In Memoriam: James K. Aitken (1968-2023)

The world of biblical studies and Septuagint scholarship suffered a tremendous loss this past Good Friday, as we learned of the sudden passing of Dr. James K. Aitken, or — as he insisted — just Jim to those who knew him. As others have reported, Jim passed away a few days after what was his second major heart attack. Since then, tributes have already begun to pour in, as expected. Here is mine.

If you have been a reader for any length of time, you will know that Jim was my Doktorvater. That is, he was my research supervisor while I was a doctoral student working in Septuagint lexicography at the University of Cambridge from 2014 to 2018. Unsurprisingly, then, Jim’s influence in my life and work is difficult to overstate. He has featured numerous times in this site in various ways, including this interview that he did for me back in 2015, which has lots of interesting biographical information that is well worth the read. 

It’s difficult to know how to write a post like this one and what to say. Jim was widely recognized as an outstanding scholar. His untimely death is a tremendous loss to the field, of course. Rather than focus on that, I thought I would provide some more personal reflections, since Jim was not just a wonderful supervisor for me, but also a good friend.

I have countless memories with him that I will always carry. Here are just a few that came to mind as I wrote:

I remember the first time we met in 2012 at SBL in Chicago. It was 11:30am on a Monday. We had connected via email just a few weeks before and I had no idea what I was doing. I was utterly terrified to meet a real Cambridge scholar, but Jim soon put me at ease with his warm personality. We drank coffee and discussed what would eventually become my thesis topic.

I remember sitting with Jim among a few new acquaintances in a beer garden in Munich in 2013 during my first IOSOT conference. Some there were getting heated over some biblical studies topic or another and I was starting to sweat. But Jim was cool and thoughtful, as ever, although not without his occasional wry comment.

I remember my very first supervision with him in September 2014, once I had arrived in Cambridge. We had come to a new country just a week or two earlier with two kids (one of whom was only two months old) and I was massively overwhelmed with the prospect of what I had gotten myself into. Here are some of the things Jim said in that meeting, which I studiously wrote down:

    • Be humble with the evidence. Strong argumentation, yes, but in reality a modest, minor contribution is more convincing than a strong argument that is unconvincing.
    • “Perhaps” is a key word. Gentle. The best scholars are subtly modifying the data.
    • Read something every day that is not on LXX. Broaden your mind, find unexpected connections.
    • Absorb everything, it always will help. Don’t be worried if what you are reading seems or is completely irrelevant. It will come up later.

I remember receiving the news in early January 2015 of his first heart attack and wondering what on earth would happen, not only for Jim, but also for my own work. In due course, Jim recovered and was able to return to supervising after two terms of respite. It was a miracle and we all knew it.

I remember Jim’s constant support and encouragement throughout the academic year that I was away from Cambridge in 2015/2016, when my oldest son was being treated for cancer. Jim had only just begun to get back into the office and I was formally intermitted with the university. But Jim still made time to connect with me by email and video call to discuss things I was reading and thinking about, once that became possible again for me. Without his support, I am not sure I would have continued.

I remember countless conferences in various places around the world, with all manner of discussion and humor over a coffee or pint. There were even some good papers. At one 2016 event in Germany I recall us singing “Yesterday” by The Beatles with a group of biblical scholars while someone played guitar; another time in 2017 I recall sharing a meal of reindeer tartare with Jim at what turned out to be a surprisingly fancy restaurant in Helsinki, Finland.

I remember sharing tea and cake with him on a perfectly English spring day at Tyndale House with my family, in celebration of the publication of my thesis-turned-monograph, just last June.

On it could go, of course.

As I have reflected on my decade of time with Jim, I’ve recognized how special it was that I was able to graduate from the University this time last year. Although I completed my degree in 2018,  I did not actually participate in the Cambridge graduation ceremony. That was largely due to the fact that I had a new faculty position to start, then shortly after that a new (fourth) child, then shortly after that the world shut down for two years.

