When God Spoke Greek — Book Blog Tour

When I was approached about participating in the Book Blog Tour for Timothy Michael Law’s new book, When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible, I was beyond excited. I have, in the past, lamented how in all my years of theological training I have never once had a class on the Septuagint. I can count on one hand the number of times the Septuagint was mentioned in New Testament classes (usually in relation to how the NT author quoted the Old Testament), and I don’t think the Septuagint was ever brought up in an Old Testament class. Given this gap, I was hoping that this new book would help fill the gap. I can say with confidence, that this book definitely begins to fill said gap. Timothy Michael Law notes in his introduction that he was wanting to make the Septuagint more accessible. And he does.

 

Now, it’s important to note that I’m coming at this book as a seminary student, an aspiring theologian, and a person involved in church ministry. As such, the questions that I bring to this book include:

 

  • Would this book work as a textbook for college students? Would this book work as a textbook for seminary students?
  • Would this book have helped my studies as a student?
  • What are the theological implications of the NT authors quoting the Septuagint, especially when it differs from the Hebrew text?
  • Would this book be helpful for teaching lay people in the church about the history of Scripture?

Now onto my look at chapters 11 and 12!

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In chapter eleven, TML begins by talking about the Septuagint influenced the transmission of Scripture into other languages. For example, the Latin Scripture were produced, not from the Hebrew text, but from the Greek. It is also from the Septuagint that the earliest Coptic, Armenian, Gothic and Arabic translations were produced. TML goes so far as to say, “Had there been no Septuagint, and had early Jewish converts remained in a Semitic world, the church may never have moved outside of its Palestinian birthplace.” (129)

He then looks at Philo and Josephus’ use and explanations of the origins of the Septuagint. For Philo, it was important to justify the text and he set out to demonstrate how it was divinely inspired. Josephus, on the other hand, is not so interested in justifying the divine inspiration of the Septuagint, so much as just reporting how the Hebrew Scriptures came to be translated into Greek.

By the 4th century, we find Eusebius arguing that “God providentially guided a translation into Greek so that when the Savior of the world did appear the nations would recognize him. This was the time when God spoke Greek.” (131) TML writes that by the 4th century, “the idea that the Septuagint was the inspired word of God was already so deeply rooted in the church that it allowed these writers to speak of it as the preparation for the gospel and as the superior, indeed, the only, word of God for the church.” (132)

TML then asks one of the questions that I myself was bringing to the text: “In what ways did [the Septuagint] contribute to the theological and exegetical formation of the early centuries of Christianity?” (132) He notes that the Latin and Greek Fathers were not concerned with how accurately the Greek translated the Hebrew, and that “presumably most Christians would have viewed the Hebrew Bible as strictly Jewish scripture, but the Septuagint was the treasure of the church.” (133) He explores examples of typological exegesis that were common because the Septuagint’s translations of key words like “Lord,” and “Anointed” made it easy for readers to see foreshadowing references to Christ.

As well, the Septuagint became extremely important theologically as the early church struggled against heresies. Over and over, it was the Septuagint and not the Hebrew texts that the Church Fathers would return to over and over again to craft a coherent defense of the faith.

TML concludes the chapter by noting that it wasn’t just theology that was profoundly influenced by the Greek text. Indeed, the Septuagint played a role in also developing preaching, liturgy and Christian piety (aka spiritual formation). Ultimately, “Most Christians would have heard the Septuagint taught and would have been shaped by it without knowing anything about its relationship to the Hebrew.” (139)

