Interview with Dr James K. Aitken

To mark the International Septuagint Day (8 February) we have an interview with Dr James Aitken, an expert in the field. We ask him questions about language research, ancient Greek, and the study of the Septuagint within biblical studies.

james-aitkenJames Aitken is Reader in Hebrew and Early Jewish Studies at the Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge. Publications include No Stone Unturned: Greek Inscriptions and Septuagint Vocabulary (Eisenbrauns, 2014) and the T&T Clark Companion to the Septuagint (T&T Clark, 2015).


  • Which challenges arise in studying religious canonical texts from both a lexicographical and theological point of view [including linguistic dating of such texts]?

Challenges are always before us from the simple lack in our own knowledge about the ancient world coupled with the sparsity of evidence. The world around the Bible has to be reconstructed from a range of sources, often contradictory and certainly incomplete. While the texts are canonical today, for a lexicographic approach or for a theological reading that is historically bound, one has to reconstruct what the text meant to its early authors, editors and readers (it is near impossible to separate these categories). If we take both of these categories together (the lexicographic and the theological), for me the lexicographic is the basis of the theological.

A proper appreciation of the meaning of the words – that is an understanding of the senses of those words without prejudice from our own history of translation and interpretation – is the first step for all exegesis, both historical and theological. Of course, to appreciate any word meaning one must also take into account the context in which it was used and the cultural context in which the authors worked. Therefore, any word meaning is no mere extraction of a linguistic datum, but an engagement with the anthropology, material culture, psychology and cognitive worlds of the speakers. We need to use all resources at our disposal for understanding the text, but without a careful delineation of the semantics, our steps in interpretation and reflection are flawed from the start.

  • How do you see the application of modern theoretical linguistic approaches to the study of ancient textual witnesses like manuscripts, inscriptions, reading traditions?

The exciting development in the field of biblical languages is the application of linguistic approaches to their interpretation. We should bear in mind that this is not new in that nineteenth century studies and the lexica written at the time were often applying the latest linguistic theories in their work; their theories, however, are often simply not the ones we would use now. Nevertheless, there are today focussed studies devoted specifically to applying contemporary linguistics to the biblical text: corpus linguistics, cognitive theory, construction grammar, discourse analysis, generative linguistics, pragmatics and speech-acts, etc. It is important for everyone to know something about these approaches, as while one cannot always become a specialist in linguistics, knowledge of the issues will prevent basic errors being made. In other words, error capture should be the minimum for everyone without necessarily applying new linguistic insights.

There are two difficulties with the application of linguistic theory. One, which is well known in the field, is that many theories are built upon modern languages where we have native speakers to interrogate. When applied to ancient languages, we do not have the contexts, the informants, the large data-set, or the cultural knowledge to know for certain the meaning of linguistic items. This does not make it impossible to do, but means we need to find methods for determining as far as possible these issues from within the ancient texts and cultural contexts. Second, our data are restricted by the extent of digitisation of the corpora. For example, there are many programs that enable sophisticated searching of the biblical texts, allowing for complex syntactic and corpus analysis. However, comparative evidence that might be found in inscriptions and papyri is not available when these sources have not been tagged, as yet, to allow for such searching. The results from the Bible are therefore provisional without comparative data.

A final observation can be made on the application of linguistic approaches. Knowledge of the particular language, whether Hebrew, Greek or other, can take years of study. Linguistic theory is only helpful if supported by those years of study and reading in the relevant languages.

  • How, in your opinion, does language contact and convergence affect the way we appreciate ancient Greek in its contact with other ancient languages?

A perennial problem in the study of biblical Greek is appreciating how far the writers were native speakers. The question applies in different but related ways to the Septuagint and the New Testament. For the Septuagint there is the presumption that the writers in the early days of translating (third century BCE) would have perhaps been second language speakers in Egypt and not fully conversant with Greek. This is made more complex by the fact that their translation style consists of adhering closely in Greek to the word order and sometimes idiom of the Hebrew source text. In the New Testament this then becomes an issue both of the Greek following the style of the Septuagint and of the possibility that Jews in Palestine were not conversant with Greek when their native language was Aramaic or Hebrew.

