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.

Αυτω η δοξα


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