Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

4 Sep 2019

Is There Such a Thing as the Septuagint?: Analyzing Peter Williams’s objections (Part 1)

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Note: This post, as well as future posts concerning the Septuagint, are rough drafts for a potential upcoming book on the Septuagint. Accordingly, these posts will be removed at a future date. In regard to this article, it is the first of two which seek to analyze and then answer an objection to the use of the term Septuagint. This essay will survey the objection, while the next will provide a defense of the term.

What is the Septuagint? That is a great question, but perhaps we should start with another question: how does one pronounce the word “Septuagint”? There are at least three ways: SEP-too-a-jint, sep-TOO-a-jint, or SEP-twa-jint.[1] Given the variety of ways it is pronounced, some have joked that one cannot mispronounce the term. Even DBTS faculty disagree. And though friendly banter exists concerning how the word is “properly” pronounced, more serious consideration is given to what we mean by the word.

So what is the Septuagint? This deceptively simple question has a rather complex answer. An unnuanced definition should be offered here to get us started. The word “Septuagint” is generally defined as “The Greek translations of Hebrew sacred writings.” But, as with most fields of inquiry, definitions are complex and require some qualification. This chapter will lay the groundwork for the rest of the book by further defining the major terms, not only “Septuagint” but also “Old Greek” as well.

One helpful way to define our terms is by answering an objection. Peter Williams, Principal of the Tyndale House in Cambridge, presented at an Evangelical Theological Society Meeting on the topic “On the Invention and Problem of the Term Septuagint.”[2] In a related lecture around the same time, he spoke on the topic, “Why I Don’t Believe in the Septuagint.”[3] These lectures were largely based on a prior article, which, in part, traced the problems with the term “Septuagint.”[4] Williams concludes that there is no such thing as “the Septuagint.”[5]

It will be the burden of this essay to explain Williams’s position. Indeed, Williams has some legitimate concerns, which are the product of the complexity of the history and transmission of the Old Testament (OT) in Greek.[6] Accordingly, this essay will introduce many of those complexities, preparing us to address them in future posts.

PETER WILLIAMS’S ARGUMENT AGAINST THE TERM “SEPTUAGINT”

That Williams does not deny the existence of Greek translations of the Hebrew OT should be stated from the outset.[7] Indeed, the truth is quite the opposite. Instead of denying their existence, Williams seeks to show that most people fail to realize the plurality and diversity of their existence. Thus, Williams’s problem is not with the documents but is rather with the terminology. For Williams, the crystal-clear terminology required in research is simply lacking with regard to the term “Septuagint.” Stated succinctly, Williams believes the term “‘Septuagint’ combines anachronism and imprecision with a superficial impression of definiteness.”[8]

Williams suggests at least three problems with the word “Septuagint.” First, the term has gone through extensive evolution. As those with some knowledge of Latin may know, the term Septuagint is the Latin word for 70. The designation is not an accident of history; rather, it flows from the historical backgrounds associated with the translation of the OT into Greek. The Letter of Aristeas (the topic of a future post) popularized the belief that the Pentateuch was translated by 72 elders, six from each of the twelve Jewish tribes. Over time, the 72 translators were summarily spoken of as the 70 translators.[9] Early on, the term was mostly accompanied by a specifying noun, highlighting the personal association of the word. For example, one might read, “the 70 elders,” “the 70 translators,” or “the seventy interpreters.” Further, the term was plural, which is the natural product of speaking of multiple persons. In sum, throughout most of history, the term was used of persons not of a translation and was consequently plural and not singular.

Somewhere in the seventeenth century this began to shift.[10] Two changes took place. The word began to be reified (i.e., it began speaking of a thing instead of a person) and it began to be spoken of in the singular rather than the plural. The changes were not immediate. Rather, as with most linguistic changes, the transformation of its use was gradual. Most significantly, these shifts did not occur in only one language. Williams recognizes that “a range of influential languages came, without coordination, to move together, sometimes at an almost imperceptible pace, to be able to speak of a version called the Septuagint.”[11]

Williams’s second problem with the term “Septuagint” is that it is too vague in regard to the extent of its text. Going back to the account of the seventy-two translators in the Letter of Aristeas, the translation of the seventy consisted only of the Pentateuch. Despite this, modern definitions of “Septuagint” are rarely limited to the Pentateuch.[12] Over the centuries, more and more was attributed to the seventy translators (see the chapter on the Letter of Aristeas). The net effect, according to Williams, was a widening of the term to embrace more and more of the Greek translations under the name “Septuagint.”[13]

In light of this diversity, Williams wonders whether the term is even helpful. Certainly, the debate is not settled, for even today there are differences concerning what should be included in “the Septuagint.” Should non-translated texts be included (i.e., texts originally penned in Greek; e.g., Wisdom of Solomon and 2–4 Maccabees)? Should texts now called apocryphal be included, or should it be limited to Jewish canonical texts? This diversity leads Williams to question the usefulness of “Septuagint” in scholarly research.

