T. MICHAEL LAW's WHEN GOD SPOKE GREEK
T. MICHAEL LAW’s WHEN GOD SPOKE GREEK

T. Michael Law, When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible (Oxford: OUP, 2013). (Amazon.com)

 

T. Michael Law is an up-and-coming scholar whose expertise is the Greek Old Testament, popularly known as the Septuagint. Although there are many fine introductory textbooks on the subject there has been little done on the popular level to familiarize people with the Septuagint. Law aims to change this. He has not written a textbook, per se, but a narrative history, which takes the reader from the legends surrounding the translation of the Pentateuch into Greek all the way to the spat between Augustine and Jerome over whether or not the Church’s Bible should be based on the Hebrew or Greek text. For students and scholars of the Septuagint much of the material will be familiar, though likely in an unfamiliar format, but for those of us who have merely dabbled in Septuagint studies, or for those who are completely unfamiliar with the history and value of the Greek Old Testament, this book will introduce readers to a whole new world of thought. For academics it will challenge the reader to rethink their approach to studying the Hebrew Bible, its composition, the role of Scripture in the formation of incipient Christianity, and much more. For the lay reader this book might surprise and shock you, especially if you are a confessing Christian, since it will force you to reevaluate your understanding of how we came to receive our modern Bibles.

In this review I will summarize the message of the book, its contents, and then provide some concluding thoughts. My aim is to help the person reading this review determine whether or not this is a book they ought to read. Spoiler: I think it is a book that should be bought and read, if for no other reason than that the Septuagint may be one of the most overlooked factors when studying the development of western civilization. Whether you are a Christian or not, or a scholar of related subjects or not, you do live in a world shaped by the Septuagint, in part, and it is important to know how and why.

 

Message of the Book:

If I were to summarize the message of this book in a few short words it would be this: the Septuagint is more important than you think. Law aims to educate his readers from a variety of different vantage points, though all Septuagint related: bibliology, canonology, early Judaism, early Christianity, later Judaism, later Christianity, contemporary understandings of the Bible. This book will show you how Alexander the Great reshaped the ancient world and how his military conquest reshaped Jewish identity. Law will argue that both the Hebrew and Greek texts of what came to be known as the Old Testament were far more fluid than many realize. He will show you how early Christians relied upon the Septuagint to spread their new religion through the Roman Empire while simultaneously rooting it in the more ancient Hebrew religion. The Septuagint’s influence may be far more widespread than you realized.

 

Summary of the Contents:

In Chapter 1 (Why This Book?) Law makes his case for writing the book and why you should read it. Now, I know some people have criticized Law because this book is written for a lay audience. Let me say this: we need more books like this one. Often it is difficult for people to find justification for the humanities. The one area of academia that should be most dedicated to the promotion of human flourishing has become irrelevant to many people. Scholars develop their own coded language so that they can talk to each other at conferences and through journal articles. Meanwhile, most of the world has no idea why their research is relevant. If I were a scholar of the Septuagint who had done a lot of work to make sure the Septuagint received the attention it deserves I would be indebted to someone like Law for making sure that more than four or five people are able to participate in the fruit of my labor. Law has given a gift not only to the uninformed lay reader, but to the scholar who may not have the time or skills necessary to deliver her research from the ivory tower down to the streets below.

In this short chapter Law teases the reader a bit by providing a glimpse of what he will address. Then he makes his own personal case for the value of the book. This is followed by some clarifying notes to help ease the unfamiliar reader into the new world of Septuagint studies followed by a quick summary of the forthcoming chapters.

In Chapter 2 (When the World Became Greek) Law strikes a delicate balance between setting the historical scene and not overwhelming the reader with too much data. In gist, this chapter will show why Alexander the Great is important and why the Hellenization of the Mediterranean world was necessary for the Hebrew Bible to be translated into Greek.

Chapter 3 (Was There a Bible before the Bible?) begins with this striking claim:

“Jesus and Paul did not have a Bible; before the production of the “Bible,” Jews and Christians used numerous texts that never made it into the “canon”; and the forms that later became biblical books were in an extraordinary state of fluctuation between the third century BCE and the second CE.”[1]

This is a controversial claim for some and an obvious statement of known facts to others. In order to establish his point Law invites the reader to explore the complexities surrounding the text of the Hebrew Bible. The central point is this: the Masoretic Text became the standardized text long after the Second Temple Period. Jews and early Christians in this period used texts with variants. The Samaritans had their own version, which contrary to popular belief may not be a “rewritten Bible” at all points.[2] There were books being used as “Scripture” that did not become part of the canon; books we call “Apocrypha” and “Pseudepigrapha” now, but which were authoritative to some and not others back before and around the time of Christianity came into existence. The Septuagint compounds the problem (if it is a problem at all). Previously, scholars might assume that variants between Greek texts and the Hebrew texts we possess signify that the translators made a mistake, or misread the Hebrew, or added commentary, but this isn’t necessarily true. Sometimes the Greek translator appears to have worked from a Hebrew text we no longer possess. Once again, the main point is that the text was in flux. Even if there was a standard version residing among the priests in Jerusalem there were other variant texts floating around the Mediterranean.

