Denver Journal

Denver Journal

A Denver Journal Book Review

Invitation to the Septuagint, 2nd ed.

10.17.17 | Denver Journal, Old Testament, Richard S. Hess | by Karen H. Jobes and Moisés Silva

Invitation to the Septuagint, 2nd ed.

    A Denver Journal Review Article by Denver Seminary Professor Dr. Richard S. Hess

    Jobes, Karen H. and Moisés Silva. Invitation to the Septuagint. 2nd edition. Grand Rapids: Baker 2015. Xxiii + 408 pp. Paperback, $36.00. ISBN 978-0801036491.

    This volume provides a revised and updated survey of the LXX (Septuagint) that is the best one available in English.  It is worthwhile taking a few paragraphs to summarize the contents of their review. 

    The introduction argues how important the LXX is for the early Christians who used it as their Bible and often quoted from it in the NT writings and later.  The authors begin by noting that there were multiple Greek translations by the time of the early Christian centuries and that what came to be called the LXX comprises numerous translators at work on different books.  The Letter of Aristeas, surviving no earlier than in eleventh century A.D. manuscripts, represents the generally recognized account of the production of the Greek translation of the Pentateuch in the third century B.C.  Jobes and Silva believe that Egyptian Jews were responsible for it.  In the sixth century the emperor Justinian decreed that the Septuagint would be the authorized version with some allowance of Aquila’s literalistic translation. 

    Although there is a general consensus that most of the LXX began with one original Greek translation, some books such as Daniel, Esther, and Judges, contain two different Greek forms.  A recension is a deliberate revision of a Greek translation on the basis of principles such as the desire to bring the work into conformity with the existing Hebrew text.  In the early fifth century Jerome identified three recensions: one from Egypt attributed to Hesychius, one from Antioch (and Constantinople) attributed to Lucian, and one from Palestine attributed to Origen.  The least is known about the recension of Hesychius to the point that its existence remains unconfirmed.  Origen’s Hexapla of the third century A.D. contained the most important recension in column five.  However, it is not clear whether that column contained the uncorrected text or one that had been corrected by Origen.  There was only one known copy of the Hexapla, preserved in Origen’s hometown of Casesarea and destroyed by the seventh century A.D.  When Origen sought to correct the text toward the Hebrew he used a series of signs to indicate where he had changed the LXX.  However, these have not remained in many of the surviving fragments.  Even where they were preserved they have at times become mixed up. 

    Lucian’s recension may have used Origen’s text and then modified it to make explicit proper nouns, subjects, and objects; to insert additions from Symmachus and elsewhere; and to create an Attic Greek translation in place of Hellenistic Greek.  The recension is best attested in the Psalms, the Prophets, Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, and Job.  Lucianic forms occur as early as the Dead Sea Scroll 4QSama.  There is evidence of variation from the Hebrew as well as correction toward the proto-Masoretic Text. Jobes and Silva provide a useful review of the miniscule and uncial manuscripts.  Of these the fourth century Codex Vaticanus is generally thought to be the best witness to the LXX that Origen used, although the fifth century Codex Alexandrinus may contain the best version of Isaiah. 

    Jobes and Silva review the early printed editions of the Septuagint, including the Sixtine edition, published in 1587 and based on Codex Vaticanus.  In their survey of critical editions, the authors discuss Holmes and Parsons, an early nineteenth work based on about three hundred Greek manuscripts.  Swete’s edition of the early twentieth century used Codex Vaticanus, while the larger Cambridge edition to which this project was related also used the codex and compared it with the major uncials and numerous other manuscripts.  Prior to his death in 1935, Rahlfs completed a critical edition based on Vaticanus, Sinaiticus, and Alexandrinus.  While this is probably the most widely used edition, the books that have had volumes appear in the Göttingen Septuagint eclectic critical text are thought to be best served by these impressively detailed works that began appearing in the latter part of the twentieth century and continue to be published.  The New English Translation of the Septuagint, which appeared in 2007 is based (1) on the Göttingen edition where volumes had appeared by that date and (2) on Rahlfs’ edition where there were no Göttingen volumes.  This text uses the NRSV where its Old Testament text and the LXX agree.  In 2008 there appeared The Orthodox Study Bible: Septuagint and New Testament.  This provided English reading Eastern Orthodox readers with a translation based on the KJV’s English and diverting wherever the LXX differed.  The authors also discuss translations in other European languages and go on to note the differences in book, chapter, and verse order and divisions between the Septuagint and other versions. 

    The authors discuss translation theory behind translations of the LXX.  On the one hand, there is the view that the Septuagint can be seen as an interlinear translation with the Hebrew text from which it was derived.  On the other hand, the Septuagint is understood as a freestanding work of Greek literature that should be studied and translated as such.  The former will be represented by the International Organization of Septuagint and Cognate Studies commentary series, concerning which volumes have yet to appear.  The latter is represented by more than a dozen volumes that have been produced as part of the Septuagint Commentary Series.  Jobes and Silva then delve into the difficult world of the literal translation of specific words, the translation of images and metaphors, and the translation of the sense of the passage.  There are also theological concerns, as in Exodus 24:10-11 where they remove the sense that the representatives of Israel saw God – a point made twice in the Masoretic Text. There is also the question of socio-political context.  In the Greek versions of Esther, Mordecai’s role in saving the life of the king is emphasized.  Such a point would have been significant for the kings of Ptolemaic Egypt, as the authors note.

