An examination of Jeremiah 8:8

Qur’an 5:44, Jeremiah 8:8, the scribes and the corrupted Torah

by Ibn Anwar, BHsc (Hons), MCollT

“The Bible has noble poetry in it; and some clever fables; and some blood-drenched history; and a wealth of obscenity; and upwards of a thousand lies.” – Mark Twain, Letters from the Earth

One of the brothers on my Facebook friends list requested that I clarify Jeremiah 8:8 for him and so the following is a an exposition on the text of Jeremiah 8:8. My interest in the verse piqued when I saw Shabir Ally (now Dr. Shabir Ally) referring to the text in a debate that he had with the irascible Christian missionary Sam Shamoun some 16 years ago. In the debate, during the rebuttal period, Dr. Shabir laments against Shamoun’s accusation against him that he was using an outrageous commentary of Jeremiah 8:8 that he took out of his hat as how a charlatan or a magician might take a rabbit out of his top hat. Dr. Shabir Ally points out, in the rebuttal period, that the interpretation that he offered was not his, but rather, the words and scholarly testimony that are found in the preface of ‘The Bible in Living English’. Indeed, the comments come from scholar and Bible translator Steven Byngton in his book ‘The Bible in Living English’:

“Sometimes even intentional changes were made. Jeremiah 8:8 says that in Jeremiah’s time the commonly accepted copies of the law of Moses were so incorrect as to contain substantial falsehoods: Jeremiah’s words seem to mean that the false matter had been willfully put in; and it would be hard to prove that our copies of the law are not made from the ones that were commonly accepted in Jeremiah’s time.” [1]

In Shamoun’s own rebuttal period, he dismisses Dr. Shabir’s reference as valueless as it comes from the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Never mind the genetic fallacy of such an uncouth approach, we shall see that the text and immediate context of Jeremiah 8:8 prove Dr. Shabir’s point and that Byngton’s view is not one that is solitary among Christian Biblical scholars. Some years later, James White came to the scene and wrote a brief attempt at a rebuttal to Dr. Shabir’s use of Jeremiah 8:8. In White’s article, he reasons that, “The context confirms this, for the very next verse says the wise men “have rejected the word of Yahweh,” not that they have somehow managed to corrupt and destroy it. It must exist and be knowable for them to reject it.” [2] Little does White understand, that when someone alters, changes or corrupts any particular message, then by definition he has rejected it. For example, if you send a message to me by mail, then I open it and deliberately make changes and alterations to the original text, I have by doing so rejected the message that I was given. The Christian theologian Paul R. House seems to grasp this point perfectly, “Judah has refused to return to the Lord despite the fact that repentance would be a normal response to their covenant obligations (8:4-7). Why? Because scribes, who were entrusted with transcribing the law, alter it to fit their beliefs (8:8)…Here the law and prophets come very close indeed, for the prophet must preach the law that has been neglected, altered and rejected.” [3]

There is no ambiguity in House’s testimony. Judah was reticent to return to the Lord, because the scribes, whose responsibility was to transcribe and preserve the law, “altered it to fit their beliefs.” And this lends much credence to the claim of the Qur’an:

“It was We who revealed the law (to Moses): therein was guidance and light. By its standard have been judged the Jews, by the prophets who bowed (as in Islam) to Allah’s will, by the rabbis and the doctors of law: for them was entrusted the protection of Allah’s book, and they were witnesses thereto: therefore fear not men, but fear me, and sell not my ayaat (verses or signs) for a miserable price. If any do fail to judge by (the light of) what Allah hath revealed, they are (no better than) Unbelievers.” (Surah al-Ma’idah, chapter 5, verse 44)

And according to Mufti Shafi’ Uthmani, in his luminous ‘tafsir’ (commentary) ‘Ma’riful Qur’an’, he comments, “They (the scribes) acted crookedly when they started changing its injunctions…” [4]

Unlike the Qur’an, which has God’s stamp of assurance that He Himself shall see to it that the message of the Qur’an is perfectly preserved (15:9), the Torah was entrusted upon the ‘al-rabbaniyyoon wal ahbar’ (the rabbis and the keepers of the Law), but they failed in their dispensation and altered the message therein “to fit their beliefs” as House states above.

