Peter Williams on the so-called “Septuagint”

Not too long ago it was conference season for biblical scholars everywhere. Now we are all feeling the afterglow of Christmas and the saccharine lull until the New Year begins. With that subdued state in mind, I thought I would post something a bit more lively and entertaining (which is not to say uninformative!).

As you may recall, the 2016 ETS Septuagint Studies consultation had a stellar line-up. One of our panelists was Dr. Peter J. Williams of Tyndale House, Cambridge. Pete was recently given the scholastic title “Principal” of Tyndale House, which I must say conjures up slightly more benign imagery than his previous title, “Warden.” Thankfully, Pete is as personally congenial as he is academically rigorous, which is why our steering committee asked him to contribute to the 2016 panel.

“The” Septuagint

I often tease Pete for being a tinfoil-hat conspiracy theorist when it comes to the Septuagint, since he is often heard denying its existence. But really, Pete’s hyperbole on this point betrays the fact that he is more aware than most of what we (think we) mean when we say “Septuagint,” and the manifold problems that the term itself entails.

The video below is a recording of his lecture at the 2016 Septuagint Studies session, “On the Invention and Problem of the Term ‘Septuagint’,” in which he presents the fascinating history of the word itself and the concept(s) associated with it. And, of course, Pete does this with characteristic flair.

So grab one more glass of eggnog and enjoy Pete’s lecture!

11 comments

  1. Thank you for the video, very fascinating. It seems that you are in favor of continuing to use the term Septuagint to refer to the Greek translations of the Hebrew Old Testament (please correct me if I am wrong). It is strange to me that so much scholarship is spent on arguing over the terms we use (original-text, autograph, variant-reading, etc.). I do understand the importance of using precise terminology, and PJ William’s lecture was very revealing as to the imprecision of the term Septuagint, but it seems that we could argue ad infinitum over terminology (it reminds me of arguments over “politically-correct-terminology” in the states) without the conversation getting anywhere and both parties talking past each other. What are our thoughts on the use of the term Septuagint?

    1. Personally I have no problem using “Septuagint” (and do all over this blog) anticipating that others know what I mean. However, any time I start to write an academic article or think about Septuagint for research purposes, much greater detail and definition is required. Pete is calling attention to the fact that we need to clarify what we are referring to – even as he protests “Septuagint” as inherently a virtuous, which it is from every perspective but the layman’s.

  2. All ribbing aside, I am impressed at the economy of speech in getting “Septuagint” down to three (three and a quarter?) syllables… and am looking forward to watching what I’m sure will be an interesting lecture!

  3. While Dr. Williams is obviously arguing there is no definitive/singular Septuagint translation and there is reason to believe the apocrypha was gradually added by the Catholic Church, what does this imply for the New Testament then? How do we know with certainty that the New Testament manuscripts were not been altered to fit the Catholic Church’s theology?

    1. I think you are conflating a few concepts in this question. One of Williams’ major points (as you recognize) is there is no ‘it’ — no singular, unified ‘Septuagint.’ Some of the major codices in which deutero-canonical/apocryphal books appear are Greek translations, but none of them are ‘the’ Septuagint nor were they called that by anyone who used them, Catholics or otherwise. So it’s a category error to say “the apocrypha was gradually added by the Catholic Church.” Added to what? Bound into a codex alongside the canonical books? Sure. But any individual codex does not represent ‘the’ Septuagint (again, because there was/is no Septuagint in that sense). I’m not sure I really understand the second part of your question about the New Testament. We do know that some manuscripts were altered to make them sound more theologically orthodox (the Johannine comma is a notorious example). Most (all?) of these are well known and can be dealt with through textual criticism. But most citations of the Greek Old Testament by New Testament authors don’t have any real theological thrust to them that could be construed as distinctly ‘Catholic.’

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