Hellenism vs. Hebraism in our Understanding of Faith and Baptism

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In Alan Hirsch’s book The Forgotten Ways Handbook he describes the differences between a Greek/Hellenistic worldview and a Hebraic one like this,

“The Hebrew worldview was a life-oriented one and was not primarily concerned with concepts and ideas in themselves. We simply do not believe that we can continue to try and think our way into a new way of acting; but rather, we need to act our way into a new way of thinking.

How did we move so far from the ethos of discipleship passed on to us by our Lord? The cause lies in Western Christianity being so deeply influence by Greek, or Hellenistic, ideas of knowledge. By the fourth century, in the church the Platonic worldview had almost triumphed over the Hebraic on. Later, it was Aristotle who became the predominant philosopher for the church. He too operated under a Hellenistic framework. Essentially a Hellensitic view of knowledge is concerned about concepts, ideas and the nature of being., The Hebraic on the other hand, is primarily concerned with issues of concrete existence, obedience, life-oriented wisdom, and interrelationship of all things under God. As Jews, Jesus and the early church quite clearly operated primarily out of a Hebraic understanding rather than a Hellenistic one.” – Hirsch, 21

I haven’t done a lot of reading on this distinction so I am trusting he got this right! If he is correct, and knowledge consists of information and experience, then how does that inform our reading of verses pertaining to salvation? I am wondering if this dynamic doesn’t heavily affect our reading of Paul when he writes about being saved by grace through faith,

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” – Ephesians 2:8-10

Because of our Western/Hellenistic roots we read that, see the word faith, and automatically reduce it down to believe the right things. In doing so we make faith almost completely about intellectual assent. When we read Paul through that filter we come away thinking anyone who believes Jesus is the Son of God is therefore saved because they believe the right thing. Are we missing something here because we aren’t reading these words through a more Hebraic understanding of knowledge? Also, how do you balance Paul’s Hebrew heritage with his own rhetorical savvy in addressing Gentile audiences? In other words, would Paul have employed a Hellenistic approach to knowledge toward Greeks or would he have tried to bring them over toward a more Hebraic way of thinking on these things? I am not sure we have an answer to that question (I wonder what Ben Witherington would say in response to that?)

Ok…back to the main point. If the Hebrews understood knowledge to include action and experience then things like belief and faith must then be reflected by the way we live. I believe James confirms that in his letter (James 2:18-19). So when it comes to baptism what you have is the natural, Hebraic expression of belief acted and lived out. Our faith takes on legs…not legs that force God to save us but legs that walk with our Savior in humble, imperfect, attempted obedience.

Last, when it comes to whether or not we say someone is a Christian, it is often all boiled down to whether or not they believe the correct things (more the Hellenistic route to knowledge) with little to no evaluation of whether or not the life they are actually living much resembles their head knowledge. I am not so sure the early Christians would have done that. Again, James offers us confirmation on that one too when he writes about what the demons believe in 2:19. It seems that the difference between the demons and us is not about belief…it is more about submission, experience and relationship because when it comes to head knowledge and intellectual assent, they agree with us…God is real and Jesus is the Son of God but choose not to walk in step with Him.

Any thoughts on this?

13 Responses

  1. Matt, there is a huge debate between the “Hebraist / Hellenist” interpreters and those who say that distinction is way overblown. Clearly, the Greek culture was pervasive – the Palestinian world had been under Greek tutelage for approximately 300 years by the time of Jesus and Paul. However, to overlook Paul’s (and Jesus’ by the way) Hebraic thought patterns is to invite all kinds of misinterpretations. I happen to be one who is learning that the more we learn to see in “Hebraic” patterns of thought the more we learn to correctly interpret the NT. Matthew, just as one example, clearly wrote in more of a Hebraic mindset than Hellenistic. Perhaps we see more of a Hellenistic view in Luke, perhaps also in John, but their Jewish/Hebraic influence cannot be discounted.

    FWIW, I think this also shows Paul’s great versatility and ability to shape his message to his audience in his speech to the Athenian philosophers. He still preached Christ and Him crucified, but in a form that was easily understood by the philosophers.

