When God Spoke Greek, a review mini-essay

TML book

Today I review chapters 7 and 8 of Timothy Michael Law‘s new book When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible.

Law writes this book because:

[M]y mother still asks what I do for a living, and my father knows but still gets tripped up on the final syllable of Sep-tu-a-gint.

This is not an academic introduction, but what Law has elsewhere called a “narrative history” of the origins, understandings, and uses of the Septuagint. He has in mind as his audience “those who are interested in the history of the Bible and in its use in the early centuries of the Christian Church but who may never have considered the Septuagint’s role in that story.” Further, he writes, “[W]e who call ourselves specialists in this field have not communicated very well to those outside of our societies.”

Law’s prose promises to connect with his audience. It’s accessible, engaging, and generally easy to read.

Chapter 7 picks up just after Law has examined some of the “textual artifacts” in the Septuagint that “were otherwise lost once the Hebrew Bible was formed and all variety extinguished” (like Esdras, Sirach, Maccabees, etc.). The Septuagint text(s) had been “produced in a period of textual plurality,” the close of which period Law now addresses.

Chapter 7, “E Pluribus Unum”

Law looks at the kaige recensions (revisions) found in the Greek Minor Prophets Scroll among the Dead Sea Scrolls:

To put it simply, these revisers were part of a process lasting several centuries through which some Jewish scribes were working to modify the oldest Greek translations so that they would conform to the tradition behind the Hebrew Bible.

At long last, he continues,

The many textual streams that were flowing dynamically during the third and second centuries BCE, delivering a variety of biblical forms, were soon damned up [AKJ: I think “dammed” is intended here] in favor of a unified current that would propose to carry forward a single, authoritative text into the Common Era.

The collection of books deemed “scripture” came to be called the canon. And while Law acknowledges that popular support was needed to constitute the canon, ultimately ecclesial leadership exerted significant influence over which books were finally included. Law understands canonization, then, as (among other things) “a mechanism used by authorities to define the boundaries of their groups, to determine who is in and who is out, partly by declaring which writings are in and which are out.”

Chapter 8, “The Septuagint Behind the New Testament”

LXX NA28In chapter 1 (“Why This Book?”) Law had said that the New Testament quotes the Old “almost entirely from the Greek.” In chapter 8 (and especially chapter 9) he further unpacks that claim. When Bible readers look up an OT quotation they have seen in the NT, and the OT verse differs, this is due “in many cases” to the fact that English Old Testaments or Spanish ones translate the Hebrew Bible, whereas the New Testament writers use “almost exclusively the Greek Septuagint.” In other words, they are quoting using a different text base than our Old Testaments use.

Score a point for Law in terms of reaching out beyond the Academy. What churchgoer hasn’t asked this question? When a New Testament writer says, “It is written…” only to lead you to an Old Testament passage where it isn’t exactly written in that way, it can cause confusion. Law’s explanation of this dynamic is clear and concise. In chapter 9 (which exceeds the scope of this review) he will give specific examples–all without using Hebrew or Greek!

Law notes that if canonization was not complete by the time of the writing of the New Testament (not all agree with him here), then we should expect the New Testament writers to use a variety of text forms. Indeed, to speak of the or a Septuagint is a misnomer: “[W]hile we can say the new Testament writers overwhelmingly used the ‘Septuagint,’ we must admit that the Septuagint itself was not a singular entity.” (See Göttingen.)

“How did the New Testament writers encounter the scriptures?” Law asks. Only the wealthy elite owned anything written, so interaction with the Scriptures “would have been through hearing them read aloud.” And this was in a liturgical context. Highlighting Paul and his use of Scripture in Romans 15, Law shows how Paul was aware of the fuller context of the OT passages he cites, implying a knowledge on Paul’s part that goes beyond just what he heard in public services of worship.

Some Words on Law’s Words on the Word

Overall When God Spoke Greek is engaging and easy to read–yet still stimulating. Law is a master of his material, and that his knowledge and insight goes deeper even that what is contained on these pages is evident.

