Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Dialogue on When God Spoke Greek: Chapter 2

MosisMose Dialogue on When God Spoke Greek links: Intro to Dialogue - Ch. 1 - Ch. 2 - Ch. 3 

This is the second installment of our three-way dialogue on Law's When God Spoke Greek.  Chris Fresch is the reviewer, and will be responded to by Professor W. Edward Glenny and Aaron White.
Let's get a couple things out of the way first:
     • Michael Law is a friend of mine.  Not super close best buds, but a friend.  I also work for him as the Review Coordinator for The Marginalia Review of Books.  However, regardless of this, I would like to be clear that I intend to honestly engage with When God Spoke Greek throughout the coming weeks.
     • Law uses endnotes in the book  This is horrible.

Law begins this chapter with the turn of 6th century BCE, when the Babylonian Exile began.  This marked a stark shift for the people of Judah, as they now lived under the rule of a foreign king and their upper class was forcibly taken away.  Fast-forward to 539 BCE when Cyrus II, king of Persia, conquered Babylon.  This turnover signaled the beginning of the Post-Exilic or Second Temple period (the latter title refers to the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem).  Cyrus II, wise king that he was, allowed any Judeans to leave Babylonia, if they so desired, and decreed that the Temple be rebuilt (this decree, the returning, and the Temple rebuilding are discussed in the Biblical books Ezra, Haggai, and Zechariah 1–8).  Around 515 BCE, the Temple was completed.
We then jump to the well-known date of 330 BCE, when Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire and the world became Greek.  Law explains that owing to the lax immigration policy under Ptolemy Soter (one of Alexander's successors), "tens of thousands of Jews found a new home in Egypt, mostly having come as soldiers, slaves, and economic migrants" (16).  Egypt was wealthy, stable, and welcoming, thus providing a place for many Jews to create settlements.  In the cities, particularly, Law states that the Jews were living in districts together, had fully adopted koine Greek, and that evidence of prayer houses proves the continuing of religious tradition (16).  
It was during this time, in the 3rd century BCE, that the Torah was translated into Greek in Alexandria.  The rest of the Hebrew Bible as we know it, as well as some other important Hebrew books, followed suit in the centuries that followed, in both Egypt and Palestine.

I especially appreciated this chapter.  In it, Law provides a helpful, succinct, and detailed historical and cultural context for Jews living in a Hellenistic world.  This is pivotal for understanding the Septuagint and the communities that produced it and benefitted from it.  He rightly places this chapter early on in the book, to set both the scene and the socio-cultural-historical context for many of the chapters that follow.

There are a few points that I would like to bring specific attention to and on which I would like to offer some comments:

1. Law mentions that it was the upper class of Judeans who were exiled to Babylon (pp. 9, 11-12).  This is an important point that is often ignored.  There were still Judeans in Judah!  However, Law may be overstating the class distinctions a little, as the Biblical material (2 Kings 24:14; 25:11-12) suggests that Law's "upper class" really means every single person who is not poorer than the poorest (in 24:14 the poorest are left in Judah; in 25:11-12, many of them end up being deported as well).  Those who are left behind are given vineyards and fields (2 Kings 25:12); they make lives for themselves.

2. This brings us to Law's explanation of the relationship between those who returned from exile and those who remained in the land.  He states that the exiles who returned to Judah saw themselves as more divinely favored than "the many who had remained in the land" and that "the unexiled were less than eager to move out of the way for the homecoming" (p. 11).  On p. 12, Law notes the hard-line taken by the returnees (citing Ezra 4:3) and the conflict that continued between them and those in the land.
Law is seemingly referring to the Judeans who were not exiled when he uses the phrase "the many who had remained in the land" (p. 11).  This is a difficult issue that I will not try to resolve, but we should be aware of it.  What Judeans were still in the land?  According to Jer. 52:30, 4600 people were taken into exile.  That would seem to be an incredibly small percentage of the Judean population.  However, we also know that many left Mizpah (the capital of what was left of Judah) after the murder of Gedaliah (2 Kings 25:26) and went to Egypt.  Were there many/any Judeans still in Jerusalem when the exiled returned?  The reasonable assumption would be that there were, but we are not given much to work with.  However, regardless of this issue, the situation in Ezra 4 is not cast as an Exiles vs. Non-exiled OR a Divinely favored vs. Non-divinely favored confrontation.  Rather, it is the people of YHWH vs. Non-Judean idolators.  In Ezra 4:2, the people offering to help build the temple state that they were brought to the land by King Esarhaddon of Assyria (Assyria was repopulating Israel with peoples from a number of different nations, see 2 Kings 17:24-41).  So, firstly, they are not from any of the tribes of Israel.  Secondly, as 2 Kings 17:24-41 informs us, these people worshiped YHWH but they also worshiped and served their idols.  In light of this, the response from the leaders of Israel in 4:3 is immediately understandable.  To cast this in a "more divinely favored than the many who had remained in the land" is, to me, a forced way of reading the text.

