[K:JNWTS 27/1 (2012): 3-7]

What Should I Read on Jeremiah?

James T. Dennison, Jr.

Lundbom, above all others![1] His 3-volume revision of the older Anchor Bible Commentary by John Bright (1965) is nothing less than a tour de force. And a rhetorical, poetical, prose-narrative tour de force at that. Yes, this set is massive (2207 pages in toto); but it is worth every penny for those searching for penetrating, judicious and even (sometimes) conservative treatment of the prophet. Lundbom takes the historicity of the book seriously. Kudos! Lundbom takes the poetic genre seriously. Double kudos!! Lundbom takes the narrative biography of Jeremiah seriously. Yet more kudos! If there are slight higher critical flaws, ignore them. Lundbom should have resisted the temptation to demonstrate his membership in the SBL clique, but we won’t throw out this AB baby with the higher critical bathwater. There is only one person from whom he could learn and advance his understanding of this complex, yet marvelous book—and we will get to her below. But this commentary is the place to visit for stimulating exegesis and theological reflection on the speech-acts of the Protological Weeping Prophet, who anticipates and prefigures the Eschatological Weeping Prophet (Luke 19:41; cpr. Matt. 16:14).

Lundbom is the very antithesis of Robert Carroll, whose original OTL (Old Testament Library) commentary[2] has now been (thankfully) replaced by Leslie Allen’s new OTL contribution.[3] Allen can’t hold a candle to Lundbom or even Thompson for that matter, but at least he displaces the radical Carroll—even if with forgettable and superficial fluff. Carroll regarded the entire book of Jeremiah as a fabrication (“fabricated”—his word, page 59 of his commentary; and “fictional,” page 514 of his tome)—an invention of the post-Exilic scribal guild (very similar to the post-modernist theological guild of which Carroll himself was a ‘charter’ member).[4] But then all critical-liberal fundamentalists are deconstructionist/reconstructionists. Carroll is simply demonstrating his asinine presuppositions in a commentary which tells us more about the invention of Jeremiah in the image of Robert Carroll (his own personal socio-political ideology drives his commentary as in ‘philosophy trumps fact’) than it does the historical Jeremiah of 626-586 B.C. Whether the particular pericope in Jeremiah is the product of one or multiple redactors, no pericope in Jeremiah is from the historical era claimed in the superscription (Jer. 1:1-4). But like all wood, hay and stubble, this too shall pass away and we may be grateful that it is out-of-print from the original publisher (Westminster, now Westminster/John Knox Press) because it deserved to be relegated to the ash heap of passé idiosyncrasies[5]—abandoned for a less ideological albeit unremarkable approach. But never fear, the press of dead-end liberal scholarship (sic!) (Sheffield Phoenix) has resurrected this dog and reprinted it in two volumes. Unsuspecting and uninformed neophytes, beware!

In between these critical extremes are two other major sets on Jeremiah—the Hermeneia and International Critical Commentary (ICC) offerings. William Holladay is the author of the important 2-volume Hermeneia set (1986 and 1989). William McKane is the author of the unimportant 2-volume ICC set (1986 and 1996). Launched in the 19th century under the joint editorship of the infamous Charles Augustus Briggs, the ICC commentaries were packed with some of the dullest, most boring, base liberal and unbelieving philological minutia that the reader searching for theological meat (or even pitiful orts) was left in despair with thousands of pages of rubbish. Thankfully, most of this 19th and early 20th century nonsense has been abandoned—as the series itself was in 1951. But some harebrained liberal decided to revive the series in 1975 with the first of C. E. B. Cranfield’s 2-volume work on Romans (published by T&T Clark, the new series volumes are exorbitantly overpriced, which fortunately prevents them from falling into the hands of the average naïve and unsuspecting pastor). At least we got some theological reflection from Cranfield, albeit a neo-orthodox tainted heilsgeschichte. Cranfield is the exception that proves the rule—very few volumes in this revived ICC are theologically helpful (though most are filled with a microcosm of minutia which wearies and deadens the brain). McKane’s effort is a case in point.[6] Every passage is minutely dissected for lexicographical details, none of which are brought to bear on the unfolding prophetic narrative biography of the subject of the book—the historical Jeremiah. From this labyrinth of minutia, McKane leaves his reader scratching his head wondering—what on earth does this have to do with God communicating his mind and heart to the prophet, let alone to the redeemed of the Lord? In addition, McKane’s writing style is obtuse—as dense as the Jordan River Valley thickets. If they snagged and devoured Absalom’s troops (2 Sam. 18:8), caveat lector! Gentle reader, do not waste your money—even for lower priced used copies. They will just collect dust on your shelf. Put your money into something you can actually use in preaching or teaching.