In chapter 8, Law points out that the Septuagint and its language had a marked influence on the theology of the New Testament writers. I’m glad to see this important point in a book for a more general audience. I can’t quite agree that as a result “the theological outlook of the Hebrew and the Greek versions of many of the books are on different trajectories and thus lead to different conclusions.” What constitutes “many”? Two-thirds? Half? And how “different”? The non-expert could take this to mean that the Septuagint and Hebrew Bible create different theological systems altogether, when taken as a whole.

Enoch Scroll Fragment
Enoch Scroll Fragment

Law extends his argument to include “not only apocryphal but also pseudepigraphal works” as exerting influence on NT writers. (He shows 1 Enoch’s impact on Jude and the Gospels’ “Son of Man” language.) And it’s true that an NT entirely dependent on a Hebrew text in the tradition of the Masoretic Text would not have had access to 1 Enoch. But in my view the author overstates the case when he says that the Greek vs. the Hebrew texts produce “different trajectories and thus lead to different conclusions” with regard to “theological outlook.” Or at least I would have liked him to specify more just what he meant here. After all, Law notes earlier in the book, part of the reasoning behind the creation of a Septuagint in the first place was that Jews who were living in a Hellenistic world had to ask: “how does an immigrant religious community that has been transplanted from another cultural universe retain its convictions and its distinctiveness?” This driving question–surely present to the minds of the translators–ought to temper the idea that there are different theological trajectories in “many of the books.”

LXX in the NT, “almost exclusively”?

Similarly, I was a little uncomfortable with Law’s claim that the writers of the NT use “almost exclusively” and “almost entirely” the Greek Septuagint. This is sexier rhetoric, but perhaps at the expense of precision–the latter of which doesn’t have to be sacrificed in a work intended for a more general populace.

Moisés Silva, in his “Old Testament in Paul” article in the IVP Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, has a list of 108 instances when Paul cites Hebrew Scriptures. He lists times when Paul’s Greek agrees with the LXX text and the Hebrew we now have, times when Paul’s Greek agrees with one but not the other, and times when Paul’s Greek agrees with neither. Of course, as Silva acknowledges, such a list is subjective and presupposes interpretive decisions. (And I don’t agree with all of Silva’s analysis in his lists.)

Would such a list would have served Law well (as an appendix)? Perhaps. The chapter following these two under consideration is full of examples. But as it is, there are some instances, both in Paul and in the Gospels, where the NT Greek either is closer to the Hebrew we have today (against the OT Greek we have) or diverges from both. In this latter category (“Paul ≠ LXX ≠ MT“), Silva lists 31 instances.

This is all actually very complicated. In chapter 9 (“The Septuagint in the New Testament”) Law will note how John 1:23 uses the Septuagint of Isaiah 40:3 rather than the Hebrew of Isaiah 40:3. He says, “In John 1:23, the evangelist quotes Isaiah 40:3 from a Greek version but makes a small adaptation for his own message” (my italics). So for any of those 31 instances Silva cites, Law might say something similar–that the LXX is followed, but with adaptations. It’s impossible to prove with certainty one approach over the other, but I do want to raise all this since I think saying the NT writers use the Septuagint “almost exclusively” is (a) not quantified as much as I’d have liked and (b) liable to produce a more cut-and-dried take on NT writers’ use of Scripture than actually exists.

R.T. France, in his Jesus and the Old Testament, and Archer and Chirichigno’s Old Testament Quotations in the New Testament have comparable lists. Some might discount the (at least partially) apologetic nature of Archer and Chirichigno (“We must therefore conclude that the New Testament use of the LXX implies nothing against verbal inspiration of Scriptural inerrancy”). But by their count there are 33 citations “in which the New Testament adheres more closely to the MT than the LXX does, indicating that the apostolic author may have consulted his Hebrew Bible directly in the preparation of his own account or letter.” (If he had a Hebrew Bible!) So, too, France says:

Summarizing the results so far, we may now say that of the sixty-four Old Testament quotations in the sayings of Jesus which may be regarded as certain or virtually so, twenty are to some degree independent of the LXX, and of these twenty, twelve are closer to the MT at this point. The addition of a further ten cases of likely or possible allusions to the MT against the LXX further strengthens the impression that it is wrong to speak of the Old Testament quotations in the sayings of Jesus as basically LXX form.

