EAJS Conference Grant Programme 2017/18
Greek expanded, Greek transformed: The Vocabulary of the Septuagint and the Cultural World of the Translators
Conference held on 18 to 20 June 2018
Rationale of the event
The Septuagint became widely influential beyond the Jewish world only in Late Antiquity, but it was produced much earlier, during the Hellenistic period. In their struggle to render the archaic Hebrew of the source text into intelligible Hellenistic Greek, the translators coined some new words (using the existing morphological resources of the language) and extended the meanings of others. Words that had been rare became frequent, and some common Greek words are conspicuous by their absence. The Hebrew Bible was Hellenized, and the Greek language was “Hebraized”. The dialectic between biblical and Hellenistic connotations lends Septuagint words a semantic complexity that is both hard and rewarding to analyse.
The conference brought together an international team of scholars from different disciplines to work over two days on the religious and political vocabulary of the Septuagint and to analyse this semantic complexity.
Most of the speakers in the conference had participated in a residential research workshop held at the Centre between January and June 2018. The conference provided an opportunity to draw their work together, as well as to expose it to dialogue with some additional international experts. This embedding in the research workshop gave the conference a depth and a unity of purpose that is not always easy to achieve in events bringing together scholars from different disciplines and different cultural backgrounds, and the resulting discussions were exceptionally rich and productive.
Monday 18 June
2-2.35pm : Jean Maurais (McGill University)
‘The Beloved One Grew Fat: Style, Context, and the Vocabulary of Deuteronomy 32:15’
Instead of focusing on a specific word or word-group, Maurais studied a short passage in Deuteronomy and attempted to demonstrate the coherence of the vocabulary used there, in semantic and stylistic perspective. The most interesting insight was that the perfect participle êgapêménos ‘beloved one’ used for Yeshurun/Israel in Deut 32:15 plays a role in royal titulature in Ptolemaic papyri.
2.35-3.10pm: Mikhail Seleznev (National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow)
‘On the Usage of στερέωμα in the LXX, with an Appendix on the Non-Usage of στερέωμα in Περὶ ὕψους’
The word στερέωμα ‘firmament’ is used in Gen 1 to refer to the vault of heaven, raqia‘ in Hebrew. In a fascinating paper, Seleznev showed how this striking equivalence reflects the struggle of the translator to mediate between biblical and Hellenistic cosmology. He went on to propose a brilliant new reconstruction of the history of Ps-Longinus’ approximate quotation from Genesis (Περὶ ὕψους 9. 10): γενέσθω φῶς, καὶ ἐγένετο. γενέσθω γῆ, καὶ ἐγένετο. In this proposal the quotation was adapted from the earlier Περὶ ὕψους by Caecilius of Calliacte, who the Suda says was Jewish by faith, and γῆ ‘earth’ is Ps-Longinus’ attempt to understand the word στερέωμα when faced with a quotation such as Γενηθήτω φῶς, καὶ ἐγένετο…Γενηθήτω στερέωμα…καὶ ἐγένετο…., in the absence of further context.
3.40-4.15pm: Arjen Bakker (University of Oxford)
‘Knowledge and Light: Lexical Observations on the Old Greek of Isaiah’
In Isa 53:11, the Septuagint and several Qumran witnesses have a noun meaning ‘light’ in excess of the Masoretic text: ‘From the travail of his soul he shall see (light).’ Bakker argued, following Seeligman, that this is an exegetical addition. He then went on to show that the book of Daniel already knows the verse with the added word. This suggests that the knowledge-as-light idea, absent in earlier biblical tradition, spread among several Jewish groups in the Hellenistic period.
4.15-4.50pm: Dominika Kurek-Chomycz (Liverpool Hope University)
‘Disability and the Septuagint’
This was probably the very first exploration of the motif of disability in the Septuagint corpus. Kurek-Chomycz showed that the different perspectives distinguished in contemporary studies on disability—medical, social, cultural—were already implicit in certain lexical choices in the Septuagint.
Plenary lecture, 6-7pm: Trevor Evans (Macquarie University)
‘Verbs of Sexual Intercourse, the Greek Translation of the Pentateuch, and Lexicographic Analysis’
Several euphemistic expressions—to know, to lie with, to be with, to come into—are used for sexual intercourse in the Hebrew Bible. Evans showed how each of these translates a Hebrew verb with a similar non-sexual sense, and for all but one the sexual as well as the non-sexual sense is already attested in Greek before the Septuagint. The translators’ choices here show their high level of competence in both languages.
9.15-9.50am: Jelle Verburg (University of Oxford)
‘Murderous Intention in the Septuagint, Philo, and the Mishnah’
Jelle Verburg discussed the terminology used in Greek to express the notion of intentional manslaughter, absent from the Hebrew where this idea is rather suggested by reference to external circumstances such as ‘lying in wait.’ He showed that while later Rabbinic interpretations of the biblical laws on murder also underscore the criterion of intention, the specific use of this criterion diverges in the Septuagint and the Rabbis diverges markedly.
