When Greek Minds Try To Understand Hebrew Texts

Some time ago, I wrote on the difference between Greek and Hebrew ways of thinking [1], which would be handy to read before looking at this entry as it explains the point of view that I am coming from. In the course of my reading and writing, I come across many people who greatly err in a variety of ways because they approach Hebrew texts with a Greek mind. As a reminder, let us be clear about what I mean by each of these labels. A Hebrew text (like the whole Bible, which is written from a Hebrew mindset regardless of the specific language we know it in) is full of multiple layers of meaning, a multiplicity of allusions and implicit references, and rewards repeated and deep study. A Greek mind, on the other hand, is obsessed with finding out the one true meaning of a given text or word, rather than recognizing that there are often several true meanings, each of which does not contradict the other truths but rather makes the text more rich and complex.

As a way of an example of Hebrew texts are many of my own. Many of my own blog entries, for example, have a very clear surface meaning, but are full of deeper meanings for those who are willing to investigate them further. These meanings often refer to people or incidents in my personal life that I am loathe to discuss in detail but refer to obliquely for those who are aware of them. These meanings often also include references to songs and scriptures that I do not feel it necessary all the time to directly cite, but which provide a deeper context to the point I am making, or references to political figures that may be dangerous to point out directly. Again, let us talk about specifics to make the point plain. While I was in Thailand I once gave a sermon on the Gentile ways of government [2], and I included the story of Xerxes and Vashti at the beginning of Esther for a very topical reason. A few years ago in Germany, the crown prince of Thailand threw a party for the birthday party of his french poodle, and had his wife show off her beauty in little more than a g-string, and video of the incident got around on Youtube, at least from what political commentators say, causing him a fair bit of embarrassment for behaving like an Oriental monarch and not a modern Constitutional would-be king. Again, it was too dangerous to make a direct reference to the incident, as it amounted to a lese majeste offense, but the Gentile mindset of the Thai monarchy (as opposed to a biblical mindset) was important to address anyway, and so the reference was indirect, giving additional layers of meaning to a message. This happens a lot, and those who read what I write no doubt often practice great skill in seeking to figure out exactly what I am referring to at any given time in my writings, if they are aware of this tendency of mine to layer my writings deeply.

Again, this tendency is a hallmark of Hebrew writings. Whether we are looking at the four approaches to Revelation (preterist–looking at the immediate audience, historicist–looking at the course of the history of the Church, futurist–looking at the fulfillment of end-time prophecy, or spiritual–looking at the spiritual analogies to the lives of believers), or looking at the four levels of meaning (PaReDes) in scripture, the outcome is the same. A Hebrew text does not have one meaning, but many, all of which are true, but which do not contradict each other. For example, an astute reader of a Hebrew text does not say that the concerns of a first-century reading audience of an NT text would contradict the personal spiritual assistance that a twenty-first century reader would have or negate the connections between the writings of a prophet like John the Apostle to the course of Church history or preclude the symbolic discussion of end-time human events. In fact, the astute reader would see all of these layers of meaning as valid, tease out each of them when it was appropriate for teaching and discussion, and concede that there may be more meanings in the text than we are able to understand at present.

Greek minds do not do this, though. Instead, Greek minds are fixated on one truth that contradicts everything else. Their behavior with Hebrew texts, rich in layers and ambiguity, is therefore instructive. Greek texts themselves often contain ambiguity, if one takes the gnostic gospels, for example, but this ambiguity is not a sign of multiple layers of meaning, but rather the use of words in a coded way to make their meaning clear only to those who are on the inside and nonsense to those who are not. Scholarly journals, for example, with their professional jargon, are a classic example of Greek texts where there is a great deal of precision in meaning but where insider knowledge of a field of study is generally necessary to understand the point of the whole exercise. A Greek mind will use a complicated word in a coded way to deliberately obfuscate the point of a message, while a Hebrew mind will use those words that best come to mind, following the bunny trail of a conversation without the same obsessive concern for precision.

Because Greek minds tend to be so focused on one layer of meaning (especially if that layer of meaning concerns themselves), the Greek approach to scripture lends itself to endless haggling over the meaning of words and the specific meaning of a text, ignoring the existence of multiple meanings and applications that the Greek mind is generally uncomfortable with. For example, the Greek mind typically views the physical layers of obedience to God with a high degree of abhorrence, and seeks to spiritualize those obligations away for their own comfort. The replacement of physical ordinances (like the Sabbath) with a vague and spiritual obligation to love, or the expectation of a spiritual “rest” with Jesus Christ as a daily experience in lieu of obeying God’s commandments, is typically a Greek approach to dealing with the question of the Sabbath.

We might therefore say that the Greeks tend to approach a Hebrew text in several characteristic ways. For one, they pervert the simplicity of the text that exists in order to make it something that is only accessible to an elite few who have the necessary knowledge to properly understand a given coded language, often to the exclusion of any literal meaning. A Hebrew mind, in contrast, will provide a literal meaning that has layers of depth beneath the surface but whose surface meaning is also true. Likewise, a Greek mind will take physical obligations and spiritualize them away–either focusing on their own wisdom and maturity in choosing their own standards of right and wrong as opposed to those from another place, or rejecting the value of the physical at all when dealing with spiritual matters.

Therefore, when we see this sort of behavior–quarreling over the “one” meaning of a word, spiritualizing away the physical meanings of a prophecy or the physical applications of God’s laws and ways, seeing only one application in a text and viewing all others with derision and contempt, we know we are dealing with a Greek mind and not a Hebrew one. As a consequence, we can see that this person does not view the scriptures with the same mind as the authors of that scripture and is therefore not (at this point at least) a citizen of the New Jerusalem or an Israelite of God. The workings of such minds shows a Gentile mindset, and repentance and instruction and regeneration are needed for such a mind to be acceptable to God’s ways. Let us all therefore make sure that we look at the Word of God with the right mind.

[1] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2010/12/22/on-the-difference-between-greek-thought-and-hebrew-thought/

[2] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/08/04/two-approaches-to-government-part-one/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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