TIP of the day - from the blogs: on the proper use of etymology

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MJ. Smith | Forum Activity | Posted: Wed, Nov 25 2015 9:49 PM

From Christian Leadership Center:




Understanding Etymology


This section of the notes will establish certain guidelines for etymological (or philological) studies of Hebrew words.  This is the more technical aspect of the study, usually the work of the specialist.  But we still have to learn the basic resources and methods just to be able to use the etymological findings effectively.


A great deal of work has been produced that calls attention to the misuse of etymologies in biblical studies over the past centuries (and this is important because students are still buying those books that were not always done well); we may learn from such careless and dangerous practices how important valid method is.  The most helpful discussions include: P. F. Ackroyd, "Meanings and Exegesis" in Words and Meanings, ed. by Ackroyd and Lindars (Cambridge University Press, 1968); James Barr, Comparative Philology and the Text of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968); James Barr, "Did Isaiah Know About Hebrew `Root Meanings'?" ExT 75 (1964); James Barr, "Etymology and the Old Testament," OTS 19 (1974); James Barr, The Semantics of Biblical Language (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961); R. Gordis, "On Methodology in Biblical Exegesis," JQR 61 (1960):93‑118; Max L. Margolis, "The Scope and Methodology of Biblical Philology," JQR NS 1 (1910, 1911):5‑41; D. F. Payne, "Old Testament Exegesis and the Problem of Ambiguity," ASTI 5 (1967):48‑68; S. Ullmann, The Principles of Semantics (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1957).


The article by Barr is most helpful in separating the various disciplines that may be called "etymology."  The following is a list of the results. (See also Yakov Malkiel, Essays on Linguistic Themes [Oxford, 19681], pp. 199‑227).


Etymology A: Prehistoric Reconstruction.  The first type of etymological operation is the reconstruction of the form and sense of the so‑called proto language.  By its own nature, Proto Semitic (PS) lies anterior to historical documentation.


Hebrew        ’amar         “say”

Arabic         ’amara        “command”

Ethiopic       ’ammara     “show, know”

Akkadian     amaru         “see”                     PS “be clear”?


This sort of reconstruction involves two aspects:  phonology and semantics.  Once we have established the corresponding phonemes, we observe that the meanings in the historical languages may suggest what the meaning in the ancestor language may have been, and this in turn may suggest what was the semantic path, in our case the semantic path from a pre-Hebrew stage to the evidenced meaning in biblical Hebrew.


The comparison that we carry out, the operations in which we align an Arabic or an Akkadian word with a Hebrew word, all imply that these languages and the words in question have a common prehistory.


Etymology B: Historical Tracing.  This operation traces the forms and the meanings within an observable historical development. If we cannot carry this out to the full in Hebrew, it is because of the lack of adequate information.  This process overlaps with usage.


In case B the operation is less hypothetical and less reconstructive in character: it works within one known language and traces the development of a root/word through different stages, all of which are extant in historical documents.  There still may be some reconstruction involved.  Although we may have stage one and stage two of a word, the path from stage one to stage two is seldom known with absolute objectivity.


How then do we assess the probability of various explanations of changes of . Two ways: 1) by noting the contemporary developments in thought and culture (development of sacrifice, codification of laws, etc,); 2) some sort of preliminary classification, based m our previous linguistic experience, of ways in which meanings may be found to change and develop.  We shall return to this also.


Etymology C: Adoptions from Other Languages.   The third type of operation concerns the tracing back of so called “loan words.”   For example, Hebrew hekal may be traced to Akkadian ekallu, which is from Sumerian E.GAL, “big house.”  Biblical Hebrew has a good number of foreign words, but no where  near as many as English (See M. Ellenbogen, Foreign Words in the Old Testament).   In later Hebrew, adoptions from Persian, Greek and Latin became more common.   In this operation, the task is to identify that words are in fact adoptions, to identify the language from which they came, their meaning in that language, and, if there is sufficient information, the date of their adoption into Hebrew.


