University of Oxford

LXX Scholar Interview: Dr. Jan Joosten

joosten1Today I have the pleasure of presenting another of my LXX Scholar Interviews, this time with Dr. Jan Joosten, who is currently the Regius Professor of Hebrew at the University of Oxford. If you didn’t see the post previously, you can listen to his inaugural lecture here.

To repeat some of what I have said before, if you are interested in Old Testament textual studies, you will have almost certainly run into his work. If you are a graduate student interested in Old Testament and/or Septuagint studies, you should strongly consider getting in touch with Jan about supervising. Either way, I am sure that this interview detailing his “academic biography” will prove interesting and shed some light on Jan’s qualifications and activity in the discipline of Septuagint.

The Interview

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

After a licentiate in Protestant Theology in Brussels (1981) and a one-year degree at Princeton Theological Seminary (ThM 1982), I received a scholarship to study at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. From 1982 to 1985 I studied textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible, and many other things, with Moshe H. Goshen-Gottstein. Among the other seminars I took was one on the Septuagint with Emanuel Tov. But I really got into Septuagint studies only much later, in 1994, after getting my first teaching job at the Protestant Faculty of the University of Strasbourg.

As professor of biblical languages I was expected to teach a research seminar for masters students. I figured the Septuagint would be a fitting subject, since the students were supposed to have had at least one year of Hebrew and Greek. I proposed a seminar on the Septuagint of Deuteronomy 32, which was a success (I had four students). In the following years I continued to teach the course on various biblical chapters. My research on the version developed from the teaching in this seminar (my first article on the LXX: “Elaborate Similes—Hebrew and Greek. A Study in Septuagint Translation Technique” Biblica 77 [1996], 227-236, was spun out from an observation on Deut 32:11).

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

In 1997 I approached the Bible d’Alexandrie group in Paris and they proposed I should take on the volume on Hosea. With colleagues in Strasbourg, notably Eberhard Bons and Philippe Le Moigne, I began to work on the translation and annotation of this biblical book. In 2002 our work was published in the series. The Bible d’Alexandrie has made a crucial contribution
to LXX studies because it embodies the approach of the version as a text in its own right. Among biblical scholars the LXX has often been—and continues to be—studied as an ancillary text: a collection of variant readings in textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible, or a source of religious terms in New Testament exegesis. In Antiquity, the Septuagint was read simply as Scripture, among Hellenistic Jews first, and later among Greek-speaking Christians.

My personal contribution to the study of the LXX is for the most part tied to linguistic phenomena situated at the interface between the Hebrew source text and the Greek translation. Language is a subtle instrument, expressing not only a propositional meaning, but also, at times, revealing other details: on the culture and background of the translators, on their knowledge of Hebrew, on their approach to the source text, and much else. A sample of articles has been published in my book: Collected Studies on the Septuagint. From Language to Interpretation and Beyond (FAT 83; Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 2012). Some of the articles are available on

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

In Strasbourg I taught the seminar on the Septuagint yearly for almost twenty years, sometimes with my colleague Madeline Wieger. In 2014 I was appointed Professor of Hebrew in Oxford. I use the Septuagint in classes on textual criticism, but do not teach it as such. My close colleague, Professor Alison Salvesen does teach Septuagint regularly.

4) How has the field changed since you’ve been involved?

At some point, in the early 2000s, I thought Septuagint studies would go mainstream, causing a long overdue upheaval in biblical studies. Now I’m not so sure. The OT – NT divide is as strong as ever, it leaves little space for Septuagint studies (except as an ancillary text, see above, question 2).

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?

A lot of work remains to be done on the vocabulary of the Septuagint (see the next question). Also important is research on single translation units of the Septuagint: practically each book comes with its own challenges and opportunities. Although lately a few studies on the style of the Septuagint have appeared, this is also a field that remains largely unexplored.

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

Together with Eberhard Bons I’m editing the Historical and Theological Lexicon of the Septuagint, a projected four-volume work offering for each significant word of the Septuagint an article detailing: a) its use in classical and Hellenistic Greek, b) its transformations (if any) in the Septuagint, and c) its usage in writings depending on the Septuagint. The first volume, with 150 articles, should be published in 2016. [Editor’s note: a volume of essays related to the HTLS can be found here, and see image to right.]

7) What is the future of Septuagint studies?

