Rorate Caeli

Saints of the Old Testament: Jeremias, prophet and martyr

Michelangelo's Sistine Jeremias the Prophet

Throughout her history, the Catholic Church has adorned the first day of May -- Our Lady's month -- with a wealth of holy feasts and commemorations. Since 1955, May 1 has been the Feast of St. Joseph the Workman, Pope Pius XII having moved the feast to that day from the Wednesday of the second week after Easter in order to challenge the demonic ideologies of socialism and communism which had adopted May Day for their own celebrations. Before 1955, however, May 1 in Roman Catholic tradition was the ancient commemoration of the martyrdoms of the Apostles Philip and James (their feast for several years being moved to May 11 to make way for St. Joseph the Workman before being moved again to May 3), and many traditional Catholics continue to celebrate the Feast of Sts. Philip and James on May 1.

Besides Philip, James, and Joseph, the traditional Roman Martyrology reminds us of the martyrdom of a yet another great saint who is venerated on "This Day, the First Day of May" -- one of the greatest of the Old Testament prophets:

In Egypt, St. Jeremias, prophet, who was stoned to death by the people at Taphnas, where he was interred. St. Epiphanius relates that the faithful were wont to pray at his grave, and to take away from it dust to heal those who were stung by serpents.

The prophet St. Jeremias son of Helcias (Jeremiah son of Hilkiah, Hebrew Yirmeyahu, "the Lord doth exalt") was a priest and prophet from the town of Anathoth to the northeast of Jerusalem. God called him to become a prophet in 627/6 B.C., during the reign of the holy reforming King Josias of Judah, and Jeremias continued to exercise his prophetic office throughout the final years of the Kingdom of Judah. Like so many of his brother prophets, Jeremias was frequently opposed and his divinely-inspired words rejected by his fellow countrymen, and the mission of Jeremias ended in martyrdom at their hands even though they had seen with their own eyes that his prophetic gift was genuine. St. Jeremias is the author of  three Old Testament books: the Book of Jeremias (one of the three "Major Prophets," so named due to their length) as well as the Lamentations of Jeremias and the Letter of Jeremias (chapter 6 of the Book of Baruch, but in fact a distinct document from the rest of that book). In addition, St. Jeremias composed a lament for the tragic death of King Josias, and he traditionally is said to have written or did much of the final editing of the four Books of Kings with the help of his amanuensis, the scribe Baruch son of Nerias. In fact, the actual writing of the books of which Jeremias was the author was done by his associate Baruch, whose own book of prophecy, the Book of Baruch, the Church Fathers often included under the single title of "Jeremias." As for the Book of Jeremias itself, his book is notable in the Canon of Scripture as existing in two recensions, a longer and a shorter, both recensions accepted by the Church as divinely inspired (similarly, there is more than one canonical recension of Tobias). While the Latin Vulgate incorporates the longer recension of Jeremias (a form agreeing with the known Hebrew Masoretic text), Eastern Catholics who use the ancient Greek Septuagint Bible read from the shorter recension of Jeremias. The content of both recensions is largely the same, but the longer recension contains a few chapters not found in the shorter, and the chapter order is often different -- otherwise, the chief difference in the recensions is that the sentences in the longer use a fuller expression (i.e., where the shorter has pronouns, the longer usually gives the full proper noun). It seems likely that Baruch wrote both recensions of Jeremias, but in any event the Catholic Church in the East has always approved of the shorter recension while the Catholic Church in the West has always approved of the longer, both being divinely inspired and therefore wholly inerrant in matters of faith and historical fact.

The old Catholic Encyclopedia provides an excellent overview of the life of St. Jeremias and his writings, to which the reader is referred. Among his many prophecies, St. Jeremias saw a vision of Our Lady and foresaw the miracle of the Virginal Conception and Birth of Our Lord (Jer. 31:22), and proclaimed that despite the wickedness of the Jews, God would nevertheless never reject them, but instead after punishing their sin would cleanse them of their iniquities and make a New Covenant with them that would fulfill and supersede the Law of Moses (Jer. 31:31-37). Thus did Jeremias foresee Christ's establishment of and the indefectibility of the Catholic Church, the New Israel. St. Jeremias, along with St. Zacharias the Prophet, also foresaw the betrayal of the Messiah for 30 pieces of silver and the purchase of the Potter's Field with that blood money after Judas Iscariot committed suicide and damned himself to eternal torment in hell (Jer. 32:9: Zach. 11:12-13; Matt. 27:3-10).

