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Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah

Blake A. Jurgens
Florida State University

Course: Introduction to Second Temple Judaism; Introduction to Deuterocanonical Literature
Related Courses: Introduction to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament
Syllabus Section: Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah
Intended Audience: Undergraduate or First-Year Divinity School Students

The book of Baruch (also known as 1 Baruch) and the Letter (or Epistle) of Jeremiah usually do not garner much attention within the typical biblical studies course. There are several reasons why this is often the case. Recent scholarship has given Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah far less analysis than many other ancient Jewish writings. This can be attributed in part to the fact that both texts are fairly brief and offer few clear details regarding the date, place, and circumstances of their composition. Neither work is included in the Jewish Tanakh or the Protestant Old Testament, meaning that introductory courses oriented around these canons naturally tend to neglect discussing these noncanonical texts. Finally, many undergraduate textbooks on the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament avoid treating these writings at any length, making it difficult to find accessible resources for students.

The following lesson plan will attempt to fill the abovementioned lacuna. Geared toward undergraduate and lower-level divinity school students, this lesson plan offers an accessible overview of the book of Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah as well as several exercises and assignments that engage some of the major features of these texts.

I. Objectives

After completing this lesson, students should be able to:

  • Rearticulate basic information about Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah, including their place among Jeremianic tradition, language and canonicity, and basic contents.
  • Appreciate the intertextual reliance upon scripture displayed by both texts.
  • Critically engage the theological concept of exile in Baruch and the anti-idolatry discourse presented in the Letter of Jeremiah.
  • Reflect upon the potential place of Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah within the broader landscape of Second Temple Judaism.

II. Pre-Class Reading Assignments

In advance of class, students should read the entirety of Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah, both of which can be found in the New Oxford Annotated Bible (NOAB) which is available on the OSBO site (linked above). Assigning an introduction to both texts is also highly recommended, especially since many students will most likely be unfamiliar with these writings. Some helpful examples from the OSBO site include the following:

In addition, for students interested in researching Baruch and/or the Letter of Jeremiah further or writing a paper on either text, be sure to direct them to the Oxford Bible Commentary entries on Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah (for a list of the available OBSO commentaries, click here) as well as the resources listed in the Further Reading section at the conclusion of this lesson plan.

Depending on the placement of this lecture within one's syllabus or the overall content covered in the course, some preliminary topics may also be helpful to explore prior to reading these texts. For students unacquainted with the Apocrypha/Deuterocanonical literature, the introduction to this corpus provided in the NOAB is an accessible resource. For a more substantial introduction, see the one provided by the Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible. Courses oriented around the study of Second Temple Judaism and Literature or the Apocrypha/Pseudepigrapha as opposed to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament may benefit from an overview of the book of Jeremiah in order to contextualize the literary and theological foundation undergirding Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah. The following resources may also prove helpful in terms of establishing the historical and literary contexts that shaped the composition of these writings:

III. Background Orientation to Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah

Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah represent two examples of early Jewish literature (e.g., the Qumran Apocryphon of Jeremiah, 2 Baruch, 3 Baruch, the Paraleipomena of Jeremiah) associated with the prophet Jeremiah and the catastrophic events of the Babylonian exile. The book of Baruch is ascribed to Baruch son of Neriah—the scribal assistant of Jeremiah (Jer 32:12–16; 36; 43:1–7; 45:1–2). This is stated in the narrative preface of the composition (Bar 1:1–14) which frames the entire text as the words of Baruch delivered to the exile community in Babylon five years after the destruction of Jerusalem (586 B.C.E.) by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. The depiction of Baruch among the Judean captives (cf. b. Meg. 16b) contradicts Jeremiah 43 where Baruch accompanies Jeremiah to Egypt, not Babylon. The Letter of Jeremiah introduces itself as a copy of a letter sent by Jeremiah to the initial wave of Judeans facing imminent deportation to Babylon (597 B.C.E.; cf. 2Kgs 24:8–17). The portrayal of Jeremiah communicating with the exiles finds precedent in Jeremiah 29 where the prophet dispatches a letter to the Judeans recently deported to Babylon.

