Greek Bible Captured My Imagination
Growing up, I had only one career goal: to be a lawyer. With this in mind, I began undergraduate school as a political science major. However, my Saturday classes—these existed in those days—conflicted with my almost endless tasks as a pledge to a Jewish fraternity, so I decided to become a classics major.
As an undergraduate student, I was required to take a semester each of “Old” Testament and “New” Testament. Although my university, associated with Southern Baptists, was decidedly conservative in perspective, the approach taken in these courses was not uncritical. I still recall the “shock and awe” I felt when I first heard about the radical quartet of J, E, P, and D.
It’s not that my Sunday school approach to the Bible was, strictly speaking, traditional – although it was certainly “traditional” within Conservative Judaism of the 50s and 60s. It’s simply that I had never considered the Five Books of Moses to be anything other than five books written by Moses.
In one of the Bible courses, when we were studying the first chapters of the book of Exodus about Moses’ upbringing, I wondered: “Where was the story narrating the test imposed on baby Moses during which he put his fire-scorched little hands into his mouth? Isn’t this how Moses developed his speech impediment?”
As if it were yesterday, I recollect my immediate response to this “lacuna”: Christians were leaving out some of the best stories from the Bible! Abraham’s being thrown into the furnace was another egregious “omission.” Eventually, I realized that these and other tales, which were as “biblical” as any in my Sunday school education, actually derived from rabbinic midrash and Second Temple literature.
In 1970, I enrolled at Harvard University as a graduate student in classics, but I soon transferred to the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (NELC), the perfect program for combining my ongoing enthusiasm for Greek language and culture with my fairly new interests in Hellenistic Jewish history and literature. Part of this was studying Bible.
Among my first courses was a seminar on the book of Joshua taught by renowned archaeologist and Protestant theologian G. Ernest Wright. This seminar was formative for me. One day I mentioned to him my background in classics and my knowledge of Greek, and he regaled me with stories of the great scholars of LXX Greek Joshua, Max Margolis and Harry Orlinsky. They captured my imagination; I was hooked. It was a marriage made on Divinity Street (where NELC classes were held), if not in heaven.
Greek Joshua was the topic of my dissertation and my first book (Textual Studies in the Book of Joshua). For me, the appeal of such research lies in the opportunity to discern how translators bridged the gap between source and target languages, between their own historical circumstances and the context in which the earlier text originated, and between the initial impact of the translation and its reception in later generations. My second book was a biography of Margolis (Max Leopold Margolis: A Scholar’s Scholar).
Max L. Margolis (1866–1932), an immigrant from Eastern Europe, received his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1891, in his mid-20s, having successfully defended his dissertation, written in Latin no less, a text critical study of the Talmud. When he sought a post in higher education, he naturally looked toward a position in Talmudic studies. The response, so he related, was that there were plenty of Talmud professors. What was really needed was a Jewish Bible scholar, which is what he became, first at Hebrew Union College-Cincinnati, then at Berkeley, and finally settling into decades of teaching at Dropsie College.
About forty years later, Harry M. Orlinsky (1908–1992), then an undergraduate at University of Toronto, was drawn to biblical scholarship through the apparent coincidence that the renowned biblical scholar Theophile Meek taught classes at the University of Toronto that didn’t interfere with Orlinsky’s stints in the pool hall. He himself often spoke in an animated fashion about this “rare combination of Snooker and Meek.” Eventually, Orlinsky would be the editor of the NJPS Tanakh translation, among his many other accomplishments.
I relish the thought that 40 years after Margolis came Orlinsky, and in another 40 years, I entered the field, following in their footsteps—at a respectful distance of course. Obviously, I never had the pleasure of meeting Margolis, who passed away more than a decade before I was born, but I did get to know Orlinsky: How many marvelous encounters I enjoyed with him!
Wright’s seminar and our discussions about Greek Joshua were decisive in determining the path of my academic career. Out of this first encounter with the first Jewish version of the Bible came my aspiration to study as many Jewish Bible translations and translators as possible. All of this culminated in my most recent book, Jewish Bible Translations: Personalities, Passions, Politics, Progress. It feels fittingly satisfying that JPS, whose versions had so intrigued me, was the publisher of this volume.
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Prof. Leonard Greenspoon holds the Philip M. and Ethel Klutznick Chair in Jewish civilization at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, and is also Professor of Classical and Near Eastern Studies and of Theology there. His Ph.D. from Harvard University. Greenspoon is the editor of Purdue University Press’s Studies in Jewish Civilization series and among his many edited and author books are, Max Leopold Margolis: A Scholar’s Scholar, Fashioning Jews: Clothing, Culture and Commerce, and (with Sidnie White Crawford) The Book of Esther in Modern Research.
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