The Septuagint: Greek Scriptures for Greek-speaking Jews and Christians: Some Current Research

There are fascinating implications here for how the Bible was used and interpreted in the third to first centuries BCE, but the work is difficult and delicate and scholars often come to different conclusions. This is not surprising since they have been researching these questions piecemeal for at least the last hundred years, often starting from differing premises.

By Jennifer Dines
University of Cambridge
March 2005

In her lucid introductory presentation on this website (Excerpts from "Invitation to the Septuagint"), Karen Jobes highlights the importance of the Septuagint for contemporary biblical studies and lists several areas of current research. These are (1) "establishing the original text of the Septuagint and its relationship to the surviving Hebrew text"; (2) "using the Septuagint for textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible"; (3) "determining the meaning of Greek words found in the Septuagint"; (4) "reconstructing the development of the extant Greek texts from the original translation"; and (5) "understanding the development of Jewish theology in the Hellenistic age" (p.6). Areas (1) to (4) are chiefly concerned with textual criticism. They cover highly technical enterprises which are absolutely essential: we need to know how far the texts we use correspond to the original translations, and this is a work that will never be finished. But there are other areas to be researched as well, and in this essay, I would like to say something more about item (5): the Septuagint in relationship to Hellenistic Judaism (raising historical as well as theological questions). In addition, I want to touch briefly on another area of increasing interest: the influence of the Septuagint on the language and thought of early Christianity (especially the New Testament and patristic writings) and the part it plays in the history of biblical interpretation.

I. Contextualizing the Septuagint: Greek Scriptures for Greek-speaking Jews

Although preserved, used, and transmitted by Christians, the Septuagint was produced by Hellenistic Jews and is one of their major achievements. (From a Jewish perspective, "Septuagint" should, strictly speaking, refer only to the Pentateuch, but for convenience, I use the term in its later inclusive sense to cover all the canonical books and the other works of Jewish origin found in early Christian bibles.) Septuagint scholars, both Jewish and Christian, are keen to develop a better understanding of the Jewish origins of the Greek Scriptures. This includes attempts to discern not only distinctive theological features but also clues as to when and where these first translations were made. There are fascinating implications here for how the Bible was used and interpreted in the third to first centuries BCE, but the work is difficult and delicate and scholars often come to different conclusions. This is not surprising since they have been researching these questions piecemeal for at least the last hundred years, often starting from differing premises. The ground-breaking work on Septuagint Isaiah by the great Jewish scholar Isaac Seeligmann in 1948 has been particularly influential, but it has now become imperative to relate all the translations more securely to their historical and geographical origins and to the political, cultural, and theological impulses which called them into being and to work out the order in which the individual books were translated and the extent to which later translators drew on and referred to existing translations of other books. As our knowledge of the life, language, and literature of Jews in the Hellenistic period has increased by leaps and bounds in the last few decades, a new evaluation of previous work on the origins of the Septuagint, even that of scholars of Seeligmann's caliber, is urgently needed.

Some major research in this whole area is being carried out by members of a project called The Greek Bible in the Graeco-Roman World. It is sponsored by the Arts and Humanities Research Board Parkes Centre for Jewish/Non-Jewish Relations and run by Septuagint scholars at the Universities of Reading and Southampton (see for details). The main aim is to find out to what extent the Septuagint can serve as a source for the study of Hellenistic Judaism (and for wider Hellenistic history and culture). In order to put the research on as firm a historical basis as possible, two main lines of enquiry are under way: (1) an overview of criteria for dating and (2) the examination of political and administrative terminology for its dating potential. Obviously parameters have to be set for a project with a restricted timescale, therefore representative areas of the Septuagint will be examined as test cases, including the Pentateuch, Isaiah and the Twelve, and some of the Writings.

Testing the criteria

There are two reasons for undertaking this work. First, many different proposals have been made, not all of them mutually compatible, about where and when the books were translated (with implications for why they were translated at all and how they were used). Second, dating (of the Pentateuch particularly) is often taken as established but without the underlying reasons being examined. So, for each of the books being studied, there will be a thorough examination and evaluation of all the available external and internal evidence bearing on date and location.

