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

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:// www.rdg.ac.uk/lxx). 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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