The near future is when all the books of the Septuagint will finally be available in a full-scale critical edition. A more distant, and perhaps utopic, future is one where the Septuagint and the Dead Sea Scrolls will be fully integrated into biblical studies.

Wrapping Up

Thanks to Dr. Joosten for his willingness to do this interview, and, of course, for his prolific and scholarly work in the field. Stay tuned to this series for further interviews with other scholars working in Septuagint. Feel free to comment below with scholars you’d like to hear from, or questions of interest.

Inaugural Lecture by Prof. Jan Joosten (Oxford)

470215_10150940745254410_837526454_oOn October 27th Professor Jan Joosten gave his inaugural lecture as the newly appointed Regius Professor of Hebrew at the University of Oxford. Until recently he was on faculty at the University of Strasbourg (France), but in 2014 transitioned to his new post at Oxford.

Jan is a very prolific scholar to say the least. If you are interested in Old Testament textual studies, you will have almost certainly run into his work. If you are a graduate student interested in Old Testament and/or Septuagint studies, you should strongly consider getting in touch with Jan about supervising. Aside from being a top scholar in his field, he is very intentional about sharing his work freely. His webpage, where you can even access a full PDF of his Verbal System of Biblical Hebrew and Septuagint Vocabulary volumes, is a fine example of open-access scholarship. Although I was not able to make it to his inaugural lecture, I was very glad to see that a colleague, Marieke Dhont, did attend and recorded it. After obtaining Jan’s permission to publicize it here on the blog, I thought I would present a brief preview of the talk here, and also provide the link.

Click here to listen to the Lecture

Lecture Preview: “Hebrew: A Holy Tongue?”

The sum and substance of Joosten’s argument is that, although Hebrew did not start out as a “holy tongue,” it became one over time and may still rightly be considered as such.

The importance of Hebrew to Judaism and Christianity keeps the study of Hebrew a vibrant and ongoing discipline in universities the world over. In religious tradition, it is the language of God himself, and of all humanity prior to the confusion of Babel. Few interpreters throughout the middle ages contested this notion – on exception being Gregory of Nyssa (4th c.), who considered it unnecessary literalism. Even through the 18th c. many biblical scholars considered Hebrew to be humanity’s original language.

Certainly in today’s world of biblical scholarship things have changed significantly. Views of Hebrew have changed for many reasons. First, Hebrew is again, now for nearly seventy years, a national and living language in the modern state of Israel. It is now a language of the street once more. This makes considering it a “holy” language somewhat difficult. Secondly, previous Regius Professor of Hebrew S. R. Driver (19th c.), major contributor to the development of the historical critical approach to the OT, showed how Hebrew had changed over time. It was not some ineffable heavenly dialect, but one subject to normal linguistic change in space and time. Later, Regius Professor of Hebrew James Barr (late 20th c.) approached Hebrew from a philological perspective, showing how obscure passages could be illuminated by means of Ancient Near Eastern cognate languages. He also destroyed the notion that the “thought” of the OT was somehow inherently bound up with Hebrew per se. Thus once more, Hebrew is not uniquely equipped to express divine truths.

Thus, over the past half-millennium, study of ancient Hebrew has moved away from the idea that Hebrew is “holy.” Nevertheless, says Joosten, Hebrew may yet be reasonably considered a holy tongue that, though originally an ordinary human language, is became fit for religious purposes, and “ever so slightly unfit for everything else” (14:40-15:04 in audio recording).

The Paper in Full

I won’t summarize the entire talk, because then you wouldn’t listen to it yourself. Hopefully the taster above is just enough to make you spend the time doing the rest of the work yourself. But why listen to it when you can get the entire thing in PDF Form? If you can’t think of a reason, then you can read Jan’s lecture in full here.

British and American Style Doctoral Programs

Punting on the River Cam in Cambridge

In a previous post, I briefly outlined my work at the University of Cambridge as a doctoral student in Old Testament. In this post, I will discuss the broad differences between British and American doctoral programs in terms of application procedure and requirements. These, at least, are differences that are stereotypically true. There are innumerable permutations to doctoral programs, of course, so what I touch on here will only be so accurate in any given institution.

British and American Doctoral Programs

Most of my family and friends are befuddled when I tell them about the doctoral program at Cambridge. This befuddlement is not always related to their incredulity at my field of interest (the Septuagint), which almost always generates obnoxious yawns when I discuss it. They’re confused by what I will actually do when I show up in Cambridge, namely not go to class (among other things). At least, classes are not the main point of my program.

