#2 When God Spoke Greek

As stated in the first post, Michael Law set out to write a narrative history of the Septuagint, a worthwhile endeavor to say the least. So much goes into writing a history but the first obstacle one must face is that the facts are not self-interpreting. To be sure Law no where claims that they are, but it should be stated in a critique which is going to offer an alternative way of analyzing the data.

In this post I want to interact with a crucial part of chapter three: Was there a Bible before the Bible? The first paragraph of the chapter places Law’s view in focus, “Prior to the second century [CE] there was no way of knowing which scriptural books would be included within the collection and which would be left out; nor was there any way of knowing how the final version of the individual books would appear” (19). Law claims that prior to the 2nd CE, there was no canon, only Scriptures; there was no stable text for these Scriptures, only fluid texts. In a succinct way, Law has laid all of his cards on the table. The canon question will be treated first in this post and then the textual history.

Law portrays the forming and perhaps closing of the Hebrew Bible as occurring in the 2nd CE. This is not a new view and can be found in many manuals on the Old Testament. As one attempting to read Law’s book carefully, the question is does Law deny even a canonical consciousness or a developing canon in the period before the destruction of the second temple in 70 CE? In the book he does not admit of a canonical consciousness in the the preceding period, but I am open to correction on this point. In his recent blog post on the question he does treat some of the relevant evidence but he still does not speak of a canonical consciousness or developing canon. Here is the problem with Law’s view: during the time of Jesus and long before Jesus the Jews refer to a collection or corpus of books, which means they had at the very least some consciousness of their collection and what that final collection might be; an idea of which books would eventually be in and which books would eventually be out. The assumption is that the authors and readers shared a mutual understanding of what these titles denoted. The alternative assumption is that the author wrote nonsense when using these titles and therefore the titles do not refer to a set collection or corpus of books and therefore they do not communicate to the readers. The following are only the so-called tripartite titles (there are many single and bipartite titles which refer to the same reality as well):

(1) The Evidence of Ben Sira / Ecclesiasticus (132 BCE). In three places in this source the Hebrew Bible is referred to in a tripartite structure: (1) the law and the prophets and the other (books) which followed them (vs. 1), (2) the law and the prophets and the other ancestral books (vss. 8-10), and (3) the law and the prophecies and the rest of the books (vss. 24-25). My problem with most treatments of this evidence is that they omit a contrast being made between the books in the tripartite structure and the book of Ben Sira itself. First, Iesous, the grandfather, gives himself to the reading of the Law and the Prophets and the other ancestral books and only after acquiring sufficient expertise in these works did he set out to write something concerned with education and wisdom, that is, his own work of edification and interpretation. He composed his piece so that those who love learning, after being captivated by these things, might gain much more through living by the Law. The grandson did not include his grandfather’s work in the third section or “the other books.” Second, the grandson says, “Therefore you are invited to read with a good will and careful attention and to judge kindly in which places we may seem to be incapable [to translate] with respect to some of the expressions which have been toiled over eagerly in rendering; for these things having been spoken in Hebrew itself [originally] are not capable of producing the same effect as when they are rendered into another tongue/language; and not these only, but also the Law itself and the Prophets and the rest of the books have no little difference when spoken in their own language [the original].” Again, the grandson creates a contrast between “these books” and the Law, Prophets, and other books. He could have included his grandfather’s work in the other books but he does not. He makes a contrast between the works included in the Old Testament and his grandfather’s work. Robert Hanhart, major editor of the Göttingen Septuaginta, draws the following conclusion, “It seems to me justifiable to conclude that the distinction-in relation both to their character and the quality of their translation-between Law, Prophets, and the other Writings, on the one hand, and the literature first exemplified in the work of the grandfather, on the other, was grounded first and foremost in the distinction between ‘canonical’ and ‘apocryphal’ already current at the time” (M. Hengel, The Septuagint as Christian Scripture, 3). On this reading, the Jews by 132 BCE had an idea of which books were ‘included’ and which books were ‘excluded’. They referred to the included books by employing tripartite titles. This reading of the Prologue is superior to Lee McDonald’s (p. 106), because it reckons with the inherent contrast between books.

(2) The Evidence of 4QMMT (152 BCE). This letter says, “We have written to you so that you may study (carefully) the book of Moses and the books of the Prophets and (the writings of) David.” The editors of 4QMMT say, “In this context דויד [David] probably refers not only to the Psalms of David, but rather to the Hagiographa. This is a significant piece of evidence for the history of the tripartite division of the Canon” (59). Again, it is possible that these titles do not refer to specific books, but the more likely possibility is that they did denote a corpus of books.