Holladay is more helpful, though handicapped by form critical presuppositions. Why these liberals do not get the story of the text is beyond this reviewer. Blinders to the drama of God’s revelatory narrative has “holden[ed] their eyes” (cf. Luke 24:16, KJV). More’s the pity. Still, Holladay provides a defense of the historical Jeremiah, but a Jeremiah reconstructed from the formgeschichtlich rubble of evolving Jewish religion. The evolutionary rubric is taken from the reading of the book of Deuteronomy (Ah! The ever-present liberal fundie Deuteronomist[7]) at six points in Jeremiah’s career: 622, 615, 608, 601, 594 and 587 B.C. According to Holladay, this accounts for the “flow” of the book of Jeremiah itself. We occasionally uncover a theological nugget; Holladay does believe in an eschatology of the book of Jeremiah (cf. his treatment of chapters 31-33[8]). But it is an eschatology of the horizon of Judaism, not an eschatology of the vertical heaven of Christianity. Which makes plowing through his 1225 pages tedious and often fruitless. And then there is his bizarre interpretation of Jeremiah 1:2 which, he maintains, means that the prophet was born in the 13th year of Josiah (627 B.C.), not that he was called to his prophetic office in that year. The very Hebrew structure of the superscription (Jer. 1:1-4) belies this absurdity as any exegete with an eye for Semitic rhetorical symmetry could detect.[9] Put your money into Lundbom.

There is a liberal fundamentalist sleeper here which deserves notice on account of its theological suggestions. Louis Stulman has written a comparatively short (400 pages) commentary on Jeremiah in the Abingdon Old Testament Commentary series (2005). While he is a wild-eyed liberal on critical matters, he does redeem the time (and the text) with occasionally useful theological insights (though he is also prone to sappy modern theological rot as page 62, for example, illustrates). Worth at least $15, but not more. Sadly, he misses entirely the point of Rachel weeping (Jer. 31:15-26, pp. 269-71) because he misses Matthew’s use of the poignant text altogether (Matt. 2:17-18).

Now to the commentaries I shall designate “the holy remnant”. What a relief to enter a world of historico-exegetical sanity after the madness of the higher critical fundamentalists. The following commentaries are conservative-evangelical[10]—that is, their authors actually believe that Jeremiah was a real person (not a fabrication) and that nearly all the words in the book which bears his name came from his lips, pen or both (Baruch, the scribe, may have added some explanatory remarks here and there—all under the inspiration of the same Spirit of God which animated the prophet). J. A. Thompson offers a lengthy and substantial exploration of the 52 chapters of our prophet. This volume in the New International Old Testament Commentary series (1980) is a solid piece of work which casts its shadow even on Lundbom (who cites it favorably from time to time). It remains the evangelical standard though it is over 30 years old and the author is now deceased (†2002). There is a 1995 “2nd revised edition” which does not differ from the original printing and shows no interaction with the critical commentaries of 1986, i.e., Carroll, Holladay (v. 1) and McKane (v. 1). Hence, it is more a reprint with a new dust jacket than a “revision”.

The other evangelical work is R. K. Harrison’s Tyndale Old Testament commentary (1973/reprinted 2009). The advantage of this exposition is its brevity without sacrificing substance. It is most suitable for the “cut to the quick” student or pastor and provides a trustworthy guide for the Christian layperson or study group. Harrison (†1993) was an excellent historian and defender of a high view of Scripture. While not as “meaty” as the others I have reviewed above, nonetheless it is helpful and reliable in defense and explanation of the words and deeds of the historical Jeremiah.

