International Septuagint Day 2020: An Interview with the Editors of the Lexham English Septuagint

Today is indeed a very special day, for it is the 14th glorious iteration of International Septuagint Day! If you have no clue what I’m talking about, you can read all kinds of tidbits that I’ve written in the past number of years on this festive occasion:

ISD 2019    |    ISD 2018    |    ISD 2017    |    ISD 2016    |    ISD 2015    |    ISD 2014

The short version is, at some point Robert Kraft noticed that February 8th is the only date we know of as being historically related to the Greek Scriptures. In a document dating to February 8th, 533 C.E. the Emperor Justinian announced permission for public reading of Jewish Scriptures in the Roman Empire. He proclaims his approval of any language, but where Greek is used he states that

“those who use Greek shall use the text of the seventy interpreters [i.e. the LXX], which is the most accurate translation, and the one most highly approved…”

So this fine day has been marked as a worldwide celebration ever since 2006, at least it has among the fine folks within the International Organization for Septuagint and Cognate Studies (IOSCS).

But this International Septuagint day is particularly special, since it is graced by the very recent publication of an entirely new translation of the Septuagint into English, the Lexham English Septuagint (2nd ed.; Lexham Press 2020). I was fortunate enough to be able to send some interview questions to two of the main editors involved, Rick Brannan and Ken Penner.

If you haven’t heard much about the so-called LES, it’s worth reading the product description here (or see here) before diving into the interview.

Upcoming Drawing for a Free Copy!

Before we go any further, I need to make sure you know that, in a subsequent post, I will be drawing out some points of contrast between LES and NETS to demonstrate some of the differences in method. Not only that, but I will be offering three free copies in a drawing, so be sure to check in for that in the near future.

The Interview

Just to get this out of the way: Is the published LES the same thing as the digital edition available on Logos?

[Rick] The “published” (print) LES is the second edition. The LES that has been available for Logos Bible Software for years is now known as the first edition. Faithlife have recently made the second edition of the LES available for Logos Bible Software. Users who currently have a license to the first edition are eligible for a free upgrade to the second edition (for a limited time). So both the first edition and the second edition of the LES are now available for Logos Bible Software.

What kinds of plans are in place to update the digital and print versions, if any?

[Rick] Any obvious issues, such as typos, will be corrected in the digital edition and reported to Lexham Press. It will be up to Lexham Press to determine when to update the print with corrections to known issues.

For those who are not die-hard Logos users, are there any plans to make LES available digitally on other bible software platforms like Accordance or OliveTree?

[Rick] As with other Lexham Press titles, platforms such as Accordance or Olive Tree are free to inquire with Lexham Press regarding details of licensing.

Some will notice points of similarity between the theoretical posture of LES towards translating the Septuagint and the approach of the ongoing SEPT commentary series published by Brill (see here), to which Ken Penner is a recent contributor. Can you tell us more about whether and how these two perspectives overlapped as LES was produced?

[Ken] I was contracted to write the Isaiah commentary for SEPT in 2005, long before LES was conceived. The SEPT series prospectus explains, “In distinction from other proposed commentaries on the Septuagint and other reference works already available, this commentary series will produce commentaries on the individual books of the Septuagint in their own right. Hence, reference will be made to the Hebrew text only where important, and the commentary will primarily be a commentary on the Greek text itself. Although matters of a strictly philological interest, such as the relation between a given translation and its possible Vorlage, will be raised where appropriate, each commentary will treat the Septuagint book concerned as a text with its own integrity, structure, and compositional shape, that is, as it was received in Greek by its early users.” This last phrase is key: “as it was received in Greek by its early users.” The SEPT prospectus continues, “Each commentator is responsible for selecting the Greek text of their particular book, from one of the major codexes (e.g. Vaticanus, Sinaiticus or Alexandrinus). The text that is commented upon is not, therefore, an eclectic text, such as Rahlfs’ or the Gottingen edition. The Greek text of the commentary, which represents one that actually existed in a reading community, is translated and commented upon.”

