T. MICHAEL LAW’s WHEN GOD SPOKE GREEK
You may have seen T. Michael Law’s faux interview with Fox News on his blog this morning. This is not that interview. The other one is far more entertaining! That said, I did want to give Law the chance to tell readers why he wrote When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible, which has been the focus of the blog tour I have been hosting. I asked him a few questions about the book and these are the answers he provided:
What motivated you to write When God Spoke Greek?
There are original insights in various places throughout the book, and I think even Septuagint specialists will find it useful in stretching or reshaping their thinking. My primary goal, however, was to break this subject out of the walls of the academy. Every time I talk to a friend or family member about the Septuagint, they are mystified and completely uninterested. But I think it’s one of the most interesting products of religious and cultural history.
I am bothered quite a bit by the lack of engagement with the broader public that often characterizes our work in the Humanities. I think we have a responsibility to tell the public what we are doing (with their funds!) and to make it interesting and enjoyable for them to read. I’ll never reach their heights, but I do look to Peter Brown and Diarmaid MacCulloch as models of what intelligent but accessible scholarship should look like when it comes out in print.
I’m not suggesting that everyone ought to write books like this all of the time. But I am saying that books like this should be written by some people some of the time.
What are main ideas that emerge from your book?
There are two currents that run through the book. The first is that the formation of the Old Testament was a long, complex process. Scholars have known this for a long time, but students still come to university and seminary classes carrying an assumption that books were just written and slapped together between two covers, and there we have the Bible. Lay readers often have the same notions.
The Septuagint helps detach us from the notion that there is one ancient text, and invites us to explore the beauty of textual variety, the offering of multiple interpretations of a given text. In some sense, it’s no surprise that our postmodern age is witnessing a rise of interest in the Septuagint. Even those who resist the label “postmodernist” now admit that we can never have an uninterpreted text. When the Septuagint does not reveal an alternative Hebrew version, it can still show the translator’s special interpretation of the Hebrew. So the Septuagint is being taken more seriously now as a witness both to divergent (and sometimes earlier) forms of the Old Testament and to cases of early interpretation of the biblical text.
If the Septuagint was at one time Christian Scripture for most of the Church (and still is today in the Greek Orthodox Church), it’s important to understand how it was created, how it was edited, how it was read, and how it has been passed down. In other words, how the Jewish Scriptures came into being and how they became the Christian Old Testament.
The second current is that the Septuagint was foundational to the success of the early Christian movement. (I explain early on that the name “Septuagint” is itself problematic.) We can go through the New Testament and read how these authors used the Septuagint in their citations of the Jewish Scriptures, and we know the early Church did as well. In the spirit of a few writers from antiquity to the twentieth century, I also ask whether the early Christian (and especially the New Testament!) use of the Septuagint is important for a Christian view of Scripture today. This story involves also those books known now as Apocrypha, and we can see how they impacted both the Fathers and the New Testament writers.
You have mentioned that this book is not like other introductions to the study of the Septuagint. What makes it unique?
For starters, I wanted a more attractive title! The credit for that belongs to Karen Jobes, who some years ago wrote an article by the same name, although with a different subtitle and with different aims. She is of course the co-author of the most popular Septuagint textbook, and has done a wonderful job of generating a lot of interest in the Septuagint, especially among Christian college and seminary students in North America.
The most unique aspect of When God Spoke Greek is that it reads like a history and not like a textbook or a monograph. One reviewer has already said its value is narratological, and I’m happy with that description. But readers should not expect that I go on pages and pages laying out every single view of every single question. That’s what a textbook does.
I also went further than some of the modern introductions by investigating the Septuagint in the early Church, something that hasn’t really been done sufficiently since Swete’s introduction. Mogens Müller did a bit of it, and there is a recent monograph by Ed Gallagher, who was kind enough to debate vigorously with me when I was writing this book. But even after our attempts there is still a lot of room for hungry students and scholars to write dissertations and other monographs. We need to know more about how the Septuagint nourished early Christian theology in ways the Hebrew Bible would not have. I tried to do a bit of this, but I could only scratch the surface.
Do you have a chapter or section of the book to which you are particularly excited/nervous in seeing how readers respond?
I think that depends on the reader. I know the chapters detailing the complex textual history of the Old Testament are going to be a challenge to sanitized ideas about the Bible’s formation, and I look forward to reading those responses. I hope there will be real engagement with the ideas, even though I understand that some of it will be uncomfortable.
I have to say the most fun chapters to write were the ones on Origen and Constantine, and then Jerome and Augustine. I was particularly rough on Jerome, and maybe here I’m interested to see reactions. Michael Graves backed me down from an earlier draft in which I might have been too harsh, but I’m still warm to Andrew Cain’s portrait of Jerome as a self-obsessed legacy-hunter.
Modern scholarship has given more attention to the Hebrew Bible compared to the Septuagint. The same can be said of first year seminarians, pastors preparing their sermons, and pretty much anyone interested in the study of what Christians call the “Old Testament.” In the blurb for this book it states that this was not so until Jerome’s decision to favor the Hebrew Bible when he went to work on the Vulgate. Why does it matter for contemporary readers to understand how and why this philosophical shift occurred?
In Europe and in North America, we are part of an historical context in which Reformation ideology has been one of the driving forces for half a millennium. In some corners, perhaps those most likely to be interested in reading this book, a lot of what happened in the Reformation is taken for granted now as good and noble, religiously speaking. But it is news to some in the Reformed tradition that their emphasis on the Hebrew Bible already began a thousand years earlier with Jerome. Even the cry to return to the sources (ad fontes) was a larger cultural phenomenon before Martin Luther ever considered his opposition to the Church. Many modern Christians can fall victim to a romanticized account of these “heroes”, believing that their actions were the best for the Church. I’m not in a position to say whether they were or were not, but I do think the historical and social factors should be interrogated so that we have a better idea of why they did what they did. It might inform contemporary Christians in their understanding of what Scripture is, especially when, as my book shows, we have many different forms of it.
I tried to tell the story of Jerome’s radical project to translate the Old Testament from the Hebrew and to question his reasons for abandoning the tradition of the Church. At that time, the Latin Bible was what scholars now call the “Old Latin” version, which had been translated from the Septuagint. (It’s called “Old Latin” now because it was the version before Jerome’s, which was later called the Vulgate.) We cannot know Jerome’s motives, but we can witness certain socio-religious factors that affected him, and we can see this move away from the Septuagint and towards the Hebrew Bible as a result of these pressures. For example, because Jerome was in frequent contact with Jewish teachers, he seems a bit embarrassed that he has a different Bible.
It’s a fascinating story, really, but it shows how many decisions like this in Christian history are human decisions and are therefore open to re-evaluation by later generations. Even the most conservative thinkers would admit that Martin Luther was probably not guided by the Holy Spirit in the same way these same thinkers would suggest Paul was. If the reasons for earlier and Reformation Christians adopting this or that form of Scripture are recognized as decisions that could have gone the other way and were by no means inevitable, it might invite Western readers to rediscover another voice from the past that at one time provided nourishment, the only nourishment, for many Christian believers.