Exodus 20:13-A Translation Exercise (part 2)

In part one, you suggested:

  1. No murder.
  2. Don’t murder! (A use of the exclamation point! Many forget that punctuation is part of translation.)
  3. No killin’.
  4. You will not kill.
  5. Don’t break the law and kill.
  6. Don’t kill illegally.
  7. Do not kill!
  8. Do not kill.
  9. Do not commit homicide.
  10. Do not kill without proper authorisation.
  11. You are not to murder.
  12. Human life should be protected.
  13. Do not slay another person.
  14. Do not slaughter.
  15. punishable killing (Do not commit punishable killing.)
  16. justified killing (Only do justified killing.)

The commentors (hmmmm…is that a word?) have provided a wonderful segue into this second part. That, by the way, is my complimentary (or complementary) way of commending the readership for drifting ever so slightly off topic. 🙂 “Innocent lambs.” Really. Talk about off-topic!!! <chuckle>

I had asked, “How do you translate it?” There were many suggestions as noted above. But, the discussion quite naturally (and reasonably) took a path toward expressing the ‘why’ behind the choices. And that ‘why’ is the task before us now.

So the question now is: As a Bible translator, what does one consider as support for or against the various suggestions?

Since you’ve already provided many of these in part 1, I’ve listed them below. If you’re just joining us, or you’d like to review what you actually said, see part one.

What I’d like to do now is to expand the list below, if possible, and also to categorize and to summarize it. Perhaps some items could be combined. Some could be expanded. Maybe some could be clarified by juxtaposing against something which hasn’t been mentioned.

Here’s my gleaning of the considerations you’ve presented so far. I’ve grouped them; but, please don’t let my organization sway your thinking in one way or the other. And please don’t let this list limit you.

  1. Spelling. One suggestion used ‘authorization’ which is the British spelling.
  2. The English future can be used as command or promise.
  3. Negated future can act as a command.
  4. ‘Kill’ is too broad; ‘murder’ is too narrow. (Ratsach is in the middle.)
  5. No single verb to express the correct semantic range.
  6. Replicating from the original the pithiness and style of using one verb.
  7. Using an English technical word.
  8. Natural versus awkward English.
  9. Genre of the text.
  10. There is no attempt in the text before us to define what type of killing is illegal.
  11. The cognitive context of the reader will help the reader understand the specific use.
  12. Let the reader do the interpretation.
  13. The distinction between human killing and animal killing.
  14. Greek use of the LXX word in James 4:2
  15. The teaching in Matthew 5:21ff.
  16. Use of Greek word in dramatic plays (with specific connection to Matthew 5:21).
  17. The point or goal of the ten commandments.
  18. The illegality of related actions in modern English law.
  19. The immorality of the action and related actions.
  20. Differences between felonies, misdemeanors, etc.
  21. Differences between Biblical and secular law.
  22. How the word was used of (tribal) judicial killing by the Redeemer (“blood avenger” often in English).
  23. Discussion of related actions in the mitzvos and Shabbos.
  24. The use of the word ‘law’ in modern parlance.
  25. The use of modern categories when understanding the law.
  26. What most readers will think when reading it.
  27. People will define this word tightly or as loosely as necessary according to their feelings on “justified killing.”
  28. Pacifism.

So, how would you construct this list of things to consider? Can you make it more formal? Can you make it more complete?

62 thoughts on “Exodus 20:13-A Translation Exercise (part 2)

  1. Theophrastus says:


    Type 1: Source language grammar and vocabulary

    (Your points 4, 13)

    Type 2: Target language grammar and vocabulary

    (Your points 1, 2, 3, 5)

    Type 3: Stylistic fidelity

    (Your points 6, 8, 10)

    Type 4: Semantic fidelity

    (Your points 7, 9, 11, 12)

    Type 5: Textual analysis

    (Your point 14)

    Type 6: Reception history and historical-critical analysis

    (Your points 15, 16, 17, 23)

    Type 7: Reader-response criticism

    (Your points 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28)

    While I think the various points vary in their merits, I think that all of the categories are legitimate points that should be considered by an ideal translator.

    My personal opinion: I would tend to hold in low regard the work of a translator who ignored types 1-4. Types 5 and 6 are also important; with reception history being particular important sectarian translations (e.g., “Catholic translations”, “Reformed translations”, “Jewish translations”, etc.) Type 7 is important in certain contexts, although assigning too much importance to this type tends to produce translations that are, in my opinion, too highly interpretative (or, as it is sometimes rudely put, “dumbed down.”)

  2. Theophrastus says:

    A minor correction: “authorization” is definitely the American spelling.

    “Authorisation” is sometimes found as a British variant, although I note it is not the preferred spelling according to the OED.

  3. Theophrastus says:

    One important additional category (which does not seem to come up in this short example) is

    Type 8: Literary quality in source language

    Example: for those use vernacular translations of biblical passages or psalms in liturgy, the metrical and rhyming qualities of language are important. The “sing-ability” of a translation of a psalm can be important.

    Example: strong rhythm in the target translation is important for those who memorize biblical passages in the target language. As a more specific example, many people have commented on how memorable the language of the KJV is.

    Example: in some cases, translations have been regarded as masterpieces of writing in target languages. As a more specific example, almost all educated English speakers have heard this view expressed about the KJV and the Coverdale Psalms.

    Note that in some cases, this type overlaps with type 3 (stylistic fidelity). Thus, it has been widely argued that the strong rhythm of the KJV is closer to the Hebrew than almost all contemporary English translations. However type 8 and type 3 are not identical: The KJV also has strong rhythm in its translations of Koine, where source text rhythm is perhaps less noticeable.

    (I use the KJV as a repeated example here not to celebrate its merits or demerits as a translation, but because it is nearly universally regarded as being of high literary quality.)

  4. J. K. Gayle says:

    I wonder too if we don’t need to consider our positions as cultural outsiders to the text(s) translated. We translators like to pretend objectivity when our goal is fidelity, but fidelity to the text and language appropriated to our culture, our context, our generation, our day. The 10 Commandments posted on a rock monument in an Alabama courthouse in King James English in 2003 is quite a statement, for example. It lacks a certain fidelity to what was inscribed on the first and second tablets in the desert outside Egypt, where Moses murdered an Egyptian, before the Exodus.

    The Chinese translate “Exodus 20:13” as 不 可 殺 人. This sounds suspiciously like phrasing from Tao Te Ching, much of which may be as old as the Ten Commandments. And compare the translation of the Hebrew with a famous proverb: 借 刀 殺 人. Literally, it means Borrow Sword Kill People; which figurally can mean “get others to do one’s dirty work” or use an “enemy’s own strength against him.” How important is it to preserve the phrasing 殺 人 as Murder or as People Slaying?

    Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping, in their translation of the Tao and other Chinese poetry, say this:

    The Chinese poem [translated] in English is like a stolen car sent to a “chop shop” to be stripped, disassembled, fitted with other parts, and presented to the consumer public with a new coat of paint. But despite its glossy American exterior, it’s a Chinese engine that makes this vehicle run, and fragments of the poem’s old identity can be glimpsed in its lines, the purr of its engine, the serial number, which we may still be able to read.

    One way to read this bit of translator commentary is to focus (again and again) on infidelities and betrayals (again) by the translation. But the point is that translation makes over, is an extreme makeover, is an appropriation of more than just a source into a target.

    Lydia He Liu, a scholar of Chinese appropriations of Western texts, says:

    [O]ne does not translate between equivalents; rather, one creates tropes of equivalence in the middle zone of translation between the host and guest languages. This middle zone of hypothetical equivalence, which is occupied by neologistic imagination, becomes the very ground for change.

    When the distance between languages and cultures is so clearly large, it may be easier to see my own position as translator, as an outsider. If I’m Chinese and translating from Hebrew into Chinese or from Chinese into English, then the pretense of objectivity is shot. The goal of fidelity becomes very different.

    The conversation in the first post around what the Hebrew must exactly mean (or, at least, what it must have meant in the past in a particular location for a society of people) is very important. How we publish, market, and sell Bibles – and how we would teach the Bible – depends much on our answers. Comparing the text with Chinese (as C. S. Lewis does so platonicly when he uses “The Tao” as universal law manifest in various cultures) is big stuff. What we do in twenty-first century Alabama with the text, appropriating it as the basis of our law, is huge.

  5. Theophrastus says:

    J. K., your point is interesting, but rather dated now, since in the last 5 years we have seen a rush of translations by talented Chinese literary specialists, such as Feng Xiang’s Oxford University Press translations. Look at his word play and annotations.

    Thus, we have on the one hand the approach:


    And on the other,


    That’s really the issue, isn’t it?

  6. J. K. Gayle says:

    lol, Theophrastus. I think Feng Xiang makes Liu’s and Barnstone’s and Ping’s points. As we all know, everything we’re considering here is rather distant (rather dated), with (לא תרצח ) οὐ φονεύσεις, 不 可 殺 人, and “Thou shalt not kill.” There’s a recovery not only of the original text(s) in the original language(s). But there’s also a re-discovery of notions and practices of translation. Just because an Aristotle comes along, or some Chinese counterpart of his, doesn’t mean the translator has to pretend invisibility as if all there is is the L1 (source) and the L2 (target), without the deep imagination of the translator herself (or himself).

  7. Theophrastus says:


    But of course, the 道德經 (DaoDeJing) doesn’t actually say 不可殺人 (No murder). What it says is:

    夫 兵 者 , 不 祥 之 器 ,
    物 或 惡 之 , 故 有 道 者 不 處 。
    君 子 居 則 貴 左 , 用 兵 則 貴 右 。
    兵 者 不 祥 之 器 , 非 君 子 之 器 ,
    不 得 已 而 用 之 , 恬 淡 為 上 。
    勝 而 不 美 , 而 美 之 者 , 是 樂 殺 人 。
    夫 樂 殺 人 者 , 則 不 可 得 志 於 天 下 矣 。
    吉 事 尚 左 , 凶 事 尚 右 。
    偏 將 軍 居 左 , 上 將 軍 居 右 , 言 以 喪 禮 處 之 。
    殺 人 之 眾 , 以 悲 哀 泣 之 , 戰 勝 以 喪 禮 處 之 。

    Which Legge translates as

    Now arms, however beautiful, are instruments of evil omen, hateful, it may be said, to all creatures. Therefore they who have the Tao do not like to employ them. The superior man ordinarily considers the left hand the most honorable place, but in time of war the right hand. Those sharp weapons are instruments of evil omen, and not the instruments of the superior man;–he uses them only on the compulsion of necessity. Calm and repose are what he prizes; victory (by force of arms) is to him undesirable. To consider this desirable would be to delight in the slaughter of men; and he who delights in the slaughter of men cannot get his will in the kingdom. On occasions of festivity to be on the left hand is the prized position; on occasions of mourning, the right hand. The second in command of the army has his place on the left; the general commanding in chief has his on the right;–his place, that is, is assigned to him as in the rites of mourning. He who has killed multitudes of men should weep for them with the bitterest grief; and the victor in battle has his place (rightly) according to those rites.

    and which Blakney translates as

    Weapons at best are tools of bad omen,
    Loathed and avoided by those of the Way.

    In the usage of men of good breeding,
    Honor is had at the left;
    Good omens belong on the left
    Bad omens belong on the right;
    And warriors press to the right!
    When the general stands at the right
    His lieutenant is placed at the left.
    So the usage of men of great power
    Follows that of the funeral rite.

    Weapons are tools of bad omen,
    By gentlemen not to be used;
    But when it cannot be avoided,
    They use them with calm and restraint.
    Even in victory’s hour
    These tools are unlovely to see;
    For those who admire them truly
    Are men who in murder delight.

    As for those who delight to do murder,
    It is certain they never can get
    From the world what they sought when ambition
    Urged them to power and rule.

    A multitude slain!- and their death
    Is a matter for grief and for tears;
    The victory after a conflict
    Is a theme for a funeral rite.

    (For those familiar with Chinese, both translations fall short in certain important respects, but a discussion of principles of Chinese translation would take us far astray — I simply refer back to the original words of 老子 Laozi.)

    Now this is hardly reminiscent at all of 不可殺人: note that the word 不可 does not appear at all — Laozi manages to writes his entire poem without using the most common negative word in written Chinese (can you imagine writing a Chinese essay on any topic at all without using the word bù kě?)

    It is true, of course, that the word 殺人 appears — but 殺人 is, after all, the standard Chinese word for murder (with 34 million Google hits vs. 93 million for the English word “murder”).

    Furthermore, Laozi’s work is hardly law at all, but rather, guidance for “gentlemen” and “men of good breeding”. Laozi does not even clearly accept the underlying moral principle that Divine Utterance in Exodus attempts to teach. It would appear that Laozi is willing to leave the “dirty work” to “underlings” — one can almost smell the cigar smoke in the private club as the “gentlemen” laugh at the poor cannon fodder who execute their demands.

    Similarly, unlike the Biblical text, Laozi appears to regard even “justified” killing as something to be avoided by gentlemen (Laozi dismisses such people as mere warriors, as you will readily note — something that the book of Joshua certainly has no problem with — and apparently, neither does sword-bearing Jesus of Matthew 10:34 and Revelations.)