The third argument against the use of the term “Septuagint” is that it misleads people into thinking of a singular text. As future posts will reveal, there was no single translation of the OT into Greek. Though there does appear to have been an initial, unified translation of the Pentateuch into Greek, the other OT books were translated at different times and places. Indeed, there were competing translations, perhaps the result of different translations being done at different times by different people. Further, even the translations that had been received were not considered beyond improvement, and so there were revisions being done (often aligning the text more carefully with the Hebrew). In light of this, Williams asks the logical question, “which of these translations has a right to be called the LXX?”[14]

Based on these three problems, Williams offers four negative implications that arise from continued use of the term “the Septuagint”:

· It gives the impression of a single version, confusing lay people and scholars.

· It prevents people from looking at the actual data and observing the diversity.

· It gives the impression that a specific singular text had a fixed authority outside the Hebrew.

· It may mislead research into the NT use of the OT by allowing scholars to say the NT author’s use is based on “the Septuagint.”[15]

To conclude our consideration of William’s objection to the use of the term “the Septuagint,” we can summarize his position with a statement he made to me in personal correspondence: “There is either no Septuagint or there are many. There is certainly not one!”[16] In other words, Williams thinks a case can be made against the conception of a unified “Septuagint” and he believes a case can be made for multiple Septuagints. On the other hand, he believes that a unified literary item called “the Septuagint” is untenable.

In the second part to be published shortly, I will address Williams’s concerns and give a defense of the use of the term in scholarly and popular literature.

[1] Some even pronounce it with a hard g sound, following the Latin Septuaginta.

[2] Peter J. WIlliams, “On the Invention and Problem of the Term Septuagint” (presented at the Evangelical Theological Society, San Antonio, TX, 2016), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xhmMKwl3KeE.

[3] Peter J. Williams, “Why I Don’t Believe in the Septuagint” (presented at the The Bible: Canon, Texts, and Translations, Phoenix, AZ, 2015), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RmpnJ1cgh58.

[4] Peter J. WIlliams, “The Bible, the Septuagint, and the Apocrypha: A Consideration of Their Singularity,” in Studies on the Text and Versions of the Hebrew Bible in Honour of Robert Gordon, ed. R. P. Gordon, Geoffrey Khan, and Diana Lipton, Supplements to Vetus Testamentum, vol. 149 (Boston: Brill, 2012), 169–80.

[5] Williams is not the first to highlight problems with the term “Septuagint” or its abbreviation (LXX). See, e.g., Leonard J. Greenspoon, “The Use and Abuse of the Term ‘LXX’ and Related Terminology in Recent Scholarship,” Bulletin of the International Organization for Septuagint and Cognate Studies 20 (1987): 21–29.

[6] The term “Old Testament” is a confessional designation from the vantage point of Christian thought. While we may use “Jewish writings” or “Hebrew writings,” we will not seek to avoid confessional terms.

[7] While we speak of translations from the Hebrew, we recognize that some of the OT was written in Aramaic. For simplicity of designation, we will generally only refer to Hebrew.

[8] WIlliams, “On the Invention and Problem of the Term Septuagint.”

[9]  Josephus seems to be the first to speak of the “seventy.” Nevertheless, he does so in a context where it is clear he knows there are seventy-two. The solution to this seeming contradiction is that Josephus is rounding the figure. Of course, it is likely that Josephus is reflecting the way other individuals of his time spoke of the translators. WIlliams, “The Bible, the Septuagint, and the Apocrypha: A Consideration of Their Singularity,” 174.

[10] Williams recognizes that there may be earlier reifications of the Septuagint: “Given the mass of data the distinct possibility remains that impersonal occurrences of the term will be found during the Middle Ages” (ibid., 176.).

[11] Ibid.

[12] It should be noted, however, that Greenspoon argues that the term “LXX” or “Septuagint” seems never to have been limited to the Pentateuch: “Where the earliest Greek translation was limited to the Pentateuch, the term LXX was not used; where the term was used, it was generally not limited to the Pentateuch.” Greenspoon, “The Use and Abuse,” 26n5.

[13] It is possible that the term “Septuagint” would have been used to refer to all of these documents even if they were not attributed to the seventy translators. As Greenspoon’s comment above suggests, there seems to have been a significant shift when the word went from plural and personal to singular and reified. After that transition, the translators were no longer the center of thought. Consequently, the term was no longer limited to what the seventy translated.

[14] Williams, “Why I Don’t Believe in the Septuagint.”

[15] In his own words, “NT quotations agreeing with the ‘Septuagint’ are sometimes part of a wider picture of bringing together OT themes.” His point here seems to be that interpreters may too quickly assume that a NT author uses particular language because “the Septuagint” put it that way. Instead, interpreters should look at the history of interpretation and consider if the author is seeking to piggyback on (and possible advance) the theological interpretation of Scripture already underway.

[16] Peter J. WIlliams, “E-Mail to Tim Miller,” June 3, 2019.

2 Responses

  1. Tyler Robbins

    I first ran across these points in Silva and Jobes’ LXX introduction. I doubt many pastors are aware of them. Many likely assume there exists a monolithic LXX. I did.

  2. Tim Miller

    Tyler,
    Good to hear from you again, friend. As for one’s perception of the LXX, you are exactly right, and that is why Williams objects to the language. Look out next week for the second part.

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