Timothy Michael Law
When God Spoke Greek: the Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible
Oxford University Press, 2013
How did the West get its God? Earlier this year, the newspaper-generated squabble about Christianity, Englishness, and the UK sidestepped an often overlooked fact: Christianity’s God is utterly foreign. He’s not from around these parts. Two great metamorphoses were required before Abraham’s God came to be loved and feared from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. We are all familiar with one of them; the Messianic sect which suddenly burst out of first-century Judaism, whose missionary zeal conquered first the Old World and then the New. In this well-written and accessible book–one of those rare volumes which successfully communicates a fascinating general overview fully grounded in serious academic research–Law brings us up to speed with the story of the other.
This is the story of the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of what most of us know as the Old Testament. Law tells us why it is the most important book you have never heard of. The story begins a couple hundred years before Christ, with another young man who changed the world. Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Persian Empire tied together Greece, Egypt, the Levant, Mesopotamia, and the Iranian plateau. Greek language and culture marched into virtually every major town alongside Alexander’s soldiers and, like so many of them, settled.
The Jews, too, lived, worshipped, and passed on their sacred writings in such cities, from Babylon to newly-founded Alexandria. Whilst life may have continued more or less uninterrupted in the countryside, within the cities and ports koiné or “common” Greek became an international language of commerce and politics; the local élites clamoured to find recognition as citizens of towns enthusiastically re-ordered on the model of the Greek polis. The Jews, Law shows, appear to have been no exception. With enthusiasm and success, the majority were keen to embrace the prevalent culture without assimilation. Law is quick to point out that even the stories of the great Maccabean resistance movement against complete Hellenization come down to us in Greek-language Jewish texts. Such Hellenized and Hellenizing Jews (probably in Egypt, plausibly in Alexandria) translated first the Torah and then other Jewish scriptural books into Greek, and the rest of Law’s book draws our well-deserved attention to its content, subsequent history, and significance.
When God Spoke Greek is in many ways a manifesto for the rediscovery of the Septuagint by the Academy, the Church, and the general public. Although most people may not have heard of it, Law is quick to establish the vestigial traces of the Septuagint’s great influence on the transmission of Israelite religion to the Western world, down to the familiar Greek names of Genesis, Exodus, and the like. Law’s clarion call comes at a crucial time; Septuagintal studies is on the cusp of a renaissance. The Septuagint’s prestige received a great boost due to archaeological discoveries and text-critical research during the twentieth century. When the Dead Sea Scrolls were recovered from the Judaean Desert, a significant number of their Biblical books were found to contain details within the text differing from the Hebrew text transmitted down through the Middle Ages and into the modern era. Furthermore, some of these differences were found to correspond with similar features of the Septuagint. Thus, in recent decades, it has become increasingly clear that the Scrolls and the Septuagint are vital witnesses to very ancient textual traditions of the Old Testament, which may even predate the received Hebrew text.
If that sounds a bit dry, Law is quick to hammer home its importance. Where the New Testament (written in Greek, of course) quotes or alludes to the Old, it almost always looks to the Septuagint. When Matthew describes Mary as a virgin, he cites Isaiah 7.14 as a prophecy confirming his claim; yet the Hebrew refers only to an almah, a “young woman”. It’s the Septuagint that mentions a parthenos or “virgin”. In the Acts of the Apostles, in which Luke writes to justify the inclusion of Gentiles in the Church, the author appeals to Septuagintal texts such as Amos 9; whereas the Hebrew text has the rebuilt booth of David taking violent possession of Israel’s neighbour Edom, the Greek offers a more irenic picture of the Gentiles seeking out the God of Israel. The very title “Christ” is not a New Testament neologism, but part of the vocabulary of the Septuagint’s Hellenized Judaism.
The results of his overview makes uncomfortable reading for certain fundamentalisms. Evangelical Protestants may be hesitant to accept that in Romans 1.18-32, a key passage treating the nature of sin as a prelude to salvation by grace, the Apostle Paul’s argument is utterly dependent on the Wisdom of Solomon. This book, part of the Septuagint, has been widely regarded as Apocryphal since the Reformation. The New Testament’s tiny Epistle of Jude shows similarly unorthodox influences. Verse 9 mentions a dispute between the Archangel Michael and Satan over the body of Moses, which is an amalgamated reference to both the pseudepigraphal Assumption of Moses, in which Michael is a gravedigger, and to the apocryphal Enoch, in which Michael is an accuser. In addition to this, the picture of textual plurality in ancient Judaism and the early Church is also unsettling for those inclined to an uncomplicated orthodoxy. Despite focusing overwhelmingly on the Septuagint as the main tradition of the Greek Old Testament, Law does not neglect to mention the other Greek versions we know of, those of Aquila, Symmachus and Theodotion. The result is often a surprising freedom of action on the part of New Testament authors. Paul, for example, is happy to use what appears to be Theodotion’s text of Isaiah 25.8—“death has been swallowed up in victory”—in singing the praises of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, over and against the Septuagint’s “Death, having prevailed, swallowed them up.” The theological importance of this preference can hardly be overstated.
On top of this we are then reminded of the Septuagint’s status as the standard Bible of the early Church, contrasting greatly with the modern Church’s almost universal preference for the Hebrew version in translations and teaching. It, and not the Hebrew, was the text used by such giants as Athanasius and Augustine (in translation), who shaped the dogmatic orthodoxy of early Christianity. Even Jerome’s Vulgate, which returned to Hebrew sources, included books otherwise found only within the canon of the Septuagint. The modern preoccupation with the Hebrew text to the exclusion of the Greek is a major discontinuity in the (relatively) recent history of the Church, a wrong to be righted.
Law’s manifesto calls for the Academy to return to the study of the Septuagint as the great document of the rise of Christianity, and the Church to re-engage with the Septuagint as part of its Biblical inheritance. But it also summons the general reader to take note. If we want to understand the origins of the Christian and post-Christian West, we must understand the Septuagint and the role it played in giving the West its God. Law’s book is ultimately a springboard for this project; a route into the world of the Septuagint for the intelligent lay-reader. Alongside a perusal of Law’s carefully selected “Further Reading”, perhaps the best response to his book would be to open a copy of the Septuagint itself. The OUP recently published A New English Translation of the Septuagint (NETS) for ¬£25.99; NETS and Law would together be a perfect introduction to the Bible which shaped Western culture and the Christian Church.
John Ritzema is reading for a MPhil in Theology (Old Testament) at Oriel College, Oxford.