Skip to content

Aristotle’s rhetorical Urbanities and the Septuagint’s

February 21, 2012

Indeed, it [i.e., “the ‘urbanity/beauty’ (or ‘political/beauty’) meme”] seems so subsumed into Athenian culture that by the time of Aristotle’s Politics, it seems to be taken for granted.

Theophrastus wrote the above in a recent discussion. And it may be so.

However, I want to show that Aristotle taught urbanity explicitly. I was going to leave a simple reply, and yet there’s a good bit more to say that seems to deserve a new blogpost.  Aristotle’s discussion of urbanity is a central concept in the Athenian Constitution, which also could be the topic of a separate blogpost. In my blogpost here, I’d rather continue to focus on the rhetorical.

Much more interesting and relevant to this discussion of LXX translators ascribing Greekish urbanity to the beautiful baby Hebrew boy savior is how Aristotle taught urbanity in his Rhetoric. In his treatise on rhetoric, Aristotle taught urbanities as lexical and as learnable. Urbanities were, he stressed, not only part and parcel of philosophic epistemology (i.e., “knowledge” and “means of knowing”) but were also essentially rhetorical (i.e., “enthymematic,” or persuasive by means of shared implicit assumptions in the speaker and in his audience, a sort of rhetorical syllogism).  I think we might all agree that “urbanities,” as Aristotle lectured and wrote about them, are technical.  The notion of urbanities and Aristotelian urbanities themselves were not child’s play.

To call a baby “urbane,” even a male baby, is not the sort of thing Aristotle would do.  Of course, for non-Greek and likely bar-bar-ian parents to view their non-Greek and likely un-civilized newborn as “urbane” might really mark the parents as ignorant.  Let’s come back to that in a moment.

There are many passages in Book III of the Rhetoric where Aristotle spells out the important concept for elite Greek men who would establish a Greek empire, men such as Alexander the Great, a student of Aristotle’s. One bit from Book III, for example, is the one translator George A. Kennedy entitles this way:

“Chapter 10: Asteia, or Urbanitites, and Pro Ommatōn Poein or Bringing-Before-the Eyes, Visualization; with Further Remarks on Metaphor.”

Kennedy’s headnote for the chapter runs as follows:

Astu means “town,” usually in the physical rather than the political sense, the latter being polis. In contrast to the country, towns often cultivate some degree of sophistication; thus, asteia, “things of the town,” came to mean good taste, wit, and elegant speech (see Schenkveld 1994). Latin urbanitas (from urbs, “city”), and thus English “urbanity,” have similar meanings; cf. also “polite” from Greek polis (city state) and “civil” from Latin civis (citizen).

Aristotle’s chapter gets his students understanding this way (and it stresses to us non-Greek readers of his translated Greek text just how important “urbanities” were); below are excerpts from Kennedy’s translation [with his emphases and his bracketed interpolations]:

1. Since these things have been defined, there is need to say what are the sources of urbanities [asteia] and well-liked expressions [eudokimounta]. Now it is possible to create them by natural talent or by practice, but to show what they are belongs to this study. Let us say, then, what they are and let us enumerate them thoroughly, and let the following be our first principle [arkhē]

2. To learn easily is naturally pleasant to all people, and words signify something, so whatever words create knowledge in us are pleasurable.  Now glosses are unintelligible, but we know words in their prevailing meaning meaning [kyria]. Metaphor most brings about learning; for when he calls old age “stubble,” he creates understanding and knowledge through the genus, since old age and stubble are [species of the genus of] things that have lost their bloom.

3. Now the similes of the poets also do the same thing; and thus, if they do it well, they seem urbane….

4. Those things are necessarily urbane, both in composition and in enthymemes, which create quick learning in our minds. This is why superficial enthymemes are not popular (by superficial I means those that are altogether clear and which there is no need to ponder), nor those which, when stated, are unintelligible, but those [are well-liked]….; for [then] some kind of learning takes place, but in neither of the other cases.

5. In terms of the thought of what is said, such kinds of enthymemes are well-liked; in terms of the composition [an expression is urbane] on the one hand because of the figure, if it is spoken with some contrast (for example, “regarding the peace shared by others as a war against their own interests,” where peace is opposed to war)

6. or on the other hand because of the words, if they have metaphor…. Furthermore, [urbanity is achieved] by means of bringing-before-the-eyes [pro ommatōn poein, “visualization”]….; [To achieve urbanity in style] one should thus aim at three things: metaphor, antithesis, actualization [energeia].

7. Of the four kinds of metaphor, those by analogy are most admired, as when Pericles said that the young manhood killed in the war vanished from the city as though someone took the spring from the year. And Leptines, speaking about the Lacedaimonians, [said] that he would not allow [the Athenians] to stand by while Greece was deprived of one of its “two eyes.” And when Chares was ….

