Those who advocate the Hebrew Roots Movement erroneously equate Greek language with the Greek culture, even to the point of claiming that New Testament itself was Hellenized, rendering the text unfit for discerning doctrine without first sifting the concepts found there through the sieve of Hebrew language and Hebrew thought.
The standard assertion in the Hebrew Roots Movement regarding Greek influence on Scripture and the Church is two-fold:
1) That the New Testament was written about Hebrews, by Hebrews, and for Hebrews and
2) That the Church and the New Testament that she uses has been “Hellenized” or influenced heavily by “Greek thought”, detrimentally affecting the doctrines and practices of the Church.
I understand the points they’re trying to make, but find flaws in how far they take those points.
Let’s take an objective look at the above assertions espoused by the HRM – first regarding language, then regarding culture – and measure them against the realities of the New Testament Scriptures and New Testament Church as God has established them.
Granted, most of the early converts to Christianity were Jewish. Yes, they came with a Hebraic mindset – to a degree. To say that they came with Hebrew culture and religion would be more accurate. Some did know Biblical Hebrew, but the majority spoke Aramaic, similar to but different from Hebrew (see “Languages Used in Ancient Palestine” below). It is debatable whether or not Aramaic was their primary language or rather that it was one of two or more languages common to the era, culture and geography in which they lived. Those in the HRM would have you believe that the Hebrew religion, culture and language at the time of Jesus’ ministry was pure and unadulterated by the languages and cultures in which it found itself. An objective inspection of history does not, however, prove that opinion to be true.
One thing that the HRM fails to do is to delineate the difference between language and culture. The common Greek language in use during the time of Christ crossed many cultural boundaries. That God intended for the New Testament to be written in Greek makes sense. It was the dominant language of the world at the time, used in trade, politics, and culture. Not only that, the Koine Greek language of the New Testament has broad descriptive ability and vocabulary with which to communicate the spiritual truths that God intended to impart to mankind under the New Covenant. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Read on . . .
A brief description of Koine Greek from Wikipedia:
Koine Greek (Greek: Κοινὴ Ἑλληνική IPA: [kɔɪnɛ̝^], Mod.Gk. IPA: [kʲiˈni e̞liniˈkʲi], “common Greek”, or ἡ κοινὴ διάλεκτος, Mod.Gk. [i kʲiˈni ðiˈale̞kto̞s], “the common dialect”) is the popular form of Greek which emerged in post-Classical antiquity (c.300 BC – AD 300). Other names are Alexandrian, Hellenistic, Common, or New Testament Greek. Koine was the first common supra-regional dialect in Greece and came to serve as a lingua franca for the eastern Mediterranean and ancient Near East throughout the Roman period. It was also the original language of the New Testament of the Christian Bible.
From the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania regarding how Koine Greek differs from Classical Greek:
Robertson characterizes Koinê Greek as a later development of Classical Greek, that is, the dialect spoken in Attica (the region around Athens) during the classical period.
“To all intents and purposes the vernacular Koinh is the later vernacular Attic with normal development under historical environment created by Alexander’s conquests. On this base then were deposited varied influences from the other dialects, but not enough to change the essential Attic character of the language.” (Robertson 71)
If the Koinê is an outgrowth of Classical Greek, what are the differences between the two? Robertson states the basic differences succinctly. Koinê was more practical than academic, putting the stress on clarity rather than eloquence. Its grammar was simplified, exceptions were decreased and generalized, inflections were dropped or harmonized, and sentence-construction made easier. Koinê was the language of life and not of books.
From “Greek Primacy”, also at Wikipedia, an article describing the evidence supporting the deduction that the original language of the New Testament is Koine Greek:
Greek Primacy is the view that the Christian New Testament and/or its sources were originally written in Koine Greek. It is generally accepted by most scholars today that the New Testament of the Bible was written primarily, if not completely, in Koine or common Greek. Greek Primacy is asserted over and against Aramaic primacy and Hebrew Primacy.
Background on Koine Greek
Whereas the Classical Greek city states used different dialects of Greek, a common standard called Koine (κοινή “common”) developed gradually in the 5th and 4th centuries BC as a consequence of the formation of larger political structures (like the Athenian Empire and the Macedonian Empire) and a more intense cultural exchange in the Aegean area.