We now come to the person who is able to teach Lundbom a thing or two and whose work on Jeremiah is indeed revolutionary. Elena di Pede is Professor at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium. Her survey of the book in the French monthly Biblia (numbers 59 and 60, 2007) provides a superb penetration of the life and times of the prophet. Breaking new ground in Jeremiah studies, her narrative theological work is in French, but worth the effort to translate. Her most substantial and important publications are: De Jérusalem à l’Égypte ou le refus de l’Alliance (Jr 32-45) [“From Jerusalem to Egypt or the Rejection of the Covenant (Jer. 32-45)”] (2006); Au-delà du refus: l’espoir—Recherches sur la cohérence narrative de Jr 32-45 (TM) [“Beyond the Rejection: Hope—Research on the Narrative Coherence of Jer. 32-45 (Masoretic Text)”] (2005). She has also penned numerous journal articles on our subject. What is so refreshing and significant about her work is that she refuses to reconstruct the book of Jeremiah on the canons of the liberal-critical fundamentalists. Instead (and isn’t this a novelty??!!), she accepts the text as it is and works with the history of the real Jeremiah to elucidate the narrative of his story and his words. Sounds almost like the pre-critical reading of the text (which it is, but she does not ignore the vast literature on Jeremiah as her footnotes and bibliographies attest). My only quibble is her occasional moralistic appeal to the reader to “take the lesson” of Jeremiah’s life and words and use them today. Professor di Pede, there is a better way—it is called union with the life that is in the prophet in the reader (and that is the glorious life of Christ with whom Jeremiah was united by grace through faith as the believing reader today stands in the same relation, only out of the fullness of the times in being joined to the Eschatological Jeremiah. Rippling inter-connected narrative identities, not moralistic lessons).

Unraveling the alleged tohu-bohu literary ‘chaos’ of the book, she applies her narrative skill to explaining the sequence of the poetic and narrative sections—and she does so with cogent and sharp-eyed attention to the structure of the Hebrew text (she knows the work of Shimon Bar-Efrat and uses the work of J. P. Fokkelman, among others). She even regards the Masoretic Text (MT) as the original version of the book, while labeling the Septuagint (LXX) version an abridgment or condensation (thus accounting for the abbreviated Greek text, which virtually all other critics regard as the editio princeps because it is shorter).  Her fascinating suggestion that the LXX is actually a muddled (at places) commentary on the Hebrew original is stunning. She particularly uses her skill in Hebrew narrative paradigms to criticize the LXX for altering the meaning of the MT.[11] Apparently the Greek translators were obtuse to Hebrew narrative style (modern liberal-critical fundamentalists take note!). Fun stuff!!!

She is also theologically astute unpacking redemptive-historical motifs in the words of the prophet as well as relating those comments to the age of Jesus Christ and his Kingdom. There are explorations in her comments of: the exodus motif (the anti-eschatological side she classifies as a contra-Exodus, i.e., an inversion of the history of redemption; the eschatological exodus side is a reversal of the inversion, i.e., a restoration); new/eschatological David; new/eschatological covenant and much more. Real theological meat to feed the mind and heart, as the very revelation itself fed the mind and heart of Jeremiah. She even poignantly labels chapters 37 and 38 “the passion” of Jeremiah. Stimulating and rewarding stuff (edifying to boot)! Learn French or demand that she find a French to English translator so the rest of the non-Francophile world can benefit from her with ease (and not need several French-English lexicons at hand).

The recent weighty (sic!!—in fact, more than 30 aggregate pounds from all these volumes amassed) work in Jeremiah commentaries is evidence of a fresh look at a major Biblical figure and his “Word of the Lord”. We are poised for a new burst of insight and penetration into the mind and heart of this plangent prophet with di Pede showing us the way to the future, even as we glean from the work of the past—critical and non-critical alike.

[1] Jack R. Lundbom, Jeremiah 1-20 (Anchor Bible Commentary, 21A, 1999), Jeremiah 21-36 (Vol. 21B, 2004), Jeremiah 37-52 (Vol. 21C, 2004). Suggestion: do not waste money on Lundbom’s most recent little book on Jeremiah—Jeremiah Closer Up: The Prophet and the Book (2010). It is no advance on the commentary; it is rip-off overpriced ($70 for 123 pages); and my copy arrived with the hardcover boards warped!

[2] Robert P. Carroll, Jeremiah (1986).

[3] Leslie C. Allen, Jeremiah (2011).

