Against the Gods: The Polemical Theology of the Old Testament Reviewed

Currid

Currid, John D. Against the Gods: The Polemical Theology of the Old Testament. Wheaton: Crossway, 2013. 153 pp., $17.99 paper.

Parallels between the literature of the Hebrew Bible and that found elsewhere in the ancient Near East (ANE) have long since been noted. While it is beyond doubt that some relationship exists between these texts, the nature of the relationship continues to be a matter of debate. Did the biblical authors simply plagiarize their material, sanitizing the pagan aspects? Or, did the Hebrews incorporate elements of ancient Near Eastern culture and religion for a driving theological purpose. In his book, Against the Gods: The Polemical Theology of the Old Testament, John Currid argues that the latter is the case.

In the prologue, Currid presents the basic elements of the work, including the topic, purpose, and audience. In describing the topic of the book, Currid states, “This book is about the relationship between the writings of the Old Testament and other ancient Near Eastern literature” (9). From the outset, he makes clear that he understands the worldview of the Bible to be “altogether unique, as confirmed by its all-pervasive monotheism” (9).

The explicit purpose of the book, as expressed by the author, is to advance the discussion regarding the parallels between biblical literature and its ANE counterparts by proposing an alternative explanation, namely, polemical theology (9). Though this stands as the authors goal, he writes the book “for those who know little about polemical theology, not the scholarly community (9-10).”

The structure of the book consists of eleven chapters exploring various aspects of the polemical theology; its history and notable occurrences in the Old Testament. The opening chapter seeks to provide a cursory outline of the history of ancient Near Eastern studies, considering the relationship between ANE studies and biblical studies. Through the discovery of a wealth of ANE texts beginning in the 19th century, scholars have uncovered various parallel accounts of familiar biblical narratives. During this time, Currid states, a hermeneutic of suspicion led some scholars to conclude that the biblical authors were guilty of “crass plagiarism.” On the other hand, the increase of material required greater degrees of specialization, producing fields of scholarship previously unknown. The chapter concludes with a brief sketch of the state of “evangelical” scholarship on the question of the parallels between the ANE and biblical texts. Currid says that many evangelical scholars have emphasized the similarities between these texts to the detriment of their dissimilarities.

The burden of chapter two is to define and explain polemical theology. Currid provides the following definition: “Polemical theology is the use by biblical writers of the thought forms and stories that were common in the ancient Near Eastern culture, while filling them with radically new meaning” (26, italics original). The new meaning that Currid finds in the biblical text is centered on monotheism. This device used by the biblical authors graphically contrasted their worldview and that of the rest of the Near East. Hence the differences between the texts are more telling than the similarities. Currid provides several introductory examples of polemical theology such as polemical expressions (eg. “the strong arm of the Lord”) and motifs (eg. The confrontation of the serpents in Exod 7). Currid makes clear that he is not proposing polemical theology as a king of theological center, but rather one of many lens through which to read the OT.

The remainder of the book focuses on specific instances of polemical theology in the OT including the creation account, flood narrative, the birth of Moses, and the self-designation of the God of Israel as “I am.” In each chapter, Currid summarizes the relevant data from the biblical and the ANE texts. In many cases, he discusses the provenance and date of the ANE texts, framing the biblical accounts as later compositions. As such, the biblical authors, who were familiar with ANE ideology and religion, intentionally employed linguistic parallels and structured the very events and objects of each episode as a critique of ANE practice (119).

In light of this summary, one may see the value of this work. Many have been unsettled upon the discovery that events and narratives in the biblical text may have preexisted in other pagan documents. Yet, rather than the biblical authors simply rehashing ancient mythology, Currid’s thesis provides a viable solution for many of these parallels. Though the subject of ancient Near Eastern textual data may appear to be inaccessible to a lay reader, Currid designed the book to reach such an audience. The clarity of his writing style, in addition to frequent charts comparing biblical and ANE texts, allows the reader to easily follow the discussion. Moreover, the length of the book (153 pgs.) serves as an invitation to lay readers, avoiding the intimidation of a large scholarly tome.

