JEREMIAH, EPISTLE OF:
By: Kaufmann Kohler
A Greek apocryphon, being a fictitious letter which Jeremiah is supposed to have written to the Jews who were about to be led as captives to Babylonia, the purpose of the letter being to warn them against idolatry. It seems to be written with especial reference to Jer. x. 1-16, wherein the prophet sharply contrasts the living and everlasting God of Israel with the idols of Babylonia. Jer. x. 11, a declamation addressed to the Babylonians, distinguished by being written in Aramaic, appears to have suggested the idea (as may be seen from the Targum to the passage) that Jeremiah sent an epistle of that nature (comp. Jer. xxix. 1) to the elders of the Captivity, who were to read it to all the Jews as a warning against being induced by their heathen masters to worship idols. The author, however, while making use also of such passages as Isa. xliv. 9-19, xlvi. 1-2; Ps. cxv. 4-8, cxxxv. 15-18, has Egyptian idolatry in view, as may be gathered from verse 18, where the Feast of Lights at Sais (Herodotus, ii. 62) is obviously alluded to. The epistle, therefore, must be classed among the propagandist literature of the Alexandrian Jews issued for the purpose of winning the heathen over to Jewish monotheism.
After a few introductory verses announcing the transportation of the Jews to Babylonia as a punishment for their sins, and promising their return to the Holy Land after the lapse of seven generations (possibly a mistake for the seven decades in Jer. xxix. 10), the writer of the epistle immediately turns to his subject, describing with fine sarcasm and vivid coloring, and ostensibly from his own experience, the practises of the idolatrous priests and people:
"The idols are decked with silver and gold, which often the priests steal to give them to harlots (8-11); they are given purpleand scepters, but have no power; daggers and axes, but can not defend themselves against thieves (12-16, 18); they have candles lit before them, but see not (19); their eyes are full of dust, their faces black with smoke (17, 21); insects and bats cover their bodies, but they feel them not (20, 22). They are carried upon the shoulders, and when they fall they can not rise; yet gifts are set before them as unto the dead! The priests sell and misuse them, take off their garments and clothe their wives and children (26-33); they can give neither health nor wealth, nor sight nor speech, nor any help whatsoever to their worshipers, and instead cause women to deliver themselves over to incest (34-43). [A survival of this Astarte cult is reported by S. I. Curtiss ("Primitive Semitic Religion To-day," Chicago, 1904) as still existing in Egypt.] Men's own handiwork, they can neither save them from war and plague nor from famine, nor their own temples from fire (45-55). Any vessel or piece of furniture in the house is of greater use than they; the stars and the clouds fulfil the command of their Maker, but these idols are like a scarecrow in a garden of cucumbers, that availeth nothing (61-71)."
This description is made quite effective by the refrains
"Whereby they are known to be no gods; therefore fear them not" (16, 23, 29, 66); "How should a man think and say that they are gods?" (40, 44, 52, 56, 64); "And ye shall know them to be no gods . . ." (72-73); "Better the just man that hath no idols; he shall be far from reproach."
In some editions of the Greek text, as well as in the Old Latin and Syriac versions, and accordingly in Luther's and the English translation, the Epistle of Jeremiah constitutes ch. vi. of Baruch, but without justification.
- Bissell's Apocrypha, 1880, pp. 433-441;
- Ewald, Die Jüngsten Propheten, 1868;
- Frizsche's Handbuch zu den Apocryphen, 1851, i. 203-222;
- Herzfeld, Gesch. des Volkes Jisrael, 1847, i. 316;
- Kautzsch's Apocryphen, 1900, i. 226-229;
- Speaker's Apocrypha, 1888, ii. 287-303.