Is there any biblical evidence that Jeremiah didn’t write Lamentations?

The only real concerns we’ve ever heard about the book introductions in The Books of the Bible have been about the few cases in which we’ve suggested that a book traditionally attributed to a known figure may have been written instead by one or more unknown authors.

Consider the case of Lamentations, traditionally ascribed to Jeremiah.  Lamentations directly follows Jeremiah in most English Bibles.  But in The Books of the Bible, it’s placed with Psalms and Song of Songs as another collection of lyric poetry potentially by a variety of authors.  In the Invitation to Lamentations, we observe that “the authors’ names aren’t given” for any its five songs.

These three books—Psalms, Lamentations, and Song of Songs—are also treated together in my study guide to lyric poetry in the Understanding the Books of the Bible series.  In that guide I say similarly that “we don’t know for certain who wrote” the songs in Lamentations.

But if we don’t know for certain, why not attribute them to Jeremiah, in keeping with long-standing Jewish and Christian tradition?  If the Bible itself doesn’t tell us, why not trust this tradition, rather than offering some other explanation?

Actually, the Bible does present two compelling pieces of evidence that Jeremiah did not write Lamentations.

First, the songs in Lamentations show that their author(s) had first-hand, eyewitness knowledge of the conditions in the ruined city of Jerusalem in the days and weeks following its destruction by the Babylonians.  The songs are written from the viewpoint of someone within the city who sees what is happening there and is calling out to others to respond with grief and compassion.

But according to the Bible, Jeremiah was never in the city of Jerusalem after it was destroyed.  The historical narrative about this event in the book of Jeremiah explains that the Babylonians removed him from Jerusalem and brought him to his home town of Anathoth before they destroyed the city.  Later he was mistakenly rounded up for deportation to Babylon and taken to Ramah, but he was recognized and sent back to Mizpah.  And from there, the surviving Israelites took him with them to Egypt.

The Babylonians destroy Jerusalem and carry the surviving Judeans into exile (from L’Histoire du Vieux et du Nouveau Testament, 1670, illustrator unknown)

The only way we can place Jeremiah in Jerusalem after its destruction, where he could have written Lamentations from an eyewitness perspective, is to suppose that he made a visit to the city that isn’t recorded in the Bible.  But then we would be pitting something the Bible doesn’t say against what it actually says:  that Jeremiah went to Anathoth, Ramah, Mizpah, and Egypt, but never back to Jerusalem.

The other piece of evidence that Jeremiah didn’t write Lamentations is found within the book itself.  The first four songs are acrostics, poems whose successive lines begin with the consecutive letters of the Hebrew alphabet.  The second, third, and fourth poems evidence a variation in the letter sequence: the letter pe precedes the letter ‘ayin.

It’s not understood exactly how this variation originated (it’s found in some other biblical acrostics as well), but it seems that two slightly different alphabetical sequences were in circulation in ancient Israel.  A person might be familiar with one sequence or another, but it’s highly unlikely that a single poet composing acrostics for a specific occasion would start with one understanding of alphabetical order and then change to a different one.  It’s much more likely that the songs in Lamentations are the work of more than one author, precisely because they reflect two different understandings of alphabetical order.

Taken together, these two pieces of biblical evidence suggest that the songs in Lamentations were not written by Jeremiah, but rather by two or more unknown poets who were, as we say in our Invitation to Lamentations, “people of faith putting into words their struggle to understand how God could allow such suffering and devastation.”  We may not know their names, but we can still appreciate how God inspired them to speak to a question that believers have struggled with throughout the centuries.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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