When God Spoke Greek: A Catholic Reflection

law1Several months ago I read Timothy Michael Law’s book When God Spoke Greek. I wanted to review it immediately but realized I needed time to ruminate on his findings, which have intrigued me greatly.

His hypothesis is that the Septuagint–the Greek translations of the Old Testament–provides an ancient witness to an older textual stream of the Hebrew Scriptures.

To be honest I was astonished by several of his claims, which appear to me to be undisputed. First and foremost, Law claims that the Apostles and Christ used the Septuagint almost exclusively in their quotations from the Old Testament, and that the early Church likewise used the Septuagint exclusively until around AD 400 when St. Jerome changed the course of ecclesial history.

That is something of an earth-shattering revelation, and brings several threads together that I had often wondered about in my study of the Church’s use of the Old Testament. It means that the Old Testament you hold in your hands is the Masoretic text, a particular text of the Hebrew Scriptures that was not the one used by the Apostles and Christ, much less the Church Fathers for the first four hundred years of Christianity.

Astute readers of the Bible will have discovered discrepancies that reveal this fact. Often Christ or the Apostles will quote or allude to an Old Testament passage. We look at the footnote in our Bibles to see what the reference was, then turn to that chapter and verse in the particular Old Testament book, only to find that it doesn’t match. It may sound similar or be way off, but it definitely isn’t the same thing. The simple reason is that the New Testament writer was using the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament books. And that translation has now been shown to be a witness to an older Hebrew textual variant, one that differs in some ways from the Masoretic text, which became the definitive variant used by the Jewish people only long after Christ’s death and resurrection.

Law seeks to highlight these textual differences and spends a good deal of the book showing side-by-side passages where the Septuagint translation differs from the Masoretic, then shows how the Apostles and Christ were clearly referencing the Septuagint. At times the difference is stark; at other times it is substantial, at others relatively minor. Law’s thesis is that the New Testament authors, like St. Paul, found the Septuagint’s translation to be more favorable to their Gospel message: that Christ came for all people, both Jews and Gentiles.

One tension that Law has revealed for Catholics, Orthodox, and traditional Protestants, is that the Septuagint shows that the text within the books of the Old Testament was subject to rearrangement, modification, and divergence all the way up to the time of Christ. In other words, Law claims that each author of the Old Testament books did not just sit down one week and write the completed book, but instead the original authors’ words were amended, removed, and otherwise changed in varying ways across multiple textual streams. I am not a scholar in this area and so cannot counter this claim, but it presents a potential problem, since I as a Catholic believe that God inspired every book of Scripture. Did God also inspire the Jewish scribes and scholars who made changes in various parts? And which textual stream is the inspired one? Perhaps they all are? Law shows one example where St. Augustine harmonized two streams where two different numbers were used in the same location (e.g. three sheep versus seven sheep).

The book provides ammunition for Catholic apologists arguing for the Catholic canon of Scripture. Recall that the Protestant Bible has seven fewer books than the Catholic one. One reason for that is the Protestant Reformers were trying to go ad fontes–back to the sources. Ironically, they thought by using the books that the Jews had ultimately canonized in the second century AD, they were going to the original set. But in fact the Septuagint shows that there were older Hebrew versions that predated the Masoretic text. Ad fontes should have meant using the Septuagint, but the Septuagint included all seven Catholic deuterocanonical books!

More ammunition: note that I claimed that the Jews did not close their canon until the second century AD. Law demonstrates this convincingly in his book, a fact that undermines ones of the strongest Protestant arguments for the shorter Old Testament canon. Many Protestant apologists claim that the Jews had closed their canon long before Christ’s incarnation. (I demonstrated one problem with that theory here.) But Law shows that they had not closed it, not even close. Multiple textual streams still existed during the time of Christ, and the final variant, which became the Masoretic text, was not settled upon until the Church had already been established by Christ. And the fact is that the early Church used the Septuagint, seeing in it God’s providence as a special translation made for the founding of the Church itself! So the Protestant appeal to a closed Old Testament canon that predated the Christian Church is fatally flawed.

Law’s book needs to be read by Catholic scholars as well as by Protestant scholars. I would look forward to a detailed response by both groups. Unfortunately I think that many Protestant readers would have a knee-jerk reaction against certain claims Law makes when he tries to play up the differences in the variations of the text. It sometimes has a modernist textual critic air that faithful Catholics and traditional Protestants have rightly come to be wary of. That said, I found it easy to leave the somewhat hyperbolic speculation aside while pondering the indisputable facts that he lays out.

Law’s book is fascinating and I hope that it will get a wide reading by all within the Church.

8 thoughts on “When God Spoke Greek: A Catholic Reflection”

  1. Good stuff, Devin.

    Our pastor started off his latest class with a discussion of the Bible, and how it really doesn’t matter what version one uses as long as it speaks to one as far as convicting them of their sin …and then comforting one with the forgiveness of Jesus.

    He said that if you keep those things in mind while you’re reading any text, then it goes a long way to simplify what often seems very complex and confusing.

  2. I like it.

    When I was working on my book on the Deutero-canonicals, I discovered the same thing.

    One of the arguments many of the Reformers made against the books is that there was no Hebrew original (which is not a great argument in light of the above), however, in the past several years Hebrew originals of books like Sirach and some of the others have been discovered.

    Also, the Hebrew Dead Sea Scrolls have been confirming the differences in the LXX translation as opposed to the Masoretic text.

    Thanks

    1. Theron, thanks for commenting! Dr. Law in the book discusses at some length the Dead Sea Scrolls and their contents, and he also affirms what you said about various deuterocanonical books having Hebrew or Aramaic version in the scrolls, which does completely deflate the Protestant argument along those lines.

      Devin

  3. And now enter the “mind blown” scenario…

    When our Fundamentalist friends tell us to “search the scriptures” just as the faithful [Greek speaking] Bereans of Acts 17…

  4. One of the common arguments I’ve heard Protestant apologists use for rejecting the Deuterocanon is that God gave authority over the Old Testament canon to the Jews, and the Jews rejected those books. But at the same time they find infallible authority in what Christ quoted, which would have been the Septuagint. There’s an inconsistency there that suggests they grab on to whatever argument is most convenient at the moment. It would be interesting indeed to hear the reaction of such apologists to Law’s book.

  5. A great and obvious example is in Luke 4:18 when Jesus quotes Isaiah 61:1-2, making reference to “recovering of sight to the blind.” The Hebrew has no reference to blindness, but the Septuagint does. The footnotes in the RSV, particularly in the letters of Paul, call out where the references point to LXX instead of the Masoretic text.

  6. We don’t know if the OT canon of the 1st century contained the deuterocanonical books. The earliest manuscripts that include them come from the 4th century. Secondly, none of those claim to be written by a prophet of God.

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