How did the New Testament writers and the earliest Christians come to adopt the Jewish scriptures as their first Old Testament? And why are our modern Bibles related more to the Rabbinic Hebrew Bible than to the Greek Bible of the early Church? The Septuagint, the name given to the translation of the Hebrew scriptures between the third century BC and the second century AD, played a central role in the Bible's history. Many of the Hebrew scriptures were still evolving when they were translated into Greek, and these Greek translations, along with several new Greek writings, became Holy Scripture in the early Church. Yet gradually the Septuagint lost its place at the heart of Western Christianity. At the end of the fourth century, one of antiquity's brightest minds rejected the Septuagint in favor of the Bible of the rabbis. After Jerome, the Septuagint never regained the position it once had. Timothy Michael Law recounts the story of the Septuagint's origins, its relationship to the Hebrew Bible, and the adoption and abandonment of the first Christian Old Testament.
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More or less three years ago I opened a facsimile edition of the oldest codex of the complete Christian bible, the fourth century Codex Sinaiticus. I remember thinking while being awed by it that except for the Dead Sea Scrolls, this is the oldest text of the Bible we have - and it is in Greek! This realisation took me on a personal journey to reassess the Greek Old Testament, better known as the Septuagint. When Audible Studios published, Alexander Von Humboldt Fellow & Junior Research Fellow at Oxford, Dr. Timothy Michael Law’s book “When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible” (OUP) I bought it almost immediately.
This is - as far as I know - the only popular introduction aimed at ‘lay’ persons. Most books on the Septuagint are written for scholars and postgraduates, though some like Jennifer M Dines’ “The Septuagint” (T & T Clark) can also be considered for everyone as it is clear and easy to read. That said, Timothy Law’s book comes at the right time, almost six years after “A New English Translation of the Septuagint” (NETS) was published. Readers and listeners of Law’s book who cannot read Greek, can access the text of the Septuagint through an excellent translation when necessary. (However, if you just want to follow his argument, remember to download the PDF file that accompanies the audio book.)
Law writes from a Christian perspective. He begins his book by sketching the effects of the Hellenisation of the Ancient Mediterranean world and how it created the necessity for a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. Fairly soon it becomes clear that he wants to venerate the Septuagint as the original bible of the early Church. It has become popular in Septuagint scholarly circles to make out a plea for returning to the Septuagint as the bible of the Church. To an extent it seems that he does it also. (Yet the same plea could be made out for the Latin Vulgate.) But Law has a point, the Septuagint was indeed the preferred text used by the New Testament writers, including Paul and Matthew. It also contains important variant readings that differs from the Masoretic text (the Mediaeval Hebrew Text of the Old Testament provided with vowel marks by the Ben Asher family or Masoretes) which he claims has been downplayed due to conservative theological agendas for too long. I think that this is one of things I found of value in Law’s book, he convincingly illustrates that the Septuagint - through a translation of an often lost Hebrew text - bears witness to alternative textual traditions. Together with that, he offers a different approach to textual authority than the limiting doctrine of “in-errancy.” Highlighting Origen, Augustine and other church fathers’ views he shows how the early Church accommodated different texts of the Bible.
I found Law’s critical and honest approach to the legends surrounding the creation and translation of the Septuagint, of great value. Having read various books that would touch on letter of Aristeas which tells about how it came to be that the Septuagint was translated, I now realise that various scholars may have reported only what other scholars had to say about it. It is clear to me now that the letter of Aristeas doesn’t say explicitly that 70 scholars translated the Septuagint over a certain period in seclusion where after they compared their translations to that of each other, finding them to be exactly the same. This is a later interpretation of the story.
Another issue that Law made me think about was the order of the Decalogue (ten commandments) and how it differs (especially in order) between the scrolls from the Dead Sea, the Septuagint and the Gospels. One cannot just presume that the Hebrew text’s order is the correct order, which has an influence on how one should evaluate Jesus quoting of the commandments.
This brings me to the one thing that I have been wondering about Law’s study. While he illustrates how complex it can be when dealing with quotations of the Septuagint texts and its revisions in the New Testament, he seems to assume that the New Testament writers didn’t adjust the text of the Septuagint to make a point. All differences between the Septuagint and the New Testament can therefore be explained in terms of different layers of Septuagint texts that were used by the New Testament writers. If I take his argument a bit further it would mean that theoretically one should be able to date various books in the New Testament according to the revisions and type of Septuagint text that they used. I am a bit sceptical about his assumption that the Septuagint’s text was almost mechanically used by the New Testament writers.
All that said, I think that Dr. Law’s “When God spoke Greek” is a very timely introduction to the Septuagint. I admire him for writing a popular introduction on a highly technical topic. It is a tremendously important work which - I hope - will bring a new appreciation for the Septuagint. Maybe a new generation of seminary students will buy the ‘Biblia Graeca’ of the German Bible Society which contains both the critical texts of the New Testament and the Septuagint and not just the New Testament and ‘Biblia Hebraica.’
“When God spoke Greek” is an up to date, engaging work of which every Christian and Jew should take note. It illuminates the two religious traditions through the Sacred Scriptures of the Hellenistic Jew and the story of how it became the Scriptures of the Christian Church until it was replaced in the West with the Vulgate. It definitely challenges long-held perceptions on theology, the Bible and its text.
I wish I could say that I enjoyed Stephen F. McLaughlin narration as much as the content of the book. He is an established audio book narrator with more than 20 books up his sleeve. His pronunciation of word and sentences is clear and easy to follow. His accent is quite neutral. Having listened to other samples of his interpretative reading, I cannot say that this was his best reading. I suspect that he read the book slower than most of his other productions. Furthermore I really got the idea that he doesn’t know Greek, Hebrew or Latin, especially because of accent placed wrongly on words. However McLaughlin gave a decent performance that shouldn’t hinder you to buy the audio book.
“When God spoke Greek” is a must-have for anyone interested in the story of the Bible.