In the Dark Ages and the Archaic Period, Greek colonies were founded all over Mediterranean basin. However, even though Greek goods were popular in the East, the cultural influence were more heavy the other way around. Yet, with the conquests of Alexander the Great (333-323 BC) and the subsequent establishment of Hellenistic kingdoms (above all, the Seleucid Empire and Ptolemaic Kingdom), Koine Greek became the dominant language in politics, culture and commerce in the Near East.
During the following centuries, Rome conquered Greece and the Macedonian kingdoms piece for piece until, with the conquest of Egypt in 30 BC, she held all land around the Mediterranean. However, as Horace gently puts it: “Conquered Greece has conquered the brute victor and brought her arts into rustic Latium” (Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit et artes intulit agresti Latio). Roman art and literature were calqued upon Hellenistic models. Koine Greek remained the dominant language in the eastern part of the Roman Empire. In the city of Rome, Koine Greek was in widespread use among ordinary people, and the elite spoke and wrote Greek as fluently as Latin.
Languages Used in Ancient Palestine
After the Babylonian captivity, Aramaic replaced Biblical Hebrew as the everyday language in Palestine. The two languages were as similar as two Romance languages or two Germanic languages today. Thus, Biblical Hebrew, which was still used for religious purposes, was not totally unfamiliar, but still a somewhat strange norm that demanded a certain degree of training to be understood properly.
After Alexander, Palestine was ruled by the Ptolemies and the Seleucids for almost two hundred years [See Map Above]. Thus, Jewish culture was heavily influenced by Hellenistic culture, and Koine Greek was used not only for international communication, but also as the first language for many Jews. This development was furthered by the fact that the largest Jewish community of the world lived in Ptolemaic Alexandria. Many of these diaspora Jews would have Greek as their first language, and the Tanakh (Old Testament) was therefore translated into Greek, i.e. the Septuagint.
Currently, 1,600 Jewish epitaphs (funerary inscriptions) are extant from ancient Palestine dating from 300 B.C. to 500 A.D. Approximately 70 percent are in Greek, about 12 percent are in Latin, and only 18 percent are in Hebrew or Aramaic. In Jerusalem itself about 40 percent of the Jewish inscriptions from the first century period (before 70 C.E.) are in Greek.We may assume that most Jewish Jerusalemites who saw the inscriptions in situ were able to read them.
Jesus and the disciples spoke Greek?
Most scholars acknowledge that Jesus used Aramaic as his everyday language. Occasionally, the Greek text of the gospels quote Aramaic phrases uttered by Jesus (cf. Aramaic of Jesus). Since Jesus and the disciples belonged to a lower stratum of the population being carpenters, fishermen and the like, it is generally assumed that they would have known little or no Greek. Yet, some scholars challenge this view and point to a number of passages in the New Testament, where Greek conversation is presupposed:
- Jesus speaks to a Syro-Phoenician woman who is described as a Hellēnis, “a Greek” (Mark 7:26).
- Jesus journeys in the Phoenician cities Tyre and Sidon and the Greek Decapolis (Mark 7:31-37)
- A Roman centurion approaches Jesus for the sake of his boy or slave (Matthew 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10)
- Some Hellēnes, “Greeks”, want to see Jesus (John 12:20-36)
- Pontius Pilate questions Jesus (Mark 15;2-5; Matthew 27:11-14; Luke 23:3; John 18:33-38)
- The early Church included a group called Hellēnistai, probably Greek-speaking Jews (Acts 6.1-6)
In none of these cases an interpreter is mentioned. Even though it is impossible to estimate how fluent or eloquent Jesus and the disciples would be in their Greek, it is likely that they would be able to communicate in Greek when it was needed.
The Language of the New Testament
Most biblical scholars adhere to the view that the Greek text of the New Testament is the original version. The opposite view, that it is a translation from an Aramaic original (see Aramaic primacy), has not gained popularity. At any rate, since most of the texts are written by the two diaspora Jews and companions Luke and Paul and to a large extent addressed directly to Christian communities in Greek-speaking cities, and since the style of their Greek is impeccable, a Greek original is more probable than a translation.
