Travelling Nations: the Priority of the MT over the LXX in Jeremiah's Oracles Against the Nations

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Introduction and Thesis

In no book of the Bible are the differences between Masoretic Text (MT) and the Septuagint (LXX) as pronounced as they are in Jeremiah. The LXX is a good deal shorter than the MT. Some estimates say 1/8 shorter, while others say 1/7 shorter. Good discussions of each individual variant can be found in the commentaries. The focus of this paper is more narrow. The most obvious and largest difference between MT and LXX has to do with the Oracles Against the Nations (hereafter OAN).

There are two main questions that arise with regard to the well-known issue of the OAN in Jeremiah. The first issue is the placement of the oracles within the prophet as a whole. Do they belong in chapters 46-51, as in the MT? Or do they belong immediately after 25:13, as in the LXX? The second issue is the order of the OAN. The order of the MT is different from that of the LXX. The LXX's order is as follows: Elam, Egypt, Babylon, Philistia, Edom, Ammon, Kedar, Damascus, and Moab; whereas the order of the MT is different: Egypt, Philistia, Moab, Ammon, Edom, Damascus, Kedar, Elam and Babylon. What this paper will seek to do is to examine the various theories that have been propounded in the history of interpretation, and then make an argument that the placement and order of the MT is authoritative.

History of Theories

According to Louis Stuhlman, the majority position before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls was that the LXX “was understood to be a later and inferior text useful only to correct the earlier and superior MT where its readings were deemed corrupt or highly problematic.”1 There was a minority position favoring the LXX. However, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls shifted the majority of scholars to one of two positions: either the LXX was superior, or there were two equally authoritative Hebrew Vorlage, one underlying the LXX, and the other being a kind of proto-MT. The reason for this change of opinion is that some of the Jeremiah scrolls found at Qumran suggest a MT Vorlage, whereas a few others seem to suggest something similar to LXX, though none of the evidence directly affects the OAN.2

In Stuhlman's more recent commentary, he offers something similar to Sweeney's rationale (examined below) as the reasoning for the different placement. Stuhlman argues that the different placements evidence “conflicting theological agendas.”3 The LXX placement emphasizes judgment on Israel by the Babylonians, whereas the MT placement has a more “triumphant note celebrating the reign of God and the eventual cessation of Israel's sad times of trouble.”4 While I agree that the emphases are different, I would not call them conflicting.

Gerald Janzen produced a very thorough study of the comparison between LXX and MT.5 He argues that Jeremiah's placement of the OAN follows the pattern of Isaiah and Ezekiel of putting them in the middle of the book (p. 115). Then, to explain the MT's placement, he argues that those scribes responsible for the MT placed the OAN at the end of their manuscripts of Jeremiah “by sewing an addition on to the leather, and adding the new material as an appendix” (p. 115). Janzen prefers the order of the LXX OAN, stating that “there is no discernible order to G,” thus making the LXX order the lectio difficilior (pp. 115-6). Janzen appears to argue (somewhat inconsistently, to my mind) that both placements of the OAN were intrusive rather than organic.6 This would imply a separate existence for the OAN prior to belonging to the text of Jeremiah. Soderlund answers this understanding with a simple, but devastating point: if both placements were introduced artificially, then one would expect an identical introduction to both placements (p. 209). I would also add that if the OAN existed independently, then why would there be a need to change the order at all, either from LXX to MT, or from MT to LXX? With regard to placement, Janzen's position would actually favor the MT as being the lectio difficilior, since placing the OAN in the middle of the book is what the other prophets did. Janzen's explanation, which has a purely practical air about it, does not satisfy, not least because of how well the OAN fits into the context in 42-52 (on which see below). Furthermore, Janzen does not explain why 52 follows after the OAN if the OAN were merely sewn on the end of the manuscript, which would presumably put the OAN last.

Emanuel Tov has written a fair bit on the question, and argues for a completely different approach. Instead of resolving the question by means of textual criticism, Tov proposes that the question is a redactional issue.7 However, as James W. Watts notes, proposed redactional theories of Jeremiah would have textual and redactional processes overlap.8 As various theories of redaction criticism have a highly subjective set of assumptions and criteria, I will not spend time refuting them, even though redaction can be argued with more cogency in regard to Jeremiah than with any other text of the OT.