"St. Paul Writing His Epistles," by Valentin de Boulogne (17th Cent.)
“St. Paul Writing His Epistles,” by Valentin de Boulogne (17th Cent.)

These statistics are just starting points, and highly open to debate. (One man’s “agrees with the MT against the LXX” is another woman’s “disagrees with both.” See also the top of the third page of Karen Jobes’s 2006 article with the same title as Law’s book.) But I would have loved to see Law engage the conversation on this level of detail. Indeed, if there was the textual fluidity (i.e., pluriform accepted texts) in the NT writers’ times that Law says there was (and I have a hard time arguing with him here)… what does it really mean to say that the NT writers use the LXX “almost exclusively”? Perhaps this work is not the place for him to engage further detail about the “dizzying variety of textual forms” present to scripture readers in the first century. But his presentation of the NT writers’ use of the LXX left me (even reading as a non-specialist) wanting more.

So I hope Law writes more on this subject. And I hope he keeps writing for a popular audience. No doubt some in the academy will critique that he did not write for a specifically academic audience. (He has elsewhere.) I hope his future popular writings (if there are any) don’t shy away from the greater level of nuance and elaboration I mention above.

Law used to have on his blog, “I shall not rest until there is a Septuagint in the hand of every woman, man, girl and boy.” Writing this book is a concrete step in that direction.


Thanks to Brian LePort at Near Emmaus for hosting the blog tour, and thanks to Oxford University Press for the review copy. Here are the other posts in the tour thus far.

BRIAN LePORT: Introducing the blog tour

JOEL WATTS: chapters 1 (“Why This Book?”) and 2 (“When the World Became Greek”)

ANDREW KING: chapters 3 (“Was There a Bible before the Bible?”) and 4 (“The First Bible Translators”)

KRISTA DALTON: chapters 5 (“Gog and his Not-so-Merry Grasshoppers”) and 6 (“Bird Droppings, Stone Elephants, and Exploding Dragons”)

Still to come are:

JESSICA PARKS (Monday, July 29): chapters 9 (“The Septuagint in the New Testament”) and 10 (“The New Old Testament”)

AMANDA MacINNIS (Wednesday, July 31): chapters 11 (“God’s Word for the Church”) and 12 (“The Man of Steel and the Man who Worshipped the Sun”)

JAMES McGRATH (Friday, August 2): chapters 13 (“The Man with the Burning Hand vs. the Man with the Honeyed Sword”) and 14 (“A Postscript”)

16 thoughts on “When God Spoke Greek, a review mini-essay

    1. My pleasure! Happy to be a part of this tour. Looking forward to future discussion around some of these (and other) questions. Thanks for your work in pulling everything together.

  1. Thanks for these good thoughts on TML’s book. The question of the NT writers’ use of the Hebrew text (HT) is a good one, and an enduring difficulty in studying the Old in the New. On the one hand, I think certain scholars have been too strong in denying knowledge of Hebrew to NT authors, when those subject to imperial dominion are often poly-lingual in antiquity, and those with the ability to write must have numbered among a relatively small number of highly educated leaders. On the other hand, the presence of hebraizing revisions (both those of which we have some evidence the the likelihood of lost revisions) makes any concrete demonstration of the use of the Hebrew very difficult.

    Probably the places one might go to take a good run at doing so would be a) the formula citations in Matt and b) the allusive interaction with the OT in Revelation. But both of those authors clearly use the LXX at times, and so there are no slam dunk cases.

    Finally, I’m pretty skeptical of those who claim there is a category of ‘LXX=HT’ such that a rendering identical to the LXX could be made independently from the HT (unless it’s an extremely short phrase). As Philo of Alexandria says, in his reflections on the Aristeas legend, ‘who does not know that every language, and Greek especially, abounds in terms, and that hte same thought can be put in many shapes by changing single words and whole phrases and suiting the expression to that occasion?’ (Mos. 2.38 LCL).

    Again, thanks for these very useful reflections!

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