Make no mistakes, the scribes were charged with the responsibility of preserving the texts of scripture and transcribing them for others to read. They certainly had the ability and means to change, alter and corrupt what they wrote if they so desired and indeed they did.

“Cheifly, in both O.T. and N.T., a professional student and interpreter of the law of Moses. The scribes were at first priests who made copies of the law. They came to be of importance during the exile, when they were probably responsible for the collecting and copying of the writings that resulted in many of the O.T. books.“ [5]

Biblical scholar Barbara Smith informs us that the primary function of a scribe was to make “copies of the law” and they were responsible for “collecting and copying” the writings that later became the Old Testament books, which of course include the book of Jeremiah.

Many followers of the New King James Version, which account for more than 80 million evangelical Christians in America, don’t see the problem with Jeremiah 8:8, because their chosen translation blurs the meaning by using rather archaic expressions like “vain” instead of “lie” or “corrupted.”

“How do ye say, We are wise, and the Law(Torah) of the Lord is with us? Lo, certainly in vain made he[it]; the pen of the scribes is in vain.” (King James Version, Jeremiah 8:8 )

The above rendering of Jeremiah 8:8 is in what might as well be “ancient English” and I am rather certain that quite a few are fumbling as to what exactly is meant by the verse when it says “the pen of the scribes is in vain.” Well, consider the following renderings of Jeremiah 8:8 into straightforward modern English that will clear the fog away:

“`How can you say, “We are wise because we have the law(Torah) of the Lord,” when your teachers have twisted it so badly?” (New Living Translation, Jeremiah 8:8 )

“How can you say, ‘We are wise, and the law(Torah) of the LORD is with us’? But, behold, the false pen of the scribes has made it into a lie. “ (Revised Standard Version, Jeremiah 8:8 )

“How can you claim, ‘We are wise; the law(Torah) of the LORD is with us? In fact, the lying pen of scribes has produced falsehood.” (Holman Christian Standard Bible, Jeremiah 8:8)

I have added the word Torah in brackets to inform the readers that the word law there is in reference to the Torah i.e. the first five books of the Bible or the so called “books of Moses” and not just any law. The Hebrew word there is תורה or transliterated as Torah.

The Hebrew text reads:

איכה תאמרו חכמים אנחנו ותורת יהוה אתנו אכן הנה לשקר עשה עט שקר ספרים

“eikha tomru khakhamim anakhnu ve Torah adonai itanu akhen hine lasheker asa et sheker sofrim”

The keywords above are “Torah”, “sheker”, “et” and “sofrim”. In a nutshell, the “sofrim” (scribes) maliciously used their “et” (pen) to “sheker”(alter or corrupt) the “Torah”(the Law or word of God) and changed it into a “sheker” (corruption or a lie). So, in the verse given, two important points may be adduced:

1. The Torah has been tampered with.

2. The scribes were responsible for this.

And yes, Jesus himself was vehemently against this elite group of falsifying scholars called the scribes. Let us consider Jesus’ relationship with this magnificent group of people:

In Matthew chapter 23 alone Jesus curses the scribes saying “Woe be to you” no less than six times and called them hypocrites eight times over, which is a record in a single chapter in the whole Bible!

Are the scribes, the ones responsible for the so called preservation of the Old Testament trustworthy? How can they be trusted when they were the ones who plotted to kill Jesus and teated him in such vile ways?

“they(the scribes and pharisees) spat in his face, and buffeted him; and others smote him with the palms of their hands.”

“And they that had laid hold on Jesus Christ led him away to Caiaphas the high priest, where the scribes and the elders were assembled. Now the chief priests, and the elders and all the council, sought false witness against Jesus, to put him to death.” (Matthew 26:57)

Like in Jeremiah 8:8, here we also see evidence of the scribes lying or making false witness. In Jeremiah 8:8 they lied upon the Torah and in the above they lied upon Jesus. Are they to be trusted?

To list every single instance of Jesus reproaching the scribes in this article would be a most tedious task and we do not have the luxury of time nor strength to do that. It is suffice to say that Jesus condemns the scribes in more than 60 verses! In Matthew chapter 23 mentioned earlier, the heading reads, “Jesus Denounces the Scribes n the Pharisees”. You may refer to Mark 12:38 to 40, Luke 20:45-47 etc. for more on Jesus against the scribes.