9.50-10.25am: Jan Joosten (University of Oxford)
‘Divine Compassion in the Septuagint’
The notion of divine compassion is present in the Hebrew Bible, but it is underscored much more often in the Septuagint translation. The reason for this transformation cannot be found in Greek culture or religion, where divine compassion is not a frequent theme. Rather, it seems the translators embraced this notion because it contributes to mark out their Jewish identity in the Hellenistic society they inhabited.
10.25-11am: Hindy Najman (University of Oxford)
‘Formation of the Subject as Imitatio Dei’
Najman made a plea to approach the question of the ‘self’ in terms the Bible itself recognizes: the self as a human being standing in relation to God (symbolized by human blood), and the self as an individual who is also a member of a collective.
11.30-12.05pm: James Aitken (University of Cambridge)
‘Ambiguous Ethical Terms in the Septuagint’
Hebrew ‘arum tends to be translated by πανοῦργος when it has negative connotations, and by φρόνιμος when it has positive connotations. In Proverbs, however, even the positive uses are rendered by πανοῦργος. With a careful survey of the evidence for the pre-existing connotations of πανοῦργος, Aitken argued that the translator of Proverbs expanded the semantic range of this Greek adjective under the influence of the partial synonym ‘arum.
12.05-12.40pm: Hallel Baitner (Hebrew University of Jerusalem)
‘Sprinkling for Purification in the Septuagint and in Philo’s writings’
From Rabbinic sources we know that sprinkling with blood or sprinkling with water mixed with the ashes of a red heifer were considered to be entirely different procedures, although the Hebrew text uses the same verb, hizzah, to express them. Baitner observed that the Septuagint uses several equivalents for the Hebrew verb in question, notably ῥαίνω and περιρραίνω, and that the distribution of these two agrees with the distinction drawn in Rabbinic literature.
2.15-2.50pm: Anthony Ellis (Universität Bern)
‘The Devil in the Detail: (ὁ) διάβολος, σαταν, ὁ ἀντικείμενος and Diabolical φθόνος’
While some gnostics in the second century AD found the God of the Bible to be envious because he did not want the human being to eat of the tree of knowledge, later tradition unanimously attributed envy to the serpent. This contributed to the identification of the serpent as the devil, because in Hellenistic views demons could be envious while God (gods) was always good.
2.50-3.25pm: Anna Angelini (University of Lausanne)
‘The Vocabulary of Images in the LXX between Materiality and Immateriality’
Angelini presented a very nuanced analysis of the terms used in the Septuagint for divine images, notably εἰκών, εἴδωλον and ὁμοίωμα. She indicated that the semantic differences between these terms is not obvious and that in the Septuagint as in non-biblical Greek their meanings often overlap.
3.25-4pm: Maria Sokolskaya (Universität Bern)
‘The Concept of Paideia in Philo’s Biblical Exegesis’
Setting out from her idea of paideia as a bonum tantum, Sokolskaya showed how Philo at once borrowed the notion of philosophy as the only true paideia and nuanced it by arguing that the other academic disciplines belong to paideia if they are capped by philosophy. Philo’s interpretation of the relation between Sarah and Hagar draws on a well-known motif in Greek philosophy in which Penelope is opposed to Ulysses’ handmaidens.
4.30-5.05pm: Patrick Pouchelle (Centre Sèvres, Paris)
‘Did a Jewish Paideia exist during the Hellenistic and Roman period?’
Pouchelle was unable to come because of acute back pain. His paper was read by Jean Maurais. Pouchelle argued for a view of Jewish paideia that incorporates both elements taken from the Greek idea and elements with a biblical background, such as the notion of divine education by the means of historical catastrophes.
5.05-5.40pm: Tessa Rajak (University of Reading)
‘The Language of Instruction in the Fourth Book of Maccabees’
In a third paper on paideia Rajak argued at length that the author of 4 Maccabees pleads throughout his book for a combination of Greek philosophy with biblical values such as the avoidance of certain foods.
9.15-9.50am: Maria Yurovitskaya (National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow)
‘Magic and Ritual: some Reflections of Greek Religious Practices in the LXX’
The mysterious biblical ritual of ‘making one’s children pass through fire’ seems to have been interpreted as a magical act by the translator of Ezekiel, who uses the Greek verb ἀποτροπιάζομαι ‘to turn away evil’ instead of ‘to pass through’ in Ezek 16:21. Yurivitskaya showed, on the basis of a large number of non-biblical Greek texts, that this was a reasonable interpretation in the Hellenistic milieu.
9.50-10.25am: David A Lambert (University of North Carolina)
‘Problems in the History of the Self and Bible Translation: The Case of the Septuagint’
Lambert showed with many examples how language expressly showing awareness of the ‘self’ may be introduced in the biblical context although it is absent from the Hebrew source text.
