Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 10 (2010) - Review

Troxel, Ronald L., LXX-Isaiah as Translation and Interpretation: The Strategies of the Translator of the Septuagint of Isaiah (JSJSup, 124; Leiden: Brill, 2008). Pp. xvi + 309. Cloth. € 124.00. ISBN 978-90-04-15394-3.

Ronald L. Troxel, distinguished lecturer in Hebrew Studies and Religious Studies at the UW-Madison, conceives his study as a “Prolegomenon to Understanding the Translator of LXX-Isaiah” laying the “foundation for a new view of the translator's work” (p. ix). The “new view” which he intends to develop is, in reality, an alternative—or a response—to the rather common thesis that LXX Isaiah is a “contemporizing interpretation.” This line of interpretation, represented by Isaac Leo Seeligmann and more recently by Arie van der Kooij, holds that the translation—which was based on a text close to the MT—was marked by the tendency to contemporize the ancient prophecies and apply them to the historical situation of the translator and of the Alexandrian Jewish community (“fulfillment-interpretation” or Erfüllungsinterpretation). Troxel judges that this approach is based “on undisciplined associations between unique phraseology in the book and significant events known from the second century b.c.e.” (p. ix). His argument—which is in fact totally opposed to this thesis—is as follows: “The most significant conclusion of this study is that there is no basis to view the translator's work under the rubric of Erfüllungsinterpretation” (p. 287). The author's whole goal is to attempt to show the limits or supposed errors of this approach: in the translation technique and interpretation (Chs. 3 to 5), in the historical-theological themes concerned with “fulfillment-interpretation” (Chs. 6 and 7) and in the historical and cultural context of the translation (Chs. 1 and 2). This monograph is, therefore, a work of scientific controversy (disputatio) in the best sense of the term, and has already elicited lively reactions (see below).

In chapter one (pp. 1–35), having synthesized the history of research which led to the conception of LXX Isaiah as a contemporizing of the prophecy (Seeligmann, das Neves, Hanhart, Koenig, van der Kooij), the author introduces the hypothesis–following van der Kooij himself—that the translator considered himself as a γραμματικός (according to Isa 33:18 LXX), i.e. a grammarian from the philological circles of the Museum of Alexandria. He was well-read and, following Aristarchus of Samothrace (the last librarian of the Museum exiled after 145 b.c.e.), could translate and interpret the Jewish Scriptures as a grammarian interpreted Homer: “Aristarchus sought to understand Homer's meaning rather than just his words, including an appreciation of his use of poetic or mythic expression, which he saw as a field of thought and art broader than Homer” (p. 34).

Troxel attempts to confirm this intuition in chapter two (pp. 37–73) by examining the context of the translation of the Jewish Law (Pentateuch) in Jewish intellectual circles in Alexandria. He shows that the Letter of Aristeas—which he dates to the approximate time of the translation of Isaiah (p. 42)—alludes explicitly to the philological method for the establishment of the text of Homer by the academics of the library of the Museum (mentioning the careless manuscripts, § 30). It therefore seems possible to establish a parallel between the γραμματικοί of the Museum and the Greek translators (p. 53). Moreover, he holds that the best analogy for understanding the work of the translator is that of the dragomans (p. 70), and he rejects the model of interlinear translation with a pedagogical interest as proposed by Pietersma. What is needed, therefore, is to understand the method of translation of Isaiah, which differs from the Pentateuch insofar as it associates a very literalist tendency with a much freer or interpretative approach.

Before considering the manner in which the translator renders his Vorlage, Troxel dedicates his third chapter (pp. 73–85) to the difficult question of the nature of the Hebrew source text in a translation which allies very literal passages (with regard to the MT) to passages which are quite far from the MT. Must these differences be attributed to the Übersetzungsweise or to the Erfüllungsinterpretation of a translator-scribe (cf. van der Kooij) or to a distinct Hebrew source? Troxel pleads for an analysis of LXX Isaiah which is based on a dialectic between a text-critical approach—one should not exclude the existence of variants—and an analysis of the Übersetzungsweise—one cannot understand the method of the translator unless the point of departure is an existing Hebrew text.

The fourth chapter (pp. 87–132) is devoted to an analysis of linguistic aspects of the translation. The author begins by examining the order of words and syntax (pp. 89–102) and concludes that “this survey … leads not only to the classification of his Übersetzungsweise among the freer translation units of the LXX, but also to the conclusion that he was … more interested in bringing the book of Isaiah to his readers than in bringing his readers to the text” (p. 101). This intention of the translator seems to be confirmed by the semantic analysis (pp. 102–32). In particular Troxel identifies an affinity between the method of the translator of Isaiah and that of the Alexandrian γραμματικοί in the use of the methods of analogy (ἀναλογία) (p. 111) in the etymological interpretation or in the interpretation of rare or difficult words. He also shows that the theological exploitation of lexemes, e.g. the term δόξα, “are not themes brought into the book from the outside, but were essential elements of the book that the translator appropriated as leitmotifs in his interpretation of the whole” (p. 132). The linguistic examination therefore gives a portrait of the translator: “The Isaiah translator appears to have been familiar enough with literary Greek to formulate sentences in its style, suggesting that he was among the well educated” (p. 132).

The fifth chapter (pp. 133–72) examines the central question from the point of view of “contextual interpretation” or exegesis in the LXX; in other words, when the translation distances itself intentionally from its Vorlage, whether one can reconstruct the latter. The author distinguishes two types of exegesis. The first consists of “reformulations and non-translations” (pp. 134–51) by means of which the translator of Isaiah interprets and rereads his text in the light of the Pentateuch. According to Troxel, this procedure finds obvious parallels not only in Jewish literature of the Hellenistic period (such as the Liber antiquitatum biblicarum, 4QFlor, the Book of Jubilees), but also in the manner used by the Alexandrian γραμματικοί to read and interpret the works of Homer by means of Homer (pp. 150–51). The second type of contextual exegesis is that of “contemporizing interpretation” or Erfüllungsinterpretation (pp. 152–72)—promoted in particular by Seeligmann and van der Kooij—by means of which the book and its prophecies are reread in the light of the religious and political history of Hellenistic Judaism at the beginning of the 2nd century b.c.e., as if in a Greek midrash or pesher. The hermeneutical principles of the translator are therefore imported from the translator's surroundings into the Book of Isaiah which he is translating. It is precisely this dimension which Troxel contests at the end of this chapter and in the two following chapters.

In chapter six (pp. 173–99), the author again examines two indications pointing to an “update” or a “contemporization” of the prophecies by the translator of Isaiah: the eschatological terminology באחרית הימים, ἐν ταῖς ἐσχάταις ἡμέραις, pp. 172–88), and the contemporizing of geographical toponyms mentioned in the oracles (pp. 188–99). In the seventh chapter (pp. 201–46) Troxel makes a lengthy study of the passages which those who defend the theory of “fulfillment-interpretation” recognize, on the one hand, explicit allusions to oppression by the Seleucid rulers, in particular Antiochus IV Epiphanes (pp. 201–34), and on the other hand a particular attention to the Torah (νόμος) in reaction to the abandonment of its study and practice during the Hellenistic crisis in Jerusalem of the early 2nd c. b.c.e. (pp. 234–46). But with regard to all these, Troxel shows that these indices do not allow one to defend a deliberate project of contemporizing by the translator. If it is evident that the translation inevitably contains traces of the socio-cultural milieu in which it was produced, the translator's method nevertheless does not compare with the pesharim found in Qumran. On certain points, Troxel holds to the contrary: the translator occasionally based himself on a Vorlage different from the MT.

Having deconstructed the “contemporization” hypothesis, the author tries to develop an alternative understanding of the Übersetzungsweise of the translator based on the principles already laid out in chapters four and five. Chapter eight (pp. 247–86), wholly given over to a detailed analysis of Isa 18, allows Troxel to uncover several interpretative tendencies of the translation: “interpretations of graphically ambiguous letters that gave rise to double readings; the resolution of conundrums by interpreting lexemes and syntax in the light of their context, even if that required substituting a phrase found elsewhere; looking beyond the immediate context for guidance from passages with similar words or motifs; … indications that his Vorlage at times contained variants vis-à-vis the MT.” But his conclusion also has a negative dimension: “We have not seen a reference to contemporary circumstances specific enough to support a claim that the translator pursued a program of Erfüllungsinterpretation” (p. 286).

Chapter nine (pp. 287–91) synthesizes the results and allows the tracing of a new portrait of the translator of Isaiah: “the types of expansion and reformulation found in LXX-Isaiah attest a translator concerned to bring an understanding of Isaiah to his Greek readers, not simply a competent representation of its sentences” (p. 288). To guide the reader towards the sense of the Book of Isaiah, the translator shows the “willingness to interpret words and phrases in light of the broader context, as well as to borrow locutions from elsewhere in the book or even from outside of it … in a sort of legitimate intertextuality among the scriptures of his Jewish community” (pp. 289–90). According to Troxel, this interpretation of Scripture by Scripture seems to be the mark of an influence which came directly from the reading of Homer by the γραμματικοί of the Museum of Alexandria. But this interpretative dimension of the translation is founded above all on the conviction “that interpretation was a divinely inspired activity. … The author regards himself inspired to present what amounts to an updated set of divine mandates” (p. 290).

The book concludes with a bibliography (pp. 293–300) and with indexes of the texts referred to, the authors, and the themes (pp. 301–309).

Troxel's work once again poses the question of whether one should consider the LXX of Isaiah as a Greek pesher or a true translation. Despite the discovery of the Qumran manuscripts—which seem to carry proof that the LXX generally translated the Hebrew source with more or less fidelity depending on the various books—the question remains live for many researchers, especially in books where the differences with the MT are important. Troxel, by resolutely opting for its character as translation, gives a response which is stimulating in so far as it shows that the motivations and aims of the translation—including the exegetical and interpretative aspects—are not to be looked for firstly in external historical circumstances but in the theological demand to make these sacred texts accessible to Jewish readers of Greek. This demonstration and the shift which it brings about is convincing.

However, one could ask if the analogy with the γραμματικοί is not overrated. In reality it rests on the single allusion of Isa 38:18 LXX, which one can question whether it is really an explicit reference to the Museum of Alexandria or to the translator himself, and whether this suffices to uphold the role that Troxel sees it as playing in the identification of the translation and interpretation technique. Furthermore, one could ask whether this analogy is really necessary for the author's arguments. In fact, the interpretation of Sacred Scripture by Sacred Scripture does not need this association with the γραμματικοί of Homer to establish its methodology, even in the Hellenistic period.

Whether one finds his arguments convincing or not, the stimulating monograph of Troxel certainly elicits discussion. This has already been seen in the panel discussion in November 2008 in Boston during the SBL annual meeting (L. Greenspoon, A. van der Kooij, J. R. Wagner, A. Pietersma, and R. Troxel), from which certain responses—critical towards the position of Troxel—have already been published: Arie van der Kooij in BIOSCS 42 (2009): 147–52, and Albert Pietersma on his personal website. We might also mention the very recent monograph by Rodrigo F. de Sousa, Eschatology and Messianism in LXX Isaiah 1–12 (LHBOTS 516; New York: T&T Clark, 2010), in which Troxel has found an ally for several of his conclusions. The discussion therefore seems worthwhile of further pursuit.

Philippe Hugo, University of Fribourg/Switzerland