Beyond this, however, there is the further study of the development of the word in question within its own language. The question over the word hekal is really quite complex.  But the fact that it was used in Ugaritic suggests that it was brought aver to the Canaanite branch quite early.  But over against this is the question as to why the word is never used in the Pentateuch or Joshua and Judges, and is rare in Samuel and the early prophets.  Any discussion must also recognize that in Akkadian it means “royal palace” mostly, whereas in Hebrew it is “temple.”


Accepting that the derivation of hekal is correct, we should observe that this information, however true, is entirely irrelevant to the semantics of the term in the Old Testament , since there is no evidence that any Hebrew knew that the word came from Sumerian or what it meant in that language; nor does the sense in that language give a proper impression of its sense in Hebrew.  Other words, with foreign derivations, may carry more weight in their usage in Hebrew.  Each must be studied on its own merits, but insignificant trivia about each may be left out of the exegesis.


Etymology D: Analysis of Morphemes.  Here “etymology” designates a separation and identification of the constituent parts of words. The beginning of such an operation is usually to cite the lexical morpheme, the root.   What commonly happens is that people quote the simplest form, i.e.,  the one which is most common and best known, or the one which in the grammatical tradition is the usual citation-form (qal perfect).  What passes for etymology in is, then, the citation of the simpler, more familiar or more elementary form.  But it may be that the word is from a derivative of the simpler form.


Compound words are uncommon or of slight importance in Hebrew, except for special cases of names.  But Hebrew words can be compound in another sense, that is,  a lexical morpheme and infix pattern.  When people say that mispar is derived from  s-p-r,  that is a sort of etymology.  But this is not a historical process; there never was a time when s-p-r existed before, or independently of, the words that include it.  The “root” is an abstraction from words comprising the same radicals and forming a semantic field (see Sawyer).


The word “derivative” is therefore an ambiguous term.  It can refer to the historical process, working with categories of before and after.  It can also refer to a relationship which may rather be called generative.   The relation between s-p-r and sepher, “book,”  is therefore a generative one.


The question whether a root meaning can usefully and meaningfully be stated for a Hebrew word or group of words will depend on the semantic history of the individual group of words concerned.  Where words having a common root have also remained within the same semantic field, there seems to be no good reason why a meaning for this root should not be assigned; but where they have not done so, then the semantic relation between root and formed word may differ for each word and the relationship of the word meanings to the root meaning is definable only in historical terms.  If this is so, then (contrary to tradition) all Hebrew words cannot be given a uniform treatment in this respect. 


If the identification of the root is accepted as a form of etymology, this will be a mixture of historical and non‑historical processes, with the non‑historical probably predominating.


Etymology D: Cognate Comparisons.   We now come to the heuristic process through which the sense of obscure words is elucidated by reference to words of apparently cognate form and of known meaning in other languages such as Ugaritic, Arabic, and Akkadian.  For a thorough treatment of this, see Barr, Comparative Philology. 


In case A, the Hebrew sense functions along with Arabic and Ugaritic, etc., as base evidence from which the prehistoric state can be projected; in case E the Hebrew sense must be discovered.   Sometimes new identifications of this kind imply not words of comm proto‑Semitic descent, but loan-words,  and in such cases they depend rather on the methods of case C.


Conclusions.  There are really four types of operations listed here: A‑D;  E is not really a new case, but only an application of either C or (more often) A.


We may generalize and say that there is no single, clearly marked entity which is etymology.  Etymology is the traditional term for several kinds of study, working upon words as the basic units and interested in the explication of them in relation to similar elements which are historically earlier, which are taken within the scope of the study as “original,” which appear to be more basic as units of meaning, or which appear to have a prior place in sane generative process.



Etymological Procedure



Etymology is then the study of the history and the development of a word, using one or more of the above procedures.  The following suggestions will provide a practical framework for such studies.


