Wednesday, August 7, 2019


John A. L. Lee, The Greek of the Pentateuch: Grinfield Lectures on the Septuagint 2011-2012. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. Pp. xx, 360. ISBN 9780198816133. $99.00.

Reviewed by Dries De Crom, Tilburg University (

Version at BMCR home site

The Grinfield lectureship on the Septuagint at Oxford University was first endowed in 1859. The list of incumbents includes many names that are familiar to anyone working in the field of Septuagint studies. Some of these Grinfield lecturers have managed to transform their lectures into a monograph with a lasting impact on the field.1 It is to be expected that the present volume will be one of those books.

In this study, John A.L. Lee returns to the language of the Greek Pentateuch, the topic of an earlier monograph which is, to the best of this reviewer's knowledge, one of the most widely quoted studies on this particular topic.2 The driving force behind the present volume is "the overriding objective of demonstrating the Pentateuch translators' intimacy with the Greek of their time" (p. 2). Indeed, the author repeatedly stresses the independence of linguistic and stylistic features in the Greek Pentateuch from its Hebrew parent text. He deploys numerous examples from papyrological, epigraphical, biblical and non-biblical sources to firmly embed the Greek Pentateuch in the language of its time and place. The result is a study that is exemplary in many ways.

In the first chapter ("Evidence"), Lee present a series of case studies on various, seemingly randomly selected, features of the Greek of the Septuagint. The results of earlier work, done either by Lee himself or by other authors (e.g. on παρακαλέω and on προσήλυτος), are combined with new discussions (e.g. on οἶμαι, and on ἰδού with an indication of time). This chapter functions as a methodological introduction of sorts, as the author takes care to point out the do's and don't's of research on Septuagint Greek (e.g. priority should be given to parallels that are close in time and of a comparable literary level, p. 5). Particular attention is given to the fragmentary nature of the sources and, consequently, the provisional nature of many conclusions.

The second chapter ("Language Variation") focuses on the causes of linguistic variation, which the author attributes to three categories: personal choices, stylistic variation and linguistic register. A significant part of this chapter is devoted to showing that each of the Pentateuch translators was able to shift to a higher linguistic register when the context called for it (e.g. in divine speech). Also of note in this chapter is the discussion on βούλομαι (pp. 66-72).

In chapter three ("Educated Language") the author looks for traces of the translators' level of education. For this purpose, he mostly reviews earlier work (both his own and that of other scholars), but there is a lot of new material as well. The discussion of discourse particles (pp. 92-110) deserves special mention. The level of discussion in this chapter is consistently high, and the author expresses well-balanced, practical views on stylistic analysis. The most significant element in this chapter's findings (though it is not given special attention in the chapter's conclusions) is the wide range of lexical and stylistic registers exhibited in the Greek Pentateuch: some features are traceable to classical literary idiom; there are occasional poetic features, including possibly a Homeric reminiscence (pp. 88-90); the translators obviously have command of a wide range of technical vocabulary, and of both formal and informal registers. Regarding the possible reminiscence of Iliad 13,23-31 in Exodus 15:8, I think Lee is right to see a connection between both passages but might be overvaluing its significance. An isolated (and slightly adapted) quote from Homer might mean nothing more than, in modern-day English, the phrase "send him packing"—which few perhaps would recognize as a quote from Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1. In fairness, Lee's list of literary and poetic features is significantly longer than this one item.

In chapter four ("Greek Idiom") Lee discusses a great number of phenomena where the translators followed the demands of idiomatic Koine Greek against the Hebrew source text. This includes phenomena where the idiomaticity of Greek expressions has been called into question. Particularly interesting topics include an extensive discussion of word position rules involving the pronoun τις (pp. 128-137), the syntax of questions (pp. 145-154) and a paragraph on the peculiar phrase τίς δῴη (pp. 159-164).

The fifth chapter ("Collaboration") presents and explores the implications of the straightforward hypothesis that "the Pentateuch translators collaborated" (p. 173). Much ink has been spilt on questions such as how the translators of the Greek Pentateuch operated, how long they took to complete their task, and what resources they would have had at their disposal—in short, on questions pertaining to the process of translation itself. At least one Septuagint scholar has gone so far as to try and recreate the circumstances of the ancient translation project.3 Given the lack of direct evidence on this matter, Lee has to base his view on practical considerations and common sense, but he also cites parallels from the Zenon Archive and points to the general consistency in the technical vocabulary used by the Pentateuch translators. In summary, Lee holds that the Pentateuch could have been translated in a relatively short period of time, reiterates the case for there having been five separate translators, and considers it likely that these translators worked concurrently on their respective books, rather than sequentially. Lee also suggests that the translators could have made use of a word-list to facilitate consistency of renderings across different translations—a proposal akin to, but not to be confused with, earlier (problematic) suggestions that the Greek Pentateuch functioned as some sort of lexicon for later translations.4 The reasoning behind this suggestion is too intricate to summarize here. Suffice to say that Lee emphasizes the scholarly nature of the Greek Pentateuch rather than its socio-linguistic background, so his suggestion should probably not be taken to refer to pre-existing Greek terminology in Jewish circles long before the translation project, for which the direct evidence is admittedly slim (p. 200). Interestingly, Lee takes the translators' extensive knowledge of technical vocabulary from various fields as an indication of their education, not of their actual professions. 5

