Book Review: When God Spoke Greek

When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible by Timothy Michael Law

Oxford University Press | Amazon | CBD

When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible by Timothy Michael Law

Many thanks to the kind folks at Oxford University Press for this review copy. I received this copy free of charge in exchange for an unbiased review.

Students in the field of biblical studies probably know Timothy Michael Law as a Septuagint scholar. If I remember right, he even quipped once that he wouldn’t rest until everyone had a copy of the LXX in their hands. In his latest effort, Law seeks to cast a larger spotlight on the LXX for those whose expertise lay outside of specialized LXX studies or even biblical studies in general.

Law’s work/s rests upon four primary points of importance. First, because the LXX sheds light “on the development of Jewish thought between the third century BCE and the first century CE,” “the New Testament cannot be read apart from its context in Hellenistic Judaism” (4) and study of the LXX is necessary for properly understanding the bible used by the earliest followers of Christ. Second, the NT authors and early Church most often used the LXX, thus allowing for tremendous potential for expansion because the scriptures were available in the language of the Mediterranean world (5). Third, the theology of the earliest Christians was shaped by the LXX and not by the Hebrew Bible (5). Fourth, the LXX sometimes preservers an alternative, older form of the text (6).

Chapter two, the official foray into matters set out in the introductory chapter, covers the Hellenization of the biblical world as a consequence of the conquests of Alexander the Great. It seems in biblical studies Alexander’s introduction of Greek culture to those he conquered is a given, assumed from the outset; however, I appreciate Law’s brief survey of this history-changing feat and its importance for setting the historical backdrop for the genesis and development of the LXX.

In chapter three, Law delves into what is basically a history of the Bible’s textual development. He discusses the textual base of the Hebrew Bible—the MT, LXX, Samaritan Pentateuch, Dead Sea Scrolls, etc.—and how the Hebrew Bible came to be. The convoluted history of the canonical Hebrew text found in our Protestant translations is succinctly covered and Law’s discussion, though comparatively brief, is nevertheless helpful in orienting the reader to the trajectories along which the text ultimately moved.

Chapter four covers the genesis of the LXX with much of the chapter devoted to the infamously legendary Letter of Aristeas. Law discusses the letter and some of the critical opinions of it, ultimately siding with those who are unable to determine with any certainty the usefulness of it. The Letter of Aristeas, then, serves to illustrate the difficulty of ascertaining the precise origins of the LXX. Outside of the probability of an Alexandrian provenance in the Hellenistic period, the rest remains a bit of a mystery. As an aside, I want to note one of the more memorable comments made: “If a translation is done accurately, the new audience can peer into the original; if it is done poorly, it could start wars” (33).

Chapter five focuses on the uniqueness of the LXX, namely in terms of how various texts in the LXX differ from their Hebrew counterparts. Law discusses examples from each of the three major sections of the Hebrew Bible and briefly shows how they differ and a very brief note of its significance.

Chapter six covers the apocryphal texts of the LXX and is ample in its usefulness as an introductory treatment of these fascinating books. Law provides a brief synopsis of the problem of canon and the apocryphal works followed by a discussion of each book’s contents.

Chapter seven concerns the various “streams” that flowed into collection of Jewish texts that would ultimately comprise the canon. Law also discusses some of the problems in seeking to understand the process of canonization of texts and traditions. Like other chapters and within the purpose of the book, this chapter will serve as an intro to the subject and Law does well here.

Chapter eight turns attention to the use of the LXX in the NT. Law tackles a handful of problems that arise here, one of which I’ll highlight with a quote: “For the New Testament authors, finding the ‘original text’—a modern, often apologetically motivated concern—was not a priority” (86). There is some carryover from the last chapter in terms of canonicity of particular books. Law goes on to discuss (briefly) various texts in the NT that demonstrate the NT’s dependence on Jewish literature and highlights some particular points of contention, excellent fodder for further reading and study. Akin to this section, chapter nine is essentially a continuation of discussing the LXX in the NT, only here Law devotes most of his attention to the Gospels and Paul.

