When God Spoke Greek

When God Spoke Greek August 10, 2013

Over at First Things, Collin Garbarino has a fascinating interview with Timothy Michael Law about his new book When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible. Excerpt:

Where did your interest in the Septuagint begin?

One night in 2002, I was sitting with one of my best friends from college and seminary, Kyle McDaniel, and he threw (literally!) a big blue book at me from across the room. The book was Alfred Rahlfs’ handbook edition of the Greek Septuagint. We started talking about it, and both of us were uncertain whether we wanted to pursue more Hebrew or Greek, or more early Judaism or early Christianity in our graduate work. We loved all of it. We decided that one way to marry those interests was to study the Septuagint.

Why should today’s churches care about the Septuagint?

There are several reasons I think modern Christians should care about the Septuagint.

First, when a modern reader sees Paul quoting Isaiah, and then turns to Isaiah in an English translation, she notices the citation is different. Why? The Old Testament translation of almost every modern English version of the Bible is based on the Hebrew Bible, but the New Testament authors and the early Church most often used the Septuagint. Augustine and others throughout history even argued that if the New Testament authors used the Septuagint, the Church ought to affirm its authority as well. I unpack this in several chapters in the book.

Second, the Septuagint, and not the Hebrew Bible, explicitly shaped some early Christian theology. For example, it was the Septuagint version of Isaiah, not the Hebrew Bible’s version, that shaped the most theologically profound book in the history of Christianity, Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. The primacy of the Septuagint continues after the first century, and one could not imagine the development of orthodoxy without it. None of this would be terribly significant if the Septuagint were merely a translation of the Hebrew; however, the Septuagint in many places contains a different message. Sometimes the translators of the Septuagint created new meanings in their translations, but there is also another reason the Septuagint is often different.

An alternative, sometimes older, form of the Hebrew text often lies behind the Greek. When the Reformers and their predecessors talked about returning to the original Hebrew (ad fontes!), and when modern Christians talk about studying the Hebrew because it is the “original text,” they are making several mistaken assumptions. The Hebrew Bible we now use is often not the oldest form of the Hebrew text, and sometimes the Septuagint provides the only access we have to that older form.

This emphasis on the Hebrew text predates the Protestant Reformers. What motivated the early churches to switch from favoring the Septuagint to favoring the Hebrew text as their Bible?

First, we must be careful even calling the Septuagint “the Bible,” since we don’t have record of a complete Old Testament until several centuries into the Christian era. Before then, Christians used individual parts of what later became the Old Testament—for example, the Pentateuch or Psalms or other individual books. By the fourth century, we have evidence of complete Bibles, and these include the New Testament; more importantly, the Old Testament portions included the books that are now called “Apocrypha.”

With that caveat in mind, there was no one singular moment when the Western Church decided to abandon its first “Bible.” (The Greek Orthodox Church still uses it, and some churches of other Eastern Orthodox varieties use translations that were made from the Greek.) The process was gradual and lasted several centuries, but it did have a catalyst in the work of one of the greatest intellectuals of Western antiquity.

Jerome decided to translate the Hebrew Bible into Latin, and he would have as momentous an impact on the history of the Bible as the Reformers would in the sixteenth century. At the end of the fourth century, the Latin Bible used in the West was what is now called the “Old Latin” version. (It is called the “Old Latin” only because it was the version used before Jerome made a new one.) The Old Latin was translated from the Septuagint, which meant that even in the churches where Greek had given way to Latin, Christians were still in contact with the Septuagint via translation.

Jerome became dissatisfied with the Old Latin translations, which he considered inaccurate and, worse still, lacking unity in the manuscript tradition. Every time he picked up an Old Latin manuscript, it was different from the one he had just read. He was also in regular contact with Jewish interlocutors, and he seems to exhibit some embarrassment that the Church was using a different Bible.

Jerome emerges partly as a weak man buckling under pressure from his social environs, and partly as a man hell-bent on creating an indomitable legacy for himself. He wanted to do something radical, so he went right to the Bible, threw out tradition, and created a new Latin translation from the Hebrew.

The Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century put the final nails in the Septuagint’s coffin for the West. They followed Jerome’s logic, believing that the medieval text of the Hebrew Bible was indeed the most original text of Scripture. There were some exceptions—Zwingli, for example, had argued that the Septuagint version of Isaiah was superior to the Hebrew—but for the most part Jerome and the Reformers can be credited with burying the Septuagint in the West.

Read the whole interview at First Things

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  • philipjenkins

    Thanks for drawing attention to this!

    The book WHEN GOD SPOKE GREEK raises an interesting question. Christians usually refer to the Old Testament. Many dislike this term as it involves supersessionism, the idea that the Old Law is no longer valid, and they see it leading to anti-Semitism. Seeking objectivity, they refer instead to the Hebrew Bible. But that in turn assumes the Reformers’ assumption that the Hebrew text is automatically to be preferred over the Greek Septuagint – that it must indeed be a Hebrew Bible, in Hebrew.

    Even worse, in that model, the New Testament becomes the Greek Testament – a minor free-floating adjunct to the real thing.

    So what does a well-intentioned person call the OT? Not, certainly, the Jewish Bible, as that means abandoning the text for Christianity altogether. So what then?

    How about the Book Formerly Known as the Old Testament?

    I actually like the Jewish term Tanakh, which is an acronym for the Hebrew words for the three sections of the Bible: Torah, Prophets and Writings (Torah, Nevi’im, Ketuvim).

  • Miles Mullin

    “The Book Formerly Known…” that is hilarious!

    I like Tanakh. Maybe we can start a new trend over here on Anxious Bench.

  • kierkegaard71

    One of the most significant uses of the Septuagint in the New Testament is James’ citation of Amos 9.11-15 in Acts 15 (Jerusalem council) as support for not requiring Gentiles to “become Jews” in order to become part of God’s new covenant people. Yet, there are major differences between the Masoretic text and the LXX at this point. Without going into the details, suffice it to say, that James quotes the LXX and it is compelling to his hearers for authorization of the inclusion of Gentiles as Gentiles. The aspect that most impresses me is that biblical scholars of the modern era may be imposing on the New Testament church a view of the Bible that is anachronistic. I remember a Hebrew seminary professor of mine suggesting that James’ attitude may have been, when challenged: “You want a verse supporting what we’re doing? Well, OK, here’s a verse for you!” There, of course, is no hint that James would have any idea that future generations would critically analyze his citation of the LXX, comparing to Hebrew texts. The authority of the LXX was enough to settle the dispute right there and then!