American Programs

Princeton University

Most Americans are used to thinking about a doctoral degree in similar terms as a graduate degree. They imagine that you apply with your report card and letter of reference from your mother, get accepted, go sit in class for a few years, and then graduate somehow with no job prospects to show for it. Some will know there is a writing aspect. And this picture is somewhat accurate (particularly the job prospect part). In reality, most American programs work something like this:

  1. Rigorous application process, often involving several phases of elimination, and possibly a face-to-face interview.
  2. Acceptance, with an award of a major source of funding, often a full ride or even stipend for “living expenses” that can reach the $30k mark (per year!) at some of the major universities.
  3. Two to Four years of required coursework in your broad field, with mountains of reading and research papers.
  4. One to Two years of teaching assistance for a professor, which may overlap with your coursework. At larger schools, doctoral students actually teach the undergraduate classes themselves, which is a major benefit.
  5. Supervisor selection and the two to three year writing phase, where students will have finished their coursework and enter into (hopefully) unadulterated research and writing with their supervisor of choice. Occasionally doctoral students are employable at this point, having completed their degree “all but dissertation” (sometimes on faculty job postings you’ll see something like “ABD required”).
  6. Most American schools will also have “comprehensive” exams, or “comps,” required somewhere along the line, which are exactly what they sound like.
  7. Graduation.

All in all, the American system is terribly involved, extremely long, and exhausting. On the flip side, you are so completely immersed in education that you come out with a lot to show for it, including teaching experience and publications. Some or all of the steps above overlap at times.

British Programs

The British (and European) model is very different. The best way I can think of to describe it is as an apprentice-mentor relationship. When you are looking to apply for a doctoral program in the British system, you are not really looking for a school as much as for a person. The idea is that by the time you are ready to pursue a doctoral degree you should be educated enough to have a clear idea of your interests and the research that needs to be done in a certain field. Accordingly, you are left to come up with a detailed research project and to find the person under whom it would be best to conduct that work. The main criteria to determine that is whether a potential “supervisor” has the same research interests as you and expertise in the field.

How most people imagine studying at Oxford or Cambridge

Of course, where that scholar is employed also matters in many ways, since the reputation of your school will go a long way. But in theory aspiring doctoral students should be looking for the best person, over the best university reputation, since the working relationship is so closely knit that most of your education will come from your supervisor rather than the school. That is particularly true in the British system where there is no coursework required at all. Only research and writing.

So a British university’s format works more like this:

  1. Rigorous application process, requiring a writing sample related to your field, identification of a prospective supervisor (who you should have developed a relationship with by then), and a full-blown, detailed dissertation proposal identifying your research project (usually 1000 words).
  2. Offer of admission, usually with stipulation of funding, if any (a big “if”).
  3. (Your desperate attempt to find sources of funding.)
  4. Student’s acceptance of the school’s offer, usually completed by submitting further criteria such as your completed masters transcript, a financial liability agreement, etc.
  5. Three years of independent research and writing, overseen only by your supervisor at semi-regular intervals. Many programs have a probationary first year to ensure you’ve got the stuff it takes.
  6. Oral defense of your completed dissertation.
  7. Graduation.

So you can see that British programs are much shorter (about half the length), but do not necessarily come with any funding, and do not (usually) provide teaching experience. On the other hand, you spare yourself the expenditure of much youthful vigor that American programs excise, and you work personally with a scholar of your choice who is ideally at the top of their field. I chose the British path almost by default because most scholars involved in Septuagint studies are located overseas.

The University & College System

Another perplexing aspect to a school like Cambridge – Oxford is the same way – is that Cambridge itself is not formally a “school,” but a corporate, guild-like institution. Cambridge is the unified front for the diversity of colleges within it. So not only are you a “Cambridge student,” but also a student of your college, which in my case is Fitzwilliam College. The application to your college is part of your application to the university, although you pick several colleges of interest, and your acceptance to one is a separate process from your acceptance to the university.

At the doctoral level, your college is important insofar as it establishes your intellectual community, should you conduct your research there, and it also can provide funding opportunities. It is not necessary for your advisor to be part of your college. Doctoral students also work with their particular faculty, in my case the Faculty of Divinity. This is both a physical building and a group of people, namely the divinity faculty members from all the colleges.

In sum, then, there are many key differences between these two systems that important to know when considering applying for a doctoral degree. Hopefully this has been of some help to those in that position, and to my understandably confused family members.