Yet with all of its strengths aside, the book, in my opinion, contains some significant weaknesses. First, one may quickly discern the tension between the intended purpose and audience of the book. Though written on a more popular level, Currid hopes “to advance the debate a little, stir up some thoughts, and perhaps make some progress in the discussion”  regarding the parallels between biblical and ANE texts (9). Yet this debate does not occur on a popular level, but rather in the halls of scholarship. Furthermore, the methodology and conclusions that Currid manifests would only be acceptable within an evangelical readership. For example, the claim that the worldview of the Bible is unique in its “all-pervasive monotheism” (9) would certainly not go unchallenged by critical scholars. Thus, the participants in the debate that Currid hopes to advance are limited from the outset. This critique would most likely not be an issue for the author, as both he and the publisher focus on a more conservative audience, but a clarification, however brief, could be helpful nonetheless.

A second point of critique I wish to raise, in my view, is the most significant. Throughout the work, Currid emphasizes both the literary artistry of the biblical author and the historicity of the events recorded, but nowhere satisfactorily explicates the relationship between the two. The question becomes, if the biblical authors deliberately employ polemical elements in the unfolding of these narratives, how is the historicity of these events to be understood. The problem would be greatly diminished if linguistic parallels were the only element employed by the biblical authors, but as Currid himself states, the Hebrews authors “[structured] the very events and objects of the episode[s] as a critique of [ANE] practice” (119, emphasis added). While I am sure that Currid would have an available answer to this question, an extended discussion of this relationship may benefit the careful reader. For, on the surface it appears to be a contradiction to defend the historicity of a particular event, while simultaneously affirming the creative artistry of the author in restructuring the events themselves.

One final point of critique that will be noted here is Currid’s extensive quotation of himself. On the one hand, this stands as evidence of his substantial achievements as an academic. Yet on the other hand, the reader may find the frequent quotations, many times without any introduction, to be odd. I could not help but wonder if there was not another way to make his point that did not require a self-quotation. This may be a preference on my part, but I did find it to be strange.

With these critiques noted, I recommend this work to anyone interested in Old Testament theology. While many of the specific cases mentioned may readily be found in technical commentaries, Currid distills them in a concise, readable fashion. For those with no exposure to ANE studies, this book could serve as door to more advanced study.

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The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs as Witnesses to Pre-Christian Judaism: A Re-Assessment

The latest Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha has been released. Though it consists of only three articles, one is of particular interest here. David A. DeSilva in his article, “The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs as Witnesses to Pre-Christian Judaism: A Re-Assessment” argues that while the final form of this text is the result of a Christian community, it can indeed provide insights into the world of Early Judaism. See the abstract below.

In regard to the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, the pendulum of scholarship has been swinging in the direction of treating these texts as Christian compositions that, therefore, cannot be used to illumine pre-Christian Judaism. This article reassesses this movement in light, rst, of recent methodological propositions regarding deter- mining the faith community in which a text had its origin and, second, of traditional methodological approaches to the question of the Christian material found in extant manuscripts of the Testaments. It also challenges the hyper-Christianization of the Testaments in modern scholarship, arguing that, in many cases, material is being designated as distinctively Christian simply because interpreters are not sufciently aware of how their own lenses are coloring their readings. The Testaments remain an important witness to Hasmonean Jewish readings of Genesis, developments in ethical thought, and re-articulations of Israel’s hope.

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How to Go to Seminary for Free without Going to Seminary

biblical-training

There are many who desire the in-depth study of the Bible that one gains in seminary, but cannot afford to allocate the time required. Especially for those who do not aspire to serve in an official ministerial capacity, the time and labor that go into seminary simply are not practical. While online resources abound, some of which I have highlighted on this site (see here), one perhaps stands above the rest in my mind. BiblicalTraining.org (BT) contains a wealth of free, online courses, taught by many first-class professors. With 73 free classes available, anyone can easily gain access to the basics of a seminary education.

Of course, one cannot substitute the value of an on-campus experience. Between the rigor of presenting assignments and interacting with peers and professors in person, seminary is best experienced in the flesh, so to speak. Perhaps most significant, few people have the motivation and stamina to learn the biblical languages on their own (and no, learning the Greek alphabet in your fraternity does not count). But for those unable to pursue a degree in biblical studies, resources like BT may be a great help.

I have known about BT for some time, but have recently come across the accompanying iPhone application. Now, one can easily take lectures on the go, whether redeeming time in the car, or, as I often do, when doing the dishes.

Of the courses available, I want to commend a few that pertain to Old Testament studies. I hope many of you will make use of this great resource. If you benefit from this ministry, do not forget to consider a financial contribution to continue this work (see here).

