The So-Called Hebraic Mindset: Fantasy vs. Reality

Several months ago I had a short series called Fantasy vs. Reality. Myths I attempted to bust in that series included the idea that Paul faked his Jewish practice to win his countrymen to Christ, that the Lord’s Supper was intended to be a monthly mini-meal of a cracker and a thimble of juice, and that the Pharisees are the New Testament version of bogey-men. If you want to read those articles, follow these links: “Paul, Jews, and Gentiles: Fantasy vs. Reality”. “The Lord’s Supper: Fantasy vs. Reality.” “Yeshua and the Pharisees: Fantasy vs. Reality.”

I came to today’s topic while reading Oskar Skarsaune’s excellent tome, In the Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity. For my Christian friends, let me say this is a Lutheran scholar who explains pervasive Jewish influence as late as the fifth century in Christianity! Yes, if you know your church history, that is not the commonly held line of thought. Skarsaune’s work will make it impossible for future generations to ignore Jewish influence on Christianity. But more on that later. For now, let’s talk about the mythical Hebraic mindset which allegedly is so opposed to Greek thinking.

I have read and listened to a number of people who claim that Greek influence in the West messed everything up. Christian theology, supposedly, is awash with pagan Greek thought spoiling the pure and unblemished Hebrew theology that we should all aspire to. Once I heard a man defend the doctrine of soul sleep and annihilation with this line. Soul sleep is the idea that at death we cease to exist until the time of the resurrection. Annihilation is the idea that the wicked do not live forever separated from God, but cease to exist after death. Why are these ideas purely Hebrew and the common Christian ideas of the intermediate state after death and eternal separation from God Greek ideas? The speaker claimed the Christian theologies came from the Greek concept of the Immortal Soul and not from the Bible.

I wish I could recall more specifics about the Hebraic mindset myth. I believe I have heard that cyclical rather than linear history is Hebraic, tension rather than philosophic distinction is Hebraic, narrative rather than precept is Hebraic, and on and on. Supposedly an ancient Hebrew was unable to think in terms of strict categories, foundational principles, and fine distinctions. Hebraic thought is action-oriented, not ontological (a word which even happens to be Greek!). If you readers have heard of some more alleged Hebraic-thinking distinctions, please comment and share them with us.

Well, what does my reading Skarsaune’s book have to do with this mythical Hebraic thinking? Simple. Skarsaune documents the pervasive influence of Hellenism (Greek culture and thought) on Second Temple Judaism. That is to say, the early rabbis were greatly influenced by Greek thought and it carries into modern Judaism as well.

The Greeks believed there was a divine order and purpose behind the universe called the logos. Second Temple Jewish writings such as those of Sirach took that Greek concept and substituted Torah for logos. Torah is God’s preexistent wisdom by which he created the world. Studying Torah gets you in harmony with creation. The Greeks often personalized the logos and so the rabbis did at times with Torah, calling it God’s daughter in the Talmud.

Hillel, the teacher of the teacher of Paul, and perhaps the foundational rabbi of modern Judaism, developed Seven Rules of Exegesis (interpretation). His rules have been shown to be a Jewish application of already existent Greek rules. That is, Hillel adapted Greek hermeneutics to Judaism. Hillel’s rules, Greek in origin, remain the standard in modern Judaism.

The tradition of the elders, in which all decisions had to be substantiated with a chain of authority, came from the Greek philosophical schools. “Rabbi X said in the name of Rabbi Y who said in the name of Rabbi Z” is a lot like, “Aristotle quoting Plato quoting Socrates says.”

The Jewish ideal that everyone should become a Torah scholar is amazingly similar to the Greek idea that all should study philosophy.

Judaism and Hebrew thought seem to have had no problem syncretizing with Greek thought in various ways.

It is true that Judaism has a different outlook than Christianity in doctrine and preferred manner of thinking. Yet Maimonides is far from an isolated example of a Jewish scholar who appropriated Greek thought and made it Jewish thought. There is no mystical boundary between pure Hebraic thought and pagan Greek thought. The differences have been oversimplified and overstated.

I wish to close by simply applying this to the often-deprecated areas of theology suspected by some in the Messianic Jewish movement of a Hellenistic taint. I am speaking about the intermediate state, eternal separation, and the Trinity. I simply want to say that it is possible that these ideas are Biblical and not of pagan origin as some like to claim. Paul certainly looked forward to a time of separation from the body and presence with the Lord (2 Cor 5:8). Eternal separation from God was contemplated by Yochanan ben Zakkai and it would seem Yeshua affirms it repeatedly (cf. Mark 9:48). And though God’s triune nature is not revealed in the Hebrew scriptures, the New Testament gives strong evidence of this theory. Yeshua, for example, is both other than God and the same as God (John 1:1).