Chapter 4 (The First Bible Translators) begins where Chapter 2 ends. The world has been Hellenized. Alexander the Great has died and his Kingdom has been split into pieces, yet Greek language and culture is becoming to the ancient world what English is to the modern world. There are many legends surrounding the decision to translate the Hebrew Bible into Greek, beginning with the Pentateuch (or Torah: Genesis-Deuteronomy), likely in Alexandria, Egypt, in the late third century or early second century BCE. [3] The source of much of the mythology surrounding the translation of the Septuagint is The Letter of Aristeas to Philocrates. Law evaluates this text attempting to sift through the myth to a historical core. Readers who may have heard stories about seventy-two Jewish elders going to Egypt to translate the Torah will see from where these stories have arisen. Law attempt to answer the questions “Who were the translators?” and “Why did they do this translation?”

Chapter 5 (Gog and His Not-So-Merry Grasshoppers) and Chapter 6 (Bird Droppings, Stoned Elephants, and Exploding Dragons) are chapters that survey the unique content of these Greek versions of Jewish literature. Chapter 5 focuses more so upon the books that would become canonized. Law provides examples of where the Greek version is different from the Hebrew version we have received. He explains how Greek Torah is different at various points, and how later translators attempted to translate Israel’s historical works and poetry.

Since these books were not translated all at once, nor by the same translators, there are differences in both translation style and content. Some of the stories most cherished by later readers such as David meeting with his brothers before facing Goliath were not part of older manuscripts as made evident by their non-existence in Greek translations. Some sections of books are significantly reordered, such as Ezekiel 36-39.

Chapter 6 may seem out of place to some since it moves to a discussion of books that were not canonized. The reason for this is simple: there was no canon when these books were composed. While Protestant Bibles may not include 1-2 Maccabees now this doesn’t mean that they were authoritative to Second Temple Jews and to many early Christians. The same can be said of books like Wisdom, Tobit, etc. While this chapter’s existence does reinforce the Protestant canon to some degree (since books later rejected are given their own discussion) it also has the benefit of reminding the reader once again the canon was a later thing. When Jesus strolled through Galilee preaching the Kingdom there were Jews in Jerusalem, Egypt, Greece, Rome, and Babylon (i.e., modern Iran) reading some books that other Jews weren’t reading and using some books for liturgical purposes that other Jews rejected. This chapter is a helpful reminder that modern Christians face a similar problem: the Protestant canon is different from the Roman Catholic canon, and the Roman Catholic canon is different from the Eastern or Ethiopian Orthodox canons.

Chapter 7 (E Pluribus Unum) explains how these divergent textual traditions began to morph into a standardized one. Even today, when someone reads a BHS or the new NA 28 these are scholarly efforts to arrive at a standardized text, an “original” (which is a complicated idea when we consider the evolution of texts). There is a desire to avoid a plurality of textual traditions that is not unique to the modern world. This chapter delves the furthest into the role of the Masoretic tradition in establishing a standard Hebrew text, the text that underlies most modern Bibles.

Chapter 8 (The Septuagint behind the New Testament) and Chapter 9 (The Septuagint in the New Testament) investigate how New Testament writers used the Septuagint in their own works. This is one of the more interesting and controversial aspects of Septuagint studies. Many divinity schools and seminaries teach future clergy to translate from the Hebrew Bible, but the early Church appears to have used the Greek Old Testament, or variations of it, or their memory of the text was in Greek when they recited it in their own writings. While it is possible that some citations in the New Testament are examples of the writers providing their own translations Law shows in this book that this isn’t (1) obvious or (2) all that necessary. In other words, if the New Testament writers used a Greek text, and if this text seems to match the texts that came down to us or resembles them with small alterations, it seems more plausible to suggest that use of a Greek text rather than the translation of a Hebrew text.

