The Prophet Jeremiah and Textual Criticism

Today we return to our short series on Bibliology and the prophet Jeremiah. Taking a look again at chapter 36 we find at least four relevant themes: 1.) inspiration, 2.) transmission, 3.) textual criticism, and 4.) the status of the original. Today we will look at the theme of textual criticism. The Scripture reads in Jeremiah 36:22-23,

“Now the king [Jehoiakim] sat in the winterhouse in the ninth month: and there was a fire on the hearth burning before him. And it came to pass, that when Jehudi had read three or four leaves, he cut it with the penknife, and cast it into the fire that was on the hearth, until all the roll was consumed in the fire that was on the hearth.”

Jeremiah 36:22-23

Why? Why did Jehudi cut Jeremiah’s original text with a penknife and cast it into the fire? We don’t really know. We assume and quite safely so that something was contained therein which displeased his sensibilities or those of the king. Maybe his academic sensibilities, no? What is more, it was not the reason for scarring the text that is abhorant, but rather it is the cutting itself. Jeremiah goes on to read in the next verse,

“Yet they were not afraid, nor rent their garments, neither the king, nor any of his servants that heard all these words.”

Jeremiah 36:24

Jeremiah recounts to us that the most powerful, most educated were not afraid at the destruction of the text. But why should the be afraid? Was it for scholastic reasons, academic reasons? Something like, my goodness that’s poor scholarship to treat Jeremiah’s words that way? No. The issue is that God’s words were cut to bits and cast into the fire because they were now recorded on a piece of ancient paper. Fear and lamentation should have come from seeing the wanton destruction of God’s revelation. But perhaps Jeremiah’s text was not seen as God’s word. Perhaps it was seen as an opinion of a religious political pundit. Think Al Sharpton. In sum, the business of adding or taking away from the document called the word of God is a moral business primarily and not a sterile academic one. Indeed though, there were some who took objection to cutting and burning the Scripture.

Nevertheless Elnathan and Delaiah and Gemariah had made intercession to the king that he would not burn the roll: but he would not her them.”

Jeremiah 37:25

Why would these men make such a plea? Again, we don’t know. What we do know is that they did not rend their garments and express a pious fear for the destruction of God’s word. There are other reasons to keep the ancient documents of Scripture around that have little to do with the fact that they are God’s words to mankind like they are old. But let’s be clear, those reasons are secondary to the real reason for the presence of Scripture in the life of the church and scholar. Those reasons are: for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness. All of which Jeremiah was doing in his writing and all of which was dissected and burnt up by the educated and powerful.

If you are a Christian and you believe for evidential or scholastic reasons that you must take a penknife to the Bible are you prepared to experience a holy fear and lamentation if you transgress in the way described above? If not, know that you may be more like Jehudi and Jehoiakim than you think and that the trying times of Jeremiah may be more upon us than you think.

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