Leuchter-the punctuation mark that isn’t there

One of the things I try to keep in mind when reading the Bible in English translation is that it will include much that is not there in the Hebrew or Greek. This includes punctuation. And yet I had long missed something in Jeremiah 8:8:

How do you say, “We are wise, and Yahweh’s law is with us?”
But, behold, the false pen of the scribes has worked falsely (WEB).

I have assumed Jeremiah was attacking the scribes. This depends on the quotation marks falling after the first half of the verse. However, there are no quotation marks in Hebrew. So what if the quote goes through the end of the verse?

Mark Leuchter, in The Levites and the Boundaries of Israelite Identity argues that in the context of Jeremiah it is likely that the prophet’s opponents were attacking the scribes. The scribes were the Levites who had produced Deuteronomy. The sages in Jerusalem claim that their own wisdom constitutes the true Torah of Yahweh. According to them, the Levite scribes and their scroll have distorted it. Far from attacking the scribes, Jeremiah comes to their defense.

Nowhere else in Jeremiah does he pit himself against scribes. His opponents are named as sages, priests, and prophets in 18:18, for instance. In fact, Leuchter argues that Jeremiah saw himself as a scribe. Because he used Baruch to reproduce a scroll in chapter 36, some have thought Jeremiah did not write. However, circumstances may have made it impossible for Jeremiah to write in this one case. In many verses in the book, Jeremiah himself seems to produce written work. One example is Jeremiah 30:2:

 Thus speaks Yahweh, the God of Israel, saying, Write all the words that I have spoken to you in a book (WEB).

So Jeremiah, according to Leuchter, was a Levite from a Mushite line at Anathoth, who, like the other deuteronomistic Levites, had picked up the role of being Yahweh’s scribe.

Jeremiah was associated with Shaphan, King Josiah’s secretary—so a scribe (Interestingly we have an archeological relic that affirms Shaphan’s existence. See here.)

I blogged a few months ago about Brian Peterson’s theory that the priests of Anathoth passed down ancient memories that became central to our Bible. His view is that these traditions got passed down between the times of David’s priest, Abiathar and Jeremiah. Jeremiah was near the end of this process. Leuchter turns this around.

For Leuchter, Jeremiah is closer to the beginning of the process. He sees the Shaphanide faction– descendents and followers of Shaphan–as active after Jeremiah, during the Babylonian exile.  They produce some of the material Peterson would put much earlier in Anathoth.  Remember that Leuchter’s contention is that the original book of Deuteronomy came about because Levites took up the task of defending King Josiah’s reforms after the fact.

There are some things that I find unconvincing in Leuchter. I am rooting for him.  He says in the preface that, like me, he is a fan of the rock group, Rush.  So I want to confirm his good judgment in other areas.  But I am finding it a mixed bag.  I have problems with his position mythological language in poetry cancels out historical reference, with his use of anthropology to draw historical conclusions, and with his dating of most  scribal activity as late.

However, I am happy to find this notion of Jeremiah as spokesman for a school of scribes convincing and kind of revolutionary.

Since I am interested in the development and factions within Israel’s priesthood, a question for further investigation would be the relationship between the scribes of the D documents and the scribes of the P documents. I used to entertain the idea that the “lying scribes” of Jeremiah 8:8 might apply to the priestly writers. I think this is Richard Friedman’s idea. But Leuchter’s idea that “lying scribe” was an accusation leveled at Jeremiah and his associates makes more sense.

About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
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