    So I think the connection you are drawing is a bit forced — both Laozi and the Bible touch on the natural question of the sanctity of life, but the wording (either in Laozi or the Chinese translations of the Hebrew) are different, the weltanshauung is different, the genre is different, and the conclusions are different.

    Now all of this is not to argue with the larger point you make, that the text inherits a distinct cultural setting — much as many illustrated American Bibles feature images of WASPy looking Jesus, while Chinese Bibles feature images of Jesus with an epicanthic fold on his eyelids.

  8. J. K. Gayle says:

    both Laozi [i.e., the 道德經 (DaoDeJing)] and the Bible touch on the natural question of the sanctity of life, but the wording (either in Laozi or the Chinese translations of the Hebrew) are different, the weltanshauung is different, the genre is different, and the conclusions are different.

    Theophrastus, I couldn’t agree more that the 道德經 (Tao Te Ching) and the Torah are radically different in multiple ways. But you are saying this. And so am I. C. S. Lewis doesn’t (in his appendix to The Abolition of Man). I think we could find a few who agree with Lewis. And so we step into that famous river of Heraclitus (yes, the very same one that Aristotle so despised). Or is it different? As you point out, can the “WASPy looking Jesus” and the Jesus with “an epicanthic fold on his eyelids” be one and the same? Is this one (or are these two) different from the “sword-bearing Jesus of Matthew 10:34 and Revelations”? And is Matthew’s Jesus so different from the one in John’s Patmos vision, if they both bear a sword?

    You say, “a discussion of principles of Chinese translation would take us far astray — I simply refer back to the original words of 老子 Laozi.” But, as far away as we might go, have we really gone so far astray?

    In the original words, we can see:

    將 欲 取 天 下 而 為 之 , 吾 見 其 不 得 已 。
    天 下 神 器 , 不 可 為 也 , 不 可 執 也 。
    為 者 敗 之 , 執 者 失 之 。
    是 以 聖 人 無 為 , 故 無 敗 ﹔
    無 執 , 故 無 失
    夫 物 或 行 或 隨 ﹔ 或 噓 或 吹 ﹔
    或 強 或 羸 ﹔ 或 載 或 隳 。
    是 以 聖 人 去 甚 , 去 奢 , 去 泰 。

    Notice the word play of 不 可 為 也 , 不 可 執 也 。 with it’s ironic effect in the context here! There’s one character change in the phrase, one difference, which is rendered the same. Or, conversely, we might read this as two dramatically different negative phrases made the same, i.e., made negative, by the appearance of Laozi’s word 不 可. In Greek, in English, we might call this Chinese poetry function, apposition. So it it Chinese, Greek, English, particulars, different, or some deep structure universal that Noam Chomsky could theorize and then gloat about with his platonic abstractions, as if abstractions are all we really need?

    Yes, read Blakney’s translation here; read Legge’s. In their translations of “Chapter 29,” do they “fall short”? And does our look at their translations really take us so far away from what Mike’s having us discuss? Same, or different?

    Laozi’s whole point of 29, as I read it, is this whole same/ different question. Some translators focus on sameness, on permanence, while others on change (which is the point of the subtle wordplay within a few lines on static stability). And what do you think of Hogan’s English here? “You can’t just %#*$ around with it.” (This really is his rendering of the Chinese, although he uses a real English word, not my different symbol for it, %#*$).

    My point, to try to be clear here, is that translators (and even us reading and talking around translation) step in. I think it was Yang Lian who says “to read is to translate,” and so even in my target language I’m stepping in. I, the reader, and I, the translator, change the data. If I’m Jewish, I have to decide whether Jesus is the same as Willis Barnstone’s Yeshua. If I’m English speaking Christian, I’m asking whether ratsach is (ratsach) and whether, as Joel H. claims, my “kill” is “too broad” and my “murder” is “too narrow.” I step in, and this thing that is to be the same is now different. If I translate, it’s different. And if I read (if to read is to translate), it’s different. I choose, as if I have a choice. The subjectivities are tremendous. If I decide what is meant by Exodus 20:13, then a rabbi, or a judge, or a priest, or a lawyer, or my peers, or even a Jesus, might decide differently. If I decide what, in the past, so far away and long ago, must have been meant by the prohibition, then I’m daring to render across time, to say then is now, and “they” are the same as I am. Or, I might see me and us here and now as different from them then and there. If I’m Laozi, things really are different for me. But then again, there’s a place for Laozi and for ancient Chinese understandS of language and of translation in our discussion here, aren’t there?

  9. J. K. Gayle says:

    meant to say,

    If I’m English speaking Christian, I’m asking whether ratsach is (רצח) and whether, as Joel H. claims, my “kill” is “too broad” and my “murder” is “too narrow.”

    and to ask

    So is it Chinese, Greek, English…?

    (but then again, my standard-deviant typos you English readers already saw as the same as my corrected versions here in this comment. You readers judged my intentions and in your readerly minds rendered my typos as clearer English. This comment just confirms how we all are and can be on the “same” page.)

  10. Theophrastus says:


    I can’t help but wonder if you impishly delight in sending threads off into different territories — part of your intellectual playfulness. Your questions are so intriguing that it is impossible to let them stand without further comment. I can but beg forgiveness of the moderators for this comment, which only tangentially addresses the actual content of the original post.

    One can’t argue with your program here of juxtaposing different traditions and texts — it is of course fascinating to explore the intermix of culture and literature. Just as there are seventy faces to Torah, there are certainly a myriad of combinatorial opportunities to gain insights, whether serendipitous or provident.

    Perhaps that was what C. S. Lewis was doing. I cannot say, because he is not a writer that I have explored deeply; and to the extent I have explored him, I have been unimpressed. You see, I prefer Herman Melville to Fyodor Dostoevsky. (And let me here remind you of Melville’s question: what happens to a man when he outlives his gods?)

    Still, to take two of the top 5000 words in Chinese, and find them in far different places in an ancient text is hardly surprising. You are not to murder it seems to me is an atomic unit; attempts to further subdivide it are doomed to futility.

    Perhaps you may disagree, arguing that one can meditate on the word “murder” or “unlawful killing” separately from the atomic unit. But the subdivision of “murder” from You are not to murder is only an illusion. It is tautologous that a discussion of “unlawful killing” only makes sense in the context of a notion of some forms of killing being illegal. We could not use the term “unlawful killing” where the subject was a a non-sentient being; because the notion of legal and illegal killing makes no sense. (We are watching a cartoon, and a the rope suspending a 10 ton weight breaks; the weight falls and crushes the cartoon protagonist. Has the weight just committed murder? Absurd!)

    As a text, the DaoDeJing is rather unlike the Bible — Daoism was crushed under the sharp attacks of successive waves of Confucianism, Buddhism, Khan-ist militarism, Manchurianism, Republicanism, Maoism, and Chinese Christianity (not to mention the folk religious beliefs such as Jingzu and Baizu). It is true: there are those who call themselves Daoists today — but perhaps their Daoism is to Laozi as Santa Claus is the story told by St. Luke.

    If we must analogize, Laozi is not like the Hebrew Bible but rather like a gnostic text. Unlike the Hebrew Bible, Laozi speaks in a consistent tone and style and genre. Further, the Chinese of Laozi is less distant to us than the Hebrew of the Bible; classical and modern Chinese are closer than classical and modern Hebrew.

    While traditions of reading Laozi may be analogized to lectio divina, there are certainly many more ways that Bibles are read today — many that do not involve any mystical component. Does the average Protestant expect an esoteric change in consciousness when she reads through Chronicles? I don’t know, but it that seems fairly un-Lutheran.

    True, there is certainly wide dispute over the merits of different translations of Laozi. (Your admiration for Hogan surprises me — he admits his work is only a paraphrase, and I think he does not even know Chinese. Certainly Laozi’s effort to shock are far more subtle than Hogan’s use of an obscenity.) But the questions of translation of Laozi seem unlike those facing a English translator of the Hebrew Bible.

    Of course, there are certain issues universal to translation of all ancient texts and we can ask “what is common to translations of Laozi and the Bible?”; but we could equally well have a discussion of parallels of translation problems of Euclid and the Bible. (There are, by the way, virulent disputes over the best way to translate Euclid, but I will you spare you a précis of those arguments.) A discussion of “what can theory of translation of Euclid teach us about the theory translation of the Bible” would certainly be amusing, and might indeed shed some light, but it is by no means the most direct way to attack the question of Bible translation. Furthermore, it is likely the case that the best strategy for translating Euclid may be entirely different than the best strategy for translating the Bible. (If all Bible translators followed Sir T. L. Heath’s strategy in translating Euclid, we might only have translations like the NLT.)

  11. J. K. Gayle says:

    As a Bible translator, what does one consider as support for or against the various suggestions?

    (Mike, please know I’m not just being “impish”; but I do take wordplay pretty seriously in translation).

    You amaze me with your breadth and depth of knowledge about language, languages, and translation. I’m following what you’re saying about (my) uneven comparisons between Bible translation and DaoDeJing translation (especially Hogan’s “translation” of the latter. Your bringing in Euclid translation is very helpful to show just how uneven the comparisons can be! But can’t we emphasize that these are you’re judgments. I’m not even trying to be critical of them. I do like that you can see Daoism as being outdated, perhaps overcome (or “crushed”); that you can find analogies between so-called present-day “Taoists” and believers in “Santa Claus”; that you can and maybe have to “prefer Herman Melville to Fyodor Dostoevsky.” I like that you see the Bible in a holy category by itself; therefore and consequently, Bible translation must be in a class all alone. I appreciate your making these evaluations. These are not just opinions of yours; they are opinions of many who study the Bible and literature carefully.

    That said, I want to say this: it doesn’t matter that the Bible and that the translation of the Bible is somehow “above” other literature and the translation of other literature.

    Right now, I’m reading David Rosenberg’s An Educated Man: A Dual Biography of Moses and Jesus. The thesis matches the title: Jesus and Moses are educated men in parallel ways. Their education is like yours, it seems, Theophrastus. They know the traditions of the Bible with much breadth and depth. And they, like you, know other traditions in an evaluative way. What’s more, they are involved not only in turning back toward but also in turning forward, of course, the Biblical tradition they are a part of. There may be much for us to learn from these two men and their methods.

    Not sure if Rosenberg is saying this (still reading his book): but I do want to observe that Jesus (represented in the Greek-language canonical gospels) constantly makes comparisons between “the holy and the lowly.” (Sorry for such doggerel; I’m a Southern Baptist preacher’s kid, who’s heard such all my life and it sort of rolls out of me). It’s rather astounding for first-century Mediterranean Greek readers to read how a god (the Righteous and Holy God of the Hebrew Bible) might be compared to an unrighteous judge or an impatient friend or a woman who loses her coins who has also lost her husband. Two unequal, un-equivalent persons are being compared by Jesus (at least by St. Luke’s Jesus). What’s a reader to do? What were Jesus’s listeners to do (if as educated as he is in Hebrew instruction) he’s using spoken Aramaic to tell such parables? The point I’m trying to make is “not anything goes.” And not everything is equal. In Luke’s language translating Jesus’s language translating Moses’s language, there’s not the proverbial and alleged problem of the “telephone game.” The differences, the contrasts, the similarities, and the comparisons are not between equal elements or equivalent subjects. The differences are notable and are, shall we say, tautologous. However, the readers and the listeners use the hyperbole. They participate in making meanings. They make the necessary reversals and recoveries. The wordplays are crucial. They allow for evaluations and interpretations; but the uneven comparisons don’t force them.

    So, coming back to the Ten Commandments. Matthew’s Jesus says there’s no one better than Moses and his Torah (perhaps his instructive Law); and yet he brings in to the mix something uneven – the pathos of rage (with respect to murder) and the ethos of lustful looking by men (with respect to adultery) and so forth and so on. The High and Holy Once Written in Stone is compared with all that’s disgustingly low and pervasive and common and nearly un-regulate-able and absolutely un-in-force-able.

    I know Lydia Liu was talking about lowly Chinese and not about the Hebrew of the Bible. But isn’t she on to something (with respect to the translation of the Ten Commandments) when she says, “one does not translate between equivalents”?

  12. Theophrastus says:

    I like that you see the Bible in a holy category by itself; therefore and consequently, Bible translation must be in a class all alone

    I think one can reach the conclusion that Bible translation is particularly difficult even without assuming a divine origin. Compared to other literature that I am familiar with, the Bible is particularly multifarious, complex, and sophisticated. To boot, it has a labyrinthine reception history. If one merely limited oneself to a mere fraction of the Bible — say the Book of Job, Song of Solomon, and Psalms — one is faced with a translation task that beggars the ability of competent translators of other ancient texts.

    Alternatively, one can argue that Bible translation is particularly difficult on a purely empirical basis: it is so rarely done well.

  13. Mike Sangrey says:

    In the hopes of getting back on topic, and to bring the comments back down to earth, does anyone have other insights supporting the various translations of Ex. 20:13 that have been suggested?

    Might there be other categories you’d like to see presented?

  14. Mike Sangrey says:

    In looking at Theophrastus’ suggested categorization, I notice two things: One, I would have aligned some of the points differently; and, two, I would have created categories around source and target Semantics Fidelity and source and target Pragmatics Fidelity (I would have called the first two Source and Target Language Syntax Fidelity since ‘Vocabulary‘ gets into semantics as well). I would have also had a category dealing with theological fidelity (points 27 and 28, possibly among others).

