Reviews of

The Translation Style of Old Greek Habakkuk

In Adam W. Jones, Habakkuk, Hebrew Bible, James A. E. MULRONEY, Mohr Siebeck, Septuagint, Translation on October 4, 2019 at 2:00 pm


2019.10.11 | James A. E. Mulroney. The Translation Style of Old Greek Habakkuk: Methodological Advancement in Interpretative Studies of the Septuagint. FAT II 86. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2016. ISBN 978-3-16-154386-9.

Review by Adam W. Jones, London School of Theology.

While research in the field of Septuagint translation technique is not a new concept, there has been a recent surge in such studies. James A. E. Mulroney’s The Translation Style of Old Greek Habakkuk: Methodological Advancement in Interpretative Studies of the Septuagint, a revision of his doctoral dissertation (University of Edinburgh), is an important contribution to this field. It is the first study “to analyse the Greek style of Ambakoum as a Greek (Hellenistic) historical, religious and linguistic artefact in its own right” (p. 24).

Working from the premise that translation always involves a certain degree of interpretation, Mulroney seeks “to demonstrate that through an understanding of the translator’s style one may then explain in what ways he understood the prophecy of Habakkuk” (p. 4). In his first chapter, Mulroney deals with introductory matters related to the translator of Ambakoum (the Greek version of Habakkuk), reception of Ambakoum and the Twelve evidenced in later recensions, translation study in general, and recent work on Ambakoum.

As the subtitle suggests, critiquing (and advancing) the methodology of translation technical studies is integral to Mulroney’s work. Thus, his second chapter, focused on methodology, makes up a significant portion of this book. Traditionally, many believed translation technique to be mostly concerned with whether a translation is “literal” or “free” based on a statistical analysis of literalism. Mulroney begins here by summarizing categories of literalism (as developed by James Barr, The Typology of Literalism in Ancient Biblical Translations, and Emanuel Tov, The Text-Critical Use of the Septuagint in Biblical Research) and improvisation (Tov, “Did the Septuagint Translators Always Understand their Hebrew Text”). Regarding Ambakoum, Mulroney grants that from a statistical perspective, one might consider the translation to have come about by way of a literalistic technique (p. 39). He then offers that the word literalmight be misleading in this context. Instead, the translation should be seen as a faithfulrendering of the meaning of the source text in the target language. This view takes into account that many factors, including linguistics, theology, culture, and so on, contributed to the translation of Ambakoum. Further, statistical data and literalism are not ignored, as they are partof the analysis (p. 44). Mulroney goes on to discuss the Interlinear Paradigm, the idea that the Septuagint was originally intended as a companion to the Hebrew text, meant to be read side by side. This paradigm does help make sense of the general literalism of the Septuagint, but it cannot account for the multitude of non-literal renderings. Proponents of the opposing view would suggest that the Septuagint was meant to stand on its own. Mulroney attempts to find a via media. He concedes that most scholars agree that the Septuagint was read independently early on. Perhaps this happened after the translation and initial use of the Pentateuch, with the result that other Old Greek material was read independently. Additionally, the fact that the Septuagint was read independently does not necessarily mean that it was meantto be read that way (p. 76). He concludes, “By reading the Septuagint alongside of the Hebrew the reader has in textual form the interpretation of his language community” (p. 77).

In the third chapter, Mulroney argues that the translator’s style can be seen clearly both in his use of Greek rhetoric and the “linguistic phenomena of Ambakoum” including “linguistic inventiveness (including neologisms), his probable Aramaic Background, improvisation, exegetical disambiguation (changes due to ideology) and toponymic problems” (p. 105). The translator’s ability to improvise proves that he is not simply a translator, but “an adept linguistic negotiator” (p. 129). In this chapter, Mulroney offers several detailed examples to support his conclusions. He sees evidence of the translator’s use of rhetoric via literary composition (where the translator strays from the source text) and via Hebrew interference (where the translator relies on literalism). Examples of rhetorical features include variation, polyptoton, assonance, consonance, alliteration, and homeoteleuton. In using such features, the translator creates a “creatively literary” text (p. 105).

