What is the difference between Greek thought and Hebrew thought? It would be most picturesque to picture a scene. In one scene you are watching a group of people argue in black and white, elegantly splitting hairs, while in the other scene you see other people arguing in full vivid technicolor pulling at their beards and eating and talking excitedly. A couple of years ago or so, I had the chance on a Sunday afternoon to hear a talk at a Messianic synagogue in the Palm Harbor area with some friends of mine. I can’t remember the name of the speaker (who was very entertaining), but I do remember what he talked about, the difference between Greek and Hebrew ways of thinking.
Why does this matter? If you are a student of the Bible, it matters a great deal. It is the task of those who believe in and seek to follow the Bible to develop a biblical worldview. That means seeing the world through the eyes of scripture and developing the character and mind and heart of God within us. The question one has to answer is–what kind of mind does God have? Does He think with Greek thought or Hebrew thought?
Hebrew is the language of the law, the prophets, and the writings, the three divisions of the Hebrew scriptures. The Hebrew scriptures themselves are predisposed to a certain sort of thinking that is not binary, not either/or. In fact, the scribes and Pharisees, of whom Saul (Paul) of Tarsus was one, had at least four ways of interpreting the Bible, which they enshrined in a little mnemonic devise called Pardes, the word for garden (from where we get our “paradise”). The P stands for Pshat (“simple”), the literal, straightforward meaning of the text of the Bible on which all else depends. No further levels of interpretation can contradict the literal sense, but they can build upon it. The R stands for Remez (“hint”), which is the implied meaning of scripture, where you build on the implications that scripture leaves believers to figure out for themselves but provides the clues for. The D stands for Derush (“search”) which is the analogical or moralistic meaning of the Bible. For example, when we take scripture (such as a prophecy or the Song of Solomon) and apply it to physical or spiritual Israel as a whole, we are engaging in this sort of interpretation. Finally, the S stands for Sod (“secret”) the hidden level of interpretation. The hidden nature is how something that seems simple and straightforward and pointless in scripture (for example, obscure laws and stories and genealogies) applies to us personally.
Now, it should be clear that you can go very far off the reservation with Hebrew thought. See an example here . You can become so entangled in hidden and secret meanings that you neglect the straightforward one (like the mystics do) or so intoxicated with the powers of your own intuition and know-how that you fail to appreciate the God in heaven who is the giver of all good gifts and the one who gets to make the rules (as tended to happen with the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day, as can be seen if one reads the Talmud).
Nonetheless, despite these corruptions of Hebrew thought that one must be very careful to avoid, the essential nature of Hebrew thought in the Bible is to avoid painting an either/or dichotomy. Is the Song of Solomon erotic love poetry celebrating proper sexuality within marriage? Absolutely. Is it about Israel and the Church as well? Indeed it is. Are the poor that the Messiah will care for and preach good tidings for in Isaiah 61:1 (quoted in Luke 4:18) physically poor or the spiritually poor (humble) in spirit? Both. It’s not an either/or thing. Simply because a passage of the Bible applies to literal matters does not mean it does not apply to Israel or the Church or believers in their spiritual state. The same prophecy can apply to the fall of Jerusalem in 586BC or 70AD or to the periodic rise and fall of the Church throughout history or the end times. The Bible has a context that we must be very important to understand, but it is not limited to our narrow blinders about what we may think it means. It can mean multiple things, which gives it richness and great applicability, assuming one knows how to handle it.
After all, the Bible includes two different accounts of the period of the monarchy of Israel (the Former Prophets from Joshua to 2 Kings and the writings of 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah, one written from the point of view of kings and the other from the point of view of priests, but both very valid perspectives). Likewise, the Bible gives us four different accounts of the Gospel of Jesus Christ (which, intriguingly enough, seem to correspond with both the four levels of biblical interpretation explored above as well as the four different types of personalities–SJ’s, “guardians” or the audience of Jewish believers in Christ of Matthew’s account; SP’s, “artisans,” or the practical and pragmatic Romans of Mark’s account; NF’s, “idealists,” or the orderly account focusing on women and outcasts provided by Luke, or the NT’s “rational” account of the cosmic scope of the eternal battle between light and darkness provided by the fiercely intellectual but beloved apostle John. Each approach has part of the whole story, but like the blind men trying to describe an elephant by feeling its tail, torso, leg, and snout, only a part.
