Members of the blog at the Platinum level have the opportunity to publish posts (just) for other Platinums, and after a number of these appear, the members vote on which should be posted on the blog itself. Here is the most recent winner, an insightful and intriguing Platinum guest post by Dennis Folds. Many of you on the blog are interested in Christian pseudepigrapha (= forgeries), especially those in the New Testament. But what about the Old Testament? Now *here* is a bold thesis! Read it and remark!
Being allowed to publish these posts is a very nice perk of the Platinum level of membership. Another is that I do a a special platinum webinar every three months. Are you interested? Check out the various membership tiers and the perks that come with them all: Register – The Bart Ehrman Blog.
And now, check out the post!
Jeremiah Versus the Deuteronomist Forger
Dennis J. Folds, Ph.D.
Given the interest in potential forgeries of NT books and other early Christian writings, I’d like to describe what may have been the most consequential forgery in the history of our Judeo-Christian faith: the “discovery” of the long-lost book of the law of Moses, which purportedly contained the original covenant between YHWH and the Hebrews. The discovery is described in 2 Kings 22, during the renovation of the Temple commissioned by the young King Josiah. The actions taken in the aftermath of discovery leads scholars to identify the document as the core of our book of Deuteronomy, particularly beginning in DT 12 and the next few chapters. In this post I’ll argue that the document was a forgery, and this forgery was denounced by the prophet Jeremiah. The consequences of the forgery include the centralization of YHWH worship in Jerusalem, acceptance of the existence of a written law of Moses that required animal sacrifices and agricultural donations (tithes) to the priests in Jerusalem, and establishment of priests and Levites as the authoritative custodians of the law. In short, it became the basis of the Jewish religion that existed at the time of Jesus. And, I maintain, it was forged.
Our book of Jeremiah is replete with his criticism of the religious establishment in Jerusalem, and he explicitly accuses the scribes of falsifying documents:
[Jer 8:8] “How can you say, `We are wise, and the law of the LORD is with us’? But, behold, the false pen of the scribes has made it into a lie.”
Of course I can’t prove that the forgery he condemns is the one “found” in the temple, But the things Jeremiah denounces in his conflict with the religious leaders align rather well with some of the contents of the middle chapters of Deuteronomy.
The primary basis of the conflict was disagreement on the content of the authentic covenant between YHWH and Israel. Jeremiah did not believe that the elaborate system of offerings and festivals were part of the law of YHWH. He did believe that YHWH’s law required worshiping YHWH only, plus ethical treatment of fellow human beings. Jeremiah believed that failure to comply with those requirements could not be ablated by offerings and feasts. Jeremiah believed that the failure of the people to comply with the true requirements of the law would result in their punishment, in the form of being conquered by Babylon. Although worship of other gods was at the top of the list of transgressions, mistreatment of vulnerable people was also prominent in Jeremiah’s complaint.
Prior to this forged document, there was no reference to a written law of YHWH (or of Moses). Scour the stories in Judges, in Samuel, and in Kings, and the literary prophets who preceded Jeremiah. There’s no indication of any awareness of a written law. Nor is there any veneration of Moses as the great lawgiver. None of the stories about Samuel, David, Elijah, or Elisha involve a written law or reference to Moses as lawgiver. Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Micah are critical of sacrifices and feasts, and call for protection of the vulnerable. There is resounding condemnation of sacrifices and other rituals while mistreating fellow human beings. There are almost zero references to Moses.
Only in our book of Deuteronomy, and a few follow-up passages early in Joshua, is there a claim that Moses wrote the law. The only writing mentioned elsewhere was the Decalogue, on two stone tablets, carried in the ark of the covenant. But Deuteronomy claims that Moses wrote the entire law. (One of my eye-opening realizations came to me spontaneously decades ago: if Moses had indeed written the law, he would have written it in Egyptian hieroglyphics, having been raised an Egyptian prince. And none of the freed Hebrew slaves would have been literate, so they could not have read it!)
The key passages in Deuteronomy tip off the forgery. YHWH is said to have told Moses that after they conquer the promised land, eventually YHWH will choose a place for himself, and all worship is to be centralized there. Moreover, the people may one day decide to install a king, and when they do, he will have responsibilities to ensure the covenant is kept as written. Mighty handy, wasn’t it, to find such a document in the Temple, in the face of the Babylonian threat, and to foist that forgery onto a young king who didn’t want to lose his throne. This covenant promised that YHWH would protect the nation if the people followed its rules. So Josiah set in motion the reformation that centralized worship in Jerusalem and put the religious power in the hands of the priests there. The ancillary places of worship, spread throughout the countryside, were shut down. People had to come to Jerusalem to offer their sacrifices and bring their tithes.
Although he certainly supported the ouster of the worship of gods other than YHWH, Jeremiah did not believe that the system of offerings and festivals of YHWH were part of the authentic covenant, and did not support the mandatory centralization of worship in Jerusalem. Mostly, however, Jeremiah objected to the assurances given to the people by the prophets and priests that they would be delivered from YHWH’s punishment when, in his view, they were still practicing a corrupted faith. He considered these assurances to be fraudulent representations of the true covenant between YHWH and the people. Jeremiah’s ongoing disagreement with the Jerusalem establishment resulted in his imprisonment on more than one occasion.
Jeremiah’s family may have been directly impacted by Josiah’s reformation. According to Jer. 1:1, Jeremiah’s family was a family of priests in An’athoth in the land of Benjamin. As such they may have had their authority, and indeed their livelihood, greatly reduced by the reformation. No information is available on the extent to which Jeremiah’s family was affected by Josiah’s centralization of worship in Jerusalem. Given that they were not Levites and were not in Jerusalem, it is reasonable to infer that the impact was significant. This may have set the tone for the later on-going conflict between Jeremiah and the religious leaders in Jerusalem.
From his preaching, we can infer that Jeremiah’s view of the covenant included the following:
Worship YHWH only
Do not oppress the widows, orphans, or aliens
Do not shed innocent blood
Do not murder
Do not steal
Do not commit adultery
Do not swear falsely
Observe the Sabbath
Deal justly with the poor and needy
Jeremiah’s view is consistent with the understanding reflected in his literary predecessors (Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Micah), and in the stories about the pre-literary prophets (Samuel, Elijah, and Elisha). They, too, uniformly denounced the sacrifices and rituals, and called for justice and ethical behavior. Although our current Deuteronomy contains memorable calls for good behavior, it also calls for ritualistic sacrifices, systematic extraction of resources to support the priests and Levites, and concentration of religious authority. This, I assert, was the heart of the forgery.
As the decades in Babylonian captivity turned into two centuries since the forgery, it became accepted that Moses was the greatest of all time and that he had written this perfect law, received straight from the mouth of YHWH. Luckily, the preserved tradition also included the laudable ethical demands from the deity on how we treat one another. But this concentration of power in elite keepers of the written law, the emphasis on ritual purity, and the smug piety of the self-righteous also permeated this faith. Much of it transmuted into our Christian faith, too. We still have people who claim there is a written contract – God’s promises as written in the Bible – and we still have experts who are eager to explain it to us. It all originated in this forged document. It was all based on a lie.