Dictionary Definition


First, scan the lexicons for the basic definitions.  These definitions are the recorded results of the lexicographers; they provide a working base for our research.  The standard lexicon used by Hebrew students is that of Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles Briggs, commonly referred to as BDB.  The work lists all related terms of a word under a tri-radical root.  Many of these etymological connections have since been shown to be incorrect, so that critical evaluation is necessary.  Moreover, its interpretations are not always acceptable of the theological bias of the authors.


The other major work is the lexicon by Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner (KBL).  This may differ in its meanings since it is more up to date in the cognate relationships, notably in listing Ugaritic.  It also has material in it that needs to be tested because it came from a method that has been challenged.  And so caution is needed.




While you have the dictionaries open, survey the derivatives, that is, nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and names that are listed as derived from the verb.  But keep in mind that this designation is not meant to suggest that the verb, the qal perfect tense, existed before the nouns or adjectives‑‑it is simply a convenient way to describe words that are cognate (from the same root) in Hebrew.


Listed after the discussion of the verb will be all the nouns, adjectives, prepositions, and particles that appear to be  etymologically related.  Caution is needed here, because not all the entrees belong under these verbs.  Each one has to be evaluated to verify that it is indeed cognate to the root.


If the related words have the same Hebrew letters in their proper order, and there is a generally related meaning, then they are probably cognate.  There should be some connection in the meanings that may be helpful in exposition.  This is not to say, however, that the Hebrews themselves understood the inner workings of their language.  As with English speaking people, only the common root connections would be recognized.  The more subtle connections would be the lot of the specialist.


Cognate Language Studies


The fact that the languages of the Fertile Crescent have such similar vocabulary and grammar strongly suggests that they developed from a common source.  It is the interrelatedness of these languages that is helpful for lexical studies.  So without attempting to reconstruct the connecting links in the languages, we may compare the lexical stock in the cognate languages to help our understanding of the words.


A very general survey will be given in the first paragraph of the Hebrew dictionaries.  BDB, for example, will list the basic words that appear in these languages, except for Ugaritic which was discovered later.  This survey will give an idea of what languages have the word.  If all the cognates listed have the same basic

meaning, it may be concluded that the word was a well established term that had not changed much over the centuries.


If the meanings of the word in the languages differ widely from biblical Hebrew, or if the biblical Hebrew word is rare or problematic., then further study in the etymology may be essential.   The following survey will provide an introduction to these languages and their dictionaries.


Akkadian.   This language, also called Babylonian and Assyrian (especially in BDB) depending on the literary center of the tablets (in Akkad , Babylon and Nineveh respectively) , was written in cuneiform script on clay tablets.  It was primarily the language of the eastern Semitic families,. but spread across the Fertile Crescent as the lingua franca for centuries.


Akkadian derives its name from the city of Akkad, the capital of Sargon.  Old Akkadian dates from 2500‑2000 B.C.  The material is limited, but the picture is rapidly changing due to the affinities between Old Akkadian and Eblaite discovered at Tell

Mardikh (in Syria).


Babylonian is the dialect of the southern region.  Old Babylonian dates from 2000‑1500 B.C.,   Middle Babylonian from 1500-1000, and New Babylonian from 1000 B.C. to the Christian era.  Literary Babylonian (called Later Babylonian) was used between 1400 and 500 B.C.  All these show dialectical variations.


Assyrian is the dialect of the northern part of the region; it is divided into Old Assyrian (2000‑1500).  Middle Assyrian (1500-1000) and New Assyrian (1000‑600).


At times it is helpful to know at what date a word may carry a certain meaning, for to refer to the Assyrian meaning of a word is rather a general reference.  The most thorough dictionary to consult is the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary (CAD).  What has been completed to date is exhaustive, providing samples of meanings  from the various

texts.   However, it has not yet been completed; for words in the latter part of the alphabet, the lexicon by Wolfram von  Soden (AHW) will have to be checked.