Even Mark, whose Greek is heavily influenced by his Semitic substratum, seems to presuppose a non-Hebrew audience.Thus, he explains Jewish customs (e.g. Mark 7:3-4), and he translates Aramaic phrases into the Greek (Mark 7:34: ephphatha). In the Aramaic Syriac version of the Bible, these translations are preserved, resulting in odd texts like Mark 15:34 :
- Greek text
καὶ τῇ ἐνάτῃ ὥρᾳ ἐβόησεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς φωνῇ μεγάλῃ· ελωι ελωι λεμα σαβαχθανι; ὅ ἐστιν μεθερμηνευόμενον Ὁ θεός μου ὁ θεός μου, εἰς τί ἐγκατέλιπές με;
- Syriac text (with rough transliteration)
ܘܒ݂ܰܬ݂ܫܰܥ ܫܳܥܺܝܢ ܩܥܳܐ ܝܶܫܽܘܥ ܒ݁ܩܳܠܳܐ ܪܳܡܳܐ ܘܶܐܡܰܪ ܐܺܝܠ ܐܺܝܠ ܠܡܳܢܳܐ ܫܒ݂ܰܩܬ݁ܳܢܝ ܕ݁ܺܐܝܬ݂ܶܝܗ ܐܰܠܳܗܝ ܐܰܠܳܗܝ ܠܡܳܢܳܐ ܫܒ݂ܰܩܬ݁ܳܢܝ܂
wbatša‘ šā‘yin: q‘ā’ yešua‘ bqālā’ rāmā’ we’mar, ’ēl ’ēl lmānā’ šbaqtāni di’aiteyh ’elāhi ’elāhi lmānā’ šbaqtāni
- King James
“And at the ninthhour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? which is, being interpreted, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
Observations made by Neil Booth at Pass the Toast, from the post, “This Was The Moment” regarding historical, cultural and linguistic circumstances present in the era in which God chose to send Jesus:
And it happened, says Paul, “when the fullness of time had come”. The expression is found nowhere else in the New Testament and, literally translated, it would be “when the filling-up of the time came”. The picture it suggests to my mind is a measuring beaker into which the stream of history has been pouring like water. In 6 BC (or thereabouts — we do not know with certainty the year of Jesus’ birth), the mark that God had set on the beaker was reached and the time for the incarnation had arrived.
But why then? The only answer that we can give is that God knew it to be “the right time” (Good News Bible). Perhaps it was because then the world had become more or less one world under Rome. The Pax Romana meant a virtual absence of war at this point in history. The system of Roman roads and Roman colonies and Roman trade routes had made travel swift and relatively easy and safe. Greek had become an almost universal language thus facilitating world-wide communication. Jews had become dispersed throughout Europe and Asia, spreading a knowledge of the one true God and preparing a context for the Gospel. And paganism had proved itself bankrupt and degenerate and had led to widespread spiritual hunger. But that is all just “perhaps”. Only God knows why that particular moment of history and no other was the right time. But we can be glad that it was.
From Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, III, p. 870, G. L. Archer has noted that:
Greek was the most ideally adapted linguistic medium for the world-wide communication of the Gospel in the entire region of the eastern Mediterranean, Egypt and the Near East. Accurate in expression, beautiful in sound, and capable of great rhetorical force, it furnished an ideal vehicle for the proclamation of God’s message to man, transcending Semitic barriers and reaching out to all the Gentile races. It is highly significant that the ‘fulness of times,’ the first advent of Christ, was deferred until such time as Greek opened up channels of communication to all the Gentile nations east of Italy and Libya on a level not previously possible under the multilingual situation that previously prevailed.
The reality that common Greek “furnished an ideal vehicle for the proclamation of God’s message to man, transcending Semitic barriers and reaching out to all the Gentile races”, poses quite a dilema for the Hebrew Roots Movement. Where does Hebraic superiority in communicating spiritual things land if Semitic barriers were transcended – that God determined that those barriers needed to be transcended – with the coming of the Gospel (the New Covenant) to all mankind?
Jesus sought consistently throughout His ministry to transition religious Jews from their Hebraic paradigm in preparation for the New Covenant. More on that below. And it should be made clear that it wasn’t from a Hebraic paradigm to a Greek paradigm that he was shifting focus to. Jesus was shifting the focus from the Law-based system of the Old Covenant – while retaining its foundational value – to the faith-based transformative power of the Gospel (the New Covenant) to all men! The Greek language used to communicate the New Covenant Scriptures was merely a tool used by God.
