It’s Not Who You Know, It’s What They Know

Many folks know that I answer questions on judaism as part of my work on the SCJ FAQ. If I get a question that I can’t answer, I forward it to someone I know that can help me (most often, Micha Berger of Aishdas, who does the blog aspaqlaria). Recently, I got a question on the Septuagint, which asked questions such as “Would [the Septuagint] have been allowed in the Synagogues of Jerusalem before its (Jerusalem) destruction by Rome?”

So, following my usual practice, I forwarded the question to someone who I know is an expert on the Septuagint. To give you an idea of the depth of his knowledge, his response to the above question was:

This may not be knowable. At least, I don’t know it. What we do know is that many Jews of that era did not in fact understand much Hebrew, but tended to be much more fluent in Aramaic or Greek. There were apparently also efforts to translate various Hebrew texts into Aramaic, though they didn’t achieve the collective identity of the Septuagint–at least, not till later centuries, if at all. This is not surprising–many more people in the Mediterranean world spoke Greek as a first or second language than Aramaic, and Greek had more of a literature-oriented culture.

In any event, the Septuagint was certainly in widespread use in Jerusalem at that time. I just can’t tell you what the Synagogues’ exact attitudes toward it were. Though apparently Gamaliel is on record as saying that “Greek is the only language into which the Torah can be accurately translated.” If the way people behave today is any indication, it is very likely that different sects had different policies.

Certainly one data point is that the majority of early Christians thought of the Septuagint as “the Scriptures” (literally “the Writings”) simply because they already thought of it that way before they became Christians. Most of the early Christian writers were Jewish, and the vast majority of their quotations are from the Septuagint. As Christianity spread from the Jewish world to the Greek world, the use of the Septuagint only increased. This eventually led the Jews to de-emphasize use of the Septuagint, but probably not till after the fall of Jerusalem.

So, who is this Septuagint expert? No less than the author of Perl (remember, I’m also Perl’s Paternal Godparent). Larry and I used to discuss all sorts of stuff when we carpooled together to SDC in the 1980s, and Larry is one of the few folks that can read all three languages of the Septuagint (he believes that if you are going to argue scripture, you must go to the source: be that Greek or Hebrew). This is understandable, as he is a preacher’s son.

Yet another lesson that there are more levels to people than we commonly see. After all: Did you know that Donald Knuth was a highway geek?