Review of The Greek of the Pentateuch: Grinfield Lectures on the Septuagint 2011-2012 by John A Lee

January 15, 2020

Lee, John A. The Greek of the Pentateuch: Grinfield Lectures on the Septuagint 2011–2012. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018, pp. 384, $99, hardback.


John A. Lee is Senior Research Fellow at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, where he taught Greek for 27 years. His recently published The Greek of the Pentateuch: Grinfield Lectures on the Septuagint 2011–2012 is an expansion of his 1983 revised dissertation A Lexical Study of the Septuagint Version of the Pentateuch (Chico, CA: Scholars, 1983). Whereas his revised dissertation sought to demonstrate the lexical correspondences between Pentateuchal Greek and koine in general, The Greek of the Pentateuch seeks to demonstrate from the Pentateuch itself that the linguistic “instrument the translators deploy is fundamentally Greek” (p. 2). In other words, Lee makes a case for why and how we can know that the translators of the Pentateuch primarily utilized the language of their time. To support his thesis, Lee relies heavily on ancient classical Greek literature, third-century BCE papyri, and even modern Greek—all of which he presents countless examples. Seven chapters and eight lengthy appendices make up Lee’s book.

Chapter 1 provides “illustrations of the important ‘evidence’ in studying the Greek of the LXX” (p. 39), which is comprised of numerous examples—both ancient and modern, both in abundance and in sparsity—in order to “demonstrate what evidence may be available when looked for, the conclusions that can be drawn from it, and the necessity of making use of it” (p. 6). Chapter 2 demonstrates that the language of the Greek Pentateuch does not only share vocabulary with other koine literature, but other literary phenomena. For example, translators “gave rein to personal taste, made use of stylistic variation (variatio), adjusted the choice of word to the social context, and brought in features of the official style where they seemed appropriate” (p. 77). Chapter 3 builds upon the previous chapter by demonstrating how the translators’ higher education readied them for such linguistic diversity. Lee shows how in the ancient Greco-Roman and Byzantine worlds there were three levels of education: the first level “taught the rudiments of reading and writing … At level two the student analysed texts and studied details of language … [And] the third level trained elites fully in the arts of rhetoric” (p. 79). By analyzing key vocabulary and phrases in relation to the Hebrew and other ancient Greek literature, Lee concludes that the translators “had an education beyond the basics up to a higher level, at least to the end of the second stage of the ancient Greek curriculum” (p. 120). Chapter 4 further constructs Lee’s argument: the translators were native speakers of the vernacular Greek. Because the translators made generous use of idiomatic renderings—renderings that could not have been known by non-native speakers—the arguments of the first three chapters are confirmed: “the Pentateuch translators had nothing less than native-speaker competence” (p. 172).

Chapter 5 argues for explicit collaboration between the translators. Five premises support Lee’s conclusion: “that there were five translators; that the translation was completed in a short time; that the ‘dictation mode’ is unrealistic; that the Pentateuch was treated as a unit; and that the translators worked concurrently” (p. 208). Lee’s sixth chapter before his summary chapter (ch. 7) argues that the translators, though in collaboration with one another, exhibited a freedom to choose between natural Greek renderings or unnatural, “Hebraic” renderings. Lee’s methodology in this chapter looks at “Hebrew idiom and vocabulary” (p. 212) and shows that the “translators applied themselves to finding ways to turn a difficult and alien idiom into acceptable Greek without losing it altogether” (p. 239). Ultimately, Lee concludes that “the degree to which each [‘natural Greek and Greek affected by Hebrew interference’] contributes is unquantifiable, but it cannot be said that one predominates over the other. The translation is a Greek text with a Hebraic flavor” (p. 257).

The book concludes with a summary chapter and eight detailed appendices including various tabulations of many Greek and Hebrew particles, verbs, and phrases.

Lee has provided the field of Septuagint studies with a treasure. For the most part, Lee’s arguments and conclusions seem quite viable, but one wonders if he overlooks and overstates his case at times. Two examples will highlight this point. First, Lee notes the “frequent match of νῦν οὖν to ועתה” (p. 103). He then writes “but while νῦν equates in meaning to עתה (‘now’), οὖν can hardly be motived by -ו (‘and’) (p. 103). His basis for this conclusion is that νῦν οὖν, when translating ועתה, is typical Greek that is not dependent upon its Hebrew Vorlage. Though νῦν οὖν is “natural Greek” (p. 103), Lee fails to recognize that ועתה in Hebrew discourse does not just encode temporality (“now”), but also logical inference (“so now,” “so then,” “therefore”; see See Christo H. J., E. van der Merwe, Jacobus A. Naudé, A Biblical Hebrew Reference Grammar, 2nd ed. [London: T&T Clark, 2017], 452 [§40.39]). Therefore, it is easy to see why the Greek translators would use the “natural” construction νῦν οὖν to translate ועתה because νῦν οὖν is a proper equivalent of ועתה as a whole.

Second, and more broadly, Lee fails to clarify an important facet of in his very thesis for the Greek of the Pentateuch being “fundamentally Greek.” He argues that the Greek of the Pentateuch is generally unmotivated by its Hebrew Vorlage. That is, it is not a “Hebraized” translation—a translation that betrays various natural linguistic features that constitute the Greek of the day as Greek, though he does not deny clear Hebrew interference (p. 257). Unfortunately, Lee does not parse out this distinction between a “Hebraized” Greek and a Greek translation that simply bears the stamp of typical Hebrew interference. Lee leaves the reader with this question: at what point does a translation become so obscured by its Vorlage that it betrays the natural linguistic phenomena inherent in the language of the translation? By virtue of being a translation, there must be various linguistic phenomena that are unmotivated by a Vorlage. For example, on page 123 he writes, “These are features of native Greek idiom that have no counterpart in Hebrew and are not required by the original.” Certainly Greek idiom has no one-for-one counterpart, because Greek and Hebrew are two distinct languages. Conclusions and arguments like this seem to validate Lee’s claim for a fundamentally Greek translation, but one wonders if Lee believes a translation radically obscured, or in our cased “Hebraized,” by its Vorlage could still contain idiomatic renderings. That is, how much Hebrew interference has to occur for the Greek of the Pentateuch to be considered “Hebraized,” the very label Lee argues against?

All things considered, Lee’s The Greek of the Pentateuch has contributed significantly to the burgeoning field of Septuagint studies. This work will no doubt set the standard for further work upon the language of the Septuagint.

Colton Floyd Moore

Minneapolis, MN

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