As a Septuagint scholar and linguist currently writing his PhD dissertation, I have been anticipating this book for quite some time. Though the field of Septuagint studies is growing and gaining more recognition, it is still sparsely populated relative to other areas of Old Testament studies and is not seriously considered enough in New Testament studies and Patristics. Thankfully, Law's book serves to bring the Septuagint to the forefront of the conversation, imploring its readers to recognize the importance of the Greek Old Testament to Biblical Studies and to the Church today.
Law, who obtained his PhD from Oxford and who is now a researcher in Göttingen, though still young in academic terms, has established himself as a respected and able scholar. Just a cursory glance at articles he has published reveals a breadth of knowledge and critical engagement that can only be gained from years of study and intimate familiarity with both primary and secondary sources. This depth of knowledge and ability is evident throughout When God Spoke Greek, as Law successfully balances educated discussion, rigorous argumentation, and an accessible and conversant tone.
The book is meant to be a narrative history of the Septuagint, starting, more or less, from Alexander the Great in the mid-4th century BCE and ending with Jerome and Augustine in the late-4th and early-5th century CE. However, to leave it at "narrative history" is not saying enough. Along the way, Law engages in not only historical discussions but also in discussions concerning textual history and criticism, the so-called Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, differences between the Septuagint and the Masoretic Text, the Septuagint's influence on the New Testament authors, and its use in the Early Church. Needless to say, if you want to know more about the history of the Septuagint as well as why it is still important to us today (for both the academy and the Church), Law's book is a fantastic place to start.
For the curious review reader, in the introduction ("Why This Book?"), Law proposes the following four reasons why someone may find When God Spoke Greek interesting:
"The Septuagint sheds light on Jewish thought between the third century BCE and the first century CE." (p. 4)
As Law notes, since the New Testament cannot be read apart from its Hellenistic Jewish context, this is important also for Christian history and theology.
"The Old Testament translation of almost every modern English version of the Bible is based on the Hebrew Bible, but the form of Scripture used by the New Testament authors and the early Church was most often the Septuagint." (p. 4)
"Not only did most of the earliest Christians use the Septuagint but also their theology was explicitly shaped by it and not by the Hebrew Bible." (p. 5)
"The Septuagint often preserves a witness to an alternative, sometimes older, form of the Hebrew text." (p. 6)
These four points are the centerpieces of Law's discussions throughout the book. Even if one disagrees with him at times, these are conversations that are well worth having, and Law's arguments must be a part of those conversations.
Some reviewers have criticized Law, dismissing his book by conveniently characterizing him as one who subscribes to "higher criticism," as though this somehow relieves one from engaging with Law's arguments themselves. Law does make some rather large claims throughout his book, and while some are stated unapologetically and without acknowledgement of dissenting views (e.g., on p. 59, he claims in passing that Ephesians is a pseudonymous work yet provides no endnote acknowledging that this is still a debated issue with respected scholars on both sides of the argument), these should not keep one from taking Law's scholarship seriously. The great majority of the time, Law provides arguments and supporting evidence for his views. This is not to say he is necessarily correct in every instance, but his claims are certainly not outlandish, unsupported, or the result of some personal bias to so-called "higher criticism." He makes his claims based on his understanding of the evidence and while he writes with a tone of confidence, this should not be misunderstood as arrogance or an unwillingness to be conversant with those who might oppose him. Law's book is not meant to completely deal with every view that opposes his own but rather to begin a conversation and invite more people, not just the academic elite, to be a part of it.
Throughout the book, Law discusses a plethora of important issues. These include, but are not limited to:
There were many different text types of the Old Testament circulating in the ancient world. Very often, the Septuagint was based on a different, older text than that to which the Masoretic Text -- the basis for the OT in most modern English Bibles -- attests. This is clearly seen in instances in which the Septuagint contains a shorter or differently arranged text than the MT -- Jeremiah, Job, 1 Samuel, to name a few obvious examples -- and all the more so when we see agreements between the Septuagint and the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Samaritan Pentateuch.
The issue of Canon and Scripture
How did we get the Bible we have today? What was considered Scripture? How and why was one text-type decided on against others? How were some books incorporated into the canon while others were not? Why do we see different canon lists? Why do Eastern Orthodox Churches include more books in their Old Testament than the Western Church? Why do they use the Septuagint the way that Western Churches use the Masoretic Text?
This is no simple issue and is still the subject of many discussions today.
The influence and use of the Septuagint in the New Testament
How would the NT authors' arguments have changed had they used the MT in places where they use the Septuagint? How does the language and theology of the Septuagint influence the New Testament authors?
The use of the Septuagint in the Early Church
Why does the Western Church place so much emphasis on the Masoretic Text when the Septuagint was, more or less, the Bible of the Early Church? How did the Early Church use the Septuagint? What series of events led to the abandonment of the Septuagint in favor of Masoretic Text and why?
Law provides a starting point for thinking through these difficult but important issues. While I cannot speak authoritatively to all of them, I can say, as a Septuagintalist, there are many places where the Septuagint provides a different, often older, reading than the MT; or, as a linguist, I can say that even where it is evident that the translator was reading a text very similar to the MT, the Septuagint offers a different understanding of the content. Sometimes these are small issues, often where a Septuagint translator is making something more explicit than the underlying Hebrew does, but they are issues nonetheless. There are also occasions in which the Septuagint translators offer a different theological conception of an event or a contextually updated reading of the Hebrew. As such, these conversations are crucial for Old Testament and New Testament studies and for the Church as it seeks to better understand its Scripture.
Having read the whole book and even gone back and re-read some sections, I highly recommend it to scholar and interested lay person alike. I found Law's arguments to be well-formed and his discussions very relevant. This is not to say that I never found myself at odds with Law. I am not as confident as he is with his (what I would consider) late dating of final forms of books and a stabilized Masoretic Text. Additionally, while I certainly agree that the NT authors were using a Greek text in most cases when quoting the Old Testament, this discussion, including the extent to which the NT authors' theology was or was not influenced by the Septuagint, requires much more time and research than could be allotted in Law's book. However, these minor issues and any others I may have had in no way diminish the importance of this book and of the conversations it engenders. It is a necessary read for any OT or NT scholar and an accessible invitation to those in the Church who do not consider themselves scholars but are interested in learning more about the Bible. In the coming years, the Septuagint will become more and more important in discussions concerning the Biblical text. When God Spoke Greek (and its fantastic "Further Reading" section!) is, without a doubt, the best place to start for those interested in being a part of those discussions.