These Akkadian dictionaries are very expensive; very few will acquire them.  However, it would be wise to use them when it is possible (while here with access to the library), in order to gain a better understanding of the lexical data from Akkadian and thereby begin to understand the information given in the dictionaries


BDB usually lists any and all Akkadian words as Ass. (Assyrian).


Ugariitic.  Ugaritic is the language of the texts discovered in Ugarit in Syria, They probably represent a Northwest Semitic dialect.  The literature dates from the 14th and 13th century B.C.  So because of the historical, geographical and linguistic connections with biblical Hebrew, the Ugaritic material has great importance for biblical studies.


The Ugaritic  tablets were discovered (in 1927) after BDB was written (1907), and so the data is not included in it.  KBL does, however, list the basic meaning of the comparable term. For more thorough work one should check Cyrus Gordon’s Ugaritic Textbook for the glossary   Also helpful may be the series of articles on Ugaritic lexicography written by Mitchell Dahood in Biblica;  J. Aisleitner’s book, Worterbuch das Ugaritischen Sprache (WUS) could be checked. as well as I. Cohen’s Hapax Legomena in the Light of Akkadian and Ugaritic..


Aramaic.  Old Aramaic is the language of Aramaic inscriptions of the  tenth to the eighth centuries B.C.   Classical or Imperial Aramaic is the language used under the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian empires (seventh to fourth centuries B.C.).  A type of Classical Aramaic is represented by Biblical Aramaic (BA) found in Gen. 31:47; Jer. 10:11; Ezra 4:8--6:18, 7:22‑26; and Dan. 2:4--7:28.  The dating of this material has been disputed by critics.


Aramaic later divided between eastern and western dialects.  West Aramaic is represented by Nabataean, the language of the Arab population of Petra (first century B.C. to the third A.D.); Palmyrene, the language of the Arab population of Palmyra from the same period; Jewish Palestinian Aramaic, the language spoken in Palestine during the time of Christ, represented in the “Genesis Apocryphon” (Dead Sea Scrolls [DSS]) and the Palestinian Targum (as well the Jerusalem and Targumim Onkelos and Jonathan).


East Aramaic is best represented by Syriac.  It was originally the language of Edessa, but later developed a rich Christian literature from the third to thirteenth century A.D.  Babylonian Aramaic is the language of the Babylonian Talmud (fourth to sixth centuries A.D.).  Mandaean is the language of the Gnostic sect of Mandaeans  (third to eighth century A.D.).


For biblical Aramaic, BDB, as well as most dictionaries, includes a comparable section in the back with definitions and references.  For later Aramaic, the two volume set by Jastrow (mentioned earlier) is indispensable.  For early inscriptions (only occasionally helpful), a three volume set by Donner and Rollig includes a glossary of terms.  For Syriac, Payne‑Smith is the tool to check.


Arabic is the linguistic complex embracing all the tongues of the Arabian peninsula.  Ancient or Epigraphic South Arabian (ESA) is the language of the ancient South west Arabian city states (dating anywhere from the eighth century B.C. to the sixth A.D.).   Its dialects are Sabaean, Minaean,  Qatabanian, Hadrami and Awsaniian.


Pre‑classical North Arabic inscriptions range from the fifth century B.C. to the fourth A.D.; they are Tamudic, Lihyanite, and Safaitic dialectics.   But Classical North is usually what is meant by “Arabic.”   It attains its full realization in pre‑Islamic Arabic poetry and later in the Qur’an (seventh century A.D.).  Its diffusion and survival is due to the expansion of Islam.


Arabic is important grammatically since it has been so conservatively guarded.  However, it may not always be as important etymologically and lexicographically as the languages closer In time and geography to biblical Hebrew.  If used with caution, however, some insight may be gained. The most thorough work for Arabic is the voluminous lexicon by William Lane.  To use this, one may have to have some knowledge of the Arabic language, at least a working knowledge of the alphabet. Another dictionary that may be consulted is Han’s Wehr’s Modern Arabic Dictionary.  This may be easier to use because the Arabic is transliterated.  However, one must remember it is modern Arabic; before making interpretive decisions based on this information, other qualifications will have to be sought.