(3) The Evidence of the Gospels (Luke 24:44; Matthew 23:35). In Luke 24:44, Jesus says that all that was written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms had to be fulfilled. In Matthew 23:35, Jesus appears to be referring to a certain ordering of books when he accuses the Pharisees (who would have been very aware of this ordering of books) of being guilty of bloodshed from Abel to Zechariah son of Barachiah (probably a homiletic identification for Zechariah son of Jehoiada (2 Chronicles 24:15) as a later Targum on Lamentations makes clear). Is Jesus communicating by referring to the Hebrew Scriptures with these terms? Or is he using the terms without any particular referent? One has to decide whether Jesus has a canonical consciousness or not.

(4) The Evidence of Philo of Alexandria (b. 20 BCE; d. later than 40 CE). In his work De Vita Contemplativa (On the Contemplative Life), Philo references the practice of the Therapeutae and says that they do not take earthly things into their oratory but rather they take (the) Laws (νόμους), and the Oracles (λόγια) given by inspiration through the (the) Prophets, and (the) Psalms (ὕμνους), and the other books by which knowledge and piety are increased and completed. Philo recognizes three parts. The identification of the other books either refers to other books of the Hagiographa or other works that the Therapeutae considered to be on par with the canonical text. That point is not important at present. The point is whether these Jewish communities had a canonical consciousness or not.

(5) The evidence of Josephus (93-95 CE; Against Apion I. 37-43), Jerome (Helmed Prologue to  Samuel and Kings; 391-394 CE), and the Talmud (Bab. Talmud Baba Bathra 14b; 200 CE). Since these sources are later, I will not comment on them. They are significant because they probably indicate the continuation of a tradition which began at an earlier stage.


(1) What does this evidence mean? On page 71 Law comments on Sirach, “‘The other ancestral books,’ according to this assumption [complete Hebrew Bible by 132 BCE], would be the Writings (Ketuvim). Most scholars, however, do not accept this hypothesis since the ‘other ancestral books’ could refer to anything, including the books that never became canonical. At best it seems that the Torah and Prophets might have been a known collection by this time, but we should not read this statement in the Prologue as a confirmation of the later canon of the Hebrew Bible” (WGSG, 71). At the opening of chapter 3 (cited at the top of this post), Law claimed that prior to the second century CE there was no way of knowing which books would be included in the collection. Here his skepticism recedes, however slightly, and he now holds out the possibility that Torah and Prophets (and on page 42, the Psalms) were already a collection and perhaps canonical by the end of the first century. If Hanhart’s reading of the Prologue is correct, as I am inclined to think, then there was already a categorization of books into canonical and non-canonical, Sirach already being one of the excluded books–a work of edification and reflection on the Law, Prophets, and other books. This would mean that by 132 BCE there is at least a developing canon or a canonical consciousness, not simply in retrospect but in prospect. Prospectively, then, the Jews had a view as to which books they considered canonical.

(2) Two ways to view the evidence? As in all matters historical, there are different ways to view the evidence. The titles for the Old Testament corpus of books indicate to me that there was at the very least a canonical consciousness, a recognized corpus of books by 132 BCE and more probably a closed canon by that time complete with a categorization of the canonical and non-canonical. There are more reasons such as the numbering of the books and the ordering of the books which corroborate this point. Part of the historian’s difficulty is that there are not a lot of sources to examine from this period. There is no list of books from this early period. This fact does not mean there was no canon. In the period of the temple there would have been no need for a list of books since those books were all laid up in the temple following ancient precedent (cf. Deuteronomy 31:26; cp. 2 Maccabees 2:13-14). If a Jew during this early period wanted to know her holy books, she would need to go and inquire at the temple. Therefore there is a good reason why no such list was composed at this time–it was not needed. It is interesting that the first lists appear after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE (Bab. Talmud Baba Bathra 14b).

I have not put this issue to rest. There are more avenues to pursue such as all of the other titles referring to the Old Testament and the internal Torah, Torah, Torah structure of the Old Testament itself (see Stephen Dempster’s Dominion and Dynasty for the details). All I wanted to do here was offer a different interpretation for the evidence.

The next several posts will be shorter and they will comment on Law’s treatment of the various strands of evidence for the text history of the Old Testament.

9 thoughts on “#2 When God Spoke Greek

  1. Pingback: John Meade Reviews T. Michael Law | For His Renown

  2. Pingback: Words on the Word | Septuagint Studies Soirée #2

  3. Is there a text you would recommend as a good balance/ supplement to Law’s? What are your recommendations for introduction to the LXX? I read Silva & Jobes some time ago, and I keep seeing Hengel’s work referred to…

  4. Michael, Thanks for this. I had not read it before I wrote my comments on chapter 3 in Michael Law’s book (Mossisimus Mose), but I am in agreement with your sentiments. I also appreciate the details you have included in this post. I look forward to reading more.

  5. Thanks, Ed. I read your post already. For what it’s worth, I thought you were spot on. Not sure when I will get back to this review. Alas, the labors of teaching and SBL proposals have overtaken me. I look forward to reading the rest of the reviews on Mossisimus Mose. Cheers.

  6. Pingback: When God Spoke Greek: A Short Review | Veracity

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