External evidence looks for clues outside the Septuagint itself. This includes manuscripts (if we are lucky, there may be fragments of Egyptian papyri or Dead Sea Scrolls antedating the later Christian codices) and apparent citations in other Hellenistic Jewish authors (though these are usually preserved in later Christian writings and have to be handled with care, sometimes the New Testament provides the earliest attestations). Internal evidence comes from within the Septuagint; it includes historical references (such as "Carthage" for "Tarshish" in Isa 23:10 or "Romans" for "Kittim" in Dan LXX 11:30) which might shed light on the translator's circumstances and various kinds of cultural updating (such as "didrachma" for "shekel" in Gen 23: 15; "earrings" for "noserings" in Gen 24: 47; a name from Greek mythology for Job's youngest daughter in Job 42:14). It also involves trying to establish where one translation has clearly made use of another (Dan 11:14 LXX "quotes" Amos 9:11 LXX, for instance) and evaluating the claims that subsequent translators drew heavily on the vocabulary of the Pentateuch. The accumulated scholarly literature on all these matters makes it obvious that the same data get interpreted in ways that produce different and often mutually exclusive conclusions.

There does appear to be general agreement that the Pentateuch was translated in Alexandria in the first half of the third century BCE. But even here, on closer examination, most of the consensus views turn out to be based on uncertain foundations. The most prevalent is the assumption (for not all scholars argue the case) that The Letter of Aristeas reliably establishes this date (for a discussion, see J.Dines, The Septuagint, 2004, pp. 28-33). There is also the largely untested assumption that these five books were translated in canonical order (i.e., starting with Genesis). For the other books, there is nothing comparable to The Letter of Aristeas when it comes to providing apparent information for the Pentateuch, and here, widely differing conclusions are often reached about where, when, and why the books were translated; this is a particularly acute problem for Psalms. Some clearing of the ground is needed, and at least the problems and uncertainties need to be highlighted, and this is what the Greek Bible Project aims to do. The first results are due to be presented within the next year or so in a monograph, which will also outline the main questions and methodological concerns.

Clues from Language

One essential aspect of contextualization involves the analysis of the language of the Septuagint, its vocabulary and syntax, in order to see whether any of its Hellenistic or Koine Greek usages can be pinpointed to a precise time. Pioneering work, especially by John Lee, has identified some words and expressions which are only found between certain dates. The appearance of these in the LXX gives some firm, though limited, grounds for dating. It is helpful to learn, for example, that the Pentateuch could indeed have been translated in the third century BCE (the traditional date) and that an earlier date is unlikely. It is less helpful to discover that the clinching evidence also extends to the mid-second century BCE and so a date later than the third century cannot, on these criteria, be ruled out (see J.A.L Lee, A Lexical Study of the Septuagint Version of the Pentateuch, 1983, pp.131-43. The examples he discusses as test cases are changes in the prevalence of two synonymous verbs for "see," horan and blepein, and two terms for "donkey," onos and hupozugion). In nearly every case so far, the range of usage is too broad to allow the precision needed for the correct sequence of translations. Nor, so far, does linguistic research clearly differentiate between Egyptian, Palestinian, or other possible locations. But linguistic study is crucial and the growing body of data from papyri and inscriptions, both literary and non-literary in content and style, is providing comparative material which is already shedding light on the LXX.

A New Database

The Greek Bible Project team is preparing a tool to facilitate this kind of research in the shape of a new database, called Demetrios (http:// This will collect and evaluate words designating power found in the LXX and in other Hellenistic sources. This type of language, or semantic field, is often technical and shifts with changing regimes so that its historical usage can sometimes be dated fairly precisely. On the other hand, some terminology remains in use over long periods so that some supposedly Ptolemaic usages in the Septuagint could equally well belong to the Roman period. Eventually the database can be widened to take in other aspects of Septuagintal and Hellenistic vocabulary and be useful to others besides biblical scholars. If, in addition, attempts to achieve more precise dating for the individual books prove successful, and if historical contemporization within books can be convincingly demonstrated, historians as well as linguists of the Hellenistic period will have additional sources to consider, above all for the better understanding of Jewish history.