    For example, I would not have placed point 10 under Stylistic Fidelity. This would have gone under Source Language Semantics Fidelity.

    Also, I think separating Semantics Fidelity into two is valuable. It forces one to deal with how the words interact with each other at the semantic level and that this interaction is different between languages. For example, think about the semantics of prepositions (and their inflectional cousins) and the semantics of the article.

    Lastly, dealing with pragmatics in both the source and target languages forces one to deal with the reader-response issues in both arenas.

    O!, one other thing…I really like the use of the word ‘Fidelity‘ in the categories. It speaks to the importance of accuracy and how the concept of accuracy permeates the entire breadth of the translation task. I think one could even reword the Reader-response category to be Reader-response fidelity.

  15. Theophrastus says:

    The category of theological fidelity is a double edged sword because it can lead to intellectually dishonest translations that sweep “problem verses” under the rug.

    Let me give you two examples from older Jewish English translations of Scripture:

    Genesis 1:26

    A translation of Genesis 1:26 has to deal with a plural form (e.g. KJV “And God said ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness….’ “)

    This could be viewed as a challenge to monotheism. (Thus Augustine simply asserts that is a reference to the Trinity.) There are two standard Jewish responses:

    (1) This is a reference to the “royal we” (Ibn Ezra)

    (2) This is a reference to the forces created by God up to that point which presumably also share God’s image (e.g., the newly created heavenly court of angels, etc.) (Nachmanides)

    Kaplan mentions some Jewish translations that follow Ibn Ezra, giving

    I will make man in My image.

    In this case, theological fidelity has lead to a translation that “does the thinking for the reader” and has edited out a fascinating portion of the text.

    Isaiah 9:6

    The 1917 JPS (often called OJPS or Old JPS) translation went out of its way to make sure that no Christological inference could be drawn:

    For a child is born unto us, a son is given unto us; and the government is upon his shoulder; and his name is called Pele-joez-el-gibbor-Abi-ad-sar-shalom;

    Here theological fidelity seems to have “gone overboard” to the point where the translators simply stopped translating.


    Note that contemporary Jewish translations, such as the NJPS, do not resort to these techniques and deal with these verses in a more intellectually honest fashion.

    (For a sensitive but traditional Christian interpretation of these verses, see the notes added by the NET Bible translators to these verses.)

  16. Dannii Willis says:

    I think one can reach the conclusion that Bible translation is particularly difficult even without assuming a divine origin. Compared to other literature that I am familiar with, the Bible is particularly multifarious, complex, and sophisticated. To boot, it has a labyrinthine reception history. If one merely limited oneself to a mere fraction of the Bible — say the Book of Job, Song of Solomon, and Psalms — one is faced with a translation task that beggars the ability of competent translators of other ancient texts.

    Alternatively, one can argue that Bible translation is particularly difficult on a purely empirical basis: it is so rarely done well.

    I think it is particularly difficult because people care so much. Far fewer people care about Taoist texts, or Euclid’s writings, however much we might wish they did care.

  17. J. K. Gayle says:

    “As a Bible translator, what does one consider as support for or against the various suggestions?”

    Were LXX translators “intellectually honest” or swayed by “theological fidelity”? When Jesus regularly asked the rhetorical question “have you never read?”, was he bound to the translator construct of “fidelity” of any sort? When Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, Paul, James, and the anonymous author of Hebrews translated into Greek and into Greek-transliterated Aramaic the Hebrew of their ancient scriptures and/ or the spoken Hebraic Aramaic of their contemporaries, how concerned were they with our Western 21st century notions of translation fidelity? Won’t our suggestions regard and include very different and profoundly dynamic understandings and practices of Bible translation?

  18. Theophrastus says:

    Were LXX translators “intellectually honest” or swayed by “theological fidelity”?

    Unfortunately, having seventy translators independently translate the Pentateuch and then accepting the result only if all seventy versions are word-for-word identical is no longer a recognized translation technique.

  19. J. K. Gayle says:

    Theophrastus, Are we really going to rely on the spurious legend of the so called Letter of Aristeas as the means to identify the LXX translation methodologies?

  20. Mike Sangrey says:

    When Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, Paul, James, and the anonymous author of Hebrews translated into Greek and into Greek-transliterated Aramaic the Hebrew of their ancient scriptures and/or the spoken Hebraic Aramaic of their contemporaries, how concerned were they with our Western 21st century notions of translation fidelity?

    I think that’s a fair question to ask in an open discussion. It’s frustratingly difficult to answer in a discussion that must have closure (like any “translation has to get published” issue). The way the question is asked, though, appears to always lead to “anyone can translate anything anyway they want at whatever moment they’re in.”

    In other words, the question appears to lead away from a solution and not toward one. Somehow, I’d like to reword the question so that it assumes an authorial intention of communicating to an audience. I’d like to not imply (given our 21st century assumptions) the original authors played fast and loose with the text.

    I think it’s a safe assumption that Biblical authors wished to communicate. I think it’s safe to assume God desires to communicate (cf John 1 and Hebrews 1). The clearest form of this communication being the embodiment of His Son. I think these assumptions undergird the notion of fidelity when it comes to translation. When one couples a theistic ideology with the core of Relevance Theory, the result is a teleology of intentional and realizable communication.

    I’ve always assumed that in order for a quoting text to have authority, it must convey the same meaning as the quoted text. Otherwise you bifurcate the effectual power. If the two texts don’t triangulate to my thinking, I assume I’m wrong. It’s my loss. The text doesn’t loose. Admittedly, there are texts of which I still await an understanding.

    For example, take the infamous controversy surrounding Matthew 1:23 and Isa. 7:14. What if πληρόω (PLHROW, ‘fulfilled’) has a lot more to do with place the intention into reality and little to do with the explicit complement to a prediction?

    If the point of Matthew 1:23 is that this person born to Mary was to be God with us, then both Matt. 1:23 as well as Isa 7:14 intend the same thing. But, neither is necessarily tied to virginity; it has to do with God stepping onto the planet in Matthew. And it has to do with God’s visitation upon Israel (and Ahaz) in Isaiah. They are Emmanuel events. Not virginal events (thus Isaiah’s presentation of the young woman does not have to be virginal).

    The fact of Mary being a virgin is established in the beginning and end of the Matthean paragraph (vs 1:18 and 25). This somewhat book-ends structure establishes the reality of the virginity, and therefore raises the important and startling question of “What does this virgin birth mean?” Matthew answers that question with the quote. So, the virginity is without dispute. However, it’s the pointer; it’s not the point. And, it’s not the point of the prophetic quote. The Emmanuel point is. The pointer and point form hammer and nail. The awe inspiring meaning is the sound when they connect.

    Also, both Isaiah and Matthew continue with twin streams of catastrophic judgement and unrelenting blessing. The quote is very much in context. And these two are the natural result to any community, no matter how large or small, when God enters into that community.

    So, we still have translation fidelity, even though the Hebrew and Greek words might mean something different across the expanse of time (especially when one superimposes the English idiom on top of both). We have translation fidelity because we’ve allowed ourselves to seek for authorial intent.

    Stating the question in a way that seeks authorial intent moves toward a solution. At least, that’s how I see it. Authorial intent also, ultimately, composes the notion of fidelity.

  21. Theophrastus says:

    JK: Well, my comment was somewhat ironic (as I also read your earlier comment).

    However, although the Letter of Aristeas is not canonical, there are other versions of the story which, to some groups at least, have great canonicity. Notably, a similar account is found in (BT) Tractate Megilla 9a. (This is aggada, so it is not binding on Jews in the way that halacha is, but it is highly regarded by at least some faith communities.)

    Was such a miracle (an inspired translation) possible? Well, that depends on your position on miracles. Do you regard as possible the account of during the post-Syrian victory the Hasmonean menorah being lit for eight days and nights with a minuscule portion of oil? Do you regard as possible the accounts of the various miracles detailed in the Talmud? Do you regard as possible the various miracles detailed in the New Testament?

    There is, in fact, a rather interesting book by Abraham and David Wasserstein, The Legend of the Septuagint: From Classical Antiquity to Today (Cambridge U. Press, 2006), that details the history of the legends regarding the Septuagint. It turns out that there are more sources for the legend beyond Aristeas and Tractate Megilla (however, both of those versions are quite clear as the translation being limited to the Pentateuch — the more controversial translations of the Prophets and Writings were almost certainly later).

    And then there are the accusations of bad-faith.

    A widely-held conservative Christian view: medieval Jewish custodianship of the Tanach is suspect, and claim foul play by the time of the Masoretic version. According to this version of events, the strongly anti-Christian medieval Jews deliberately removed or obscured Messianic references.

    A widely-held Orthodox Jewish view: the Septuagint has been in the hands of the Church, and the mainstream account by Orthodox Judaism is that the virulently anti-Semitic Church of the third and fourth centuries altered the Septuagint, so that the versions we have by the dates of the Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaticus are certainly corrupted (perhaps the corruption happened with Origen’s recension, or even earlier). The widely varying versions of the Septuagint we have today (look at NETS for dramatic examples) or even the fact that Origen had to perform a recension (importing large portions of Theodotion and making liberal use of obeloi) shows, according to this view, strong evidence that the Church was willing to tolerate widely varying versions of the Septuagint.

    Leaving aside those accusations, it is certainly the case that the versions of Septuagint cited in the New Testament and Apostolic Fathers do not agree with the Masoretic text we have today — which explains why many contemporary translations do not attempt to harmonize the translation of NT quotations of the Septuagint of with the translation of the Masoretic text. Look in the NRSV and you see the “Old Testament” and “New Testament” versions of quotes. The NRSV translators apparently thought that was the most intellectual honest way to translate.

    So where did the miracle (or cover-up) happen — with the 70 (or 72) translators? with the (inspired?) writing of the Christian texts? with the transmission history of various Greek and Hebrew texts? To what extent do we allow non-canonical writings, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Targums, and later translations such as Aquila, the Hexapla fragments, the Vulgate, etc. to influence us? How much can we rely on quotations from Rabbinic writings or Church Fathers?

    I suspect that various answers to your questions about “intellectual honesty” and “fidelity” of ancient translations are informed by our various personal faith beliefs. From my perspective, we understand translation issues better today than our colleagues did two millennia ago.

  22. J. K. Gayle says:

    “Shortly after the translation was achieved, the Greek text of the Law would have been read and studied in Jewish synagogues in Alexandria….  With time, familiarity with the text grew.  Alexandrian and Egyptian Jews would slowly come to hold the LXX as sacred — at least as sacred as the Hebrew original.”

    Theophrastus, I appreciate your writing ironically and your ability to read irony in what I write. I do thinks it’s terribly ironic, nonetheless, when we list things we think will make for our better bibles today but ignore the methods of the past that produced our bibles in the first place. Do we really think we’ve outgrown the richest methods? I’ve quoted historian Sylvie Honigman above to suggest how important the LXX was to Jews who first translated and read it

    Today it’s not only ancient Jews and Honingman but it’s also Willis Barnstone and Robert Alter who consider the Septuagint extremely important in bible translation. Alter, while not considering them equally, does translate from both the MT and the LXX.

    You’ve already pointed to the Christian NETS project and the NRSV. We might also consider how Ann Nyland uses the LXX and the MT in her recent translation of the Psalms.

    We can always point out problems with texts and with the histories of thei production. I’m thinking of the texts of the NT and even of those of Martin Luther King Jr. But don’t we want to learn from and not ignore them?

  23. Joel H. says:

    Unfortunately, having seventy translators independently translate the Pentateuch and then accepting the result only if all seventy versions are word-for-word identical is no longer a recognized translation technique.

    Well, you know what they say about modern translators: If you had 70 of them working together and they all agreed, that would be the miracle.

  24. Theophrastus says:

    Do I think the Septuagint is important? Yes, I do. Do I think the Septuagint provides us with information? Yes I do. Is the Septuagint sacred? That’s a question of faith.

    If you read Honigman’s quote you give above carefully, you’ll note she is careful to distinguish the Septuagint-Pentateuch (which was, according to the legend, translated providentially) from the later writings which later also came to be known as the Septuagint.

    The Septuagint we have today is in many places a very different book than the Tanach. The Septuagint Origen had was a very different book than the Tanach, which is why he needed to edit it so heavily and mark it with obeloi.

    The Hellenistic Jews are an interesting off-shoot of the main body of Jewish thought — Philo certainly influenced much of the Early Church (notably Augustine and Jerome) and helped father Neoplatonism — but he was lost to Jewish thought for over a millennium. Josephus fares somewhat better, but is still sufficiently alien that he can be translated into Modern Hebrew this very year. Since most Israelis have never read Josephus, he can two millennium late in 2010 finally take a place on the Israeli best seller list. Today, some scholars argue for an influence of Hellenism on Palestinian Judaism, but if that influence existed, it was an embarrassment to the Rabbis, who went to great pains to minimize acknowledging it.

    The dream is that the Septuagint will unlock those portions of the Hebrew that we still cannot understand, but that happens less often than we hope. One of the top five mysteries in understanding the Bible today is discovering the meaning of the many, many hapax legomena in the book of Job. One might think that here the Septuagint would be a magic key, but it is not; indeed, the Septuagint’s book of Job is one sixth smaller and has a different ending than our Hebrew Job.

