Muraoka’s Syntax, Initial thoughts

T. Muraoka. 2016. A syntax of Septuagint Greek. Leuven: Peeters.


There is a sense in which introductions are perhaps the most interesting part of a reference work. The details are essential, of course, but this is where we get the bird’s eye view of the aims and purposes of the author(s). It’s where we learn what they value, what they prioritize as most important, and what their vision for the whole looks like. That is certainly the case here with Muraoka’s new Syntax of Septuagint Greek (many thanks to a kind friend who generously provided me with a copy).

Muraoka’s simple statements about the nature of the Greek in the Septuagint is refreshing, writing:

It is very well possible, or even likely , that SG whether in translated books or original compositions, has preserved linguistic features which can be considered to have been part of the contemporary HG/KG, but are attested in it for the first time in the history of Greek and which, however, are free from any alien, non-Greek influence. This applies not only to neologisms, new lexemes, but also to new senses of lexemes, already known from earlier periods or occurring in contemporary texts other than the Septuagint, but unattested prior to the Septuagint, as well as new orthographic, morphological, or syntactic features. There were, to be sure, genuine innovations which originated in the pre-Christian Greek-speaking Jewish community, whether in the diaspora or at home. The word σάββατον, σάββατα must be an innovation coming from such a background (XXXVIII).

Suffice to say, if we are serious that the translators of the Septuagint wanted to communicate meaningfully to their audience in the language of their audience, then none of this should be viewed as a surprise. Indeed, English speakers should be more than aware about the impact that creative language use in translation can have on language independent of interference from the source language (Hebraisms, Semitisms, etc.), considering the great impact that the King James Version has had over the centuries (cf. King James Bible: How it changed the way we speak).

It is encouraging to see such candid statements about the nature of the translation and its language in such a work. That Muraoka feels little need to argue the point and merely states it as a given signals to me that the field is in a good place right now. He treats the LXX as a place where we have the opportunity to watch language change happen before us as the translators and authors of the Septuagint corpus coin new words, introduce new structures and produce new meanings for existing words.

Such an approach is exciting from my perspective as a linguist. Rather than merely focusing on the Greek in relation to Hebrew, Muraoka gives us an opportunity to consider the Greek in these texts, some native and some translation, as a vibrant and ever changing means of communication.

We might say that the traditional view of the Septuagint places upon Greek an expectation of what the language is supposed to look like that is not unlike the prescriptivist views of English that get passed as grammar education in North America today.

SpecGram Cartoon Theories of Linguistics: Prescriptivism

They take the Greek text and hold it up against either the Classical standard or the Hebrew source text and say: “This surely cannot be Greek.” A good example of this would be something like the use of γίνομαι+εἰς as a means of conveying simple predication (e.g. ἐγενήθη αὐτῇ εἰς υἱόν, Ex 2:10). The assumption is that various linguistic phenomena must first be understood in relation to the Hebrew rather than allowing them to convey meaning as Greek. This is an approach that results from the difficulty scholars encountered when dealing with a Greek language so dramatically removed, geographically and temporally from Classical Athens.

Rather than reading the Septuagint and saying: “Hey! You can’t do that!” Muraoka encounters πληθύνων πληθυνῶ τἀς λύπας σου and instead says, “You can do that? Huh.” This shift is essential for giving the Septuagint its rightful place at the table for how we approach and describe the Greek language of the Hellenistic and Early Roman periods.

SpecGram Cartoon Theories of Linguistics: Descriptivism

While Septuagint scholars may still go back and forth as to what is the best or most appropriate way to study this collection of books, for a linguist such as myself, Muraoka’s perspective is inherently preferable. It gives us the opportunity to think about this era of the language holistically rather than merely as a discrete container of text that is little more than a Hebrew interlinear that does not conform to expected Classical norms.

The approach Muraoka takes appears to be primarily grounded in structuralist linguistics. Moving forward through the grammar, I’ll be curious to see the extent to which that is true and whether the influences are more European or American structuralism. And while structuralist linguistics is dated in any number of ways, the fact that what Dr. Muraoka has produced here is entirely unique is far more important than theoretical quibbles. This is a work that stands apart because it stands alone as its own category.

I am eager to divine its secrets in the coming months and years.