Although both writings are modeled as the literary output of known biblical figures, it is unlikely that either text was actually penned by their professed sixth-century namesakes. Instead contemporary scholars believe that Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah are pseudonymous works likely composed sometime during the third to first centuries B.C.E. and falsely attributed to their alleged personae. The fictional employment of Jeremiah and Baruch as authorial voices corresponds with the exilic setting adopted by both texts as well as their mutual reliance upon the language, themes, and narrative world established in the book of Jeremiah. In this manner, one might read (as many early Christians did) Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah as appendixes to the book of Jeremiah that embrace the past memories of the Babylonian exile as a fruitful vehicle for reflecting upon the present-day realities of displacement, imperial domination, and cultural conflict experienced by Jewish communities during the Second Temple period.

Our primary knowledge of Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah derives from the Greek version of these texts found in the Septuagint—the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures. Lexical, grammatical, and literary features extant in both works have led scholars to posit that the Letter of Jeremiah, and at least part of Baruch (Bar 1:1–3:8), were originally written in Hebrew. However, no ancient manuscripts of either text have been found confirming this theory. Later translations of both works in other ancient languages (e.g., Latin, Syriac, Arabic) all depend upon the Greek.

Due to their perceived relationship to the person of Jeremiah and the Babylonian exile, Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah were habitually placed by scribes alongside the biblical books of Jeremiah and Lamentations, creating a sort of Jeremianic corpus. In the Septuagint Baruch is found between Jeremiah and Lamentations, with the Letter of Jeremiah situated right after Lamentations. The Orthodox Bible still adheres to this order. However, in the Vulgate—the Latin translation of the Christian Bible—Baruch is placed after Lamentation with the Letter of Jeremiah fused to Baruch as its sixth and final chapter (henceforth why this lesson plan deals with both works concomitantly). This arrangement appears in Roman Catholic Bibles today. While the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions include Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah in their Bibles, the Protestant Old Testament and the Jewish Bible do not incorporate either text in their respective canons.

As a whole, the book of Baruch can be characterized as a liturgical montage. Through prayer and poetry couched in the language of earlier biblical writings Baruch addresses the theological causes and enduring aftereffects of exile. The book can be divided into four main sections:

  • Baruch 1:1–14: Prose Historical Introduction
  • Baruch 1:15–3:8: Penitential Prayer on Behalf of Israel
  • Baruch 3:9–4:4: Poem on Wisdom and Torah
  • Baruch 4:5–5:9: Poem of Consolation Regarding Jerusalem

Though a couple of overarching themes emerge throughout the entire work—such as the theological framework of sin-exile-repentance-restoration—overall the individual sections of Baruch exhibit substantial differences in terms of subject matter, genre, and even vocabulary. These dissimilarities are so distinguishable that many surmise that Baruch is actually a composite text whose literary units were created independently by different authors before being compiled in a single composition. The narrative introduction of Baruch (Bar 1:1–14) chronicles the putative origins of the entire text. Following this historical preface, the book goes into an extended penitential prayer (Bar 1:15–3:8) that confesses Israel's past wickedness, identifies the exile as the divinely delegated punishment for their sins, and beseeches God for deliverance and forgiveness. From there, Baruch abruptly shifts literary genres, moving from confessional prayer into poetic meter. The first poem (Bar 3:9–4:4) reflects upon the elusiveness of wisdom. After detailing the absence of wisdom among the nations of the world, the poem isolates the Torah of Moses—referred to as "the book of the commandments of God" (4:1)—as the ultimate source of wisdom. The second poem (Bar 4:5–5:9) concludes the book with a message of consolation. Following a brief account of the past infidelity of the Israelites toward their God, the poem laments the calamity of the exile from the perspective of the city of Jerusalem, personified here as a grieving mother. The poem ends with a prophetic exhortation of encouragement foretelling the imminent downfall of Israel's enemies and the subsequent regathering of God's people from the east and the west.

