Portrait of a Philologist

Choon-Leong Seow is the Henry Snyder Gehman Professor of Old Testament Language and Literature at Princeton Theological Seminary, where he has been on faculty for the past thirty-two years. There is a breadth to the scholarship that Leong Seow has produced during his tenure at the Seminary and much of this will be in view at the special session of the Bible Department’s Old Testament Research Colloquium on April 10, entitled “Celebrating Leong Seow,” jointly sponsored by the Library.


At the heart of almost all of Leong’s scholarship, I want to suggest, is philology. Three brief considerations. First, Leong received his doctoral training at Harvard still at the height of the Frank Moore Cross era in a curriculum broadly defined by the canonical dispositions and practices of philology, e.g., historical contextualization, comparison, original language work, and scrutiny of textuality. Two items of importance here: the philological in Leong is not naïve, he was trained to it; and, conversely, it is deeply ingrained in his intellectual DNA—Leong is most authentically a philologist.

Notes on Lamentations1

Second, and perhaps most substantially, philology in its manifold practices (“the branch of knowledge that deals with the historical, linguistic, interpretative, and critical aspects of literature,” OED) features in almost every article, essay, dictionary entry, and book Leong has written. Some examples. Textuality has been a long habituated preoccupation of philology and figures prominently in Leong’s work, from his early text critical note on Lam 1:20 throughout his large swath of exegetical studies—one of the remarkable facets of the Job commentary is the depth of attention given to text critical matters, perhaps the freshest and most robust on this most difficult of biblical books since Dhorme. But this philological concern for textuality shows up as well even in less obvious places, for example, in Leong’s decision to feature actual biblical texts in the exercises of a teaching grammar of biblical Hebrew, or in his leveraging of the Bible’s textual diversity as warrant for his “appeal” for the “place of reason and experience” in consideration of the many social issues (here sexuality) “that human beings face” (“A Heterotextual Perspective“).

Inspire Spring 1996
Inspire, Spring 1996

Original language study is another canonical concern of philology and pervades all of Leong’s writings. Indeed, no matter the explicit subject matter (e.g., literary interpretation, theology, history of religions, sociology) of a piece it is inevitably worked out through an engagement with texts in their original language. Here again the Job commentary epitomizes Leong’s practice. For all of the strong emphasis given to the history of consequences in this volume (e.g., the fronting of the interpretation sections of the commentary), the commitment to the philological elucidation of Job’s language is singular, easily the most original and substantial of all modern commentaries. And one of the more challenging dimensions of Leong’s brand of reception history—what he prefers to call the “history of consequences”—is the way in which he continues to insist on a commitment to original “language” work even as he ventures into areas beyond his (original) expertise, whether that involves gaining the linguistic capacity to read a medieval Jewish commentary or the art historical competence—itself a kind of “language”—to interpret Reformation or early modern art.

Princeton Theological Seminary; First Day of Classes, September 21, 2009.

I could go on in this vein, looking at other paradigmatic acts of philology (e.g., historical contextualization, comparison) and sighting them at the center of Leong Seow’s scholarly agenda. Instead, however, I want to point to two dimensions of Leong’s recent scholarship, his foregrounding of expressly literary matters (e.g., “An Exquisitely Poetic Introduction to the Psalter”) and the history of reception (e.g., “History of Consequences: The Case of Gregory’s Moralia in Iob”), that while not routinely thought of in terms of classic philology nevertheless are fundamentally philological.

Philology’s customary allergy to literary interpretation since the turn of the twentieth century (in many fields) turns out to be a historical aberration and a stunning consequence of philology’s failure to theorize its own practices and ways of knowing. James Turner’s recent Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities (2014) reveals the rhetorical-evaluative as one of the originary modalities of philology. And it was none other than Robert Lowth in his Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews (Lat. original, 1753) who was the first in the early modern period to reclaim space for the literary within a philological paradigm of reading. How words mean, for example, will depend as much on the form, style, and the uses to which they are put in the larger literary work in which they are deployed as on etymology and semantics. Leong’s recent work does not only feature acts of literary interpretation itself but insists on the literary as a coefficient of the philological, e.g., whether in arguing about etymology or coming to a text-critical judgment.