Commenting on Jeremiah 8:8, Reverend David Bauscher writes:

“A very egregious example of probable deliberate alteration can be found in the Massoretic Hebrew of Jeremiah.” [6] Rebuking them further, he writes, “To indict one group is to indict all, the Scribes, Prophets and the Priests. What is the major crime of the Scribes? “the false pen of the scribes has turned it into falsehood.” What is “it”? The previous sentence gives the answer: “the law of Jehovah”. The law of Jehovah is the written word of God. The Scribes perverted the written scriptures which they were entrusted to copy and preserve without error. There was a way to do that, according to the rules of the school of the Sopherim, in which every Scribe was carefully trained.” [7]

Bauscher sees Jeremiah 8:8 as a textual testimony of the unreliability of the scribes as they used the skills that they honed while training for the profession to finally corrupt and “pervert the written scriptures.”

The Biblical scholar Hector Avalos shares Bauscher’s sentiments against the scribes of Jeremiah 8:8:

“Yet some biblical authors were aware that scribes could alter biblical texts for improper motives. In Jeremiah 8:8, we find this fascinating complaint: “How can you say, ‘We are wise, and the law of the LORD is with us…” [8]

Lo and behold, the English Standard Version Study Bible (Winner of the prestigious Christian Book Award) agrees with Bauscher and Avalos as well:

“JEREMIAH – NOTE ON 8:8 The Judeans possess God’s law, just as they possess the temple, But their scribes, the professional copiers and teachers of the Scriptures, have altered God’s word to fit their own desires. Thus, they have made it into a lie. JEREMIAH – NOTE ON 8:9 These so-called wise men will be put to shame (2:26; 6:15) because of their changing of God’s word. Rejecting God’s word proves they are really unwise.” [9]
According to the interpretation by the ESV on Jeremiah 8:8, the ‘sofrim’ or the scribes reject the Torah, because they have purposefully altered and changed the scriptures, the word of God.

Yet another Christian Biblical scholar (who isn’t of the JW stripe) Dr. James Smith comments on Jeremiah 8:8:

“Among the wise men, the scribes were singled out for special comment. The scribes were men who could write. The pen (‘et) was probably made from a reed. The scribes in Jeremiah’s day were as corrupt as the priests and the prophets. Somehow through their writings they were attempting to nullify the written word of God. Perhaps they were publishing the false teaching of the prophets and priests… Some have proposed that these scribes were even guilty of altering the very text of the word of God. Whatever they were doing these perverse scribes were distorting the truth.” [10]

In Smith’s view, which he labels as “a Christian interpretation”, these “perverted scribes” perverted and distorted the truth by substituting the word of God, the scriptures with their own perverse and error-ridden writings and teachings.

David Carr, Professor of Old Testament and Hebrew and Bible Union Theological Seminary shares Smith’s view in his commentary on Jeremiah 8:8.

“…the vigorous attack on those who claim to be “wise” and that the “Torah is with [them]” when the Torah has been corrupted by the “lying pen of the scribes” (t sheqer sopherim, Jer. 8:8…In addition, both Isaiah and Jeremiah traditions feature broad indictments of groups using writing to oppress the poor (Isa 10:1-2) or corrupt the Torah of God (Jer 8:8).” [11]

Commenting on Jeremiah 8:8, Biblical scholar and historian Stuart Weeks writes:

“In Jer. 88f. the prophet asks:
How is it that you say, ‘Wise are we, and torah of Yahweh is with us’? yet, behold, into falsehood has the false pen of the scribes turn it into. Wise men will be shamed, shattered, and taken; behold, they reject the word of Yahweh, and what wisdom is there in them?”

