Jeremiah 8:8 and the Corruption of the Torah

Muslims often appeal to Jeremiah 8:8 as proof that the Torah has been corrupted:

"How can you say, ‘We are wise, for we have the law of the LORD,’ when actually the lying pen of the scribes has handled it falsely?" Jeremiah 8:8

Several comments are in order. First, even if this passage were speaking about an actual corruption of the text, this would only be referring to the copies that were in the possession of the scribes. It wouldn’t refer to all the copies that were in the hands of others such as Daniel the prophet. More on this later. Secondly, Jeremiah was a prophet of God, which means that he was receiving revelation from God. As such, Jeremiah would have been quite capable of restoring the Torah to its true pristine form at the direct orders of God, and hence nothing of the Torah could be corrupted! In fact, something similar happened with Jeremiah’s own revelation:

"In the fourth year of Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah, this word came to Jeremiah from the Lord: ‘Take a scroll and write on it all the words I have spoken to you concerning Israel, Judah and all the other nations from the time I began speaking to you in the reign of Josiah till now. Perhaps when the people of Judah hear about every disaster I plan to inflict on them, each of them will turn from his wicked way; then I will forgive their wickedness and their sin.’ So Jeremiah called Baruch son of Neriah, and while Jeremiah dictated all the words the Lord had spoken to him, Baruch wrote them on the scroll. Then Jeremiah told Baruch, ‘I am restricted; I cannot go to the Lord 's temple. So you go to the house of the Lord on a day of fasting and read to the people from the scroll the words of the Lord that you wrote as I dictated. Read them to all the people of Judah who come in from their towns. Perhaps they will bring their petition before the Lord, and each will turn from his wicked ways, for the anger and wrath pronounced against this people by the Lord are great’ ... After they put the scroll in the room of Elishama the secretary, they went to the king in the courtyard and reported everything to him. The king sent Jehudi to get the scroll, and Jehudi brought it from the room of Elishama the secretary and read it to the king and all the officials standing beside him. It was the ninth month and the king was sitting in the winter apartment, with a fire burning in the firepot in front of him. Whenever Jehudi had read three or four columns of the scroll, the king cut them off with a scribe's knife and threw them into the firepot, until the entire scroll was burned in the fire. The king and all his attendants who heard all these words showed no fear, nor did they tear their clothes. Even though Elnathan, Delaiah and Gemariah urged the king not to burn the scroll, he would not listen to them. Instead, the king commanded Jerahmeel, a son of the king, Seraiah son of Azriel and Shelemiah son of Abdeel to arrest Baruch the scribe and Jeremiah the prophet. But the LORD had hidden them. After the king burned the scroll containing the words that Baruch had written at Jeremiah's dictation, the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: ‘Take another scroll and write on it all the words that were on the first scroll, which Jehoiakim king of Judah burned up. Also tell Jehoiakim king of Judah, ‘This is what the Lord says: You burned that scroll and said, "Why did you write on it that the king of Babylon would certainly come and destroy this land and cut off both men and animals from it?" Therefore, this is what the Lord says about Jehoiakim king of Judah: He will have no one to sit on the throne of David; his body will be thrown out and exposed to the heat by day and the frost by night. I will punish him and his children and his attendants for their wickedness; I will bring on them and those living in Jerusalem and the people of Judah every disaster I pronounced against them, because they have not listened.’ So Jeremiah took another scroll and gave it to the scribe Baruch son of Neriah, and as Jeremiah dictated, Baruch wrote on it all the words of the scroll that Jehoiakim king of Judah had burned in the fire. And many similar words were added to them." Jeremiah 36: 1-7, 20-32, 27-32

If God was capable of restoring the revelation given to Jeremiah after it had been destroyed, then the same God would also have been capable of restoring the original Torah and have his prophets record it! There was, however, no such corruption in the first place.

In fact, God promises to write his Law into the hearts of true believers:

"‘The time is coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,’ declares the LORD. ‘This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,’ declares the LORD. ‘I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, "Know the LORD," because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,’ declares the LORD. ‘For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.’ This is what the LORD says, he who appoints the sun to shine by day, who decrees the moon and stars to shine by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar- the LORD Almighty is his name: ‘Only if these decrees vanish from my sight,’ declares the LORD, ‘will the descendants of Israel ever cease to be a nation before me.’ This is what the LORD says: ‘Only if the heavens above can be measured and the foundations of the earth below be searched out will I reject all the descendants of Israel because of all they have done,’ declares the LORD." Jeremiah 31:31-37