Ethiopic.   Ancient Ethiopic (or Ge’ez) is first attested in the first few centuries A.D.  Above all in the great Aksum inscriptions of the fourth century. It later developed an external  predominantly religious, literature reaching up to modern times (represented by Tigrina, Tigre, Amharic, and Gurage).


There are many other books available on lexical material from the Semitic languages, but they are not as consistently helpful as these mentioned already.  Franz Rosenthal’s Aramaic Handbook  has a brief glossary for vocabulary fpm texts of Achaemenid times, from Syriac writings, Samaritan, or from Palmyrene, Nabatean and various other branch.  Frequently it may be helpful to trace a word into early inscriptional materials such as  Palaeo‑Hebrew or Old Aramaic.  In addition to Donner and Rollig’s work, the Dictionary of Northwest Semitic Inscriptions by Jean and Hoftijzer will be helpful.



Later Hebrew Definitions.


One of the most common errors in studying words is to ignore later Hebrew, Here we have all the literature of Rabbinical Hebrew, which stands in cultural and linguistic continuity with Biblical Hebrew.  Moreover, there was an attempt by the Rabbis to use the biblical words in exactly the same way they were used in the Bible.  One of the benefits of  studying in this area is that the usage of the term may be in a discussion about one of the biblical passages.


The standard work for this material is Jastrow, A Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli  and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature.    This work includes discussions of both Mishnaic Hebrew (MH, what BDB calls NH).and Aramaic, for the literature covered is written in both. The way to tell which is being discussed (if this is all new to you) is to watch for the abbreviations.  Pi. is Hebrew’s Piel, but Pa.. is Aramaic’s equivalent to it.  Other Aramaic terms are Pe (= Qal), Af. or Hap.  (= Hiph).  For the discussion, see Moscati’s Comparative Grammar,  or Rosenthal’s A Grammar of Biblical Aramaic..


The Mishnah records the teachings of the early Rabbis from B.C. 300 to A.D. 300.  This material covers a wide range of biblical topics, mostly of legal or legislative importance. It is written in Mishnaic Hebrew (see Segal, Mishnaic Hebrew).  References to this material follows a tractate--chapter--verse format: Sanhedrin 3:5.


The Talmud incorporates the tractates of the Mishnah and adds for each section a Gemara in Aramaic.  The Gemara is the record of the later Rabbinical explanations of the Mishrmh.   References to the Talmud will be different: Sanhedrin 23a (referring to page and column in the tractate).


The Midrash is essentially the Jewish exposition ( haggadah more than halakah, that is, exposition rather than legal teachings.   It is difficult to date.  Its value for word studies may be less than its value for the exposition of the passages.  The references to collections of midrashim differ, but for the basic Rabba collection, references will be with the name of the book: Genesis Rabba 15:1.   For other collections consult the abbreviations in Jastrow, or in Danby (The Mishna).


The Targum is a translation, often paraphrastic, of the Scriptures, written in Aramaic.  This represents the official reading of the Scripture in the Synagogue.  Its value for word studies depends on how carefully the targumic translation was done for the book or at least the context where the word is found.




Practical Steps in Tracing Etymologies


Before we survey the procedure for studying the usage of a word, which is more important and less involved, we should summarize the procedure for doing etymology.  As you can see, etymological studies can be very involved and detailed.  However, in a large number of cases a rare word is being studied (and it is here that etymology is so important, because there is not enough usage to trace)--it will not appear in any of these languages or cognates, and so the step may be limited to one or two places to check, say an Arabic dictionary, or a Rabbinic Hebrew dictionary.


