BMCR 2006.11.11

Libraries, Translations, and ‘Canonic’ Texts. The Septuagint, Aquila and Ben Sira in the Jewish and Christian Traditions. Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism, 109

, Libraries, translations, and 'canonic' texts : the Septuagint, Aquila, and Ben Sira in the Jewish and Christian traditions. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Leiden: Brill, 2006. 1 online resource (xi, 278 pages).. ISBN 9789047409014. €105.00.

This study is intended to explore the possibilities of textual deconstruction or reconstruction through the process of canonization and decanonization respectively. The theory of deconstruction was formulated by the Algerian-French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). The word was coined in his work De la grammatologie, Paris: Minuit, 1967.1 The word is basically used in two meanings, a grammatical one and a mechanical one. In the first sense it is the disruption of the structure, the change of the composition of the words in a sentence, with the purpose to create different meanings with the same words. In the second sense it means the breaking up of the different parts (of a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter, or a story), either to ‘repair’ them or to ‘dislocate’ them, however expressly not to destroy them. One of the technique’s main goals is to uncover the presuppositions underlying a specific text. Though this background-information is sketchy at best, it may be sufficient to indicate that we are dealing with a very specialist book that requires a certain amount of theoretical prior knowledge (or familiarity with the technique) of its readers. It consists of an Introduction ((De)canonization and deconstruction: 1-25), four chapters (chapter 1, Libraries and Canon: Ascent and Decline of the Greek Torah: 26-99; chapter 2, Deconstructing History and Tradition: The Written Torah for Ptolemy: 100-146; chapter 3, Deconstructing Translations: The Canonical Substitution Aquila/Onkelos: 147-189; chapter 4, (De)canonization in the Making: The Wisdom of Jesus ben Sira: 190-222), a Conclusion (223-230), two Bibliographies (one of primary texts: 231-238, one of Modern Authors: 239-260), and several indices (8 of References; one of Ancient and Medieval Names; one of Subjects).

Veltri (henceforward V) starts his introduction with the assumption that the lack or presence of a tradition is the consequence of the process of canonization: in Christian and Rabbinic sources canonization is not a product of a more or less literary coincidence but of a process of affirmative action. In this process we should notice that though Christians and Jews may have started with the same texts, sc. those of the Old Testament, the use the Christian tradition made of them was predominantly “prophetic” (sc. to demonstrate that the ‘old texts’ announce a new world system) while the Jews’ use of the Torah was essentially “hermeneutical”.

Essentially, canon as used in the context by V is the sociological and historical concept of an elitist group within a community which dictates the inclusion or exclusion of certain texts in the valid tradition and, eventually, the hierarchy of truths and traditions. In this context canon is, therefore, not a static but a dynamic entity that can vary within generations and geographical entities.

Central in one of the processes of (de)canonization V wants to discuss (sc. in chapter 1) stands the Greek Torah, both in the Jewish-Hellenistic (Alexandrine) and in the Christian tradition, not only because of the question whether the translation into Greek of the Septuagint had been executed truthfully but also because of the inclusion or exclusion of a Jewish Hebrew past. “In the process of canonization and decanonization, a change in language thus played a key if not decisive role. The progressive loss of the Greek language in the western Church generated the first serious crisis of canonical importance” (6).

This crisis was exacerbated because, while the western Church returned to the Hebrew original, control over this Hebrew text in particular gradually no longer belonged to the authorities but to specialists who, in their turn, were dependent on Jewish scholars (who, in their turn, were also increasingly losing their Greek). Both processes caused the deconstruction of the Septuagint as a canonical text “if we understand deconstructing decanonization as refusal, devaluating and exposing of past authorities in their explanation of texts and traditions as dependent on time and space” (7).