In his final chapter, Mulroney discusses theological tendencies in Ambakoum. While Ambakoum contains some “theological nuance,” its theology “follows the general thrust of the MT” (p. 131). It is important to acknowledge that every change between source text and target text cannot be attributed to the translator’s theology. Mulroney argues that translator of Ambakoum is working in the interpretative tradition of a community, and this can be seen most clearly when he strayed from literalism and “negotiated the meaning by employing an interpretation that fit within his theological framework” (p. 133). After a broad discussion concerning the so-called “minimalists” and “maximalists” in Septuagintal theology, Mulroney gets into examples of theological exegesis in Ambakoum. Here, he deals with broad issues such as prophetic characteristics (suffering prophet, disciplinary teacher, and exile), eschatology (day of the LORD, end-time destruction), messianism, and idolatry. In his conclusion, Mulroney ties his thesis together and claims, “The translation of Ambakoum was done faithfully to the reading of its day” (p. 202). This is followed by a helpful appendix in which Mulroney provides the Greek text of Ambakoum, the Hebrew Text of Habakkuk, and an English translation of both.

Mulroney’sTranslation Style of Old Greek Habakkuk is well-organized and insightful, offering a relevant contribution to the field of Septuagint translation technique, particularly with his inclusion of the use of Greek rhetoric as a component for studying translation technique. Most of his examples are clear and adequately substantiated. For instance, Mulroney provides sufficient evidence that the translator was unfamiliar with some biblical toponyms, providing further evidence for a non-Palestinian provenance (p. 128). His insights are broad but are seen most clearly in his section on theology. For example, Mulroney deals with Paul’s quotation and interpretation of Ambakoum 2:4 in Romans 1:17. He argues that for the translator of Ambakoum, 2:4 and the surrounding contained eschatological elements but not messianism. Paul, however, seems to read Ambakoum 2:4 as messianic, perhaps due to his reading through a Christological lens. Ultimately, “The text became messianic….But it was not so when it was translated” (p. 174).

While Mulroney admits that the issue cannot be rehashed in this book, his conclusions concerning the independence of the Septuagint are a bit unclear. At first, it seems as if he has found a via media, but Mulroney is sympathetic to the Interlinear Paradigm, stating, “The Septuagint was an aid to understanding the Bible, the community’s interpretation of it, not something to replace the Hebrew” (pp. 76-77). To be clear, Mulroney is trying to balance the Interlinear Paradigm with the independent use of the Septuagint, but in claiming that the Septuagint was likely used alongside the Hebrew text, he does not stray far from the Interlinear Paradigm as it has already been developed. It would seem that, since the translators were multilingual, they would certainly not have intended to allow the Septuagint to replace the Hebrew Bible for themselves. However, if they were producing a translation for the benefit of a Jewish population that was predominately speaking and reading Greek, this project might simply have been an attempt to provide the Hebrew Bible in the common language. This might come down to a difference of opinion concerning the purpose of the Septuagint. Moreover, the evidence for homeoteleuton via literalism is lacking. The evidence cited includes the accusative and nominative case endings and third person verbal endings. Mulroney claims this produced end-rhyming that was not present in the source text but was introduced into the Septuagint due to the translator’s commitment to literalism (pp. 101-104). This particular evidence seems weak. If multiple verbs have the same subject and are translated similarly, then they will share similar endings. It is true this produces a sort of rhyming, but it is not clear that the translator was making a rhetorical decision in his translation of such words. In light of the book as a whole, these issues are minor, making up only a small portion of the study. Overall, Mulroney’s study is noteworthy, and he accomplishes his goal of providing a thorough analysis of the translation style of Ambakoum while also providing clear methodological advancements that must be considered by Septuagint scholars moving forward.

Adam W. Jones
London School of Theology
adam.jones [at]


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