Why Read The Apocrypha: Letter of Jeremiah

Why Read The Apocrypha: Letter of Jeremiah

Part 6 in our Why Read the Apocrypha series where we discuss the books of the Apocrypha. So far we have discussed – the Book of Tobit, the Book of Judith, the Book of Wisdom, the Book of Sirach, and the Book of Baruch.

This week we will discuss the Letter of Jeremiah – its history and background, its standing throughout Church history, criticisms against this book, and lastly, we will read portions from the book itself. 

History and Background Information

The Letter of Jeremiah (not to be confused with the book of Jeremiah in the Bible), also known as the Epistle of Jeremiah or the Book of Jeremy, throughout history was believed to be written by the prophet Jeremiah and to be a valid book for instruction and wisdom. However, modern-day Bible scholars have moved away from the traditional view of this book and tried to disprove its validity without concrete proof. In an effort to disprove this book and many other books of the Apocrypha, they contradict themselves repeatedly. 

Authorship

Traditionally, the author of this book was believed to be the prophet Jeremiah, but it is now believed- by modern scholars, to be a Hellenistic Jew from around the first or second century B.C. However, many scholars turn back around and say there isn’t proof that this is the case. 

Date

The date of the Epistle of Jeremiah is said to be unknown, however, it is believed to be written between 540 BC – 100 BC. However, scholars now say the date is dependent on certain Biblical texts(Isaiah 44: 9 – 20; 46: 5 – 7) – which is confusing. The Epistle of Jeremiah and these verses in Isaiah both refer to idol worship and how God views it. Furthermore, it is not clear how these verses in the book of Isaiah determine the date of the Epistle of Jeremiah (Wikipedia “Letter of Jeremiah”, New Advent “Baruch“).

Historical Find with the Dead Sea Scrolls

The Epistle of Jeremiah was found among the Dead Sea scrolls, along with Psalm 151, the Book of Sirach, and the Book of Tobit (Wikipedia “Letter of Jeremiah”). We have previously discussed the books of Sirach and Tobit, which I’ll link here.

The earliest text of the Epistle of Jeremiah is in Greek, and it was discovered in the Qumram cave. Many scholars believe that this epistle was originally written in Greek, however, many are also of the opinion that the original language was either Hebrew or Aramaic (Wikipedia “Dead Sea Scrolls”, Dead Sea Scrolls Archives 7Q2-1, Learn about the scrolls). 

The Epistle of Jeremiah in Church History

Medieval Sculptures

Throughout the time of the early Church, there were many Church fathers and historians who regarded the Epistle of Jeremiah, as well as, many books of the Apocrypha, to be either scripture or were held in very high regard. Many even citing in their writings that the Epistle of Jeremiah was regarded as scripture by the Hebrews throughout history. Many of such writers and historians were Eusebius, Epiphanius, Athanasius I, Cyril, and Jerome.

Eusebius – Christian Historian and Theologian

Eusebius (260/265 A.D.- 339/340 A.D)  was a Christian historian and theologian. He writes in his book on Church History, that Origen(a Christian scholar and theologian from the first century A.D.) compiled a list of the holy scriptures of the Hebrews. In this list, we see that the Letter of Jeremiah is combined with the book of Lamentations. The books of Esdras and the books of the Maccabees were also included in this Old Testament list (Wikipedia “Eusebius”, New Advent “Church History Book VI Chapter 25” ). 

Epiphanius of Salamis in Cyprus – Orthodox Church bishop

Epiphanius of Salamis (310/320 A.D. – 403 A.D.) was the bishop of Salamis in Cyprus at the end of the 4th century(365 or 367 A.D.). He is known for defending the orthodox beliefs of the Catholic Church (Wikipedia “Epiphanius of Salamis”).

In his writings, he gives us his own list of the Old Testament canon used by the Hebrews. Epiphanius writes of 27 books in the Old Testament and then mentions two more important books. 

Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis – a treaty against eighty sects in three books  Part 8 Section 6:1 – 6:5

6:1 By the time of the return of the captives from Babylon these [Hebrews] had gotten the following books and prophets, and the following books of the prophets:

6:2 …The Book of the Twelve Prophets. 21. The prophet Isaiah. 22. The Prophet Jeremiah, with the Lamentations and the Epistles of Jeremiah and Baruch. 23. The Prophet Ezekiel. 24. The Prophet Daniel. 25. I Ezra. 26. II Ezra. 27. Esther. 

6:3 These are the 27 books given to the [Hebrews] by God. They are counted as 22 however, like the letters of their Hebrew Alphabet, because ten books are doubled and reckoned as five. But I have explained this clearly elsewhere.

6:4 And they have two more books of disputed canonicity, the Wisdom of Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon, apart from certain other Apocrypha.

6:5 All these sacred books taught Judaism and Law’s observances until the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

(Web Archive.org “A Treatise Against Eighty Sects In Three Books”). 