1)       Determine whether or not you need to trace the etymology of a word.  If the word you are studying has a good number of usages in the Old Testament, the etymological background of the word need only be surveyed to see if the word was a stable word down through its history, or if it seemed to change its meaning from culture to culture, or century to century.  The only other reason to use etymology for a frequently used Hebrew word would be to find some similar use in a cognate that helps illustrate the meaning‑-but meaning will be determined by usage.


2)       Check the first paragraph of the dictionary for a brief listing of the cognates for

the words.  The dictionaries need to be used with caution because they attempt to make etymological connections in all the words, even when they are not sure of the accuracy.


3)       If the meanings of the cognates do not seem to harmonize well, or if you feel you need further evidence for understanding the listings, then you will have to go to the various dictionaries for information.  Of course, this procedure will be difficult for many after they leave Seminary and find themselves away from libraries.  One can either buy the books, or buy software with these books included, or simply rely on the secondary sources to have done their research (always uncertain).  If the latter is the case, then in Seminary you need to test these books as much as possible to get a sense of how reliable they are for you to use later. 


4)       Try to put the attested cognate usages into a historical and cultural framework.


5)       If you find a good meaning in the cognate languages that seems to be consistent,  do not assume that that is the meaning in Hebrew.  You must verify it by usage in Hebrew,


6)       Study the inner Hebrew cognates, called derivatives.  See what other words are used in the Old Testament that are from the same root (that is, that have the same sequence of letters and have an apparent connection in meaning).  Be careful with this, though.  The dictionaries list words as derivatives that they think are related.  They may not be at all.


7)       Be sure to add the study of Rabbinic Hebrew, for this provides the cultural continuity for the word.  This is important because the Rabbis tried to use the words in as close a sense as they could from the Bible, especially since their literature had the purpose of explaining the Bible.




The Evidence from the Versions



The Ancient Versions


Of the ancient versions the Greek translation of the Old Testament is the most widely used.  Modem expositors simply cannot control the information from the Aramaic Targums, Syriac Peshitta, or Latin Vulgate, to name the most important.  In fact, from surveying the work done with the Greek, one wonders whether they can handle that either.  Essentially, this discussion to follow will be concerned with the Greek Old Testament, one of the thorniest problems of exegetical studies.


Modern scholarship caters to popular terminology in calling the Old Greek the Septuagint (LXX, “seventy,” based on its tradition). This will be done in this paper as well; but remember, the “Septuagint” never existed-‑if  by “Septuagint” one means an edited, unified translation of the Old Testament.  Textual criticism with its theories of textual transmission have to be understood before much use can be made of the Greek.


We often read in commentaries and papers that “the LXX reads” such and such, Technically speaking, we have no way of knowing what the LXX actually read.  What this statement is meant to say is that if we translated the Greek word we have back into Hebrew, we might suspect that their original might have had that Hebrew form. In actual practice, however, people will suggest what the LXX read, or what some other  version read, and then select the reading that appeals to them mostly and reconstruct (rewrite) the Hebrew text (or its meaning).   This procedure is usually followed where the Hebrew is difficult.


What we know about the LXX (and the other main versions) is that they saw certain signs in their text that they were translating, and they created new signs (their language) in their manuscript.  We only have access to this latter evidence, and then only by manuscripts that are copies and recensions from the original version.


But the value of the versions in the philological treatment of Hebrew is great. Often they provide a different understanding of the same text, an understanding that must be evaluated.  Even if they have the wrong translation,, they show us how the translators were apparently understanding the words.  For example, Micah 1 is translated very badly.  The passage includes a number of word plays on the names of the cities and towns of the Shephelah (“lowlands”).  But the LXX translator apparently did not know many of these were names of towns and so simply translated them out. This blunder is helpful, though, for understanding the meanings of the words as they apply to the word plays.



Cautions in the Use of the Old Greek


1)       Keep in mind that it is possible that the LXX may have been translated from a Hebrew text differing from the MT.  This has ramifications for textual criticism as well as philology.  But this is only one explanation of why the LXX may have a different and unexpected form for the Hebrew, so do not overuse this as some have done.