1) Old Testament Surveys

2) Essentials of the Old Testament

3) Old Testament Theology

4) Essentials of Old Testament Theology

5) Biblical Theology

 

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Claude Mariottini on Women Prophets in the Hebrew Bible

Devorah

When we think of Israel’s prophets we often envision the great men of old who spoke on behalf of Yahweh. Yet often overlooked are the women in the Hebrew Bible designated prophetesses. Dr. Claude Mariottini has begun a series looking at the prophetess Huldah (2 Kings 22), first surveying female prophets as a whole in the Hebrew Bible (See here). Overall, Dr. Mariottini provides a good introduction, though I have reservations about various conclusions (eg. Isaiah’s wife as one of disciples). Though the Hebrew Bible largely presents the prophets as male, students would do well to remember the brave and faithful women that served served Israel as agents of Yahweh.

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The Book of Joel: A Prophet Between Calamity and Hope (Review)

Joel book pic

Identifying the historical context of the book of Joel has been a great challenge in the history of interpretation. While many other books in the prophetic corpus contain superscriptions that provide context, Joel offers no such help. As you may imagine, this uncertainty has opened the door to a variety of proposals ranging from a monarchic date of the book to the late postexilic period.

Elie Assis in a recent monograph, The Book of Joel: A Prophet between Calamity and Hope, presents a case for the composition of Joel during the exilic period (587 BCE-538 BCE). During this time of national crisis, the prophet encouraged those left in Judah after the destruction of the temple that their God ultimately had not abandoned them. Through the strategic use of rhetorical devices, Joel encouraged the people to reestablish the covenant and persist in prayer. Thus, the author concludes that the book of Joel, alongside Lamentations, sheds light onto the otherwise vague exilic period.

The book’s 12 chapters are divided into 4 parts. While Part 1 and 4 comprise an extended introduction and conclusion, the central two parts represent Joel’s two major divisions (1:2-2:17 and 2:18-4:17). The author devotes much space to unraveling the relationship between the two sections of Joel.

Assis’ introduction orients the reader to the problem of identifying the historical context of the book. Through a helpful survey of scholarly literature, the author discusses the issues that influence various opinions, such as the state of the Temple and the cult alluded to by the prophet. Joel’s two major concerns, as noted by Assis, are the locust plague of chapters 1-2 and the political salvation after the exile. Assis further discusses  features unique to Joel over against other prophetic books.

Regarding the locusts, the author maintains that Joel employs a double meaning with both literal and metaphorical dimensions. In dealing with a people who thought they had been rejected by their God, Joel uses the imagery of locusts to communicate his ultimate message in familiar terms. Though the Temple lay in ruins, Joel reminds the people that the opportunity for worship and prayer were still available.

While this book has much to commend, I will limited my praise to two points. First, the book contains a form of prose that is both readable and engaging. The author writes clearly, though not always succinctly. The reader is able to easily follow the flow of thought, further aided by frequent summaries and connections to the wider argument. The structure of the chapters also is organized and follows the methodology outlined in the introduction.

Second, the author pays careful attention to the literary features of the text. From the opening pages of the introduction, the reader is able to discern Assis’ concern to listen to the text before formulating conclusions. The book contains a thorough treatment of the Hebrew text of Joel, as well as discussions of ancient literary and rhetorical devices. Furthermore, the author’s handling of the textual data upholds his defense of the unity of Joel, refuting attempts to uncover underlying source documents.

Though there are many more aspects of the book I could commend, I must mention briefly several points that did not meet the standard set by the rest of the book. First, Assis rejects the notion that Joel at any point called the people to repentance. Instead, the prophet exhorted the people to return to God that they may renew a “bond that had been broken” (15). Yet, this point is not altogether clear. Though Assis does deal with the passages that seem to indicate calls for repentance (e.g.. 2:13), his alternative exposition is unpersuasive. Furthermore, if the people were under the judgment of God for their sin, how could a reestablishment of the covenant not involve repentance?

Second, Assis too quickly dismisses the mention of the city walls in 2:7. Historically, this has been a strong argument for either a prexilic (before the destruction of Jerusalem) or postexilic (after the walls had been rebuilt) date. The author says that the destruction of Jerusalem need not imply a severe demolition of the wall, but the work of Ezra would seem to stand against this. Furthermore, the language of the invading army scaling the wall (יַעֲלוּ חוֹמָה) would appear to support a  wall that was undisturbed or rebuilt. Otherwise, the enemies would have no need to gain entry over the wall. Assis would do well to provide stronger support against this reading.

