Friday, December 18, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Tessa Rajak, Translation and Survival: The Greek Bible of the Ancient Jewish Diaspora. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Pp. xvi, 380. ISBN 9780199558674. $140.00.
Reviewed by Reinhart Ceulemans, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven

The aim of this book, the origins of which lie in six Grinfield lectures on the Septuagint delivered by the author at the University of Oxford in 1995-1996, is to combine two fields of study that are very related but which tend to be treated rather separately: that of Hellenistic diaspora Judaism, on the one hand, and that of the Jewish Greek Bible, commonly referred to as the Septuagint, on the other. The author herself, an authority in the field of diaspora Judaism, has hitherto not written extensively on matters pertaining to the Septuagint. Blaming the traditional separation of the two topics on the Christian takeover of the Septuagint, Rajak insists on the need to interpret the Greek Bible in light of what is known of the historical group that created it. In doing so, she focuses on cultural adaption in Hellenistic Judaism and on how the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible was a means of cultural survival for its creators.

Rajak's attempt to reunite the Greek Bible with its primary users and generators (cf. 5) is successful. She has written a very interesting book, containing opinions and conclusions that challenge standard views and catch the reader's attention. Future scholarship will surely benefit from the insights that emerge from reading the Septuagint with an awareness of the broader history of Hellenistic Judaism. A wide range of topics is tackled over the course of eight chapters, preceded by an introduction that provides both an overview of the book's structure and some general thoughts on a few of the Septuagint's main characteristics (text, canon, etc.). This introductory discussion may orient the reader who is less experienced in the field of Septuagint studies.

Rajak opens the first chapter with a treatment of the historical context of the Septuagint's genesis. Therefore she first turns to the Letter of Aristeas and addresses the question that haunts virtually all discussions of this writing: to what extent is the information it provides historical? Labeling it a 'historical myth' (47), she concludes that it 'combines memory with story in its account of the making of the Septuagint' (64). Accepting the likeliness of Ptolemy II's involvement with this Jewish translation activity, she continues in the second chapter by painting an interesting picture of the wider Alexandrian climate in which the Septuagint translation came to be. Hellenistic Alexandria's cultural and political climate, Rajak argues, created opportunities for Jewish Greek Bible translation. Though initiated by Jews themselves, it was stimulated by royal Alexandrian patronage. In the third chapter Rajak steps away from the Septuagint to focus on the Jewish diaspora itself. She emphasizes the integration of the diaspora Jews into the broader (Alexandrian) community, with Hebrew/Greek bilingualism being characteristic of this integration. Rajak insists on Judaism and Hellenism being not rival movements but two sides of the same coin.

Returning to the topic of the Septuagint in the fourth chapter, Rajak proposes a new explanation of the Septuagint's rather singular and 'hebraistic' language and style, which seem at odds with the strongly Hellenistic background and royal patronage she insists upon. According to the model of language and cultural resistance she puts forward, the 'foreignizing' (153) Septuagint translation was a means of self-identification for the Jewish group that created it and a protection against Hellenistic imperialism. This assumption rests upon the idea that, although diaspora Judaism and Hellenism often go hand in hand (as argued by Rajak in the previous chapters), an unbridgeable distance between them remains. A specific example of how the Septuagint served as means of Jewish cultural resistance, is provided in the fifth chapter. Rajak shows how the way in which power, kingship and authority are dealt with in the Septuagint translation (especially in those books redacted in the period of the Second Temple), mirrors the way Hellenistic Judaism experienced these issues. Her innovative interpretation of Septuagint style, vocabulary and intertextuality reveals unexpected expressions of and reactions by diaspora Judaism, which reflect a message of Jewish self-definition and group preservation at a religious and cultural level.

After having revealed these functions of the Septuagint translation, Rajak addresses the question of which part the translation played in the life of Hellenistic Jews (Chapter 6). Due to its diversity and the lack of evidence (the name of many an author is known, but preserved writings are rare), defining Hellenistic Jewish tradition is difficult. Rajak provides an overview of this tradition, in which most attention is paid to Philo of Alexandria and Flavius Josephus, the authors about whom by far most is known. Her investigations into how these 'people of the book' used Greek Scripture are two-fold. On the one hand, she looks into how biblical materials are recycled in Jewish literary production (she labels this phenomenon that of 'rewritten Bible'). She provides references to Jewish Hellenistic writings in which Septuagint themes, vocabulary and quotations reoccur. On the other hand, she lists ways in which the Greek Bible lived in Hellenistic Jewish minds: the Bible informed its readers on history, ethics, law, prayer, etc. This two-pronged analysis results in an impressive dossier. In order to interpret this text-centeredness of the Greek Bible correctly, Rajak continues by holding it up to other contemporary Jewish groups in which Scripture occupied a primary position, namely the Qumran community and that of the New Testament (Chapter 7). On the basis of a comparison between those models and the writings of Philo and Josephus, Rajak defines the more mainstream Hellenistic Jewish tradition as one of bi-cultural duality.