Nowhere in Scripture does God require that to know and please Him we have to come with the Hebrew language or a Hebrew perspective. Psalm 51 comes to mind, where David, even under the Old Covenant, with the Hebrew language and the Hebrew perspective, understood that God’s grace and mercy were the source for his redemption and cleansing from sin – not the Law. Psalm 51:17 says, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” And David’s faith, along with the faith of many others, not his adherance to the Law (which is a good thing, because David didn’t do so well with adhering to the Law), was what he was commended for according to Hebrews 11. Those whose names are listed in Hebrews 11, as the King James Version puts it, became heirs of righteousness through . . . the Law? The language or mindset that they had? No! They became heirs of righteousness through faith!
And we, as believers under the New Covenant, understand from the New Testament that the Gospel – the completed work of Christ at the Cross – is grace and mercy and the very Spirit of God indwelling us to bring about not just the covering of sin, as the Old Covenant provided for, but the cleansing of sin and for our sanctification. The letter of Paul to the Romans in particular discusses the transformative power of the Gospel and how it changes mankind’s relationship to sin, to the Law, and ultimately to God. Indeed, most of the New Testament communicates the realities of the Gospel to mankind.
This simple illustration frames the tendencies of the languages used in the Bible well:
Hebrew language tends to be concrete
——> Law makes sense <——
Greek language tends to be abstract/conceptual
——> Grace makes sense <——
Remember . . .
The common Greek language that God chose to communicate the concepts and truths of the New Covenant was merely a tool. Used because it was the best way to communicate the Gospel to the world at the time, both in its linguistic ability and in its scope. That the Koine Greek plays a part in the plan of God need not be targeted unless another agenda is afoot.
We transistion now from language to culture . . .
A typical view of Hebrew vs. Greek “lenses” in the HRM from Hebraic Eyes Ministry:
Welcome to Hebraic Eyes. We are excited you are visiting our website. We hope that you can put on your Hebraic lenses taking off the Greek lens that governs our whole world system and thoughts. The Scripture is a different culture than ours, it is like going to a different country where the people look different and talk different. Different is not bad, it is just not what we are used to.
So step back in time with us. Where do we start? First we need to look at the foundation of the Scripture. Where is that you say? It is the Torah or you may know it as the Law or Pentateuch. We will use the term Torah because remember we are in a Hebraic mindset not Greek. You ask what is the Torah? Good question, let’s explore it…
Torah . . .
Before we continue, I want say we are not seeking to be Jewish or educate you on the practices of Judaism. We are followers of our Messiah, Yashua, who is the Torah (Word) made flesh (John 1:14) [Fodder for a whole 'nother post! The language and theology-twisting in that statement alone is amazing!] and came to dwell among us. He was calling people back to the Torah instead of following after the man-made traditions that were burdening the people. However, it is necessary to know the culture and the background of the culture so we can have a true Hebraic focus. We can gather a lot of information from Judaism.
But “we are not seeking to be Jewish or educate you on the practices of Judaism”? Then why would they “gather a lot of information from Judaism”, a religious system that is steeped in the Talmud, is influenced by Jewish mysticism (Kaballah), and denies the Deity of Jesus Christ? Oh, wait, they already did that by saying that Messiah is Torah incarnate, not God incarnate! Not a universal belief in the Hebrew Roots Movement, but more widespread than you might think. As with most teaching resources in the HRM offering a “Hebraic lens”, this site minimizes (or in this case outright denies the deity of) the rightful place of Jesus Christ and the Gospel and elevates Torah to a place of superiority and centrality in their belief system.
One other point: The Hebrew Roots Movement – across the board – espouses this in regard to their insistence that we must look at all Scripture with a Hebraic mindset: “The Scripture is a different culture than ours, it is like going to a different country where the people look different and talk different. Different is not bad, it is just not what we are used to”. While that is true on one level, the primary purpose of the Scriptures is to deal with the spiritual condition of mankind’s heart in relation to God. The truths communicated throughout the whole of Scripture transcend culture and language. While we can benefit from knowing about linguistic nuances and about cultural differences and how they influenced certain people in particular times and circumstances in their response to or rejection of God, the spiritual truths themselves delve into the heart issues everyone shares, our common human-ness, no matter our cultural or linguistic background. Only if you are seeking to be placed under (or place others under) the practices of the Old Covenant do the issues of learning to think and speak “like a Hebrew” come into play.