The next chapter revisits (by way of reference) the previous discussions on the process of creating a canon and tackles in more detail the problems that have attended both the process itself and the subsequent discussion of it by later examiners of the scriptures and history.

The last three chapters move out of the first century into the patristic era and well beyond, discussing at some length the importance of the LXX to a number of significant interpreters, e.g., Josephus, Philo, Jerome, Augustine, Tertullian, Origen, Constantine, and others. Law discusses their use of the NT documents (which obviously employ LXX readings more than MT) and the struggles that these early interpreters faced when attempting to sort of some of the problems that arose.

In sum, Law’s book is extremely well written and should serve as a go-to introduction for the subject. One of the aspects of this book I appreciate most is that the chapters are relatively short thus making the work of reading less arduous. Most works on the LXX are dense and verbose, necessarily steeped in esoteric vocabulary and scholarly banter. Because Law’s work is aimed at a more generalized introduction, he keeps the verbiage at a manageable level without dumbing down the discussions. One way in which this is accomplished is the inclusion of Hebrew and Greek terms as phonetic English equivalents, e.g., asereth hadevarim for עשרת הדברים and deka logos for δεκα λογους. While I appreciate this effort, I find that rendering words phonetically or transliterating them does not help—either you know the language as it was written or you don’t. Again, I think this is part of Law’s effort to keep the text manageable for those who may not have facility in biblical languages and as such I don’t find it a terrible detraction from the work. I’ll also note that the notes are banished to the back of the book in the form of endnotes and I only found one typo—p. 85, “usedvarious” with no space.

Law provides enough information to prime the reader on principal elements for beginning to understand the LXX and its role in the formation of both the Bible and Christian theology (and Jewish theology for that matter). This book is also laced with humorous analogies and witticisms that make for an even more enjoyable journey through the jungles of LXX studies. For example, Law makes the following statement: “So on the one hand nothing in the Septuagint will grab headlines for proving Solomon was celibate, that Elijah lived on a tract of land that would become Colorado, or that Adam and Eve were duped by a clever monkey instead of a serpent” (44), and later “Timothy was not sat on his grandmother’s knees reading out of a Bible published by the Palestine Bible Society” (89). His chapter titles are also clever:  Gog and His Not-So-Merry Grasshoppers (ch. 5), Bird Droppings, Stoned Elephants, and Exploding Dragons (ch. 6), and The Man with the Burning Hand versus the Man with the Honeyed Sword (ch. 13).

Let me also say something concerning the aesthetic of this volume. I don’t what kind of paper was used for this book for the covers, but it’s my favorite kind. It’s not glossy, thus not subject to dulling and fingerprinting, nor is it ordinary matte. It’s got a soft feel—again, I don’t know the technical name—and I love it.

This is a fine volume and would recommend it to all seeking to learn more about the LXX.

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Blogging through The Lost World of Scripture: Proposition 2

Part 1, Proposition 2 – Expansions and revisions were possible as documents were copied generation after generation and eventually compiled into literary works

This section practically reads like a primer on textual criticism, at least a couple of its components. Essentially Walton considers the role of the scribe in the transmission of what would become the canonical text. Here he asks an important question, one whose answer still evades satisfactory explanation: “Which version of a tradition found its way into a document?” The discussion here revolves around, as mentioned above, the role of the scribe. Walton suggests that scribes had a measure of latitude when it came to copying texts, though this varied depending on historical factors in the culture and the scribe’s level of accomplishment. Many of the changes made in the text over the centuries were what Walton describes as updates—language and place names, explanatory glosses, added sections, updated formulations, and integrated revisions to address new audiences (33–34). These are indicative of the changes that occur in language and the community in which the oral tradition is circulating. Beyond this, there were more significant changes that were introduced to the text, a phenomenon Walton describes as “innertexuatlity”—actual changes within the tradition itself. This might include new laws, wisdom sayings, narratives, etc. Here I wish that Walton would have provided concrete examples of such additions.

