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Translation and Survival: The Greek Bible of the Ancient Jewish Diaspora, by Tessa Rajak. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.  380 pp.  $140.00.


As Professor Rajak notes in the introduction, modern research on the old Greek translation of Jewish scriptures has been disproportionately preoccupied with its textual history and transmission. (Rajak’s unscientific estimate gives the number at 90%.) Rather than waiting another “150 years” (p. 20) for text critics to sort out all the problems, Rajak decided to approach the subject from another angle. The result is an interesting and wide-ranging study of the function of the translation for the Greek- speaking Jewish communities that used it.

              The guiding thesis of her book is that the Greek translation, far from a form of cultural acquiescence, was a bold expression of communal identity and part of a broader strategy of cultural resistance and subversion. The Epistle of ps.-Aristeas outlines one element of this strategy in its famous story of the Greek translation of the Torah. On its face, the letter embodies the cosmopolitan spirit of Hellenism. During their stay in Alexandria, the Jewish sages, who play the part of “quintessential Greeks,” implicitly endorse Jewish participation in the cultural life of the city (p. 62). Ptolemy Philadelphus, the royal overseer of the translation, reciprocates the favor, hailing the Jews as a nation of philosophers in his symposium with the sages. At the same time, however, the epistle asserts Jewish autonomy and distinctiveness. Rather than remaining in the king’s court—a customary gesture of gratitude to a benevolent king—the sages retain their independence. Once the translation is done, they return home.

              Following Sylvie Honigman, Rajak treats ps.-Aristeas as a “charter myth” (pp. 49–50), a kind of conceptual map of the Alexandrian Jewish community’s self-understanding as a “politeia” and its role in Alexandrian society. The translation functioned much the same way at the linguistic level. Rajak dismisses the attribution of the aesthetic failings of Septuagint Greek to the translators’ halting command of the Greek language or to their slavish obeisance to the Hebrew text. By reminding readers and listeners of the “foreignness” of the text, Hebraisms and the other infelicities of Septuagint Greek represent to Rajak a “quiet” form of cultural defiance. Just as ps.-Aristeas’ translators kept their distance from their royal sponsor and patron, the work they produced distanced itself from the literary expectations of learned Hellenistic society. She sees the same dynamic at play in the treatment of secular authority in later works that came to make up the Septuagint. Beneath all the scorching invective against idolatry and monarchy lies more discreet and coded guidance about co-existence with foreign rulers. The standing of the Septuagint in diaspora Jewish communities also reflected the requirements of life in foreign lands. Instead of the loaded term “canonical,” Rajak prefers to speak of the Septuagint’s privileged place of “centrality.” To better illustrate the point, she draws a distinction between the “text-soaked” Qumran community and the diaspora Jewish communities, who lived “with Torah rather than fully by or through” it (p. 256).

              Rajak is to be commended both for introducing a new set of questions to Septuagint studies, and for putting to rest (we can only hope for good) some persistent misconceptions about Judaism and the “threat” of Greek culture. As she makes clear, interactions between Judaism and Hellenism were not inevitably a high stakes, zero-sum game. To be sure, there were Second Temple Jewish writers who did represent the options in such stark terms. The author of First Maccabees, for example, equated “going Greek” with cultural and religious annihilation. But for Jews of the diaspora, survival and identity did not require choosing one way or the other. For them, the Septuagint was an instrument of communal survival, not the first step on the road to assimilation and oblivion. Any serious student of the Septuagint would also do well to read her conclusive refutation of the “abandonment” theory first proposed by Justin Martyr. In his imaginary Dialogue with Trypho, Justin accused the Jews of sponsoring new translations in order to erode confidence in the Septuagint and along with it the textual foundations of Christianity. Although scholars have clung to this explanation ever since, there is no reason to believe that Jews abandoned a cherished and widely-used translation simply because religious upstarts decided to appropriate the text for themselves.

              Although Rajak probably overstates the influence of the Septuagint in non-Jewish circles (pp. 258–277), it does nothing to undermine her overall argument. The degree to which ps.-Aristeas and Septuagint Greek represent assertions of cultural resistance is a more serious question. Postcolonial discourse analysis might be finding acts of “subversion” where they don’t exist.  I also found it curious that in all the discussion of the Septuagint and communal survival, Rajak had relatively little to say about the history of its contested relationship with the Hebrew original, and its bearing on identity formation. There is a rich story to be told here. Any religious community that depends on a translation lives in constant anxiety that its text will come up short when compared with the version in the original language. Those anxieties can only intensify when, as was the case with the Septuagint, the translation is subject to on-going revisions and corrections. (As a modern parallel, think of the virulent advocacy of the KJV.) It is not at all difficult to imagine what ps.-Aristeas was getting at, when, at the end of the epistle, the community is made to pronounce a curse on anyone who tampers with the translation. Fabulous accounts about the miraculous origins of the Septuagint were another way to reassure its adherents that the translation could stand on it own. For Philo, the translation was a work of mathematical precision and prophetic inspiration. According to ps.-Aristeas, the stars were in perfect alignment when the project got underway: the Hebrew manuscript was flawless, the king oversaw the enterprise, and, most important, divine providence guided the hand of the translators. Jerome finally did puncture a hole in the balloon, but only after Christian apologists had inflated the myth of the Septuagint’s origins to fantastic proportions. Of course, Jerome had nothing invested in the authority and standing of the translation. For Greek-speaking Jews of the Hellenistic age, on the other hand, the stakes were much higher.

William Adler

Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies

North Carolina State University