Since William Holladay's commentary of the 1980's, it has been fashionable to refer to Jeremiah's supposedly “rolling corpus,” a phrase referring not only to the supposedly fluid textual situation, but also to Holladay's theory of sources that make up Jeremiah.9 Holladay's theory is that the placement of the LXX is original, but the sequence of the MT is original. With regard to the placement, he argues that since Jer. 25 LXX lists the “various nations who will drink the cup of wrath; the association in undoubtedly the original one, so that it follows that the oracles were moved secondarily to their position in M.”10 However, with regard to the sequence of the nations, he argues that the MT preserves the original order “since it seems to have a chronological basis.”11

Alexander Rofé has argued for the priority of the MT placement and order.12 He argues that the original heading for Jer. 25 LXX (verses 1-9) announced only oracles addressed to Israel and Jerusalem.13 The introduction in the LXX then was expanded to include the other nations. To be fair, he also argues that the MT introduction to the OAN has been expanded.14 However, the difference between the two supposed expansions is that the MT expansion shows that it is influenced by the LXX order. It is unclear how this supports the original order of the MT. Contrary to how some have argued with regard to the arrangement of the book as a whole, Rofé says that placing the OAN in the middle, as LXX does, shows a tradition of scribes familiar with the other prophetic books.15 This is equivalent to an assertion that the MT placement is the lectio difficilior. Given the possible reasons for the MT placement that Sweeney develops (as shown below), it seems unlikely that this particular argument will have much enduring weight.

John Mackay's take on the situation is that there were two editions of Jeremiah. He tentatively states that the first edition was written in Egypt, with the MT produced afterwards, but still within Jeremiah's lifetime, and directed by him. On this understanding, the MT was written for the benefit of the people in exile to have a greater relevance to them, whereas the LXX had more relevance to the people in Egypt.16

Marvin Sweeney argues “that past attempts to explain the structure of both versions of the book of Jeremiah have been unsuccessful because they employ diachronic criteria, which are better suited to explaining the history of the literary growth of the text than its final literary structure.”17 He argues that theological concerns govern the different placement. The LXX placement emphasizes Jerusalem's destruction as compared with the northern kingdom, not to mention a greater emphasis on YHWH's actions in judging Jerusalem.18 However, the MT placement places “much more emphasis on the downfall of the nations, particularly Babylon, after the destruction of Jerusalem is complete.”19 These arguments seem to cut across Holladay's position, in that Sweeney argues that both LXX and MT have particular reasons for placing the OAN where they do, whereas Holladay only argues such reasoning for the LXX. Sweeney is the only author this writer has read to offer reasons for both placements. The only difficulty, then, is that Sweeney does not definitively state whether he prefers MT or LXX. He hints at the direction he would want to go on p. 76, where he states, “The Masoretic form of Jeremiah clearly builds upon the shorter LXX form of Jeremiah.” That being said, he still seems to want to have both forms of the text to have equal final authority.20

Tremper Longman's commentary, in the New International Biblical Commentary series, argues that the LXX was an earlier version, while the MT was later, and therefore superseded the earlier version. He also notes that all the ancient versions follow the MT, an important point.21

Hetty Lalleman's commentary in the Tyndale series offers an argument by way of quoting a Dutch article by H. Peels. Peels's argument, according to Lalleman, is that the MT's placement of the OAN is original because of the inclusio formed with the book's introduction, as outlined in Jer. 1:10.22 If Jeremiah is to speak to the nations to tear down and build up, then the OAN at the end of the book do just that.