Athanasius I of Alexandria – Egyptian Bishop, Church Father, and Theologian

Athanasius I of Alexandria (296/298 A.D. – 373 A.D.) was an Egyptian Catholic Bishop of Alexandria who was a Christian theologian, Church Father, and defender of Trinitarianism (the belief that God is one but exists as three distinct persons- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).

In his 39th festal or Easter letter (367 A.D.) to his congregation in Alexandria, Athanasius writes that there are many false books circulating that are used to deceive. In his annual letter declaring the date of Easter, Athanasius I uses this as the opportunity to set the record straight concerning the books of the canon – the Old and New Testaments. He writes that there are 22 books of the Old Testament according to the letters of the Hebrew Alephbet, then lists them (Wikipedia “Easter Letter”, “Athanasius of Alexandria”). 

(Many books of the Old Testament in Hebrew were combined into one book – 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings were each one book. The twelve minors prophets were their own book, etc) 

39th letter verse 4: “…Job follows, then the Prophets, the twelve being reckoned as one book. Then Isaiah, one book, then Jeremiah with Baruch, Lamentations, and the epistle, one book; afterward, Ezekiel and Daniel, each one book. Thus far constitutes the Old Testament.”

Athanasius goes on to record the books of the New Testament, which are the exact same as we have them now. He ends his writings on the Biblical canon by saying in verse 7:


“But for greater exactness I add this also, writing of necessity; that there are other books besides these not indeed included in the Canon, but appointed by the Fathers to be read by those who newly join us, and who wish for instruction in the word of godliness. The Wisdom of Solomon, and the Wisdom of Sirach, and Esther, and Judith, and Tobit, and that which is called the teaching of the Apostles[Didache], and the Shepherd[Shepherd of Hermas] .”

(New Advent “From Letter 39”)

*Note: Athanasius does not include the book of Esther as being a part of the Biblical Old Testament Canon. However, it was usually included in one scroll along with the books of Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, and Ecclesiastes.

Cyril of Jerusalem – Palestinian Church Theologian

Cyril of Jerusalem ( 313 – 386 A.D.) was a Palestinian early Church theologian. In his writings, Cyril urges the Church to only read the 22 known books of the Old Testament and not to read any book of the Apocrypha in his Catechetical Lecture in Chapter 4 section 35.  Cyril lists the 22 books of the Old Testament, including Baruch, Lamentations, and the Epistle of Jeremiah with the book of Jeremiah.


“Of these read the two and twenty books, but have nothing to do with the apocryphal writings. Study earnestly these only which we read openly in the Church. Far wiser and more pious than yourself were the Apostles, and the bishops of old time, the presidents of the Church who handed down these books. Being therefore a child of the Church, trench thou not upon its statues… And after these come the five Prophetic books: of the Twelve Prophets one book, of Isaiah one, of Jeremiah one, including Baruch and Lamentations and the Epistle; then Ezekiel, and the Book of Daniel, the twenty-second of the Old Testament.”

(New Advent “Catechetical Lecture 4 On the Ten Points of Doctrine“, Wikipedia “Cyril of Jerusalem“).

*Note: Cyril goes on to list the books of the New Testament, however, he does not include the Book of Revelations.

Cyril makes the case that the bishops and church leaders know more than the common person and because of their knowledge and position, they should be the ones trusted in regards to which books of the Bible the parishioners should read. This case is still used today. Many pastors believe that because they are serving in the capacity of a pastor, teacher, leader, etc, that they have the final say on the books of the canon, and if the parishioners should be ‘allowed’ to read other books that may be beneficial to their Christian walk. 

I believe that this viewpoint can be easily used as a means of control. I believe that we should be able to read these other books (Apocrypha, Book of Jubilees, the Book of Enoch, Jasher, etc) – especially since they were highly regarded throughout history and do not contradict the Bible.

If the Church really doesn’t want their parishioners to read these books they should at least give actual concrete evidence for why they are not suitable for reading, rather than giving blanket unverifiable claims. 

Jerome – Early Church Father, Historian, and Theologian

Jerome of Stridon (342/347 A.D. – September 30, 420 A.D. ) early church Latin priest, historian, and theologian. He has been known for protesting against the inclusion of the Apocryphal books in the Bible, but despite this, some of the Apocryphal books were included in the Latin Vulgate, his Latin translation of the Bible (Wikipedia “Jerome”).

The Epistle of Jeremiah and other books of the Apocrypha are still included in many Orthodox Bibles, such as the certain King James versions, the Ethiopian canon, and Luther’s bible. 

It is included in the Roman Catholic Bibles as the last chapter in the book of Baruch and in Orthodox bibles as a separate book (Wikipedia “Letter of Jeremiah”, Compelling Truth “Letter of Jeremiah”, New Advent “Baruch”).

