Book Review: Invitation to the Septuagint

Invitation to the Septuagint
Authors: Karen Jobes and Moisés Silva

This book has been an absolute joy to read. It offers a fantastic introduction to the Septuagint (the ancient translation of the Hebrew bible into Greek, also known as the LXX), giving both the history of the text itself and the scholarship surrounding it. Considering the complexity of the field, it is rather impressive that the authors have managed to communicate the intricacies of the topic so well. After reading through most of the book, I have been deeply impressed by the many difficult aspects of the Septuagint studies. On the other hand, understanding the Septuagint is crucial to understanding the development of the early Christian Church, and so the research will ultimately be quite rewarding.

The book is split into three parts: History of the Septuagint, The Septuagint in Biblical Studies, and the Current State of Septuagint Studies. The History gives the overview of the history of the Septuagint and its reception, so far as we can construct it. The narrative begins with the original translation of the Mosaic books in the 3rd century BC all the way up to the printing press and critical editions of today. Along the way, we see why Septuagint research is so difficult. The Old Testament was translated by various groups of people over several hundred years. These different scribes employed different translation techniques, so the Greek text of Isaiah may be drastically different from that of Leviticus. In addition, nearly as soon as the translation appeared, recensions of the text appeared to improve it. A particularly important update was made by Origen in the 3rd century. It was so important that nearly all subsequent manuscripts show its influence. In some cases, we have what looks like competing translations circulating: this definitely happens during the early Christian era, as Jewish translators offer new translations and Christians refine their own. Sometimes the Septuagint differs from the Hebrew quite substantially. The Greek text of Jeremiah is much shorter than the Hebrew version now preserved in our Hebrew manuscripts. How does one account for these differences? Were they simply the translator taking liberties with the text? Or did they have a different Hebrew text than the one we now have? Both likely happened, but it’s not always easy to tell what happened in a particular case.

After giving a terrific introduction to the history of the LXX as a document, the authors jump into some intermediate level issues associated with the Septuagint. They caution that the difficulty here is greater than part 1, and that only intermediate Greek knowledge will allow one to get the fullest sense of the book. I’m a Greek newbie and was able to get along with respect to the Greek. However, I have zero knowledge of Hebrew, which did hurt me when the Greek text was put beside the Hebrew. The authors cover a wide range of topics in this section. They look at the use of the Septuagint for textual criticism of the Hebrew text. They also examine the usefulness of the Septuagint for New Testament studies, among other topics like the impact of the Dead Sea Scrolls on the Septuagint. These chapters, while they could get rather technical, were still informative. I’m particularly interested in how the Septuagint shaped the early Church. They had a fascinating bit that discussed Septuagint allusions in Philippians. Even when Paul wasn’t quoting scripture directly, it is evident that it had completely shaped the way he thought, and that it oozed over into his writing, perhaps even unintentionally. May we strive to the same goal!

The last chapter of the second part contains detailed analysis of two passages, Genesis 4:1-8 and Isaiah 52:13-53:12. For students researching and writing about the Septuagint, these will no doubt be extraordinarily useful. I found them interesting, though I only skimmed since I don’t know any Hebrew.

The final part gives an overview of modern Septuagint scholarship. Brief bios are given for the important individuals, from Tischendorf, to Lagarde and Ralhfs. Though this portion is largely anecdotal, it enables you to get a good grasp on how the discipline has progressed since the 19th century. Several ongoing areas of inquiry are addressed, like lexicography (meanings of words in the LXX) and syntax (how different or similar is the Greek compared to other Greek literature?). The book finishes with an overview of the current text critical work being done on the LXX (or current as of the writing of this book, around 2000).

Overall, the book has been a fantastic read. If I had to nitpick, I would pick at the vocabulary. Some linguistic terms were used without definition (like apodosis and protasis). As a newbie, it would be nice to have those defined at least once, though that was in the “intermediate section,” and a quick wikipedia search yielded the answer. Another concern is the background knowledge required. The book has been written with the seminary student in mind, or even as an intro book for a doctoral course (that was, in fact, what inspired the book in the first place). If you’re moderately familiar with biblical studies, then you won’t have a problem with a lot of it. Greek and Hebrew are definitely helpful for part two though.

With that said, I heartily recommend this book to anyone interested in this very important subject. I don’t know of a better introductory book, and it’s a fantastic way to acquaint oneself with the amazing document that is the LXX.


Update: I incorrectly stated that the book ended with a chapter on textual criticism. I was wrong! After reading a little bit farther, I realized that the final chapter was actually on theological developments in the Hellenistic Age.

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