The prophet’s hearers, then, are claiming to be wise and to possess the torah of Yahweh; the prophet protests that this torah has been corrupted by the scribes, and prophesies that those who call themselves wise will be destroyed, since they are in fact rejecting the divine word, and their wisdom is therefore unreal.” [12]

Weeks clarifies above that because the scribes have corrupted the Torah, they have inadvertently rejected the divine word. He continues in his indictment of the scribes as those that have changed, altered, corrupted and tampered with the Torah:

“general associations of wisdom with torah are found in Pss. 19. 8 (ET 7); 119, but the most probable reference is to the Deuteronomic claim in Deut. 4. 6, that the possession of the Law makes Israel a ‘wise’ nation. Deut. 4 not only expresses the idea of wisdom through law, but prohibits tampering with this law, the crime of which the scribes are here accused (cf. Jer. 5. 31). [13]

Although the scribes were forbidden from tampering with the words of scripture, they did it anyway and it is for this reason that they are described as having rejected God’s word which ensured their destruction.

In sum, from the foregoing discussion, we can safely and securely say that Dr. Shabir Ally’s position that he laid against Shamoun’s deceptive tactics has been thoroughly vindicated – the source that Dr. Shabir uses is in and of itself from a scholar, even if he so happens to be affiliated with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and above all else, we have seen a great number of Christian Biblical scholars and academics lending their clear support to Byngton’s proposition. And finally, we should make no mistake that the corruption and perversion of God’s word is akin to a rejection of it.

 

Addendum:

The following comes from Christian evangelist Bill Bright who was the founder of the world’s largest Christian ministry, Campus Crusade for Christ, which is a household name in America and in many parts of the world. Its presence is seen in almost every major American university. Here’s what he has to say about Jeremiah 8:8.

“8:8 Literally translated, ‘The lying pen of the scribes has made it into a lie.” Scribes (sometimes translated “secretaries”) were not responsible to interpret or teach the ;aw until postexilic times (Ezra 7:11). In Jeremiah’s day, scribes primarily wrote and transcribed documents (Jeremiah 36:32). Teaching was the work of priests (Deuteronomy 33:10) and was done orally. Therefore, this verse could be understood to mean that the scribes had purposefully made inaccurate copies of the scrolls containing God’s law. Because the people were taught from these corrupted scrolls, they believed lies rather than truth.” [14]

According to Bright, the ‘sofrim’ did not teach or interpret the Law in the time of Moses and so that means the excuse given by Christian apologists that they didn’t actually change the Torah but simply wrongly interpreted it becomes untenable. Since this interpretation is out of the question, the only remaining feasible understanding that the text plainly conveys is that the scribes did in fact alter, change and corrupt the Torah and the people were then taught from these perverted copies.

 

Notes:

[1] Byngton, S. J. (1972). The Bible in Living English. Brooklyn, New York: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc. p. 9

[2] White, James. “Jeremiah 8:8: Abused and Misused.” N.p., 27 Nov. 2005. Web.

[3] House, P. R. (1998). Old Testament Theology. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press. p. 307

[4] Shafi’ Uthmani (n.d.). Ma’riful Qur’an (Muhammad Hasan Askari & Muhammad Shamim (Trans.). pp. 178-179; See also Mawlana Daryabadi: “(the Rabbis) had accepted that duty gladly; had cheerfully subjected themselves ‘to the yoke of Torah,'” (Abdul Majid Daryabadi (1991). Tafsir-ul-Qur’an: Translation and Commentary of the Holy Qur’an. Karachi, Pakistan: Darul-Ishaat. p. 431

[5] Smith, B. (1965). Young People’s Bible Dictionary. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.

[6] Bauscher, D. (2015). The Aramaic-English Interlinear Peshitta Old Testament (The Major Prophets). Australia: Lulu Publishing. p. 8

[7] Ibid. p. 9

[8] Avalos, H. (2007). The End of Biblical Studies. Michigan: Prometheus Books. p. 67

[9] C. John Collins, Thomas R. Schreiner, Lane T. Dennis et al. (Eds.). (2008). ESV Study Bible. Crossway.

[10] Smith, J. E. (1972). Jeremiah: A Christian Interpretation. College Press. p. 136

[11] Carr, D. M. (2005). Writing on the Tablet of the Heart: Origins of Scripture and Literature. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 118

[12] Weeks, S. (1994). Early Israelite Wisdom: Oxford Theological Monographs. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 85-86

[13] Ibid. p. 86

[14] Bright, B. (2007). The Discover God Study Bible NLT. Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers.

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