We get the idea. Urbanities are, for Aristotle, things to be epistemologically mapped and rhetorically taught. Aristotle sought to practice what he preached, and when we pay careful attention to his technical, his metaphorical, his enthymematical, uses of Greek — even as he explicitly teaches urbanities and their classes and their uses — then we get a sense that he’s desperate to impart such knowledge and such rhetoric to men, Greek men, elite Greek men, who would learn it. Men such as Alexander the Great learned this sort of Greek urbanity from Aristotle.

Thus, when we find in Alexandria, Egypt, Jewish translators of a Hebrew text using the Greek word for “urbanity,” we find them doing something rather rhetorical. Let’s assume they are changing the Hebrew טוב with the Hellene ἀστεῖον. In other words, what the Masoretic text has retained (that Hebrew word for “good”) was not long after Aristotle rendered into this Greek (that technicalized word for “urbanity”). Such a translation, this rendering, could be viewed as just a mistake, a slip, a sloppy misunderstanding of either the Hebrew or of the Greek or possibly of both.

But historians, Jewish scholars such as Sylvie Honigman and Naomi Seidman, might read the translating here as urbane, as rhetorically so. Honigman (studying the contexts of the letter of Aristeas) generally suggests that the LXX translators followed not the Alexandrian paradigm and not even the Hebrew Exodus paradigm but rather the Homeric paradigm. Seidman (reading an account in the Talmud) proposes that the Septuagint was a trickster translation; and thus the text enacts the sort of sophistic and barbaric rhetorics that Plato and Plato’s Socrates and eventually Aristotle tried to work against.

In this light, I’d like to stress something:

To call a baby “urbane,” even a male baby, is not the sort of thing Aristotle would do.  Of course, for non-Greek and likely bar-bar-ian parents to view their non-Greek and likely un-civilized newborn as “urbane” might really mark the parents as ignorant.

The Septuagint translators, as NETS translator and project editor Albert Pietersma says, were not hacks.  I’d like to suggest that they were rather urbane themselves.  They knew Aristotle, and they knew Alexander; they understood the Greek project of linguistic and global domination.  And in that context, they were rather resistant.  The Septuagint translators assign to baby Moses, as viewed by his parents who were saving him, the explicit and sophisticated Greek term ἀστεῖος.  This elevated the book of Moses, the book they called Ex – Odus, to a Greek status ironically, a Homeric status, that circumvented Aristotle’s post-epic style of urbanity.  The LXX seems to have acknowledged but resisted Alexander’s establishment of a Jewish-marginalizing political center in, of all places, Egypt.

17 Comments leave one →
  1. February 21, 2012 12:29 pm

    This is an interesting post that substantially develops the the ideas generated in your previous work.

    A few notes:

    * I have always understood the Athenian Constitution to be assumed to be a pseudo-Aristotelian work; perhaps by his students or perhaps by others.

    * The assumption that the Septuagint writers would have known Aristotle is an intriguing one, but is it really supported? As you know, there are substantial problems with the dissemination of the Aristotelian writings; would the Alexandrian community really have read Aristotle so early? More evidence here (e.g., from the text) is required. As far as I know, the first explicit reference to Aristotle in Alexandrian Jewish writing is by the 2nd century BCE philosopher Aristobolus of Paneas, Further, my understanding of the Alexandrian Jewish reaction to Greek writing was a belief that the Greek philosophers were expressing concepts that they learned from Judaism. (Eusebius explicitly assigns Aristobolus this view.) The Neoplatonists would later say: “What is Plato but Moses writing in Attic Greek?”

    * When you write “But historians, Jewish scholars such as Sylvie Honigman and Naomi Seidman…” it seems you are being unfair. (For the record, I have not read Honigman.) Your division reminded me of the belief that there were two kinds of physics: Deutsche Physik vs Jüdische Physik. Seidman and Honigman may both be Jewish (I would not call Seidman a historian, though), but I am not sure they are representative of a larger movement in Judaism. Now maybe I have just misread you here. Maybe you intended to write “But historians, scholars of Alexandrian Judaism such as Sylvie Honigman and Naomi Seidman….”

  2. February 21, 2012 1:26 pm

    Good gracious. I appreciate your notes very much Theophrastus. Let me respond quickly to say most importantly that by “Jewish” I only meant to qualify a couple of things or so:

    1. Neither Seidman nor Honigman is investigating the histories of the Septuagint from a Greek orthodox or some other “Christian” perspective, which may be the majority interest in the LXX.

    2. Seidman actually has a professional title that includes the descriptor “Jewish,” which I borrowed from her institution: “Koret Professor of Jewish Culture and Director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the Graduate Theological Union.” Yes, she is not a professional historian and did her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, but when discussing and writing about translation — particularly about “Jewish-Christian Difference and the Politics of Translation” — Seidman does write history.

