Appendix B: Hebrew Thought vs. Greek Thought

This is the Excursus taken from J.M. Diener’s devotional “Faith — Taking God at His Word and Acting Upon It”. It is better read in the direct context of that monograph, but as it is pertinent to some of the discussion in this treatise it is included for completeness.

We must remember that the books of the New Testament are not Greek documents. They are primarily Hebrew or Jewish documents, as almost all authors were of Hebrew origin. The only person who could be considered to have written from a primarily Greek perspective would be Luke, who was Greek. However, much of what he writes is unquestionably tinted with Hebrew ideas and meanings. I guess living with Paul of Tarsus might do that to you.

Jesus was unquestionably Jewish, using Hebrew literary forms in His teaching, and lovingly quoting Deuteronomy and Isaiah. John is so Hebrew in his expressions that it has puzzled scholars who try to do studies of his books from a purely Greek perspective. Paul was schooled by Gamaliel and was a Pharisee, “a Hebrew of Hebrews,” (Philippians 3:5 — NIV) by his own admission. Luke spent years with Paul and absorbed many Hebrew ideas, which then flowed into his Gospel and his account of the Acts of the Apostles. Peter’s mind-set was unquestionably Hebrew, it was what he grew up with and his influence on Mark, though he writes for Romans, makes even that Gospel Hebrew in its basis. Jude appeals to Hebrew apocrypha in his letter as well as punctuating his entire message in Old Testament examples – very rabbinical. James belonged to the Jewish party of the church and his book is the very example of Hebrew wisdom literature. The author of Hebrews very definitely is a Hebrew. He knows Scripture inside and out and bases most of his letter on Hebrew temple practices described in Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

For this reason when we approach the study of the New Testament we should set aside the Greek presuppositions that we have. I would argue that most Christians, perhaps with the exceptions of the Thomasites in India and the Assyrians in southern Turkey, Iraq and Iran, use Greek philosophical presuppositions in their approach to their study. It’s not surprising – it’s part of our church history. There is value in using Greek ideas, but the Bible is not primarily Greek. It is primarily Hebrew. God used the Hebrew language and culture for a reason, just as He later used the Greek language for a reason. But as we’ve already seen the New Testament was primarily written by Hebrews, not by Greeks. Even if they couch their ideas in Greek terminology and perhaps have assimilated a few Greek ideas, they are still Hebrew in essence.

It’s like reading one of those books that they sell at international touristic sites, like Ephesus in Turkey. Often we Americans chuckle at the English used. Sure, they’re writing in English, but the thought processes that produced that English were clearly from a different language and mind-set. It reflects in the expression, in the grammar, in the context and if you speak the language you can tell where they’re coming from.

It is precisely the same with the New Testament. If we don’t realize that we’re not dealing with a Greek world view but with a Hebrew one we run into all kinds of problems and seeming contradictions in the New Testament that can usually be answered by interpreting them through the lens of the Old Testament. Now this is not a cure-all, but it certainly makes life easier when studying the Bible. When we do our word studies, we should look at the Old Testament meaning as well. When we look at the way the New Testament handles things we should take a more holistic view, seeing how it fits into the big picture, rather than dissecting it into its smallest parts and then trying to reconstruct the whole situation from there.