Reviews of

Arie van der Kooij, “The Translators of the Pentateuch in Greek”

In Arie van der KOOIJ, David J. Larsen, HB/OT, Pentateuch, SEMINAR REPORTS, Septuagint, St Andrews on December 7, 2011 at 8:28 pm

This is a report on a paper presented by Prof Arie van der Kooij (Emeritus), Faculteit der Geesteswetenschappen, Universiteit Leiden, at the Biblical Studies Research Seminar at St Andrews, 1 December 2011. The list of forthcoming papers in this seminar at St Andrews is available here.

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Professor van der Kooij, of Leiden University, gave a fascinating paper at the University of St Andrews’  Biblical Studies Research Seminar.  His topic was one that has not been discussed in detail at the seminar in recent years, which made his paper even more intriguing.  Professor van der Kooij’s thesis was that, contrary to other current theories, when evaluating the character of the translators of the Pentateuch into Greek we should take the perspective of the ancient Letter of Aristeus — that they were learned, noble persons working under the direction of the High Priest from Jerusalem.

Van der Kooij began by summarizing the most popular theories circulating today. They include:

  1. That the Greek Pentateuch is full of barbarisms and loan words, representing the language of soldiers (Joosten).
  2. That it was produced by professional interpreters in the Ptolemaic court (Aitken).
  3. That the translation was done by learned scribes familiar with Greek language and culture — a scholarly milieu (Fernandez Marcos).

Van der Kooij’s thesis is similar to the third one mentioned, that this translation was not the work of soldiers, or uneducated common folk, but of scholars — serious students of Hebrew and Greek that had great knowledge.  He takes the 2nd Century BCE “Letter of Aristeas” seriously, while acknowledging that as a piece of propaganda, it is generally not to be considered fully reliable. The letter claims that the High Priest of Jerusalem, as the prime interpreter of the Law of Moses, was in charge of the project, actively selecting the translators.

His approach, in this paper, was to investigate evidence from the first half of the 3rd Century BCE in order to evaluate the plausibility the letter’s claims.  He looked at the scholarly nature of the Greek translation, the authority and role of the High Priest during this period, and analyzed trends in contemporary Jewish culture and society.

Some of his findings:

At this period in Jewish society, the High Priest was a political leader.  Documents such as those attributed to ben Sira and Hecateus indicate that the Jewish nation was ruled by the High Priest. The High Priest is the supreme authority for expounding the Law.  He was seen as the messenger/angelos of God sent by YHWH.

Ben Sira claimed that the High Priest ministers in the presence of God and brings the correct interpretation of the Law to the people. This is a similar idea to the pervasive figure of “the Interpreter of the Law” in the Qumran literature.

The Greek translation was not seen as a “rival” translation. It is likely that it was permitted by the High Priest of Jerusalem.

He cited as an example the translation of the 19th chapter of Exodus, verse 6, “You shall be to me a royal priesthood (basileion hierateuma) and a holy nation.”  In his view, the hierateuma refers to a group of people, the priesthood, who rule over the people — not all people in the nation.  In van der Kooij’s view, this fits the description of a nation led politically by the priesthood (who had assumed royal prerogatives; see 1Q21, Aram. Levi, 2 Macc. 2:17). If the Greek translators did not mean to support the Jewish ruling priesthood, they likely would have chosen to translate these terms another way.

Van der Kooij also cited Exod 23:21 (LXX), which mentions the angel of the Lord who has the Name of YHWH “upon him,” and argued that the angel of the Lord mentioned here most likely refers to the High Priest, who wore, according to Josephus and others, the name of YHWH on a gold plate attached to his mitre. Compare Malachi 2:7. (This line of argumentation reminds me of the work of such scholars as Jarl Fossum, Andrei Orlov, and Crispin Fletcher-Louis, to name just a few)

1QM 2:1-3, the Temple Scroll and other documents inform us of a priestly class under the direction of the High Priest.  This included the 12 chiefs of the priests that served under the High Priest and his second, the 26 chiefs of the priestly divisions, the twelve chiefs of the Levites, etc.  Van der Kooij sees these as making up the Royal Priesthood which ruled, judged, and interpreted the Law for the people.  This priestly class, in van der Kooij’s opinion, were likely the ones responsible for the Greek translation of the Pentateuch. There is evidence that the translators came from Jerusalem and that they were part of the temple culture there.

One general argument that comes up is that the Koine Greek used in the LXX is like that of Ptolemaic Egypt.  Van der Kooij doesn’t disagree, but emphasizes that this same Koine would have been known in Judea as well by the ruling class there. While this type of Koine is better attested in Ptolemaic Egypt, Judea was under their political influence and would have been obligated to communicate in the same dialect.  Koine Greek was known in Edom and Babylon by the Jews in those places, so why not in Judea?

Van der Kooij envisions Jewish leaders making their way to Alexandria for the purposes of learning, diplomacy, and so forth. Ben Sira 39:4 refers to Jewish leaders travelling abroad. Compare 2 Chron 17:7-0 where King Jehoshaphat sends nobles and priests to teach “the book of the law of the Lord” in the cities of Judah.  For Van der Kooij, it is these types of leaders/priests that were responsible for the translation, under the direction and permission of the High Priest of Jerusalem.

This theory should help us as we read the LXX to understand why certain passages were translated the way they were and for what purpose.  Professor van der Kooij delivered an excellent paper that questioned many assumptions and tied in many loose ends, creating a realistic picture of the situation in which the translation process could have been instituted under the direction of the governing High Priest.

David Larsen,
University of St Andrews

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