    3. Honigman is a historian professionally and academically, working in the History Department at Tel Aviv University. Her research interests include Greek language Jewish literary works (such as 1 Maccabees; 2 Maccabees; 3 Maccabees) but also Greek ethnicity and Greek historiography, especially as that intersects with the histories of Jews in Ptolemaic Egypt including Letter of Aristeas. She also work generally on Judeo-Hellenistic literature; Persian Judah; Judea in Hellenistic times; and Judea in Seleukid times.

    4. Yes, they may be marginal and perhaps even marginalized given some of their views within what you might see to be “a larger movement in Judaism.” Seidman has taken a lot of flack, for example, for her publications about the implications of the difference between Elie Wiesel’s Yiddish and his English version of “Night.” Her highlighting of the Talmud as a source of perspective on the LXX is not the typical view (of any group, much less the majority contemporary Jewish perspective as I understand it). Honigman’s view of the histories of the Septuagint, likewise, is a fresh history, not the common sense or typical one.

    5. I can hardly believe in just two kinds of anything, much less just “Jewish” or just “German.” Your comment reminded me of Paul’s writing to friends in Rome, mostly fellow Jews of his, using Greek language (not Latin) but writing of only two kinds: Ἰουδαίῳ τε [πρῶτον] καὶ Ἕλληνι. (Jews [first] but also Greeks). Oh, no. That’s right. Paul also recognized a third class, perhaps the Latin writing Romans, when he said he was under obligation: Ἕλλησιν τε καὶ βαρβάροις, (to Greeks and also to Bar-Bar-ians). 🙂

    Now, in response your other notes:

    While it may be absolutely true that, in discovered and extant texts, “the first explicit reference to Aristotle in Alexandrian Jewish writing is by the 2nd century BCE philosopher Aristobolus of Paneas,” it is quite apparent that the New Testament is full of the sort of rhetoric that ARistotle taught. And the NT plays off the LXX in many instances, rhetorically. Thank you for helping me be clear on this. I’ll try to be more careful to say when I’m hypothesizing that the translation moves of the Septuagint often reflect or work to counteract explicit Aristotelian rhetorical principles. While it seems that Paul and Luke and perhaps the writer of the gospel of John were familiar with Aristotle’s rhetorical teachings, who can say what was in the mind of the LXX translators really? (Kennedy has written a couple of book-length studies of Christian biblical rhetoric. And James L. Kinneavy has written the wonderful Greek Rhetorical Origins of Christian Faith: An Inquiry. But, alas, neither looks much at this from anything other than a “Christian” canonical perspective. And both contemporary rhetorician/historians have neglected the Septuagint from any perspective at all.)

    On the Athenian Constitution, yes, it’s the scholarly consensus, isn’t it, that this work was not really Aristotle’s, though it is attributed to him. (In the work, someone trying to sound like Aristotle makes the tie between the urbane and the political.) Those who study the Rhetoric tend to agree that, although it seems much more likely what Aristotle wrote or spoke, it might just be a collection of lecture notes, perhaps synthesized in ways that Aristotle might not have intended and definitely in places lacking the polish that one would expect of a public treatise. The arguing over the unity of the Rhetoric and the authorship and his rhetorical style continues to be fairly vigorous among scholars and students of rhetoric.

  3. February 21, 2012 2:07 pm

    I understand the points you’ve made before, but I think your phrasing is awkward. Imagine, for example, saying “But political philosophers, African-American thinkers such as Herman Cain, Alan Keyes, and Clarence Thomas, believe that ….”

    While it is undeniably true that Herman Cain, Alan Keyes, and Clarence Thomas have African-American descent, they do not speak for most African-Americans nor is it clear that their racial heritage provides them any special insight.

    (Does being Jewish give one any advantage in studying Jewish history? Whom should we consult: Louis Feldman or Harry A. Wolfson? Jacob Neusner or Peter Schäfer? I’m not convinced.)

    In the case of Seidman; her writings about the Alexandrian Judaism are well outside her main area of interest and competence. For example: she cannot sight-read Greek. As you know, in her Faithful Renderings, she only addresses the “classical” Septuagint briefly in the first chapter and spends most of her time examining old canards such as Isaiah 7:14. By her second chapter she is already into Aquila (which I personally think is a more interesting subject.) While we should certainly listen to Seidman, I would not privilege her readings over your readings or my readings of the Septuagintal literature.

  4. February 21, 2012 2:54 pm

    Fair enough. It helps me to know that you know my intentions.

