Reviews of

The Greek of the Pentateuch

In Adam W. Jones, John A. L. Lee, Oxford University Press, Pentateuch, Septuagint, Translation on March 31, 2020 at 3:00 pm


2020.03.06 | John A. L. Lee. The Greek of the Pentateuch: Grinfield Lectures on the Septuagint 2011–2012. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.

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

John A. L. Lee’s The Greek of the Pentateuch represents the compiled and edited form of the Grinfield lectures given by Lee at Oxford in 2011 and 2012. This volume is a welcomed addition to the multitude of recent studies on the LXX, providing insight through comparison with extant contemporary Greek literature. One of Lee’s main goals is to prove the Greek Pentateuch exemplifies good Greek. After some brief introductory material, Lee establishes the need for examining as much evidence as possible from Greek literature when studying the LXX, with more weight given to “the evidence closest in time to the LXX” (p. 5). The goals of this chapter, according to Lee, are to show how important this evidence is for studying the LXX and to illustrate the ongoing nature of studying the Greek of the LXX (p. 5–6). He goes into examples in the Greek Pentateuch of vocabulary terms, such as παράδεισος and παρακαλῶ, and elements of syntax, such as verbal syntax and topicalization, comparing these with usage outside of the LXX. The result is a strengthened case for regarding LXX Greek “as essentially good Greek” (p. 40).

In the second chapter, Lee looks at the variation in the language used by the translators, who had “favorite” words and phrases that each would use as equivalent for certain Hebrew words. Sometimes variation occurs in order to avoid repeating the same word multiple times in close proximity (p. 44). Lee provides examples of “old-fashioned” (in relation to the LXX) Greek terms being used when God speaks to serve as a sign of the dignity of the speaker (p. 49). This chapter contains plenty of examples of these and other types of variation in the Greek Pentateuch with relevant examples from other ancient Greek literature in order to begin to show that the translators received a quality education.

This theme of the “educated language” of the LXX Pentateuch translators continues into the third chapter, where it is the focus. In this section, Lee examines certain features, such as the absence of the article, particles (like γε, δή, and μέν), and vocabulary that indicate a high level of education. Lee concludes that at the very least, the translators had “native-speaker competence” (p. 122) in Greek, and at most “something more than the training given to a Ptolemaic official” (p. 121).

In chapter four, Lee looks at examples showing that “the Pentateuch translation contains much that is pure Greek idiom” (p. 123). This chapter is quite similar to the others in the book, and ultimately, serves to continue piling on the evidence that the translators were capable of producing good quality Greek. Here, Lee spends most of the section on elements of Greek language in the Pentateuch that are not necessitated by the Hebrew language. For example, questions in Greek are introduced in a few different ways, most notably with οὐ, anticipating an affirmative answer, and with μή, anticipating a negative answer. Lee concludes: “The Pentateuch translators handle questions with sensitivity to context and complete command of the range of Greek options available” (p. 154).

In chapter five, “Collaboration,” Lee argues that there were likely five translators of the Pentateuch, one for each of the books. Further, he believes that these five translators, to some extent, collaborated on the translation project. His primary evidence for this is the relative consistency that exists between the books with respect to the use of special (mostly cultic) terms, either coined for or repurposed for the LXX. Some system, according to Lee, must have existed, so he provides “a new hypothesis” (p. 203): the translators, perhaps working simultaneously rather than sequentially, compiled and used a glossary.

A constant discussion in LXX studies revolves around the method of the LXX translators. Did they simply attempt a literal reproduction of their source, or did they have control of both languages, feeling the freedom to choose renderings? Lee contributes to this discussion in chapter six, providing evidence for the translators’ freedom to choose. The examples provided show that the translators were able to work within the context of a given passage to produce context-specific renderings. A few features that stand out here are the translation of the relative pronoun, the infinitive absolute, and πᾶς followed by an articular noun. After many examples, Lee concludes, “The Pentateuch translation presents an amalgam of natural Greek and Greek affected by Hebrew interference,” and “it cannot be said that one predominates over the other” (p. 257).

In his conclusion chapter, Lee reiterates some of the main takeaways from his previous chapters. Ultimately, Lee wants to convey that the translation should be seen primarily as good Greek with some interference from Hebrew. For example, regarding syntax, he claims, “Greek syntax, not Hebrew, is the translators’ starting point” (p. 262).

Lee’s work in The Greek of the Pentateuch is well-substantiated, eloquent, and masterful. There is no shortage of evidence for any of his major conclusions. Not only is this evidence present within the chapters, but even more can be found in the eight appendixes at the end of the book. Perhaps the most helpful examples are those that come from outside of the LXX. He draws from a deep well of ancient Greek literature to show that the translators must have been familiar with “good” Greek. According to Lee, the translators most likely “possessed the ability to have turned the whole translation into a higher-level more ‘literary’ Greek if they had wished. The reason they did not do so was . . . that they considered a moderately ‘literal’ rendering . . . to be the suitable and practical option” (p. 120). The wealth of examples provided in this book supports this claim. Lee interacts with the relevant prior studies on the LXX, engaging their arguments, and producing well-formulated rebuttals. This is seen most clearly in chapter six, where Lee begins each section with quotes (often negative towards the LXX translators) from other scholars with whom he obviously disagrees. He goes on in each of these sections to prove them wrong usually without needing to address them directly. That he includes these quotes at all might be the scholarly equivalent of “throwing shade.”

It is difficult to dispute Lee’s conclusions due to the evidence he provides. A couple of points that could have been more fully developed stand out. For example, in chapter three, Lee gives evidence that the translators had a good Greek education by offering examples of linguistic features that the translators use that are consistent with a high-level education. This raises a couple of important questions: Are there examples of “bad Greek” documents that do or do not have these features? How do we determine that the presence of these features prove anything? In chapter six, Lee discusses the translators’ freedom to choose “literal” translation equivalents or renderings more suited for readability in Greek. He claims, “But their ability to negotiate a way between the two and to arrange the Greek as they wished seems beyond doubt” (p. 218). This comes right after examples of a single feature of Hebrew that is translated on a scale from quite literal (to the point of not making much sense) to very sensitive to the needs of Greek. Lee sees this not as inconsistency, but as freedom. Surely, though, this type of inconsistency is something that could have been worked out either in the mind of each individual translator or in their collaboration process, as he argued for previously. Lee’s explanation is better than most, but still leaves something to be desired.

Lee’s thorough knowledge of the Greek language and his ability and willingness to interact broadly with Greek texts outside of the LXX and NT set this volume apart from many within LXX studies. Lee’s final conclusion is this: “The translation of the Hebrew Pentateuch into Greek deserves to be seen as one of the great achievements of its time” (p. 275). In a similar way, Lee’s contribution to the field of LXX studies in The Greek of the Pentateuch should be considered to be a great achievement in advancing the way scholars approach the Greek of the LXX.

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

  1. […] via Greek of the Pentateuch — Biblical and Early Christian Studies […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: