Undergraduate Research

Elliot Diaz '23

OUR Featured Researcher: Elliot Diaz '23
Elliot Diaz
Photo credit: Jacob Strauss

Elliot Diaz (he/him) is a Jewish Studies, History, and Latin Language and Literature major conducting mentored research under Professors Cindy Chapman and Chris Trinacty. His project is titled “My thesis’s working title is אָס֑וֹן to ἐξεικονισμένον: Exodus 21:22-23 in the Works of Philo of Alexandria and Flavius Josephus". 

Please describe your project: 

Exodus 21:22-3 describes a miscarriage and its consequences according to ancient Israelite law. In the original Hebrew, the verses can be interpreted in multiple ways due to how the noun ‘harm’ (ason) was used. However, when this word was translated into Greek in the Septuagint translation, the translator(s) provided specificity not found in the original Hebrew by translating ‘harm’ (ason) into ‘(if the fetus is) fully formed’ (exeikonismenon). The Hellenistic Jews Philo of Alexandria and Josephus both have surviving interpretations of this passage which carry different implications for how Hellenistic Jews viewed the status of a fetus in the first century CE. Philo’s interpretation is in line with the Septuagint and draws heavily upon ancient Greek understandings of fetal development, but Josephus’s rephrasing of the passage makes it clear that his interpretation of the passage is not based on the Septuagint’s translation.

Why is your research important?

Exodus 21:22-3 is often cited as a proof text in contemporary debates about the morality of abortion. The writings of these two Hellenistic Jews provide a window into how translational issues and cultural context have historically impacted the interpretation of this text and continue to do so today. Philo and Josephus have often been studied in relation to early Christianity and Christian thought, but I want to center them as worthy of study for more than how their works were used later.

What does the process of doing your research look like?

My research process currently includes lots of reading and writings in my scholar study in the Mary Church Terrell library, meeting with professors during office hours, and translating the koine Greek of my primary sources. I meet with Professor Chapman to talk about any methodology and biblical questions, and I meet with Professor T to talk about Greek philosophy, ancient science, and the connotations of Greek words.

What knowledge has your research contributed to your field?

My research indicates that Philo’s interpretation was based in his belief that the Septuagint’s translation was divinely inspired and that [Jewish] law and nature are in harmony. He asserts that since the Septuagint translation makes a distinction according to the fetus’s stage of development, Exodus 21:22-23 prohibits non-Jews from practicing infanticide. His connection between the miscarriage described in Exodus 21:22-23 and infanticide hinges upon how he views Aristotelian embryology to ‘prove’ the truth of Jewish law. If Jewish law and nature are in harmony, then, to a certain extent, Philo maintained that non-Jews are bound by (certain) Jewish laws. In contrast to Philo, Josephus did not rely on the Septuagint’s interpretation of the text. Instead, he distinguished verse 22 from 23 by whether the woman dies (θνησκούσης). Within the context of his Jewish Antiquities, Josephus aimed to write a national history of the Jewish people and chose clear language that befit that purpose.

What drove you to want to seek out research experiences in college ? 

I first heard about the significance of the translational issues with these verses when I attended a Zoom event hosted by Oberlin Hillel in 2021. Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg gave a talk entitled “The Torah of Reproductive Justice,” and I remember vividly when she began describing the differences between the Hebrew and the Greek translation. I have always been an intellectually curious person and thrived doing humanities research, and these verses emerged as the coalesce of my academic interests.

What is your favorite part about engaging in this work?

I really enjoy the interdisciplinary nature of my research. Although people are often surprised when I say I’m a triple major, I think that my thesis topic demonstrates how an in-depth exploration of a text often necessitates combining knowledge from ‘different’ fields. It’s exhilarating to take pieces of evidence from seminal works across different fields to ultimately craft something new.

How has working with your mentor impacted the development of your research project?

Professor Chapman has been invaluable in helping me narrow my topic down into a project that is both achievable and academically meaningful. I went through three proposal drafts before my topic was sufficiently developed, and she provided detailed, constructive feedback every step of the way. Professor T’s knowledge of ancient science and willingness to answer my grammatical questions has been crucial in developing a strong textual and contextual understanding of my primary sources. My work with Professor Chapman and Professor T reminded me why I chose Oberlin in the first place—the opportunities for faculty mentorship and guidance set Oberlin apart as an institution. 

What advice would you give to a younger student wanting to get involved in research in your field?

Learn languages you’re interested in working with early. I’m indebted to Kirk Ormand who taught my introductory Greek classes. If you’re intrigued by anything having to do with translations, having a strong language foundation to build upon is essential.