Question About Baruch

Question About Baruch November 18, 2014

A reader writes:

A Protestant coworker is asking me questions about the seven “extra” books in the Catholic Bible. He recently asked me why in the book of Baruch it says that the Babylonian captivity would last seven generations when in Jeremiah it says it would last 70 years. I could not find an answer to this anywhere. Can you help? Thanks!

The passage from Baruch to which you refer is said by the author (traditionally Jeremiah’s secretary) to be from a letter from Jeremiah to the exiles in Babylon.  It reads:

Because of the sins which you have committed before God, you will be taken to Babylon as captives by Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Babylonians. Therefore when you have come to Babylon you will remain there for many years, for a long time, up to seven generations; after that I will bring you away from there in peace. (Bar 6:2–3).

Jeremiah 29 is also a letter to the exiles in Babylon, with substantially the same message: You are there because of the sins of the nation.  God has not forgotten you and will bring you back, etc.  In the course of it, Jeremiah says:

When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfil to you my promise and bring you back to this place. (Je 29:10–11).

There are various possibilities to account for the discrepancy.  Most biblical scholars would simply argue that Baruch is the work of a Hellenistic Jew writing several centuries after the historical Baruch to encourage Jews under Greek rule not to knuckle under to Greek paganism.  The “seven generations” would therefore be a play on the original Jeremiah’s promise, suggesting that just as their ancestors had escaped Babylonian domination, so they would escape Greek domination.

It’s also possible the letter is by the original Jeremiah but being paraphrased by the original Baruch so that “generation” means “decade”.

Or it could be a scribal error in the transmission of the text.

Or something else.

Bottom line: there are lots of ways to look at Baruch’s differences with Jeremiah and not have to abandon the Church’s teaching that it is inspired.  When people are *searching* for reason to reject the Deuterocanon, one of the favorite things to do is turn *differences* into *contradictions*.  But of course, you can do exactly the same thing with texts that Christians all acknowledge are inspired.  There are minor differences in the passion and resurrection narratives too.  Paul gives three slightly differing accounts of his encounter with the risen Christ on the Damascus Road.  Did Jesus say “Blessed are the poor” or “Blessed are the poor in spirit?”  Did he say “Take, eat; this is my body” (Matthew), “Take; this my body” (Mark), “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke), or ““This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” (Paul).  Clearly, all the witnesses are recalling a single event which really happened.  But none of them have a burning interest in the exact tape-recorded words used by Jesus.  They are getting across the gist of what he said in a way their audience will understand and (a very important point) in a way their audience has *long* understood.  They are *reminding* not introducing new information to their readers.

In much the same way, an advanced class on the Civil War, full of students who already know about the Gettysburg address might give the gist of what Lincoln said, while only using a few exact words of the address and giving a paraphrase of his point (“87 years ago, we founded the US on the twin propositions of liberty and that all men are created equal.  Now that is being tested in this great civil war…”)  Flat-footed literalists centuries from now would accuse the people in that  conversation of “twisting” Lincoln’s words.  But in fact it would simply be due to the fact that they *knew* Lincoln’s words so well that they did not feel the need to laboriously and precisely quote and footnote them every time they had a conversation about them.  Paul, in particular, is not introducing a new audience to the story of the Last Supper (and he is the first to write down and account of it).  Rather, he is talking about other things (namely, how you should conduct yourself in the liturgy and in your life) *in light of what both he and his audience know about the events of the Last Supper*.

The moral of the story is this: the biblical texts are not written to give us tape-recorded conversations, but to give us *accurate* memories of human testimony.  Even modern methods of gathering human testimony cannot give us the kind purity that people, eager to get rid of this or that biblical text, perpetually demand.  Exhibit A: the assassination of President Kennedy.  You can, as with the gospels, get a reasonably accurate picture of what happened in Dealey Plaza on November 22, 1963.  But if you start hyper-emphasizing every teeny discrepancy between eyewitnesses, you can wind up with fifty million conspiracy theories.  Add two thousand years and you could easily wind up with “scholarship” that concludes JFK did not exist at all.

Hope that helps.

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