GREEK THOUGHT VS. HEBREW THOUGHT
In Part 1 we began our study of Jesus’ Jewish Neighborhood by looking at the importance of context when studying the scriptures. We learned that we must never forget that the Bible is essentially a Jewish document. Therefore, studying the Jewish context of the Bible opens up previously overlooked windows of meaning. To expand on that, this time I’m going to examine some differences between how the ancient Greeks thought versus how the ancient Hebrews thought.
Beginning around the time of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. to the death of Cleopatra VII in 30 B.C., “Greek thinking” gradually became the dominant influence in the region. Hellenism, as it came to be known, mixed the social and cultural traditions of Greek life with traditions of the various nations which Alexander had conquered.
The Greeks were known for their philosophy. To the religious Greeks at the time of Jesus, right belief, or right ideas, was what was most important. They were more concerned with right thought, right mind, right purpose, and right doctrine. To them, knowledge was salvation. One merely had to say the right things and believe the right things. Saying and believing the right things was emphasized, to the exclusion of doing the right things. Faith was put in the realm of the intellect instead of being something that was lived out in practice. Sound familiar?
As the church grew and spread throughout the Greek-speaking world and became predominantly Gentile, some of these same Hellenistic influences, such as simply believing, or giving intellectual assent to the right set of truths, were incorporated into the church and, to some degree, have remained in the church for nearly two thousand years. This is an important aspect in understanding how different the Greek mind was compared to the Hebrew mind.
Plato: Knowledge Was The Key
For Plato, the Greek philosopher, mathematician and student of Socrates, knowledge was the key to overcoming all of life’s problems. Life was to be intellectualized. Much later students of Plato’s philosophy believed that the Old Testament was a cruel book of laws, judgment, and death. The New Testament, on the other hand, was the result of the incarnation of the god of the gods, or the mind of the gods, called the logos (the Word). When the Body of Messiah transitioned from predominantly Hebrew thinkers to predominantly Greek thinkers by the third and fourth centuries B.C., this philosophy, known as dualism, was already present to some degree.
According to this philosophy, ‘god’ was only interested in the invisible, spiritual world as the physical world was evil. When the body performed an evil act it was simply seen as the natural thing for an evil, material body to do. In other words, it had no choice. This thinking would eventually lead to some of the same kind of behavior we see today.
How often do we see, hear or speak with people who live ungodly, unbiblical lifestyles yet profess to be Christians or, at least, claim to lead spiritual lives? To the ancient Hebrews, however, all things were spiritual. There was no distinction between body and the spirit; the secular and the spiritual. In fact, early in ancient Jewish life, there was no such thing as “religion.” To be a “Jew” was to be governed by the words of God. All of life was living for and serving God. God’s Word was to be lived out, not analyzed, contemplated and debated.
As an example of the subtle presence of this dualistic philosophy in the church today, a young woman, very knowledgeable of Scripture, once commented to me, “I’m glad I don’t worship the God of the Old Testament.” Do you see a problem with that? In fairness, once she realized what she said she immediately back-pedaled and corrected herself. Nevertheless, that concept was in the back of her mind as it is with many Christians.
She’s not alone. Years ago a man in my small group asked me, “Why do we even have the Old Testament in our Bibles?” He was having trouble harmonizing what he perceived as the “God of the Old Testament” versus the “God of the New Testament.” That is nothing but the remnants of Greek philosophical dualism. Even though it may not be often expressed verbally, many Christians have difficulty harmonizing what they perceive as the God of the Old versus the God of the New to such an extent that, I believe, we may not be prepared to admit.
In our Western culture today, we have become, in large part, entertainment obsessed, Greek thinking spectators. The Hebrews, however, were mostly passionate participants, energetic, and even, at times, a turbulent people. They were primarily farmers, fishermen, and tradesmen who lived life to its fullest. To them, truth was not about ideas and concepts to be contemplated and analyzed. Truth was something to be experienced and lived. Believing a truth meant to own it and live it not merely assenting to a set of facts. The Tanakh (pronounced tah-NOCK; the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament) is full of colorful, dynamic and action-centered vocabulary. It tells the story of a people on the move following a God on the move.
As Martin Luther was attempting to translate the Hebrew bible into German, he wrote:
“The Hebrew language is the best language of all, with the richest vocabulary…If I were younger I would want to learn this language, because no one can really understand the Scriptures without it. For although the New Testament is written in Greek, it is full of Hebraisms and Hebrew expressions. It has therefore been aptly said that the Hebrews drink from the spring, the Greeks from the stream that flows from the spring, and the Latins from a downstream pool.”
Abstract vs. Concrete Thought
Greek thought, as we have seen, views the world through the mind (abstract thought). Ancient Hebrew thought viewed the world through the senses (concrete thought). Concrete thought is the expression of concepts and ideas in ways that can be seen, touched, smelled, tasted and/or heard. All five of the senses are used when speaking, hearing, writing and reading the Hebrew language.
Abstract thought is the expression of concepts and ideas in ways that cannot be seen, touched, smelled, tasted or heard. Abstract thought was a foreign concept (pun intended) to the ancient Hebrew mind. Examples of abstract thought can, however, be found in Psalms 103:8;
“The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.”
Notice the words compassion, grace, anger and love are all abstract words. Why do we find these abstract words in a passage written for concrete thinking Hebrews? Actually, these are abstract English words used to translate the original concrete Hebrew words. The translators interpret this way because often the original Hebrew makes no sense when literally translated into English. To attempt to capture the concepts behind the Hebrew words in English would require a very thick volume.
Anger, for example, is actually the Hebrew word awph which literally means “nose”, a concrete word. Why use a concrete word like “nose” for an abstract concept like “anger?” When one is very angry, what happens to the nose? The angry person begins to breathe hard and their nostrils begin to flare. Ancient Hebrews saw anger as “the flaring of the nose (nostrils)”. If the translator literally translated the above passage “slow to nose”, the English reader would not understand. For the English reader “slow to anger” is much easier to grasp.
Take the word grace. Ancient Hebrew, prior to the Babylonian captivity, was a series of pictographs. It looked much different from modern Hebrew. The word for grace, khen, , (read right to left), was written with two letters, the khet and the nun. The ancient khet resembled a wall, , while the nun, , resembled a seed being blown along in the dirt, leaving a trail behind it, meaning “to continue”. Combined, these pictographic letters formed a word with the basic meaning of “the wall continues.” The word picture is of a camp of nomads who move from place to place consisting of many families, or clans. When the camp was set up, the tents were placed in a circular configuration forming one continuous wall surrounding the camp. So, we see that grace is more than a concept. It originated as a picture of a wall of tents where the family, or clan, found freedom, safety, compassion, protection and provision. Or perhaps we might say, “grace is found in the camp.” The ancient tabernacle was also understood as a place of khen/grace.
When Paul complained three times about a thorn in his flesh (2 Cor. 12:7-9), God told him, “my grace is sufficient for you.” Was God implying, “Paul, during this difficult time, remember, you are in my camp. You’re part of my clan”? Paul needed reminding that in God’s camp there is a wall of safety, compassion, protection and provision surrounding him. What does that tell us about what community, family, and church should be like? Are those places where we typically find those elements of grace today? Food for thought.
Friends, when it comes to the study of God’s word, don’t be satisfied with skimming the surface. Be willing to dive deep to discover the beauty and depth of riches that lie beneath.