Although there are other authors that can be considered in the history of interpretation on this matter, the various positions can be summed up in the following way before moving on to my own position. One group of scholars believes that the MT placement and order is original (most older authors). Another viewpoint is that the LXX placement is original, while the MT order is original (Holladay). A third position is that the LXX placement and order are both original (Janzen). A fourth view regards both placements and orders as of equal canonical value (Sweeney, seemingly). A fifth view relegates the question to redaction criticism, rather than textual criticism (Tov). A sixth view sees the LXX as an earlier, Egyptian edition, which the later MT displaced as it traveled to Babylon (Longman and Mackay). I have a great deal of sympathy for view one. I certainly view the MT as having more authority than the LXX in this question. However, view one labors under the singular difficulty of being unable to explain why the LXX developed the way it did. View six offers a better alternative. It must be understood, however, that in defending view six, I will be assuming that Jeremiah or Baruch did the editing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. A text could be relevant in two different versions at two different times, but the final version of the text will be the authoritative one. This can be demonstrated with regard to the similar editorial touches (very few and far between) of the Pentateuch, probably by Joshua. Another analogy can be seen in the different theological stances of Kings and Chronicles. Kings was written during the exile to answer the question, “How did it come to this?” Chronicles was written after the exile to answer the question, “Are we still God's people?” This difference in time implying a different set of questions needing to be answered helps to account for the differences between Kings and Chronicles. Similarly, God's people in Egypt needed a much more thoroughly negative message than the exiles in Babylon did, since those in Egypt had disobeyed God even more than the exiles to Babylon had. Therefore, the OAN in LXX, originating in Egypt, has the more negative message, whereas the exiles needed to have the more positive message that the OAN MT provides. I would not agree that the theologically different concerns of LXX and MT amount to contradictory messages. Rather, the message is re-contextualized for the good of those in exile, a new audience.

The Arguments for MT Superiority

The arguments in favor of the MT superiority in terms of the placement and order of the OAN are as follows: 1. As Peels noted (see above), the OAN in MT form an inclusio with 1:10. This inclusio gives Jeremiah a thoroughly international feel. An eschatological direction for the fate of God's people emerges in the MT placement. Although OAN in the Old Testament cannot always be interpreted as giving hope to Israel,23 the MT order of ending with Babylon receiving utter destruction does seem to point to hope for Israel as they go into exile.

2. The OAN begin with Egypt in the MT, and the context of chapters 42-45 having a great deal to do with Egypt makes the MT placement and order more natural. Here we must answer Janzen's argument concerning the LXX's order and placement being the lectio difficilior. It seems to me that Janzen misuses the principle. There is another explanation possible for why the LXX looks the way it does, one not posited by any author I found. My explanation is founded on the assumption that the LXX version originated in Egypt, an assumption not provable but nevertheless plausible. The flight to Egypt was forbidden by God in Jer. 42. God warned the people that great disaster would overtake the people if they did not submit to Babylon. The people did not listen, but went to Egypt anyway, taking Jeremiah and Baruch with them by force. The time in Egypt was marked by chaos for God's people. The seemingly chaotic order and placement of the LXX could be attributable, then, to the socially chaotic times in which it originated (whether as a Hebrew Vorlage to the LXX or in some other form). Here I must answer Holladay's argument that the placement of the LXX is more likely to be correct because of the LXX associating the OAN with MT 25:15-29.24 The problem with this argument is that the order of the OAN in LXX does not correspond with the order of nations in 25:15-29. Furthermore, there are a great number of nations left out of LXX OAN that are mentioned in 25:15-29, such as Tyre, Sidon, Arabia, and Media. Furthermore, some of the OAN's nations mentioned are not actually mentioned in 25:15-29, namely, Kedar and Damascus. It could be argued, theoretically, that the association wasn't meant to be as strict as all that. 25:15-29 mentions foreign nations, and so do the OAN. However, the emphasis on Egypt in 42-45, as mentioned above, makes a much more natural transition to the OAN, which start with Egypt in the MT order. Furthermore, it would seem odd to put the OAN before 25:15-29, rather than after. In the LXX, the OAN come after a rather unconnected mention of the destruction of Babylon (LXX 25:12-13), which does not naturally lead into the OAN against Elam. It would have made more sense to put the OAN after 25:15-29.

3. The chronological order of the OAN in MT is much more logical than the LXX “insofar as the oracles are dated.”25

4. The geographical progression from west to east (noted by various scholars) also bridges the gap from Egypt in 42-45 to Babylon in 52.26 Although it could be argued that this implies a deliberate arrangement on the part of a later redactor, it could just as easily be a signal that the author arranged it so.