3. On page 12, Law claims that it was during the Second Temple period when the Torah was compiled.  I will not get into authorship and dating of books here, as that is not my primary contention nor is it integral to the argument of the book.  However, what I did find frustrating here is the complete lack of acknowledgement of other views (aside from "the books tradition claims to have been written by Moses" (p. 12)).  Law provides no indication of opposing views even though this is nowhere close to being a settled issue, not even in an endnote.  Rather, he presents a completed Torah at the seam between the fifth and fourth centuries BCE as fact (here is the money quote from p. 12: "The end of the fifth or beginning of the fourth century BCE is the earliest date at which anything closely resembling the Torah may have appeared." (Emphasis mine).  The fact of the matter is that there are competent scholars who place the completion of the Torah much earlier.  My issue here is not so much with Law's view on the issue but rather with the way he presents it.  This deserved at least an endnote acknowledging the debate on this issue.  The lack of any such acknowledgement is potentially misleading for the uninformed reader.

4. Law makes the very important point that Greek culture had already infiltrated the world before Alexander's conquest (pp. 14, 15).  Too often, we picture Alexander's conquest in 330 BCE as suddenly introducing the world to all things Greek, but as Law rightly notes, "Greek culture had made inroads in the East long before Alexander took up his shield and spear" and "There was already a dispersion of Greek culture much earlier, and quite significantly in the fifth century after the victory at Thermopylae."

This is an excellent chapter.  Law provides, in a very clear way, an excellent description of how the world became Greek (before and after Alexander), what that meant for the people at the time, and how they responded to it.  He ably paints the scene and provides the context, thus providing not only a solid second chapter through which we are to view the following chapters but also a fantastic starting place for anyone interested in Jews and the Hellenistic World.

Response: Aaron White

I think that Chris' final thought on the chapter is well put.  He said, "Law provides, in a very clear way, an excellent description of how the world became Greek (before and after Alexander), what that meant for the people at the time, and how they responded to it."  As I read this chapter, I agreed with Chris' positive response to what Law offers the reader.  In the four points that Chris highlights above, we find a different historical orientation to the genesis of the LXX than is found in the standard LXX intros.  This chapter may be one that I point students and colleagues to in order to breath the air that those who wrote and read Greek were breathing.
I think that Chris' #1 and #2 are topics that should gain broader hearings.  These are two aspects of the exile that I did not get exposed to fully, even under some of the best OT scholars in seminary.
Chris' tempered response to Law's chapter has little for me to add or comment on.   Sure there are caveats that may have been made, as Chris says, but in a book with the audience this book has in mind, such things will happen.  Chris seems to understand this.    Good review, Chris.  But go easy on the endnotes!  And, I wont tell anyone you used two spaces to begin a new sentence ;)

Response: Ed Glenny
I enjoyed this chapter, and I appreciate Chris’s summary and review of it. The chapter, which gives the historical background of the LXX, has three main divisions. In the first section Law gives his view of the development of the Pentateuch, the compilation of which he places around 500 BCE. He writes that at this time Jewish priests compiled the Pentateuch, gathering together “strands of documentary materials and ancient stories that had been transmitted in oral and written form for many years and stitched together into a continuous though not entirely uniform narrative” (12). Law connects the compilation of the Pentateuch with the Persian practice of giving their subjects authority to organize themselves according to their own laws and rule themselves (13). Thus, in the first division of the chapter Law connects an historical overview of the Babylonian captivity and the Persian period with his explanation of the origin of the Pentateuch. There is a lot of helpful material here. But I came away with the same feelings Chris develops in his third response (see his # 3.), and this was my main concern after reading this chapter. It is unfortunate in a book like this, attempting to be a somewhat popular treatment of the LXX, that other views of the development of the Pentateuch were not also presented or at least acknowledged in endnotes. The compilation of the Pentateuch in the Persian period is far from a consensus view, although the reader could easily get that impression from Law’s discussion.
The second division of the chapter is a summary of the Hellenization that followed the conquests of Alexander, and this leads nicely into the short third section, the need for a Greek translation of the Pentateuch. Thanks, Chris, for your summary of a helpful chapter, which is even more helpful and precise because of your comments and critique.


  1. This review and discussion is coming along splendidly. I would agree that at times Law's book comes across a little one-sided. I have discussed this exact point with friends who counter by saying that Law is justified in this approach because he is leaning on "consensus" views throughout. What would your response be? I await your thoughts on chapter 3.

  2. Great interaction with the book. Thanks for this effort! I am enjoying the chapter-by-chapter approach, which will no doubt leave room to delve into details not discussed in other reviews.

  3. John, thank you for your kind words! My response to the "consensus" argument is that it is an intellectually irresponsible one to make. Just because something is the consensus view (and, of course, there are the questions as to how it has been determined that something is the consensus and who counts as a statistic in such a determination), that does not relieve the scholar of the responsibility to note, at the very least, issues of debate and, at most, to engage with those issues and present his or her counterarguments. Further, at what point is a view the consensus? 50.1% of those polled? Perhaps if a given view is practically universally held by scholars in the field (maybe 90% consensus, at least?), then one can get away with it, but that is certainly not the state of these debates in biblical scholarship. Moreover, if you will permit me a slippery slope argument (I apologize), the consensus perspective can allow complacency with held views that are wrong but that are thus never challenged. In the end, defending a lack of engagement with opposing views because of the so-called "consensus" is just a way to avoid valid perspectives that challenge one's own by hiding behind a "majority." (Do note, I am not accusing Michael of any of this. I think he is a great, competent scholar who regularly engages with arguments that challenge his own views but who could have been a little less one-sided in this chapter with the presentation of some of his arguments.)

    Will, thanks very much! We have really been enjoying interacting together, and it will only get better from here! Ch. 3 will be on its way soon!

  4. Chris, thanks for your response. I agree with all of it.