2)       Keep in mind the history of the versional text itself and its possibilities of corruption.  Later recensions of the Greek attempted to bring the text into line with the Hebrew, and these bits of evidence must be investigated as part of any use of the LXX. You cannot say such and such a Greek word is the equivalent in meaning of such and such a Hebrew word if other Greek recensions were dissatisfied enough to change it.


3)       Be aware of the methods of translations used in the versions.  Of course, this is only if you are studying a Hebrew word.   If you are doing a Greek word study and want to know how it was used in the LXX, the context of its usage is what needs to be seen.  What Hebrew it may have translated is another matter entirely.  When you look up the use of a Greek term in a passage, you must scan the context a bit to see how the translator did with the common and clear Hebrew of the passage.  This will help you to determine his skill and literalness.  Barr ( Comparative Philology and the Text of the Old Testament,   pp. 249ff.) surveys the characteristics and methods used in the LXX:


a)       There are imprecise translations.  The LXX often makes use of general words to cover more technical words (they may be in the same semantic field but not as precise).  Here especially one must survey the context to see the skill of the translator (as well as know something of the general quality of the book itself).


b)      There may be the use of favorite words by the version.  The Greek Psalter will use one word freely for a number of Hebrew words.  For example,  some Greek words are used to translate 15 or 20 different Hebrew words.   Obviously, the value of knowing this Greek word was used for a word you might be studying would be minimal.  The warning in all this should be clear: be cautious.  Hatch and Redpath will list the Greek words and Hebrew correspondences in the LXX, but a closer look at the book and the context in which the word is found is essential. You must determine if the Greek word was a carefully chosen and precise rendering of the Hebrew before you make much of the Greek idea.


c)       There may be etymologizing.  Words may be interpreted by reference to the meaning of another word (usually better known) in Hebrew which had a certain similarity to it, and could be taken as the root.  This procedure is common in the later Greek recensions.  For example, Aquila attempted to use consistent Greek words in relation to the Hebrew words of the particular description.


d)      There may be a free rewriting of the text.  At times the translator was at a complete loss as to what the exact Hebrew reading was, but knew from general knowledge, or from context, the kind of thing it should say.  This approach then produces a sentiment that is the translator’s idea, connected here and there with words in the original Hebrew.  Proverbs and Job do this frequently.  For example, Prov. 17:14 in the MT has: “The start of strife is one who lets out water / so let go before a dispute breaks out.”  This is translated in the LXX as “The beginning of righteousness gives authority to words but quarrelsomeness and fighting lead to poverty.”


4)       Weigh all the evidence.  The material from the Greek will be a support to a philological treatment if it rests on evidence from more than one source (version or cognate).  Often the study of the versions in research over a rare or difficult word will overlap with textual criticism in the evidence gathering stage.  When evaluating the philological evidence, be careful:


a)       There is the possibility of interdependence among the versions.  The LXX may have been influenced by the Targum; or the Peshitta and the Vulgate may just be following the LXX.


b)      Several versions might be following a Jewish interpretation of the passage.  So if they agree, do not assume they came to that by separate tradition or research.


c)       Evidence from later Hebrew (Rabbinic literature) may be a support in that it existed in biblical times; or, it may not be a support in that it may record late usage that merely displaced biblical Hebrew.


5)       Remember that the meaning of the Greek text is not always clear and free from ambiguity.  Do not assume that where the Hebrew is obscure the version will bring you out of the dark.  The translators of the ancient versions more than likely had a hard time with the same words.  But in evaluating LXX translations, note the following:


a)       The Greek meaning is far from simple.  It will not simply overlap with

your New Testament studies.  There is no grammar and no lexicon for the LXX, per se.  You must use a dictionary like Liddell and Scott (if there is one like Liddell and Scott) for the meanings.


b)      Some of the Greek words may be hybrid forms of earlier Greek, Semitic, or Egyptian; or, they may be specially coined expressions (as with Aquila).  The use of the dictionary may not be helpful here.