Finally, though well written, the book tends to be a bit repetitive. The author certainly could organize the material in a more succinct format. This becomes less burdensome with the help of good indices (Scripture and Author) at the conclusion of the book, allowing for the quick reference of a particular passage or author.

In conclusion, Assis has presented a good case for an exilic date for the book of Joel. Though I do not embrace his conclusions, I found the book stimulating regarding the book of Joel, exposing weakness of older arguments, and opening up new questions for further research. The degree to which the reader will agree with the argument of the book will be influenced to a great extent by the degree of rhetorical artistry afforded to the prophet Joel. Those more skeptical about the employment of complex rhetorical/psychological devices will doubtlessly remain unpersuaded. Regardless, Assis’ has served Hebrew Bible scholarship with the publication of this work.

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Reconsidering the Date and Provenance of the Book of Hosea (Review)

Reconsidering...

The importance of the date and provenance (ie. origin) of biblical books can hardly be underestimated. In many cases, though not always, the task of interpretation can significantly be aided or impeded by one’s understanding of a book’s background. The time and social situation from which a text arises largely informs the purpose of its author(s)/compilers. Prophetic literature is no exception.

James M. Bos in the recent publication of his doctoral dissertation, Reconsidering the Date and Provenance of the Book of Hosea, seeks to move the clock forward on the traditional date of the book of Hosea. While the “older paradigm” thought Hosea to be an 8th century composition, Bos argues that the book in reality is the product of the Persian period (6th/5th century).

Following an introduction, surveying some older approaches to the background of Hosea, though lacking in my opinion, the book includes five chapters outlining the pillars on which Bos substantiates his argument. These five strands of data set forward for a Persian date include: 1) The level of literacy, or the lack-there-of, in ancient Israel 2) The anti-monarchial ideology of the book; 3) Hosea’s polemic against other centers of worship; 4) The presence of an exile-return theme; and 5) The use of Israelite’s past traditions.

In these five chapters, Bos concludes that the book of Hosea was composed not by an 8th century prophet, but rather, by the Jerusalemite priesthood in the Persian province of Yehud as political propaganda. The book then served to establish priestly authority over against the provincial governor with whom they shared power (164).

While the book asks many of the right questions regarding background and textual issues, the conclusions drawn are predicated upon questionable premises. Bos himself concedes that no one individual argument may persuade all readers of a Persian date, but believes that the collective force of the chapters renders the traditional date no longer feasible (32). While there is not room here to engage each individual argument, I will briefly address two points that I found particularly unpersuasive.

Many of Bos’ conclusions rest on his understanding of literacy in 8th century Israel. Bos maintains that there existed a standardized system of writing that was controlled by the governing institutions. Scribes were trained in the king’s court and produced documents under the authorization of the monarchy. Bos questions whether a government would train and authorize a scribe as critical as Hosea. But if this model of ancient literacy is not shared by the reader, many of the book’s arguments are left without sure footing. It must be noted that though literacy in the ancient world is indeed a difficult issue, not all scholars accept Bos’ reconstruction. Others, such as Alan Millard, are more optimistic about a wider degree of literacy in Israel.

A second point that I found problematic was the discussion of Hosea’s use of Israelite traditions such as covenant and exile. Bos includes a discussion of the date of Deuteronomy, which he relegates to the Second Temple period. While many may point to the recovery of the Book of the Law in 2 Kings 22 as evidence for an early form of Deuteronomy, Bos is skeptical about the historicity of Josiah’s reforms altogether. With a late date of Deuteronomy, Hosea, who references the terms of the covenant, must be a late composition. Again, for the latter to be legitimate one must accept the former. If Deuteronomy, or at least the Deuteronomistic tradition, is visible in the reform movement under Josiah Bos’ argument falls flat.

Regarding the exile theme, Bos states that the situation expressed in Hosea more closely matches that of the Persian period over against the 8th century. Yet this claim largely ignores other early prophetic works that discuss exile themes (of course, Bos would date these works later as well). I find this unacceptable. For those interested in the exile theme, I recommend the massive doctoral dissertation (779 pgs.) written by Thomas R. Wood entitled, The Regathering of the People of God: An Investigation into the New Testament’s Appropriation of the Old Testament Prophecies Concerning the Regathering of Israel (2006). Wood traces the theme of exile from the pre-exilic period, through the Second Temple period, and beyond.