After a prophetic ministry of four decades, Jeremias witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple at the hands of the Chaldeans, something he had often foretold would come to pass on account of the idolatry, violence, dishonesty, and sexual immorality of his people. After the Fall of Jerusalem in 587/6 B.C., Jeremias and his secretary Baruch were compelled to accompany a group of Jewish exiles to Egypt (Jer. 40-44). The Holy Scriptures do not include the story of the martyrdom of St. Jeremias, but ancient tradition is unanimous and emphatic that it was in Egypt where the Jewish exiles, still strongly addicted to paganism despite the outpouring of God's wrath and despite Jeremias' rebukes, stoned him to death. One ancient text claims St. Baruch also was martyred with him in Egypt, but that contradicts Holy Scripture, which affirms that God would protect Baruch wherever he went and would ensure that he did not die a violent death (Jer. 45:1-5) -- and we later find Baruch alive and uttering divine prophecies in Babylon (Bar. 1:1-9).

The martyrdom of St. Jeremias is related as follows in an early medieval Syrian Christian text called "The Book of the Bee," which evidently drew upon earlier Jewish and Christian tradition for its information:

The Jews stoned Jeremiah the son of Hilkiah in Egypt, because he rebuked them for worshipping idols; and the Egyptians buried him by the side of Pharaoh's palace. The Egyptians loved him much, because he prayed and the beasts died which used to come up from the river Nile and devour men. These beasts were called 'crocodiles.' When Alexander the son of Philip, the Macedonian, came (to Egypt), he made enquiries about his grave, and took and brought him to Alexandria. This (prophet) during his life said to the Egyptians, 'a child shall be born--that is the Messiah--of a virgin, and He shall be laid in a crib, and He will shake and cast down the idols.' From that time, and until Christ was born, the Egyptians used to set a virgin and a baby in a crib, and to worship him, because of what Jeremiah said to them, that He should be born in a crib.

The first century A.D. Jewish document known as The Lives of the Prophets, which later was attributed to the Church Father St. Epiphanius, was the source for the above traditions about Jeremias. This source's passages on St. Jeremias were perhaps interpolated by a Christian writer.  Be that as it may, The Lives of the Prophets is the "Epiphanius" mentioned in the Roman Martyrology's account of Jeremias' martyrdom. This is what it says:

He was of Anathoth, and he died in Taphnes in Egypt, stoned to death by the Jews. He is buried in the place where Pharaoh's palace stood; for the Egyptians held him in honor, because of the benefit which they had received through him. For at his prayer, the serpents which the Egyptians call ephoth departed from them; and even at the present day the faithful servants of God pray on that spot, and taking of the dust of the place they heal the bites of serpents.
We have been told by the children of Antigonus and Ptolemy, aged men, that Alexander the Macedonian, when he stood at the place where the prophet was buried, and learned of the wonders which he had wrought, carried away his bones to Alexandria, placing them round about with due ceremony; whereupon the whole race of poisonous serpents was driven out of the land. With like purpose he (the prophet) had introduced into Egypt the so-called argolai (that is, "snake-fighters").
Jeremiah also gave a sign to the priests of Egypt, that their idols would be shaken and their gods made with hands would all collapse, when there should arrive in Egypt a virgin bearing a child of divine appearance. Wherefore even to the present time they honor a virgin mother, and placing a babe in a manger they bow down to it. When Ptolemy the king sought the reason for this, they said to him: "It is a mystery handed down from our fathers, a sign delivered to them by a holy prophet, and we are awaiting its fulfillment."
This prophet, before the destruction of the temple, took possession of the ark of the law and the things within it, and caused them to be swallowed up in a rocky cliff, and he said to those who were present: "The Lord departed from Sinai into heaven, and he will again come with might; and this shall be for you the sign of his appearance, when all the Gentiles worship a piece of wood."
He said also: "No one shall bring forth this ark but Aaron, and the tables within it no one of the priests or prophets shall unfold but Moses the elect of God." And in the resurrection the ark will rise first, and come forth from the rock, and will be placed on Mount Sinai; and all the saints will be assembled to it there, awaiting the Lord and fleeing from the enemy wishing to destroy them.
He sealed in the rock with his finger the name of God, and the writing was as though carved with iron. A cloud then covered the name; and no one knows the place, nor can the writing be read, to the present day and even to the end. The rock is in the wilderness where the ark was at first, between the two mountains on which Moses and Aaron are buried, and by night there is a cloud as it were of fire, according to the primal ordinance that the glory of God should never cease from his law. And God gave to Jeremiah the favor of completing this wonder, so that he might be the associate of Moses, and they are together to this day.

The tradition of the snakes being driven out of Egypt probably influenced the later legend of St. Patrick of Ireland.  Also notable is the story of how St. Jeremias concealed the Ark of the Covenant in a cave somewhere on the mountain where Moses beheld the Promised Land just before his death.  This story is told in II Macc. 2:1-8 (no, the Ark is not in Ethiopia or Egypt). The same book of Maccabees tells of how the saintly soul of the martyr St. Jeremias made continual intercession on behalf of the Jewish people, and especially prayed for the heroic deliverer Judas Maccabaeus (II Macc. 15:12-16).

No doubt St. Jeremias continues to pray for the Catholic Church even as he prayed for the Maccabees.

All ye holy patriarchs and prophets,

Pray for us!