    I cannot, however, easily agree with your analogy because our blog readers may not be as familiar with the scholarship of two whose works I’ve cited as they are the three people who you’ve listed. The analogy breaks down because I am trying to help our readers; I was not wanting to box in or to racially or religiously or otherwise to profile anybody. But let me try to move toward some agreement with you on this; and when I do, then I think your analogy still may not help. If Cain, Keyes, and Thomas were giving a perspective, say, on Plessy v. Furuson or Brown v. Board of Education, then they might want you to say that they are African Americans — especially since they (more so Keyes and Thomas) have been called not particularly representative of the African American majority in the US.

    Note, this is not what I am doing when saying “historians, Jewish scholars.” I was not calling Seidman or Honingman Jewishness. What I am doing is trying to highlight their perspective in their work; in the case of Seidman in particular, her professional title makes this perspective, this focus on and in the scholarship, most clear. Likewise, with Honigman, I wasn’t trying to say she is Jewish but rather that her perspective on the histories of the Septuagint has a Jewish focus. When it comes to the Septuagint, appropriated by Christianity and mostly studied with any appreciation by scholars as Christian, Honigman’s and Seidman’s scholarship provides an important, yes a Jewish, perspective. In a BLT blogpost, you have referred to “The Jewish Study Bible” and “The Catholic Study Bible.” You’ve written a post you entitled “An unusual Jewish study Bible” and another “Annotated Jewish New Testament first impressions” and another “Jewish Annotated New Testament: Hey Jude.” These Bible titles are not about the Jewishness or the Catholicness of the scholars who produce them but about the perspective of their scholarship.

    Indeed nonetheless I get your point that my “awkward” phrasing might not at all be seen as sensitive to certain readers. My intentions, you know, are not to offend, are not to class people in boxes of race or religion or gender or sexual orientation or any such thing. My intentions, like yours in your “Jewish Annotated New Testament posts,” are to get to scholarly perspectives that are not what are the usual and that are (what other descriptor must we use?) Jewish.

  5. February 21, 2012 4:10 pm

    I was tracking you right up to the last sentence, when you lost me.

    To be clear, the titles Catholic Study Bible, Jewish Study Bible, and Annotated Jewish New Testament were chosen by the publisher (Oxford University Press in all three cases), not by me. And moreover, I think that OUP did in fact wish to imply that the views represented by those Bibles corresponded to mainstream religious thought among Catholic and Jewish scholars. (Moreover, I think that OUP’s implied claim is defensible — for a suitable definition of “mainstream.”)

    Getting back to your last sentence: do you think really think Seideman attempts a “Jewish” reading? Of course, she is Jewish, but it seems to me that she attempts to read the text both from Jewish and Christian perspectives, and attempts to read the text from both ancient and modern perspectives. Thus, although she talks about Aquila, she also talks about Jerome; although she talks about Buber-Rosenzweig, she also talks about Luther; and so on. Her later chapter (about post-Holocaust translation) takes a decidedly Jewish tone, but is she really speaking from a “Jewish” or rather from a “scholarly” perspective in her opening chapters?

    I would compare Seideman’s book with my favorite book on the Seputagintal texts: the Wassersteins’ (pere [Hebrew U.] and fils [Vanderbilt]) The Legend of the Septuagint. The Wassersteins’ book (like Seideman’s) is more about Jewish-Christian relations than a Jewish book. The Wassersteins’ book (like Seideman’s book) attempts to understand both sides. I would guess from their names that the Wassersteins are Jewish, but I don’t see why the same book could not have been written by a Christian (or a non-religious) author.

  6. February 21, 2012 5:31 pm

    she attempts to read the text both from Jewish and Christian perspectives

    Yes, the sub-title of Seidman’s book really suggests this: “Jewish-Christian Difference and the Politics of Translation (Afterlives of the Bible).”

    When one starts in with her book, from the first sentence of the Introduction, a particular focus begins the work, however:

    “My father, Hillel Seidman, arrived in Paris shortly after Liberation along with a flood of Eastern European Jewish refuges.”

    From that point begins a real-life parable of “The Translator as Double Agent,” her father as an insider for his people, using translation to subvert Anti-Semitism. She tells readers:

    I heard this story more than once from my father when I was growing up. For a child, the story reversed the usual exclusions of adult communication, allowing me to hear what others ([non-Jewish] policemen!) were kept [by my Jewish father] from understanding. That thrill alone may explain the genesis of this book, which explores translation as a border zone, a transit station, in which what does not succeed in crossing the border is at least as interesting as what makes it across. This book situates translation between Jewish and non-Jewish languages (and particularly between Jews and Christians) not in the abstractions of linguistic theory but squarely in the contingent political situations in which translation and, inevitably, mistranslation arise. As banal as this insistence might seem, the historical and political dimensions of translation have often remained unacknowledged.

    Notice how Seidman constructs the binary between “Jewish and non-Jewish languages (and particularly between Jews and Christians).” But understand that she’s not giving equal consideration to the Septuagint “text both from Jewish and Christian perspectives.” Rather, she’s much interested in the “historical and political dimensions of translation” that are too often “unacknowledged.” The Christian dimensions are readily acknowledged, even the Christian perspectives on the LXX. Thus Seidman addresses how a “Jewish” dimension might look:

    If evidence for an early Jewish counterhistory of Christianity is slim, the Talmud does present an extraordinary Jewish counternarrative to the patristic Septuagint legends (which themselves, of course, are variations on the Jewish Septuagint romances of Aristeas and Philo)…. The [Church] Fathers imagine the Jewish translators as passive channels of God’s message to the world; in the [contrastive] talmudic account God works to keep certain things between the Jews and himself, not only sanctioning Jewish conspiracy but taking the role of conspirator-in-chief. In this regard, the talmudic rewriting of the [Christian] patristic Septuagint legend is a trickster text: the [Jewish] translator is a trickster, who in folklore ‘represents the weak, whose wit can at times achieve ambiguous victories against the powers of the strong.’ Not only does the Talmud present the composition of the Septuagint as an elaborate Jewish trick, it also describes the passages in the Hebrew Bible itself as a ‘hidden transcript,’ the private discourse of a minority culture.

    Does the “Wassersteins’ book (like Seideman’s book) attempts to understand both sides”? That would presuppose incorrectly that Seidman’s book is really attempting to do that. As you know, the Wassersteins are interested in understanding whether the most common legend of the Septuagint is Jewish or Christian and how it is that, ultimately, it is Christian. They say, for example (on pages 68-9):

    This leaves us with one explanation. The miracle story was fashioned in Palestine, in rabbinic circles, and the invention fits into a very narrow span of time, within the period between the destruction of the Temple and the Bar Kokhba revolt, … that is to say between ca. 80 and 117 C.E….

    If this explanation is right, then we have reached a very paradoxical conclusion. The most powerful argument used by the Christian Church in favour of the inspiration of the Greek Bible is based on a story fashioned in the workshop of rabbinic aggada, interpretation of the Bible, homiletics, designed to underpin the same version that was soon to be used for Christian anti-Jewish polemics.

    I think it may be worth our noting that David J. Wasserstein at Vanderbilt is “Professor of History” and “Eugene Greener, Jr. Professor of Jewish Studies” and also “Professor of Classics” with noted interests in “Medieval Islamic history; medieval Jewish studies; Islam in Spain; Islamic numismatics; minorities in the Islamic world.” And the late Abraham Wasserstein was Professor of Classics at Leicester University and later held the same position at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where so few students were interested in studying classical Greek with him that he found himself traveling to and teaching the Hellene language at the University of Tel Aviv.

    I agree with you that Seidman’s and the Wasserstein’s respective books could have “been written by a Christian (or a non-religious) author.” Nonetheless, one of these scholars has started with her Jewish father’s story to frame her understanding of the peculiarly Jewish understanding of the Septuagint legend in the Talmud. And two of these scholars have academic posts that suggest they are responsible for doing “Jewish Studies.” Any one of them could be a “Christian (or a non-religious) author” anyway, given these facts.

    In the case of Seidman, especially, the point is not her individual Jewishness at all but her thesis (as a scholar doing Jewish scholarhsip) that Jewish translation, especially the translation of the Hebrew scriptures into Greek, has a “Jewish” history (different from and subversive of “non-Jewish” perspectives, even Christian perspectives). Yes, a Christian too could write in support of this “Jewish” thesis (and a non-religious person also).

  7. February 21, 2012 8:40 pm

    But notice that both the Wassersteins and Seidman, in the passages you cite, are interested in the same topic: the “legend of the Septuagint.” They reach different conclusions: Seidman talks a trickster variation going in this direction:

    Church Fathers -> Rabbis

    while the Wassersteins talk about a variation going in this direction:

    Rabbis -> Church Fathers

    (In fact, both Seidman and especially the Wassersteins have a somewhat more sophisticated presentation that what you quoted and I what a give here, but this does not main change my main point which is):

    Both are concerned with the reception history of the “Septuagint” (and how its origins were cast) rather than with the Septuagintal writings as we possess them today or as we can best attempt to recreate them in their original state.


    As to the thesis that there is a difference between Jewish translation and Gentile translation of Scriptures — isn’t that ignoring the elephant in the room? The big difference is between ancient translations and Reformation translations? I don’t think that {Aquila, Onkelos, Jerome} can really be compared with {Luther, Tyndale} at all (while, on the other hand, contemporary translations can certainly be compared with early modern pioneers such as Luther and Tyndale — the vast majority of German and English Bibles still read like Luther and Tyndale, in fact!)

    Ancient and modern motivations and methods were completely different.