Stylistic Pointers to Cultural Milieu

The use of evidence from non-biblical sources, not only papyri and inscriptions (long recognized as crucial) but also Hellenistic literary works, points to another important development: awareness that the translations, while unmistakably Jewish, are also marked by Hellenistic culture. Ancient historians and classical scholars are coming to see that there is more to the Septuagint than what were perceived as (mostly) naïve and clumsy Koine Greek versions of the Hebrew Scriptures, lacking in literary merit and heavily affected by the un-Greek semitic style of the original. Linguistic studies are beginning to blur a too-sharp distinction between literary and non-literary Hellenistic Greek, and this is helpful. The Septuagint can no longer be classed exclusively as "non-literary"; a considerable amount of shared syntax, as well as vocabulary, makes it look increasingly likely that the so-called "Hebraisms" of the Greek Bible are a matter of degree rather than of essential nature. (Trevor Evans has recently argued this for the verbal system of the Pentateuch although this area is controversial and not all scholars would agree.)

Further pointers come from the examination of stylistic features in the translations. These reveal a quite surprising amount of sophisticated artistry (even in so unlikely a book as the literal Ecclesiastes), including both Greek and Hebrew rhetorical devices such as word-patterns, repetitions, variations, assonances, and so on. These often create patterns within a text and intertextual relationships subtly different from the original Hebrew which may reveal interpretational as well as aesthetic interests. They also open up a new dimension to the study of "translation technique" (the distinctive ways in which individual translators work) and raise questions about the type of education received by the Jewish translators and about what they were trying to achieve, how they saw their task as translators, and the "readership" for which they were translating the Hebrew Scriptures. As the main intended audience must have been Jewish, this suggests that there was a certain level of education and literary sophistication to be met or shared. This is an aspect of LXX study still little explored but one which looks set to yield interesting and significant results.

II. Interpreting the Septuagint: Greek Scriptures for Greek-speaking Christians

Here we move in the opposite direction from that of the Greek Bible Project. The latter seeks to identify the Jewish origins and characteristics of the Septuagint by locating, as far as possible, the historical, geographical and cultural milieu of the translations. But in the first century CE, the Septuagint was one of the formative influences on the new Christian communities as they struggled to articulate their beliefs through the medium, first and foremost, of the existing Jewish Scriptures. There has always been an interest in the presence of Septuagintal words and ideas in the New Testament, but now there is a growing appreciation of the influence of the Septuagint on subsequent early Christian writers. For as the new Christian writings (the New Testament) and the existing Jewish Scriptures (the Old Testament) came to be seen as one inspired corpus, the Septuagint became an integral part of the Christian Bible. Modern scholars, therefore, are becoming more interested in understanding the Septuagint as Christian Scriptures and taking more seriously the contribution of patristic exegesis.

There is an immense amount of research waiting to be done here. One helpful resource is provided by the Bible d'Alexandrie, the on-going French translation of the Septuagint, begun in 1986, which accompanies each translation by notes giving information on the subsequent interpretation of the Septuagint in the New Testament and other early Christian writers (together with any relevant Jewish evidence from the Targums, the Mishnah, the Talmuds, and other Rabbinic texts). This information is of great value for highlighting the importance of the Septuagint as a vital source for our understanding of early Christian homiletics, catechesis, and exegesis since there are innumerable places where the Greek patristic writers were moulded by the distinctive vocabulary and translation choices of the Greek Bible. Even in matters of doctrinal controversy the Septuagint made its mark; for instance, Prov 8:22 LXX was hotly debated for its christological implications, as was Amos 4:13 LXX for what it seemed to say about the Holy Spirit. Seeing how the patristic writers handle their Bible, either directly in Greek or through "daughter" translations like the Old Latin versions, helps us to sharpen our awareness of how biblical exegesis developed in the early centuries. It also reminds us that study of the Septuagint is always an exercise in interpretation, for the translations themselves unconsciously provide clues about the way scripture was understood and lived at the time of its translation while the ways in which subsequent generations used and reacted to the translations shed light on their own historical, cultural, and religious perspectives. In both these ways, ongoing research into the historical origins and the interpretation of the Septuagint is of crucial importance.

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