Interview with Timothy Michael Law, author of ‘When God Spoke Greek’

An Interview with Timothy Michael Law, author of 'When God Spoke Greek'

When God Spoke Greek (Oxford, 2013) is an outstanding and accessible introduction to the Septuagint (or ‘LXX’), the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures.

Dr. Law is an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow at the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen (Germany) and a Junior Research Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. Law also serves as editor-in-chief for The Marginalia Review of Books, a magazine ‘focused on the nexus of history, theology, and religion.’

When God Spoke Greek is his most recent publication, and he is currently serving as co-editor of both the Oxford Handbook of the Septuagint and The Apocrypha in the History of Interpretation, a series also from Oxford.

He and I share at least three passions of mutual interest: SEC football, chicken wings, and the Septuagint. Most Orthodox Christians are already aware of the emphasis placed on this Old Testament textual tradition, not only in Patristic and theological studies, but also in how they shape and inform our liturgical services. As such, it’s only natural that Law’s work would be of keen interest for both Orthodox Christians and biblical scholars around the world.

I’m grateful Dr. Law took time to sit down and answer a few questions regarding both his book and the current state of Septuagint scholarship. Enjoy.

- – -

ME: You’re in Göttingen, right? Tell us why that matters for people not familiar with Septuagint scholarship today.

TML: Well, I’m quite happy to be here to work with Prof. Reinhard Kratz. He has an extraordinary knowledge of the Hebrew Bible and the Greek material from the Greco-Roman period and how the latter informs the former. And that’s what I wanted to have a couple of years to think about. In the book, I mention the Septuagint is still not tapped often enough as a window onto the development of the Jewish writings that later became scripture and then Bible, but it’s also true that Septuagint scholars who want to work in biblical studies should have a better handle on Hebrew Bible scholarship than we often do.

Göttingen has been an important place in biblical scholarship for more than a century, and in Septuagint scholarship in particular it is the mother city. Since the late nineteenth century, scholars in Göttingen were thinking about how to prepare critical editions of the Septuagint texts. In the early twentieth, they founded the Septuaginta Unternehmen, an institute charged with the responsibility of preparing critical editions of the Septuagint text. It’s still ongoing with some editors at work on new editions. Today if you’re working intensively with the Greek text of the Septuagint, you’re going to have to use the Göttingen editions, if one exists for the book you’re working on. The debut episode in The Septuagint Sessions podcast talked a bit about the legacy of Göttingen in Septuagint studies.

ME: The Septuagint has a long tradition of prominence in the Orthodox tradition when it comes to both reading and studying the Old Testament. Do Orthodox Christians have a point in placing priority on the Septuagint?

TML: I wouldn’t want to leave the impression that one particular religious tradition is better than another for using or not using the Septuagint. There are complex historical explanations for why Western Christianity went another way, and I start to discuss this at the end of the book, even though more remains to be said about the following centuries and all the way up to the Reformation and even beyond.

But I could say Orthodox Christians are rooted in the longest tradition of Christian use of the Old Testament by their use of the Greek Septuagint. In the Oxford Handbook of the Septuagint I’m editing with Alison Salvesen, we have a chapter on the use of the Septuagint in the Liturgy and Lectionary of the Greek Orthodox Church, which shows the influence of the Septuagint in the practice of Orthodox Christianity that goes beyond our bookish way of thinking. In other words, we often think of the Septuagint’s use in the Church only as a book, but it has fed Christian reflection in many other ways.

ME: What discovery of the past hundred years has had the most impact on both Old Testament and Septuagint studies? Is it the Dead Sea Scrolls? What changed?

TML: Yes, without a doubt the Dead Sea Scrolls, which I’ve talked about in other interviews. Let me mention something about that, but after that I also need to mention other discoveries that have made significant impact.

Up to the middle of the twentieth century, the Hebrew Bible texts that were studied were medieval editions. The Dead Sea Scrolls for the first time revealed many biblical texts that were a millennium older than the medieval editions, and these manuscripts showed significant divergences with the standard medieval text in some well-known biblical books. The Septuagint had long before shown these divergences, but without actual Hebrew manuscripts at variance with the standard medieval Hebrew manuscripts, many simply assumed that the Greek Septuagint’s alternative versions were the result of the translators’ activity.

The Scrolls proved that some books of the Hebrew Bible were still being edited, supplemented, etc., long into the Greco-Roman period. When the Dead Sea Scrolls showed these divergent text forms in Hebrew, and when some of these were represented verbatim in translation in the Septuagint, the calculus suddenly changed. Now that we had the Dead Sea Scrolls, we knew the Septuagint translators were in many of these cases translating actual biblical texts.

So the Dead Sea Scrolls rightly get a lot of the attention, but other discoveries have changed our approach to the Septuagint. I’ll mention briefly the discoveries of Egyptian papyri with which now John Lee and Jim Aitken do a lot of work. These probably haven’t been appreciated as much by biblical scholars, but linguists and lexicographers have recognized these papyri tell us a lot about the Greek of the Septuagint. Most significantly, the papyri destroyed the assumption that the Greek of the Septuagint was a Jewish-Greek dialect, or that it was some debased form of Greek, because in the papyri we found many of the same words we knew from the Septuagint. They showed that the language of the Septuagint is quite consistent with the normal language of Ptolemaic Egypt.

ME: What can we learn about the text of the Old Testament from studying the Septuagint, and not merely the Masoretic Text or other Hebrew/Aramaic manuscripts alone?

TML: This could be answered in several ways.

First, I’d say that studying the Septuagint in comparison to the Hebrew Bible in some—but not all—books shows the way in which biblical texts developed. A famous example is the David and Goliath story, which is much different in the Hebrew due to extensive editing. But even in those books where the textual tradition is similar, you still have opportunities to witness early Jewish biblical interpretation in the Septuagint in the ways the translators choose to render the Hebrew.

But you could also say that, as a Christian reading the Old Testament, studying the Septuagint gets you closer to the form of the Old Testament early Christians would have accessed. It’s not identical, of course, and we work with scholarly editions today and we don’t always know which exact manuscripts Christian communities used. But reading the Septuagint would allow one to develop an ‘ear’ for the language that fed early Christian liturgy and prayer—and then of course the entire Orthodox tradition.

ME: Out of everything covered in your book, what is the main thing you hope readers will come away having learned?

TML: I hope both historians and theologians would find something valuable here. For the former, I hoped to put into narrative form how the Septuagint fits in the history of religious literature and how it forms part of early Jewish and Christian history.

And for theologians, my book ends asking what Christian theological reflection would look like if it were derived from the Septuagint rather than the Hebrew Bible. And I ask more than tell, because this is a question that needs a lot more thinking and research. The Septuagint is central to both the New Testament and the early Christian Church, and I think those with an interest in Christian theology have a lot of material to consider.

- – -

Thanks again to Dr. Law for agreeing to this interview, and I hope those interested in Septuagint scholarship or Orthodox scriptural studies find it useful. Don’t forget to grab his excellent book from Amazon or another retailer, if you haven’t already, and tune in to his excellent podcast series The Septuagint Sessions.

Look for more articles on both the Septuagint and Law’s work in the near future.