  25. J. K. Gayle says:

    Mike, you say “Authorial intent also, ultimately, composes the notion of fidelity.” And, Theophrastus, you talk about the LXX as the hopeful “key” for some to unlock “portions of the Hebrew” now hidden. These are important concerns. But I’m not persuaded that these need to be our main issues, especially when looking at how the LXX translators rendered, say, the five books of Moses and “Ex-Odyss” 20.

    One reason I bring up MLK Jr is precisely because he had many different authorial intentions with his texts. The letter from a Birmingham jail, for example, has at least three different variants that I found: the canonized version in many college composition reader textbooks, the text that the author saw published in The Atlantic, and another also reproduced on the Internet. Then there are variant legends about how the text was produced, including the aurhor’s versions about the non-extant original and the later version published by the journal. Then there are his detractors and defendors arguing over his alleged plagiiarism.

    My question is why can’t we value all of an author’s intetions? And why can’t those intentions include the desire for editors and readers and receptors to find many different values in the variant texts attributed to the authors? I’m letting us think of the Torah translators as authors in this way. Isn’t the LXX an original set of texts?

  26. Wayne Leman says:

    Isn’t the LXX an original set of texts?

    I may be missing something obvious here, Kurk, but, as you know, the LXX is a translation of the original set of texts, not the original texts themselves.

  27. Theophrastus says:

    It’s actually even more complicated than that. The LXX is a collection of different translations, performed at different times (ranging over a period of five centuries), in some cases edited together and in some cases not.

  28. Sue says:

    I may be missing something obvious here, Kurk, but, as you know, the LXX is a translation of the original set of texts, not the original texts themselves.

    Likewise, the Hebrew can be considered a compilation of many smaller texts and not the texts themselves. What makes the compiled Hebrew more original than the Greek translation?

    And of course, both Hebrew and Greek have been subject to some alteration over the last two and half millenia. We must also consider that for most of that time either the Greek or the Latin was considered more authoritative than the Hebrew.

  29. Sue says:

    We must also consider that for most of that time either the Greek or the Latin was considered more authoritative than the Hebrew. I must qualify this and add “to the church.”

  30. J. K. Gayle says:

    Wayne, Of course the LXX is a translation of the original set of texts. Theophrastus, No one is disputing the complexity of the origins of the texts collected that we call the “Septuagint.”

    But the LXX is original in the ways that the NT is original. Here’s Willis Barnstone discussing the NT and other “original” texts of literature:

    “So the New Testament, most of which is translated from lost sources, is presented as original gospel, not translation; …. so Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus stands alone, without reference to Chaucer’s genius in revising versions from Boccaccio and from French epic love poetry; so Richard Crashaw’s close translation of Saint Teresa’s famous ‘Vivo sin vivir en mí’ (itself an intralingual glosa of a traditional anonymous poem) goes unrecognized as a translation of a translation in all editions of Crashaw’s writings; so even W. B. Yeats’s ‘When You Are Old’ (a close version of Pierre de Ronsard’s most famous sonnet), is exonerated from the shame of translation by means of a misleading footnote in David Daiches’ section of M. H. Abrams’ Norton Anthology of English Literature: ‘A poem suggested by a sonnet of the 16th-century French poet Pierre de Ronsard; it begins :Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir, à la chandelle” (“When you are old, sitting at evening by candle light”) but ends very differently from Yeats’s poem’ (a disputable assertion) mean to suggest by its original ending belonging to Yeats alone, the poem is more than a mere translation, and therefore worthy of our attention.” — page 9, The Poetics of Translation: History, Theory, Practice

    What we do with the set of texts we call the Masoretic Text is just as original. Likewise, the set of texts we call MLK Jr.’s “A Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” are read by most of us as the original (which purportedly was smuggled out on bits of toilet tissue to be reformed). With our constant insistence on fidelity and on originality, I think we miss much.

    The LXX is “more than a mere translation, and therefore worthy of our attention.” The methods of translation that formed the Septuagint may also be more than efforts toward mere fidelity, and therefore methods of translation worthy of our attention.

  31. Theophrastus says:

    J.K.: “More than a mere translation” is the view Barnstone attributes to a Norton footnote of Yeats’ “When You are Old” — because it has a different conclusion than the original. You, in turn apply this quote to the Septuagint.

    I agree: the Septuagint contains text different than our Masoretic text.

    You also favorably quote Barnstone’s view that most of the NT was composed in Aramaic, translated into Greek, and then lost in the original.

    This is true of the Septuagint: it contains the Apocrypha — some composed original in Greek (e.g., 4 Maccabees) and some of it translated from lost sources — none of it accepted as canonical by the Rabbis and thus not in the Masoretic text.

    The position that I have not seen demonstrated, but which you perhaps hold, is that the Septuagint has literary excellence in its own right (and not merely inherited from the Hebrew); or that alternatively the Septuagint opens new, useful avenues in translation theory. If this is indeed your view, I would welcome a demonstration.

  32. J. K. Gayle says:

    Theophrastus: There’s not space here to do the demonstrations you’re asking to see. Others have given them elsewhere.

    Here’s some I can say:

    Without the literary excellence of the Septuagint, we’d not have Robert Altar’s fine English translations of the Bible (e.g., The Five Books of Moses: a Translation with Commentary, The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel, and The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary). We’d not have The Psalms: Translation with Notes by Ann Nyland. We’d not have all the richness in The Jewish Study Bible: featuring The Jewish Publication Society TANAKH Translation by Adele Berlin.

    Alter looks to the Septuagint not just for literary clues as to what the older Hebrew could have been as rendered into Hellene, but Alter also sees the LXX as less “unintelligible or self-contradictory” than the Masoretic Text in many places (page xv of The David Story). Nyland suggests that “middle and upper class” Jews who were “bilingual” were ones who appreciated the Septuagint (page 5). And Berlin says, “In addition to the translation of the Scriptures [i.e., including the LXX], the Jewish Diaspora in Egypt produced a rich and varied literature in Greek” (page 2059); she calls the Septuagint the “oldest Jewish translation of the Bible” and observes that “virtually every Christian translation has followed the methods of the Jewish translators who created the Septuagint, and generally followed their renderings of the Hebrew as well” (pages xx, xiii).

    It’s also fair to say that without the literary excellence of the Septuagint, we would not have the New Testament. We would not have the careful English translation of the New Testament produced by Ann Nyland; and we would not have Willis Barnstone’s wonderful Restored New Testament: A New Translation with Commentary, Including the Gnostic Gospels Thomas, Mary, and Judas. Both Nyland and Barnstone compare the literary LXX with Greek poetry; but, of course, they see the New Testament writers all doing the same, I imagine.

    Without the Septuagint, the Bible would not have the rather literary (wordplayful) names for its books. There’d be no Genesis, no Exodus, no Numbers, no Psalms. “Genesis” (as English transliterating Greek) only begins to capture the fanciful play on words that mirrors Hesiod’s lines in “Theogony.” Moreover, Greek readers of the Septuagint hear Genesis as literary allusions to gyne (to women), to gEn (to the Earth), and to ginosko (to Knowledge). Greek readers of the Jewish Septuagint find in Moses a Hebrew counterpart to Odysseus, and the titular names Ex-Odyss and Odussey (or Exodus and Odyssey) seem a connection that’s not too difficult to make.

    Without the literary Septuagint, there’d be no wonderful opener (i.e., ἐν ἀρχῇ ἐποίησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν οὐρανὸν καὶ τὴν γῆν) that begets another wonderful opener (i.e., ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος). In other words, John’s gospel would not have its beginning. Likewise, the writer of Hebrews would not likely have found the literary motivations to mimic Homer with her or his opener: Πολυμερῶς καὶ πολυτρόπως πάλαι ὁ θεὸς λαλήσας τοῖς πατράσιν ἐν τοῖς προφήταις (See Jered Calaway’s astute observations in “Polutropos: Much-Turned Speech in the Odyssey and Hebrews“).

    The ways the Jewish translators of Hebrew into Hellene participate in the battles over “good Greek” is just fascinating, I think. Their choices seem often to ignore and to resist rather blatantly the teachings of Aristotle (to the likes of Alexander) on elite, educated Greek language for elite ethnocentric Greeks; and the Jewish translators seem aware of Plato’s Socrates’s pronouncements against the poets, the rhetoricians, the sophists, and the like – but they play with the Greek as if they’re poets themselves.

    Barnstone has this wonderful (perhaps accidental) discussion of Sappho’s poetry right as he mentions the poetry of the Septuagint; he says:

    “Sappho’s elaborate and often original [Greek] meters and general prosody were imitated by later Greek, Latin, and European poets as was not other figure in antiquity. The New Testament authors cited Hebrew poetry through the Septuagint, which like the Hebrew source texts was in prose, including the most lyrical poems of the Song of Songs.” (Restored New Testament page 37).

    The implication is that the Greek of the LXX was more poetic or at least less prosaic perhaps than the Hebrew that was translated. But, of course, Barnstone is not pushing this point; I am inferring it. There’s a dissertation to be done by someone on the literary merits of the Septuagint (apart from and perhaps in spite of the Hebrew it renders).

    And yet, many scholars have mined the Septuagint for its early translators’ translation methods (without resorting to fanciful legends). Raija Sollamo and Seppo Sipilä have edited a great set of studies in their Helsinki Perspectives on the Translation Technique of the Septuagint. Likewise, Anneli Aejmelaeus has produced On the Trail of the Septuagint Translators. Collected Essays. Theo A. W. van der Louw has much to offer, by way of calling for more investigations, in Transformations in the Septuagint: Towards an Interaction of Septaguint Studies and Translation Studies. And numerous others have studied bits and pieces of literary Greek and Jewish translation methods in the various books and verses of the Septuagint.

    So I think the real elephant in the room here may be the fact that Christians in Bible translation have co-opted much of the study of the LXX. There is much that the NT does with the LXX that can be seen as distancing Christianity from its Jewish roots. Berlin notes, for example, how it’s taken one Moshe Greenberg some thirty years to emphasize the integrity of “the Hebrew text” as “an important corrective to much (German) biblical scholarship, which often corrects the Hebrew on the basis of the Greek Septuagint” (page 1916). Much more could be said, and many more examples have been cited elsewhere by others. The tragedy, I believe, is that Jewish scholarship in some circles just gives over the LXX to a very slighted and very slight (i.e., narrow Christian) understanding of the rich Jewish legacy of the first translation of the Bible.

  33. Theophrastus says:

    Literary elegance

    It is certainly the case that the Septuagint can, at times, lead to tentative understanding of otherwise obscure Hebrew passages. This is uncontroversial and is the conventional raison d’être of Septuagint studies.

    It is equally the case that the Septuagint influenced early Greek authors, remains Scripture for many Christians, and colors Old Testament studies for virtually all Christians.

    What I have not seen is a demonstration that the language of the Septuagint rises above ordinary vernacular Greek. Given the seemingly endless treasures of Greek, the Septuagint seems quite pedestrian — it appears to fall short of any volume in the Greek Loeb library, for example.

    The content of the Septuagint may be inspiring, but that attests to the glory of the original Hebrew rather than that of the translators. That is certainly Adolf Deissmann’s view — and I know of no greater authority on Koine as used in the Christian Old Testament. (In particular I am referring to Deissmann’s Bibelstudien and Neue Bibelstudien.)

    You decline to demonstrate examples of literary excellence, claiming “others have given them elsewhere” — but that’s a cop-out — at the very least you should give a citation to an essay discussing the literary excellence of the Septuagint. I have looked, and have not been able to find them.

    The citations that you do give, to Alter and Berlin-Brettler-Fishbane, denigrate the Septuagint in favor of the Masoretic text; as does the NJPS translation itself, which (somewhat misleadingly) claims to be from the Masoretic Text (in opposition to the Christian translations which more heavily lean on the Septuagint.)

    Translation theory

    You are correct that ever since Adolf Deissmann’s studies (that showed the Septuagint was not written in “Semitic Greek” but in ordinary vernacular Greek), the topic of the methods of translation of the many Septuagint authors has been a topic in certain intellectual circles. However, the studies I have seen at least have focused on trying to understand the composition of the Septuagint rather than supporting the hypothesis that “the methods of translation that formed the Septuagint may also be more than efforts toward mere fidelity.”

    Indeed, the text of, say, Natalio Fernandez Macros’s survey of Septuagint studies consists of citation after citation claiming the exact opposite of your hypothesis — the studies cited by Marcos claim that the Septuagint translators avoided creativity in their translations.

    The only researcher who seems to claim creativity is Henry St. John Thackeray, whose 1920 Schweich Lectures (subsequently published as The Septuagint and Jewish Worship) posited creativity in the books of the Ketubim. However, textual analysis has completely discredited Thackeray; Thackeray based his theory on Swete’s (diplomatic) manual edition of the Septuagint; with the Göttingen critical edition, we now know that “Thackeray’s” creativity was due to later stages of the transmission.

    If you have any evidence of creativity in the Septuagint translation (that was not a result of transmission errors), please present it.

  34. Theophrastus says:

    It is, of course, unfair of me to claim that there are no defenses of Biblical koine as literature.

    The dispute arises when we compare the great Greek authors of Koine from the first century CE, such as Plutarch or Arrian. Their literary koine sharply contrasts with the “translation Greek” found the Septuagint or even in the New Testament.

