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First Bible of the Church: A Plea for the Septuagint, reviewed

December 8, 2013

First Bible of the ChurchFor the New Testament authors, the original text, that is, the text they drew on, was primarily the Septuagint. To make up the first part of the Bible which has the New Testament as the other part, the Old Testament in the shape it has in the Septuagint would therefore seem the obvious choice.

First Bible of the Church: A Plea for the Septuagint, by Mogens Müller (p. 144)

Mogens Müller provocatively asks, “What caused the displacement of the Septuagint? …Today it is an open question whether the Septuagint should be reinstalled as the Old Testament of the Church” (p. 7). First Bible of the Church is part reception history, part biblical theology, and part apologetic work that suggests the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible should be brought (back) into canonical status. It should be “at least part of a canon” (p. 122), if not the better choice than Biblia Hebraica for today’s “original text” of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible.

What follows is a brief summary of the book’s contents, followed by some evaluative comments.

Müller’s Plea

Chapter 1 is the introduction to the book. In it Müller raises the question of just what should qualify as “the original text” of the Old Testament. If we see “what the early church regarded as its Bible” (p. 23), already one has to take the Septuagint seriously. This is not a question Müller addresses exclusively on textual grounds; for him the issue is also a theological one. To wit: In Isaiah 7:14/Matthew 1:23, “the ‘wrong’ text gains a significance of its own by being used” (p. 23).

Chapter 2, “The Jewish Bible at the Time of the New Testament,” looks at the canonization and textual history of the Jewish Bible, including various Greek recensions. Müller makes a key (and helpful) distinction in canonization between “the recognition of a writing as sacred” and “the final fixing of its wording” (p. 32). Evaluating various source materials, and dismissing the idea of an Urtext, the author notes the (accepted) fluidity of the process of textual transmission, where the actual wording in the sacred books only became important some centuries after the books themselves had become part of a canon. The implications of this, of course, are that New Testament writers may not have cared–in the way modernists do–about making sure they were using “the original” Hebrew text when quoting Scripture–if such a thing even ever existed as such.

Nonetheless, as chapter 3 points out, there was a very early historical concern about the authority of the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. Would the former be on par with the latter? Müller examines various defenses of the Septuagint (the Law books, specifically): Aristeas, Aristobulus, Philo, and Josephus. Chapter 4, “The Reception of the Septuagint Legend into the Church up to and Including Augustine” continues the historical inquiry into attitudes toward the Septuagint, especially when compared to the Hebrew text it was said to have translated. Justin and Irenaeus (among others) are given as examples of early interpreters who saw the Septuagint translation as inspired. Jerome, Müller suggests:

saw the Biblia Hebraica as the basic text as far as the Old Testament was concerned, and thus he contributed, at least for the Latin-speaking part of Christianity, to bring about the final abandonment of the Septuagint, which had very early come to be acknowledged as the Bible of the Gentile, Christian Church. (p. 86)

Biblia Graeca

Biblia Graeca

Chapters 5 (“Hebraica sive Graeca Veritas?“) calls the Septuagint “a witness to the process of transmitting tradition” (p. 99), a process which Müller sees in ancient Judaism as having “a very creative character” (p. 104). Translation in antiquity included a measure of interpretation. The author’s foray into translation theory gives refreshing context to a world that valued lexical equivalency in translation less than many do today.

Chapter 6 (“Vetus Testamentum in Novo Receptum“) provides a short biblical theology, in which the New Testament is seen primarily as the story of Jesus, who himself fulfills what is written in the Old Testament. Müller notes that it is for this reason that the Hebrew Bible became the Old Testament, and yet its use by New Testament writers solidified its importance and sacredness for Christians. The Old Testament is necessary–”it remains the Holy Writ of the Christian community.” But it is not sufficient–”the Old Testament per se represents a limited epoch in salvation history” (p. 135).

The conclusion calls for the Septuagint to (re-)take its canonical place alongside the New Testament.

Is Müller’s Plea Worth Paying Heed To?

Yes. Readers of this blog and its Septuagint posts will not be surprised by my saying so. Müller makes a good case and generally succeeds in making a compelling plea for the LXX. If readers don’t accept his call to (re-)canonize the Greek OT, they will at least take seriously his petition to take it more seriously (as the NT writers did).

The book is short (some 150 pages) but dense. There is untranslated German and Latin in the footnotes, as one would expect in a scholarly monograph, but the writing is no less engaging for its density. The Greek font used throughout is easy to read, and the Greek is often translated into English.

Müller’s brief biblical theology at the end of the book is excellent. It left me wanting to read more. His notion of fulfillment as a motif that links together the OT and NT was convincing and well-articulated.

I found some typographical errors, as well as a number of sentences that just seemed to have wanted closer editing. This could be in part due to the book’s translation from a Danish manuscript. I was distracted in a few places as a result, but not consistently.

Evangelicals will find a few things they disagree with. For example, Müller cites Wellhausen approvingly to note that “the prophets were not reformers anxious to lead the people back to an original Mosaic religion.” The Law, then, “is not the starting-point but the result of Israel’s spiritual development” (p. 102). This line of reasoning is not essential to following the rest of Müller’s arguments, but his “redactional-critical attitude” (p. 100) does lead to a few assertions that some (including myself) don’t agree with.

Müller’s logic and historical inquiry is generally careful and robust, not to mention more readable than one might expect from a work of this nature. Perhaps it is due to the short length of the book, but there are still some unanswered questions. If “the Septuagint” is to comprise the Old Testament in Christian Bibles (as Müller suggests on p. 144, among other places), which Septuagint should we use? On which codex or codices should we base it? And given that Septuagint manuscripts vary on which books are included, how would we decide which books to place in a reconstituted OT? Simply those books that are now in the Hebrew OT, but in their Greek iterations? What about the Apocrypha?

And yet it appears that Müller’s aim is more to address “whether the Septuagint should be reinstalled as the Old Testament of the Church” (p. 7, my emphasis), not how and by what methodology such a reinstallation would take place. With this aim in mind, Müller’s short yet substantive book offers a compelling plea that deserves the reader’s careful consideration.

You can find First Bible of the Church: A Plea for the Septuagint here at Amazon. Its publisher’s product page is here. Thanks to Bloomsbury for the review copy, given with no expectation as to the content of the review.

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