Socio-linguistic research has transformed our understanding of bilingualism and multilingualism. We have good evidence of the use of Greek in Palestine and in Egypt from early on in the Hellenistic period, indicating that Jews in some levels of society had a reasonable acquaintance with the language. Bilingual research also shows that some people can be competent in more than one language, and indeed often it is not the language spoken at home but the language of education that matters more. Notably there can be interference from the other language but this is not always a sign of impartial knowledge. Loan-words are natural developments when languages are in contact: we find in the Greek of the Bible loan-words from Aramaic and Hebrew (and in the New Testament Latin), but these can come from the spoken language (not some immediate written interference). There are very few Egyptian loan-words in the Septuagint, but these also come from the spoken language, as we see many more such loan-words in Greek documents from Egypt.

Certainly the translation style led to some oddities in the Septuagint, but these should not be given priority over the vast majority that is natural Greek. Some peculiarities of the Septuagint are now seen to be standard for the Greek of the time and most do not suppose inadequate knowledge on the part of the translators. Originally when Greek papyri were found in Egypt of documentary texts it was thought that apparent errors were the result of the scribes being Egyptian. It now can be seen that in many cases the supposed errors reflect contemporary developments in the language. Instead it is usually very difficult to determine whether the scribe is Egyptian or native Greek from the level of the language – content and the use of Egyptian names are a better guide. So for the translators and writers of the Greek Bible, we cannot derive from their language that they were not native Greek speakers. At times it is their choice to translate in a certain way or to write in a certain way.

  • To what extent can Greek Papyri help understanding the history of Greek?

The discovery of Greek papyri and their publication in large numbers since the nineteenth century have transformed our understanding of the Greek language. They are crucially relevant for two distinct reasons.

First, they provide large quantities of data for Greek in periods where there are surprising gaps in the literature. Thus, we now have good attestation in Greek from the Hellenistic period through to the Byzantine empire. Previously, for example, evidence from the third and second centuries BCE was largely confined to Hellenistic poetry, but now we have examples of prose writing in the papyri from the same period as the Septuagint. Deissmann was one of the first to notice the relevance for Biblical Greek, and this has been taken up by Lee (among others). Of course inscriptions also provide important evidence (as I argue in my book)!

Second, the papyri provide examples of Greek in varying registers. We now have Greek that reflects usage in the period by people who were not trying to always write in literary style, but were writing in a way that more closely reflected their spoken language. Importantly, however, it is still a written language as it is preserved written in the papyri, and therefore does not reflect the spoken language or “Greek of the street” as some claim. And as a written language, it reflects various levels of ability and compositional aim. So, some papyri, while using the vocabulary and syntax of the day are nonetheless written in a higher register and aiming at a refined literary style. Comparison, therefore, of the papyri to biblical Greek demonstrates primarily that both groups of sources reflect the Greek of the time period. It is a secondary step, and one that needs careful analysis, to suggest what register of Greek it is.

There is still much work to be done on the Greek language of the papyri (not only in its relation to biblical Greek). For an excellent set of essays in this area, see Evans and Obbink.

  • Is the term ‘koine’ problematic? Furthermore, to what extent it is possible to speak of ‘standard’ or ‘Biblical’ Greek?

The term koine is an accurate term, but is so misunderstood that it has become problematic. Some instead prefer the more natural term “post-classical Greek.” The “koine dialect” is an ancient designation for the language of the Hellenistic (though beginning earlier) and Roman periods, denoting that now there was only one shared dialect. It was chosen as a term to contrast with the classical period when several “dialects” were dispersed through the region (Attic, Ionic, Aeolic, Doric, etc.). It therefore represents a “universal” type of Greek. The main misunderstandings, found in the majority of New Testament Greek introductions that I have seen, are:

a) it is a specific designation for New Testament Greek – when in fact all Greek writers in this period wrote in koine;

b) that some texts are not written in koine – all texts are in koine, but some are a higher register and some lower, and some even with old dialectal features;

c) that it is both common and universal, namely a language of everyday people – although it is used by everyone for all registers of writing Greek;

d) that it is simplified Greek, made easier for non-native speakers across the Hellenistic empires – all language develops, but rarely is simplification the correct or sufficient explanation, and koine is a natural development and not an engineered form to cater for non-native speakers.