In conclusion, though I found myself at odds with many of Bos’ conclusions, I am thankful for the opportunity to rethink many of my unchallenged assumptions. There is nothing like a fresh perspective to sharpen your own thinking.

boo ole miss

I must also say, and this should have been expressed up front, that Bos now teaches at the rival university (Ole Miss.) to my Alma Mater (Mississippi State University). Though I endeavored an objective review, such deep-seated tensions cannot be entirely suppressed. I hope this did not drive me to be overly critical. But in all seriousness, this book would best serve more advanced students of prophetic literature, pushing them to rethink issues in the older paradigm. Though the thesis may not be persuasive, one will certainly have a clearer perspective as a result.

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I Teach Because I’m Lazy

Read Me

Every teacher, or aspiring teacher, has their own motivation for choosing teaching as a career. For some, the pursuit of riches and fame lures them into the enchanted forest of the academy. Unfortunately, such a life, or so I’m told, shares a den with the unicorn and other elusive creatures. The labor and discipline of teaching soon delivers a swift wake-up call to an otherwise blissful fantasy. For others, fascination with a particular field drives a sustained interest to spread abroad one’s passion, in hopes that the world will be a better place for it. For, as any specialists knows, your field is the most important for the advancement of human civilization (akin to a parent who thinks their child is the “most special,” when in fact they are ordinary at best).

Though I would scarcely turn down fortune (fame I could do without), and do have a genuine passion for biblical studies, a prominent motivation for my desire to teach is altogether different. In short, I want to teach because I am by nature lazy. Let me explain.

I once had a conversation with my college pastor about his motivation for entering the ministry. I was not expecting the response he provided. Among other things, he said, “If I didn’t have to preach every week, I wouldn’t spend as much time in the text as I do.” This statement brought a startling degree of clarity.

You see, I am one of those students of biblical literature who believe that they actually have something to say about who God is, the fallen condition of man, and the person and work of Jesus Christ. Yet far too often, to my shame, I do not devote the time and energy to study the text that I ought. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.

On the other hand, I take the tasking of teaching very seriously. The warning of James 3:1 practically has been seared onto my retinae. I’ve found that when I am expected to open the Scriptures before others, I discipline myself to study all the more. As a Christian, my desire is to better know God and understand the Bible; what it meant, how we got it, and what it means for the Church today. In my own experience, preparing to teach helps get me there. And while this is not my only motivation for wanting to teach, it has been a means of grace to grow in disciplining myself for the sake of godliness.

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T. Michael Law on Roger Beckwith’s Book on Canon

In response to many questions and comments regarding Roger Beckwith’s book, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church, T. Michael Law has offered some thoughts. While many scholars prize Beckwith’s book as the definitive work on the Canon of the Hebrew Bible, Law states that the book is replete with errors both in Beckwith’s interpretation of the evidence, as well as his methodology. Law says that “you don’t need Jesus reading BHS for your faith to survive.”

This is sure to keep the conversation going. I highly recommend reading Law’s post (find it here). If anyone cares to respond to Law, let me know so I can make sure to post a link.

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A Few Helpful Resources on the Text of the Hebrew Bible/LXX

In my review of T. Michael Law’s book  When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible (see here), I posed a couple of questions that, in my humble opinion, would increase the value of the book as an introductory work. I have been asked what other resources I would recommend alongside Law’s book to provide a “fuller perspective.”

Again, these simply are my suggestions as a reader. Certainly one book cannot do everything, but I know what is helpful to me when I explore unfamiliar territory. The resources below are in relation to the specific points of my review. All but the fourth resource(s) are found in Law’s “Further Reading” section on pages 201-12, which itself is worth the cost of the book.

I confess at the outset that Law is the expert here. He is in a far better position to give book recommendations in Septuagint studies. Nonetheless, here are a few sources that may provide a more balanced perspective.

1. Robert Hanhart, “Introduction,” in The Septuagint as Christian Scripture: Its Prehistory and the Problem of Its Canon, by Martin Hengel (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 1–17.

Comment: Interestingly, Hanhart presents a different perspective than Hengel on the problems in the history of the text of the LXX. In fact, it was for this divergent view that he was asked by Hengel to write the introduction. Though his remarks are brief, readers can hear another take on the problem.