Criticisms Against the Letter of Jeremiah

There are many criticisms poised against the Letter of Jeremiah, but there are three that we will discuss today – the prophecy of seventy generations instead of seventy years, whether or not Jeremiah and Baruch died in Egypt before the destruction of Jerusalem, and references to Babylonian idol worship.

  • Why does the Letter of Jeremiah prophesy seventy generations rather than the prophesied seventy years in the book of Jeremiah?

From my research, I couldn’t find an explanation for why the Epistle of Jeremiah says “seventy generations” rather than seventy years in reference to the duration of the Hebrew Babylonian Captivity. However, it is possible that this is a copyist error because the translation that we have available to us is written in Greek which is probably a translation from the original Hebrew or Aramaic text. 

  • The prophet Jeremiah and his scribe Brauch died in Egypt before the destruction of Jerusalem

According to the Hebrew tradition that was held up in part by Jerome – an early church father, states that the prophet Jeremiah and his scribe died in Egypt before the fall of Jerusalem. This is “proof” that this book could not have been written by the prophet. 

However, as we saw in the previous blog post on the Book of Baruch this is not proof. The verses used as evidence state:

Isaiah 30: 6 – 7:

6 The burden of the beasts of the south: into the land of trouble and anguish, from whence come the young and old lion, the viper and fiery flying serpent, they will carry their riches upon the shoulders of young [donkeys], and their treasures upon the bunches of camels, to a people that shall not profit them. 7 For the Egyptians shall help in vain, and to no purpose: therefore have I cried concerning this, Their strength is to sit still. ” (King James Version, New Advent “Baruch”)

Isaiah chapter 30 is referring to how Egypt will not be helpful to the Hebrews in their time of need. We see in the book of Jeremiah that Jeremiah and Baruch were actually taken against their will by the Hebrews that were left in Jerusalem. The Hebrews were scared of the Babylonians and believed that by going to Egypt they would be saved (Jeremiah 43: 1 – 6). The Hebrews believed this despite the many warnings that God gave to them through the prophet Jeremiah, which warned that Egypt would be overtaken by Nebuchadnezzar (Jeremiah 43: 7 – 13 and Jeremiah 44). 

In Jeremiah 44, we see that God told Jeremiah that He would destroy the Hebrews in Egypt if they stayed in Egypt. In chapter 45, we also see that several years earlier that God had promised Baruch that he would be saved from destruction. 

Jeremiah 45: 1 – 5: 

1 The word which Jeremiah the prophet spoke to Baruch son of Neriah, when he wrote these words in the book from the mouth of Jeremiah the son of Josiah king of Juda. 2 Thus has the Lord said to thee, O Baruch. 3 Whereas thou hast said, Alas! Alas! For the Lord has laid a grievous trouble upon me I lay down in groaning, I found no rest; 4 say thou to him, thus said the Lord; Behold, I pull down those whom I have built up, and I pluck up those whom I have planted. 5 And wilt thou seek great things for thyself? Seek them not: for, behold, I bring evil upon all flesh, saith the Lord: but I will give to thee thy life for a spoil in every place whither thou shalt go.”

We also see that following the destruction of Jerusalem, Jeremiah is in Jerusalem weeping and lamenting the state of the city. 

Lamentations 1: 1: “And it came to pass after Israel was taken captive, and Jerusalem made desolate, that Jeremiah sat weeping, and lamented with this lamentation over Jerusalem, and said Aleph. How does the city that was filled with people sit solitary! She is become as a widow: she that was magnified among the nations, and princess among the provinces, has become tributary (Ecmarch LXX/KJV “Lamentations”).”

  • The reference to Babylonian idol worship in the Epistle of Jeremiah is believed to be proof that the book was written sometime around the prophet Daniel 

Again, like what we saw with the Book of Baruch, a major case against the Epistle of Jeremiah is its reference to Babylonian idol worship. It is believed by many Bible scholars that because Babylonian idol worship is mentioned in this book that it must had been written around the time of Daniel.

However, the Babylonians had been a problem for the Hebrews for many many years up until Jerusalem was destroyed. The Babylonians and later king Nubachazzer were mentioned several times in the books of the Kings, the Chronicles, the book of Isaiah, and the book of Jeremiah (2 Kings 20: 12 – 19; 2 Chronicles 33: 10 – 15; Isaiah 13 – 14; ). We also have many references in the Bible against idol worship. 

Throughout history, we have seen how the Hebrews would often fall into worshipping the idols of other nations and those of their enemies (2 Chronicles 34: 22 – 25; Isaiah 2; 44; 45: 19 – 20; 46; Jeremiah 10; 25: 3 – 7; 42 – 43; 44: 16 – 19). 