5. As Longman noted (see above), the ancient versions (with the exception of LXX) all follow the MT in both placement and order. The only evidence for the LXX is in the textual history of the LXX itself.

Summary and Conclusions

I have argued for the position that the LXX originated in Egypt, under trying, socially chaotic times. This helps explain why the LXX's order of the OAN does not have a discernible logical order, or connection with its immediate context, contra Holladay. I have further argued that Jeremiah and/or Baruch, under divine inspiration, changed the order and placement of the OAN to fit better a new context, that of the exiles in Babylon. This second edition is the final and authoritative edition. The OAN fit far better in the context in between 42-45, on the one hand; and 52, on the other, with both chronological and geographical progression from Egypt to Babylon, thus giving an eschatological hope to God's people that their biggest enemies will be defeated, in spite of present appearances to the contrary.

1Louis Stuhlman, The Other Text of Jeremiah (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1985), 2.

2Stuhlman, 2-3, as well as most commentators. Janzen includes some preliminary publications of some of the Dead Sea Jeremiah scrolls in his appendices. These fragments have since been published in a more scholarly edition in the Discoveries in the Judean Desert series. Janzen's study has been critiqued by Sven Soderlund in chapter 5 of his The Greek Text of Jeremiah (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1985), 193ff. Soderlund does not believe that retroversion can give nearly as certain a result as Janzen seems to think (197). Even 4QJerb does not settle the issue for Soderlund (199).

3Stuhlman, Jeremiah (Nashville: Abindgon Press, 2005), 8.

4Stuhlman, Jeremiah, 9.

5J. Gerald Janzen, Studies in the Text of Jeremiah (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973).

6Soderlund also notes the confusion, The Greek Text of Jeremiah, 209.

7See Emanuel Tov, “The Literary History of Jeremiah in the Light of its Textual History,” in Empirical Models for Biblical Criticism, edited by Jeffrey Tigay (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1985), 211-237.

8James W. Watts, “Text and Redaction in Jeremiah's Oracles Against the Nations,” CBQ 54 (1992), 432-447, p. 437.

9See William Holladay, Jeremiah 2 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 15-35.

10Holladay, Jeremiah 2, 5.

11Holladay, Jeremiah 2, 5.

12Alexander Rofé, “The Arrangement of the Book of Jeremiah,” ZAW 103 (1991), 390-398.

13Rofé, “The Arrangement of the Book of Jeremiah,” 397.

14Rofé, “The Arrangement of the Book of Jeremiah,” 397.

15Rofé, “The Arrangement of the Book of Jeremiah,” 397.

16John Mackay, Jeremiah, Volume 2: Chapters 21-52 (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2004), 437-438.

17Marvin Sweeney, Form and Intertextuality in Prophetic and Apocalyptic Literature (Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 2005), 69.

18Sweeney, Form and Intertextuality in Prophetic and Apocalyptic Literature, 72.

19Sweeney, Form and Intertextuality in Prophetic and Apocalyptic Literature, 72.

20Sweeney, Form and Intertextuality in Prophetic and Apocalyptic Literature, 77, e.g., where he emphasizes “the importance of assessing the final, synchronic literary from of both the MT and LXX versions of the book of Jeremiah as a means to understand the perspectives and concerns of the later tradents of the Jeremian tradition who produced the Vorlagen of our present texts.”

21Tremper Longman, Jeremiah, Lamentations (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008), 9.

22Hetty Lalleman, Jeremiah and Lamentations (Downer's Grove, IL: IVP, 2013), 55, quoting H.G.L. Peels's article “Drinken zùlt gij! Plaats en betekenis van do volken-profetieën in Jeremia 46-51,” in Theologia Reformata 44: 218-233.

23See Lydia Lee, Mapping Judah's Fate in Ezekiel's Oracles against the Nations (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2015). Lee overstates her case rather frequently. However, her basic point is sound: the OAN are more complicated, typically, than simply bashing the nations in order to give hope to God's people.

24Holladay, Jeremiah 2, 313.

25See Terence Fretheim, Jeremiah (Macon, GA: Smyth and Helwys, 2002), 578.

26Fretheim, Jeremiah, 578-579.
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