In this environment the Torah stands as the eternal word, to which no syllable can be added, from which no syllable can be removed, or of which no syllable can be altered. From Moses to Ezra there has been a continuous process of transmission ( massoret) of the Torah, from that time onwards only of receiving ( qabbalat) and learning ( limmud) of the Torah. It is told that, after the Exile, Ezra restored the Torah with the help of seventy old men and divine inspiration and established its definite form in 22 books. While the revelation, the qabbalat, is fixed, only progress in the knowledge of the individual in and by his learning can be made: here individual teachers, Rabbinic influence, and therefore canonization enter. Nevertheless, the reverence for the text remained and was even largely extended to the texts of the Prophets, the Psalms and the wisdom books (being, more or less, special comments on the Torah). However, a so-called tripartite canon (in which the creation of the Septuagint would be the third revelation), as a kind of praeparatio evangelica, as adduced by Christians, cannot be maintained.

Another definition of canonization (viz. of the books of the Torah) presupposes the authoritative power of some members of a religious community to select a number of texts to support their position and to marginalize dissenters as “members of sects” or “heretics”: in essence this censorial theory starts from a negative conception regarding the divine revelation of the texts. V does not agree with this “Enlightened” view.

A third view believes that a canon represents an anthologization of esteemed traditions. Here too authoritative power, sc. censorship, is finally necessary to establish a corpus suited for and acceptable as tradition, and this is another view that V declines. The Rabbinic canon’s distinctive mark is the liturgical reading as kitve ha-qodesh, Holy Scriptures, while other revered texts are not allowed this authority.

Deconstruction offers a new perspective on canonization. In spite of Derrida’s use of ‘deconstruction’, the idea is at present widely used as a method (not a word Derrida would have used for this activity) of reading texts and contexts. It happens “inside of the history of literary affirmative action whose main result is the transmitted literary and cultural canon” (p. 18-9). Though Derrida refuses to think of a canon, V’s view is that we cannot speak of a text without a canon. The canon depends on the “life” or fate of the book(s) involved, which in its turn depends on both the understanding or power of comprehension of the reader and the ability (of the author) of a book to convey its message.

The main question of (de)canonization of the Bible and Rabbinic literature, sc. how its textual transmission worked, remains unanswered due to various causes. V states that the only way one can study the development of the Bible is by considering why other texts, which once were highly authoritative, became marginalized: three texts have been selected, sc. the Septuagint, the sometimes overly literal translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek by Aquila the Proselyte, and the Wisdom (or Proverbs) by Jesus ben Sira.

In chapter 1, V first discusses the importance of libraries and a “canon”. In Judaism the need to have a select shelf of scrolls, i.e. a (kind of) canon, was felt as vital to counter the Jewish identity crisis (caused in particular by the Exile but also by the spread and increasing domination of Hellenistic culture) and inner political destabilization. In this context the translation into Greek of the Torah (the so-called Septuagint) should be understood, as well as its importance for Jewish-Hellenistic communities, notably in Alexandria. As a corollary effect of the Septuagint, a voluminous production of Jewish philosophical and religious works (in Greek!) began: both had an tremendous impact on subsequent Christian authors. The origin of the Septuagint is worded in a letter ascribed to one Aristeas. The letter and its content have been the source of a fierce discussion over the centuries: in AD 1705 it was shown to be fictitious, a legend.

As interest in the object decreases, the legend loses authority and, therefore, credibility, a process V calls “vital dependence”. An authoritative reader of a legend may feel that he can properly change, add, or omit an element of the legend of which he believes it is not consistent with his interpretation of the legend and, moreover, believe he acts in consonance with the intention of the original author: it is a process called “hermeneutic appropriation”. These two processes are at the center of V’s interpretation of the Septuagint and its legend in Jewish-Hellenistic and Christian tradition, the construction and deconstruction of a hermeneutic past.

The Septuagint was intended as the revelation of the original truth to the Jews for ‘goyim’ and at least partially to be explained as a defense against Greek culture and philosophy. According to the legend the Septuagint served to provide the Alexandria library on the orders of King Ptolemy with both the original and the “authorized translation” of the “laws of the Jews” (some ‘unauthorized’ attempts to translate the Torah into Greek already existed). Neither copy, however, had any impact on Greek and/or Roman writers until the ascent of Christianity as a state religion. In the legend the Septuagint is nevertheless presented as a “classic text”, just like Homer’s mended text (by 72 grammarians on Pisistratus’ orders).

