University of Cambridge

Some Letters of H. B. Swete – Part I

H. B. Swete (1835-1917)

In the course of my dissertation research I have recently found myself tucked away in the manuscripts room of the Cambridge University Library. My aim is hopefully to discover more about the regrettably unfinished project alluded to in a footnote in Swete’s Introduction to the Old Testament in Greek (1900):

“A lexicon was planned in 1895 by a Cambridge Committee, but the work is suspended for the present.”

Although you may think reading hundred year-old mail to learn more about a failed project is bizarre, the fact is that the correspondence I’ve been sorting through is over two thousand years more recent than the Egyptian personal correspondences I typically mull through in papyri.

But I digress. The point is, I haven’t yet found anything more about this delicious hint of a Cambridge Lexicon of the Septuagint that never was. However, I have found some other fascinating items, which I’d like to share here in a few posts.*

The Old Testament in Greek

If you are new to Septuagint studies, you may not be aware of the range of texts in existence. Much like the New Testament, the text of the Septuagint has been prepared numerous times in critical editions, some of which are more or less valuable for various purposes. This isn’t the place to get into all the critical texts that have been produced thus far, though more information can be found in the T&T Clark Companion to the Septuagint (see here).

The most epoch-making of these critical editions, however, was compiled under the editorship of Swete. Prior to this, only four editions of the Greek Old Testament had been printed, which you can read about in Swete’s introduction to Volume 1 (here). I came across two interesting letters pertaining to how this edition came into existence. First, the invitation to from Cambridge, and secondly, Swete’s reply. The first is below:

Invitation from Cambridge University Press

I have transcribed each page, with the symbol | indicating a line break. The images have been enhanced for clarity, and can be clicked on and enlarged. I’ve also taken the liberty to include relevant links. If you think I’ve gotten something wrong – or can decipher some of what I have left as [?] lacunae – please say so in the comments below!

Clare College Lodge
Feb. 10, 1883

My dear Dr Swete,
I have been requested by the Syndics | of the CUP to ask you whether it would be appealing to you | to edit on behalf of the Syndics an Edition of the Septuagint | which was originally projected about eight years ago under | the auspices of Dr Scrivener, but has made very little progress | up to the present time. The plan originally sketched | out is contained in a letter from Dr Scrivener to the | V. C. & Syndics of the CUP dated Jan. 22, 1875, | of which a copy is enclosed & numbered (1). | In consequence of other engagements Dr Scrivener | made very little progress with the work: and it | was agreed about two years ago to suspend the

work altogether. This was done chiefly because it was | believed that Prof. Lagarde was about to publish a | Edition of the LXX. When it appeared that there was | very little likelihood of this Dr WestcottDr Hort, Mr | Bensley & Mr Kirkpatrick were requested to consider whether | it was desirable to proceed with the work , & if so | whether the original plan should still be adhered to. | A copy of their Report to the Syndicate dated Oct. 1882 | is enclosed & numbered (2). They further reported | on Oct. 25, 1882 that it was desirable that a smaller (?) | Edition of the Vatican MS of the Septuagint with | variants from Sinaitic & Alexandrian MSS | should be published as soon as possible. It was | hoped all this time that Dr Scrivener whould \have/ continued | to act as Editor in chief: and this hope was only | abandoned on my hearing from Dr Srivener about | the middle of January that he had had a |

[page 3] serious illness & must now definitively renounce all hope of | editing the LXX. He has very handsomely offered to place his | materials at the service of the Syndics for the work. The | Committee above named met again to decide what should | now be done and upon their recommendation (of which |a copy is enclosed and numbered (3)) the Syndics have | charged me to invite you to take Dr Srivener’s place.

I enclose two specimen pages of the proposed work, | one numbered (1) shewing what it would have been on the | original plan, the other numbered (2) shewing what it | will be on the new plan of making the Vatican the | basis of the text.

It would be a great pleasure to me to learn that | you were disposed to entertain the proposal which I | have now made on behalf of the Syndics.

I remain
My dear Dr Swete
Yours very truly
E. A. [Edward Atkinson]

Swete’s Reply

I will be transcribing and posting Swete’s reply in the near future (along with some other historical goodies).


* I should say that I have not looked too diligently into whether I am permitted to share these images publically. If you are someone in charge of such things and wish me to take them down, do let me know at

“Being Jewish, Writing Greek” Conference in Cambridge

A conference was recently announced here in Cambridge that many interested in the Septuagint will want to look into. On 6-8 September 2017 the Being Jewish, Writing Greek conference will be held here at the University of Cambridge Faculty of Classics. This event has developed out of a seminar hosted here this academic year that was essentially driven by the desire to pay more scholarly attention to the full range of ancient Jewish Greek literature, which is frequently ignored.

The Septuagint … and Beyond

Obviously the Septuagint falls within the range of Greek writings produced by Jews. However, as a courpus of mostly translated texts, there is considerable debate about whether or not it should be considered Jewish “literature” proper (a question bound up with issues of language, cultural identity, and genre). That is part of the reason for this conference. But there is a good deal of Jewish writing that was composed in Greek, and which clearly qualifies as literature. The non-translated books of the Septuagint, such as 1-4 Maccabbees, 1 Esdras, Judith, or Tobit are certainly among such Jewish Greek literature. But there are also quite a few others that you might never have heard of, like:

  • Ezekiel’s Exagogê
  • Artapanus
  • Pseudo-Phocylides
  • Demetrius the Chronographer
  • Etc.