    The resulting critical view was uniformly negative, with vicious attackers on the barbarism of the language of the Septuagint and New Testament: Celsus, Porphyrius, Hierocles, and Julian all attack Biblical Greek viciously, giving thousands of examples of infelicitous translation.

    In response, the Church Fathers conceded the poor language of the Greek Bible, but appealed to what German scholars would later term die christliche Unfähigkeitstopik” in their prefaces; but then hypocritically ignore that principle in their sequels, automatically using the figures of literary language.

    The defense of the literary qualities of Biblical Greek was left to Augustine’s De doctrina Christiana 1.4.14, where Augustine claimed artistic perfection and elegance of Biblical language; going even further and trying to identify rules of classical metrics and various stylistic devices.

    If your evidence for literary elegance is abstracted from De doctrina Christiana, then our discussion need not go further, because any of the standard commentaries deal with this claim. Further, one can’t separate a partisan bias in Augustine — he viewed Biblical Greek as elegant because it was inspired by the Holy Spirit, and then searched for examples to support his thesis.

    I think of these early literary analyses, that Julian (and you will note three volumes of his works in the Loeb library) has the stronger case.

  35. J. K. Gayle says:

    Suddenly, I feel the conversation narrowing. Mike’s says, “So the question now is: As a Bible translator, what does one consider as support for or against the various suggestions?

    I consider the Septuagint translator’s choice of “οὐ φονεύσεις” as the rendering in “Ἔξοδος Κ” to be fascinating and important. It’s important not because it can’t be charged with “barbarism” or it can’t be found (yet) in a Loeb’s edition (“Earlier Loeb editions took pains to remove or edit any passages that ‘might give offense,’ usually references to sex and homosexuality,” admits Harvard UP editors, who are committed to correcting their errors and omissions); it’s important not because a “letter of Aristeas” or Augustine’s “On Christian Doctrine” explains its appearance as the product of the supernatural. It’s important in the face of general Christian leanings toward the LXX over the MT and despite the fact that Alter must confess how he’s “resorted to alternative readings from the Septuagint a little more than [he] would have liked simply because careful consideration in many instances compelled [him] to conclude that that the wording in the Masoretic Text was unintelligible or contradictory.” It’s important in the face of the “Marcos claim that the Septuagint translators avoided creativity.”

    It’s important because the Septuagint engages literary Hellene at a critical time in Jewish and in Greek histories. (In Egyptian history too). The divergence in how Greek is read after (Socrates, Plato, and) Aristotle is confronted, rather surreptitiously perhaps, by the Jews rendering their Hebrew scriptures into Greek. Rhetoric historians track the divergence, but none has yet discussed the important role of reversal and of recovery made by the Septuagint.

    This historians include Richard Leo Enos (Greek Rhetoric Before Aristotle), Eric Havelock (Preface to Plato), Jeffrey Walker (Rhetoric and Poetics in Antiquity), Cheryl Glenn (Rhetoric Retold: Regendering the Tradition from Antiquity Through the Renaissance), George A. Kennedy (The Art of Persuasion in Greece, The Art of Rhetoric in the Roman World, and Greek Rhetoric under Christian Emperors), and James Kinneavy (Greek Rhetorical Origins of Christian Faith: An Inquiry).

    Kinneavy’s three-part hypothesis (page 4) is (i) “that many of the major features of the concept of persuasion, as embodied in Greek rhetoric of the Hellenistic period, are semantically quite close to the Christian notion of faith”; (ii) “that the writers of the New Testament were, in all probability, aware of these rapprochements”; and (iii) “that a majority of the texts in the New Testament that mention pistis as faith can be read
    with a rhetorical interpretation.” Oddly, Kinneavy ignores the critical central role of the Septuagint in departing from Aristotelian and Alexandrian Greek; he, furthermore, makes the unwarranted claim that “pistis in the Septuagint is not related to the Christian concept.” He’s only tried to reconcile the NT uses of a Greek word with the very circumscribed use of that same word by Aristotle and others formalizing “rhetoric.” Kinneavy overlooks how the Greek poets and playwrights used the word, ever so rhetorically, before Aristotle; and how the Septuagint translators restore the poetic, epic, and theatrical uses of the same word, after Aristotle.

    Theophrastus, of course it may seem to you that I’m offering a “cop-out.” What I’m trying to spare readers of this blog and Mike’s post is a review of ways the Septuagint has been regarded (and mostly disregarded). Why do I get the feeling that whoever I cite, there will be discrediting of that person’s claims? Charles Thomson, who rendered the LXX into English, quotes Johann David Michaelis in his preface, saying “The [Greek language] style is different in the different books; ‘but of all the books of the Septuagint, the style of the Proverbs is the best, where the translator has clothed the most ingenious thoughts in as neat and elegant language as was ever used by a Pythagorean sage to express his philosophic maxims’.” (Michaelis generally seems more interested in how the NT writers deviate from the LXX, which makes his comparison of the LXX Proverbs and Pythagoras even more fascinating.) Johann Cook has an entire volume which asks: The Septuagint of Proverbs: Jewish and/or Hellenistic Proverbs? Without giving anything away, Cook does say in his Conclusions that “this translator had a specific intention in his translation.” Cook isn’t comparing the translator to Pythagoras, but he is giving him his own intention, to open up the text out of Jewish (religious and theological) perspectives by his choices of Greek (style).

    I want to go back to the bit in the Septuagint in “Ἔξοδος” that we’ve been discussing: “οὐ φονεύσεις.” The stylistic features here breed other literary features for the young Joshua (or Yeshua). Willis Barnstone, who notes the “voice” of his Greek translator Matthew, tries to let both Jesus and Matthew say what they want to say. Barnstone acknowledges that the two (and now himself included) owe a debt, a stylistic and literary debt, to the translator(s) of the LXX. When he renders Matthew’s Greek into English, here’s how it sounds (and note Barnstone’s “Exodus” that is not in Matthew’s Greek):

    21 You have heard our people in ancient times commanded in Exodus,
    … You must not murder,
    … And whoever murders will be liable to judgment.
    22 I say to you, whoever is angry with a companion
    Will be judged in court,
    And whoever calls a companion a fool will go before the Sanhedrin, the highest court,
    And whoever calls a companion a scoundrel
    Will taste the fire of Gei Hinnom.

    What’s amazing is Barnstone’s translational intention, his own intention. He’s trying to let Jesus and Matthew speak. And yet, he makes his own decisions, some that are noted in a footnote on the Greek from the Hebrew for “Gei Hinnom… normally translated as ‘hell’.” But Barnstone knows his Greek. He knows Greek style and voice. He’s trying to restore the Hebrew in Jesus’s Hebrew Aramaic, in Matthew’s Greek too. Both are poetic, he’s said and has demonstrated in earlier commentary. So he excises things like “Ῥακά” (aka “Rhaka” or ריקא or ריקה) but inserts the allusion to the Septuagint (i.e., “Exodus”) and maintains the direct quotation reference to the LXX in the commandment. It’s very subtle, but isn’t it important, the connections recovered by Matthew and Jesus? I’m talking about the Greek dramatic connections between φόνος and ὀργῆς. The fact is that the Greek readers of Matthew, and of the LXX, albeit in the Hellenistic period, after Aristotle, would have made the literary, dramatic connections, the openings of meanings if you will, very easily. Thankfully, Barnstone does restore much of the literary style of the NT writer-translators, who invoke much of the literary voice(s) of the translators of the LXX. (I just wonder if we have too much historical baggage around the legends and the assertions about the Septuagint to see it in its literary glory).

  36. J K Gayle says:

    🙂 the lxx seems much more elegant than my last comment, with its many typos and hurried carelessnesses with respect to English grammar conventions. Such is another reason why I can’t very well demonstrate literary wellformedness. 🙂

  37. Theophrastus says:

    ΟΥ ΦΟΝΕΥΣΕΙΣ, of course, was the Greek title for the Robert De Niro – Al Pacino film known in English as RIGHTEOUS KILL. Did the title gain something in the translation?

    Since you study Aristotle, I am somewhat surprised to hear you quote with favor a comparison of Παροιμίαι with Pythagoras. From Carl Huffman’s account:

    In reconstructing the thought of early Greek philosophers, scholars often turn to Aristotle’s and Plato’s accounts of their predecessors, although Plato’s accounts are embedded in the literary structure of his dialogues and thus do not pretend to historical accuracy, while Aristotle’s apparently more historical presentation masks a considerable amount of reinterpretation of his predecessors’ views in terms of his own thought. In the case of Pythagoras, what is striking is the essential agreement of Plato and Aristotle in their presentation of his significance. Aristotle frequently discusses the philosophy of Pythagoreans, whom he dates to the middle and second half of the fifth century and who posited limiters and unlimiteds as first principles. He refers to these Pythagoreans as the “so-called Pythagoreans,” suggesting that he had some reservations about the application of the label “Pythagorean” to them. Aristotle strikingly never refers to Pythagoras himself in his extant writings (Metaph. 986a29 is an interpolation; Rh. 1398b14 is a quotation from Alcidamas; MM 1182a11 may not be by Aristotle and, if it is, may well be a case where “Pythagoreans” have been turned into “Pythagoras” in the transmission). In the fragments of his now lost two-book treatise on the Pythagoreans, Aristotle does discuss Pythagoras himself, but the references are all to Pythagoras as a founder of a way of life, who forbade the eating of beans (Fr. 195), and to Pythagoras as a wonder-worker, who had a golden thigh and bit a snake to death (Fr. 191). If this is the only type of material that Aristotle is willing to ascribe to Pythagoras himself, it becomes clear why he never mentions Pythagoras in his account of his philosophical predecessors and why he uses the expression “so-called Pythagoreans” to refer to the Pythagoreanism of the fifth-century. For Aristotle Pythagoras did not belong to the succession of thinkers starting with Thales, who were attempting to explain the basic principles of the natural world, and hence he could not see what sense it made to call a fifth-century thinker like Philolaus, who joined that succession by positing limiters and unlimiteds as first principles, a Pythagorean. Plato is often thought to be heavily indebted to the Pythagoreans, but he is almost as parsimonious in his references to Pythagoras as Aristotle and mentions him only once in his writings. Plato’s one reference to Pythagoras (R. 600a) treats him as the founder of a way of life, just as Aristotle does, and, when Plato traces the history of philosophy prior to his time in the Sophist, (242c-e), there is no allusion to Pythagoras. In the Philebus, Plato does describe the philosophy of limiters and unlimiteds, which Aristotle assigns to the so-called Pythagoreans of the fifth century and which is found in the fragments of Philolaus, but like Aristotle he does not ascribe this philosophy to Pythagoras himself. Scholars, both ancient and modern, under the influence of the later glorification of Pythagoras, have supposed that the Prometheus, whom Plato describes as hurling the system down to men, was Pythagoras (e.g., Kahn 2002: 13–14), but careful reading of the passage shows that Prometheus is just Prometheus and that Plato, like Aristotle, assigns the philosophical system to a group of men (Huffman 1999a, 2001). The fragments of Philolaus show that he was the primary figure of this group. When Plato refers to Philolaus in the Phaedo (61d-e), he does not identify him as a Pythagorean, so that once again Plato agrees with Aristotle in distancing the “so-called Pythagoreans” of the fifth century from Pythagoras himself. For both Plato and Aristotle, then, Pythagoras is not a part of the cosmological and metaphysical tradition of Presocratic philosophy nor is he closely connected to the metaphysical system presented by fifth-century Pythagoreans like Philolaus; he is instead the founder of a way of life.

    I simply ask: where is your collection of works by Pythagoras?

    We do not yet have the Göttingen edition of Παροιμίαι, so a critical evaluation must wait for the future. But you have apparently read Johann Cook (as have I), so you know that on page 325 Cook suggests that the so-called “creativity” of Παροιμίαι could largely be a consequence of transmission error.

    Further, you quote Cook out of context. Cook gives two main conclusions aobut Παροιμίαι. His first view is that the translator of Παροιμίαι was “unique”, that is, the remainder of the Septuagint does not share his value. His second conclusion you demands a fuller context:

    Secondly, therefore, it is possible to conclude that this translator had a specific intention in his translation. From the conclusions I drew in respect of each chapter it has become clear that this translation should be seen as a religious document. The translator obviously had a “religious” intention in his rendering.

    So, Cook is arguing that Παροιμίαι is the exception that proves the rule — it is unique in being periphrastic (as opposed to the wooden translation elsewhere in the Septuagint), and that periphrasis is directed towards religious purposes; we can compare its propagandizing to the violence rendered to the text by a work with solid Jewish pedigree: Targum Canticles. (Targum Canticles, which like Παροιμίαι is a pale-imitation of the original, at least had the virtue of being popular with the Jewish community.)

    I will grant that Παροιμίαι represents a case in which we can detect a non-wooden style, but is it any good as Greek literature? The literary quality has yet to be demonstrated — would anyone rank Seputagint Παροιμίαι over Aesop’s Fables, for example?

  38. Theophrastus says:

    J.K.: While, as I indicate above, Cook does not support your thesis, we must also take into account the critics of Cook. To this extent, I commend to you Michael V. Fox’s analysis in his Anchor Bible commentaries. Fox reaches opposite conclusions of Cook:

    Though the Septuagint inevitably reflects exegesis and expresses the translators’ own tendencies and beliefs, I differ from J. Cook’s view that “the Septuagint should principally be seen as an exegetical writing (CSP 12),” “the earliest exegetical commentary on the Hebrew text” (p. 35). LXX-Prov is primarily a translation, one aiming at a faithful representation of the Hebrew, and it is best understood in terms of that goal. All translations are based on and reflect exegesis, though this tends to be noticeable only when one disagrees with the interpretation. The category “exegetical” is too vague to help us explain variations from the Hebrew or, more precisely, from a “zero-degree” or purely mimetic rendering, which we hypothesize for the sake of describing “variations” in the actual translation.234 “Exegetical” is more usefully reserved to describe words, phrases, or lines intended to explain another element in the translation.

    LXX-Prov does introduce additional elements for exegetical purposes, but only a few are really tendentious. The moralizing additions, such as “and the downfall of lawbreakers is evil” (1:18) are not evidence that translation elsewhere is unusually “free.” This is especially so because the LXX additions almost always serve to underscore, not contradict, the ethics expounded in the Hebrew, so there was no need for the translator to go against the grain elsewhere. When the exegetical and tendentious features are accounted for and the expansions are set aside, the LXX proves to be, on the whole, a fairly faithful rendering of a Hebrew original, and it can be used as evidence for textual variants. Hence the following notes are less inclined than CSP to account for differences by positing exegetical and ideological motives when none such are evident, but they nonetheless seek to identify the translator’s attitudes and ideas.

    The dating of the Greek translation can be determined only loosely. Mid- to late-second century B.C.E. is generally accepted. The Wisdom of Solomon shows dependency on LXX-Prov in a few verses, most clearly Wis 6:14 on 1:21, but Wis Sol’s own dating is in considerable dispute. On the basis of the translation’s minimal recourse to the belief in an afterlife, as well as its generally universalist outlook, M. Dick (1990: 21, 50) advocates an early-second-century dating. J. Cook (1993) supports a similar dating on the grounds of the translator’s familiarity with Hellenistic literary style and (contrary to Dick’s observation) his suspicion of foreign thought. These are weak criteria. There is no suspicion of foreign thought in the material that definitely belongs to the original translation (“Old Greek,” OG), for the two major additions in chapter 9 were probably introduced later. The universalism comes from the parent text.

  39. J K Gayle says:

    I look forward to reading Michael Fox’s critique, Theophrastus. And I knew the risks in bringing up Cook and his Pythagoras to you. The best and briefest treatment of the Greek thinker is Anne Carson’s in her Glass, Irony, and God. I don’t have it in front of me or a lot of time to reply here now. But my point that you haven’t addressed is the integral value of the LXX to the literary translations of the Bibles of Alter and Barnstone and the like. I didn’t intend to get into such an apology for the Septuagint but think much of what you’re demanding is subjective in judgment.

  40. Theophrastus says:

    But my point that you haven’t addressed is the integral value of the LXX to the literary translations of the Bibles of Alter and Barnstone and the like.

    I believe that I have addressed that. Namely:


    To quote you quoting Alter:

    Alter must confess how he’s “resorted to alternative readings from the Septuagint a little more than [he] would have liked simply because careful consideration in many instances compelled [him] to conclude that that the wording in the Masoretic Text was unintelligible or contradictory.”

    Alter’s use of the Septuagint was to clarify unintelligible Hebrew — the traditional use of the Septuagint — not literary. The Septuagint, in Alter’s view, exists merely to clarify the meaning of the (dominant) source text.


    Barnstone, of course, is translating Christian texts written in Greek — and again, no one doubts the importance of the Septuagint to Hellenistic Christianity (and contemporary Christianity.)

    Of interest: Barnstone would presumably not agree with your example of the similarity between Genesis 1:1 and John 1:1, since Barnstone believes (following Charles Cutler Torrey, Charles Fox Burney, James Alan Montgomery, Robert Balgarnie Young Scott, and Millar Burrows) that the fourth gospel we now have was translated from the Aramaic. (I hasten to add that Barnstone’s view is in the minority among New Testament scholars.)

    Subjectivity and Greek quality

    Let’s look at Εκκλησιαστής in the Greek — Peter Gentry in the NETS describes it this way:

    The text is difficult to read in places and almost incomprehensible at times from the point of view of the native speaker of Hellenistic Greek who had no knowledge of recourse to the source text.

    Admittedly this is an extreme example, but it still illuminates the many problems with the literary quality of the Septuagint text. It is also true that, as you state, aesthetic judgments necessarily have elements of subjectivity, but this is not exactly a close call. The conventional view is that Septuagint is written in “translation Greek” — what Marcos calls “bad Greek” — and I have yet to see an counter-example.

  41. J. K. Gayle says:

    Thanks, Theophrastus, for elaborating on the theories that Alter and Barnstone might have about the LXX. What I’m interested in is the practices of Alter and of Barnstone in translation.

    Gentry and the chief NETS editor Albert Pietersma can so theorize and can consistently repeat again and again how the Septuagint is essentially a Greek gloss of the Hebrew (i.e., that the “Greek translation of Ecclesiast is characterized by extreme formal equivalence” or that “when all is said and done, it is the Psalter’s literalness or isomorphism that establishes a baseline for [English] translator or exegete alike”). But Pietersma’s project, his practice, is an outgrowth of his theory; and his translational practice, therefore, is to focus on the LXX in terms “Of Stereotypes, Calques and Isolates.”

    Nonetheless, Pietersma has to admit the following:

    “[M]ost of what the Greek translator of Psalms did is intelligible—and that includes many passages in which the Hebrew text is less than clear—, if not idiomatic. He will even at times introduce difference—where the Hebrew text is identical—perhaps for the sake of variation in style, though that is not the only available explanation…. Indeed, one can even find some literary sparks, the exceptions that prove the rule of his regular style.”

    As you know, Pietersma does point to specific examples of what he considers “exceptions,” as some kind of exceptional “literary sparks”; but then he explains them away by saying: “Such literary nuggets are admittedly not many and one would scarcely expect them in a text whose purpose it is to point the reader away from itself, but they do exist and they do add a dimension to our translator’s work.”

    But the theoretical problem for Pietersma, for Gentry, and perhaps for Alter, Barnstone, and you are the real practices of the LXX translators. If our theoretical assumption is that the Greek mostly and merely glosses the Hebrew (even what we now must imagine as non-extant Hebrew), then from the outset we can hardly imagine the playfulness of the Greek at critical points in the text. Our theory consistently clouds how political the Hellene word choices are, and must be, for Jews in Egypt under a Greek empire, whose project is a politically correct “good Greek.”

    Pietersma can hardly acknowledge, for example, why the translator(s) of the Psalms would produce these lines:

    καὶ βασιλίσκον
    καὶ καταπατήσεις
    καὶ δράκοντα.

    And are these line just an exceptional rule-exception, a literary nugget or spark? –>

    οὐ φοβηθήσῃ
    ἀπὸ φόβου νυκτερινοῦ
    ἀπὸ βέλους πετομένου ἡμέρας
    ἀπὸ πράγματος διαπορευομένου ἐν σκότει
    ἀπὸ συμπτώματος καὶ δαιμονίου μεσημβρινοῦ

    The differences from what we now have as the MT Tehellim 91:13 and 91:5, 91:6 are striking enough. Note those peculiar differences!

    But the literary elegance of the Greek here would not only be intelligible to the native speaker of Hellene but it would also evoke in the memory of the listeners the poetic style and the wordplay of the likes of Aristophanes and Euripides and Sophocles and even Homer! Aristotle would not be amused nor would Alexandria’s Alexander or the idealizer of the Republic, Plato and his Socrates. These all warned against such Odes and such slippery sophist sounding wordplay.

    So, as we fast-forward a few centuries, we see Matthew, the Greek gospel writing and Jesus translating user of Hellene. Why does he put in the mouth of Satan (the temptor, the snake) some of these slippery lines? Is this evil one a δαιμονίου μεσημβρινοῦ, an ἀσπίδα καὶ βασιλίσκον … καὶ δράκοντα? A noon-day demon, an asp and cobra … and dragon-like serpent? And don’t Matthew’s readers still hear lines from the Iliad, from Antigone and the Trachiniae, from the Birds (Aves) and Peace (Pax), from from the Bacchae, Ion, Electra, Electra, and Phoenician Women?

    And now we fast forward several centuries more. When Alter translates our Psalms, even with reference to Tehellim 91 (MT), he still invokes the Greek. Here there may not be the “demons” (i.e., δαιμονίοι), but there are lions (λέοντα). And in a footnote, Alter accuses the KJV of a “translator’s strategy of desperation” with “young lion” (although, by that theory of his that you explain, Alter might accuse the LXX translator of a much worse strategy, or for the oversight of ostensibly pure lexical matching somehow, when ἀσπίδα καὶ βασιλίσκον is such a Hebrew mismatch!).

    Barnstone, who’s trying to give Matthew his voice as he tries to give Yeshua his voice, acknowledges that these are “Psalms” that the devil is quoting. Yes, ΨΑΛΜΟΙ (even though Matthew’s readers and the listeners of the dialektike between Yeshua and the devil might be hearing Tehellim). Barnstone the translator (not the theorist about the LXX) has added the word “Psalms” for the English reader (and Matthew never mentions which biblical book but only has the devil saying γέγραπται γὰρ, roughly, “for it is written” or “the scripture says”). And Barnstone’s restored Hebraic English retains “angels”; “angels” are a result of the LXX “τοῖς ἀγγέλοις.” (Why won’t Barnstone use “messengers” as Alter does for Tehelllim – I mean Psalm – 91?)

    One of the points I’m trying to make is the Septuagint is not only literary (if only seen in Pietersma’s theoretical “sparks” and “nuggets”) but it is also has impacted and still impacts literary translations. Its literary Greek (and literary Bible) influence is greater than the KJV’s influence on English.

  42. Theophrastus says:

    Well, I’ve never doubted the Septuagint’s influence — I agree with you that it has been influential: primarily for Christian writing, both literary and non-literary. I’m happy to repeat that statement for you over and over again — it seems that it is a point that we agreed upon early.

    You can point to a few “rare” “exceptions” of clever lines in the complex mass of texts we now call the Septuagint, but I’m sure Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins have some good lines too. That doesn’t the Left Behind series great literature though, and I don’t expect it replace to Shakespeare anytime soon. Given the amount of rewriting the Septuagint has gone through, it would be surprising if it wasn’t improved in a few place.

    We could try an experiment of taking a thousand pages of Hebrew text and running it through Google translate into Modern Greek and see if we don’t, by mechanical accident, get the occasional good line. This can be compared to William Burroughs cut-up experiments — and you’ll readily note that there are those critics who regard The Soft Machine, The Ticket that Exploded, and Nova Express as minor masterpieces. (Thus Burroughs was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. This example alone shows that random processes can entirely account for rare literary success.) However, at least Burroughs contributed to the theory of constructing texts. Do the Septuagint translators have any contributions to the theory of translation (other than the negative one of showing us how a translation should not be done)?

  43. John Hobbins says:

    I’m uncomfortable with the way this conversation has developed.

    LXX Exodus and not just its very interesting translation choices throughout its legal portions are of the greatest interest not only for Christians but also for Jews. It’s a long story. Here’s a little background:




    The sages eventually departed from an originally high valuation of the Septuagint = the original translation of the Pentateuch into Greek. A number of texts in the Talmud nonetheless preserve the initial and half-millennium long high valuation. Christian use of scriptures translated by Jews into Greek is what made the Greek translations radioactive.

    It used to be a problem that much of Jewish literature from Greco-Roman times is preserved only in Greek, Latin, and/or Syriac, rather than in Hebrew and Aramaic. The former streams were thought to be muddied somehow because they were transmitted by Christians. Indeed, they sometimes were.

    But it is now recognized by Jews and Christians alike that this literature is of great significance, that the Septuagint in the strict sense and in more extensive senses is a Jewish cultural monument of the first order. Jewish scholars of the greatest acumen have dedicated their lives to pieces of Jewish literature in Greek without any condescending attitude: Feldman (Josephus), Wolfson (Philo); w.r.t. the Septuagint, Seeligmann (who is in Kurk’s camp) and Tov (same camp as Michael Fox).

  44. John Hobbins says:

    Not the case Theo. In the following, I use the term LXX in both strict and less strict senses indiscriminately, but always for Greek translation work done by Jews.

    We are now in a position to make five-way comparisons: (1) Origen’s Hexaplaric recension of the LXX (it was not his intent of course to produce a conflate text); (2) the great uncials; (3) pre-Christian manuscripts of various parts of the Torah and the Prophets from Qumran and Egypt; (4) the text of the Septuagint preserved in Philo; (5) the text of the Septuagint preserved in Josephus.

    On that basis, it is possible to reconstruct pre-Christian versions in Greek of all the books of the Jewish Bible with relative confidence using the same methods text-critics use everywhere.

    It is the same with the same books in Hebrew and Aramaic. The text-critical problems the great number of textual variants now known from the pre-Masoretic period of the books that came to make up the Tanakh pose in principle the same challenges.

    All such variation is irrelevant from the point of view of the ongoing determination of halakhah regardless of language of preservation, but nonetheless reflective of tradition that played a role in determining halakha and aggadah in bygone epochs. That’s why Kugel in “The Bible as it Was” treats the whole range of literature (including the Septuagint). It was a single ocean for 500 years and more in antiquity.

    BTW, neither the Cambridge, the Gottingen, or Rahlfs Septuagint print Origen’s so-called recension.

  45. Theophrastus says:

    In fact, the Göttingen always prints Origen when portions are available. We can hardly reconstruct the “original” when we have such variant texts, which is one reason the Göttingen is appearing so slowly and is so complex. In many cases, Göttingen has produced lengthy alternative versions.

    Any insights the Dead Sea Scrolls may lead to a hypothetical reconstruction of the Pentateuch, is, for better or worse, of scholarly interest only. There is no variation allowed in a sefer torah — the text is completely standardized, which is why the Masoretes included the numerical masorah.

    Kugel’s Bible as it Was (or more specifically, his full version, Traditions of the Bible) is an interesting work, but it is inclusive of both Christian and Jewish traditions — thus he quotes Augustine, Jerome, etc. Perhaps you may classify City of God as a Jewish work, a “single ocean”, but I am sure you will appreciate that this is hardly a consensus view.

    But all of this drifts rather far from the Mike’s question of producing a taxonomy of translation considerations or J.K.’s question of defending the Septuagint as a literary translation.

    To the latter point, I would simply add my evaluation — measured from the standpoint of literary elegance (and using the mathematical “<" less than symbol):

    Septuagint < Philo < Arrian

    Septuagint < Josephus < Plutarch

  46. John Hobbins says:


    You will be happy to know that there is a group of scholars that are working on an edition of all the remains of the Hexapla. A couple of other remarks:

    (1) You are welcome to your skepticism about the possibility of reconstructing (1) pre-Origenic and (2) pre-Christian versions of the Jewish Scriptures in Greek, but it is next to impossible to find a scholar today who thinks likewise. For example, we now have an almost complete BCE copy of the XII in Greek from Nahal Hever. This permits a Jewish scholar like Emanuel Tov to affirm, not only that we know virtually every word of the XII as first translated into Greek, but also, that we have very good evidence of later and equally Jewish revisions thereto. He and everyone else regard the following as early Jewish revisions of “LXX” text we otherwise know from the ms tradition: kaige-Theodotion, Aquila (mentioned also in the Talmud), Pap. Oxy. 1007, and Pap. Rylands Gk. 458.

    (2) The Göttingen edition is complete in the Pentateuch. Wevers, one of my teachers, was the editor of all five volumes. He made maximum use of texts like 4QLXXLev-a, 4QLXXNum, Pap. Fouad 266, Pap. Rylands Gk, 458. If anything, he would be faulted for sticking too often to a text that retroverts easily into proto-MT.

    (3) Perhaps, then, you have not yet read Kugel. He is the one who treats Jewish tradition of whatever language in Greco-Roman antiquity as a single ocean. If you can show otherwise, that would be of great interest. I’ve been reading a volume of Piyyut Avodah. The editors Yahalom and Swartz work on the same assumption and find parallels to tropes and details in piyyut that are otherwise unknown except as attested in Jewish literature preserved by Christians in Greek, Latin, and/or Syriac.

    This is standard practice now. At Yeshiva University Moshe Bernstein follows the same method.

    (4) I would love to have an English translation of the MT and only the MT. We’ve gone over this before. Even NJPSV allows its translation (and not only in the notes) to reflect input from other sources, the ancient versions and medieval commentators, Saadya for example.

    But there is also a place for translations of “scholarly interest only.” NRSV is an example thereof, which departs from MT in light of Qumran mss. and the versions in hundreds of places. For church use, I certainly prefer a translation like ESV which corrects back to the MT.

  47. Theophrastus says:

    (1) I’m impressed that you have a copy of Aquila and can opine on it as a complete work, because it is lost.

    Boring paragraph with details: Prior to 1897, the only bits of his work were a few quotations in Patristic commentaries and some very rare Talmudic readings, and in a few readings (usually from margins of the Hexapla.) Those fragments are collected in F. Field’s Origenis Hexaplorum quae supersunt and can also be found in the critical apparatus of the Cambridge and Göttingen. Since then, Cardinal Mercati found a fragment of a Hexapla of Psalms 17-18 in the Ambosian Library of Milan; F. C. Burkitt found 1 Kings 20:7-17 and 2 Kings 23:11-27 in the Cairo Geniza; C. Taylor found fragments of Ps 90:17-103:17 and a Hexapla fragment of Psalm 22 in the Cairo Geniza; B. P. Grenfell and A. S. Hunt found a 3rd century papyrus containing a letter from an Egyptian which is alleged to be a fragment of Aquila containing Gen 1:1-5. We have tiny fragments of Aquila to Isaiah from some notes to Isaiah 1-6 (as published by L. Lutkemann and A. Rahlfs) and A. Mohles found a few qotes in the commentary of Isaiah by Eusebius of Caesarea. P. Katz claims he has found a quotation of Gen. 17:1 in Philo’s De Gigantibus. H. P. Ruger claims to have found a few interlinear Greek glosses to the Hebrew text of Prov. 17:16-19:3 from a Cairo Geniza manuscript now in the Bodelian which may contain (but by no means are certain to contain) a fragments of a translation derived from Aquila. Finally, and most dubiously, N. R. M. de Lange has published a tiny set of glosses on Malachi and Job from the Cairo Genizah which is also hypothesized to have some relation to Aquila.

    And that’s it. We have far less than 1% of Hebrew Bible in Aquila’s translation. (We face more severe problems for Symmachus and Theodotion.) Reconstruction attempts based on such a minuscule fragment are highly speculative.

    (2) Good to know.

    (3) Kugel is quite careful to distinguish Jewish and Christian traditions in his work. Perhaps you would be so good as to give a page reference to the phrase “great ocean” or “single ocean” — I’ve read his work and do not recall his reference to that. In fact, I just did an electronic search of his work and could not find that (although there is reference to the Indian Ocean and a quote by Josephus about the belief of the Essene location of Gan Eden “beyond the ocean”). Kugel quotes works such as the New Testament which can only be called “Jewish” is the loosest sense of the word, and works such as City of God that are certainly not of Jewish origin. His work is not limited to Jewish legends.

    Of course, there are portions of Jewish writings that were only preserved in Islamic, and less frequently in Christian, collections. The difference with the case of the Septuagint is that we have what tradition purports to be the traditional text.

    (4) As I’ve said multiple times in this very thread, it is a standard practice to make use of ancient translations and text fragments to clarify those many portions of the Hebrew Bible where the meaning is unclear. This is in the domain of commentary, and I have no objections to it (however, being mere scholarship, it is often ephemeral). However, it is a Christian practice to allow the Septuagint to correct the Hebrew. Thus the NRSV (which I regard as perhaps the best of recent Christian translations) does correct the Hebrew in many places, and the result is quite interesting.

    You are also correct that the NJPS is sadly deficient as a translation, which is one reason why for liturgical use, the Hebrew dominant. Even the most liberal rabbi will not consider a sefer torah written in NJPS English as kosher.

    In a celebrated passage (Berachos 8a), the Talmud recommends studying the weekly parsha “twice in the mikra and once with the targum.” (Today, many understand “targum” not to refer to Onkelos, but to the local vernacular language or to a commentary such as Rashi.) This can certainly be no mistake. The targum adds understanding (which is why it should be read once), but the mikra is dominant, which is why it should be read twice. The targum can never take precedence over the mikra.

  48. Theophrastus says:

    There is a frequent confusion in this thread that I’d like to correct. The fact that an author who happens to be Jewish writes a statement does not make that a Jewish statement. (Similarly, the fact that Bugsy Siegel happened to be Jewish does not make gambling, prostitution, theft, and mob activity kosher.)

    Despite Hans Kung’s impressive academic pedigree, we do not confuse his statements with pronouncements of the magisterium. Despite Bart Ehrman’s many scholarly achievements, we do not confuse his statements with normative Evangelical belief. We should not make the analogous mistakes with individual Jewish scholars.

  49. J. K. Gayle says:

    that an author who happens to be Jewish writes a statement does not make that a Jewish statement.

    Theophrastus, You make a very important point. But I’d like to suggest that the Septuagint translators are Jewish and are making Jewish statements. And their “Jewish” Greek statements are nothing like the no doubt few literary statements you might help us find in writings by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. (I laughed out loud when I read what you wrote, although I confess I’ve never read even one sentence of the “Left Behind” books).

    I can’t be sure what Adele Berlin means in her national Jewish Book Award winning Jewish Study Bible when she says the LXX is the “oldest Jewish translation of the Bible” and that “virtually every Christian translation has followed the methods of the Jewish translators who created the Septuagint.” I do think that Naomi Seidman is on to something, however, when she explores Jewish perspectives on the LXX.

    Seidman, in her book Faithful Renderings: Jewish-Christian Difference and the Politics of Translation (Afterlives of the Bible), looks at reversals of the anti-Semitic, Christian patristic myths of the development of the LXX. She writes:

    “[T]he Talmud does present an extraordinary Jewish counternarrative to the [Christian] patristic Septuagint legends (which themselves, of course, are variations on the Jewish Septuagint romances of Aristeas and Philo)…. The [Church] Fathers imagine the Jewish translators as passive channels of God’s message to the world; in the [contrastive] talmudic account God works to keep certain things between the Jews and himself [i.e., away from the world, especially the Greek and the Egyptian worlds], not only sanctioning Jewish conspiracy but taking the role of conspirator-in-chief. In this regard, the talmudic rewriting of the patristic Septuagint legend is a trickster text: the [Jewish] translator is a trickster, who in folklore ‘represents the weak, whose wit can at times achieve ambiguous victories against the powers of the strong.’ Not only does the Talmud present the composition of the Septuagint as an elaborate Jewish trick, it also describes the passages in the Hebrew Bible itself as a ‘hidden transcript,’ the private discourse of a minority culture.
    As [James C.] Scott writes in another context, ‘What may look from above like the extraction of required performance can easily from below like the artful manipulation of deference and flattery to achieve its own ends.’ The talmudic list of alterations suggest that the Septuagint is both a ‘required performance’ and [also] one that manipulates, at least in part, through ‘deference and flattery.’ Megilla records fifteen changes … (of course, there are not fifteen differences between the Septuagint and the Hebrew Bible the rabbis had, sometimes referred to as the proto-Masoretic text, but rather hundreds, including entire books — the texts belonging to different manuscript families…. [The subsequent alterations], the ‘union’ of Greek philosophy and Hebraic religion is revealed not as a noble attempt to strip the Bible of [things such as] anthropomorphism and the remnants of its attachment to ‘pagan’ myth, but rather as a series of obsequies, strategic gestures for the survival of a people in the face of the overwhelming [Greek imperial and Egyptian royal] culture[s] that surrounded it. Reversing the [Christian] patristic plot, the translators are released from their cells, while the Hebrew Bible remains enclosed behind the high walls of the Hebrew language; what the Gentiles get is something else altogether. Submission and subversion here turn out to be simultaneous strategies: the Septuagint, as an imperfect translation, is also a perfect mistranstranslation. In this account, the translators’ infidelity interrupts the perfect communication between Hebrew and Greek, God and Gentiles, in the name of linguistic difference, ethnic survival, and the privacy of Jewish discourse.
    The hermenuetic that underlies the [Christian, sometimes anti-Semitic] patristic legend assumes a transcendental signified ‘above’ all languages and peoples that functions as the guarantor of perfect translatability; that the translators are Jews is thus rendered irrelevant to the transcription of this universal meaning. In the [very different] hermenuetic at play in the [Jewish] rabbinic Septuagint legend, ‘the Holy One, blessed be He’ is in close alliance with the Jews; rendering the divine message for any people, in any other language, produces a new message.” pages 63 – 65.

    And, likewise, she recalls that

    “Veltri has recently made a very similar point, arguing that we should not take for granted that the rabbis renounced translation once the Septuagint had become the Bible of the Christian Church; rabbinic literature rather advanced an alternative model of translation [in contrast to the co-optive Christian model]. Unlike those readings that suggest that rabbinic models of internal-midrashic trnaslation arose in reaction to Hellenism or Christianity, Veltri claims that rabbinic and Jewish-Hellenistic approaches to translation [i.e., via the LXX] must both be understood against the philosophical background of translation in antiquity (Veltri, Gegenwart der Tradition, 45-52).” page 284.

  50. J. K. Gayle says:

    In Naomi Seidman’s book quoted above, there are a couple of other noteworthy quotations relevant to our discussion.

    In her chapter, “Translation and Assimilation: [Isaac Bashevis] Singer in America,” Seidman gets at what Jewish translation does sometimes to render the target language both more Jewish and less Jewish. In her discussion, she quotes “the very real Yiddish literary critic Irving Saposnik” on Singer:

    “From the beginning, Singer’s success has been both the wonder and the envy of the Yiddish world. Many asked: Why him? Why not Khayim Grade, who wrote better, or Singer’s brother, who far eclipsed him and would surely have been more successful had he not died young? But Singer was more than just a writer; he was an entrepreneur, a skillful marketer of both his image and his imagination. Much like his most famous character Gimpel, he was shrewder than he pretended to be, far more the wily peasant than the impish old man who loved to feed the pigeons in the park. Singer often read his American audience better than they read him, and he often proceeded to give them what they wanted [in American English translation], all the time concealing both his literary and literal Yiddish originals. With both Yiddish originals effectively concealed, the selling of Singer began. Sharp edges were smoothed [by the translation], ethnic quirks turned into old world charm, shtetl superstitions passed for venerable wisdom, and Bashevis crossed from the mundane obscurity of a Yiddish writer to being the darling of the literary world.” (qtd fr Saposnik’s “A Canticle for Isaac: A Kaddish for Bashevis” on Seidman’s page 246)

    Seidman is tracking “Jewish-Christian difference” especially with reference to “the politics of translation.” The case she builds is that the Septuagint gave the Egyptians and the Greeks just what they wanted with the shrewd subversiveness. At the end of her amazing chapter, “The Holocaust in Every Tongue,” Seidman says:

    “If it is among the tasks of Holocaust discourse to salvage the memory of Europe’s Jews, then we must also remember a Jewish tradition of comic, salvific ignorance [by Jewish translation into Goyim Tongues]…. In this era as in the Talmud’s imagined Ptolemaic Alexandria, mistranslation [sometimes intended] reminds us that there are worlds that remain untouched, undreamed, under the regime of ‘correct’ translation.” page 242

  51. Theophrastus says:

    Naomi is a friend of mine, and she has written a wonderful book.

    Since you liked her book, then I can heartily recommend the Wassersteins http://www.amazon.com/Legend-Septuagint-Classical-Antiquity-Today/dp/0521104610/. I’m sure your campus library has a copy, and I predict that you will like it so much that you will wish to obtain your own copy in paperback. In addition to tracing the Jewish and Christian tracks, the discussion of the Islamic and pagan histories of the Septuagint adds a dimension to Septuagint reception history that is rarely discussed.

  52. Theophrastus says:

    Er — that last post didn’t come out because of an editing error. Let me try again:

    Naomi is a friend of mine, and she has written a wonderful book.

    Since you liked her book, then I can heartily recommend the Wassersteins The Legend of the Septuagint: From Classical Antiquity to Today. I’m sure your campus library has a copy, and I predict that you will like it so much that you will wish to obtain your own copy in paperback. In addition to tracing the Jewish and Christian tracks, the discussion of the Islamic and pagan histories of the Septuagint adds a dimension to Septuagint reception history that is rarely discussed.

    (I notice that Steve Mason, in his review, seems to largely agree with my assessment.)

  53. J. K. Gayle says:

    Please thank Ms. Seidman for her indeed wonderful book. Thank you for Mason’s review of the Wassersteins’ book, and yes I am skimming it now in our campus library! I’m most looking forward to reading it, especially the chapter, “The Rabbis and the Greek Bible.” I see that David Wasserstein has acknowledged Sylvie Honigman’s help in completing the book; and some of her works are cited, including her amazing book, The Septuagint and Homeric Scholarship in Alexandria: A Study in the Narrative of the ‘Letter of Aristeas’. My guess is that you know have read Honigman’s works too. The exciting thing to me about her research written in her book is the acknowledgment of different paradigms of story-telling or of narrative against which she compares the Letter of Aristeas, its legend, and the text(s) of the LXX. Honigman is quite adamant to say that the LXX texts produced were not part of the Alexandrian paradigm of narrative, which is “linked in some way or another to [Alexander the Great’s] Alexandria, and more precisely, to the [Greeks’ lackey kingdom there], the Ptolemaic dynasty” (41). The author of the Letter [i.e., whoever Aristeas might be] does follow the Alexandrian paradigm; and with allusions to Alexander and the skillful “use of Aristotle” in certain passages, this is clear. However, the actual translators of the Septuagint followed another paradigm. (Perhaps, as your friend Naomi Seidman points out, the translation practice according to the Talmudic, rabbinic version of the story was one of ambiguity: apparent submission to the Greek-endorsed Egyptian royalty but actual subversion of the non-Jewish aims by the translation.) The Jewish LXX narrative more closely follows the Homer paradigm.

    Honigman makes these assertions:

    “Shortly after the translation was achieved, the Greek text of the Law would have been read and studied in Jewish synagogues in Alexandra and in the Egyptian chora. The importance of the LXX in Jewish education is reflected by the many references to the Bible in Alexandrian Jewish literature, beginning with Demetrius the Chronographer in the late third century BCE…. With time, familiarity with the text grew. Alexandrian and Egyptian Jews would slowly come to hold the LXX as sacred — at least as sacred as the Hebrew original. However, the study of the LXX in a synagogal environment clearly led to a multiplication of manuscripts and, with time, the quality of the manuscripts deteriorated. Should we suppose the existence of ‘eccentric’ LXX papyri, alongside the Homeric ones?” page 138

  54. Theophrastus says:

    That’s true, but the influence of Hellenistic Judaism on later Palestinian Judaism (or on medieval Judaism) is fairly limited (as I’ve argued). It was a real historical phenomena, but until relatively recently (roughly the last century) Jewish scholars have largely ignored Hellenistic Judaism.

    (In contrast, it has been of keen interest to scholars of the early Church, and scholars of the philosophical development of Jerome, Augustine, and other medieval Christian thinkers.)

    Now, there are some scholars who argue that there was limited influence of Hellenistic Judaism on Palestinian Judaism, and we certainly know that some existed — e.g., there are some Greek words in the Mishna. (And, certainly, Aristotle was quite important to medieval Jewish philosophers, notably Maimonides.) But in large part, Hellenistic Judaism is viewed as a branch that fed Christianity, not Judaism.

  55. J. K. Gayle says:

    Theophrastus, I think Naomi Seidman’s rabbis’ thesis about the LXX being a “a perfect mistranslation” blurs your distinctions between the Hellenistic and Palestinian Jews. The rabbis of the Talmudic reading of the Septuagint legend were Palestinian, weren’t they?

    For very obvious reasons, of course, you might want Adele Berlin to say the LXX is the “oldest Hellenistic Jewish translation of the Bible.” And we all might want to track the direction of its influence (i.e., on Hellenistic Judaism first and then on Christianity but so so much on Palestinian Judaism). This is important.

    However, how Seidman can (without qualification) call “Jewish” various lost Yiddish holocaust texts in Goyim-tongue translation and how she lets Irving Saposnik call “Jewish” Singer’s literary translations of his intentionally “concealed” Yiddish texts that have limited fidelity to one another is what, I believe, is most important about calling the LXX “Jewish.” Yes, it’s a translation by Hellenistic Jews who obeyed an Egyptian monarch who was under the thumb of a crushing Greek empire. And yet, in that context, because it is subversively “Jewish,” it is the first Jewish translation of the Bible. It is a “perfect mistranslation.”

    The kind of purposeful infidelity in translation that a careful Greek reader can read in the LXX is reminiscent of more than just Jewish holocaust text translators and more than Singer’s abandonment of his Yiddish originals in favor of something more palatable to the non-Jewish literary world.

    The method of translating that plays with the target language for rhetorical effect, for subtle political effect, can be seen among many oppressed minority groups. Women, for example, in patriarchal societies, especially male-dominant-religious patriarchal societies participate in using translation for subversion of the phallogocentric dominance of the canonized texts over them, that would otherwise silence them. Obvious examples include Clarice Lispector and Helene Cixous. But then there are those such as Julia Evelina Smith and Mary Sidney Hebert and Joan of Arc. And Phillis Wheatley. Wheatley is an example further of African writers in their diaspora who co-opt the language(s) of their captors, their masters, for subtle and subversive purposes. And such African writers, oppressed minorities in larger societies they neither constructed nor chose, are akin to similar silenced and dominated groups who have found themselves in lands conquered and colonies formed by racially pure and educationally elite European men. The Greek sophist Gorgias, in his encomium of Helen, was on to something when he tried to show the simultaneously plural intentions of the woman who appears so silent, so necessarily passive in her flight to Troy; the effect of his wordplayful text is to give Greek men no option but to acquit her but also to praise her for her wiliness (equal to, but different from, that of Odysseus). I’m starting to sound like I’m straying a bit from my point; but it’s possible, maybe profoundly helpful, to read the LXX in the Talmudic rabbinic tradition that your friend Seidman gets us considering. To call the LXX “Jewish” might just be to betray the fact that the Hellenistic-Jewish translators – in Alexandria, under Athens – didn’t want it to be called “Jewish.” It’s a faithful infidelity to divorce the Jewish scriptures from their captors.

    I’m fascinated by how Wasserstein and Wasserstein write the mingled histories of the Jews around the LXX. On page 10:

    “The Jews of Alexandria, in translating the Law into Greek, were responding precisely to the same need as their Aramaic-speaking co-religionists in Palestine and Babylonia.”

    As you know, the Wassersteins spend three or four pages, then, discussing Jewish needs “for the Hebrew text to be translated.” They note the unique Greek words for religious practices used, not equivalents to the spoken Aramaic or the Hebrew text. By page 12, they say: “In Alexandria, as in Palestine, both purposes were probably served, at first, by a merely oral translation, and it is not at all unlikely that in time an oral version of Greek pentateuchal readings, accompanied by a similar version of prophetic passages, become more or less fixed.” The dual “purposes” served by Alexandrian and by Palestine Jewish translations were “didactic” and “liturgical.” It’s not such a leap, therefore, for the careful reader of the Greek of the Septuagint (in all its extant variant texts) to see a plurality of purposes in a multiplicity of locations for a rather diverse group of pre-Christian Jews. And might not at least one of the purposes of the LXX translation have been to subvert the dominant (anti-Semitic) forces of the nations over the Jews?

  56. J. K. Gayle says:

    oops! I really do agree and meant to write:

    “(i.e., on Hellenistic Judaism first and then on Christianity but NOT so much on Palestinian Judaism)…. However,… “

  57. Theophrastus says:

    I value the Seidman and Wasserstein books because they deal with a topic that seems to be largely verboten in many of these forums — the political reception history of translations.

    Suzanne McCarthy used to talk about this aspect of translation on this board, (albeit, usually the lens of gender politics), but now the topic has disappeared.

    You have read Borges. You thus know that Pierre Menard’s Don Quixote is different than Cervantes’s Don Quixote — even though their works are letter for letter identical.

    And, of course, with the Septuagint, we have an additional layer of complexity: what lawyers call “chain of custody issues.”

    For better or worse, Hellenistic Judaism (and the Septuagint) was the root of universal Christianity, not of diaspora Judaism. Philo influenced Augustine — not Saadia Gaon. (If Philo’s name ever comes up in Jewish discussions, the first words mentioned are “he never learned Hebrew.”) The most famous words of Josephus are “Testimonium Flavianum” — words that he doubtlessly never wrote and certainly are not very Jewish.

    (When Hellenism did influence Judaism, it was through Islamic scholars. Maimonides learned Aristotle from the same sources from which Averroes learned — an Aristotle somewhat different than the Aristotle of Aquinas and the Christian West.)

    Paul was famous for pushing an assimilationist doctrine; he could not even abide a few Jews eating kosher food at a table by themselves. One possible reading of Romans is an assimilationist manifesto. Judaism faced of the strong assimilationist pressures from Islam and Christianity (and, in a later era, from secularism). Judaism was not completely immune to these pressures, but a fraction at least partially resisted assimilationist pressures

    The fight against assimilation included an ironic instance of assimilation: if there were any Hellenistic Jews who clung to the ancient ways, they were slowly “purified” by being assimilated back into Palestinian Judaism — so thoroughly that Judaism no longer claims an Alexandrian heritage.

    Judaism does remember the Hellenists, though. It celebrate, however, for eight days each year — the defeat of Antiochus IV Epiphanes.

    Don’t forget to spin your dreidel.

  58. J. K. Gayle says:

    Theophrastus, I like that you remind us of the Arabic Aristotle, and the Islamic translation’s much different reception and influence than that of the Greek texts received (i.e., in Athens, Alexandria, Rome, and then places like Boston, where Harvard’s Loeb’s Greek classics are produced). And since you also bring up Borges, his thought-provoking Pierre Menard, and his Don Quixote, I wonder what Borges (and you) would think of Edith Grossman’s translating? (There’s both her translations and her theorizing about translation, i.e., her latest Why Translation Matters). These do seem pertinent to the conversations here at this blog.

    I’m following your follow up on LXX as HelleneJudaism-and-Christian-mostly. Thanks!

    “Don’t forget to spin my dreidel”? Right, except (as dreadfully disgusting and unkosher and unholy as it sounds),

    I made it out of clay: ἐποίησεν πηλὸν ἐκ τοῦ πτύσματος.

  59. Sue says:

    My interest in the political history of translations far surpasses gender politics. While this needs to be understood in order for women to wade through the many unpleasant passages strewn through bible commentaries, it is only one facet of bias and influence.

    For example, even though there may be examples of gender bias in the KJV, it is the least interesting aspect of the political history of that translation.

    But even more interesting and rarely mentioned, is the fact that Pagnini, the translator of what I would consider to be the most important translation of the Bible in the Reformation period, had to be persuaded by the pope to leave his study of Kabbala texts in order to dedicate his time to a Latin translation of the Hebrew.

    In fact, the first translation of the Bible into French was also made by a Kabbalist, Jacques Lefèvre. In many ways, the Kabbala was an important precursor to the Reformation, but not a required topic of study in seminaries.

    I would strongly suggest that in the first Bible translations of the Reformation gender politics is of little significance. However, this does little to mitigate the unpleasantness that women are exposed to in reading Bible commentaries.

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