    Arguably a modern Jewish voice to translations emerged in the 19th and early 20th centuries among German and Yiddish translations; and the techniques they developed were different from Christian translators, but this occured much later than (and in reaction to) Christian translators. (I’ll have to develop this point later, in a review of 19th and 20th century German Jewish translations of the Bible.) You can hardly draw a straight line between the Septuagint translators and Buber-Rosenzweig — B-R readily admit that they were more influenced by Luther!


    Now, I want to make a couple of points here. First is the massive ignorance of the Septuagint among well educated Christians (and Jews). Ask a typical (well-educated) Christian or Jew — even a clergy member — “what is the difference between the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint?” (I’m going to pretend that a single “Septuagint” exists for this hypothetical question) and she might answer:

    * The Masoretic Text is in Hebrew while the Septuagint is in Greek.
    * The Septuagint includes the Apocrypha/Deuterocanon and the Masoretic Text does not.
    * Isaiah 7:14 is different.
    * The Greek New Testament quotes from the Septuagint

    etc. In other words, other than Isaiah 7:14 and the differences in the canon, even most well-educated people do not realize the difference in the two texts.

    This is even true, to my surprise, among many Eastern Christians who nominally have the Septuagint as formal scripture.


    And who can blame them? Really — for example — consider the Spartan Letters (1 Maccabees 12:19-23; see also 2 Maccabees 5:9). How are we to understand the claim that the Jews and Spartans have a common Abrahamic descent? That’s just embarrassing all around.


    Finally, it is a little unfair to pick on the elder Wasserstein for having lightly attended Greek classes. At my university — at most universities — enrollment in Classics classes is substantially down. We have about 45 Ph.D. students in the Classics — but we also have about 45 faculty in that subject. That’s actually the worst ratio of any major department on my campus. Most universities have even fewer faculty and students.

    And it is universal. You can take an College Board Advanced Placement exam in Chinese, English, French, Italian, Japanese, Spanish — and even Latin — but you cannot take one in Greek. Let’s face it — although it was once a standard subject, Greek has been neglected by many students.

    There are a few successful Greek professors at primarily-Jewish institutions (the late Louis Feldman comes to mind), but the situation in the humanities in Israeli universities tend to be somewhat uneven. There is some good work on topics related Hebrew, Jewish studies, Arabic, Islamic studies, etc., but…

    f you are studying French literature or Scandinavian studies or Chinese history or — Classical Greek — you may not want to go to Israel to study.

  8. February 21, 2012 8:56 pm

    Incidentally, given your distaste for Alexander, I think you would enjoy (strike that: I mean “be enraged by”) Ory Amitay’s new book From Alexander to Jesus which argues that the figure of Jesus was largely based on the legends surrounding Alexander. (You will recall that Alexander claimed to be a direct descendent of the god Heracles.) It might be interesting for you to find the points of disagreements with Amitay’s thesis.

    You can preview it at Amazon and Google Books. Here is a mixed review for your amusement.

  9. February 22, 2012 12:35 pm

    Thanks for the expansive comments!

    I like your necessarily brief summary of how the Wassersteins and Seidman do similar things in opposite directions, with the clarification that the LXX in their histories is not necessarily the set of texts we have today.

    Let me come back to the “elephant in the room” of “difference… between ancient translations and Reformation translations.”

    Yes, I couldn’t agree with you more about how little is known or recognized about the LXX and the MT and their difference, how little among those who should know better.

    I have to confess I pay little attention to the Spartan Letters these days; didn’t Sir William Smith put this hoax to rest in his Dictionary of the Bible of 1872 in which he says, “come on now” [my paraphrase there], and goes on to list how awfully improbable the claims?

    Right, the decline of Greek studies is universal. Even more unfortunate is the fact that, where it is studied, seems to be in the specific context of New Testament studies, in which very little of the LXX and of the classic Greek texts is looked at if any at all!

    I laughed out loud reading your comment about my reading Ory Amitay’s new book From Alexander to Jesus. By the way, isn’t he giving talks these days on the “Spartan letters”? So his thesis of his book: “… that the Jesus memeplex replicated a great many memes adopted and developed first by Alexander the living person, and after his death by the mythical memeplex which he had created.” So it’s Abba Herakles? Virgin Mother Olympias (and earthly step father King Phillip II as a prototype of Joseph who dodges King Herod)? And, yes, of course, 33 years old is the perfect age to die. Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh my!

    Now, back to the “elephant in the room.” You are quite right to point to the difference between translations of the ancients and translations by the Christian reformers and how these sorts of translations have been received, as texts and as models for further translation.