2. Nora David et al., eds., The Hebrew Bible in Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Forschungen Zur Religion Und Literatur Des Alten Und Neuen Testaments 239 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012).

Comment: Though a more technical work, this book consists of 4 parts assessing the impact of the Dead Sea Scrolls on the study of the Hebrew Bible. Part 1 is further subdivided into five essays labeled “General Studies” and four essays as “Case Studies.” The “General Studies” section represents two views: one emphasizing textual plurality in early Judaism, and the other articulating a greater degree of continuity with the later Masoretic Text. The existence of the volume is evidence that the conversation is slightly more nuanced than one may be led to believe by Law’s book.

3. Lee Martin McDonald and James A. Sanders, eds., The Canon Debate (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002).

Comment: This book incorporates 32 essays addressing a range of issues in both Hebrew Bible and New Testament scholarship. While many contributors of “The Old/First Testament Canon” section would side with Law, I appreciate their attempt to clarify terms and concepts. Understanding what an author means by “canon” or “Bible,” even if one disagrees, opens the door to a clearer discussion.

4. Peter J. Gentry, “The Septuagint and the Text of the Old Testament,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 16, no. 2 (2006): 193–218. See also Peter J. Gentry, “The Text of the Old Testament,” JETS 52, no. 1 (March 2009): 19–45.

Comment: These two articles, written from an evangelical perspective, stand at the other end of the spectrum. Gentry is a specialist in the Septuagint, and here assesses the value of the LXX, as well as methodological considerations for its study.

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Review of When God Spoke Greek (Blog Tour)

when-God-spoke-greek

This is the second stop of a blog tour on T. Michael Law’s book When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible (see here). Thanks to Oxford University Press for providing a review copy, as well as to Brian LePort for organizing the tour. Due to the nature of this project, this review will be confined to chapters three and four of the book.

Introduction

I remember traveling to Colorado as a young boy for a family ski trip. The beauty and majesty of the Rocky Mountain ridgeline left me breathless. One thing that I found striking was how distance changed my perception of the great mountains. The further away I was from the snowcapped peaks, the fewer mountains there seemed to be. Yet the closer I came to the mountains the clearer I saw that what appeared to be one massive rock formation was in fact a multitude of smaller mountains. Perspective changes everything.

When one looks at study of the Hebrew Bible, a similar reality is apparent. From a wide-angled perspective, the Hebrew Bible appears to be a uniform collection of canonical books, but upon closer inspection the complexities of the discussion come to the fore. One area in particular is the formation of what would later emerge as the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament canon itself. Interestingly, while everyone looks at the same evidence, interpretations differ, and in some cases are contradictory.

This paradox becomes clear when one approaches these two chapters of Law’s book. While many may  have preconceived notions about the place and purpose of the Septuagint, Law offers what may be to some an alternative perspective. This review will first detail the contents of each chapters. Secondly, several questions will be posed to further the discussion of how the book may better serve its readers.

Chapter 3

Chapter three asks the question “was there a Bible before the Bible?” In short, Law says no. To support this answer Law presents evidence of textual diversity/plurality from the early witnesses. The result of this situation is a Judaism without strict textual boundaries until the close of the Hebrew canon in the 2nd century CE.

Law surveys the forms of Hebrew Scripture attested by Hebrew manuscripts, the Septuagint (LXX), Dead Sea Scrolls, and Samaritan Pentateuch (S.P.), each with underlying Hebrew texts from which they were translated/edited. Each of these traditions, says Law, testifies to variant literary editions (ie. textual traditions).  In light of these manuscripts, especially those from the Judean Desert, Law contends that scholars are forced to abandon older assumptions about the homogenous nature of the textual transmission of the Hebrew Bible.

Law cites the varied manuscript evidence from Qumran and surrounding sites, as well as many examples of significant differences among the other textual traditions. Though contradictions and inconsistencies are of great concern to modern readers, Law states, peoples of the ancient world had no such concern (31).

It must be noted that the “textual diversity” found at Qumran is absent from surrounding sites (aligning instead with the Masoretic tradition). Though Law tips his hat to this phenomenon, he discounts its interpretive value. He reasons that the quantity of manuscripts outside Qumran (25 total) is not a large enough sample from which to draw meaningful conclusions.