Walton makes an important point in this section. He suggests that changes that were introduced by the scribes would not have been seen as “destructive, deceptive, or subversive” (34), but rather advantageous. This is so because they (the scribes and the community they served) did not see their work as tampering with authority. Since authority resided in the authority figure who inaugurated the tradition, updating the text to be relevant to an ever-changing culture was necessary and would preserve the core of the tradition, though it would be couched in different language than that of its original form.

Walton continues (with many before him) to dispel the notion that the canonical text is indicative of word-for-word preservation of what Abraham, Moses, or others actually said. The distance between the origin of the oral tradition and its transcription into a document is simply too great. For Walton, this does not diminish the authority or importance of the text we have, but serves as a reminder that the text is the product of a culture that was only much later oriented around a written text. As such, the original form of the tradition recorded would have been quite different, though this is not seen as a detriment to the current text.

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Proposition 1

New Eerdmans Catalog

For bibliophiles, new catalogs are always a treat! Eerdmans just released their new fall academic catalog–check it out here. There are many fine offerings, but two caught my attention:

Reframing Paul: An Epistolary Biography by Douglas Campbell

After creating somewhat of a furor with his offering on Paul and Romans (The Deliverance of God), Campbell will surely upset some apple carts with this volume. According to the blurb, “Though figuring out the authorship and order of Paul’s letters has been thought to be impossible, Campbell’s Framing Paul presents a cogent, innovative solution to this long- contested puzzle.” Color me skeptical, but this seems a bit ambitious; yet, Campbell is a provocative scholar and writer, so this should be an engaging read whatever the theses and arguments may be. 

A second volume of interest is Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: Greek and English by Craig Evans and Daniel Zacharias. Eerdmans just released volume one of Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: More Noncanonical Scriptures last year and now this beauty is slated for release in January. The primary difference here (presumably besides different texts that are included) is the availability of the Greek texts. This will be a boon for students who wish to have more access to the original texts (sketchy as some may be) behind these important works.

A number of other promising volumes are also included: Pandora’s Box Opened: An Examination and Defense of Historical-Critical Method and Its Master Practitioners by Roy Harrisville, The Text of the Old Testament: An Introduction to the Biblia Hebraica (3d ed) by Ernst Würthwein, The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus by Michael Bird, The Many Faces of Herod the Great by Adam Kolman Marshak, and the revised edition of Gordon Fee’s commentary on 1 Corinthians in the NICNT.

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Blogging through The Lost World of Scripture: Proposition 1

The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority

By John H. Walton and Brent D. Sandy

I must say that when I received a copy of this title from the always-generous folks at IVP, I was excited. John Walton and Brent Sandy are two scholars whom I hold in high regard. Walton was helpful for me in sorting through interpretive issues in Genesis 1 related to cosmology through his treatments on the subject (here and here) and Brent Sandy’s work on apocalyptic language was likewise a helpful guide in dealing with enigmatic imagery in scriptural texts. Now Walton and Sandy turn their attention to a matter that has been the subject of renewed discussion and debate—the transmission of biblical texts and the question of inerrancy. From the outset, Walton and Sandy make it clear that they hold a very high view of Scripture—it is “God’s self-disclosure” and a “literary deposit of divine truth” (12). They also affirm the Scriptures to be inerrant (12). However, W and S are clear that any terminology used to discuss inerrancy is ultimately inadequate (13).

This book is arranged in four parts, each of which contains a series of propositions. Each proposition details an element of the process of the biblical text’s transmission and how one should approach the text in light of that. Part 1: The Old Testament World of Composition and Communication; Part 2: The New Testament World of Composition and Communication; Part 3: The Biblical World of Literary Genres; Part 4: Concluding Affirmations on the Origin and Authority of Scripture.

Part 1, Proposition 1 – Ancient Near Eastern societies were hearing dominant and had nothing comparable to authors and books as we know them.

Initially, the suggestion that ancient societies like those of the ANE had no books and authors sounds somewhat silly. In the days since Gutenberg’s printing press made mass publication even possible and especially in this age of technology, it’s almost unthinkable to imagine a time when books were a rare commodity for a select few who were privileged enough to possess copies of their own. However, books and other forms of printed media are a comparatively modern luxury.

The first proposition is largely introductory (naturally) and serves to orient the proceeding discussion in the fact that ancient cultures, particularly those in the ANE, were hearing-dominant and not text-dominant. Walton discusses a number of issues why this is so, most of which should be intuitive to anyone who stops to think about a world 2,000 years removed from our own. Walton argues that reading and writing were limited to a small number of people who practiced these for very particular reasons. For example, he argues that documents were produced for archives, libraries, for school texts, to be read aloud, and as symbolic expressions of power (23). However, we could easily take these purposes and transport them to the modern world, though of course our reasons of reading and writing surpass these. I think that writings as expressions of power is intriguing and I am hoping he discusses that more. I also wonder how much of the writings from the ANE comprise this category.

Another intriguing point, which is derivative of the discussion that preceded it, is the fact that the ancients didn’t consider books and authors the way we do. As Walton notes, concepts such as plagiarism, intellectual property, etc., were notions completely foreign to the ANE. Instead, there were only “authorities, documents, and scribes” (25).

So far, I’m intrigued as to how this will flesh out in following propositions. Due to space limitations, this introductory chapter is necessarily selective in terms of examples and references to primary sources, so the discussion feels a tad truncated. However, I imagine the whole book will be this way as it is not meant to be an exhaustive tome that analyzes the numerous data on the subject, but rather serves as a springboard into the discussion.

Memorable quotes:

“Literacy is not necessarily absent in hearing-dominant societies; it is simply nonessential” (18).

“[P]reserving an oral tradition in a document will not obscure the characteristics of orality” (24).

“Authority was not connected to a document but to the person of authority behind the document when that person was known, or to the tradition itself” (27).

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Free from SBL: C. L. Crouch, Israel & the Assyrians: Deuteronomy, the Succession Treaty of Esarhaddon, & the Nature of Subversion

Originally posted on Daniel O. McClellan:

Israel & The Assyrians

SBL Publications has a list of titles available for free download on this page. Because you’re interested in Deuteronomy and its composition and ideological function, you’ll be particularly excited to see the inimitable Carly Crouch’s Israel and the Assyrians: Deuteronomy, the Succession Treaty of Esarhaddon, & the Nature of Subversion. From the introduction:

A prominent feature of attempts to ground the deuteronomic text in a historical context over the last half century has been the observation of certain affinities between Deuteronomy and ancient Near Eastern vassal treaties and loyalty oaths. More specifically, it has been suggested that the book of Deuteronomy, in some more or less original form, constituted a subversive appropriation of Neo-Assyrian imperial ideology in favor of a Yahwistic theocentricity: a text deliberately designed to undermine the authority of the Assyrian king by planting YHWH in his stead. The prevalence of this assertion has its roots in the widespread recognition of similarities between elements of Deuteronomy, especially…

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Blogging through The Lost World of Scripture

This blog (obviously!) has been rather sparse in terms of new content over the last year or more. Life is busy with family, work, and school, and any down time is usually gobbled up by some other necessary chore (ask our DVR!). However, I’ve given some thought to doing something I’ve not done before–blogging through a book. This strikes me as both a fun outlet for not only reading and discussing books but also a tremendously likely failure–time simply hasn’t permitted me much in the way of leisurely reading and blogging.

Thanks to the always-generous folks at IVP, I received a copy of John Walton and Brent Sandy’s recent venture–The Lost World of Scripture. The matter of biblical authority and its derivation from Scripture has a long history and its enjoyed a fair bit of attention in recent years. So, as I mentioned, this would be good fodder for discussion methinks, so we’ll see how long I can keep it up.

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