We know that the Babylonians were around during this time and that the Hebrews had a propensity for worshipping many false gods, and idols – which was a major reason for the impending captivity. From this information,  we can safely conclude that the Hebrews probably did worship the Babylonian gods and idols and that this isn’t grounds to discount the Epistle of Jeremiah.

letter of jeremiah

An Introduction to the Epistle of Jeremiah

The Epistle of Jeremiah is a letter that was written by the prophet Jeremiah in Jerusalem and sent to the captives in Babylon. In the book of Jeremiah, we know that this happened (Jeremiah 29). As we saw in the Book of Baruch, the Hebrews were taken out of Jerusalem in stages by the Babylonians. However, the prophet Jeremiah was in Jerusalem all the way up until its destruction, aside from a brief visit to Egypt against his will (Bible Study tools “Epistle of Jeremy Chapter 1”). 

The epistle continues to record that the Hebrews were carried captive by the command of God to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar.  Although, the main portion of the letter details the ineffectiveness of idols and the dangers of idol worship. Throughout the letter, we see the constant reminder to obey the commands of God and to worship Elohim instead. 

Do Not Be Fearful of Idols Made of Silver, Gold, and Wood

Epistle Jeremiah 1: 4 – 6:

4 Now shall ye see in Babylon gods of silver, and of gold, and of wood, borne upon shoulders, which cause the nations to fear. 5 Beware therefore that ye in no wise be like to strangers, neither be ye and of them, when ye see the multitude before them and behind them, worshipping them. 6 But say in ye in your hearts, O Lord, we must worship thee.”

The Babylon gods are raised high and caused many nations to fear but the Hebrews are commanded not to fear them because Elohim is the only God to be worshipped.

Do Not Fear Idols That Cannot Do Anything For Themselves

Epistle of Jeremiah 1: 8; 10; 12 – 16; 55 – 56:

8 As for their tongue, it is polished by the workman, and they themselves are gilded and laid over with silver; yet are they but false, and cannot speak.” 

10 Sometimes also the priests convey from their gods gold and silver, and bestow it upon themselves.”

12 – 16: ”12 Yet cannot these gods save themselves from rust and moth, though they be covered in purple raiment. 13 They wipe their faces because of the dust of the temple, when there is much upon them. 14 And he that cannot put to death one that offendeth him holdeth a scepter, as though he were a judge of the country. 15 He hath also in his right hand a dagger and an axe: but cannot deliver himself from war and thieves. 16 Whereby they are known not to be gods: therefore fear them not.”

55 – 56: “55 Whereupon when fire falleth upon the house of gods of wood, or laid over with gold or silver, their priests will flee away, and escape; but they themselves shall be burned asunder like beams. 56 Moreover they cannot withstand any king or enemies: how can it then be thought or said that they be gods?”

The idols are polished and are made by the skills of workmen and artisans but they are useless. Their priests are crooked and steal from them, and yet they can’t save themselves from natural corruption and theft. They are not gods and should not be feared.

Elohim is The True God – Who Controls Everything and Should Be Worshipped Alone

The Epistle of Jeremiah goes on to say that the sun, moon, and stars are not gods but are controlled by Elohim who is the one true God. 

62 – 63: “And when God commandedth the clouds to go over the whole world, they do as they are bidden. 63 And the fire sent from above to consume hills and woods doeth as it is commanded: but these are like unto them neither in shew nor power. 64 Wherefore it is neither to be supposed nor said that they are gods, seeing, they are able neither to judge causes, nor to do good unto men.”

This letter ends by saying 73: “Better therefore is the just man that hath none idols: for he shall be far from reproach.”

Concluding Thoughts on the Epistle of Jeremiah

Throughout all my extensive research on the Epistle of Jeremiah, I saw that there is a general consensus that this book does not contradict Biblical teachings. There are different disagreements on the wording and references to Babylonian idol worship, but overall there isn’t anything theologically inerrant about this book. The greatest arguments are over if the prophet Jeremiah is truly the author – which scholars do not believe he is but do not believe there is evidence for someone else; and the fact that this book wasn’t in the Masoretic scriptures – which became the basis for the KJV and many other sequent translations despite its presence in the Septuagint which predates the Masoretic text by over 400 years. 

These criticisms come even though there is overwhelming evidence that this book was regarded as scripture by the Hebrews and by the many early Church fathers and leaders. The Ethiopian Jews have this book in their Bible, as well as many other Orthodox Bibles. And lastly, the Epistle of Jeremiah was found among the Dead Sea Scrolls – making it a very noteworthy find. 

The Epistle of Jeremiah, along with the other books of the Apocrypha, were regarded as scripture by our forefathers. They are books that provide information about our history, our customs, our traditions, and our faith in Elohim. They are books that we should read and cherish. Shalom.

You can read the Letter of Jeremiah from Bible Study tools “Epistle of Jeremy Chapter 1”. Old Testament Scriptures are from the Septuagint unless stated otherwise.

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