduced to writing, since the poetic form was an essential part of the message. One might also suppose that the poetic messages were remembered and transmitted initially in oral form, for in part the purpose of poetic speech was to render its substance more memorable in a society that was not dependent on books and writing to the same extent that most modern societies are. On the other hand, if a speech were delivered in prosaic form, the form as such is less critical than the substance. If it were reduced to writing, the extent to which the written record reproduced accurately the spoken address would depend on numerous factors, such as the time span between delivery and recording, the identity of the person doing the recording, and the purpose for which the record was made.
That the poetic oracles in the Book of Jeremiah are essentially authentic seems to be a fairly certain starting point. The prose discourses, however, are much more difficult to assess, for though one may reasonably suppose that Jeremiah could have employed a prose form of delivery in addition to the poetic form, we cannot be sure that he did so. Nor can we be sure, if there were some oracles delivered in prose, as to the extent of the differences between the form of delivery and the form of recording. If, for example, the prose discourses were among those dictated to Baruch, we do not know the extent to which Baruch’s own hand stamped them with a peculiar and distinctive character. But an even more serious difficulty is that proposed in the hypothesis that the prose discourses, Type C material, do not come from the prophet, but are the product of later tradition.
Those who propose this line of interpretation commonly argue that the language of the prose discourses reflects a later development of tradition, in which original sayings of the prophet have been developed and applied to new life situations, notably the life of those in exile. Thus E. W. Nicholson’s cogent study, Preaching to the Exiles (1970), traces the prose discourses for the most part to a second stage in the development of the Book of Jeremiah, in which the deposit of Jeremiah’s preaching was further amplified and applied to the lives of those in exile who gathered for worship and instruction. Despite the cogency of such a hypothesis, clearly it is based upon the assumption that the text of the extant Book of Jeremiah contains sufficient data, of a redactional and stylistic nature, to enable such considerable reconstruction of the life situations in which the prose discourses may be interpreted. J. V. M. Sturdy has argued rather persuasively that the literary criteria on which much of Nicholson’s hypothesis is based are open to alternative interpretation (“Authorship of the ‘Prose Sermons,’” 143–50). Indeed, Sturdy’s own position is that a group of Jeremiah’s disciples were responsible for the creation of the prose sermons.
Proposals of this kind concerning the nature and origin of the prose discourses introduce the difficulty of the so-called deuteronomic language in the text of Jeremiah. The views of Nicholson, Pohlmann, Thiel, and many others are based on the detection of supposedly deuteronomic influence on the final form of the book, and they advance varieties of hypotheses to explain such distinctive style. Thus, Thiel’s two-volume study of the deuteronomistic redaction of Jeremiah contains an attempt to distinguish between the original Jeremianic core and the extensive two-stage deuteronomistic revision of the book ([i] 1–25 and [ii] 26–45), which is thought to have been concluded in Judah c 550 B.C. But despite the scope and ingenuity of such analyses, there is not even agreement amongst scholars as to the existence and/or extent of D-language in Jeremiah. Thus, in addition to Sturdy’s study (above), Bright (Jeremiah, lxxi–lxxiii, and “The Date of the Prose Sermons of Jeremiah,” JBL 70  15–35) is not persuaded that the prose of the discourse narratives can be properly called “deuteronomistic” at all. And H. Weippert’s recent study (Die Prosareden des Jeremiabuches, 1973) comes to a similar conclusion; she argues that the language of the speeches is sixth-century prose, that the peculiarities of the language are typical of Jeremiah’s period, and that there is no difficulty in supposing that the prophet used both poetry and prose in his speeches.
When such fundamental differences of opinion exist among various scholars, it is at the very least clear that the data are insufficiently precise and permit at best only hypotheses. The general perspective assumed in this commentary is that of Bright and Weippert. It should be stressed, however, that to work within the somewhat conservative tradition of Bright, Weippert, and others, is no less hypothetical than it would be to develop the commentary within the perspective of E. W. Nicholson. The data are of such a nature as to require a working hypothesis of some kind. R. P. Carroll (From Chaos to Covenant, 19) has recently been critical of the approach taken by Weippert and others:
The flatness of the view of the book produced by these approaches does not contribute very much to the understanding of the complexities of the subject or the period, and the attempt to make Jeremiah a Carlylean hero is rather backward looking. However, it is a view that will appeal to biblicist positions and, though out of sympathy with it, I note it as an alternative approach to the analysis of this book.
Carroll’s own interpretation of the book is expressed largely in terms of the development of later tradition, going considerably beyond the perspectives presented by Nicholson. But what is crucial is that Carroll’s observations on the alternative approach fail to express clearly the hypothetical nature of any approach. Whether our final view of the book is flat or the opposite (lumpy?), whether Jeremiah emerges as a Carlylean hero or is lost entirely in the mists of time and ancient imaginations, such alternative possibilities as these are essentially irrelevant. The relevant factors are the data, and thence the hypotheses that may reasonably be constructed upon them. The rather condescending observation that a view such as that of Weippert will appeal to the “biblicist” is equally irrelevant. What Weippert has done is to examine in detail the prose and literary characteristics of the narrative discourses, and she has formulated her hypotheses on the nature of the discourses in the light of the evidence. It is true, of course, that Weippert may have been “conditioned” in her examination by certain assumptions or presuppositions, but such is also true of Carroll’s examination of the data and his subsequent interpretation. Finally, though it may well be true that the more conservative approach to the prose discourses may be “flat,” by Carroll’s definition, it is also true that such an approach involves considerable speculation and complexity in the attempt to understand the present form of the narrative that comprises the Book of Jeremiah. But it should be repeated that the conservative approach to the prose discourses in Jeremiah is no less hypothetical than are other, more tradition-oriented approaches to interpretation.
There remains a further difficulty in formulating an understanding of the Book of Jeremiah in its present form. It has been argued so far that in the prose discourses and in the poetic oracles, we have two different, yet essentially Jeremianic, traditions concerning the prophet’s ministry. We have refrained from forming any precise proposals at this stage as to the respective roles of Jeremiah, Baruch, and others in the reduction of these traditions to writing, though various possibilities have been noted. Finally, it is suggested that the third type of material (namely, Type B, biographical and historical narratives) may have been compiled and added by Baruch and/or a subsequent scribe (or scribes) in the tradition of Baruch, who committed to writing certain incidents in the prophet’s life and in Judah’s history. These narratives, for the most part, are related to the prophet’s speeches and interpret them in particular contexts (for one complex approach to the relationship between the speeches and their acc ompanying narratives, see H. Lörcher, TLZ 102 (1977) 395–96). Eventually, and perhaps in a series of different stages, the Book of Jeremiah gradually assumed the present shape in which it has been preserved in the Hebrew text (a different form of the text being preserved in the tradition reflected by the Septuagint). At a number of places, these final stages in the compilation of the book can be observed, sometimes simply in the arrangement and editing of the material as such, and sometimes in editorial or redactional additions. These matters are discussed in detail under the heading Form/Structure/Setting in the body of the commentary.
There remain certain issues that require further discussion, though they are no more free from the uncertainties of hypothesis than the matters summarized above. Certain questions, in particular, require attention. Why was the Book of Jeremiah compiled? When was the Book of Jeremiah compiled? And where was the Book of Jeremiah compiled? An attempt to answer these questions will be made after assessing some of the difficulties associated with coming to an understanding of the prophet himself.
From: WORD BIBLICAL COMMENTARY