In one Hebrew Roots Movement article by Brian Knowles, one of the ways in which the differences between the Hebraic mindset and the Greek (Hellenized) mindset are characterized is by using the concepts of doing vs. knowing:
William Barrett . . . explains that one of the most fundamental differences between the Western, Hellenistic mind and the Hebrew mind is found in the area of knowing vs. doing. Says Barrett, “The distinction…arises from the difference between doing and knowing. The Hebrew is concerned with practice, the Greek with knowledge. Right conduct is the ultimate concern of the Hebrew, right thinking that of the Greek. Duty and strictness of conscience are the paramount things in life for the Hebrew; for the Greek, the spontaneous and luminous play of the intelligence. The Hebrew thus extols the moral virtues as the substance and meaning of life; the Greek subordinates them to the intellectual virtues…the contrast is between practice and theory, between the moral man and the theoretical or intellectual man.”
This is where the HRM begins to assert Hebraic primacy, in both language and culture indivisibly, as well as assert Greek inferiority, linking the Greek language and culture indivisibly, in communicating the things of God.
What strikes me about their premise is not that it elevates one “mindset” above another, but that it limits God in its assumption that the only way Heis able to communicate His purposes, His righteousness, and His heart to mankind effectively is through a particular mindset and language! What becomes evident as one learns more about the Hebrew Roots Movement is that it is not capable of supporting the truth that the Gospel transcends linguistic and cultural barriers.
This helps explain why so many Christian churches are focused on the issues of doctrinal orthodoxy (however they may define it) — often at the expense of godly living. In many Christian circles, what one believes or espouses is treated as more important than how one lives – i.e. how one treats his or her neighbor.
In Biblical Judaism, it is precisely the opposite. Christians are inclined to subject each other to litmus tests of orthodoxy, while Jews are concerned mainly with behavior. As Dennis Prager writes, “…belief in God and acting ethically must be inextricably linked…God demands right behavior more than anything else, including right ritual and right belief.”
Like fudge-swirl ice cream, there is truth mixed in with error in the above statements, making an appealing argument for the Hebraic “way”. The author makes the assumption that Christian orthodoxy (small ‘o’) and godly living tend to be mutually exclusive. At the same time, they ignore the whole “white-washed tomb” concept that Jesus tried to communicate to the consummate Law-keepers of the day, the Pharisees. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean.” (Matthew 23:27)
Actually, the entire 23rd chapter of Matthew is an indictment on how the Hebraic “mindset” had become more concerned with outward appearance and had neglected “the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness.” (vs. 23) Right before He revs up to the “whitewashed tombs” statement, Jesus says, “You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.” (vs. 25b-26)
As is their tendancy, those in the HRM evade the truths constituted in the whole of Scripture in regard to faith and works and water those truths down to concepts of “doing vs. knowing”. While in the HRM world the “Renewed” Covenant that they put themselves under requires their dutiful attention, in the world of the Redeemed, if one is truly submitted to the Holy Spirit, the Law of Christ (love God, love others) is a natural outpouring in one’s life as a result of the work of the Holy Spirit. “First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.” In both cases there is a matter of obedience – in one case obedience to an obsolete system (Hebrews 8:13), in the other case obedience to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and surrender to the leading of the indwelling Holy Spirit of the Living God! (Acts 16:31, John 3:15-16, Romans 10:9-13, Romans 12:1-2, 2Corinthians 5:17, the book of Hebrews, 1 John 1:9 . . . and many more)
Again . . . as Jesus sought to transition those in the religious “Hebraic mindset” – which had become more focused on the Law of Moses than on the faith of Abraham (doing vs. knowing/believing), He sought to re-focus people on the coming provision of redemptive sacrifice and forgiveness – to focus them on a mindset full of grace and mercy, love of God and love of neighbor. Notice that it’s not a transition from Hebraic thought to Greek thought, but a transition to Godly perspective on the Law and its proper place in relation to the coming New Covenant.