    In part 2 of their book Jobes and Silva consider some of the details of the Greek language that forms the LXX.  The Septuagint sometimes borrows words directly from the Hebrew, for example, Passover and Sabbath.  In other cases, each word of a phrase was individually translated, even though the phrase had a different meaning than its constituent parts.  So, “to lift the face of someone,” carries the sense, “to favor.”  However, the Greek at times rendered the phrase with the Greek words “lift, raise” and “face.”  Syntactically, the authors observe the use of few long sentences as is customary in Greek literature.  Instead, the sentences are shorter and function as parataxis (where clauses are linked one to another without subordinating conjunctions).  Strongly literal translation, such as those in some sections of Reigns, Jeremiah, Song of Songs, and Lamentation result in awkward Greek in attempts to copy Hebrew syntax and style.  Key to any appropriate translation of vocabulary, phrases, and verses is an understanding of the translation style of the book in which the material appears. 

    With more than two thousand early and medieval LXX manuscripts, where almost all have a textual mixture, the goal of recovering an original text may prove elusive.  This is true despite the authors’ assertion that this must be the primary goal of Septuagint text criticism.  Unlike the New Testament the LXX is primarily translation literature and, in its early phases, was pre-Christian.  The evaluation of variants deals with the question of transcriptional probability.  The original form is likely the one that can best explain how the other variants arose from it.  Each book and collection of related literature in the Septuagint has its own style and may experience distinct explanations for the rise of vairants.  Jobes and Silva helpfully provide pages from the Larger Cambridge, Rahlfs, and the Göttingen editions of the LXX.  For each they have an opposing page of notes that explain what many of the more important sigla represent. 

    An examination of the Septuagint and Masoretic Hebrew text of Isaiah reveals few significant variants in terms of differences between the Hebrew text behind the translation and the Masoretic text.  There are more variants in other books.  Certain texts, such as Jeremiah, Ezekiel, 1 Samuel 16-18, and others, reveal a Hebrew Vorlage behind the Greek that is at some variance with the Masoretic text.  Generally, longer Masoretic text versions seem to have developed from earlier and shorter versions lying behind the LXX translations.  However, this is not proven and its probability should be noted by the writers.  Any identification of a variant, however, must assume that there is an authentic and early variant present; i.e., one that is not the result of later copyist error.  The authors helpfully provide examples of retroverting techniques to establish the likely Hebrew Vorlage behind the LXX text.  However, even where texts from Qumran may support retroversions, this does not mean that it is necessarily more original than the Masoretic tradition.  The authors conclude this discussion with examples from the Greek text of Samuel and Kings and the issues of the kaige rescension. 

    Of the 900 or so manuscripts from Qumran (most of these are fragments), only 27 are Greek.  The biblical Greek texts are important, as Jobes and Silva note, because they predate Origen and the work of Christian scribes.  Peterson’s argument that the first century B.C. (or thereabouts) Leviticus and Numbers fragments from Cave 4 preserve a revision of the LXX is noted in a footnote but not discussed as an alternative to Tov.  In general, the Qumran Greek text are freer in rendering the proto-Masoretic Text.  The question then arises whether these manuscripts represent an original Septuagint tradition that was later revised toward the Masoretic (Ulrich and Tov) or whether they are outliers that represent no significantly different Vorlage.  The most important of all Greek manuscripts found in the Judean dessert is the Greek Minor Prophets scroll found at Nahal Hever with a late first century B.C. date for the writing of the scroll.

     Among the Hebrew manuscripts, 2 Jeremiah fragments (4QJerb and 4QJerd) are closer to the LXX than any other tradition.  Jobes and Silva note that Tov prefers as older the shorter edition that is found in these manuscripts and in the LXX.  Dating from c. 200 B.C., several other Qumran Hebrew fragments of Jeremiah agree with the Masoretic tradition against that of the LXX and thus date the origins of this text before 200 B.C.  Perhaps most significant for understanding the witness of the proto-Masoretic text tradition at Qumran, Jobes and Silva reference Tov who finds 45% of the 121 biblical manuscripts, that are sufficiently long for identification, attest to the Masoretic tradition.  Only about 5% attest to the Septuagint tradition.  The others are “nonaligned.”  A thousand years earlier than Codex Leningrad, the Hebrew Muraba‘at Scroll of the Minor Prophets, matches the later text virtually word for word.  Another important Hebrew manuscript is 4QSama which has many agreements with the Septuagint tradition against the Masoretic tradition.  Interestingly, 4QSama shares with the Septuagint readings that are clearly errors at some points, while the Qumran manuscript disagrees with the Greek at others.  This makes it difficult to sustain the view that it represents a distinctive text from which the Greek was translated.  More likely (following Tov), both the Qumran manuscript and the Septuagint were derived from the same Hebrew tradition that is found in the Masoretic tradition, but the latter underwent more textual corruption.  

    In their discussion on the Septuagint and the New Testament, Jobes and Silva note the importance of the Septuagint but also recognize that the Septuagint style and syntax do not necessarily affect New Testament Greek.  Rather, the New Testament can be used for the text criticism of the Old Testament and vice versa.  Surprisingly, the authors note that major Greek exegetical commentaries, at some significant quotes of the Old Testament, do not exhibit reliance on the critical work of available Göttingen volumes.  Quotes by Jesus, James, and Paul tend to follow the Septuagint tradition rather than the Masoretic text.   

    At the end of part 2, Jobes and Silva provide a detailed analysis of Genesis 4:1-8; Isaiah 52:13-53:12; and Esther 5:1-2 in both the Hebrew and Greek texts.  The Genesis example contains an important variant and provides a good place to begin, with a narrative.  The Isaiah text is important for Christian theology and an example of a difficult prophetic text that the Septuagint renders in interesting ways.  The book of Esther is one that Jobes has elsewhere demonstrated a great deal of expertise with.  Here it provides an example of two distinct Greek translations of the text and how they differ from the Masoretic text and from each other. 

    Part 3 contains studies that address more advanced matters of application related to the study of the Septuagint.  Nevertheless, the first chapter in this section should be read by anyone interested in the Septuagint.  It reviews some of the luminaries in the field over the past two centuries, examining their backgrounds and their contributions to LXX studies.  The following are selected:  Frederich Constantin von Tischendorf, Edwin Hatch, Paul A. de Lagarde, Alfred Rahlfs, Henry Barclay Swete, Alan E. Brooke and Norman McLean, Henry St. John Thackeray, Max Leopold Margolis, James A. Montgomery, Joseph Ziegler, Ilmari Soisalon-Soininen, Dominique Barthélemy, and John W. Wevers.  I presume that the decision was made to focus on those who had passed away as of the writing of this edition.  Many additional luminaries are presently alive and active.

    Jobes and Sliva consider the role of current language studies related to the Septuagint.  For example, in the construction of dictionaries, does one emphasize the meaning of the Greek word chosen by the translator in light of the translator’s understanding of the Hebrew Vorlage, or does one consider how the Greek speaking readers, who may have had no knowledge of Hebrew, would have understood the text?   Depending on the direction one chooses the result can take very different approaches and result in different dictionaries.  Johan Lust’s work is an example of the former while Takamitsu Muraoka approaches this question from the latter perspective.  The Pentateuch provides no evidence for a distinctively Jewish-Greek dialect.  Even so, at times the translators invested common Greek terms with new meaning that could reflect Hellenistic Greek as well.

    Jobes and Silva turn to translation technique, a concern repeatedly identified with individual books and the manner in which they are evaluated.  For example, the extent to which semiprepositions are renedered literally or with a degree of freedom tends to follow the extent to which the translation of the book as a whole is free or slavish.  The translation of the Hebrew infinitive absolute has also been studied regarding literal or free translations.  Often, later translations or recensions of the text of books such as Daniel and Esther tend to follow more closely the Hebrew. 

    In their chapter on reconstructing the history of the text, Jobes and Silva conclude that, while the search for the pre-Hexaplaric form of the Septuagint text has been a goal, it will probably remain elusive.  With the discovery of the textual variety in the Qumran scrolls, it seems that the differences in the Septuagint may represent a Vorlage distinct from the Masoretic Text.  The Lucianic text of Samuel and Kings (especially) has been the subject of much study.  Bernard Taylor’s work on 1 Kingdoms has led him to conclude that the Lucianic text is not the exemplar of the Old Greek. 

    As Jobes and Silva consider the impact of theological concerns on the LXX, they conclude that Christian theology has little influence on the text itself.  Texts such as Isaiah 19:25 are changed from a blessing on Egypt and Assyria in the Masoretic Text to a blessing on the people of God who live in these countries.  Isaiah 23 and other texts witness to the influence on the text of the Jewish Greek translators revisers who emphasized fulfillment of the prophecies in their time.  However, the Christians applied such prophetic texts in writings outside the Septuagint itself.  Midrashic commentary in the Greek text was added by Jewish scholars, though it is not clear at what stage this occurred between the Vorlage and the translation.  A number of examples demonstrate a messianic interest in Judaism prior to Christianity.  However, the background of some of these (e.g., Numbers 24:7) is disputed. Translators incorporated words common to Classical Greek in a book such as Proverbs, and texts such as Wisdom 8:7 may reflect virtues as defined by Plato.  Revisions and new Greek translations existed from early times and are partially reflected in Aquila, Theodotion, and Symmachus.  Some useful appendices, such as those enumerating major projects underway, conclude the work. 

    In 2003 I reviewed the first edition of this book in the Denver Jounral (6).  The authors have significantly updated their work in light of recent years of research.  They have not, however, changed their major conclusions and views on the Septuagint.  The study remains the best English introduction to the Septuagint.

    Richard S. Hess, PhD
    Distinguished Professor of Old Testament
    Denver Seminary
    October 2017