c)       Some of the Greek words have special senses that differ from normal Greek.  For example, dunamis in the LXX carries the meaning of “army,” and not just “power.”   Do not assume the “triangle reasoning” for words in the Bible, i.e., such and such a Greek word in the New Testament is equal to the same word in the LXX, which is a translation of such and such a Hebrew word, which is thereby equal to the NT Greek word.  This could be in error on all three equations.


d)      Aramaic and Syriac may at times try to imitate the Hebrew original.  There may at times be a calque from the original.


6)       Versions will not normally give reliable guidance on the grammar of the original, which may at times have bearing on word studies (although more often affects textual work).  To say the LXX understood such and such a word as a perfect tense (because it used a perfect or even aorist) is misleading. That “tense” could be expressed by a  perfect, preterite, or infinitive.


7)       The quality of the translation varies from book to book.  You will need to know at the outset which books have been considered careful and accurate translations, and which are free and paraphrastic.   The Expositor’s Bible Commentary offers a brief survey of the findings of Septuagint scholars who worked on the individual books: “Swete concluded that the majority of the translators learned Hebrew in Egypt from imperfectly instructed teachers, and Barr concluded that these translators invented vowels for the unpointed text.  However, translations of individual books vary with the background and skill of each translator.  Except in passages such as Gen. 49, Dt. 32, 33, the Pentateuch is on the whole a close and serviceable translation of a smoothed Hebrew recension.  The Psalter is tolerably well done, though Ervin concluded that the theology of Hellenistic Judaism left its mark upon it.  About Isaiah, Seeligman concluded: ‘The great majority of the inconsistencies here discussed must be imputed to the translator’s unconstrained and carefree working method, and to a conscious preference for the introduction of variations.’   He added, ‘We shall not, however, do the translator any injustice by not rating his knowledge of grammar and syntax very highly.’  Regarding Hosea, Nyberg found: ‘It is overly composed of gross misunderstandings, unfortunate readings, and superficial lexical definitions which often are simply forced into conformity to similar Aramaic cognates. Helplessness and arbitrary choice are the characteristic traits of this interpretation.’  Albrektson said of Lamentations: ‘LXX, then, is not a good translation in this book.  But this does not mean that it is not valuable for textual criticism.  On the contrary, its literal character often allows us to establish with tolerable certainty the underlying Hebrew text; it is clearly based on a text which was in all essentials identical with the consonants of the MT; indeed, the passages where it may have contained a variant are notably few.’ Gerleman said of Job:  ‘. . . the translator interprets the text as well as he can, and, with the aid of his imagination tries to put an intelligible meaning into the original which he does not understand.’  He added, ‘The numerous deviations between the Hebrew and the Greek Book of Job are not due to the fact that the original of the LXX had essentially differed from our Hebrew text.  They have arisen in the course of the translation, and in short are the results of a translation procedure in which the difficulties of the original have not been mastered.’   Swete concluded that the translation of the minor prophets is often unintelligible.  In the case of Jeremiah, the text represented by the LXX deviates so considerably from the MT as to assume the character of a separate edition.  But the LXX of Samuel, parts of Kings, and Ezekiel, is of special value because the text preserved by the Masoretes of these books suffered more than usually from corrupting influences.  Shenkel concluded that the Old Greek preserves the original chronology from Omri to Jehu.”


This survey will show that there is not a uniform translation known as the Septuagint, but rather individual translations of sections of the Old Testament.  This survey will give you a general idea of the major sections; you will still need to survey the context to see how precisely each section was done.


Orthodox Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev: "To be a theologian means to have experience of a personal encounter with God through prayer and worship."

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Bruce Dunning | Forum Activity | Replied: Thu, Nov 26 2015 5:12 AM

Thanks MJ. I've always been fascinated with etymology and this is one of the most extensive articles I have read about how to use it properly.

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