And the New Covenant brought new life, not just a “renewed” covenental system. All through the Gospels Jesus Christ repeatedly demonstrated and administered grace and mercy, love and forgiveness, even life itself, with His authority as God in the flesh as He walked among mankind before the work of the Cross. Jesus spoke in parables to shake loose those Hebraic minds from the confines of the Law of Moses and the Old Covenant. He never denied the foundation or the purpose of the Law – He was fulfilling it. Luke 16:16 says, “The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it.” In effect, Jesus was overriding edicts of the Mosaic Law, administering grace, mercy, forgiveness, and life for things for which the Law required separation, punishment, sacrifices – even death! Jesus was preparing the hearts of men for the Law of Christ, the New Covenant forged in His blood!
Lest you question that Jesus was operating with Godly Authority, look at Mark 9. Jesus took Peter, James, and John to a mountain, and something amazing happened. It’s called the transfiguration, where Jesus’ clothes became a dazzling white and Elijah and Moses showed up and were talking with Jesus. Mark 9:7 tells us, “Then a cloud appeared and enveloped them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” So there stood Moses, Elijah, and Jesus all together and God said, “Listen to Jesus!” All three appeared together, then Moses and Elijah were gone. Jesus remained. Mark 9:8 says, “Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.” The time of Moses and Elijah under the Old Covenant was passing and the time for the New Covenant under Jesus was dawning. And God said, “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to Him!”
Back to the cultural issue of Hellenism. Excerpts from the following article beautifully communicate the historical/cultural realities prior to and at the time of Christ. There are a number of cults and sects that attempt to use the “Hellenization” (Greek lens) argument to direct Christians into a Law-keeping mindset. From “Was Early Christianity Corrupted by ‘Hellenism’?” [complete article with endnotes available at the link] by Dr. Paul R. Eddy, Assistant Professor of Theology, Bethel College, St. Paul, MN:
A common criticism of historic orthodox Christianity is the claim that early Christianity was corrupted by the intellectual forces of ‘Hellenism.’ (Hellenism, of course, refers to the influence of ancient Greek philosophy and culture, which spread throughout the Mediterranean world after the conquests of Alexander the Great in the fourth century BC.) Specifically, the doctrines of Trinity and the deity of Christ have been rejected as unbiblical ideas that were introduced into Christianity through the corrupting influence of Greek philosophy, particularly the ideas of Plato. As long ago as 1531, in his book, On the Errors of the Trinity, Michael Servetus criticized the ‘Hellenistic’ terms used by Trinitarian Christians to explain their understanding of God. More recently, various critics of orthodox Christianity–including Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, New Age adherents, and theological liberals–have argued that the true biblical understandings of God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit were corrupted in the third, fourth, and fifth centuries by Greek philosophy and pagan polytheism, which led to the development of the doctrines of the Trinity and the deity of Christ . . .
What are we to make of this criticism? Is there evidence of wide-spread ‘Hellenism’ within the early church? If so, does this mean that central doctrines of the Christian faith were corrupted in the process?
What we do know is this: ‘Hellenism’ was a cultural force that touched most areas in the ancient Mediterranean world. Thus, since Christianity arose in the Mediterranean world, it is not surprising that early Christians had to deal with its effects. We know that there were various reactions to Hellenistic philosophy among early Christians. For example, Tertullianclaimed that Christianity and Greek philosophy have nothing in common at all. On the other hand, Justin Martyr felt quite comfortable making comparisons between Christianity and Greek philosophy in order to attract Hellenistic pagans to the Gospel. Justin was not alone in trying to create bridges from Greek philosophy to Christianity. Like Justin, many early Christians were willing to borrow certain terms and ideas from the cultural world of their day in order to communicate the Gospel to those around them. Does this mean that, in the process, Hellenistic ideas were allowed to creep into the Gospel message and distort its true meaning? Although this is a common criticism of orthodox Christianity, it can be shown that, in fact, it is an argument with no real foundation. The following four points will serve to reveal the weaknesses of this view.
1.) The Jewish world, from which Christianity arose, had already been touched by Hellenism prior to the birth of Christ.
Critics who use this argument often make it sound as if the life and culture of Jesus and the first disciples was untouched by Hellenism, and that only in later centuries was it allowed to ‘infect’ the church. However, we know from history that this is simply not the case. In his groundbreaking study, Judaism and Hellenism, Martin Hengel has shown that, from the middle of the third century BC, Jewish Palestine had already experienced the effects of Hellenism in various ways.