In chapter twelve, TML looks at Origen and his influence on biblical scholarship in the early church. He argues that Origen’s “textual scholarship inadvertently hastened the end of the Septuagint’s prominence in the church.” (141) Origen’s study of Scripture was extensive. He was continually learning about exegetical methods, not only from Christian scholars in Alexandria, but also from Jewish and Greek (secular) scholars. It was this deep passion for exegesis that led Origen to compile the Hexapla: “a six-columned Bible in which he placed six different biblical texts in parallel columns.” (143) This project made the differences between the Hebrew and Greek texts stand how. But how would Origen explain the differences? “When the Hebrew Bible and the Septuagint were at odds with one another, there were two possible explanations: copyists introduced genuine errors in the transmission of the manuscripts, or Providence introduced the divergences for the church’s edification.” (144) TML is quick to note that Origen had great respect for the Septuagint and that “Origen’s aim was never to dislodge the Septuagint from the lecterns of the churches in favor of the Hebrew Bible.” (145)

So how did this massive exegetical work by Origen hasten the demise of the Septuagint’s prominence in the church? By accident!

“If Origen included the Hebrew Bible in the first column of his Hexapla, didn’t that imply it was worth studying? The fifth column, in which he had created a hybrid text composed of the church’s Septuagint with additional readings from other Greek Jewish versions, may have begun as a scholarly tool for exegesis, apologetics, and textual analysis. But the new fifth column text was soon copied with the signs [that noted divergences from the Hebrew] removed and was dispersed widely. It moved out from a scholarly and professional realm, where caveats could have helped to prevent its misuse, and into the church. Unintentionally, Origen’s work contaminated the stream of biblical transmission: from the fourth century almost all Septuagint manuscripts had been influenced by the so-called Origenic, or Hexaplaric, version.” (145)

And this contamination was not gradual. Instead “it exploded on to the map and changed the course of the Septuagint’s history thereafter.” TML concludes the chapter by noting: “A new spirit was unleashed, and if scholars had not noticed before the divergent nature of the Septuagint and the Hebrew Bible they would soon find it impossible to ignore. The final days of the Septuagint in the West had begun.” (150)

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So would I recommend this book? Absolutely! Reading this book has begun to fill in some of the gaps of my theological education. If I was teaching a course, how would I use this book? If I was teaching a class on the Patristic Fathers, either at the college or seminary level, this would definitely be on the syllabus as a required reading. If I was teaching a survey NT or OT class, I wouldn’t necessarily assign this book, but would instead create a lecture or two on the Septuagint based on the material in this book. At a church level, I think it would be fantastic to do a small group study on the history of Scripture and use this book as one of the materials to be read over the course of a season (with 13 chapters plus a postscript, this book is ideally laid out for a fall (Sept-Dec) or spring (Jan-Apr) weekly study group).

My only real complaint is that once again a publisher has decided that a book aimed at a general audience needs endnotes. Publishers, please stop doing this! A general audience will not be put off by a few footnotes, and footnotes actually make the book easier to read.

 

You can follow the rest of the Book Blog Tour on When God Spoke Greek here.

 

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  • brianleport

    I’d be interested to hear how you as a budding theologian would respond to Law’s final two paragraphs on pg. 171 regarding theologians building on the historical work he has done to revisit the role and meaning of the LXX for the life of the modern Church. Do you think this is a project you’d pursue, or be encouraged to see others pursue? Do you have any ideas on how one might begin theologizing about the LXX?

    • CWtheology

      Brian, I think he’s right. A modern Christian theology that at least incorporates, if not necessarily entirely built on, the LXX would be a fantastic project. I think several things need to happen first. LXX translation and commentary needs to become a bit more mainstream in biblical studies. (I wonder what would happen if more NT profs incorporated LXX passages in their Greek exegesis classes?) And there needs to be a more accessible English translation (NIV-esque) made available. The two English LXX I have on my shelf are absolutely dreadful to read.
      If I were to pursue this project as a theologian, I could see several possibilities:
      1. Putting the LXX and the reception of the LXX in the early church in dialogue with the modern doctrine of Scripture (particularly “inerrancy.”
      2. Putting Barth’s Christology, particularly his adoption of Chalcedon, in dialogue with the early church’s typological exegesis through the LXX.
      3. Doing something related to ecclesiology. How or Did the early church use the LXX to understand the nature and purpose of their community, and might that give us some clue as to how to address ecclesiology in a postmodern context today?

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