Friday, August 16, 2013

When God Spoke Greek

T. Michael Law's new book on the Septuagint, When God Spoke Greek, has already generated an impressive amount of buzz (see here and here).

I am enjoying reading through it now, and I'm just now getting to the good stuff (which, of course, is the patristic period). I especially enjoyed ch. 5 on the development of the Hebrew Bible, ch. 8 on the way that the NT authors encountered scripture, and ch. 9 on the explicit quotations of scripture (= LXX, or some Greek version) in the NT. Naturally, there are points where I would want to dissent or add nuance, and Law has the audacity actually to disagree with me in some points (e.g., pp. 124, 133), but at least he seems to recognize to some extent the folly of doing so (see here, near the end).

Actually, I'm not sure we disagree all that much. For instance, Law writes:
We mentioned earlier that one could assume that the fathers always regarded the Septuagint as a translation and that the only reason they treated it as authoritative scripture was because it was in their minds a faithful translation of the original Hebrew. But most of the church fathers show no concern to discover how accurately the Greek represented the Hebrew original, and indeed many would not have known how to tell anyway. Whatever their theoretical statements may indicate, their practice divulges their view of the Septuagint as not a translation but a new revelation for the church. (p. 133)
He then cites my book as "the strongest recent statement against my view here" (p. 191 n. 21).  But I'm not sure I see it that way. At least, I wouldn't want to disagree with that last statement, that when looking at patristic practice rather than patristic theory, they treated the LXX as essentially the original text, with some, but not much, reflection on what the Hebrew text might have said. I say there was some reflection on this, because, as Law will demonstrate in ch. 12 I think (I haven't read it yet), some Fathers did seek clarification on the obscure LXX language by looking at other Greek translations (e.g., Aquila, Symmachus, Theodotion) which they understood to be closely aligned to the Hebrew text. Barring these instances, patristic exegesis treats the LXX as the original text.

(I would still want to affirm, however, that this practice corresponded to a theory that regarded the LXX as a supremely faithful translation. That is, I think if you asked a typical Church Father whether the LXX was a translation, the response would be, "yes." Is it a good translation? "The best." Is it a faithful translation of its Hebrew Vorlage? "Absolutely." How do you know? "Because God provided it for us.")

As for the penultimate sentence quoted above, again I would agree, but I would want to add that neither did Philo show any concern "to discover how accurately the Greek represented the Hebrew original," and his practice again corresponded precisely with his stated theory that the Greek matched the Hebrew perfectly. That is, there was not need to check behind the Greek. The Hebrew text was superfluous precisely because the LXX was a faithful translation. Nevertheless, I would not want to argue that the theory gave birth to the practice; probably the reverse is the case.

So, whereas Law emphasizes patristic practice, I emphasize patristic theory. Of course, both should be taken into account when documenting the reception of the Bible in early Christianity. I am grateful to have in this accessible form Law's presentation of the influence of the LXX in the early church.

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