When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible by Timothy Michael Law (Oxford University Press, 2013) is a narrative retelling of the rise and fall of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures.
I have chosen to limit my review to general impressions since (1) I am a novice when it comes to the Septuagint, (2) I disagree with many of Law’s conclusions and subtle implications, and (3) his arguments would need to be unpacked and addressed in detail for a fair treatment.
First, Law has succeeded in a rare and difficult task: providing a clear narrative retelling of the development of an ancient text. Of course, like anyone else, he is an interpreter of history rather than an objective observer, but Law presents a story where scholarly backbone and narrative flesh cohere. Second, Law exposes many anachronisms — contemporary definitions or categories that distort and reshape ancient realities. Though I disagree with some of his reconceptions, I always appreciate the exposure of misconceptions. Third, I was fascinated by chapters 12 and 13 covering Origin, Eusebius, Constantine, Jerome, and Augustine. Law’s interpretation of the personalities, developments, and debates that contributed to the decline of the Septuagint is colorfully and memorably told. Finally, Law convincingly demonstrates the central role the Septuagint played in the New Testament and the early church. The church’s understanding of Scripture is undernourished when the Septuagint is ignored or relegated to peripheral status. I hope Law would be encouraged to know that my desire to read the Septuagint, and to contemplate its texts when reading the NT, has increased exponentially.
First, Law tends to exaggerate. He is laboring to overturn popular conservative views of the development of the Bible, but he regularly speaks in extremes. Such exaggerations raise a veil of suspicion between author and reader. In some sections it seems that alternative evidence or interpretations have been curtained rather than presented, appreciated, and addressed. Of course, the absence of lengthy, nuanced argumentation keeps the book readable, which is one of its great strengths. I would simply prefer correction to overcorrection. Second, Law makes conservative points mostly by concession and rarely by emphasis. Even when he acknowledges or allows for a conservative conclusion, he typically stops at simple admission. Unfortunately, such an approach tends to damn with faint praise. Third, in his repeated efforts to emphasize textual and canonical developments that led to the concretization of what we now call “the Bible,” Law fails to appreciate adequately the canonical consciousness that appears to exist on the way to the canon (see John Meade’s review on this point). For example, Law writes, “Prior to the second century there was no way of knowing which scriptural books would be included within the collection and which would be left out; nor was there any way of knowing how the final version of the individual books would appear” (19). Simple logic, even without primary source evidence, would suggest that canonical leanings must have preceded canonical stances, just as wet concrete precedes a sidewalk.
I would like to have read the best introductions to the Septuagint before reading When God Spoke Greek, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone except the serious graduate-level student with some experience in the biblical languages, textual criticism, and higher-critical approaches. However, for those with solid exposure in these areas, When God Spoke Greek provides a clear though far-from-conservative interpretation of the story and value of the Septuagint. The pages of my Septuagint will certainly see more light because of When God Spoke Greek.
* Thanks to Oxford University Press for providing a free copy for unbiased review.