Collaboration is the Key for Preparing a Critical Septuagint Edition: An Interview with Tuukka Kauhanen

(for a Finnish version of this interview, please click here)

The research of changes in ancient texts can be compared to diagnostics. The differences observed in manuscripts are symptoms of conditions or diseases. By observing these symptoms one can reach the causes and find a cure, that is, an answer for the question: what has happened to the text?

Already at the beginning of his studies, these symptoms aroused the interest of Tuukka Kauhanen, a postdoctoral researcher in CSTT, funded by the Academy of Finland.

”I am interested in changes in texts and the factors that explain these changes. It is intriguing that by observing a phenomenon it is possible to reach the factors that cause it. It is even more intriguing – and harder – to try to understand the psychological, religious, and ideological reasons for changing texts”, Kauhanen explains.

A critical edition is the starting point for future research
The Göttingen Academy of Sciences appointed Kauhanen to prepare the leading critical edition of the Septuagint – the world’s first translation of the Bible produced in Alexandria – of 2 Samuel.

”When finished, our edition will be the best way to reach the text of 2 Samuel as it left the hands of the original Greek translator. It is an essential tool for those who want to discern the earliest possible Hebrew textual form of 2 Samuel.” A critical edition of the Septuagint is not only a prerequisite for the work carried out by scholars, but also valuable for Bible translators and thus for the wider audience.

”Without a critical edition one would have to go into different libraries around the world to read the texts from antiquity – with white gloves and a magnifying glass! There are tens of manuscripts representing important texts from antiquity, and all of them differ from each other. The earliest textual form can only be achieved through comparing these manuscripts and choosing the best textual variant or reading. The end result is a textual form which can not be found in any single manuscript as such – they all contain mistakes! – but which probably is closest to the earliest text form in most instances. In addition, we will create an apparatus which lists all of the significant differences between manuscripts. In a typical page of a critical edition of the Septuagint, there are usually half a dozen rows of texts and 40 rows of apparatus!”

The project of Kauhanen is known among scholars for developing a system of databases unprecedented in the field of textual criticism. The system makes the treatment of manuscript data easier and advances collaboration between scholars working with the edition. The system can also be applied to the study of other ancient texts.

”We are preparing the edition by gathering data concerning textual variants in a database and letting the computer print out the text and apparatus according to our instructions. There is a lot of data and it is multidimensional. Therefore we have put lots of effort into the database system; in a way, we have been building a large storage house, which consists of tens of rooms with hundreds of shelves for various components of the manufacturing process. Everything has to be exactly in their right places, otherwise the goods cannot be found when needed.”

An analytical mind and thirst for knowledge led to research
For Kauhanen, it was obvious already at the beginning of his studies in theology that he wanted to become a researcher. ”I really do not know what precisely led to my choice of profession – maybe my analytical mind and a thirst for knowledge already present in my childhood. As a school child, I used to prefer encyclopedias (and comics) over school books.” Kauhanen seems to be motivated by ongoing learning and challenging himself.

”As a scholar, it is possible to focus deeply on one thing: when you get as close as possible to the roots of knowledge and understanding, the same standards of testing knowledge can be applied elsewhere. Collaboration with other scholars is rewarding in many ways. I especially enjoy sessions of creative problem solving that we carry out with my team editing the Septuagint edition of 2 Samuel.”

Kauhanen received his scholarly training in a project led by professor Anneli Aejmelaeus which prepares the Septuagint edition of 1 Samuel. He learned the principles and methods of textual criticism while doing his doctoral dissertation. Aejmelaeus is an internationally renowned scholar of the Septuagint. One could not have found a better training to become a scholar of the Septuagint in Finland. It is remarkable that in a country of the size of Finland two critical editions of the Septuagint are being prepared.

Which skills has Kauhanen learned as a scholar that are also needed when preparing the critical edition? ”You have to have the skills to organize details, whilst keeping in mind the big picture – just like when painting a piece of art. You also need deduction and creativity. In addition, you have to master the language of the text you are editing – Koine Greek of the turn of the era, the lingua franca of its time. Parts of the important textual material are also written in other languages, such as Latin, Coptic, Syrian, and Ethiopian. At least these languages, Latin especially, are important – not to forget Hebrew, of course!”

In addition, plenty of work is done with other people and in collaboration with different institutions. ”We work together with different partners in Finland and abroad. Knowledge and help can be found around the world if you just know whom to ask! Networking, communication, and project management are important skills. One would think that the work involves mostly reading books and typing data into a computer – however, there is almost as much human relations involved!”

The roots of our culture can not be understood without the Septuagint
Knowledge of the Septuagint is pivotal for scholars who want to understand early Judaism and Christianity, the work of ancient Egyptian translators, and variants observed in manuscripts. How does the project, however, benefit our society and culture at large?

”The roots of our culture go back to ancient Greece and Israel. In the Septuagint, the encounter of these cultures is crystallized. When Hebrew thought put on the clothes of Greek language, it already took its first steps in philosophy. The reformulation and reinterpretation that took place especially in the wisdom literature of the Septuagint formed the background against which the stories of early Christianity emerged. Eventually, these were refined into doctrines. The Septuagint was the Bible for the writers of the New Testament.”

”The stories of the Old testament are an inseparable part of our cultural history, think for example of traditional church art. I would argue that Abraham and Moses are still better known than, for example, Homer, Shakespeare, or the figures of Kalevala in Finland. They are something permanent and will not get buried under the many shallow phenomena of our time, which will be forgotten in a few decades. Reading these basic stories from the Septuagint gives new perspectives. Some details of their reception history can only be understood with the help of the Septuagint. Some of the so-called Apocryphal books that do not belong to the Hebrew Bible have only been preserved in Greek in the Septuagint; take for example the tale of Judith beheading Holofernes.”

The project led by Kauhanen reminds that the texts of the Bible have been created as a process and they have undergone change for the entire period when they were copied by hand. At the beginning of common era, different versions of the books of the Hebrew Bible were at use. To the early users the texts were not immutable but they could be updated when necessary. Modern Bible translations and bringing different themes in the center of interpretation are part of a long continuum which aims at keeping the texts alive.

”The study of the Septuagint also has an important indirect value: careful text-critical and translation technical research is a requirement for a careful text-critical study of the Hebrew Bible. The Septuagint was translated from a different and partly earlier Hebrew text than the one we know as the Hebrew Bible.”

Text by Ville Mäkipelto