But at last, in May of 2022 I was finally able to return to Cambridge with my family for graduation. As wonderful as that experience usually is, it was particularly rewarding in my case, because Jim and I were both part of Fitzwilliam College. And as it happened, Jim was the praelector of graduates of the college, meaning that he personally oversaw the college graduation that day. As the graduates walked down to the Senate House from college, Jim told me that I was the first — and now I suppose only — of his doctoral students who he also had a part in graduating. As hilarious and awkward as it was to hold his little finger as I received my degree (it’s a Cambridge thing), I will never forget it.

I thought it would be fitting to conclude with an excerpt from the acknowledgements of my 2018 doctoral thesis.

Cambridge is a special place, and not just because of the deep pain and profound joy that has characterized my family’s time here. It is an honor to have lived and worked somewhere with such a rich history, particularly related to biblical scholarship and the Church. I have many to thank for this privilege. First among them all is my supervisor, Jim. Even with all the upheaval, uncertainty, long absences, and regular travel during my program, Jim has constantly provided clarity and guidance. Rarely have I known someone with such a level of mastery in his field who interacts with students with such humility, charity, and humor. That was immediately obvious when some random graduate student messaged Jim in 2013 about finding an obscure article he had written, and Jim responded promptly with helpful commentary, a scanned pdf of the article, and invitation to meet in person. That random student was me. In the years since then, Jim has persistently shaped, challenged, and encouraged my thinking while always demonstrating rigorous scholarship to emulate. Thank you.

I would not be the scholar, researcher, writer, or thinker I am today without Jim. He was an excellent mentor and a wonderful friend. I will miss him.


17th International Septuagint Day

It is yet again that magical time of years for lovers of the Septuagint: International Septuagint Day. In case you are unaware, this joyous occasion has been celebrated these seventeen years, ever since the International Organization for Septuagint and Cognate Studies (IOSCS) pronounced it a holiday in 2006. 

As you can see in the image to the right, however, this celebration goes back to antiquity. Even the sphynxes observed this important festival. In that same spirit, I include here links to previous years’ celebrations:

ISD 2022    |    ISD 2021    |    ISD 2020    |    ISD 2019    |    ISD 2018

ISD 2017    |    ISD 2016    |    ISD 2015    |    ISD 2014

To celebrate this year, I am pleased to point readers to another important annual event within Septuagint scholarship.

The 2023 Grinfield Lectures on the Septuagint

As with International Septuagint Day, I have also posted a number of times over the years about the Grinfield lectures (see here). If you aren’t aware, the Grinfields began in 1861 as a multi-year series of lectures hosted by Oxford and focused on the Septuagint. 

This new series will be given by Sébastien Morlet, Professor of Greek language and literature, Sorbonne Université. His research is devoted to ancient Jewish and Christian texts written in Greek, with a focus on their relation to Greek paideia and philosophy. He is the author of La Démonstration évangélique d’Eusèbe de Césarée. Étude sur l’apologétique chrétienne à l’époque de Constantin (2009), Christianisme et philosophie : les premières confrontations (2014), Les Chrétiens et la culture : conversion d’un concept (2016) and Symphonia. La concorde des textes et des doctrines dans la littérature grecque jusqu’à Origène (2019). He is preparing the volume « 2 Règnes » (2 Kingdoms) in the Bible d’Alexandrie series.

Morlet’s first series of lectures will be given in just a few weeks, and is entitled “The Plurality of the Biblical Text: Past and Present.” You can attend the lectures virtually if you register in advance, which you can do by contacting Stefania Beitia (stefania.beitia@oriel.ox.ac.uk). More information:

A Septuagintal Smattering

It’s that time of year when academics begin to emerge slowly from the malaise that sets in between SBL and New Year’s Day. I count myself among that number, as it seems like the last two weeks have suddenly burst into new activity, much of which is follow-up from the conferences in late November. 

So in that spirit, I thought I’d post a kind of round-up for all things Septuagint — at least those things that have come to my attention. Here’s the rundown:

New Septuagint Publications

There have been a few new Septuagint publications that are worth being aware of. 