Contrary to its title and opening inscription, the Letter of Jeremiah does not possess the formal literary features commonly found in ancient letters. Instead, the composition is best described as loosely organized and somewhat repetitious homily critiquing various aspects of pagan idolatry. In total, the Letter of Jeremiah contains ten short invectives denigrating idols and their worship. Each of these invectives concludes with a refrain emphasizing that idols are inanimate human-made objects, not true divinities, and thus unworthy of fear or veneration. The work can be outlined as follows:

Vv. 1–7: Historical Introduction and Initial Warning Against Idols

Vv. 8–73: Ten Invectives Against Idolatry

  1. 1. Vv. 8–16: Idols Cannot Act on their own Behalf
  2. 2. Vv. 17–23: Idols Cannot Provide their own Maintenance and Upkeep
  3. 3. Vv. 24–29: Idols Cannot Move Themselves
  4. 4. Vv. 30–40a: Idols Cannot Aid Humans in any Capacity
  5. 5. Vv. 40b–44: Idols are Served by Ritual Prostitutes
  6. 6. Vv. 45–52: Idols are Created by Human Hands
  7. 7. Vv. 53–56: Idols Cannot Help Humans
  8. 8. Vv. 57–65: Idols Cannot Protect Themselves and are Impotent
  9. 9. Vv. 66–69: Idols Cannot Act on their own Behalf (unlike wild animals)
  10. 10. Vv. 70–73: Idols are Useless

Immediately following its initial inscription, the Letter of Jeremiah exhorts its audience to remain faithful to the Lord and beware the idolatrous practices of their non-Jewish neighbors. From there, the rest of the text (Let Jer 8–73) lambasts idolatry from several different angles ranging from the immobility and impotency of idols to their association with ritual prostitutes and vulnerability to desecration and decay. Many of these invectives echo the anti-idolatry discourse and imagery employed in the Hebrew Bible, including Jeremiah 10 which provides the traditional inspiration for the entire work.

IV. In-Class Exercises and Discussions

1. Baruch, The Letter of Jeremiah, and their Use of Scripture

Arguably, the most pervasive and paradigmatic characteristic shared by Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah is their intertextual engagement with the ancient Jewish writings which eventually comprised the Hebrew Bible. Both works have often been described by scholars as pastiches or mosaics of biblical quotations and allusions. While previous commentators frequently belittled Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah as derivative or unimaginative due to their heavy dependence upon the biblical writings, more recent studies have recognized the literary creativity and theological ingenuity behind how these works employ sacred texts. The following exercise seeks to tangibly demonstrate this. First, print out copies of one or all three of the selected passages from Baruch or the Letter of Jeremiah referenced below to distribute to every individual in the class.

At the bottom of these photocopies, write out the biblical citations mentioned next to their corresponding passage. Prior to the in-class exercise, briefly explain the intertextual nature of Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah. Then, pass out the photocopies of the relevant passages of Baruch and/or the Letter of Jeremiah. Next, have the students—either individually or in appropriately sized groups—open their Bibles to the listed biblical citations. Instruct the students to use highlighter markers or colored pens to indicate where they observe the listed biblical works referenced in their passage of Baruch or the Letter of Jeremiah. After all the individuals or groups have completed the exercise, have them share their findings to the class.

Some useful questions to guide discussion could include: In what ways is scripture appropriated (e.g., direct quotation, paraphrase, allusion, borrowed language or imagery) in this text? What techniques does the author use to weave together these different scriptures? Does the author ever impose new meaning upon a text, or create new ideas from older sources? How does scripture work in your assigned text, or what does the use of scripture achieve for the author? Is it fair to call Baruch or the Letter of Jeremiah uncreative or unoriginal?

