LXX Scholar Interview: Dr. James K. Aitken

Today I have the pleasure of posting an interview with my doctoral supervisor, James K. Aitken, as a part of my ongoing series of LXX Scholar Interviews. Jim is lecturer in Hebrew, Old Testament, and Second Temple Studies at the University of Cambridge (and currently taking doctoral students). We have been working together since October 2014 and I have benefited immensely from his supervision, despite the various logistical problems we’ve had in the meantime!

As you will read about below, Jim is also quite active in the Septuagint guild and has contributed several key publications in the last few years. He brings a unique set of interests and expertise to the field and is in the midst of producing work that will certainly generate significant discussion within both Septuagint and Second Temple scholarly circles.

The Interview

1) Can you describe how you first became interested in LXX studies, and your training in the discipline?

My movement to Septuagint is a long and twisting story. I did as a teenager have a copy of the LXX (Brenton’s version only) since I was able to read Greek, but I only dipped into it.
My initial training was in the field of Classics, taking a BA in Classics and an MA by thesis on Euripides (both at the University of Durham). As I had taught myself Hebrew out of linguistic interest, Robert Hayward, a College tutor at the time, suggested I take a qualification in Hebrew and so I took the course-work of the MA in Hebrew at the same time as the MA on Euripides.

When looking for a PhD topic the aim was to combine these two specialisations, and therefore the second temple period was suggested as a bridge between Classics and Hebrew studies. I opted for Ben Sira and the plan at that point had been to work on the Greek version of it. However, in the 1990s there was still much focus in LXX on statistical analysis and Ben Wright’s detailed study of Sirach had recently been published. I therefore quickly decided to work on the Hebrew text and had one chapter on the Greek, which was perfunctory and provisional. The thesis placed Ben Sira in his time and in the tradition of Jewish biblical exegesis. After PhD I worked on a Hebrew semantics project, which taught me issues in lexicography and allowed me to further my knowledge of Hebrew. During this time I published some brief papers on Septuagint words and language as I gradually learnt more about the field.

2) How have you participated in the discipline over the course of your teaching and writing career? 

After working on Hebrew semantics I finally returned to Septuagint full-time. My background in Classics, knowledge of second temple Judaism and experience in lexicography made me suited for working on a project at the University of Reading (The Greek Bible in the Graeco-Roman World), under the directorship of Tessa Rajak and Sarah Pearce. This examined the historical contextualisation of the Septuagint, including the use of words that had an import in Graeco-Roman society. Throughout this time I have also learned much from discussions with Jenny Dines (also on the project), John Lee and Trevor Evans, as well as colleagues in the SBL Biblical Lexicography Session.

My focus has been to interpret the LXX based on its text-linguistic character, language being for me a sure means of exegesis and a window into the socio-historical background. I am keen to see a proper analysis of the Greek as a starting point for understanding the translation, as well as a proper contextualisation of the translation in its time – which means sensitive readings of Second Temple Judaism and the Egyptian context.

Most of my publications have been in the form of papers, although some book projects are underway (see below). Recently published books are No Stone Unturned: Greek Inscriptions and Septuagint Vocabulary (Eisenbrauns, 2014) and The T&T Clark Companion to the Septuagint (Bloomsbury, 2015) [available soon on Logos].

3) How have you integrated LXX studies into your work as a professor?

The Septuagint is not a particular feature of my undergraduate teaching. It has a passing mention in courses on Hellenistic Judaism, but is probably too technical for anything more. At the Masters level I give one seminar on the Septuagint, and it is only at PhD that I can begin to introduce it more. In the UK system this is primarily in supervising PhD students, whom I am willing to supervise on topics such as the language and vocabulary of the Septuagint, and the exegesis of particular books. I try to run optional seminars sometimes on Septuagint related topics that Graduate students may attend, or reading classes on Greek texts, including papyri.

I would like to develop more Graduate training in the LXX, since there are many areas to master that a student ought to have competence in before tackling a PhD in the area. These include the manuscript history, text-criticism, both the Greek and Hebrew languages, documentary sources in Greek, history of second temple Judaism, etc.

4) How has the field changed since you’ve been involved and what would you like to see change?

In core elements the field has not changed. Certainly the number of people working in the field has grown and there seems to be even greater interest in the LXX now than ever. The field is having something of a revival, in a manner similar (as my colleague suggested to me) to targumic studies that saw a spate of activity after the discovery of Neofiti. I am not sure why LXX has become so popular recently (both for those doing it and for those wishing to read about it) but I wonder if the need to find new areas in biblical studies, and its importance for NT and early Christian theology have given rise to the surge. It is now cooler to be a LXX scholar than when I started, although it is still seen as a specialized side avenue of biblical studies.

