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.
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 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 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.