Wagner, the “Sealed Book” and LXX Translation

Wagner and the Sealed Book

In this post I want to preempt a book review I am working on of J. Ross Wagner. Reading the Sealed Book: Reading Old Greek Isaiah and the Problem of Septuagint Hermeneutics. FAT 88. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck / Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2013. Pp. xi + 295. ISBN 978-3-16-152557-5. €99.00 (hardcover). There is so much to talk about in this book, a review of it is almost impossible without vastly understating its contents. What I wish to focus on here, however, is his introductory material where Wagner discusses common approaches to LXX interpretation, or hermeneutics. While this may sound arcane, it is actually quite relevant for the LXX novice, since each of the (now four) major modern translations of the Septuagint take a different approach to their work based on their answer to the question: “How should we translate this translation?”

If you are interested in LXX studies, you need to know about this debate, since it is foundational to almost everything else in the discipline. What I will do here is highlight some of Wagner’s introductory material and interject my own “translation” of the technical details for a less familiar audience. This will pair nicely, I hope, with the series I’m working through right now on the major contemporary LXX translation projects (see this initial post).

Production & Reception

Wagner defines “LXX hermeneutics” as both “how to characterize the translators own interpretation of his source [text]” and “how a modern reader is to interpret the translated text” (2n8). This definition encapsulates the two central issues at almost every point in LXX studies, namely production and reception. The first – production – deals with the hypothetical Jew who sat down one day (or week or month) to actually translate (i.e. produce) a book of Hebrew scripture into Koine Greek; what was he looking at in his source text, what did he understand as he read, what did he mean by the words he wrote?

The second issue – reception – deals with what anyone else did with the translation he produced, whether that be read it, interpret it, apply it, translate it (again), and so forth, regardless of whether this agrees with the translator’s intentions. In other words, good LXX scholarship differentiates between what the translator read and understood and meant in his translation on Day 1 from what some later reader of the translation reads or understands (rightly or wrongly) on Day ‘n’. The first is difficult to prove, and the second is difficult to defend, unless that reader is you.

Two Questions in Translation

Two questions need answering in the face of the difficulty. First, we must ask to what degree “the textual-linguistic character of the LXX/OG translations conforms to target-language models” (3). In other words, how did the translator’s work stack up against original Greek literary compositions in his own day? To what degree were they similar or different, and how?

How would the LXX have compared to Greek works in the Library of Alexandria?

With this first question, we are on one level dealing with the perceived competency of the LXX translator(s) for their task, regardless of their intent. This question is primarily descriptive in terms of the qualities of the Greek itself. Part of what makes answering this question so difficult is that there are plenty of places where the Greek of the LXX is basically incomprehensible as Greek, yet because we know the Hebrew text “behind” that translation we can make sense of it as a translation of Hebrew. On the other hand, there are plenty of instances where the LXX translation is fabulous Greek as Greek (meaning in terms of stylistic flair and tone), yet it departs from the Hebrew (at least as we have it in the Masoretic Text).

At this point we have bumped into the second question that needs answering (they are related, but distinct), namely the intended relationship between Greek and Hebrew texts. In other words, was the Greek translation meant to stand on its own two feet? Or was it meant to be read always with the Hebrew original in hand (or at least in mind)?

On one side some scholars say the Greek text exists to serve its Hebrew “parent” text, and to represent it as accurately as possible for the Greek-speaking audience who (possibly) no longer knew Hebrew. Other scholars, however, view the LXX as an independent text, distinct from its Hebrew “parent” and aiming to interpret it for the Greek-speaking audience. Does the Greek translation of a given book of the Hebrew OT “mirror” the Hebrew (e.g., in word count, word order syntax, tone, etc.)? Is it the Hebrew text in “Greek clothing”? Or is it crafted to represent the Hebrew and pay more attention to easy Greek reading and style? Clearly translator competency comes into play meaningfully in these answers.

Yet another way to ask the second question is whether 1) the translation aims to preserve the textual form of the Hebrew at the expense of being good Greek (text-centered approach), or 2) the translation aims to preserve the textual meaning of the Hebrew with less concern for textual “shape” (reader-centered approach). The former views the Hebrew text as central, the latter the Greek reader as central. The former understands the LXX to be a means of preserving the Hebrew, while the latter understands it to be a means of conveying the Hebrew.

Modern LXX Translations

As we will see in the following posts in the Contemporary LXX Translation Project series, these are the main contours that will differentiate the various projects. Stay tuned for further refining and clarification! I will probably post my full review of Wagner eventually as well.


  1. Thanks, Will. This is a v. helpful discussion and explanation (and has obvious implications for all translators).

    I wonder to what extent the conversation about this question is indebted to modern theories about *Bible* translation–the debate over “free” v. “literal”, for example–which are largely non-existent in the far larger world of literary translation in general (cf. Raffel, Biguenet & Schulte, et al.).

    Thanks again–I look forward to the full review.

    1. I think there is certainly a degree of indebtedness to modern theories of Bible translation and a lack of awareness of wider translation studies. Thankfully, though, more and more LXX scholars (at least from what I am seeing in Europe) are moving away from the false dichotomy of “literal v. free.” At this point, I think the only serious LXX scholarship that still consistently works with those categories in Europe is at Leuven. Outside of that, you will find more nuanced conversations and descriptions. Sometimes, you’ll even hear someone interacting with modern translation theory!

      1. Chris, have you met or ever been in touch with James Mulroney? He was at the IOSCS congress last summer and is just finishing at Edinburgh, working on translation in LXX-Habakkuk. From my conversation with him (and not having read his dissertation, obviously), I believe he would qualify as one of the scholars working with broader translation studies. I can put you in touch with him if you like.

  2. Thank you for the post, Will. I am looking forward to your review. I had been planning on reviewing Wagner’s book as well, but I have, unfortunately, had to lay it aside in order to focus on the final PhD push!

    I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts. From what I read in Wagner, there was much to appreciate and much to argue against!

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