Conybeare and Stock on the Language of the Septuagint

The following paragraphs on the language of the Septuagint are excerpted from the Introduction of F.C. Conybeare and St. George Stock, Grammar of Septuagint Greek (Boston: Ginn and Company, 1905), pp. 20-24.

Never surely has a translation of any book exercised so profound an influence upon the world as the Septuagint version of the Old Testament. This work has had more bearing upon ourselves than we are perhaps inclined to think. For it was the first step towards that fusion of the Hebraic with the Hellenic strain, which has issued in the mind and heart of modern Christendom. Like the opening of the Suez Canal, it let the waters of the East mingle with those of the West, bearing with them many a freight of precious merchandise. Without the Septuagint there could have been, humanly speaking, no New Testament: for the former provided to the latter not only its vehicle of language, but to a great extent also its moulds of thought. These last were of course ultimately Semitic, but when religious ideas had to be expressed in Greek, it was difficult for them to escape change in the process.

So long as the New Testament is of interest to mankind, the Septuagint must share that interest with it. The true meaning of the former can only be arrived at by correct interpretation of the language, and such correct interpretation is well-nigh impossible to those who come to the Jewish Greek of the reign of Nero and later with notions derived from the age of Pericles. Not only had the literary language itself, even as used by the most correct writers, undergone great changes during the interval, but, further than this, the New Testament is not written in literary, but rather in colloquial Greek, and in the colloquial Greek of men whose original language and ways of thinking were Semitic, and whose expression was influenced at every turn by the phraseology of the Old Testament. If we wish then to understand the Greek of the New Testament, it is plain that we must compare it with the Greek of the Old, which belongs, like it, to post-classical times, is colloquial rather than literary, and is so deeply affected by Semitic influence as often to be hardly Greek at all, but rather Hebrew in disguise. That everything should be compared in the first instance with that to which it is most like is an obvious principle of scientific method, but one which hitherto can hardly be said to have been generally applied to the study of the New Testament. Now however there are manifold signs that scholars are beginning to realise the importance of the study of the Greek Old Testament in its bearing upon the interpretation of the New.

Attic Greek was like a vintage of rare flavour which would only grow on a circumscribed soil. When Greek became a world-language, as it did after the conquests of Alexander, it had to surrender much of its delicacy, but it still remained an effective instrument of thought and a fit vehicle for philosophy and history. The cosmopolitan form of literary Greek which then came into use among men of non-Attic, often of non-Hellenic origin, was known as the Common (κοινη sc. διαλεκτος) or Hellenic dialect. Aristotle may be considered the first of the Hellenists, though, as a disciple of Plato, he is far nearer to Attic purity than the Stoics, Epicureans, and Academics who followed him.

Hellenistic Greek we may regard as the genus, of which Alexandrian Greek is a species. Now the language of the Septuagint is a variety of Alexandrian Greek, but a very peculiar variety. It is no fair specimen either of the colloquial or of the literary language of Alexandria.

The interesting light thrown upon the vocabulary of the Septuagint by the recent publication of Egyptian Papyri has led some writers to suppose that the language of the Septuagint has nothing to distinguish it from Greek as spoken daily in the kingdom of the Ptolemies. Hence some fine scorn has been wasted on the ‘myth’ of a ‘Biblical’ Greek. ‘Biblical Greek’ was a term aptly applied by the late Dr. Hatch to the language of the Septuagint and New Testament conjointly. It is a serviceable word, which it would be unwise to discard. For, viewed as Greek, these two books have features in common which are shared with them by no other documents. These features arise from the strong Semitic infusion that is contained in both. The Septuagint is, except on occasions, a literal translation from the Hebrew. Now a literal translation is only half a translation. It changes the vocabulary, while it leaves unchanged the syntax. But the life of a language lies rather in the syntax than in the vocabulary. So, while the vocabulary of the Septuagint is that of the market-place of Alexandria, the modes of thought are purely Hebraic. This is a rough statement concerning the Septuagint as a whole: but, as the whole is not homogeneous, it does not apply to all the parts. The Septuagint does contain writing, especially in the books of the Maccabees, which is Greek, not Hebrew, in spirit, and which may fairly be compared with the Alexandrian Greek of Philo.

The New Testament, having itself been written in Greek, is not so saturated with Hebrew as the Septuagint: still the resemblance in this respect is close enough to warrant the two being classed together under the title of Biblical Greek. Hence we must dissent from the language of Deissmann, when he says “The linguistic unity of the Greek Bible appears only against the background of classical, not of contemporary ‘profane,’ Greek.” Biblical Greek does appear to us to have a linguistic unity, whether as compared with the current Alexandrian of the Papyri or with the literary language of such fairly contemporary authors as Aristeas, Aristobulus, and Philo, not to add others who might more justly be called ‘profane.’

The language of the Septuagint, so far as it is Greek at all, is the colloquial Greek of Alexandria, but it is Biblical Greek, because it contains so large an element which is not Hellenic, but Semitic.

Josephus, it has been asserted, employs only one Hebraism, namely, the use of προστιθεσθαι with another verb in the sense of ‘doing something again’ (see Gram. of Sept. Gk. § 113). For the accuracy of this statement it would be hazardous to vouch, but the possibility of its being made serves to show the broad difference that there is between Hellenistic Greek, even as employed by a Jew, who, we know, had to learn the language, and the Biblical Greek of the Septuagint.

The uncompromising Hebraism of the Septuagint is doubtless due in part to the reverence felt by the translators for the Sacred Text. It was their business to give the very words of the Hebrew Bible to the Greek world, or to those of their own countrymen who lived in it and used its speech; as to the genius of the Greek language, that was entirely ignored. Take for instance Numbers 9:10 — ανθρωπος ανθρωπος ος εαν γενηται ακαθαρτος επι ψυχη ανθρωπου, η εν οδω μακραν υμιν η εν ταις γενεαις υμιν, και ποιησει το πασχα κυριω. Does anyone suppose that stuff of that sort was ever spoken at Alexandria? It might as well be maintained that a schoolboy’s translation of Euripides represents English as spoken in America.

One of our difficulties in explaining the meaning of the Greek in the Septuagint is that it is often doubtful whether the Greek had a meaning to those who wrote it. One often cannot be sure that they did not write down, without attaching any significance to them, the Greek words which seemed to be the nearest equivalents to the Hebrew before them. This is especially the case in the poetical passages, of which Deuteronomy 33:10b will serve for an instance — επιθησουσιν θυμιαμα εν οργη σου, δια παντος επι το θυσιαστηριον σου. We can account for this by aid of the original: but what did it mean to the translator?

Another obvious cause of difference between Biblical and Alexandrian Greek is the necessity under which the translators found themselves of inventing terms to express ideas which were wholly foreign to the Greek mind.

The result of these various causes is often such as to cause disgust to the classical student. Indeed a learned Jesuit Father has confessed to us what a shock he received on first making acquaintance with the Greek of the Septuagint. But the fastidiousness of the classical scholar must not be nourished at the expense of narrowing the bounds of thought. The Greek language did not die with Plato; it is not dead yet; like the Roman Empire it is interesting in all stages of its growth and its decline. One important stage of its life-history is the ecclesiastical Greek, which followed the introduction of Christianity. This would never have been but for the New Testament. But neither, as we have said before, would the New Testament itself have been but for the Septuagint.