In the last two chapters, Rajak changes the perspective and investigates what reactions, if any, these Greek holy writings of Hellenistic Jewry prompted in contemporary other religious groups, namely pagan Greeks and early Christians. In Chapter 8 she sets herself the goal to verify, on the basis of the written evidence itself, the accepted view that pagan Greeks and Romans ignored Jewish Scripture. Listing the (rather limited) evidence from Egyptian and Roman writers and magical texts, she concludes that 'the Septuagint did not emerge from or into the confines of an enclosed ghetto. A basis of curiosity and awe may be inferred in Greek circles sufficient [...] to generate the dynamic of [...] the public reception of the Jewish Bible in the early stages of Judaism' (277). The ninth and final chapter questions the abandonment theory, according to which the Hellenistic Jewish community dropped the Septuagint when it started to be used by Christians. She dismisses previous acceptance of that theory, since it is based upon early Christian, hence suspicious, ideological roots and upon the unwarranted presumption that investigations into Jewish reception history in the first centuries of the Christian era should turn to rabbinic writings. Then again (although Rajak seems to avoid stating it in so many words), the actual evidence informing us about this non-rabbinic, Greek Jewish reception is virtually non-existent and needs to be deduced from Christian authors such as Origen. Reinterpreting some of these early Christian passages, Rajak concludes that contemporary Hellenistic Jews knew a diversity of Greek versions and that variety was more prominent than standardization. These Greek Jewish versions, of which those of Aquila, Symmachus and Theodotion were but a few amongst many, were created in order to reduce textual corruption, to bring the existing versions in closer alignment to the Hebrew, and to serve promotional goals. In other words, Rajak argues, the abandonment theory has to be sacrificed for the benefit of a recognition of Jewish 'creative production of different types of Bible translation' in the early Christian era (313).

The overview provided above sufficiently illustrates how wide a range of topics is treated by Rajak. It requires many skills to elaborate upon so many aspects of the Septuagint, let alone to reinterpret them in the light of the contemporary political, cultural and religious context. Throughout the volume, the author displays familiarity with the difficult topic that is the history of Hellenistic Judaism (a familiarity illustrated by the sheer size of the impressive bibliography). Rajak displays a remarkable talent to present a highly complex and broad topic very clearly and to summarize previous scholarship in a very comprehensive way. Nevertheless, it should be noted that she does not always manage to avoid two pitfalls that accompany such a technique.

Firstly, the reader occasionally encounters thoughts or observations that are put forward without the support of any evidence. The downside of Rajak's ability to survey broad topics is the occasional appearance of quite unsubstantiated claims and hypotheses. In the third chapter, for example, Rajak describes translation activity to be an important branch in the Jewish diaspora (cf. 144). However, apart from the Septuagint, knowledge of any other translation is virtually non-existent. Another, rather blatant, example is her suggestion that Alexander Polyhistor may have been Jewish and that the authors whose works he excerpted were not (cf. 265-266). True enough, Rajak clearly indicates that this is but a hypothesis. Nevertheless, the reader wonders what the criteria for this complete reversal of present-day consensus may have been.

Secondly, Rajak does not always avoid pushing the evidence too far in one direction, a phenomenon sometimes accompanied by a rather one-sided picture of the present-day state of research. For example, in the eighth chapter, Rajak argues that the lack of pagan response to Jewish Scripture is not surprising. This agrees not only with the evidence (or rather the lack thereof) pointing toward such a conclusion but also with her argument that the existence of religious and cultural Jewish motives for the Septuagint's rather singular style and vocabulary make it depart (deliberately) from other contemporary Greek sources. Nevertheless, the larger part of that chapter is directed toward proving that pagan response in fact was more frequent than presumed hitherto. A second example may be gleaned from the ninth and final chapter. The present reviewer is somewhat disappointed by the one-sided presentation of how early Christian scholars such as Origen and Jerome described the Jewish revisions of Aquila, Symmachus and Theodotion. Rajak seems determined to conclude that early Christianity consistently denigrated these versions and that all of its writings are in line with the abandonment theory. This not only contradicts the ancient evidence itself (Jerome, e.g., makes numerous appreciative remarks about these versions), but also ignores recent, more nuanced scholarly treatments of these matters.

Leaving aside these minor criticisms, some of the conclusions drawn by Rajak will undoubtedly prompt scholarly reaction, either because of their novel character or because they fit within the authors' particular focus. One such item may be her evaluation of the Letter of Aristeas. Although she insists that 'the Letter is an embodiment of Alexandrian Jewish identity, a literary vehicle precisely for its collective memory' (51), the level of historical value she attaches to Aristeas's account is rather high - too high in the present reviewer's opinion. This leads to suggestions of doubtful success (such as the one according to which the original Septuagint may have been housed in the Alexandrian Serapeum, 43-46) or even to an occasional risky claim (namely that the style of the Letter could serve as external evidence for the style of the Septuagint's translators, 130). Without a doubt, Rajak's new explanation of the Septuagint's translation technique as a 'vehicle for quiet cultural resistance' (156) will generate active discussion within the field of Septuagint translation studies and will require more arguments as to why that deliberate Jewish motive would result in precisely the specific translation idiom that is the Septuagint's.

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