Is Hebrew Better Than Greek?

It is, according to one common objection to classical education. But is it really?

One of the most common criticisms of classical education is that it imports into Christian education ideas that conflict with the Biblical world view.

According to this criticism, classical education tries to incorporate both Biblical/Hebraic thought and Greek thought, and in doing so, unwittingly corrupts the process of Christian education and leads Christian students astray. This argument is based on the idea that there is an irreconcilable dichotomy between Biblical/Hebraic and Greek thought.

Hebrew thought, in many of these criticisms, is represented as manifestly good and Greek thought as irrevocably bad. This criticism has a long pedigree, and there are versions of it going back at least to Tertullian, an early Church father, who asked the question, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?”

While there are important distinctions to be made between the thinking of the Greeks and the Hebrews, this criticism not only oversimplifies the issue of competing world views, it fundamentally misunderstands many of these differences and draws mistaken conclusions from them. But before we draw any inferences from the differences between Greek and Hebrew thought, we should be very clear on what these differences are. And the first thing to acknowledge is that there are differences. In his book Culture and Anarchy, the great Victorian thinker Matthew Arnold talked of two rival forces, “rivals dividing the empire of the world between them”:

And to give these forces names from the two races of men who have supplied the most splendid manifestations of them, we may call them respectively the forces of Hebraism and Hellenism. Hebraism and Hellenism―between these two points of influences moves our world.

What were theses two forces? Commenting on Arnold’s analysis, the late American philosopher William Barrett explains:

The distinction, as Arnold so lucidly states it, 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, and Arnold rightly observes: “The moral virtues are with Aristotle but the porch and access to the intellectual and with these last is blessedness.”

There are other differences, but Arnold seems to have gotten at the most fundamental one. So the question becomes “Is Greek intellectual thought innately bad and Hebrew ethical action uniformly good?”

It would be hard, of course, to argue against Greek rationality, largely because you would have to employ it in order to refute it. It was Greek thinkers like Aristotle who first cataloged the rules of logic, and it would be an exercise in futility to try to logically refute them. You can’t use logic to disprove logic and you can’t argue against argument. The only possible argument against rationality would be silence.

Yet much of the criticism in Christian education circles of the “Greek world view” has this very character: It unwittingly employs the very things it claims to reject.

I remember a conversation with a friend of mine several years ago who was articulating his point-by-point analysis of the differences between Greek thought (which he considered bad) and Hebrew thought (which he considered good). When he finished, I looked at him and said, “Spoken like a true Greek.” He gave me a quizzical look, and I explained that the very process of analysis of the kind he was using was characteristically Greek. I suggested he read some of Aristotle’s works, the great master of analysis, in order to learn more about it.

Another analysis I saw on a website charged that one of the things that characterized Greek analysis (which the author implied was bad) was presenting ideas in “bullet points.” Unfortunately, the author who made this claim had put it in a series of bullet points.

Many of these comparisons oversimplify or just misrepresent Greek thought. Some of them cite a particular Greek thinker as representative of Greek thought on an issue, when, in fact, there were other Greek thinkers who thought precisely the opposite. In one of these treatments I saw recently, Heraclitus was cited as representative of the Greek view of change, ignoring the thought of Parmenides, who emphasized the opposite idea of permanence. The Greeks were remarkable for their philosophers and playwrights. Because they did not have the benefit of divine revelation, they didn’t have all the answers to questions about truth and beauty. But they asked many of the right questions.

On most philosophical and literary issues, we can trace both sides to some ancient Greek thinker. All great ideas―and all lousy ones―can be traced to some Greek somewhere.

And then there are the Hebrews. It is not at all certain that the God who said that He “chose the weak things of the world” chose the Hebrews because of their strengths. In fact, if we are to believe the Old Testament writers (and we should), the Hebrews had quite a few weaknesses. The Old Testament is itself withering in its criticism of the Hebrews and their failure to honor their covenant with God. Like the Greeks and Romans, we have an obligation to judge the Hebrews on the basis of their ideals, not their failures to live up to them. But in this respect, the Hebrews are in a worse, not a better position.

While the Greeks and Romans discovered their ideals on their own, based on the general revelation of God (using the rational nature God had given them but not knowing it was from Him), the Hebrews had their ideals handed to them by God directly. Hebrew ideals were good, but they were not their own. Both the ideals of the classical cultures (insofar as they were true and good) and the ideals of the Hebrews came from God, but by two different paths, and, in the case of the Hebrews, in a way in which their lapses from them are less, not more, excusable.

