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.

Invitation to the Septuagint, Reflections

At the suggestion of my Early Christianity professor, I picked up this volume from the library:

Invitation to the Septuagint, by Karen Jobes and Moisés Silva.

The book has been a fantastic read so far. It’s definitely the best primer on the Septuagint that I’m aware of. More than anything, it has impressed on me the deep complexity of text transmission in antiquity. We have a Greek translation done over several hundred years by various groups of people. The Hebrew text it reflects did not always follow the Masoretic Text that was standardized in the second century AD, which our English bibles largely follow today. In addition, the translation itself has been subject to many revisions over the centuries, making it extraordinarily difficult to talk about the original LXX. It’s a textual critic’s dream or nightmare depending on perspective. It hammers the statement in the epistle to the Hebrews home even more, “God, having in the past spoken … at many times and in various ways.”

With that said, it’s very important to understand the Septuagint when doing study of early Christianity. Most of the early Church’s exegesis was on the Septuagint, including much the exegesis in the New Testament. Many of the debates of the early Church with the Synagogue revolved around its use. The issues around the LXX attracted some of the greatest minds in the early Church: Justin Martyr, Origen, Jerome, Augustine, and others. Clearly, it’s an important document!

As for the book, I’ve just finished part 1 and it’s been very informative. Part 1 has covered the history of the Septuagint from the mid third century BC up to the modern critical editions of the text. Each chapter starts off with a pair of definitions or terms important to the coming chapter.

Part 2 covers the Septuagint in Biblical Studies, and Part 3 covers the current state of Septuagint studies. These will be more difficult, but hopefully I won’t have jumped in off the deep end ;-) I look forward to going through the rest of the book.


Reading Summary

I’ve been doing quite a bit of Biblical Studies reading yesterday. I need to slow down and summarize a bit, which is the purpose of this post.

The Septuagint as Christian Scripture by Martin Hengel.

I’ve been reading through this little gem as supplemental reading for my early Christianity class. The relationship of the LXX and Hebrew scriptures is fascinating. The process in which the LXX came into existence is long and rather complicated. The books were translated “in various times by various people,” which Hengel elaborates on. Translation is a crucial question to consider, especially considering its long history within Christianity. This book is largely a thumbnail sketch of the creation and reception of the LXX within Judaism and Christianity. Some of his suggestions are very interesting, like the possibility that Paul himself took part in the “recension” of the LXX, in that he corrected the LXX at times with his knowledge of the Hebrew. This was an off-hand remark, but one could do quite a bit of research on that issue!

Apostolic Fathers Edited by Michael W. Holmes

I’ve been reading through the Fathers. So far, I’ve read through First and Second Clement, the letters of Ignatius, the Polycarp works (the martyrdom and his own letter), the Didache, and a bit of the Epistle of Barnabas. In addition to general reading, I’ve been pouring over Ignatius, picking out Pauline allusions for my honors paper for early Christianity. I’m planning to examine Ignatius’ self-identification with Paul, and how that impacts his martyrdom beliefs. Ignatius is often spurned by modern readers because he dissuaded his readers from seeking his release from prison. He also seems to think that his only “assurance of salvation” comes from his impending martyrdom (his letters were written on his way to Rome as a prisoner). I’m going to argue that Ignatius got Paul right much more than he got him wrong, and that a lot of his “theology of suffering” is present in the New Testament. It should be fun :-)

NCCS Romans (Commentary) Craig Keener

A recent blog post (HT: Nick Norelli) made me aware of Craig Keener for the first time. For some reason, he had eluded me. This is quite strange, considering he’s an outspoken charismatic scholar (often considered an oxymoron!), which is right up my alley as an aspiring, charismatic armchair theologian. I nabbed his Romans commentary from the library to refer to on my Paul/Ignatius paper. I have not yet memorized much of Romans, so I’m not as familiar with the letter as I am with some of the other Pauline works. I’ve read a bit so far, and it looks like a good read. It has a nice intro, and is much less daunting than I am sure some of his more academic works would be.

I’ve also been trying to improve my Greek. This has resulted in several books getting nabbed from the library:

How Biblical Languages Work Silzer & Finley

This is a little primer on the Biblical languages from a linguistic point of view. I’ve thumbed through it and there does appear to be some helpful items. I don’t plan on reading the whole thing through.

A Grammar for New Testament Greek

I own Mounce’s grammar, but I wanted some more exercises. I grabbed this grammar because it was at the library, but I’ve actually enjoyed using it so far. It’s much simpler and less “flashy” than Mounce’s. The exercises consist of translation from Greek to English, and also from English into Greek. The Greek composition has been tremendously useful. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get a good handle on the language if I don’t start composing my own sentences.

I’ve also grabbed a couple essay collections which are way over my head, but will hopefully contain something useful for a neophyte like myself:

Discourse Analysis and Other Topics in Biblical Greek

Studies in the Greek New Testament: Theory and Practice

And, after all of that, I’m going to a Bible study on Ephesians tonight :-)


Martin Hengel and the Septuagint as Christian Scripture

I’ve been reading through Martin Hengel’s The Septuagint as Christian Scripture.  Hengel knows the primary sources very, very well.  He discusses the interaction between the Church and Synagogue during the first few centuries AD.  They argued over the Old Testament quite a bit.  The Christians rapidly adopted the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (known as the Septuagint, or LXX). 

One interesting aspect is that it’s apparently very difficult to establish Jewish use of the Septuagint before Jesus.  The Septuagint we have preserved for us comes almost exclusively through the Church.  What became orthodox Judaism eschewed the LXX, ostensibly because of departure from the original Hebrew, but also likely because of enthusiastic reception of the LXX in the Church. 

That said, something that Hengel hasn’t brought up, is that it’s very hard to explain the Christian use of the LXX if it wasn’t being used in Judaism before Jesus.  The earliest Christians didn’t “change their bible” after conversion.  Most likely saw it as a move within Judaism.  In one sense, the early New Testament writings can be considered “Jewish” use of the LXX.  The fact that apostolic Church used the LXX is only explicable if it was in use before Jesus.