    1. O wow, Matt, nothing like sticking my foot in my mouth with little ready resources. Just off of the top of my head (and with the help of my bookshelf) I can suggest John Nolland’s commentary on Matthew in the NIGTC commentary series; Darrell Bock’s two volume commentary on Luke in the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament series, and Craig Keener’s commentary on the Gospel of John published by Hendrickson. Keener in particular goes into great detail about the setting of the gospel (his “introduction” is 330 pages long!) In general terms I rely upon Everett Ferguson’s “Backgrounds of Early Christianity.” In his commentary on Acts, (in the Sacra Pagina series), Luke Timothy Johnson does an interesting job of arguing how Luke constructs his history in a manner that would have been easily recognized in the first century, and it seems to me he discusses the Hellenist/Hebraic connection in the writing of Luke/Acts (it has been a while since I read that commentary – but I remember loving it as I read it). I have also been influenced by related studies such as Glen Stassen’s “Kingdom Ethics” (early chapters are a detailed study of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount). I hope this helps – I really am kind of a vacuum cleaner kind of reader – I pick up a lot of things here and there and when it gets all mixed up I forget where it was I read something and then it takes me another 10 hours to go back and sort everything out. I think the authors that I gave do a pretty good job of discussing the social and religious setting of their respective subjects, and, of course, Ferguson is almost the dean of early Christian studies. If I come across some other good resources I’ll add them as I can.



  2. Good post Matt. It is like that Hellenistic vs Hebraic argument is akin to the right brain or left brain way people approach scripture anyway. We need both.
    And think about the way this informs what we do during the Lord’s supper. It is a memorial. But it is more than that. It is a re-enactment. But it’s more than that. It is a pre-figure of the final banquet as well. The LS is so rich with ways to reflect and experience God’s grace through Jesus by that simple sacrament!

  3. You are definitely on the right track. There is so much that is so often lost in translation between cultures and languages. With regard to faith: You are right that in Paul’s understanding, it would have had little to do with intellectual assent or simple belief — It had so much more to do with faith in the sense of fidelity, of surrendering one’s life to Christ. And it did change the way you lived. I am not here to start a debate, but I think the Protestant Reformers, by focusing on just a few verses of Paul taken out of context, may have lost track of things when they rejected the idea that “works” had anything to do with salvation. For one thing, in Paul’s letters, he almost invariably meant “works” in the sense of “works of Torah” (the Mosaic Law) — circumcision especially, which the Judaizers taught was the way to salvation. It is clear from all the rest of Scripture — in the Gospels, in James, even in other parts of Paul’s letters — that working towards our sanctification (Philippians 2:12-13) — faith working in love (Galatians 5:6) — was a critical part of our salvation.

    1. Thanks. 🙂 I think there’s a big part of it that’s trusting too — when Jesus told the people He healed that “your faith has saved you,” He didn’t mean, “because you had an intellectual belief that you would be saved” — how would they? It was trusting and hoping, beyond what they could see and understand intellectually.

  4. Good post Matt. I don’t think there needs to be any kind of black-and-white separation between these two worldviews. In fact, I see them trading on one another quite a bit in Scripture. If I am acting out specific things with regard to my faith it follows that I have already accepted a certain belief system or a belief in certain things (James 2). On the flipside, if I confess a belief in something or someone it should follow that I act in obedience with regard to what they have commanded ( Mk. 16:16).

    It seems like what you had in Israel when Jesus came was a heavy dose of both the Hellenistic and the he Hebraic worldviews. Really gives me new appreciation for the idea of Jesus coming at the fullness of time.

  5. understood these references in Talmud as referring to Jesus of Nazareth and based on them believed that Jesus of Nazareth lived 130 years prior to the date that Christians believe he lived, contradicting the Gospels ‘ account regarding the chronology of Jesus . Profiat Duran ‘s anti-Christian polemic Kelimmat ha-Goyim (“Shame of the Gentiles”, 1397) makes it evident that Duran gave no credence to Yehiel of Paris’ theory of two Jesuses.

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