    My interest, I have to say again, is in the rhetorical where that intersects translation. Aristotle, Alexander the Great’s greatest tutor, taught a very prescribed Greek. His notion of rhetoric made it the counterpart of Socrates’ (or perhaps the woman Asapasia’s) dialectic. Both species of Greek communication and knowledge making, to Aristotle, were inferior to his invention that he term logic. But even his rhetoric gave little place to and offered much disparagement of women, sophists, parablists (or fable tellers), non-Greeks (or barbarians, some such as Libyans were named), lesser Greeks (such as the non-Athenian Lacedemonians or Spartans), and so forth; his Rhetoric and other works of rhetorical theory completely ignore or attempt to bury what we might call methods of “rhetoric before Aristotle.” What I’m getting to here is the diversity of Greek rhetorics, the diversity in Greek language, that Aristotle was attempting to control. Granted, his theory has plenty of variation and a well-documented hierarchical map of technical terms and forms and techniques. But Aristotle calls out and diaallows the Greek of many of his predessors and his contemporaries.

    Alexander, I think it’s fair to say, carried out Aristotle’s project of circumscribing what it meant to be Greek and to use Greek language. I’m not sure I have a particular distaste for this marauder especially, and I think we all owe him appreciation for giving his world at the time a lingua france (however forced) that endures in some form today. But post-ARistotle, there’s been a need to do much recovery of methods. Scholars such as Krista Ratcliffe (investigating “rhetorical listening”), Anne Carson (explicating Aristotelian difference in Greek terms and rhetorics when applied to others such as women, catamites, and barbarians), and Michelle Ballif (exploring the implications of the either/or binary of Aristotle for composition), for example, have noted the impact of Aristotle’s prescriptivism.

    Coming back to translation, then, I think the Septuagint, if it’s a trickster translation, works in the Alexandrian shadow in subversion to the domination of the dominant culture. Who knows how aware the translators were of Aristotle’s prescriptions or of Alexander’s implementations of them. The interesting thing is that the Jewish community lived in Alexandria, translating in a post-slavery context where the empire actually promoted (Aristotle style) slavery. This minority group had been marked, once upon a time, as slaves; and now the doctrine of the official state had an imperial endorsement to re-enslave as logic and politics would deem necessary.

    The “Jewish” focus that Seidman gives this ancient translation method of trickersterism does not necessarily suggest that this sort of translating is inherently Jewish. In the United States, in the early 1800s, the Cherokee Nation would use translation to keep at bay the Euro-Americans threatening their land and their livelihood. I blogged on this just a bit here. The rhetorics of obscuring information are also employed in different parts of the world at different times by different peoples. If one looks at what George A. Kennedy attempted with his Comparative Rhetoric and at the body of literature on what’s been called “contrastive rhetoric” (in applied linguistics), then I believe much already has been identified. (Ironically, I’ll say as an aside, I think that Luther’s method of translation — as much as he despised Aristotle — is a very Aristotelian sort of approach; it is highly ethnocentric and extremely, shall we say, aggressive in its mission.)

  10. February 22, 2012 1:51 pm

    Regarding the Spartan Letters: You are certainly correct that the most widely held scholarly view is that they are forgeries (or likely forgeries). However, I think that they cannot be quite so easily dismissed. The theory I favor is that of Louis Feldman, who holds (on pp. 196 and 197 of his excellent Studies in Hellenistic Judaism) that it was a clever political move by the Jews to achieve respectability in the eyes of Rome. Really, I think that Feldman’s theory is both simple and cleans up all the loose ends.

    (I do want to recommend Feldman’s book to you. It is absurdly expensive [the list price is $435] but it has a number of sober and reasonable essays. I would particularly commend to you the essays “Is the New Testament Anti-Semitic?”, “Pro-Jewish Intimations in Tacitus’ Account of Jewish Origins,” “Torah and Secular Culture: Challenge and Response in the Hellenistic Period,” and the essay I just mentioned in the above paragraph, from “Pro-Jewish intimations in Anti-Jewish Remarks Cited in Josephus’ Against Apion” — which despite its droll title, begins with a blockbuster paragraph:

    One of the greatest puzzles that has confronted students of the history of “anti-Semitism” is the alleged shift from pro-Jewish statements found in the pagan writers who mention Jews in the fourth and third centuries BCE — Aristotle, Theophrastus, Hecataeus of Abdera, Megasthenes, and Clearchus of Soli — to vicious anti-Jewish statements thereafter, starting with Manetho about 270 BCE. After that point, the picture usually painted is one of universal and virulent anti-Judaism

    The first two footnotes to that paragraph (which take up almost two pages) are excellent as well.

    One of the thing I most appreciate about Feldman is his openness to hearing ancient voices, and not automatically reacting in horror and shock over the various “politically incorrect” sentiments made by ancients. Thus, unlike many Jewish readers of the New Testament, he is able to read a generally positive view of Judaism in the New Testament works, despite some very negative sentences; similarly with ancient pagan sources.)