The goal of this conference is to shine a (cross-disciplinary) spotlight on these ancient sources – those translated and those composed in Greek – to consider their linguistic and literary qualities.  As the conference website says,

Much has been said about the historical as well as theological contexts and content of these works. However, relatively few studies have considered these Jewish writings in Greek as literary works.

Yes, You can Submit a Proposal!

bjwgPaper proposals can be submitted here. 

The goal is to look at these Jewish Greek sources as the products of two cultures and languages in confluence: Judaism and Hellenism, Hebrew/Aramaic and Greek. Moreover, the conference is meant to recalibrate the traditional, single-discipline approaches to these texts and instead situate both Classical and Jewish literature “in a broader Mediterranean context.”

Thus far speakers will include

Spring 2015 Update

With things blooming, daylight enduring, and undergraduates looking nervous about exams, it is finally spring here in Cambridge. Now that Easter Term has begun at the university the town is much fuller and livelier. I thought it would be good to give a year-to-date review of my activities for anyone interested. Here’s what I’ve been up to:

PhD Research

The biggest chunk of my time obviously goes into this category. It’s hard to believe that I am entering into the last third of my first year already. But there is a lot to show for it, thankfully. My work thus far this year has progressed relatively well, despite some unforeseen circumstances. Most notably, my advisor, Jim Aitken, has been on leave since the beginning of the calendar year for health reasons, so I have been temporarily re-assigned to work with Dr. Peter J. Williams. Pete is an excellent scholar and has been a great supervisor. He also happens to be the “warden” at Tyndale House, where I conduct my research, so it is easy to catch up over tea.

Until mid-March I was working on a large section examining rare words in the Greek translation of Judges. This mainly consisted of about twenty-six “hapax legomena,” or words used just once in a given corpus. I considered each word etymologically, but also synchronically to whatever extent possible with lexical evidence from post-classical documentary evidence. Not all of the words had new evidence, of course, but some did and that helped draw observations upon word-use in LXX-Judges. I will be presenting excerpts from this research (the more interesting cases, I hope) at an upcoming conference at the Faculty (see below).

First Year Registration Assessment

As far as I am aware, no new PhD student shows up at Cambridge as a “real” PhD student. Instead, you are officially registered as a “probationary” candidate for the degree. At the end of your first year, each student must submit a portfolio of your work thus far. This includes a chunky writing sample, a bibliography, a summary of your dissertation, and a table of contents with prospective timeline for completion. It’s a big project, and it took up quite a bit of my time. In early May I submitted the portfolio, which included a fuller version of the paper I presented at the last SBL conference in San Diego as the writing sample.

Recent and Upcoming Presentations


As mentioned, I presented a paper on the rare word studies I’ve been up to at the Oxbridge Biblical Studies conference (see Greg Lanier’s post here). This was a great opportunity to get some feedback from other students of either Cambridge or the Other Place doing similar work.


As outrageous as it is considering it is still over six months away, planning has commenced for the annual Society of Biblical Literature conference. This year it will go down in Atlanta, and so you can count on a lot of biblical scholars making very forced and embarrassing references to various aspects hip-hop culture. That notwithstanding, the conference is a great opportunity – I’ve written about the value of attending one of these even as a graduate student (here and here).

I will be presenting at the conference again this year. There’s nothing quite like reading about an obscure topic you’ve spent months investigating to a group of jet-lagged scholars exhausted from hauling new books through miles of conference center hallways. But I digress. For lack of better judgment, I submitted two proposals and so will be presenting twice. More on that as I come to terms with it.


Much like an eager younger brother, ETS unabashedly follows SBL around every year, but usually turns out to be a lot more fun. I will write more about it as I find out details of this year’s conference. I may have yet another presentation, but I have not heard one way or another at this point.

Göttingen Septuaginta Summer School

Not too long ago I posted about the Septuagint “summer school” that happens through the University of Göttingen each summer. As it turns out I have the opportunity to participate, which I am greatly anticipating. I don’t really have any more details about it than what I wrote up in the earlier post, but I’ll be sure to provide them as I find out more.


I’ve had a few things published this year so far also. I recently began periodically contributing to the Gospel Coalition blog. This year I’ve done two pieces (here and here) with a few others on the boiler. It’s a lot of fun to have a more creative (i.e. less lexicographical) outlet, so I’m grateful for the opportunity.

On the academic end of the spectrum, I had an article accepted for publication in the Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft, known to anglophones as simply ZAW. As this is my first peer reviewed publication in a journal, I am especially pleased. The ZAW is an excellent resource of high end biblical studies research, so it is an honor to be included. The article is a culmination of an investigation that I began back in seminary into the so-called “broken acrostic” of Nahum 1. I examine the Septuagint translation and then interact with scholars who attempt to emend (i.e. alter) the Hebrew text to square with what they think it should be to sync up with the perceived acrostic. In the end, I find this approach untenable, and of course make a totally bulletproof case. It should come out in the fall.

Major Secret Thing

The final update I’ll give is The Major Secret Thing. Of course, that’s all I can say about it. More to come.