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The “Septuagint”: Some Scholarly Resources

August 13, 2014

In response to an earlier posting, a couple of commenters referred to the “Septuagint” (the name commonly given to the Greek translations of the Jewish scriptures, the “Old Testament”), raising questions about what it represented in its original setting.  There were also questions about how the divine name was handled.  I’ll mention here a few points about the topic and offer a few suggestions for those who would like to know more.

First, the term “Septuagint” (in scholarly literature often designated by “LXX”) is used with more than one referent.  In one strict sense, it designates the form of the Greek OT that came to be used and transmitted in early Christian circles.  But this is one of several forms of the Greek translation of the OT.  Scholars typically distinguish the earlier state and form from which the “Septuagint” proper derives as the “Old Greek” (OG).  In some circles today, one sees “OG/LXX” used as well for this early form/state of the text.

Second, the translation of Jewish scriptures into Greek wasn’t a one-off project, but instead seems to have been done across perhaps a couple of centuries and by various translators who had various translation practices.  The “Pentateuch” (first 5 books of the OT) came first, sometime in the 3rd century BCE, and then other units translated across the ensuing time-frame.  When completed, the OG/LXX represents probably the largest single translation-project of the ancient world.

Third, even in those early centuries the translations were being adjusted and revised.  It appears, for example, that in the post-Maccabean period there were revising efforts that took the translation toward a closer alignment with the Masoretic form of the Hebrew scriptures.  This may well have been part of a larger “Hebraizing” tendency of this period, Jews re-asserting their ethnic particularities in the aftermath of the revolt against Antiochus’ effort to assimilate them religiously.

Finally, a number of scholars now agree that we need to distinguish between the originating purpose and usage of the Greek “OT” and its subsequent role/usage in early Jewish circles.  To cite a particularly influential proposal, Albert Pietersma contends that the originating purpose and usage was to help Greek-speaking Jews to access the Hebrew scriptures, that the “OG” served originally more as a pedagogical than as a liturgical project.  He proposes what he calls an “interlinear paradigm”, the OG translation originally an attempt to render the Hebrew into Greek with greater concern to reflect the Hebrew than to produce something elegant in the eyes of Greek-speakers.

This means that the primary purpose was not to “Hellenize” Jews or introduce some radically new/different form of Jewish religion or culture.  Studies of some units of the LXX do suggest, however, that there is a heightening of emphasis on some ideas:  e.g., eschatology, the influence sometimes of a concern to avoid anthropomorphic representations of God, et alia.

For one of several recent introductory works, see Karen H. Jobes and Moises Silva, Invitation to the Septuagint (Grand Rapids/Carlisle: Baker Academic/Paternoster, 2000).

Among important publications, perhaps none deserves so wide a notice as the recent English translation of the LXX:  Albert Pietersma and Benjamin G. Wright, eds., A New English Translation of the Septuagint, and Other Greek Translations Traditionally Included Under That Title (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).  Note especially the very informative initial essay in it, “To the Reader of NETS,” which in itself serves as a basic introduction to some key matters.

For an excellent bundle of studies that delve into some major issues in current Septuagint scholarship, see Wolfgang Kraus and R. Glenn Wooden (eds.), Septuagint Research: Issues and Challenges in the Study of the Greek Jewish Scriptures (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2006).

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  1. J. Whidden permalink

    The book by Jobes and deSilva is excellent but it’s a very detailed “introduction.”

  2. Could anyone recommend a few texts that take the opposite approach to Albert Pietersma?

    • “Opposite approach”?? On what matter? The “approach” you refer to is a judgement that arises from patient and prolonged analysis of the complex data. Any other “approach” would have to be based on the same level of work. These things aren’t a matter of blind opinion or preference (or shouldn’t be).
      The important point I’d underscore is that the “Septuagint” isn’t the product of one school of thought or cultural agenda or translation policy, but several and across a prolonged period. So, it would be simplistic to ignore that.

    • Donald Jacobs permalink

      I remember enjoying reading “The Septuagint and Modern Study” by Sidney Jellicoe about 10 years ago in the basement of the library. It might be a bit dated but still worth reading, very extensive and detailed. Emanuel Tov also has a significant section on the Septuagint in his updated “Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible”.

      Robert Kraft’s page is also interesting, even though it hasn’t been updated for decade. He argues that there is greater overlap between Jewish and Christian scribal practices than many other scholars have allowed for, which I find to be a very enlightening/enlightened approach.

      • Yes, though dated, Jellicoe is still worth remembering. Tov’s major work on the LXX = Emmanuel Tov, The Text-Critical Use of the Septuagint in Biblical Research, Jerusalem Biblical Studies, no. 8 (Jerusalem: Simor, 1997).
        Kraft is a significant voice in Greek manuscript studies. I agree with him that earliest Christian copyists likely were influenced by some features of pre-Christian-Jewish scribal practices, but not entirely. He and I have exchanged views on the matter, and I find it unfortunate for his position that there is no evidence on which to establish his proposal that the “nomina sacra” practice was originally a Jewish one, thence taken over by early Christians. He’s a good sport about it!

      • Donald Jacobs permalink

        If manuscript evidence is paramount, then where is the manuscript evidence that any pre-Christian Jewish LXX/OG texts used kyrios in place of the divine name? Wouldn’t strict adherence to the manuscript evidence concerning that particular issue have to concede that all the pre-Christian fragments use YHWH or IAW rather than kyrios? (About ten different fragments now, with no countervailing examples. Each new fragment confirms the divine name was used, the latest being a fragment of text from the Psalms dated to the first or second century:

        Pietersma argued against the weight of manuscript evidence on the basis of internal evidence, an inversion of the sort of approach you otherwise advocate. Since he made his argument three more fragments have been found, each contradicting rather than confirming his view that the pre-Christian LXX used kyrios for God.

      • Donald: You first need to understand what Pietersma (and many others now) propose. They don’t dispute that extant Greek manuscripts (from ca. lst cent BCE) have YHWH and not “kyrios”. They propose, partly on the basis of manuscript evidence (e.g., the curiously larger-than-needed space often left for the divine name), partly on the basis of evidence of what Greek-speaking Jews actually pronounced (which was “kyrios”), and partly on the basis of other evidence of a “re-Hebraizing” trend in Jewish circles in the post-Maccabean period, that in the *earlier* state of the OG “Kyrios” was used. It’s not “against” the manuscript evidence, for that evidence pertains to the period when all grant that the divine name was written in Greek MSS.

  3. James Ernest permalink

    Jobes/deSilva, yes. And this more popular/fun intro:

    When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of Western Civilization
    By: Timothy Michael Law

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