    You are right that Ory Amitay is going around giving lectures about the Spartan Letters, and when I googled him (my own form of primitve fact checking) I saw that and it inspired my comment above. But I don’t know what Amitay’s view on the subject is; in fact, I would rather read Amitay than listen to him talk — so I’ll wait for his essay to appear in print. I have some more comments about his book (which is quite clever although not convincing) that I may reserve for a future review.


    I understand your program in examining the Septuagintal texts, and I think it is fascinating. However (and this is something that I may not have expressed as well as I could have in my last message) is that your notion of a “trickster” text and Seidman’s notion of a “trickster” text are quite different — Seidman (on page 63 and 72) is talking about the framing of the legend of the story of the Septuagint rather than texts themselves. You, on the other hand, are addressing the texts themselves. This is an enormous difference: many of the “Old Greek” Septuagintal texts are presumed to predate the Common Era; but Seidman’s “tricksters” are reacting to the Christian appropriation of the Septuagintal texts.

    At the time of the redaction of the Babylonian Talmud, Hellenistic Judaism had long since vanished. The view of the Talmuds was one of outsiders looking on a failed secular-Jewish project. It is with this background that Seidman describes her “trickster” moves. And in that sense, Seidman’s arguments are coherent — the rabbis had an enormous challenge in explaining this deeply influential translation which was being actively used against the Jews.

    You are arguing for a more ambitious topic, though. You are arguing here that (at least some of) the Septuagint translators were subversives, subtly critiquing the secular culture which the Hellenistic Jews were integrating with. The motivations here are more complicated — if Hellenistic Judaism (as it would later be portrayed) was a fifth column within the Jewish movement, then were these subversive translators a fifth column inside the fifth column? While your work is necessarily more speculative, it is also ultimately more rewarding, since you are noticing deep connections in the Greek texts (as we have them today) and giving a much more nuanced and complex view of a group that is often marginalized or demonized in later mainstream Jewish thought.

  11. February 22, 2012 2:44 pm

    Feldman’s book is in the library across the street from where I am, so I’ll get by there soon and very much look forward to reading it! Thank you for the notice, the summary, and the preview. (I might wait for the library to buy Amitay’s book too rather than purchasing it for myself.)

    What drew me into Seidman’s book in the first place is her telling of the story of translation that her father told her and others through the years. And how she rather astutely looks at what the English translation of Wiesel’s Night does differently from the Yiddish is fascinating. Yes, I realize she’s framing the history of the legend of the translation of the Hebrew scriptures into Hellene, But there are her sentences and clauses like this one — “Not only does the Talmud present the composition of the Septuagint as an elaborate Jewish trick, it also describes the passages in the Hebrew Bible itself as a ‘hidden transcript,’ the private discourse of a minority culture.” And this one — “the translator is a trickster.” (Again, it’s the rhetoric that a translator, knowing both languages, can achieve that is of interest. When I read how George Steiner and how C. S. Lewis both read the rhetoric of Jesus, and of Paul too, this makes me wonder something neither literary critic chooses to address at all when talking about how difficult Jesus and Paul are to understand; neither Lewis nor Steiner get at how much of the gospel writers’s rhetoric as translators [in the case of Paul, how much of Luke writing Acts] is the translator’s tricky rhetoric. I wonder this about the riddles that Tom Thatcher attributes to Jesus in Jesus the Riddler; at least this scholar suggests by his subtitle – The Power of Ambiguity in the Gospels – that it’s more than just the direct rhetoric of Jesus at play, although Thatcher says nothing about the translators of Aramaic speech to written Greek.)

    I appreciate your evaluation of my argument. Yes, it’s pretty ambitious to track down and to uncover, to recover, history and texts and rhetorical methods that may not be very much part of our Western, European mindset today.

  12. February 22, 2012 2:54 pm

    One correction — at one point above I described Feldman as “late” — but he is not dead! (In fact, he is not even retired.) He did, however, recently celebrate his 85th birthday.

  13. February 22, 2012 11:22 pm

    Just wanted to pop in & say how much I am enjoying your exchange here — not following all of the details, but it’s all so interesting. Thanks! 🙂

  14. February 23, 2012 5:25 pm

    Theophrastus – thanks for making the correction about Feldman. He more than the rest of us I’m sure must appreciate it.

    Victoria – Glad you’re following the exchange. One nice thing about blogging is how public it can be. But, as you can see, it also shows to the world how much I have yet to learn. This sort of dialectic really helps me, and I’m happy that you find it interesting. Yes, not all of the details are either easy to follow or are really worth tracking. (You might notice that the conversation inspired yet another post today.)


  1. Jewish Bible Translation as Resistance: An Example in the Diaspora « BLT
  2. Breast-God: women in the male literary imagination of Genesis 49 | BLT
  3. Reading Womanly Sex in Shakespeare, Donne, and the Greek translator(s) of the Song of Solomon? | BLT

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 )

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: