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The Septuagint and Textual Criticism: Retroverting the Text

23rd February 2011

[One of my main areas of research is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint. This post talks about how the Greek text can be used to help us understand the Hebrew original. It was originally published 08/2009]

In this post I am laying a foundation for my next installment in my series on Psalm 151 in the Biblical Tradition, by discussing how to retrovert a text from one language into another. This is most commonly done when using the Septuagint in the textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. Thus, in order to employ the LXX in textual criticism one must retrovert the Greek text back into Hebrew (for more information on the Septuagint and textual criticism in general see my series of posts on Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible). In many cases retroverting a text is easier said than done.

Here are some tips for retroverting a text:

Focus on the translation technique of the individual book in question. The LXX is not a uniform translation. Various translators at different times, with varying philosophies of translation and different language capability, translated different portions of the Hebrew Bible to make up the LXX. For example, the translation of the Torah is a good formal translation, the translation of the Psalter is very formal, while the translations of Proverbs and Isaiah are less so. Thus one cannot assume that the way one translator rendered a particular Hebrew word or construction will be the same fora translator of a different book. Each individual book of the LXX has its own idiosyncrasies to its translation; thus a careful examination of its translation technique is necessary before one can retrovert the text with any confidence.

Examine the different ways a translator renders a particular word. In order to figure out what Hebrew word may be behind a particular Greek word in a passage, you need to look up every instance of the Greek word in question within the biblical book and note what Hebrew word was being rendered. There are a number of useful resources that will help you with this task. If you have a Bible software package with the original language modules, then you can do a Greek lemma search and see what Hebrew was being translated. Even more ideal is if you have Emauel Tov’s The Parallel Aligned Hebrew-Aramaic and Greek Texts of Jewish Scripture module where you can see the equivalent elements of the MT and the LXX (as reconstructed by the editor). For more on the different software programs available for Biblical Studies, see my Bible Software pages. If you do not have a Bible software package, then you can manually look up how a word is with Takamitsu Muraoka’s Hebrew/Aramaic Index to the Septuagint: Keyed to the Hatch-Redpath Concordance (Baker Academic, 1998; Buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com) which also comes included in Edwin Hatch, Henry A. Redpath, A Concordance to the Septuagint: And the other Greek Versions of the Old Testament – Including the Apocryphal Books (Second edition, two volumes in one; Includes Muraoka, “Hebrew/Aramaic Index”; Baker Academic, 1998; Buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com).

Identify a pattern. If a clear pattern emerges, propose a retroversion. When you examine the different ways an individual book tends to translate a word into Greek, and if there is a clear default rendering, then you can be fairly confident in proposing the retroversion. While you can never be 100% certain with any retroversion, some will be more certain than others.  If a clear pattern doesn’t emerge, or if the words in question do not occur frequently enough in the book under study, then you will need to broaden your investigation to see how the word is rendered elsewhere in the LXX. While this will not produce as clear of results as the previous situation, you can still produce a workable retroversion.

With these principles in mind, the Septuagint may be employed quite fruitfully in the textual criticism of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. Of course, retroversion may also be used with texts of other languages, and even in ascertaining the relationship between Hebrew Dead Sea  Scroll texts and the Septuagint (as I will seek to do in my next post on Psalm 151).


2 Responses to “The Septuagint and Textual Criticism: Retroverting the Text”

  1. Dispraxis Says:

    Excellent post, Tyler.

    I’ve been attempting to “retrovert” or “reverse engineer” to Hebrew (Genesis in work) the LXX Greek myself as a huge what-if project, but some caveats might be in order.

    1. You should become as familiar as possible with the body of textual criticism that has already been done, so that you are familiar with both the consensus, its dissenters, and most of all the rules of textual criticism. For one should always be a master of the rules if you intend to bend or break them.

    2. There are many places, perhaps the majority of places, Tov observes, where it is clear that the Greek translator had the very same MT text before him/her, but made interesting (and some would argue poor) Greek translational choices based on any one of the following possible reasons, such as stylistic taste, misunderstanding of the Hebrew text, less-than-stellar command of the Greek language, etc. If you were to attempt retroversion, even when all your tips are taken into consideration, and if your goal were exegesis, you might become hopeless led astray.

    As an example, in Genesis 1:11, when Tov observes that (using secretary of the Continental Congress from 1774 to 1789 Charles Thomson’s English translation) the LXX adds a verbal construction:

    “according to kind and according to likeness”

    after

    “Let the earth produce the grassy plant with sowing seed”

    Tov notes this as a purely stylistic flourish, not corresponding to any “lost” Hebrew text. One may disagree, perhaps, but imagine a studious text critical enthusiast not knowing the consensus of scholarly opinion on such issues.

    Thanks again,

    John F. Felix

  2. Michael Says:

    Boy, am I glad I found this post (and your website). I have a question that may well serve as another example of the usefulness of using the LXX to reverse translate back to the underlying Hebrew.

    My question concerns the translation of Gen 3:16. In this verse, all English Bibles to which I’ve access renders the underlying Hebrew with words synonymous with ‘longing’ or ‘desire’ to describe the wife’s feeling for her husband. However, the LXX translates the underlying Hebrew to APOSTROFH — turning back, returning — a completely different understanding.

    LXX:

    …in pain your turning will be to your husband…

    not (as most English Bibles do)

    NAS

    …in pain your desire will be to your husband…

    I am assuming (perhaps incorrectly) that the creators of the LXX, having had access to a more ancient Hebrew source, translated APOSTROFH from T’ShuVaThaKh(returning, turning back).

    ASIDE: I ought also to note that the difference between the Hebrew word for ‘longing’ (T’ShuQaTheKh) and ‘returning’ (T’ShuVaThaKh) is one letter (Qof vs Bet).

    Again, thanks for posting on this topic.

    Blessings,

    Michael