(1) under Ptolemaic rule, the Jews were forced to deal with Hellenistic forms of government and administration
(2) as inhabitants of an important coastal land, Palestine served as a crossroads for international trade, which brought many Hellenized merchants through the area
(3) the Greek language–the common language of the Roman Empire–became a part of Jewish culture (and became the language of the New Testament!)
(4) Greek educational techniques were adopted, in part, by the Jews. Thus, the idea of a pristine Judaism, untouched by Hellenism, giving rise to an equally untouched early Christianity that was later ‘corrupted’ by Hellenism is simply a false historical picture.
2.) Recent studies have shown that the influence of Hellenism on various peoples in the ancient world was largely superficial, and primarily attracted the ruling class and those with political and administrative hopes.
In his massive study of the Hellenistic period, Peter Green demonstrates that the effects of Hellenism on local cultures in the ancient world operated like a forced cultural veneer over an otherwise healthy and distinct traditional worldview. G. W. Bowersock has come to similar conclusions:
The persistence of all these local traditions has suggested that there was no more than a superficial Hellenization of much of Asia Minor, the Near East, and Egypt . . . . [Hellenism] was a medium not necessarily antithetical to local or indigenous traditions. On the contrary, it provided a new and more eloquent way of giving voice to them.
These observations point to the fact that Hellenism did not tend to infiltrate and ‘corrupt’ the local religious traditions of the ancient world. Rather, people maintained their religious traditions in spite of Hellenistic influence in other areas of their lives. This leads to our third observation.
3.) Although Judaism and early Christianity were affected by the surrounding culture in certain ways, they diligently guarded their religious beliefs and practices from Hellenistic pagan influences, even to the point of martyrdom.
We now come to the heart of the issue. The historical and archaeological evidence shows that bothJudaism and early Christianity carefully guarded their religious views from the surrounding Hellenistic culture. For example, with regard to Judaism, the archaeological work of Eric Meyers on the city of Sepphoris in first-century Upper Galilee reveals that, in spite of wise-spread Hellenistic influence on various cultural levels, the Jewish people maintained a strict observance of the Torah.
When it comes to early Christianity, it is clear that the religious influences are Jewish rather than Hellenistic paganism. The essence of the Christian Gospel is nothing more nor less than the fulfillment of all the Old Testament covenantalpromises through the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. It is the climax of the history of Yahweh-God’s dealings with the Jewish people through a series of covenants, culminating in the New Covenant of Jesus Christ. It is a Jewish worldview that dominates the Gospel, not that of paganism. Gregory Dix’s conclusions on the question of the Hellenization of the Gospel confirm this claim: the central core of the Gospel consists of “a Jewish Monotheism and a Jewish Messianismand a Jewish Eschatology; which is expressed in a particular pattern of worship and morality.”
This conclusion does conflict with what used to be a popular view of Christian origins in the early twentieth-century. This view, held by a group of critical scholars known as the ‘History of Religions School,’ claimed that many early Christian beliefs and practices were actually borrowed from Hellenistic pagan ‘mystery cults.’ In recent years, however, this view has largely been abandoned by the scholarly world. The evidence now demonstrates that early Christianity is best understood as arising from the Jewish thought world. In his book, Christianity and the Hellenistic World, philosopher Ronald Nash wrestles with the claims of the History of Religions School. His findings are worth noting:
Was early Christianity a syncretistic faith? Did it borrow any of its essential beliefs and practices either from Hellenistic philosophy or religion or from Gnosticism? The evidence requires that this question be answered in the negative.
Nash’s conclusion fits with the findings of many others. The work of historians and biblical scholars such N. T. Wright and David Flusserconfirm that first-century Judaism is the proper context within which to understand the rise of early Christianity. It is true that Christianity eventually broke with Judaism. Unlike Judaism, it understood God as a TriuneBeing, and the Messiah as both divine and human. However, these theological perspectives were rooted in the experience of the early Jewish Christians as recorded in the New Testament. As Dix has noted:
Christianity ceased to be Jewish, but it did not thereby become Greek. It became itself–Christianity.
4.) Many of the central elements of the Gospel are diametrically opposed to the Hellenistic mind-set.
