In Cod.B, A, the title is "Epistle of Jeremiah," in Cod.Q simply "Epistle"; but in some Greek MSS it follows Baruch without a break, and is therefore without a title; similarly in the Vulgate, where it forms chap.vi of Baruch without any title. The RV title is thus taken from the Septuagint.
This rambling and unedifying fragment does not lend itself to a clear analysis of its contents; but some attempt must be made to describe these.
The Epistle purports to have been written by the prophet Jeremiah to the exiles in Babylon; this is stated in the superscription, which is evidently not an original part of the Epistle; according to it the people are not yet in exile. The name of Jeremiah never occurs in the Epistle itself.
The prophet tells his people, who are represented as still in Palestine, that because of their sins they are to be carried captive to Babylon. The captivity will last for seven generations, and then the exiles will be brought out in peace (vv.2, 3). A description is then given of the idols, silver, golden, and wooden, of Babylon, of their inability to hear or help their worshippers, and therefore the folly of serving them (vv.4-27). A further emphasis on the impotence of idols follows, together with an exposure of their priests (vv.28-39). How, it is asked, can such impotent images be called gods? And how can men be so foolish as to worship what their own hands have fashioned? Better to be a king who shows his manhood, or even a household utensil, which is at any rate useful, than to be such a god (vv.40-59). Sun, moon, stars, lightning, wind, and clouds all fulfil their offices, but these gods can do nothing. "Better, therefore, is the just man that hath none idols; for he shall be far from reproach" (vv.60-73).
The purpose for which the epistle was written is clear enough; it is to shame idolaters for their foolish worship, and to call them to wiser courses. But to whom does the writer address himself? Jer.x.1-16 and Isa.xliv.9-20 evidently inspired the epistle. These prophets were denouncing Gentile idolaters, but their denunciations had the further object of warning their own people, lest they should be tempted to join in such worship. We may postulate the same in the present case. But while in the case of the earlier prophets we know to what particular generation they were speaking, and where their hearers were living, the period and locality in the present instance are not so certain. Babylon, as we have seen in Baruch, may be a mark for some other city, and the period at which the epistle was written is difficult to determine. It has been held that Egypt is meant by "Babylon," and that the date of the epistle is the middle of the second century BC. Large colonies of Jews were settled at this time both in Babylonia and Egypt. There are, however, indications in the epistle from which it would appear that Babylon is to be taken literally.
In verse 4 the procession of gods is referred to: "But now shall ye see in Babylon gods of silver, and of gold, and of wood, borne upon shoulders". Such processions are known to have been customary in Babylon. (See, e.g., the relief portraying such a procession in Gressmann, Altorientalische Bilder zum alten Testament, Plate 136 (1927).)
Herodotus speaks of the custom mentioned in verse 43 as prevalent in Babylon. (Hist., i.199, 200.)
Evidently, therefore, the purpose of the writer was to warn his people living in Babylonia against idolatry, see verses 2 ff., and verses 5, 6: " Beware therefore that ye in nowise become like unto the strangers. ... But say in your hearts, 0 Lord, we must worship thee."
As to the date of the Epistle, it is well known that many Jews of the Dispersion were attracted to alien cults throughout the Greek period (300BC onwards). (E.g. the cult of Sabazios in Asia Minor, see The Labyrinth (ed. Hooke, pp.115-158 1935).)
So that the warning contained in the epistle would be appropriate at any time during that period. But the words in verse 3, "So when ye be come into Babylon, ye shall remain there many years, and for a long season, even for seven generations; and after that I will bring you out peaceably from thence," may well indicate a closer date, as Ball has pointed out.
"Seven generations," he says, "allowing forty years to the
generation, according to Old Testament reckoning, would cover 280 years.
If we count from the exile of Jechonias (597BC), this brings us to the year
317BC, or, counting (as the author may have done) from 586BC, the year of
the final captivity, we arrive at 306BC, some thirty years after the arrival
of Alexander in Babylon."
(In Charles, op. cit., i.396.)
It has been mostly held that the epistle was originally written in Greek; "it
hardly admits of doubt," says Rothstein, " that
this epistle was originally composed in Greek." (In Kautzsch, op. cit., i.226.)
Similarly Schurer says: "This small literary piece is certainly Greek in origin." (Op. cit., iii.467)
If the date suggested, the end of the fourth century BC, be accepted, it is highly improbable that the Epistle can originally have been written in Greek.
But apart from the question of date, Ball has conclusively proved that Hebrew
was the original language:
" Almost every verse exhibits peculiarities which suggest translation,
and that from a Hebrew original . . . there are places where the strange
phraseology of the Greek can only be accounted for by assuming that the writer
of it supplied the wrong vowels to some Hebrew word which he was translating,
or mistook some Hebrew consonant for another resembling it...". The
examples given are wholly convincing.
Eissfeldt also believes it to have been written in Hebrew originally. (Einleitung in das alte Testament, p.652 (1931).)
The Greek version would be considerably later, probably about the middle of the second century BC.
Fitzsche, op. cit., i.205 ff. (1850).
Rothstein, in Kautzsch, op. cit., i.226 ff. (1900).
Andre, op. cit., pp.263 ff. (1903).
Nestle, Septuagintastudien, iv.16. ff. (1903).
Ball, in Charles, op. Cit., i.599 ff. (1913).
Naumann, Untersuchungen uber den apokryphischen Jeremias-brief (1913).
Thackeray, Some Aspects of the Greek Old Testament, pp.53 ff. (1927).