Law also acknowledges the careful scribal practices of the Masoretes in the medieval period, frequently alluded to by more conservative scholars, but argues that it is illegitimate to project these scribal tendencies upon the earlier textual data. While the Masoretic Text (MT) does indeed evidence an ancient tradition, Law states that it consists of only one such tradition. The reality of the textual climate prior to the 2nd century CE was “characterized by plurality, not uniformity” (22). To disagree with this reality is to put the proverbial buggy of one’s formulated conclusions, so to speak, before the horse of the textual data.

Chapter 4

Chapter four turns the corner to the Septuagint as a translation. Law reminds the reader that the translators of LXX did not invent the art of translation, but contributed to a well-established practice in the ancient world. Yet the LXX is not  just another work of antiquity. Rather, the innovation of the LXX was to bring the work of translation to the realm of formal religion, a feat not previously undertaken (35).

As to the origins of the Greek translation, Law retains a tentative posture in light of the circumstantial evidence. He postulates a 2nd century BCE date for the latest Greek Pentateuch could have been composed based on linguistic features of the text and citations by later authors. The text itself betrays an Egyptian origin, most likely Alexandria.

Law discusses the Letter of Aristeas, which is a 2nd century BCE legend regarding the origin of the Septuagint. While certainty eludes scholars, one purpose of the narrative that Law presents is to affirm the authority of the Septuagint by rewriting the story of the Exodus (36). The resultant translation as told in the Letter of Aristeas is not simply a new edition of Torah, but rather “a new revelation” (37).

An analysis of the internal components of the LXX leads Law to conclude that the translators of the Greek Pentateuch were “moderately educated, Hellenized Jews in Alexandria” (40). Yet, this position too is held tentatively. Sure footing, Law states, is found not in hypothetical reconstructions of the Septuagint’s origins, but rather in the early reception of the text (42).

Comments and Questions 

This summary should provide readers with an overview of Law’s argument. The book itself is well written. It is as readable as it is scholarly. As any author can affirm, transferring the complexities of academic discussions to a more popular audience is no easy task. But Law presents his argument in a fresh and engaging way. Though I am left with several lingering questions, I can concur with the 21st century philosopher (formerly known as) Jay-Z that while the book may have 99 problems (not really), Law’s presentation ain’t one.

Several early responses have been released at this point (see here for example), so I will not rehash these points of critique with which I am in large agreement. Yet I do wish to raise a couple of questions that may allow the book a better servant to its readers.

First, would not the clarity of the book (geared to a more popular audience) benefit from a more careful treatment of terminology? While jarring phrases like “before the Bible, there was no Bible” (19) may have a strong rhetorical effect, they may miscommunicate the fact of the matter. The novice reader may be left with the impression that early Judaism operated as a literary free-for-all, with every, and any, religious text welcomed as equally authoritative. While this may indeed be Law’s intention, this conception blurs the continuity (if any!) between text and canon. Perhaps clarifying what exactly is meant by “Bible,” “canon,” and “scripture,” may better serve readers.

Second, could the reader not be helped by a more balanced presentation of state of Old Testament scholarship? Certainly Law represents a major position regarding textual plurality in ancient Judaism, but it is not the only voice in the conversation. Other scholars have proposed alternative theories to this view, favoring a greater degree of continuity. For example, in opposition to the plurality of literary editions, some scholars have argued for the preservation of a Temple Text, conservatively transmitted. If correct, this theory would offer an answer to the question of continuity with the later MT. While there may have been certain cases of free translations, a stable text was always in transmission. While some of these monographs are found in the “Further Reading” section at the back of the book, brief mention in the chapter may better orient the reader to the conversation.

Lastly, and perhaps most significant, is a question regarding the format of the book: are endnotes really the best option for any book ever? The use of endnotes can be a great challenge to many readers in turning to the back of the book 30 times in chapter three and 26 times in chapter four. I recognize that many of these decisions are outside the control of the author, but this review would be incomplete, as always, without my stereotypical lament of this point.

In conclusion, this book would best serve either students who have knowledge at an introductory level in LXX scholarship, or those who plan to further explore the field. I fear that novice readers may inadvertently be misled if this is the only book on the subject they read. Hopefully, readers will make use of the “Further Reading” section, which is subdivided by subject. The resources included are invaluable for entry into the world of the Septuagint/Hebrew Bible. For those who are familiar with the debate, this book affords an engaging presentation of a major position. Law is to be commended for both of these well-researched and well-written chapters.

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