Ancient and Medieval Interpretation of the Complaints of Jeremiah
Ancient and Medieval Interpretation of the Complaints of JeremiahSusan G. Sullivan, Ph.D.Director, Edward M. Cook, Ph.D. Poem prayers in the book of Jeremiah use strong, sometimes accusatory, language, in the first person, in speaking to God. They stand out from the rest of the book, with little or no connection to preceding and following sections. The traditional list includes Jeremiah 11:18-20, 12:1-6, 15:10-11, 15:15-18, 17:14-18, 18:18-23, 20:7-10, and 20:14-18. Modern interpreters call them "confessions," "laments," or "complaints," noting similarities between these and Gunkel's "laments of the individual," though most do not include all elements of the lament genre. "Complaint" best describes their strong emotional content, addressed to God, connected with specific misery that does not resolve into praise. This dissertation considers ancient and medieval interpretation of these complaints, with particular focus on Jeremiah's harsh language. It looks at the traditional list of complaints, plus Jeremiah 4:10, an accusatory sentence; first in the Masoretic Text, then in the ancient versions: Septuagint, Targum, Vulgate, and Peshitta. It considers the meaning of the words of the complaints and how these were transmitted. It then considers a representative sample of interpretation in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Syriac. It includes Greek and Latin patristic; Latin medieval; Jewish ancient, rabbinic, and medieval; and Syriac ancient and medieval interpreters. It examines their choice of words, content and mode of interpretation, and methods of dealing with Jeremiah's strong complaints and accusations. Reverent interpretation by ancient and medieval interpreters transmitted these texts very carefully, with few emendations, including some slight softening of Jeremiah's harsh language. The texts were handed down in "streams of tradition" in language groups. Interpreters found meaning for the texts in the details of Jeremiah's life, but did not limit understanding to this original meaning. They considered theological questions raised by his complaints and related them to communities of their own day. Their conviction that these texts would reveal useful insights about God and God's work with, and expectations of, humanity, was shown in practices valuable for our own day: carefully transmitting each text, paying close attention to its details, seeking connections between these texts and the rest of Scripture, and considering theological implications and applications to communities.
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