C.L. Seow, "Syro-Palestinian Context of Solomon's Dream"
Harvard Theological Review 77:2 (1984) 141-52.

As for the history of consequences, I have already noted how the philologist’s commitment to original language work is characteristic of Leong’s research in this area. My hunch is that Leong’s attraction to this dimension of textual study is rooted deeply in his philological soul (or DNA), though he has never been one much given to explicit theorization or meta-reflection. Nevertheless, it is at least of interest that recent theorists, such as Sheldon Pollock (an Indologist), have begun to theorize the history of a tradition’s reception (or reading) of a text specifically as a dimension of philological meaning. This is Pollock’s “second plane” of philological meaning, which he argues, virtually all philologists exclude from consideration. Not Leong. If not so vigorously named as such it would appear nonetheless that the shift in Leong’s research over the last fifteen years or so to focus more decidedly on the history of consequences may be conceptualized not so much as a new direction but as another dimension of the philological that has long motivated his scholarship. Certainly Pollock’s call for philologists to take seriously the meanings and truths of tradition, to submit them as well to as detailed a historical contextualization as possible, is exemplified in Leong’s recent research (esp. on Job). History of consequences is philology (through and through).

Katharine Sakenfeld and CLSeow
Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, PhD, Hon STD William Albright Eisenberger Professor of Old Testament Emerita, with C.L. Seow

This hyper-attenuated accumulation of specific acts of philology in some of Leong’s published work—a gesture toward the empirical that is itself a valued component in much philological reasoning—may serve as my chief brief for the pervasive place of philology more generally in Leong’s scholarship. These acts also suggest how fundamental the philological is to Leong as a basic modality of thinking. This is the last of my three considerations. Leong not only uses the machinery of philology, as if the latter could be wielded as pure methodology, but  he actively reasons through the philological, as a philologist, i.e., as someone who sets about to understand a specific written text (Job, Ecclesiastes, Daniel), for example, by paying close attention to the words of that text, situating the text within its historical context(s), establishing meaning through comparison with other texts, and so on. Philology is a way of knowing—a “branch of knowledge” as the OED puts it—and is crucial to Leong’s operative epistemology.

C.L. Seow at PTS Special Collections
C.L. Seow (far right) recently brought scholars from Taiwan to Princeton Seminary’s Special Collections. Seminary Archivist Kenneth Henke (2nd right) displayed items that included Reformation-era Hebrew texts, 19th century missionary tracts from Formosa, and hand lettered Lolo sacred writings from Southwest China near Fulin. Photo by: John Paul Cooke (M.Div. Junior)

In the end, of course, neither Leong Seow nor his multivalent scholarly achievements over the last four decades is reducible to any singularity, philology or otherwise. There is a breadth and complex richness to his oeuvre that requires its own accounting. For me for the moment, however, it is enough to appreciate the philological that is at the heart of so much of Leong’s scholarship and that typifies how he comes to know and to think through the texts (biblical, ancient Near Eastern, medieval) he reads.

— F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp

Works Cited
Dhorme, E. Le livre de Job. Paris: V. Lecoffre, 1926.
Lowth, R. Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews. 2 vols. Trans. G. Gregory. London: J.Johnson, 1787. (Lat. original, 1753)
Pollock, S. “Philology in Three Dimensions.” Postmedieval 5/4 (2014): 398-413.
Seow, C. L. “A Note on Lamentations 1:20.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 102 (1985): 416-19.
Seow, C. L. A Grammar for Biblical Hebrew. Second Edition. Nashville: Abingdon, 1995. First edition, 1987.
Seow, C. L. “A Heterotextual Perspective.” Pp. 14-27 in Homosexuality and Christian Community. Ed. C. L. Seow. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1996.
Seow, C. L. “History of Consequences: The Case of Gregory’s Moralia in Iob.” Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel 1 (2012): 368-87.
Seow, C. L. “An Exquisitely Poetic Introduction to the Psalter.” Journal of Biblical Literature 132 (2013): 275-93.
Seow, C. L. Job 1-21. Illuminations. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013.
Turner, J. Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities. Princeton: Princeton University, 2014.

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