contributor.author: Dr. Shawn W. J. Keough

title.none: Wasserstein, Septuagint (Dr. Shawn W. J. Keough)

identifier.other: baj9928.0801.003 08.01.03

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Dr. Shawn W. J. Keough, Faculty of Theology, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, shawn.keough@theo.kuleuven.be

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Wasserstein, Abraham and David Wasserstein. The Legend of the Septuagint: From Classical Antiquity to Today. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Pp. xviii, 334. $75.00 0-521-85495-4. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.01.03

Wasserstein, Abraham and David Wasserstein. The Legend of the Septuagint: From Classical Antiquity to Today. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Pp. xviii, 334. $75.00 0-521-85495-4. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Dr. Shawn W. J. Keough
Faculty of Theology, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven
shawn.keough@theo.kuleuven.be

The Septuagint was the first and most important of the ancient Greek translations of the Hebrew scriptures. It is lamentable that the historical circumstances surrounding the origins of what the authors describe as "surely the most momentous literary enterprise in the annals of western mankind" (ix) are irretrievable. However, while Wasserstein and Wasserstein (W8W) acknowledge that answers to questions of the Septuagint's actual origin must remain unknown until better evidence is made available, they have nevertheless provided what must be regarded as the definitive response to the remaining task, which is to investigate and describe the origins and subsequent developments of the legend which grew up around the Septuagint. The legend and the translation are thus clearly separated, and it is the legend that receives sustained and detailed attention in this excellent study.

The history of the Septuagint's legend begins with the so-called Letter of Aristeas, whose account is well-known: in the third century B.C.E. the Egyptian ruler Ptolemy II Philadelphus was persuaded by the director of Alexandria's famed library, Demetrius of Phalerum, to obtain a translation of the Jewish law in order to improve the library's collection. In response to the king's request, the High Priest in Jerusalem sent seventy-two elders (six from each of the twelve tribes) to Alexandria, where they completed the translation of the Torah from Hebrew to Greek in exactly seventy-two days. Again, while this story is well-known, it cannot simply be accepted as a trustworthy historical representation of what actually happened: W8W acknowledge that the Letter has no historical value as a witness to the origins of the Septuagint (26). In fact, W8W argue that the only historical facts evidenced by the Letter are that a Greek translation of the Torah existed at the time of its composition, and, that there was a current of desire to cement its authority. The Letter does not tell us anything useful about the actual history of the Greek translation of the Torah, nor anything reliable regarding the actual techniques of translation employed (25). Nevertheless, the translation itself can be safely assumed to have arisen as a response to the same need experienced by contemporary Jews in Palestine and Babylonia, that is, to provide a text of scripture for worship and study by the faithful who no longer had access to the Hebrew. Thus the primary motivation for undertaking the task of translation resulting in the Septuagint did not include proselytism, apologetics or polemics--such secondary ends would no doubt find aid in the existence of the translation, but cannot account for its origin (10, 15).

While the origins of the Septuagint itself cannot be explained with reference to apologetic aims, the Letter itself clearly displays Ps. Aristeas' desire to publicize the contribution of the Jewish people to human culture (42). However, what is of primary interest here is simply that the legend of the Septuagint effectively begins with the Letter. The Letter thus serves as the basis for all subsequent versions of the legend, even when they differ wildly from the Letter. This document is the earliest witness (W8W assume a date of ca. 200 B.C.E.) to what would become "at once the greatest achievement of hellenistic Jewry and its most important legacy to western mankind" (16, 20). W8W masterfully trace out the various developments and permutations of that legend as it was taken up by Jews, Christians, and Muslims for almost two millennia. The following summary can only hint at the outlines of what is a rich and detailed tapestry.