In spite of this claim, the quality of the ‘perfect translation’ was doubted by some Jews, e.g. by Josephus and the ‘grandson’ of Jesus ben Sira. Finally, however, they did not question its authority. As for Christians, the legend of the Septuagint’s tradition contributed to its importance: the veritas hebraica (especially to be recognized in the books of the Prophets) is an important element of the messianic appeal of Christianity. For early Christian doctrine, formulated by some of the Church fathers, the Septuagint was, therefore, also an authoritative text, open to all. The legitimacy of this authority was first publicly doubted by Origen and Iulius Africanus, sc. in the first half of the third century AD. They raised the question of canonicity, focusing on Jewish “forgeries” of the text and aiming to create a clean “Christian” text. The relation of the Septuagint to the Hebrew text(s) and to other Greek translations, including those made after the birth of Jesus Christ, continued from then on to concern Christian scholars. In particular, the inclusion of other and “new” translations was made possible by the gradual loss of authority of the Septuagint, certainly in comparison with the Hebrew text. Eusebius’ work was essential for the de-canonization of the Greek Torah, at least in the Western Church but not in the Eastern: there the “new” (i.e. after the birth of Christ) translations were rejected. In the East, the Septuagint alone, being an “inspired text”, remained authoritative: the divine inspiration that had produced it was a premise underlying its status as Christian Bible.

In the Western Church, the Christian Latin authors until Jerome and his publication of the so-called Vulgata, tried to avoid undermining the authority of the Septuagint directly, but the legend and the inspiration underlying the creation of the Septuagint did not really play any significant role there: also the “new” translations gained some authority. More specifically, these Latin authors increasingly used a translation of a translation; the latter translation had authority not because of the inspiration but because of the role the seventy(-two) translators had as teachers and interpreters of the law. The Latin world finally separated from the Septuagint, in spite of the adamant efforts of Augustine, with the Vetus Latina, the translation of the Old Testament from the Hebrew (and not from the Septuagint!) by Jerome. At this point, the now apparent inconsistencies between the Hebrew text of the Torah and various translations of it into Greek or Latin further undermined the authority of the Septuagint. At the same time the authority of the Hebrew original was reestablished, notably because of philological interest: the work of the “old men” is, however, not completely discarded by Jerome. Jerome’s translation remained authoritative in the Western Christian world until the sixteenth century AD.

The Patristic authorities and later Byzantine grammarians created an amalgam of the stories, or legends, of Ezra, Pisistratus, and Ptolemy. In the work of Isidore of Seville, the three ‘legends’ have completely fused. Unfortunately, most of his sources are lost. Comparisons between Pisistratus and Ptolemy had been made before, notably by Jerome and Tertullian. Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria had compared the old men of Ezra with the translators of the Septuagint. In this amalgam, the discussion developed into a contest of superiority of a library (Athens, Jerusalem, Alexandria), the particular literary traditions, or the extent of divine inspiration in Ezra’s Torah or the Septuagint. The latter question was also influenced by the extent of social and literary acculturation in the Hellenistic and Christian societies and by various claims regarding the antiquity, and originality, of the various cultures. Christian authors fostered the idea of Jewish supremacy: Christianity, having adopted Jewish (moral and/or ethical) values, was the real heir and owner of divine wisdom.

It is, states V in chapter 2, difficult to ascertain what the Septuagint meant for Rabbinic Judaism. It is a problem connected with Rabbinic attitude towards Greek culture: V believes this to have been generally a positive one, apart from some specific periods (102). However, Greek texts, and other ‘foreign’ opinions, were normally consciously left out of stored tradition by censoring Rabbis. This was not directly the case with the Septuagint, in which the Torah had been translated by Jewish scribes and scholars, occasionally illuminated by Midrashim, (written) Rabbinic exegeses of the text of the Torah (as opposed to the Mishnah, the ‘secret doctrine of the Jewish people’). However, Rabbinic teaching is a continuous process of interpretation of the text of the Torah and the Septuagint, being translated and thereby more or less fixated or dated, only represents a single moment of the exegetical discourse. Moreover, the Rabbis also gradually encountered the changes Greek culture, and specifically Greek vocabulary, had undergone in the Roman Empire between the days of Ptolemy and those of Justinian.