In the sixth chapter ("Freedom of Choice") attention turns to the other side of the coin, viz. the undeniable but limited presence of "foreignizing" linguistic elements in the Greek of the Pentateuch. Lee discusses a number of unidiomatic or downright Hebraizing phenomena. One section, on the much-discussed but inadequately named "infinitive absolute", challenges the habit of categorizing its various Greek renderings as either "literal" or "free" (pp. 231-239). It should certainly be consulted for any further work on this topic.

A final chapter summarizes the main findings, which the above summary does not fully represent. Eight appendices present the raw data behind many of the author's analyses. Extended indices of Greek words, Hebrew words, biblical references and modern authors ensure the practical navigability of the volume.

Two points remain to be raised; they should not be taken as criticisms but as an anticipation of the discussion that this volume will hopefully incite. Firstly, the author seems to vacillate in his overall judgment of the translators' language and style. It certainly betrays an advanced level of education, which Lee attributes to "training in the writing of formal Greek" (p. 118). The Greek of the Pentateuch is the "middle-level Koine Greek of their time" (p. 264), "with occasional literary flourishes and signs that the translators knew a lot more than they let on; but a higher literary Greek is not maintained" (p. 181). At other times, the translators' work is hesitatingly linked to the philological milieu of the Alexandrian Museum and Library (p. 121-122; p. 204). So how are we to envision the background of the Pentateuch translators: as advanced Ptolemaic scribes, or as Alexandrian scholars? Is their Greek educated, or academic? Lee's arguments have not yet convinced me that it should necessarily be the latter. For instance, his suggestion that ἀγαπητός in Genesis 22 depends upon an Homeric gloss as found in Hesychius (5th century CE) and therefore suggests a link with Alexandrian methods of exegesis (pp. 121-122), does not seem compelling. Hesychius' lexicon was not free of Christian influences, and there certainly was no one-to-one correspondence between Hesychius and Zenodotus' Homeric glossary.

Secondly, the issue of interference in Septuagint Greek could have benefited from a more thorough discussion. Lee's foremost conclusion is (quite rightly) that the Pentateuch translators had full knowledge and control of the Greek language —but did this point really need proving? Does the spectre of "Judaeo-Greek" still haunt the field of Septuagint studies? Perhaps it does. But it may be that the most distinctively Hebraic features of the Greek Pentateuch are to be found on higher levels of textual make-up, beyond the examples of Hebraizing syntax and semantics discussed in chapter 6—an insight of which the author is not unaware (see pp. 258, 269). Thus, Lee might be too quick in rejecting Tessa Rajak's hypothesis that the choice of register in a translation can represent an element of "quiet cultural resistance" (p. 120 and n. 129). In the Septuagint corpus as a whole, the co-existence of translations with significant levels of interference and translation with a more idiomatic Greek style, and even literary aspirations, remains one of the major explicanda. Issues of identity and cultural resistance might be at the heart of this matter.6

In sum, this is an excellent work of scholarship that points the way for future research. It repeatedly indicates questions that still need answering, and is full of examples of good practice. It should quickly become a standard reference in any work on Septuagint Studies and/or Koine Greek.


1.   See, for instance, T. Rajak, Translation and Survival: The Greek Bible of the Ancient Jewish Diaspora, Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2009 (BMCR 2009.12.31).
2.   J.A.L. Lee, A Lexical Study of the Septuagint Version of the Pentateuch, Chico, CA: SBL, 1983.
3.   T.A.W. van der Louw, "The Dictation of the Septuagint Version," Journal for the Study of Judaism 39 (2008), 211-29.
4.   See for instance J. Barr, "Did the Greek Pentateuch Really Serve as a Dictionary for the Translation of Later Books?" in M.F.J. Baasten & W.T. van Peursen (eds.), Hamlet on a Hill: Semitic and Greek Studies Presented to Professor T. Muraoka on the Occasion of his Sixty-Fifth Birthday, Leuven: Peeters, 2003, pp. 523-43.
5.   As opposed to, for instance, J. Joosten, "Language as Symptom: Linguistic Clues to the Social Background of the Seventy," Textus 23 (2007), 69-80.
6.   On a side note, the discussion on pp. 262-263 could have benefited from the methodological distinction between instances of positive and negative transfer. See e.g. G. Toury, Descriptive Translation Studies—and Beyond. Revised Edition, Amsterdam: Benjamins, 2012.

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