So the next time someone makes you feel guilty for a particular belief and says it is not Hebrew, you will be able to smile and maybe even to set them straight.

About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Judaism, Messianic Jewish, Oskar Skarsaune, Theology, Torah. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The So-Called Hebraic Mindset: Fantasy vs. Reality

  1. pbandj says:

    insightful and interesting post. thanks

    peter

  2. Rabbi David Zaslow says:

    You might appreciate reading “Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek” by Boman, Thorleif pulished in 1970. It’s an accurate description of the general ways that the Hebraic mindset differed from the Hellenistic mindset. Clearly both ways of thinking influenced each other over history. But in general the Hebraic way of thinking is not a myth. Another great classic by Protestant scholar Mary Ellen Chase is called “Life and Language in the Old Testament.” She describes, for example, the Hebraic sense of time as being uniquely different from the Greek and Roman sense of time. Again,it is a general description that cannot be applied to all Jewish thinkers at all times, but it is a useful tool. Clearly the Rambam, like Aquinas, was influced by Aristotle’s brilliant methods of thinking, but at his core he thought in a Hebraic manner: wholistic – dialogical and not primarily dialectical.

  3. David:

    You haven’t proved your point at all. It is easy to see that Maimonides was a Greek-thinking rationalist, especially in his conception of God. I do not mean by this that Hellenism is another kind of rationality, just that Maimonides and many other rabbis found their concepts in Greek philosophy. Hellenism and Hebrew literature are not opposites or even differing paradigms. There is room to correlate them. They are not oil and water as so many have claimed.

    Derek

  4. aike aizon says:

    shalom chaverim,

    Im looking for teachings regarding the hebraic thought versus the greek thought.I was searching at the google search engine , guess what? Bro derek lemans blog was at the top search.
    Im a messianic torah observant beleiver based in Manila, Philippines. Im representing a group messianic filipino gentiles who had formed an ALLIANCE our website http://messianicphilippines.bravehost.com.
    We believe that the biblical way is to think “hebraic” Praise be to our ABBA ELohim He had delivered us from fales modern “church” theologies. If anyone knows where i can download “studies” regarding “hebraic thinking versus greek thinking” especially on the the doctrines of Rav. Shaul, please feel free to email me at aike_aizon@yahoo.com.

    shalom, In Yeshua
    bro aike aizon

  5. bavinck says:

    Derek, dear brother. I’m not sure what to make of your little piece of “myth-debunking.” Perhaps I ought to begin by saying that your reply to “Rabbi Zaslow” was amusing. You said he hadn’t proved anything in his post. Surely you’ve come to realize that, neither did you.

    In fact, if your thesis is correct, and there is no substantive difference between Hebrew and Greek mindsets, didn’t you give away the storeby admitting that “Judaism and Christianity” have differing “outlooks” and that Judaism has a distinct “manner of thinking”? In other words, the Jewish/Greek dichotomy is a myth because there is no distinctly Jewish way of thinking. Yet, it is true that there is a distinctly Jewish manner of thinking.

    The subject you raise has significant implications beyond the distressed minds of some Messianics who look to justify their heresies by attacking Greek influences/sources. However, all you’ve done in your piece is offer a modified theory in which the evil of Greek thought penetrated the covenant community EARLIER than heretofore thought. Your entire argument amounts to this:Why blame Christianity for allowing itself to be influenced by Greek thinking when, after all, pre-Christianity Judaism had already undergone the polluting of thought referred to? So, you say nothing AGAINST the reality of a Hebrew manner of thought. You simply say it was corrupted before our Lord was incarnated.

    I’m actually disappointed that you didn’t give this subject more effort. It has been debated for decades now and you might be able to make a contribution if you try. Boman’s book, referrenced by the person calling himself “rabbi”, above, had suffered a whithering attack by James Barr. In fact, many have closed the lid on the discussion, regarding Barr’s work as effectively burying Boman’s. I do not believe Boman’s thesis to be quite dead, however.

    In all, I want to challenge you to more coherent thinking (whether you call it Hebrew or Greek), and I want to petition you to speak plainly about your views and concerns. The comments you made about struggling Messianics seemed to me to be overprotective. No one is permitted to “tinker” with the received doctrine of the Trinity. Offense alleged to be rooted in early hellenization of the church ought to be mocked, not accommodated.

    All the best to you, my friend.

    steve schlissel

  6. Pingback: Hebraic mindset | Farestrans

  7. The Hebrew mindset is very different as stated in the scriptures
    1 Cor 1:22 “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom”
    This cannot be denied.
    Shalom

  8. The YaSh'BaL says:

    In Judaism I was never taught anything about [Jewish vs Greek] mindsets. From certain Messianic groups online I have come across this East vs West thinking thing, and I’ve truly found neither to hold all the cards of understanding, but that both manners of thought are essential and useful in understanding God’s Word.

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