The use of a single manuscript as the textual basis coheres well with commenting on the text as received. The commentator can imagine the effect this specific manuscript would have had on a reader, with its unique visual representation on the page (script, spacing, paragraphing, accents, punctuation, marginal notes, decorations, etc.). Its reference point is naturally the reader. The object of a critical text [of the Septuagint] is to establish a text as close as possible to what came out of the translator’s pen. Therefore its reference point is naturally at the point of production. So when the decision was made for the LES1 (by Logos, not by me) to use Swete’s diplomatic rather than Rahlfs’ eclectic critical text, a text that is mainly from the Codex Vaticanus, naturally I chose a translation principle for the LES2 that had a reader of Codex Vaticanus as its reference point. Just as the SEPT series comments on the text as received by its early users, so too the LES2 translates the text as received by its early users. Continuing with Codex Vaticanus as the point of reference, the early users of this manuscript would have been 4th century Greek-speaking Christians with almost no knowledge of Hebrew.

What this means is primarily that the awkwardness of the Greek is sometimes retained, and secondarily that when the meaning of words or interpretation of scriptures has shifted from the centuries BCE of the Jewish translators to the centuries CE of the Christian readers, the readers’ understanding should be given preference.

It’s clear to those familiar with the insider debates of Septuagint scholarship that LES is intended to contrast with NETS in certain ways. Can you say more about those points of contrast and why they are important?

[Ken] The NETS translates the best available critical texts, which usually means the Göttingen editions or Rahlfs. Naturally this means the time of interest is when the translation was made rather than when it was read. as Pietersma wrote, “NETS seeks to translate the text as produced (cf. constitutive character) in distinction from the text as received.” In other words, NETS is more concerned with what the translator meant by the words he wrote, whereas LES is more concerned with what the readers understood from the words they read. NETS uses an “interlinear paradigm” with three implications: (1) it explains the “translationese” in the Septuagint, (2) it can appeal to the Hebrew as an “arbiter of meaning,” and (3) it attributes the linguistic strangeness of the Septuagint to its pedagogical purpose. LES is interested not in explaining this strangeness or discovering the intended meaning but in conveying this strangeness and discovering the understood meaning.

Translation philosophy aside, the main complaint we’ve heard about NETS is that personal and place names are hard to recognize. This is because NETS transliterates the names as they are spelled in Greek. Now, as a scholar, I appreciate what NETS is trying to do; if they used the usual English names, some interesting information about how names sounded or were spelled gets lost. So initially I advocated for LES to do something similar. But to reach a wider audience, Rick persuaded me by pointing out that nothing would be lost if the main text had the familiar spellings, and the transliterations were available in footnotes. So that’s what we did for the first (digital) edition. When the print (second) edition more consistently adopted the “as received” principle, I realized that because these names were simply following the standard Greek spelling, the footnotes were not needed. The result is a much smoother reading experience.

One of the items you mention in the preface to LES is that one of the existing English translations of the Septuagint — Brenton — is not only dated in its English usage, but also in its textual basis, which “does not reflect more recent discoveries of Septuagint manuscripts” (p. x). Some may turn around and critique LES on the same grounds, considering its textual basis is the edition by Swete produced between 1887-1894. How would you respond?

[Ken] That’s an entirely valid criticism. In fact, the text of Swete’s edition does not reflect discoveries of Septuagint manuscripts even at his time because it is a diplomatic rather than eclectic edition. When we produced the first LES, I wanted to base the translation on Rahlfs’ edition. I agreed to base the translation on Swete’s edition only because it has a fine textual apparatus that is in the public domain. So I was invited to overhaul the LES I did so on the condition that we include a textual apparatus of differences compared to Rahlfs and the Göttingen editions. And that is what we initially produced. If you look at the sample pages posted here, you will see footnotes such as ‘G, R: omit “in regard to likeness”’ at Genesis 1:11 and ‘G, R: omit “and rule the days and the nights”’ at Genesis 1:14. Those images are from before the decision was made to remove the textual footnotes until we could do more extensive verification of the variants.

It’s obvious that a lot of people had a hand in producing LES (for which we are all grateful!). But, as a result, many will wonder how exactly to cite the volume in academic writing. What say you?

[Ken] I’m very pleased with the work so many people have put into producing this book. I would say cite it as you would any Bible translated by a committee: simply by its initials. The LES has not yet been added to the list of modern translations in the SBL Handbook of Style §8.2.1 (as NETS is) but it should be. If we follow the model provided by the SBLHS entry for NETS, I think the LES entry would be

Lexham English Septuagint. Edited by Ken M. Penner, Rick Brannan, Michael Aubrey, Isaiah Hoogendyk, and Israel Loken. Bellingham: Lexham Press, 2020.

Wrapping Up

I am very grateful to Rick and Ken for their time and effort, not only for this interview, but especially on the Lexham English Septuagint itself. It’s quite a feat and we should all be extremely grateful!

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