2. Exile as a Theological Theme in Baruch

When we read Baruch, one of the overarching theological themes we encounter is the notion of exile . Although Baruch was most likely composed centuries after the end of the Babylonian exile (539 B.C.E.) and the reestablishment of the Jewish people in their ancestral land by the Persians, throughout the work we find the exile spoken about as a persisting state of divine chastisement brought about by the past disobedience of Israel. In this manner, the book of Baruch describes the restoration of the Jewish people as an incomplete reality whose true and complete fulfillment has not yet come to fruition. According to the different sections of Baruch, it is only when the people of Israel have fully confessed their sins, repented from their past defiance, and recommitted themselves to following God that the Jews of the diaspora may gather once again in Judea and the Jewish people may once again be unified.

In this discussion, start by asking the students where they see the notion of exile displayed within each of the four main sections of Baruch. Be sure to have them detail exactly how the concept of exile is being used in each passage. Next, ask them to compare how these sections each appropriate the theological concept of exile, pointing out perceived similarities and differences. Some guiding questions here could include: What does the exile represent in these different literary sections? Why did the exile occur according to these liturgical pieces and what is the proper response for God's people? What is the prescribed relationship which the Jews should have with those maintaining their "exilic" domination? What sort of imagery, language, and theological ideas structure the concept of exile in these sections (especially those borrowed from earlier biblical literature)?

3. Sketching Out the Anti-Idol Discourse of the Letter of Jeremiah

The goal of this exercise is the help students better visualize the finer details of the anti-idolatry discourse of the Letter of Jeremiah. For classrooms with a whiteboard, be sure to bring a sufficient amount of dry-erase markers to supply ten groups of students. For classrooms without a whiteboard, bring ten sheets of oversized paper or posterboard and boxes of markers (if unavailable, request students to use their own materials). Divide the classroom into ten groups of students. Assign each group one of the ten invectives against idols from the Letter of Jeremiah. Ask each group to sketch out the polemic presented in their assigned section. Then, have each group present their section before the class by reading aloud the corresponding invective. Conclude the exercise with a discussion among the entire class. Some potential questions which might stimulate discussion could include: What do these invectives have in common? What sorts of themes overlap across the Letter of Jeremiah? What do these invectives have to say about the God of Israel versus other deities? Why would a text like this be important for Hellenistic Jews living in a world ruled over by non-Jewish powers and peoples?

V. Lesson Conclusion

While there are several plausible ways to conclude the lesson, one approach that effectively embeds Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah within the broader landscape of Second Temple Judaism is to imagine what sort of ancient Jewish audiences would have been influenced by these texts. After briefly rehashing some of the overarching experiences characteristic of Hellenistic Judaism (e.g., diaspora and displacement, imperial rule of Greek empires, the influence of Hellenistic culture, contact with non-Jewish religions), inquire how Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah address some of these issues in their writings. In addition, ask the class how Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah strive to define what it means to be Jewish in their contemporary context.

VI. Potential Topics for Further Research or Reflection Papers

For students interested in using the OBSO site as a digital resource for writing papers or conducting research, be sure to forward them to the guided tour Powerpoint as well as the "Writing a Research Paper with OBSO" page.

1. Penitential Prayer in Baruch and Early Judaism

During the Second Temple period, a new variety of ritualized prayer emerged in Jewish writings. Known by scholars as penitential or confessional prayer, this mode of prayer typically acknowledges guilt for past sins while requesting pardon and removal of punishment in the present. In his oft-quoted definition of penitential prayer, Rodney Werline has characterized this form of prayer as:

"a direct address to God in which an individual, group, or an individual on behalf of a group confesses sins and petitions for forgiveness as an act of repentance." (Werline 2006: xv)

One example of penitential prayer is Bar 1:15–3:8. The goal of this paper is to explore the relationship between Bar 1:15–3:8 and other penitential prayers. First, using Werline's definition referenced above, identify how Bar 1:15–3:8 fits within the genre of penitential prayer. Next, compare and contrast Bar 1:15–3:8 to at least two other examples of penitential prayer found in early Jewish literature (e.g., Ezra 9:5–15; Neh 9:6–37; Dan 9:4–19; Prayer of Azariah). In what ways is Bar 1:15–3:8 similar or different to these texts? What role does the history of Israel play in these writings? How about negative conditions of the exile? What might these shared themes tell us about the development of penitential prayer in Second Temple Judaism?

