Statistics in Classics & LXX Research

In Septuagint studies, we are keenly interested in linguistic description. For a text that is probably the largest single collection of post-Classical texts it is a very important set of data for that time period in the Greek language. Even more so because the Septuagint is the largest single collection of vernacular Greek from before the common era. Therefore it is important that we have ways of talking about language that can clearly explain the phenomena with which we are faced. It seems to me that it has been the habit in biblical studies that we oscillate between methods that focus on quantity vs quality. It must be asked, are there methods that do both? Can we, on one hand, use numerical analysis and textual analysis, on the other, to simultaneously gain proximity to what we are trying to describe?

Interestingly, a book that I am reading for a review, without explicitly asking this question answers it for us with a resounding, absolutely! Klaas Bentein and Mark Janse, both at Ghent University, earlier this year released Varieties of Post-Classical and Byzantine Greek (Amazon US; Amazon UK). In this book they adopt a variationist approach to linguistics. Significantly, they are both Classists who noticed the detrimental consequences of our under developed linguistic work in the post-Classical era for both synchronic and diachronic analysis. The book uses tools from variationist linguistics, a subset of sociolinguistics

Interestingly, Bentein and Janse point out that in classics quantitative approaches are often neglected because “creating statistics is a hugely time-consuming task, and it is not always clear what it contributes.” This would be one area in which Septuagint studies has an upper hand. Scholars for a long time now have accumulated data and statistics for the purpose of linguistic analysis. A prime example, for those marginally familiar with Septuagint scholarship will be well acquainted with tools such as Computer Aid Tools for Septuagint/Scriptural Study (CATSS).

The major issue is that, often times, there is very little explanation of the statistics provided. It then remains unclear what these statistics are meant to contribute. This is likely because a large majority of Septuagint scholarship has been steeped in structuralism. Simply identifying each constituent part of a text is enough information as it continues to illustrate the relationship these part have to one another. Whether or not we believe that structuralism provides real insights for linguistics, and I do, cognitive linguistics has problematised the notion that linguistic relationships are reduced down to these paradigmatic relationships. Therefore, we are still in desperate need of theoretical models that help explain the stats we are using to make judgment calls about the nature of the language in the Septuagint.

Appropriately, Bentein and Janse attempt to push the field of classics toward a more sophisticated and robust linguistics approach. In their book they propose that variationist linguistics is a good model for explaining their data from both a qualitative and quantitative perspective. Variationist linguistics is primarily interested in:

  1. Diachronic changes (variation in time)
  2. Diatopic changes (variation in space)
  3. Diastratic changes (variation according to speaker’s social status)
  4. Diaphasic changes (variation in the communicative setting)

The diachronic and diatopic will likely be more familiar or intuitive for many. These are area’s of research that biblical scholars and classists have been interested in for a long time. It seems to me using these methods, with more interest in the diastratic and diaphasic LXX scholarship could be greatly enhanced and find more cogent ways to use post-Classical evidence in our data sets.

Firstly, diastratic changes or changes within social dialect are extremely important. The nature of the Septuagint in the past was characterised as vulgar Greek. Qualitative judgments of this kind are a judgement of register. The scholarly viewpoint that the Septuagint was vulgar Greek was widely accepted because scholars compared the language in the Septuagint to that of the literate elites. The reason that we believe this is the wrong conclusion is because of research done at the diastratic level, even if scholars like Deissmann were not using such terms. Deissmann helped the guild realise that “Biblical” Greek was no of the same register or dialect of Euripides or Xenophon. Such a widely applicable observation has yet to make its way down to more systematic examinations of diastatic variation within the LXX or NT. The potential insights here would be massive especially for areas like lexicography and might even influence the ways in which we teach Greek.

Second the diaphasic level of variation, may related broadly to how language variation is affected by genre. This has captured the attention of scholars in the past, also predominantly a structuralist feature of linguistic inquiry. What the diaphasic variation looks like from cognitivist perspective would take more seriously the social semiotic commitment (See Geeraerts 2016) and the conditions that created those variations. While this may manifest at a structural level that is not necessarily the case in each instance of variation. This reframing of the diaphasic variation gives us a more ontologically grounded way of asking questions that biblical scholars and linguists have been interested in for a long time. Minimally, it gives us a more objective taxonomy of questions and principles to understand why syntax and vocabulary shifts between different communication situations.

The work that Bentein and Janse are doing is extremely helpful in creating methods that are more linguistically sophisticated. It is obvious to say that there is a lot of work left to be done in these areas, and making sense out of when we find variation since each instance needs to be considered individually. This is an exciting volume because Bentein and Janse are cutting space for the rest of us interested in the post-Classical time period.

Keep your eyes peeled for the full review of Varieties of Post-Classical and Byzantine Greek by Klaas Bentein and Mark Janse.


Bentein, Klass and Mark Janse. 2020. Varieties of Post-classical and Byzantine Greek. Berlin: de Gruyter.

Geeraerts, Dirk. “The sociosemiotic commitment” Cognitive Linguistics, vol. 27, no. 4, 2016, pp. 527-542.