  • The Septuagint in its Ancient Context: Philological, Historical, and Theological Approaches

This is an entirely new series for monographs and edited volumes with Brepols, one of the oldest publishing houses in Europe. The aim of this series is as follows:

The scope of this series is to publish monographs and multi-author works dealing with the Septuagint and its philological, historical, and theological context. In particular, the volumes of the series promote a multifaceted approach of the Septuagint including analyses on vocabulary and style, research on textual history (the Septuagint and its later recensions), investigations on Jewish-Hellenistic society, comparative studies taking into consideration non-biblical sources (e.g. literature, papyri, epigraphic evidence), and research on the reception history (in particular the influence on later Jewish and Christian thought).

I learned about this from Eberhard Bons, and am glad to see that there are already two volumes in print:

      1. Leonardo Pessoa da Silva Pinto and Daniela Scialabba, eds., New Avenues in Biblical Exegesis in Light of the Septuagint (SEPT 1; Brepols, 2022)
      2. Stefanie Peintner, Gott im Bild: Eidôlon – Studien zur Herkunft und Verwendung des Begriffes für das Götterbild in der Septuaginta (SEPT 2; Brepols 2023)

This is a new publication in a longstanding series. Here is a translation of the (originally French) book description:

Traduire une traduction was written in parallel with the annotated translation of the short Greek text of the book of Job (forthcoming). The distinctive of this book is that it is a critical reflection on the notions typically used by scholars, both concerning the Greek text (literal translation, free translation, summary, paraphrase) and the presumed Hebrew text (repetitive, difficult, obscure, poetic). This critical reflection is preceded by a discussion of the problems with the Greek version and is followed by the procedure underlying the annotated translation of the short Greek text. In the field of research on the biblical corpus, the theory of translation is often sidestepped. The material and social conditions of research – and its demands – put the challenges of the act of translation in the background. The author has attempted to make the terms of this question explicit in the last section of the book.

The book is fairly short, just under 100 pages, but sounds promising, particularly in the enticing indication that there is an annotated translation of Greek Job also in production.

  • Miika Tucker, The Septuagint of Jeremiah: A Study in Translation Technique and Recensions (De Septuaginta Investigationes 15; Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2023)

I’m very glad to see this book in print, as it is the result of Miika’s hard work in his doctoral research in Helsinki. The book description is:

Miika Tucker comprises a translation technical study of the Septuagint version of Jeremiah for the purpose of characterizing the translation. The conclusions draw from different types of changes that occur between chapters 1–28 (Jer a’) and 29–52 (Jer b’). Certain differences between the two reflect the revisional characteristics of the kaige tradition, which suggests that they were produced by a reviser who was invested in a revisionary tradition similar to kaige. Other differences constitute a change toward more natural Greek expression, which is the opposite of what one would expect from a revision since Greek idiom usually does not correspond to the formal characteristics of Hebrew. Such differences are to be understood to reflect a change toward more intuitive use of the Greek language by the first translator. Changes toward less formal equivalence of the Hebrew and the growth of the Hebrew text after the initial translation combined to form conducive conditions for revision.

This is an important book that will shape Greek Jeremiah research into the future. Miika is still at Helsinki, now as a post-doc, working as the editor of the forthcoming Jeremiah volumes in the Biblia Hebraica Quinta edition and The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Edition.

Trinity Western University Septuagint Summer School

Those within the orbit of Septuagint scholarship know of the John William Wevers Institute of Septuagint Studies that is based at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia. I have written about TWU over the years (see here), and one of the yearly events of note is their summer school on the Septuagint. I have participated in some of these myself and also posted these each year for a while now (see the posts here: 2021, 20202019201820172016, and 2015).

This year the summer school will be taught by Andrew Krause and focus on Josephus and the Septuagint. Here’s the flyer:

Wacky Twitter Takes on the Septuagint

I was on Twitter for a year there and then dropped off. But I still get tons of Twitter news from friends. The other day, I was alerted to this wackiness by Andrew Keenan.

I have no idea who runs this account. But I do know the Lexham Septuagint guys and I am highly skeptical that there is any formal connection there. I wanted to draw attention to this, not for its many typos, but rather because almost everything in this set of “slides” (or whatever they are) is either half-true or just completely wrong. Some of it is worse than wrong and edges into libelous (see especially Part III). It represents a sort of “best of” collection of weird myths about the Septuagint that are, unfortunately, still very much alive and well. In a sort of depressing way, it’s an encouragement for Septuagint scholars to keep at it.