A Brief Book Review from Books At a Glance
by Benjamin J. Montoya
John Goldingay has become widely recognized for his work on the book of Jeremiah perhaps primarily because of his commentary on the book and his more recent release of the book which I am reviewing here, The Theology of Jeremiah: The Book, the Man, the Message.
On a positive note, this book merits careful attention primarily because of Goldingay’s highlighting and explanation of the theological themes he finds throughout the book of Jeremiah. The section that I found particularly insightful is the one in which he provided questions to ask of modern so-called “prophets” versus the biblical model:
Ιf one narrows the enquiry to asking what Jeremiah might imply regarding the questions to ask about prophets or purported prophets today, maybe some questions might be:
- do they say the opposite of what we think?
- does their message survive being measured by scriptural standards about behavior?
- do they hold together past, present, and future?
- do they get attacked by the people of God, and especially by its leaders?
- do they love the people of God?
- do they intercede?
- do they avoid making a profit out of being prophets?
- do they get martyred or miraculously rescued?
- is it hard to make sense of their message as a whole–does it seem inconsistent?
- do they combine threat and promise?
- does their message get rejected?
- do they persist, year in, and year out?
- do they frighten us?
- are they independent of the structures (and payroll) of the people of God?
- are they offensive?
- do they speak poetically and act dramatically?
Jeremiah would invite a “yes” to these questions, though it would be unwise to take one or two of them out of the context of the whole.
Our readers will likely take issue with Goldingay’s repeated mention of his views on the authorship of Jeremiah. He denies that Jeremiah wrote it and claims that the book is a compilation of other sources. Goldingay does not defend that view in this book in any way whatsoever; it is merely stated and assumed. He also does not defend this view anywhere else that I can find. In fact, he mentions authorship only a mere thirteen times throughout his WBC commentary. His view, admittedly, is based on a literary analysis of the book. He explains as much:
In recent scholarship, the trend towards interpreting the sources (especially the narrative discourses and accompanying stories) as the product of later tradition has had a natural corollary, namely that the biography of a historical Jeremiah has receded more and more from view, almost to be lost in the shades of remote antiquity. This withdrawal of the figure of Jeremiah from historical view is a natural consequence of trends in the literary analysis of the book, not merely a perversity of modern scholarship.
More conservative evangelicals may be tempted to throw out the literary analysis baby with the bathwater due to this denial, but I would encourage evangelicals to overlook more obvious disagreements for what they can gain from this book, e.g., like what I mentioned above. In other words, eat the “meat” and spit out the “bones.” For example, Leland Ryken has utilized the approach of literary analysis to do some real good, and conservative evangelicals can certainly benefit from his work (cite some of his work).
The denial of the authorship of Jeremiah is typically based on an assumption that there must have been sources (again, an assumption), stylistic differences in the original language throughout the book (especially because there are sections of Hebrew and Aramaic), and because of predictive prophecy contained in the book that is assumed. Each of these issues has its own host of web of issues that I will not get into here, but here are some of the issues with each. First, the assumption that the book was compiled from sources is just an assumption; there is no proof. Although the theoretical discussion may have some scholarly value, it is largely speculative in the same way that the various quests for the so-called historical Jesus have been that remain driven by other theological and philosophical assumptions that need not assume to engage in scholarly study of any book or topic of the Bible.
Second, the issue of stylistic differences (be it in Hebrew or Aramaic or the mere presence of both languages throughout the original text of Jeremiah) reflects an outmoded view of language that assumes that style differences reveal authorial differences. The underlying issue here is that style is not an indicator of authorship; authors can use different styles for varying purposes, just like we can today. The underlying issue is the outmoded view of language that assumes that stylistic differences can reveal authorial differences. If more biblical scholars would adopt a view of language from modern linguistic theory instead of traditional grammar, then this kind of obvious linguistic error could be avoided in toto. But there remains a reluctance across the liberal and conservative theological spectrum for considering and adopting the insights of modern linguistic theory for all kinds of reasons, such that more recent introductory books on exegesis do not even so much as contain discussions of the topic.
The mere fact that the language of the Bible is our entry point into the study of the Bible itself ought to give us further pause to consider more seriously how we understand and study the language piece itself to avoid making basic linguistic mistakes, on the negative side, and to allow for further scholarly progress on the other side. There is no doubt that modern linguistics is a complicated field of study, but the larger theological enterprise is no less complicated, but we have just become used to its high level of complexity. In sum, if biblical scholars would adopt a 21st-century view of language instead of continuing to hold on to a 19th-century view, then this issue would be a non-issue. Paradigm changes of this nature, however, are hard to make.
Third, the issue with predictive prophecy requiring a later date is one driven by naturalistic assumptions and worldview requirements rather than the supernatural worldview contained in the Bible. There is no textual, external manuscript evidence that requires a later date; instead, the denial of the possibility of predictive prophecy drives this view. The real debate, then, lies at the level of assumptions and worldviews, not with the actual text of Jeremiah.
Finally, again, this book has tremendous value for its discussion of the theology of Jeremiah if the readers of the book can look past some of the assumptions contained in this book that are widespread across biblical studies. This book would certainly aid in the study of Jeremiah if someone wanted to preach through the book of Jeremiah highlighting various theological themes and how we can learn from those today.
Benjamin J. Montoya, PhD
Books At a Glance