Having seen what Hebrew thought is like, with its layers of layers of possible meaning, let us examine Greek thought. As can be expected, Greek thought is somewhat less rich in possibility than Hebrew thought, but considerably more precise. I must admit that a certain part of me enjoys the precision of Greek philosophy, but not enough to prefer it to the richness of potential meaning provided by Hebrew thought. As someone who tends to use words precisely but also intend a wide variety and applicability of meaning, I suppose I am someone who has dwelt in both realms of thought within my own life. Greek thought is something that is nailed down, that means exactly and only one thing.
It should be noted that it is an open debate whether any part of the Bible was itself written in Greek originally or not. It is not within the scope of this particular note (though it is something I would like to write about eventually), but there is an open question as to whether the original renewed covenant scriptures were originally written in Aramaic or Greek–and the Aramaic has a strong case that I believe is worthy of fuller investigation. The sort of Greek thought that I am referring to is not that of the inspired authors of the renewed covenant scriptures, who were mostly all of Hebrew-thinking backgrounds (none were particularly conspicuously “Hellenistic”–Matthew, Mark, John, James, Jude, and Peter were all Jews, mostly Gallileans (except for Mark), Luke was apparently Syrian, and Paul was out of Tarsus but had apparently been trained by Gamaliel, certainly no friend to Hellenistic rationalism). They tended to see the Bible in characteristically “Hebrew” ways, something that shows up even in the Greek.
Greek thought refers to the writings of Plato and Aristotle as well as their intellectual heirs the Gnostic heretics. From Greek thought we have the whole dualistic heresies that try to pit everything into black/white or either/or thinking rather than recognizing the fuller balance. Greek thinking pits the physical against the spiritual, leading either to asceticism where the tainted and dirty physical is punished while the enlightened spiritual is developed or to hedonism, where the corruption of one’s physical body through promiscuity or gluttony is unimportant because it is only the mind and spirit and not the body that matter anyway. In Hebrew thought, the body, heart, mind, and spirit are all an interconnected whole, none of which can be neglected.
Despite our best intentions, it is too easy sometimes for Greek thought to slip in to our thinking habits when we are unprepared. For example, we can seek to divide people into two camps–those who are enlightened or privileged and for whom the normal rules do not apply (Plato’s “Philosopher kings” or the ministerial elites of hierarchial organizations) and the great mass of humanity who are under bondage to tyrannical and oppressive leadership. This sort of division of what is really one unified whole under the same godly standard is the perversion of biblical truth due to corrupt Greek thinking. Likewise, it is Greek thinking (rather than Hebrew thinking) that worships youth and beauty and the sensual appetites, giving these sinful lusts a carnal, philosophical justification that only applies to privileged sinners in positions of high authority and not to the unprivileged masses.
Biblical Contrasts Between Greek and Hebrew Thought
Let us examine two contrasts set in the Bible between Greek and Hebrew thought, one which serves to favor Hebrew thought and the other which condemns the negative aspects of both types of thinking. First, let us go to Matthew 20:25-28: “But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the [Hellenistic] rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave–just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” We see here the egalitarian mindset of Hebrew thought favorably compared to the authoritarian bent of Greek thought that predominates the cultures of the heathen.
The second example points to the negative tendencies in the humanistic variants of both Jewish and Greek thought that we all must guard ourselves against, since it is pristine biblical culture and not the corrupted traditions of either Jews or Greeks, that we wish to adopt, as is stated in 1 Corinthians 1:22-25: “For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” Here we see that humanly speaking Jews want a sign (some sort of mystical, miraculous proof showing Messiah as King delivering the Jews from foreign bondage, without seeking deliverance from the sin which enslaved them) while Greeks seek after wisdom (a logical proof that engages them intellectually, without seeking to challenge their entire way of living and behaving), but God provides something that serves as a barrier to the corrupted, sin-led listeners of any cultural background. God desired to create a renewed biblical culture, requiring the sacrifice of His son Jesus Christ to open the path to His throne so that all could come before Him as His very own offspring.
Hopefully this particular exercise has been useful in distinguishing between Hebrew and Greek thought. In seeking to build and adopt a biblical culture, let us avoid adopting the corrupted vestiges of Hebrew thought as they survive in mystical traditions or the Talmud, but let us adopt a biblical culture that allows the richness of applicability and interpretation with the common standard and equal standing of all before God that the Bible preaches so eloquently and forcefully. Let us cast off the heretical hierarchies of the heathen and serve God in spirit and in truth, preparing for our noble calling as kings and priests in His kingdom, both now and forevermore. Let us be true children of God, speaking His language and thinking His thoughts, and following His ways as we are guided by His Spirit within us, joining us together with all of our other brethren wherever they may be in space and time, sharing the expectation of rising up with eternal life upon the return of our elder brother, Jesus Christ.