The Greeks and Romans violated the laws of a God they didn’t know; the Hebrews violated the laws of a God with whom they had been intimate. It is not self-evident that this puts the Hebrews in a superior position relative to the Greeks.

There are a lot of lessons in this, but one of them is not to estimate the Hebrews themselves too highly. The Hebrews themselves didn’t. In fact, anyone who exalted the Hebrews above the other peoples of the earth would have to contend with the Hebrews themselves, whose chief strength was that they were so transparent in admitting their own weaknesses.

How should we view the difference between Greek rationality and Hebrew spirituality and ethics? Are they mutually exclusive? Are we obliged to accept only one while rejecting the other? One of the chief temptations of modern thought is reductionism. C. S. Lewis called it “nothing-buttery.” A thing is “nothing but” this or “nothing but” that. For some reason we feel the need, not only to draw legitimate distinctions, but to institute inviolable separations. This is a clear example of rationalism gone wrong.

It is a Greek temptation.

There are two approaches to how the Greek and the Hebrew world views work together. The first is Arnold’s. He warned that we risked our very humanity by forcing a choice between the two. Those who leave “Hebraism rampant in us and Hellenism stamped out” have “developed one side of their humanity at the expense of all others, and have become incomplete and mutilated men in consequence.” For Arnold, the Hellenistic and the Hebrew work toward the same end cooperatively, although by different paths:

The final aim of both Hellenism and Hebraism, as of all great spiritual disciplines, is no doubt the same: man’s perfection or salvation. The very language which they both of them use in schooling us to reach this aim is often identical. Even when their language indicates by variation,–sometimes a broad variation, often a but slight and subtle variation,–the different courses of thought which are uppermost in each discipline, even then the unity of the final end and aim is still apparent. To employ the actual words of that discipline with which we ourselves are all of us most familiar, and the words of which, therefore, come most home to us, that final end and aim is “that we might be partakers of the divine nature.” These are the words of a Hebrew apostle, but of Hellenism and Hebraism alike this is, I say, the aim.

There are others, however, who see the two views as truly conflicting, but all the more important to keep together because of this. According to Jeffrey Hart, it is precisely the differences between Athens and Jerusalem that have powered the Western mind:

Whatever their differences in detail, such philosophers recognize that Athens and Jerusalem amount to a dialectic, and that the consequences of their interaction have been decisive for the character of Western civilization, setting it off from other cultures and civilizations both past and present …. The philosopher begins like Socrates by saying, “I know nothing,” and pursues knowledge through an investigation of the world. The scriptural tradition bases its view of the world on a series of received insights into the constitution of actuality. The insights are not true because they are recorded in scripture, but they are recorded there because, finally, they are true.

For Arnold the Hellenistic and the Hebrew work together by cooperation, for Hart by conflict. How they they work together is a matter of dispute, but that in fact they do should not be. Historically, Tertullian’s attempt at separation failed. It is hard, says Hart, to believe this was an accident:

Tertullian tried to pry Athens and Jerusalem apart. Clement and Origen tried to pull them closer together. In its formative years, Christianity, like Islam later on, might have ignored or tried to suppress Greek philosophy. As [Michael] Grant says, however, the victory of Clement and Origen was momentous. The Athens-Jerusalem dialectic prevailed in the West. Neither was compartmentalized against the other.

But the Church did not need to wait for the work of later Church fathers. It was apparent from the very beginning.

When we think about the distinction between the Greek view of the world and the Hebrew, we need to remember that Jesus Christ was born into a Hellenistic world―and that this was no accident. By the time of Christ, the Jews themselves had been fully Hellenized. They used primarily a Greek Bible (the Septuagint), as did the New Testament writers. In fact, all the quotations in the New Testament are taken from the Septuagint and the New Testament itself was written in Greek. It is hard not to believe that these historical conditions were mere happenstance. It is hard not to think that the Greek term Logos arrived in the vocabulary of the Apostle John ready-made to articulate the scope and the gravity of who Jesus was: the “Word,” the “Reason,” the “Organizing Principle of Reality,” it could have been translated any one of these ways.

The Hebrew language was the vehicle for delivering God’s revelation to the Hebrews, and the Greek language was the vehicle for its delivery to a Greek culture in a Latin world, the culture to which we as Western people are heirs. Again, this is no accident. We do not need to choose between Greek and Hebrew: The Christian world view bestrides them both.

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