One inevitable change is that some aspects receive greater emphasis now than others before, but I would not wish to minimize the questions asked by previous generations. Understandably more attention is being given to reception history; to the theological import of books; and to translation theory. At the same time an important recognition is that the LXX is not a secondary text of the bible but at times the prime witness to the literary history of the biblical text (see, for example, the work of K. de Troyer or J. Joosten).

What I would like to see more of is greater attention to the details. That is to say, while there is a greater focus on the intentions of the translator or the place of the translation in its historical context, that very historical context is often presented as a self-evident fact that can be stated. Thus, those who argue for historical contextualization often do it with little attention to the historical sources we have, and therefore derive grand conclusions from nothing or from an understanding of second temple Judaism that is insufficient or outdated. It would be fair to say that if we are to properly contextualize LXX books, as much time needs to be spent on historical analysis as on translation technique. I rarely see that done as yet.

One reason for the poor contextualization is that the evidence of the LXX is slight and tenuous, and it needs to be treated carefully. Those wishing to produce a thesis, often in the course of a limited PhD dissertation, tend to force the evidence towards a large conclusion, tottering on slender foundations. Significant conclusions of a historical or theological kind can only be built up from a large base of evidence, perhaps derived from more years of study than possible in a PhD.

5) For the benefit of graduate students who are potentially interested in LXX studies in doctoral work, what in your opinion are underworked areas and topics in need of further research?

I do not think there is any area that is overworked in LXX studies, so that any aspect of the field is possible. Currently for most books of the LXX, there has been only one or two monographs in the past century – an enviable position in biblical studies! Some books have now received more attention (Isaiah, Psalms, Minor Prophets) but there is still plenty to do even for them. So, a student may pick any book and still have plenty to say.

My overall answer is naturally to do the sorts of things that I do. First, there is still much to say about the language of the LXX, or of individual books. This should be a fundamental for the characterisation of a translation: the idioms used, the translation choices, the register of the vocabulary, the extent of neologisms, the use of Greek of the time, and so on. Attention to the evidence from papyri and inscriptions would help to elucidate some of these questions.

Second, we are still learning to appreciate the subtlety of the translation technique, and studies that examine the evidence carefully while thinking about translation issues and theory (and not just reading G. Toury) could take us much further.

Third, the relations between translations is an important but neglected indicator. Some studies have examined the use of the Pentateuch by later translations and others have considered the issue of intertextuality, but more needs to be done in placing the translations in their streams of tradition. They were not isolated individuals approaching a particular book but part of a tradition both of interpretation of the Hebrew and of the method of translation.

Fourth, as I have already mentioned, placing the translations within the history of Judaism, in their historical and theological contexts, is much needed. Most books on Hellenistic Judaism do not even mention the LXX, and it is the job of LXX scholars to place the translations better within their time period so that historians can learn from the intricacies of the discipline.

6) What current projects in Septuagint are you working on?

I have been working on a monograph for some years, and I hope I am nearing completion, on Greek Ecclesiastes and Jewish Cultural Identity. This examines the question as to why anyone would translate Ecclesiastes in the first place, and shows how we can interpret even a highly ‘literalistic’ translation through attention to the Greek.

My other project is a study of how and why the LXX Pentateuch was written (The Making of the Septuagint), looking at the physicality of the working method and the multilingual context in Egypt in which it was undertaken.

I am also on the editorial Board of the Historical and Theological Lexicon of the Septuagint (ed. E. Bons and J. Joosten) and wish to spend time in the coming years reading the submissions for that.

7) What is the future of Septuagint studies?

More people than ever are involved such that there is a greater market out there for research in the field. It will be important in the future for the results of our research to be integrated into second temple Judaism and even in Classics, as much as they are gradually being integrated into Hebrew Bible studies.

Wrapping Up

My thanks to Jim for his time and willingness to complete this interview. Hopefully the range of scholars I have selected is beginning to paint a more inviting picture for the field of Septuagint, and giving my readers some ideas for their own participation in it. Stay tuned for the next interview with Cameron Boyd-Taylor in due course.

15 comments

  1. An interesting project! Will there be interviews with some of the “senior scholars” who are still active, such as Emanuel Tov or Anneli Aejmelaeus, or Al Pietersma? I would have loved to hear John Wevers’ reactions to such questions, but now it is too late. Is it time for a “master list” of important interviewees?

    1. Dr. Kraft, I have a few others lined up for interview (see here), but I would love further suggestions. Do send your Master List either by comment or email (WilliamRoss27@gmail.com), and let me know if you would be interested in an interview yourself.

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