Book Review: Karen H. Jobes, Discovering the Septuagint

Jobes, Karen H., ed. Discovering the Septuagint: A Guided Reader. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Academic, 2016. 351 pp. Hb; $20.00.   Link to Kregel Academic

Karen Jobes is well known for her Invitation to the Septuagint (Baker 2000) co-written with Moises Silva, now in a second edition (Baker, 2015). That previous volume is an excellent handbook for the study of the Septuagint (LXX), but it lacks any exercises for students in the text of the LXX itself. This new volume from Kregel is intended to assist a student read through significant sections of the Septuagint.

Discovering-SeptuagintThis reader includes about 700 verses from nine books from the Greek Old Testament (Genesis, Exodus, Ruth, Additions to Esther, Psalms, Hosea, Jonah, Malachi and Isaiah). Her Exodus examples are divided into two separate chapters (Exod 14-15 and the Ten Commandments from Exodus and Deuteronomy). These selections give the student a wide range of experience in several genres as well as distinctive LXX styles.

Each chapter begins with a short introduction to the book in the Septuagint. Aside from a few obvious general comments, Jobes assesses the translation style of each book. Genesis, for example, is a “strict quantitative representation” of word order and syntax of the Hebrew Bible (19), while Hosea is in some respects quite different than the Hebrew text. This may indicate a different Vorlage or a corrupted text. The introduction concludes with a selected bibliography including a few recommended commentaries as well as monographs or articles on the Greek text of the book. The bibliographies are brief; in most cases these are about a half-page in length.

Each chapter is compiled by graduate students in Jobes’s LXX classes, including Wheaton doctoral students Carmen Imes and Caleb Friedman. After the introduction, the Greek text is presented verse-by-verse with comments on phrases. The Greek is drawn from the Rahlfs-Hanhart critical edition of the LXX. Not every word is glossed, and some a glossed several times with similar comments. For example, the common phrase και ἐγένετο begins both Ruth and Jonah. In both cases the word is parsed and compared to the conventional Hebrew וַֽיְהִי. In some cases rather simple words are parsed ( in Jonah 2:6, for example).

The comments on vocabulary begin by parsing verbs or identifying case, number and gender of nouns and offering a basic lexical gloss not included in Metzger’s Aids for Students of New Testament Greek. But as the introduction observes, some common words are glossed if they appear in unusual forms. In some cases the translation of the NETS is given. Occasionally a syntactical category is given (complementary infinitive, pendant nominative, etc.) The book concludes with a glossary of these terms.

Following glossed verses for a biblical chapter, the editors provide the NETS English translation and a list of quotations in the New Testament where applicable. Some of the examples are not strictly quotations. For example, Jonah 2:1 is presented as cited in Matt 12:40 but this is an allusion to the story of Jonah rather than a formal quotation. The quotation section could have been improved by including the Greek text side-by-side and providing some commentary on any differences between then LXX in Rahlfs-Hanhart and the NA28 Greek text. Although Isaiah 7:14 is quoted exactly in Matthew 1:23, the allusion to Isaiah 54:13 is not as precise.

Perhaps the biggest shortcoming of the book is the lack of engagement with the Hebrew text. There are many times in the examples given where the LXX differs from the MT in significant ways. For example, in Jonah 2:3, the phrase τον θεόν μου appears in the LXX but not in the MT. There is no notice of this addition in the reader’s guide to Jonah 2:3. In Jonah 2:6, the LXX translator used ἐσχάτη for the סוּף, reed. The ESV translates the Hebrew word as weeds, “weeds were wrapped about my head.” The LXX translator appears to have read the MT as סוֹף, “end.” The NETS therefore translates the word as modifying the abyss, “the deepest abyss.” The notes indicate only that the “this reading of the Heb results in a different division of the clauses” (245), when the LXX has read a Hebrew word with a different vowel, resulting in a different translation.

Both of these examples were found using Emanuel Tov, The Parallel Aligned Hebrew-Aramaic and Greek Texts of Jewish Scripture (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2003). In both cases it is possible the translator had a different Hebrew text than what ultimately became the Masoretic text, or the translator added to the text for clarity or theological reasons. A third possibility is the translator misunderstood the text, something most beginning Hebrew students can appreciate. Ultimately this shortcoming is the nature of the book, it is a guided reader for the Septuagint, not a commentary on the differences between the MT and LXX. Perhaps the book could have been improved if the editors had chosen one or two such examples per chapter in order to demonstrate some of the problems facing those who work on the text of the Septuagint.

Regardless of this criticism, Discovering the Septuagint will be a good textbook for a seminary class on the Septuagint or Hellenistic Greek. I might have preferred a workbook style with more space for students to work out the translations, like Kregel’s Handbook for Intermediate Greek (Bateman) or Koine Greek Reader (Decker). Anyone who has a year or two of Greek could use this book to continue to improve their Greek skills by reading these selections from the LXX outside of a classroom setting.

NB: Thanks to Kregel Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Translating Psalm 36:1

I have been teaching through some of the Wisdom Psalms in my Summer Bible Study series at church. Psalm 36:1 presents several unusual challenges for a teacher since translations vary greatly:

NIV: I have a message from God in my heart concerning the sinfulness of the wicked

ESV: Transgression speaks to the wicked deep in his heart

LXX: The lawless one, to sin, says in himself that there is no fear of God before his eyes

The vast differences in the translation of verse 1 are due to the difficulty of the Hebrew text and the way the Greek translation interpreted the verse. Both the NIV and ESV provide a note with an alternate translation. Rolf Jacobson comments the first few words of the verse are “undoubtedly corrupt” (Psalms NICOT; 339 n. 3).

LXX Psalm 88:4-8

LXX Psalm 88:4-8

As in most cases, the reason for the difference is the difficulty of the Hebrew text and the way the Septuagint (LXX) coped with the difficulties. It is always possible the translator had a different Hebrew manuscript, but that is not likely the case here. It is also possible the translator did not understand the Hebrew and made an attempt to make sense of what the Hebrew text says. This could be from a lack of Hebrew skills, as most first year Hebrew students will attest, Hebrew poetry can be difficult to translate! But in this case, it seems to me the translator became an interpreter when approaching Psalm 36:1. (To complicate matters, this verse is Psalm 36:2 in the Hebrew Bible and 35:1 in the LXX.)

The first word (נְאֻם) usually refers to an oracle of the Lord, so the first line could be a title analogous to the prophets: “An oracle of transgression concerning the wicked.” The LXX interpreted this as “the transgressor, in order to sin, says to himself” (Φησὶν ὁ παράνομος τοῦ ἁμαρτάνειν ἐν ἑαυτῷ). My overly-literal translation attempts to read the articular infinitive τοῦ ἁμαρτάνειν as the purpose or intent of the verb “he speaks.” This translates the Hebrew לָ֭רָשָׁע, a noun with a prefixed preposition (“to the sinner”).

Since the Hebrew text already has a word for sin (פֶּשַׁע), the LXX translator took the second sin word as an infinitive explaining why the sinner is speaking:  “in order to sin, a sinner has to speak within his own heart and convince himself there he has no dread of the Lord.” This is the gist of the Hebrew verse as well as the LXX, although one problem yet remains, the meaning of the first word of the Hebrew text, נְאֻם. Does this mean “speak” as the LXX has, or “an oracle”?

Allen Ross represents a more or less traditional response to this textual difficulty. He translates the first line, “An oracle concerning the transgression of the wicked is within my heart” (Ross, Commentary on the Psalms, 1:779). Kraus, on the other hand, suggests the word oracle (נְאֻם) ought to be read as “pleasing” (נָעִים), resulting in the translation “pleasing is the transgression to the wicked deep in his heart” (Kraus, Psalms 1-59, 396).

Jacobson reads נְאֻם as related to the Arabic naʾama to howl, growl or the Akkadian and translates “Transgression whispers to the wicked one deep in his heart” (Psalms, NICOT, 339). Transgression becomes an evil persona who speaks into the inner person of the wicked and prevents them from recognizing the “dread of the Lord.”

A final difficulty is the Hebrew first person “my heart” (לִבִּ֑י). If the first word is not “an oracle,” then the pronoun needs to be changed to the third person “his heart,” since again based on the reading of the LXX.

In any case, the verse refers to the inner machinations of a sinner who resists the fear of the Lord and lives outside of the Wisdom Lifestyle.