V adduces several examples of where and how Rabbinic exegesis influenced important passages of the translation of the Torah into the Septuagint. Some of these passages show, moreover, presence of knowledge of the Septuagint legend in the Rabbinic tradition. A constantly returning element in Rabbinic tradition from the times of Ptolemy onwards became that the Septuagint was intended for Ptolemy: it was a personal copy for royal needs, not a liturgical and didactical document (141-2). Connected with this issue is the discussion about the letters/characters whose use was permitted in writing down texts for liturgical use: essentially they are letters in the Assyrian script (the square script, still in use today), to be recited in the Hebrew language. Over all, it becomes clear that traditional Rabbinic exegesis had been used with necessary precautions to present a translated copy of the Torah that was politically and textually acceptable both for Jews and Greeks, more specifically King Ptolemy: the knowledge it contained was passed on, adapted to the needs of the moment, but it was not suited for Jewish liturgical reading.

In chapter 3, V turns to the translation of the Torah by Aquila. The subject relates to the attitude of Rabbinic academies and Christian writers toward translation. Initially the Septuagint had, by Christian writers, been accepted as authoritative because it was an ‘inspired’ text. Gradually this view had been undermined by the confrontation of Christian authors with both the Midrashim and other translations. Simultaneously, this whole enterprise might be a potential threat to the notion of a sacred language, be it Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, or any other: are sacred words translatable into another language and do they retain their function and meaning?

One of the methods, for lack of a more appropriate word, of verse-by-verse exegesis is the so-called Targum (I would suggest perhaps that something like ‘inspired (oral) translation’ might do in many cases). In essence it is a liturgical and exegetical tool for a meturgeman, translator, to mediate between the teaching by the Rabbi, which was in Hebrew, and the Aramaic of the community. The mediation of the meturgeman has, however, to follow the guidelines of his teacher (Rabbi) and his school. Nevertheless, the meturgeman (or Amora) gradually also gained professional authority, especially in Babylonian Rabbinic Judaism.

In Palestinian Rabbinic Judaism, the meturgeman Aquila is said to have rendered the Bible in Greek (an effort the Christians depicted as a Jewish effort to counter the messianic character of the Septuagint), while in Babylonian Rabbinic teaching praise is given to the Aramaic translation by Onkelos. In Rabbinic texts, a substitution is (rightly) suggested: Aquila is Onkelos; consequently the Aramaic translation replaces the Greek one. It should be stressed that this substitution is only a canonical one. It (wrongly) makes Aquila a different person in Christian and Jewish Babylonian tradition. Aquila was regularly used by Christian writers, especially the Eastern ones. Jerome, on the other hand, discussed him negatively, though being impressed by his accuracy. In many sources, Aquila is connected with the Emperor Hadrian, a relation that cannot be proven. For Jewish writers, his supposed Greek origins “justify” his mastery of Greek; for Christian authors his non-Jewish origin is important. From Aquila’s translation, effectively a mixture of Greek and Aramaic expressions and/or elements, it seems that he followed the line of Rabbi ‘Aqiva (or ‘Akiva: V uses both names), which makes him, according to V, a meturgeman (175). In fact, the origins of both the Greek and the Aramaic Targums may be retraced to Sinai, as oral Torah.

The Ecclesiasticus or Siracides of Jesus ben Sira, according to V in chapter 4, is regarded in Jewish and Protestant tradition as apocryphal, but as canonical in the Catholic Church (190). A book of proverbs and maxims, it claims to be an ethical tribunal for Judaism. It was only fully transmitted in Greek and merely fragmentarily in Hebrew. The translation into Greek was created by the grandson or descendent of Jesus ben Sira, who classified the work of his grandfather or ancestor as the teachings of a Rabbi in the oral and written Torah. Being so, the authorized transmission of the Hebrew text was forbidden according to Rabbinic tradition.

