The Book of Jeremiah as a Novel?

Essay, 2010

10 Pages, Grade: A


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. What is the book of Jeremiah?
2.1. Historical thoughts
2.2. Literary thoughts
2.3. Bind two things together: Jeremiah as a historical novel

3. Conclusion

4. Bibliography


Many of the commentaries or Essays which are written about Jeremiah call it not only the longest of the prophetic books in the Hebrew Bible but also the most complicated one and most difficult to understand. [1] Thus I want to ask how it is possible to make sense of this book. [2]

The understanding of prophecy and history and especially of the prophetic books in the Hebrew Bible has changed dramatically in the last decades. [3] According to Robert R. Wilson the most important steps have been to consider the prophets as predictors of the future, as ethicists and theologians, as poets and mystics, as oracle givers as well as as authors and editors and last as interpreters of scripture. [4] I will focus in this Essay on the last two ways of interpretation for they are closely connected with literary criticism and thus open the door to understand the book of Jeremiah as a novel. [5]

Can the book of Jeremiah reasonable be seen as a novel and, if so, which consequence for the understanding and interpretation of the book has this approach?

2. What is the book of Jeremiah?

2.1.Historical thoughts

Since many scholars have seen the book of Jeremiah for a long time as a chaotic source collection or debated in extenso about the historicity of the book and thus these ideas became very dominant in interpretation, I have to deal here in short with these counterapproaches. Another reason for beginning with “historical thoughts” is, on a slightly different level, that in the text itself the action and prophecies are embedded in historical “facts”. We cannot ignore this. Very often we find exact dates as introductory phrases when something happened to Jeremiah. The most striking of these dates can be found at the very beginning of Jeremiah. In the superscription, Jer 1:2 we read “in the days of Josiah” which would lead to the conclusion that Jeremiah was active for forty years from 627 till 587. On the other hand, regarding the prose material we should start to count in the year 609. [6] A lot of previous scholars had trouble with this contradiction and tried to make sense of it or just saw it as one more proof of the haphazard character of the book. But this is only an unsolvable problem with a very positivistic approach to such texts or to history in general

I want to show here another possible explanation or solution of the many historical allusions in the book of Jeremiah (I think also to the names of the kings, the Babylonian control, the exile and so one). One can explain the stress of the historical circumstances such as the exile, the reign of Josiah and Nebuchadnezzar and the oppression with the theoretical model of the kommunikatives Gedaechtnis (communicative memory). In short, this kind of memory encompasses maximum three generations and would thus fit to the first writers as well as to the redactors of the book of Jeremiah. Further, the term kollektives Gedaechtnis [7] (collective memory) gives an explanation why we find different ideas in the book and also why it was important for the sake of remembrance to write these things down. [8] Taking this theories into account, it is clear that the dramatic events such as the Babylonian exile and also the time before and after it where actually present in the mind and thoughts of the persons who wrote the book. They have been strongly grounded in the communicative and later collective memory of the people and where therefore identity-establishing. Further, we have got special circumstances concerning the history of Israel. Thus, nearly every historiographic explanations which we can find in the book of Jeremiah are historically true in the sense that it is the truth of the memory of these people, regardless a nineteenth century positivist truth. And through the memory and the down-writing one constructs vice versa history which is then true for the respect subject or collective

This does not mean that everything in the book of Jeremiah is pure fiction, but historical research of the last decades showed us that the latter approach is simply not achievable with certainty or that even no absolute objective and external truths exist. [9]


[1] For example: Louis Stulman, Jeremiah, (AOTC; Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005), 1 ; S. Jonathan Murphey writes very visible about the question of the structure of the book: “This area is so plagued with difficulties that many who approach the subject become "weeping scholars"— academicians tormented in thought, troubled, with faces lost in hands.” See: S. Jonathan Murphey, “The Quest for the structure of the Book of Jeremiah,” BS 166 (2009): 306

[2] By saying “this book” I will refer all the time during this essay to the English translation (RSV) and thus indirect to the masoretic text (MT) which is much longer and has another order than the Septuagint version of the book of Jeremiah

[3] Hans M. Barstad, “What Prophets Do: Reflections on Past Reality in the Book of Jeremiah,” in Prophecy in the Book of Jeremiah (ed. H.M. Barstad and R. G. Kratz; Berlin: de Gruyter, 2009), 10-32

[4] Robert R. Wilson, “The prophetic books”, in The Cambridge Companion to Biblical Interpretation (ed. John Barton; Cambridge University Press, 1998), 212-225

[5] As does for example Barstad in Barstad, “Prophets”. Contrary to it states Polk that “it is not after all a novel”. See: Timothy Polk, The Prophetic Persona: Jeremiah and the Language of the Self (JSOTSS; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1984), 107

[6] Stulman, Jeremiah, 5

[7] The collective memory encompasses the communicative memory (reaches till about 80 till 100 years), as well as the cultural memory, which is for the „Sicherung und Kontinuierung einer sozialen Identität“. With different media it can persist on long term. See: Aleida Assmann and Jan Assmann, “Das Gestern im Heute: Medien und soziales Gedächtnis,” in Die Wirklichkeit der Medien: Eine Einführung in Kommunikationswissenschaften. (ed. K. Merten and S.J. Schmidt; Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1994), 121

[8] To the term of the collective memory see further: Maurice Halbwachs, Das kollektive Gedächtnis (Stuttgart: Enke, 1967). To the relation collective memory – historiography especially pp. 66-71, here 66: „Wenn die Erinnerung an eine Folge von Ereignissen nicht mehr eine Gruppe zum Träger hat […] ist das einzige Mittel solche Erinnerungen zu retten, sie schriftlich in einer fortlaufenden Erzählung festzuhalten […].“; We have got special circumstances concerning the history of Israel. We might find here the seldom phenomenon of a collective memory before the passing of three generations. In the case of ancient Israel the community who remembers did not went away because of natural dying but because of the exile. “This would lead to a great concern to preserve all the traditions, oral and literary, belonging to a people denied normal temple worship and forced to deal with an entirely new situation and to discover new norms for community life and worship.” See: Geoffrey H. Parke-Taylor, The Formation of the Book of Jeremiah: Doublets and Recurring Phrases (SBLMS 51; Atlanta: SBL, 2000), 295

[9] Ute Daniel, Kompendium Kulturgeschichte: Theorien, Praxis, Schlüsselwörter (5d ed.: Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag 2001), 385

Excerpt out of 10 pages


The Book of Jeremiah as a Novel?
University of Edinburgh  (School of Divinity)
Hebrew Prophecy
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book, jeremiah, novel
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M.Phil Lydia Einenkel (Author), 2010, The Book of Jeremiah as a Novel?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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