Standard language is an important concept in that to study any one period of language one needs to establish what the standard is, and therefore deviation, or better variation, from that standard can be traced. Koine is reflective of its time period and within that time period certain grammatical forms, syntax and vocabulary are standard for the time. Biblical Greek has too often been compared against the standard of Classical Greek rather than the Greek of contemporary documents. The very term biblical Greek is misleading, since the bible (whether we speak alone of either the Septuagint or the New Testament) is not a unity. Nor is it distinct from other phases of Greek, and the Greek as represented in the various biblical books needs to be placed within the history of Greek.

  • What in your opinion are underworked areas and topics in need of further research? What is the future of Septuagint Studies?

The future of the study of the Septuagint is looking very promising with more people than ever involved in the field, with countries not known for the subject becoming ever more prominent in the field (such as S. Korea or Poland), and with new topics and questions being raised. In the past I would be apologetic for studying this minority area of Septuagint, but now people are excited to hear about it and are already aware of its significance.

Naturally the underworked areas to my mind are those that I work on. The importance and appreciation of the language of the Septuagint is only beginning, and it remains a neglected area for those working on the history of the Greek language. Further study of the translation technique and interpretation of every book of the Septuagint is still needed too. But where the field is not progressing is asking about what it means to translate an ancient text and what it tells us about literacy and scribalism in ancient (Hellenistic) Judaism. The Septuagint needs to be included in wider discussions of Hellenistic Judaism, in debates over scribalism within biblical studies and the Humanities, and in studies of literature and authorship in ancient Judaism. It is after all one of the largest literary products of ancient Judaism.

  • What current projects are you working on?

I have two main projects underway currently. One is a study of translation technique and especially the formal equivalence (precise matching of the Greek to the Hebrew source) in the Septuagint. I investigate this method of translation from a literary and cultural viewpoint, seeking to understand and appreciate this method, rather than dismissing it as a failed translation by boorish translators. It requires grappling closely with the text and language to enter into the mind-set of the translators. It is fun too trying to unlock the puzzles!

Second, I am writing a book on “The Making of the Septuagint,” which investigates the origins of the Septuagint (specifically the Pentateuch) by investigating how books were written and translated in the context of Ptolemaic Egypt. It thereby puts the translation into the context in which it was produced, seeking to understand better both the social conditions and cultural values that generated such a text, and, on a practical level, the methods used by the translators to make it. It concludes by consideration of how the Septuagint “made it” – how on earth a translation became such a success in Judaism.

In addition to these major projects I continue to write shorter studies on areas of particular interest: linguistic features of Septuagint Greek, rhetorical and interpretative choices of the translators, and translations that are more surprising than you might think (Proverbs, Sirach, Ecclesiastes). In Septuagint studies one is never short of something to write about.



Aitken, No Stone Unturned: Greek Inscriptions and Septuagint Vocabulary (CSHB; Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2014).

Evans, T. V. and D. D. Obbink, eds., The Language of the Papyri (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

Deissmann, G. Adolf, Bibelstudien (Marburg, 1895); Deissmann, G. Adolf, Neue Bibelstudien (Marburg, 1897) = Bible Studies: Contributions Chiefly from Papyri and Inscriptions to the History of the Language, Literature and the Religion of Hellenistic Judaism and Primitive Christianity (1901).

Lee, J.A.L., A Lexical Study of the Septuagint Version of the Pentateuch (SBLSCS, 14; Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1983).


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