Of Gods and Languages: On “When God Spoke Greek”

WHAT actually is the Bible? The question is harder to answer than it first seems.

These days the Christian Bible is usually regarded as the Greek New Testament added to the Old Testament, which is a reordering of the Hebrew Bible. If we read the Bible in English, we do so in the assurance that the first part is soundly translated from the Hebrew and the second from the Greek. Catholics include some Jewish Apocrypha, those Scriptures without Hebrew originals (and several most likely composed in Greek anyway), while Protestants reject them. Most Christians are unaware that, in the early Church, the Bible was Greek: not only the New Testament but also the Old Testament. This Greek version of the Old Testament is known as the Septuagint. And for the early Church it was not simply a translation of the Old Testament, one that could perhaps be improved; rather, it was a revelation of God’s word. What the Septuagint was and is, and how the Greek Bible changed to become a Hebrew and Greek Bible, is the story that Timothy Michael Law tells. It is a gripping tale, beautifully told, and should be of profound interest to any reader of the Jewish or Christian Bible. Why? Because, as Law shows us, the Septuagint preserves older versions of parts of the Hebrew Scriptures, some going back long before the canon of the Hebrew Bible was settled.

The Latin word septuaginta means “seventy,” and we inherit it as a name for the Greek Old Testament from Josephus (c. 37–c. 100 CE), who used it in his writings, and who talks about its formation in his Antiquities of the Jews, which Cassiodorus translated into Latin. Josephus draws on the Letter of Aristeas, which presents itself as written by a Greek pagan in the third century BCE. We read there of how King Ptolemy II (Philadelphus) of Egypt invites 72 Jewish scholars, six from each tribe, to the cosmopolitan city of Alexandria to translate the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Torah) into Greek so that they may be housed in the great library. In return, he will release a great many Jewish slaves. So scholars come to Egypt, are taken to a nearby island, and translate all of the Torah in 72 days. The Jewish community of Alexandria approves the translation, as does Philadelphus, and the text is duly placed in the library with firm instructions that it is not to be revised. Modern scholars tend to agree that a Jew, not a pagan, wrote the Letter of Aristeas in the second century BCE, most likely in order to bolster the image of Jewish wisdom and to encourage loyalty to the Ptolemaic reign among diaspora Jews. With Josephus the number of translators is trimmed from 72 to 70: hence the word “Septuagint,” abbreviated to LXX.

So the LXX begins as a translation of the Torah in Alexandria in the early- to mid-third century BCE. Thereafter, other Hebrew Scriptures are rendered into Greek, though exactly when and why remains uncertain. The historical, prophetic, and wisdom books were probably all translated during the second century BCE, in Egypt or Palestine, or in both places. The Septuagint was a work in progress, then, for a long time, and we should be careful not to think of it as a single, settled canon of the Hebrew Bible as translated by diaspora Jews and then reordered and used by Christians. In the first centuries of the Common Era the canon of the Bible, Jewish and Christian alike, was not fixed; it had Scriptures that were generally shared, others that some communities included, and others excluded; moreover, the Scriptures were not always arranged in the same way.

We do well to remember that “scripture” and “canon” are different things, and of course we should never make the mistake of thinking that early Christians had Bibles like our own. We have to wait for the printing press to be invented in the 15th century before we get such Bibles. And we need also to keep in mind that even today not all Jews and all Christians have the same canon. Ethiopian Jews and Rabbinic Jews have different canons. The same goes for the Christian churches: Protestant and Catholic Bibles differ, as already noted, and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church treats I Enoch and Jubilees as canonical, which seems to have been the practice also at Qumran (where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found), if one can talk of a biblical canon there.

We cannot grasp why the LXX, an extraordinary labor of translation, appeared unless we clearly recognize it as a product of the Hellenistic Age, which runs roughly from 330 BCE, when Alexander the Great defeated the Persian king, Darius III, to 30 BCE, when Octavian won the battle of Actium, marking the beginning of the Roman Empire. With the triumph of Alexander came the triumph of Greek culture and the Greek language. Both had already made massive inroads into the Middle East after the battle of Thermopylae in the fifth century BCE, but Alexander’s spectacular conquests set the stage for the world as encountered by Europe. This was a world that stretched from northern Africa to southwest Asia; it used Greek currency, traded in Greek goods, followed Greek architectural styles, read Greek history and literature, and spoke a common Greek (Koine). Common Greek is the language of the LXX, and also of the New Testament. It was spoken widely in the Holy Land when Jesus was alive, and doubtless Jesus spoke it (along with a bit of Latin) when he needed to do so, alongside his daily language, Aramaic. When the Gospels were written, and when Paul and the other New Testament writers composed their letters, they quoted the LXX, not the Hebrew Bible.

This dependence on the LXX should not surprise us: Jews and the fledgling Christian communities regarded it as an authentic revelation of God’s word. It was the age, as Law writes, “when God spoke Greek.” But is the LXX no more than a translation of the Hebrew Scriptures so nothing is lost, and perhaps much is gained, if we base our Bibles on translations of those sacred texts? To be sure, the time came when the LXX was compared with the Hebrew text of Scripture, first by Origen, that mighty third-century theologian of Alexandria, and then by Jerome, who sought to retranslate the Christian Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin, thereby giving us the basis of the Vulgate, the Bible that underlies Catholic teachings. Hebrew was only the basis of the Old Testament Vulgate, though: Jerome relied on various Greek renditions of the Hebrew Scriptures, and it can be difficult to determine how direct his translations from the Hebrew to the Latin really are.

Not everyone agreed with Jerome that the Church needed a new translation of the Scriptures. Augustine, for one, at first objected in no uncertain terms that the LXX was an authentic revelation; it was the Church’s Bible, and had been for centuries. Besides, Jerome’s grasp of Hebrew would not suffice for the massive job in hand, and a new translation would divide Christendom. Yet Jerome had his way: the Vulgate replaced the Vetus Latina, the old Latin Bible, which had been translated from the LXX. Christian literary sensibilities, especially in Rome, required that it be done: the Vetus Latina made educated Roman Christians cringe because of its uneven and sometimes barbarous style. Yet something was lost when the Vulgate displaced the LXX. Scholars have always known that in places the LXX could be used to correct corrupted texts in the Hebrew: Samuel is a prime case. Today, though, we have become acutely aware that the LXX is important for more than correcting corrupted bits of the Bible.

When the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947 we suddenly had before us manuscripts of parts of the Hebrew Bible that were far older than anything we had ever seen. Before the middle of the last century, biblical scholars had largely to content themselves with the Leningrad Codex, the oldest complete version of the Hebrew Scriptures, which dates to the 11th century. There is little doubt that this manuscript, along with the less complete Aleppo Codex (the 10th century), faithfully preserves the Scriptures over centuries of rabbinic and medieval copying. Yet when it was recognized that the Dead Sea Scrolls recorded Hebrew Scriptures that differed from those in the received Hebrew Bible something startling came to light. The older manuscripts tended to agree with the LXX, and a conclusion was unavoidable: the Hebrew Scriptures in the received Bible are in places revisions of earlier texts. If one wishes to speak of divine revelation, then there is good reason to conceive of the received Hebrew Bible as one version of revelation among others; the LXX captures bits and pieces of that earlier revelation.

How significant are these differences? More particularly, are there scriptural grounds for changing widely held theological judgments in Christianity? Not all scholars of the LXX think along the same lines. Anneli Aejmelaeus, for one, maintains that the received Hebrew Bible and the LXX share a common theological vision. This may well be so if one steps back sufficiently far from the biblical text. Yet if one moves in quite close at certain points, the chances are that some Christians will be made uneasy. Think for example of Paul’s letter to the Romans, perhaps the most important text for many Protestants in the whole Bible. Paul draws on the LXX, not the Hebrew Bible, which he was perfectly capable of doing. For example, in Romans 9:25-26 Paul draws on Hosea 1:10 and 2:23, and prefers the Greek to the Hebrew precisely because it allows him to extend God’s promise that Israel will prosper to include the Gentiles. It is one instance among many. The LXX allows Paul in his mature theology to develop his view that God’s saving plan includes all human beings, not just the Jews. If we take Paul to be divinely inspired, we would see the Holy Spirit is directing him to the LXX. And what does that mean for our thinking about the canonical form of the Scriptures?

Timothy Michael Law does not think the LXX and the received Hebrew Bible share a common theological vision. He gives the example of Exodus 15:3. The Hebrew is translated into English as “The Lord is a warrior, the Lord is his name” (NSRV) yet when we render the LXX into English we have “The Lord, when he shatters wars, the Lord is his name.” The original translator does not wish us to see God as a warrior but as a peacemaker. Similarly, in Psalm 9:21 the Hebrew, when put into English, reads, “Put them in fear, O Lord; let the nations know that they are only human” (NSRV) whereas the LXX has “Set a lawgiver over them, O Lord; let the nations know that they are human beings.” Here God brings law to the nations, not just fear. Not that the LXX promotes a uniform theology of peace and justice: elsewhere one hear a good deal about God smiting those who do not please him.

Studies of the LXX have not been taken up outside seminaries and universities; indeed, they have not achieved prominence even in those institutions. The power of Jerome’s commitment to the authority of the Hebrew text of the Jewish Scriptures reverberates through the centuries and is seldom challenged. Yet Septuagint Studies are well placed to begin gaining attention inside the academy and outside it. With the New English Translation of the Septuagint (NETS), published in 2007 and corrected in 2009, we have a reliable text in English. It is a scholarly edition, to be sure, yet now those people who read the Scriptures with their eyes and ears open can do so with the Bible and the LXX both before them. There are several fine studies of the LXX, though they are composed primarily with scholars in mind. Timothy Michael Law has written the first introduction to the LXX that can be read by people outside the guild. It is a remarkable book, full of fascinating detail that I cannot evoke in a short review, a book that tells a rich story that no reader of the Bible can afford to ignore.