This claim can be demonstrated by offering the following examples: First, like Judaism, the Christian Gospel proclaims that God created all things ‘out of nothing’ (‘ex nihilo’). This is contrary to the Greek view of pre-existing eternal matter. Second, since God created all things, including matter, Christianity (withJudaism) understands matter in general, and the human body in particular, as ‘very good’ (Gen 1:31). The Hellenistic worldview understood matter as questionable at best–if not down-right evil. The body was seen as something like an unnatural tomb, within which the eternal human soul was temporarily trapped until releasedby death. Whereas, with Judaism, Christianity proclaimed that to be human was to have a body, and thus that we would experience resurrection of the body (an uncorruptible body!) in the after-life, the Greek view of the after-life was freedom from the body.
Some have noted similarities between certain Greek systems of ethics and New Testament teachings on morality. However, even here there are significant differences. While one can identify certain common features, such as literary styles and basic moral codes, there are prominent differences in the motivation (Christians are motivated by regard for God and His call to holiness; the Greeks by self-evident ‘reason’) and means for living a moral life (Christians are empowered by the Holy Spirit; Greeks rely upon their own innate wisdom and ability). Finally, unlike the Greek philosophical view, the hope of heaven provides the foundation for Christians to persevere under moral pressure.
Finally, we must address the claim that the doctrines of the deity of Christ and the Trinity are later Hellenistic pagan corruptions of the early and ‘pure’ Christianity. Two responses will suffice to show the weaknesses of these claims.
First, the claims of those like the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses that New Testament Christianity was corrupted by later Hellenistic influence fail to account for the fact that it is the New Testament data itself which led the early Christian fathers to confess the deity of Christ and the Trinity of God. While space considerations do not allow for a detailed biblical defense of these doctrines, reference can be made to a number of significant studies demonstrating that these doctrines are rooted in the New Testament witness to Jesus Christ (see endnote for suggested resources).
Second, recent research has forcefully shown that the early Christian idea of Christ’s deity developed not in a Hellenistic context but in a distinctly Jewish thought-world. Richard Bauckham, a contributor to this relatively new scholarly movement (sometimes known as the ‘New History of Religions School’) states these conclusions succinctly:
When New Testament Christology is read with this Jewish theological context in mind, it becomes clear that, from the earliest post-Easter beginnings of Christology onwards, early Christians included Jesus, precisely and unambiguously, within the unique identity of the one God of Israel . . . . The earliest Christology was already the highest Christology . . . .
In conclusion, although the claim that early Christian belief and practice was corrupted by Hellenistic influence is commonly argued by critics of orthodox Christianity, the historical evidence does not support this claim. Rather, like the Judaism from which it arose, the Christian faith rigorously guarded its unique religious identity in the midst of the religious and philosophical diversity of the ancient Mediterranean world.
While on Earth, did Jesus think like a Hebrew? Like a Greek?
I would submit to you that He did neither.
Jesus thought like God, because He IS God.
God’s plan for mankind predates anything Hebrew or Greek, linguistically or culturally. God’s redemptive plan, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, restores us to relationship with Him, with faith rooted in Jesus Christ, not in a culture or in a particular language or “mindset”!
The Hebrew culture and journey throughout history bears testimony to God’s faithfulness, bears witness to God’s plan, the sketch of what was to come for the redemption of all tribes, tongues and nations through the completed Masterpiece, the Gospel of Jesus Christ! To tie the world’s tribes, tongues, and nations to the Hebrew culture and language to fully understand the things of God is not a reasonable leap. Furthermore, that leap is never required by God!
One has to consider, based on the same observations that Neil from Pass the Toast and commentator G.L. Archer made, that God indeed used a time in history where a language different from Hebrew, that HE ALLOWED to be in place, would be used to communicate His Gospel to the majority of the world as it existed at the time. Yes, Jesus came first to the Jews, then to the Gentiles. That truth is not negated by the primary language or the cultural conditions of the era in which He came. And now God has allowed for His Word to be translated into many tongues in order to reach all tribes and nations. Indeed, He mandated it with the command from Jesus to “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.” (Mark 16:15)
May God grant you wisdom and discernment as you consider all of these things.
Filed under: "Law Keepers", Discernment, Hebraic Roots, Hebrew Roots Movement, Law of Moses vs. Law of Christ, Religion, Teachable/Unteachable, Torah, Uncategorized Tagged: | "Law Keepers", Christianity, Discernment, Hebraic Roots, Hebrew Roots Movement, hellenism, Law of Christ/Law of Moses, Teachable/Unteachable