2. Where is Wisdom? The Location of Wisdom in Baruch 3:9–4:5 and Job 28

The wisdom poem of Bar 3:9–4:5 can be summarized as poetic attempt to answer the question: "What is Wisdom and where can one find it?" The pursuit and acquisition of elusive wisdom is a prevalent theme throughout many early Jewish texts. One of the most prominent examples of this literary trope is Job 28, a text which many scholars see as being a key influence upon the wisdom poem of Baruch. The goal of this paper is to explore the wisdom poem of Baruch in light of its place within this broader tradition. In the first part of this paper, summarize the portrayal of wisdom in Bar 3:9–4:5. Topics to address include what is wisdom; where is wisdom; why is wisdom hard to find; and how does one acquire wisdom. Second, compare and contrast the portrayal of wisdom in Bar 3:9–4:5 to Job 28. In what ways is wisdom in Job 28 similar to wisdom in Baruch? In what ways does wisdom differ in Job 28 compared to Baruch? How does Bar 3:9–4:5 modify or innovate upon the earlier depiction of wisdom found in Job 28? What does Bar 3:9–4:5 gain in its portrait?

3. Anti-Idolatry Discourse in the Letter of Jeremiah and Other Jewish Writings

While the Letter of Jeremiah offers one of the more expansive polemics against idols and idol worship among early Jewish writings, by no means is it alone in this regard. From the Second Temple period onward, we find several Jewish writings which chastise the worship of idols as an inferior, impious, and even absurd practice characteristic of non-Jewish religion. In this paper, choose at least two other examples of early Jewish writings that engage in this anti-idol polemic (e.g., Bel and the Dragon; Wisdom of Solomon 13–15; Jubilees 11–12; Apocalypse of Abraham). For the first half of the paper, analyze exactly how the Letter of Jeremiah pushes back against idol worship, highlighting especially its usage of earlier biblical texts. In the second half of the paper, compare how the other texts you selected criticize idol worship versus the Letter of Jeremiah. What sort of arguments do these texts hold in common? What points are unique to the Letter of Jeremiah, or are not present in the Letter of Jeremiah? How does literary genre change how these Jewish writers addressed alien idolatry? Compared to these other texts, how effective is the Letter of Jeremiah at conveying its message?

Further Reading

Adams, Sean A., Baruch and the Epistle of Jeremiah: Commentary Based on the Texts in Codex Vaticanus (Leiden: Brill, 2014).

Adams, Sean A., ed. Studies on Baruch: Composition, Literary Relations, and Reception (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2016).

Brooke, George J. "The Structure of the Poem against Idolatry in the Epistle of Jeremiah (1 Baruch 6)." In Poussières de chrisianisme et de judaïsme antiques: Études réunies en l'honneur de Jean-Daniel Kaestli et Éric Junod. Edited by Albert Frey and Rémi Gounelle (Prahins: Éditions du Zèbre, 2007), 107–28.

DeSilva, David A. Introduction to the Apocrypha: Message, Context, and Significance (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 198–221.

Doering, Lutz. "Jeremiah and the 'Diaspora Letters' in Ancient Judaism: Epistolary Communication with the Golah as Medium for Dealing with the Present." In Reading the Present in the Qumran Library. Edited by Kristen de Troyer and Armin Lange (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005), 43–72.

Harrington, Daniel J. Invitation to the Apocrypha (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 92–100.

Moore, Carey A. Daniel, Esther, and Jeremiah: The Additions (New York: Doubleday, 1977), 255–316.

Newman, Judith H. Before the Bible: The Liturgical Body and the Formation of Scriptures in Early Judaism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 53–74.

Werline, Rodney A. "Defining Penitential Prayer." In Seeking the Favor of God, Volume 1: The Origins of Penitential Prayer in Second Temple Judaism. Edited by Mark J. Boda, Daniel K. Falk, and Rodney A. Werline (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2006), xiii–xvii.

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