10.25-11am: Romina Vergari (University of Florence)
‘The Life-cycle of the “Shadow” Metaphors in the Hebrew Bible in the Light of their Semitic and Greek Backgrounds’
In Hebrew, the word shadow mostly has positive metaphorical interpretations: protection, shelter. The metaphor of shadow as transience is less well developed, and characteristic of later texts. In Greek, shadow is mostly a negative metaphor—the shadow of death. Many Septuagint translators translate Hebrew tsel ‘shadow’ literally with σκιά when it is used in a negative way, but use σκέπη ‘protection’ when the metaphor is positive.
11.30-12.30pm: CONCLUDING REMARKS
Teresa Morgan (University of Oxford) and Philomen Probert (University of Oxford)
Philomen Probert summarized the conference and drew out recurring themes on vocabulary and translation. The challenges faced by the translators included unfamiliar or obscure Hebrew words; Hebrew words with multiple senses; familiar Hebrew words in unfamiliar meanings; unfamiliar metaphors; and Hebrew words for unfamiliar concepts. The consequences of translation were sometimes very slight, both for the content of the text and for the Greek language itself: verbs of sexual intercourse were a case in point where the translators identified remarkably close Greek equivalents for semantically complex Hebrew words. On other occasions the semantic range of a Greek word was expanded in translation, to match the range of meanings of a Hebrew word that was already a partial synonym; πανοῦργος in Proverbs was a case in point. But the conference had highlighted especially richly how pragmatic enrichment in translation (when translators make explicit a distinction or a detail that they take to be implicit in the original) can provide a window onto the cultural world of the translators. The readiness with which the translators alluded to divine compassion was one example among many that the conference had brought into focus.
Teresa Morgan opened up the discussion by asking the question of the origins of the Septuagint: is this really a liturgical text, or not rather a cultural statement made, at least partly, in view of the debate between Jews and non-Jews in Hellenistic Egypt. A lively discussion ensued.
Papers were 25 minutes with 10 minutes left for discussion. The Q&A periods were lively but there were few clashes. After Aitken’s paper, Joosten stated: “The principal task of the [Septuagint] translators was to translate” to which Aitken replied: “That is what you think”—suggesting, in context, that their primary goal was rather to create a readable Greek text. Some participants saw here the outline of a great rift. But of course, both views are correct: the translators wanted to translate the Hebrew and create a good Greek text. Otherwise the regnant mood was one of enthusiasm. The conference capped a four-month long seminar in which the interest of the Septuagint as an object of research, and the particular fruitfulness of the focus on vocabulary was driven home to many participants again and again.
Some papers (Evans, Aitken, Vergari, and the three papers on paideia) focused more on the translation of single words while others (Seleznev, Joosten, Angelini, Yurovitskaya) were more concerned with biblical themes and the way they were expressed in Greek. Several papers proceeded in the opposite direction, exploring how and to what extent certain notions that became important in Greek and, later, modern thought can be found in the bible (Kurek, Bakker, Verburg, Najman, Lambert). But these are differences of nuance, not substance.
The main insight to take home from the conference is that translation equivalences are tied up with important differences in culture and world view. An eye opener in this regard was Selezenev’s paper in which he showed how a single word in the Greek text of Genesis may have sounded very different to biblically literate Jews and to Greeks without knowledge of biblical traditions.
At the same time, it is clear that what could be done during the seminar and the conference was only a spoonful out of an ocean and that many more discoveries of the same type remain to be made. If words like στερέωμα ‘firmament’ or συγγίνομαι ‘to be with’ can be made to tell such a fascinating story, there is really no end to it.
Outcomes and outputs
It is planned to follow up on this year’s seminar with an ongoing “Septuagint Forum” that will meet twice a term in the framework of the seminar on Judaism in the Graeco-Roman period directed by Martin Goodman. Another type of follow-up will be workshop, to be run by Anna Angelini and Jan Joosten, at the European Association for Biblical Studies’ yearly conference. Finally, there are plans also to have a meeting in Oxford, perhaps just after the end of Hilary Term 2019 (11-12 March perhaps) with some of the people who have been active in this year’s project. Scott Scullion (Worcester) has declared an interest in organizing this event.
The major output is planned to be a book to be published with Mohr Siebeck, collecting the most topical papers of the seminar with most papers of the conference. The editors will be Trevor Evans, Teresa Morgan and Jan Joosten.
See flyer (link).
Website links and departments circulated with details about the Conference
Theology and Religions Faculty at Oxford University
University College London, Dept of Hebrew and Jewish Studies
Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge
Leo Baeck College
Parkes Institute, Southampton
Dept of Hebrew Studies, SOAS
British Association of Jewish Studies
European Association of Jewish Studies