Three writers figure in the development of the legend among Hellenistic Jews: Aristobulus, Philo and Josephus. The sketchy evidence from Aristobulus is useful to W8W only insofar as it establishes the relative priority of Ps. Aristeas (32). The evidence of Philo and Josephus, however, demonstrates the way the legend was molded and deployed to address the needs of new contexts. Philo wishes to extend the general sense of approval and admiration for the translation found in the Letter to a profound sense of divine inspiration, so that Jewish religion and scripture take on a new universal scope and relevance (38-39). W8W are careful to note that Philo's account of the legend does not, however, include certain miraculous elements often ascribed to it: Philo does not say "that the translators were deliberately separated, that they were all given the same texts to translate, and that they all produced literally identical versions" (44). Rather, W8W understand Philo to make the more modest claim that the translators all used the same correct words in the same contexts of translation (45). Josephus' account is "more down to earth" (46) and, unlike Ps. Aristeas, is actually a story of the translation project itself. Josephus' version is thus seen to fit into a new context for the Jews, one where the Jewish revolt has failed, the city of Jerusalem fallen and the Temple destroyed. In this context Josephus re-tells the story in a way that will deflect attention from such facts and focus rather on an image that would offer a sharp contrast to recent events: that of "the greatest representative of the most powerful and the most civilized monarchy of recent times treating with the Jewish High Priest, actually his subject, on terms of near-equality" (50).

The account of the legend's development in Rabbinic literature begins with the rabbis' belief in the "literal inspiration" (51) of the Greek Bible and ends with the rabbinic description of the event of the Torah's translation as "a disaster of vast proportions" (83). It is the rabbis who for the first time explicitly introduce the miraculous act of divine intervention into the legend, emphasizing that the translators worked separately and independently and yet each produced an identical translation (52). W8W make the argument that the origins of this miracle story are to be found in Palestinian rabbinic circles in the years between the destruction of the Temple and the Bar Kokhba revolt, or between ca. 80 and 117 C.E. (68). The irony here is that what would become the single most influential Christian argument in favour of the Septuagint's divine inspiration is "based on a story fashioned in the workshop of rabbinic aggada" (68-69). However, this rabbinic attitude to the Greek translation underwent a change, and this change is described by W8W as parallel to the change in relations between Jews and Christians and to the linguistic revolution internal to the Jewish community, so that "this transformation in the way the translation was regarded was a parallel transformation in the way the event of the translation came to be represented" (83).

The christianization of this rabbinic miracle story is placed by W8W between 70 and 200 C.E., as it appears for the first time in Irenaeus, whose account of the legend includes the testing of the translators, their separation and the resultant identical translations (102). However, it is not until Epihanius (ca. 315- 403) that we find the "fullest flowering of the story in Christian dress" (121), a story that has now moved beyond the basic Christian interest against Jewish claims to the text. The version of Epiphanius is "a Christian, and christianizing, version" that reflects the triumph of imperial Christianity and its internal concern to standardize its own institutions and doctrines. Thus, the aim of the legend now is to emphasize that it is this specific Greek translation that is to be privileged, rather than any of its competitors (123-124). This christianization of the legend takes on double aspect: not only does the Septuagint become a Christian book, but Jews are made to be "witnesses to what they themselves denied," namely the prophecies about Christ contained in their own scriptures. Further developments in christianized versions of the legend are seen to correspond to the purposes for which the legend was being used (131). These developments are further traced by W8W through the history of eastern Christianity, which bears witness to the legend's survival and use among Syriac, Coptic, Arabic and Ethiopian Christians, groups which would also use the story to suit their own particular needs (W8W in particular note that the legend receives "the most extreme christianization that can be imagined" in a Coptic Synaxarium [165-168]). Two features which stand out from this survey of approximately a millennium of oriental Christian literature is the "steady degeneration of the story and its details" and its re-writing to suit exegetical polemics with the Jews (172).

The history of the legend of the Septuagint is followed further by W8W through subsequent Jewish tradition (focusing especially on rabbinic treatments of the Ptolemaic changes, the major developments caused by the appearance of the tenth century text Sepher Yosippon, and subsequent mediaeval disputes between Samaritans, Karaites and Rabbanites), Muslim tradition, and Christian tradition in dialogue with the advent of critical scholarship in the Renaissance. The history of the legend's treatment following the advent of critical scholarship in the West is particularly riveting, tracing as it does not only the scholarly discrediting of the legend's later emphases on the miraculous and the divine inspiration of the translation, but also tracing the way beliefs in the translation's divine inspiration continue to linger in sectors of contemporary Christianity.

The Legend of the Septuagint is a carefully documented and exhaustively researched book that tells an exciting story, a story which takes the reader to many unexpected and exciting places across more than two millennia of human history. David Wasserstein is to be commended for having completed with such excellence the book begun by his father Abraham Wasserstein. The result is a work of great distinction which will no doubt serve as the standard point of reference for all future discussion of the legend of the Septuagint.