In his prologue Ben Sira’s ‘grandson’ appears to be reverent towards the Septuagint, but in fact that is what it is: appearance. Actually, he is not positive at all, pointing at its weakness in adequately rendering Hebrew into Greek: the Egyptian Jews had only an imperfect copy of Palestinian Truth. This book could mend at least part of that loss. That the work did have potential was widely recognized until well in the medieval period; in Rabbinic literature, however, its importance (and canonical value) gradually diminished, though some of his sayings were one way or another preserved.

It appears that the text of Ben Sira as quoted in Rabbinic literature evolved, like that of biblical texts in general, well into the first several centuries AD (211). It is a process of exegetical expansion, mirrored in the Midrashic reception of Septuagint and Aquila. Nevertheless, the reading of the complete text of Jesus ben Sira is considered unsuitable in the Rabbinic academy, in spite of its apparent popularity. According to V, the Babylonian teachers especially averted themselves from Ben Sira’s proverbs (217-8), allegedly because his teaching is not new for them. In fact, it competed with Rabbinic teachings, transmitted in the Babylonian Talmud. In Palestinian Judaism, the acceptance of the work was more authoritative, though it was still not allowed for liturgical reading. Only in and after the early medieval period did the work of Ben Sira benefit from the increasing interest, lasting until the sixteenth century, in so-called wisdom literature.

In the Conclusion, V states that both Septuagint and Ben Sira held canonic status for some time. The Septuagint partially lost that status due to a number of developments mentioned above, notably the ‘birth’ of a Latin Church. The disappearance of the Jewish community in Alexandria contributed to its decanonization for those living in the Greek-speaking Diaspora. At the same time, also other texts from Egyptian Judaism (temporarily) disappeared and forever lost canonical authority. In the Greek Church, the Septuagint retained its authority. The importance of the Septuagint for Christians rested on its supposed messianic ‘proofs’. On 227-9 V briefly summarizes his conclusions, comparing the vicissitudes of the Septuagint, the work of Aquila/Onkelos, and that of Jesus ben Sira.

The bibliographies are impressive, as is the number and set-up of the indices. To my regret, the indices of ancient and medieval names and the one of subjects are not as exhaustive as might have been desirable. The name of Rabbi ‘Aqiva, e.g., which is encountered frequently in chapter 4, will be sought without success in the indices. Also, in other respects, the care taken for this volume is not as good as might be expected for a volume produced at Brill’s: numerous typos mar this book. Also, the nomenclature shows inconsistencies or faults: both ‘Akiva and ‘Aqiva (the same person being intended) occur, while the ‘kaf’ and the ‘qof’ are two distinct letters in Hebrew. I believe ‘Aqiva to be the right rendition; both ben Sira and Ben Sira (the latter is preferable) can be found; the Roman author Terentianus Maurus is referred to as Terentius Maurus; in one instance the Old Testament is referred to as the Ancient Testament; the work of Suetonius is consequently mentioned as De viris inlustribus, to mention some flaws that discredit both author and editor(s). A stricter editorial control could and should have prevented most of the errors noticed.

V adduces much information and provides the reader with a sufficient number of primary sources (in translation) to illuminate his views. According to the editor’s blurb on the back cover “the author concludes that, if a canon is the ability of a text to produce and authorize commentary deconstructing its original context by generalization, de-canonization is the inverse way of contextualizing a ‘canonical’ text by reconstructing the supposed original context.” I think V fails to fully achieve this claim, in spite of his commendable effort; as a history of the occurrences of the Septuagint, Aquila’s translation, and the Wisdom of Jesus ben Sira until the fifth century AD this book is a useful guide, as an exercise in deconstruction of an ancient tradition it may do, though it should have been made clearer from the beginning that Derrida’s concepts have been somewhat modified. Only in certain of his examples (106-134; 176-185; 205-210) does V come close to them.


1. Translated into English as: Of Grammatology, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976. A useful guide to the ideas of Derrida regarding deconstruction may be found in B. Stocker, Derrida on Deconstruction, Abingdon/New York: Routledge, 2006.