When God Spoke Greek: the Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible
By Timothy M. Law; Oxford University Press, 2013; 240pp.
Reviewed by Archbishop Francis C. Spataro OCR OA
The catchphrase,”when God spoke Greek,” comes from Eusebius,the famous historian of the Early Church.
The Septuagint is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, done in Alexandria before the Birth of Christ. Originally it included only The Torah, but later were added the Prophets, Psalms and the Wisdom literature. The legend goes that it was translated by seventy scribes, thus septuagint or “seventy interpreters”, who at the end of each day checked their translations and miraculously they always turned out to be each the same. So the popular belief was that it was the revealed Word of God in Greek!
It thus became the Bible of the Early Church and was much older than the present day Hebrew canonical or Masoretic Text. This Jewish version of the Bible was not set down until the 3rd-4th Century of the Common Era. The Masoretic Text puts in all the vowel sounds because the Jews no longer spoke Hebrew and needed to know the correct pronunciation for liturgical worship.
After the Destruction of the Temple in 70AD the evolving Rabbinical Judaism needed an authoritative text for Synagogue services. There was no Masoretic Text found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. In the New Testament whenever the writers quote the Old Testament it is from the Septuagint. It remained the Bible of the Christian Church, Eastern and Western, until the 6th-Century when Jerome decided to translate the Masoretic Text into Latin, thus the Vulgate which was to supercede the old Latin version. Luther did the same in the 16th-Century and so we now have the Protestant Bible and King James Version.
However, as stated, in the New Testament, all the writers quote the Septuagint when copying from the Old Testament. The Septuagint has influenced some basic Christian beliefs. The Virgin Birth comes from the Septuagint; it is not mentioned in the Hebrew. In the Septuagint,”Yahweh” is called “Kyrios.” So when the New Testament writers refer to Jesus as Lord they mean He is God! The word “Christos,” is how Moshiach or Messiah is translated in the Septuagint.
St. Augustine despised Jerome’s Vulgate Translation. He refused to use its version of the Psalms for worship and accused Jerome of Judaizing. Jerome’s knowledge of Hebrew was fragmentary. He depended on Origen’s Hexapla for his Hebrew and its translation of the Septuagint. He also used Hebrew scholars who were Jewish and who often gave him on purpose the wrong meaning for words. The Vulgate is shot through with errors, especially the Clementine update. The King James Version is a much more dependable translation of the Masoretic Text of the Canonical Hebrew Scriptures. It’s when God spoke English !