“Reading the Sealed Book”

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Thursday, April 24, 2014

J. Ross Wagner, associate professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School, has written a new book exploring the earliest known commentary on the Book of Isaiah, the second-century BCE translation of Isaiah into Greek by Jewish scribes living in Egypt.

Reading the Sealed Book: Old Greek Isaiah and the Problem of Septuagint Hermeneutics
was published by Mohr-Siebeck and Baylor University Press earlier this year.

In the book, Wagner tackles one of the central problems of current research on the Greek translations of scripture popularly known as "the Septuagint.” Dating from the 3rd century BCE to the 1st century CE, these translations open a window onto early Jewish interpretation of the Bible. Yet crucial problems of "Septuagint hermeneutics," particularly the question of how to identify interpretive elements in a translated text, remain unresolved.

Drawing on important work both in translation studies and in literary theory, Wagner develops an interpretive approach that combines patient investigation of the translation process with careful attention to the rhetorical shape of the translated text. He demonstrates the effectiveness of this method through a close reading of Isaiah’s opening vision (Isaiah 1:1–31) as both translation and text.

Wagner shows that a Greek translator interprets Isaiah 1 for his audience by elucidating its language, modulating its discourse, and contextualizing its message. The translator depicts trusting adherence to the law as central to the life of God's people by amplifying Isaiah's criticism of those who rely on their wealth, power, and political connections instead of God and by characterizing the blatant disregard for social and economic justice on the part of Zion’s elites as a refusal to heed God's law. In this way, Old Greek Isaiah makes a distinctive contribution to the formation and preservation of Jewish identity in the Hellenistic diaspora.

A 1999 graduate of Duke’s Graduate Program in Religion, Wagner returned to Duke in fall 2013 after teaching 15 years at Princeton Theological Seminary.