[4] The reader of this review must understand Carroll’s thesis: there never was a person in history named Jeremiah; he is the invention of a group of post-Exilic Jews; an invention which serves their own politico-theologico-cultural agenda. Perhaps we may ask—who invented Robert Carroll? Is he really a name fabricated by a group of academic scribes in the late 20th century—a group that dribbled various signatures of paper to a Philadelphia publishing location (over a period of years of course) and voila ‘Carroll’ on Jeremiah appeared like an epiphany?!

[5] Alas and alack—more idiocy from the ‘scholarly guild’. As recently as 2009, a volume entitled Production of Prophecy featured articles in which ‘Jeremiah’ was scientifically proved to be a Persian era creation: “the book of Jeremiah was created in the Persian period by scribes belonging to the Deuteronomistic circle.” (This lunacy is even spreading like a virulent plague; cf. the recent contribution by Ehud Ben Zvi in the 2011 T&T Clark imprint, Jeremiah (Dis)placed: New Directions in Writing/Reading Jeremiah featuring SBL [Society of Biblical Literature] papers read at their annual meetings 2007 and 2008—papers which also feature rabid feminist and postmodern ‘readings’. When the inspired prophet is “read” in this manner, the only thing that should be (dis)placed is these witless nabobs. At $140 a crack, we may be thankful that few will be able to afford this rot.) There is even one learned scholar who has detected three Jeremiahs: original Jeremiah, Deutero-Jeremiah and a mysterious Trito-Jeremiah (do you observe the extension of the brain-dead theories of First Isaiah, Deutero-Isaiah and Trito-Isaiah along with original Zechariah, Deutero-Zechariah and Trito-Zechariah?). Who says fantasy doesn’t rule the pea brains of liberal-critical fundamentalism. Not even George Lucas or Steven Spielberg could have come up with these ‘box office’ trilogies. Yes, they actually print this idiocy and award Ph.D.’s for it.

[6] 1396 pages; list price $290—No, that is not a typo. Two hundred and ninety dollars for two volumes. Yikes!

[7] A virtual mirror image of his modern creators!! According to critical liberal fundamentalists, the book of Deuteronomy was first ‘discovered’ in 622/621 B.C. in the Jerusalem Temple (in truth, the book was planted by the Deuteronomic clique in the rubbish of the Temple, to be brought forth to great awe and applause—like a Hollywood blockbuster, but still all fiction and theater). The book is a fabrication and reconstruction (or re-writing) of Jewish religion by a group of anonymous 7th century B.C. scribes. They invented the figure of Moses (yes, these learned modern scientific scribes maintain that Moses never existed, agreeing with the liars of the 7th century B.C. who concocted him) and, obviously (and scientifically, gentle reader), he did not write Deuteronomy. It was ‘written’ and/or ‘discovered’ by Temple priests with an agenda (isn’t all religion merely agenda?!) for reforming Jewish religion according to their context and pretext in the days of King Josiah.

[8] Though his form critical division of the unit into “recension to the North” and “recension to the South” is maddening and pure fabrication. Here is real fabrication with no primary document to support it save the reconstructive fantasy of the modern higher critical mind. Ugh!

[9] Cf. the present reviewer’s outline with the nwts.edu audio lecture “Jeremiah 1:1-4: Overview; Archaeology; Commentaries; Superscription; Narrative Structure” (with attendant handouts).

[10] A third in this tradition is F. B. Huey, Jr.’s contribution to the New American Commentary Series (1993). While commendably conservative, this work is maudlin at best and disappointing with regard to theological penetration. The exposition is too brief and superficial for such a major prophetic work. Nothing more is gained from reading Huey that is not already present in Thompson. Yes, there is a place for brevity, but that award goes to Harrison, not Huey. Finally, the old conservative 1952 Lutheran commentary by Theodore Laetsch is (sadly) virtually useless.

[11] “La manière de raconteur et l’enjeu du récit. Jérémie présente Ananias en Jer 28,1 TM et 35,1 LXX.” Biblical Interpretation 16 (2008): 294-301, esp. 298. Cf. “Le récit de la prise de Jérusalem (Jr 46 LXX et 39 TM): son importance dans le récit et son impact sur le lecteur.” Biblische Zeitschrift 52 (2008): 90-99.