Again, if God is able to write his Law within the hearts of true believers in order to keep it, and insure that his decrees that govern creation cannot be undone, wouldn’t he also be able to preserve his written Law from corruption? In fact, if God won’t permit his decrees which govern creation from vanishing, then what makes someone think that God will permit his written decrees to disappear? In the words of the Lord Jesus:

"I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished." Matthew 5:18

To show that Jeremiah wasn’t claiming that the Torah of God was no longer available in its pure pristine form, note what Jeremiah writes elsewhere:

"Say to them, ‘This is what the LORD says: If you do not listen to me and follow MY LAW, which I have set before you, and if you do not listen to the words of my servants the prophets, whom I have sent to you again and again (though you have not listened) then I will make this house like Shiloh and this city an object of cursing among all the nations of the earth.’" Jeremiah 26:4-6

How could Israel follow the Law, i.e. the Torah, if it had been corrupted? This presupposes that the Torah was uncorrupt and available during the time of Jeremiah. Since Jeremiah wrote Jeremiah 8:8, who is more qualified than him to tell us the precise meaning of the passage in question? The fact that Jeremiah appeals to the Law of Moses throughout his book demonstrates that the Prophet did not believe that the scribes had corrupted the actual text of the Torah.

Furthermore, other godly men also had copies of the Torah in their possession. For instance, the prophet Daniel wrote:

"In the first year of Darius son of Xerxes (a Mede by descent), who was made ruler over the Babylonian kingdom - in the first year of his reign, I, Daniel, understood from the Scriptures, according to the word of the LORD given to Jeremiah the prophet, that the desolation of Jerusalem would last seventy years. So I turned to the LORD and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes." Daniel 9:1-3

Daniel is reading Jeremiah 25:11, 12 and 29:10 where God predicts that Israel would be taken into captivity to Babylon for 70 years. After reading this, Daniel continues to pray and says:

"Therefore the curses and sworn judgments WRITTEN IN THE LAW OF MOSES, the servant of God, have been poured out on us, because we have sinned against you. You have fulfilled the words spoken against us and against our rulers by bringing upon us great disaster. Under the whole heaven nothing has ever been done like what has been done to Jerusalem. JUST AS IT IS WRITTEN IN THE LAW OF MOSES, all this disaster has come upon us, yet we have not sought the favor of the LORD our God by turning from our sins and giving attention to your truth." Daniel 9:11b-13

In order for Daniel to appeal to what was written in the Law of Moses presumes that there was an uncorrupt Torah available for reading. Furthermore, after having read Jeremiah Daniel never concludes that the Torah had been corrupted, but appeals to it as the inspired word of God. This would be a strange conclusion for Daniel to come to if Jeremiah 8:8 indeed meant that the text of the Torah had been corrupted during Jeremiah's time. Therefore, seeing that Daniel was a contemporary of Jeremiah and had an uncorrupt copy of the Torah in his possession conclusively proves that the Torah existed in an unadulterated form during Jeremiah's time.

Other prophets affirm that the book of Moses was still available during their day:

"They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read ... On the second day ... they gathered around Ezra the scribe to give attention to the words of the Law. They found written in the Law, which the LORD had commanded through Moses, that the Israelites were to ... Day after day, from the first day to the last, Ezra read from the Book of the Law of God ..." Nehemiah 8:13-14,18

This occurred approximately 430 B.C., nearly 180 years after Jeremiah's temple address, which took place in 609 or 608 B.C. (see Jeremiah 26:1). Again, in order for Ezra the scribe to be able to both read from the Law of Moses and expound it presupposes that a true, uncorrupt copy of the Torah was available at that time.

The Lord Jesus and his followers quoted from the Torah as we know it today and never assumed that it was corrupt (cf. Matthew 4:4,7,10; 22:31-32; 1 Timothy 5:18).

Even Jeremiah's enemies knew that the Law could never disappear:

"They said, ‘Come, let's make plans against Jeremiah; for the teaching of the law by the priest WILL NOT BE LOST, nor will counsel from the wise, nor the word from the prophets. So come, let's attack him with our tongues and pay no attention to anything he says.’" Jeremiah 18:18

In light of the preceding factors, the only plausible contextual meaning is that the scribes were misleading the people either through their oral traditions and/or the writing down of erroneous interpretations of the Law. A similar situation existed in the time of the Lord Jesus Christ:

"Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, ‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don't wash their hands before they eat!’ Jesus replied, ‘And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? ... Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: "these people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men."’" Matthew 15:1-3,6b-9

It is therefore quite plausible that Jeremiah was rebuking the scribes for their traditions that led people astray from the word of God. That this is the more plausible meaning becomes evident in light of what immediately follows:

"The wise will be put to shame; they will be dismayed and trapped. Since they have rejected the word of the LORD, what kind of wisdom do they have." Jeremiah 8:9

For a further discussion of the context in the book of Jeremiah, see the article Understanding Jeremiah 8:8.

