Blog #3: Psalm 22/23 in the Septuagint

Recently I had two of my longest-standing students over for the evening, to do some translation together. Having completed all of Balfour’s textbook several years ago, and spent twenty-four weeks going through his notes on Mark in Greek, we’ve met as a reading group ever since, working on much of the rest of Mark, as well as Philippians, parts of the Didache, Epictetus, and occasionally some Classical texts. This week we forayed into new territory and translated Psalm 23 from the Septuagint, the Koine Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (where Psalm 23 is actually Psalm 22). Since it was translated around the early second century BCE, this threw up an exciting opportunity to read some Koine Greek from a period much closer to Classical – much closer to when Alexander the Great declared that the world shall speak Attic Greek, and inaugurated the slow shift from Attic to Koine. A few noteworthy observations arose, so I thought I’d record them here. The first is a bit long and grammatical, so if you’re still just learning nouns feel free to skip the next paragraph.  Also, if you’d like to have a look at Psalm 22 in the Septuagint, you can find it here, with the parsing available if your browser window is stretched wide enough.  More details on the textbooks to which I refer in this post can be found in the ‘Resources’ section of this website.

Firstly, the most bizarre thing to come out of this is what happens with ‘aspect’ in the Septuagint’s translation of the Hebrew here (if indeed the Hebrew on which it was based was the same as the Masoretic Text received today). ‘Aspect’ refers to whether a verb is complete or ongoing. Ancient Greek uses the aorist ‘tense’ to denote completed action, and ‘tense’ is here in inverted commas because of the ongoing debate about the extent to which the aorist should even be called a tense at all, with some (notably Stanley Porter in his book Verbal Aspect in the Greek of the New Testament, with Reference to Tense and Mood) arguing that even in the indicative mood, the aorist is about simple (completed) as opposed to continuous (ongoing) aspect, not about when the verb takes place. In essence, Porter is arguing that Greek is even more ‘aspectual’ (concerned with whether actions are complete or ongoing) than we had imagined, and less temporally concerned. This is interesting to note here because Ancient Hebrew is a much more aspectual language even than Ancient Greek, with only two ‘tenses,’ both of which are not tenses, but rather aspects (see Balfour’s Hebrew textbook, pp. 224-227 and 254-258). The perfect denotes a verb regarded by the speaker as complete (whether complete in the past, present or future), and the imperfect denotes a verb regarded by the speaker as ongoing (whether ongoing in the past, present or future). In order then to mark tense, Hebrew has some other tricks it sometimes uses to note when a verb (perfect or imperfect) took place in the past. What makes this interesting with respect to Psalm 22/23 in the Septuagint? Well, in the Hebrew it’s written in the imperfect (the ongoing/continuous aspect, as opposed to the complete/simple), but in the Greek it’s mostly written in the aorist. Taken on its own, without giving thought to the Hebrew, it’s actually a nice example of the where the aorist is probably entirely about aspect and not at all about tense: the author does sometimes use present or future verbs, but then mostly writes in the aorist, likely because he’s talking poetically about simple ways in which God relates to him, not talking historically about things God did. This would all make perfect sense if the Hebrew had been written in the perfect. But, as far as we know, it wasn’t (unless the Septuagint was translated from an older and now lost Hebrew text that used the perfect). The Hebrew was written in the imperfect, specifically noting God’s continuous way of relating to David, but the Septuagint translators used the aorist, specifically noting the ‘complete-in-nature’ actions through which God relates to David. My guess is that this happened because the aorist was the standard aspect in which Ancient Greek speakers thought and spoke, so it was translated that way even though the Hebrew is specifically in the continuous aspect. Whatever the reason, it does at least seem fair to say here that Psalm 22/23 is an example of the aorist indicative having nothing to do with time.

Secondly, when one of my students encountered the word βακτηρία, ‘rod,’ she of course wondered how this word came to be the English word ‘bacteria.’   The answer? βακτηρία, like the neuter βακτήριον, is actually a diminutive of βάκτρον, a staff. So it’s a little staff. Apparently bacteria (presumably from the plural of βακτήριον, not from the feminine) look like little staves. Isn’t that just lovely?

Thirdly, in the Septuagint verse six begins ‘Your mercy will follow me all the days of my life.’ If you have this psalm memorised, you might have just noticed a word missing. In this case, I strongly suspect that the older Hebrew from which it was translated just didn’t have a word for ‘goodness’ alongside mercy here.

Fourthly, in verse two, ‘on still waters’ is ἐπὶ ὕδατος ἀναπαύσεως.  According to Balfour’s textbook (p. 123), ἐπὶ followed by the genitive in New Testament Greek is a temporal genitive – it refers to an event happening during the time of the noun (or type of time of the noun) in the genitive case.  And indeed, this is the use of ἐπὶ + gen. I have most often seen in my reading of the New Testament.  Combined with one of the other two possible cases (accusative or dative), ἐπὶ has a sense of ‘on,’ being ‘extension on or onto’ with the accusative, or ‘location on’ with the dative.  However, in Shelmerdine’s Attic Greek textbook, we learn on p. 96 that ἐπὶ plus the genitive means ‘on.’  It would appear that the commonest meaning of ἐπὶ + gen. in the New Testament, as a temporal genitive (though it is occasionally used as ‘on’ in the New Testament, such as in Rev. 11:6), became standard after the translation of the Psalms into Greek.  This is a nice example of the Koine Greek of the Septuagint (or at least of the Psalms) being grammatically closer to Attic than to New Testament Greek.

Lastly, I just wouldn’t be doing the text justice if I didn’t point this out: although most translations of the Hebrew render it quite neutrally as ‘my cup is abundantly full,’ or something similar, the Greek here (καὶ τὸ ποτήριον σου μεθύσκον ὡς κράτιστον), as well as the Latin used in the Vulgate (et calix meus inebrians quam praeclarus est), makes it very clear that this cup isn’t just running over. It’s running over specifically to the point of the psalmist being absolutely trollied. As the Douay Rheims translation of the Vulgate puts it, ‘And my chalice which inebriateth me, how goodly is it!’  (Though why the chalice went from being God’s to David’s somewhere between the Greek and Latin I have no idea.)

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