Law provides helpful examples of how the New Testament authors relied on the Septuagint such as Jude’s use of 1 Enoch; Paul’s frequent use of Greek texts, especially in Romans; how the Gospels used a Greek translation, even when “quoting” Jesus (Matthew may be the only exception, though his heavy reliance on Mark may make this point null). This chapter forces the reader to reevaluate their understanding of the early Church’s idea of authoritative Scripture, especially when the text varies from the received Hebrew texts, or even more interestingly when one of the Evangelists provides a nuanced argument based on the Greek text that would not have necessarily made the same point assuming Jesus spoke Aramaic.

Chapter 10 (The New Old Testament) is where Law begins to introduce the reader to the complexities related to Christian thought about the Old Testament canon. As noted, early Christians used the Greek text. This chapter shows how Christians (likely in dialogue with Jews) began to reevaluate their canon, asking whether or not certain books should be used any longer. Figures such as Origen, Athanasius, and others make an appearance as Law helps the reader see how the canon began to limit what might be seen as Scripture and how this process was not as simple as the Bible falling from the sky in its current form.

Chapter 11 (God’s Word for the Church) shows how the Septuagint was the perfect fit for early Christians who saw kurios and christos in the Greek text, which allowed them to develop Christologies that may not have been possible if the Hebrew text was being used. Origen and others used the Septuagint to develop their theology and liturgy. If they had not used the Septuagint then Christianity may look very different—if it existed at all since the Greek Old Testament was necessary for the advancement of the Gospel among Greek speaking Jews and non-Jews alike.

Chapter 12 (The Man of Steel and the Man Who Worshipped the Sun) focuses primarily on Origen and Eusebius. This chapter exposes on of the great ironies of history: Origen used the Septuagint, and he had no desire to dethrone it as the Church’s Bible, but his Hexapla caused more people to compare the Greek and Hebrew texts. This led many to continue questioning whether the Hebrew Bible of the Jews was the “real” Old Testament and the one that should be used by the Church.

Eusebius was the Bishop who fought hardest to preserve Origen’s legacy. Since he was a close “friend” of Emperor Constantine he was able to get many Bibles published and spread around the empire. Now Origen’s texts were being used and it wouldn’t be long before the western Church has completely rethought the role of the Greek Old Testament.

Chapter 13 (The Man with the Burning Hand versus the Man with the Honeyed Sword) provides us with the fascinating story of the rivalry between Jerome and Augustine. There is much drama in this chapter as Law presents Jerome as a privileged elitist who knew just enough Hebrew, and who was close enough to the Pope of Rome, to cause the Latin Vulgate to be based on a Hebrew textual tradition rather than a Greek one. The Roman Empire was on the verge of fracturing at this time and Augustine worried that if the west began to read a Latin Bible based on Hebrew while the east read the Greek Old Testament this would lead to the Church contributing to the demise of the empire. Augustine argued in defense of the Septuagint as the Church’s Bible with an eye toward its role in preserving unity. Law favors Augustine in this chapter while Jerome is painted quite negatively.

Chapter 14 (Postscript) is a short “plea for the Septuagint” if you will. Law notes that while some scholars have challenged the Church to rethink the role of the Septuagint the problem discussed earlier—that scholars write for other scholars so the broader public never hears their argument—has caused these articles and books to go unnoticed. Other who have written on what it means to read the Old Testament as “Christian Scripture”—such as the work of Brevard Childs and others like him—has largely ignored the Septuagint favoring the Hebrew Bible as the Church’s canonized Bible, but Law wonders aloud whether this makes sense in light of the early Church’s use of the Greek Old Testament. Law ends this book inviting theologians to build on the historical work he has done, and that other have done, to see whether it might be time for the Church in the west (the Orthodox Church has always used the Septuagint) to rethink the role of the Septuagint as the text from which modern translations are derived.

 

Concluding Thoughts:

Law has written a book for lay readers and scholars alike. This book should not be compared to standard textbooks on the subject for Law did not aim to write another textbook. Rather, this book should be read alongside standard textbooks. It supplements those books by providing a narrative that flows and helps students connect point A to point B to point C. It shows how the Septuagint cannot be ignored when studying everything from the formation of the Hebrew Bible to apostolic hermeneutics to Patristics. The Septuagint appears in discussions on all these subjects and Law does us the favor of showing how this is interconnected.

Who should read this book? Anyone. Anyone interested in early Judaism, early Christian, the thought of early theologians like Origen and Augustine, or even the demise of the Roman Empire and the eventual Great Schism of the Christian Church. The Septuagint is not merely the “Greek translation of the Old Testament.” The Septuagint is a brick in the foundation of the world as we know it. If you don’t believe me, please read Law’s book. I think you’ll come to agree.

 

This book was provided for free in exchanged for an unbiased review.


[1] Law, 3.

[2] Ibid., 24.

[3] Ibid., 35.

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