Finally, it may come as a shock to some but the Quran claims that there were individuals who corrupted it:

"As we sent down (punishment) on the separatists who dismember the Qur'an." S. 15:90-91 Palmer

"(Of just such wrath) as We sent down on those who divided (Scripture into arbitrary parts), (So also on such) as have made Qur'an into shreds (as they please)." A. Yusuf Ali

"So We sent it down on the partitioners, who have broken the Koran into fragments." A.J. Arberry

"Like as We sent down on the dividers Those who made the Quran into shreds." Shakir

"(such as We have sent down for the quibblers * who have torn the Qur’an apart…)" T.B. Irving

"Such as We send down for those who make division, Those who break the Qur'an into parts." M.M. Pickthall

"We will punish those who foster divisions, Who break up the Koran into parts:" J.M. Rodwell

The late A. Yusuf Ali wrote:

"... The Meccan Pagans, in the early day of Islam, in order to dishonour and ridicule the Qur-an, divided what was so far revealed, into bits, and apportioned them to the people coming on pilgrimage to Mecca by different routes, slandering and abusing the Apostle of God." (Ali, The Holy Qur'an Translation and Commentary, p. 653, fn. 2014)

Scholar in Islamic studies Alphonse Mingana comments on this passage:

"Finally, if we understand correctly the following verse of Suratul-Hijr (xv. 90-91): ‘As we sent down upon (punished) the dividers (of the Scripture?) who broke up the Koran into parts,’ we are tempted to state that even when the Prophet was alive, some changes were noticed in the recital of certain verses of his sacred book. There is nothing very surprising in this fact, since Muhammad could not read or write, and was at the mercy of friends for the writing of his revelations, or, more frequently, of some mercenary amanuenses." (Mingana, "Three Ancient Korans", The Origins of the Koran - Classic Essays on Islam’s Holy Book, ed. by Ibn Warraq [Prometheus Books, Amherst NY, 1998], p. 84; bold emphasis ours)

Mingana records the Muslim reaction to Uthman b. Affan's burning and wholesale destruction of primary, competing Quranic codices:

"The book, drawn up by this method, continued to be authoritative and the standard text till 29-30 A.H. under the caliphate of 'Uthman. At this time the wonderful faithfulness of Arab memory was defective, and according to a general weakness of human nature, the Believers have been heard reciting the verses of the Koran in a different way. This fact was due specially, it is said, to the hundreds of dialects used in Arabia. Zaid was again asked to put an end to these variations which had begun to scandalize the votaries of the Prophet. That indefatigable compiler, assisted by three men from the tribe of Quraish, started to do what he had already done more than fifteen years before. The previous copies made from the first one written under Abu Bakr were all destroyed by special order of the caliph: the revelation sent down from heaven was one, and the book containing this revelation must be one. The critic remarks that the only guarantee of the authenticity of the Koran is the testimony of Zaid; and for this reason, a scholar who doubts whether a given word has been really used by Muhammad, or whether it has been only employed by Zaid on his own authority, or on the meagre testimony of some Arab reciters, does not transgress the strict laws of high criticism. If the memory of the followers of the Prophet has been found defective from the year 15 to 30 A.H. when Islam was proclaimed over all Arabia, why may it not have been defective from 612 to 632 C.E. when the Prophet was often obliged to defend his own life against terrible aggressors? And if the first recension of Zaid contained always the actual words of Muhammad, why was this compiler not content with re-establishing it in its entirety, and why was the want of a new recension felt by 'Uthman? How can it be that in the short space of fifteen years such wonderful variants could have crept into the few copies preceding the reign of the third caliph that he found himself bound to destroy all those he could find? If 'Uthman was certainly inspired only by religious purposes, why did his enemies call him ‘THE TEARER OF THE BOOKS’ and why did they fasten on him the following stigma: ‘He found the Korans many and left one; HE TORE UP THE BOOK’? ..." (Ibn Warraq, p. 84-85; bold and capital emphasis ours)

In conclusion, we saw that a careful examination of the context in Jeremiah shows that the verse Jeremiah 8:8 does not speak of a textual corruption by the scribes that left us only with a corrupted Torah. The Torah always was and continued to remain accessible. The issue was severe misinterpretations.

The situation is different for the Qur'an. Serious disagreements led to a whole revision of the Qur'an and a destruction of all evidence of what forms it had originally.

Sam Shamoun

Index to the Bible Commentary
Answering Islam Home Page