Revisiting Hebraic vs. Greek Education

Dear Reader,

This post is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed Christian philosophy theology of education. Read all the posts here.

I dealt with this issue when I reviewed Art Middlekauff’s talk on Syriac versus Hellenistic education (see that review here), but I feel the need to revisit it. I have recently begun listening to the Schole Sisters podcast and while there are some of their broadcasts which I would heartily endorse, there is one, entitled “Paideia is all Greek to me,” which I found quite disturbing.

In this broadcast the Sisters discuss a book they have begun reading, Werner Jaeger’s Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture. I have not read the book myself and will admit that the concept of Paideia is new to me. What I want to discuss today is a part about midway through when the ladies begin to discuss the relative merits of Greek and Hebrew culture, particularly as it relates to education. Though I am going to use their comments as a springboard for my argument, I want to be clear that they are not alone in what they say here. I think the issue is worth addressing because there are some fairly common ideas, especially in Christian classical education circles, that come out.

I’d like to present the issue this way: We have before us two models of education and culture, that which is inherited from the Greeks (through the Romans) and that which comes from Hebraic culture which we know through the Old Testament and to some extent the New. If our object is to form an approach to education, we can use these two traditions in a number of ways:

  1. We can reject both.
  2. We can accept the one and reject the other.
  3. We can blend the two in roughly equal proportions
  4. We can include both to some degree but favor one over the other.

Among the various authors I have read thus far no one actually does #1 and rejects both. Some reject the classical model which comes from the Greeks and look to the Bible alone. Because we are talking about Christian authors, no one goes so far as to say that the Bible should not provide us with a model but some come pretty close to it in their emphasis on the classical.

Before turning to the Schole Sisters again, I feel I need to give a disclaimer — it is hard to review something that it oral. While my desire is to accurately represent their positions, what I am really giving you is what I heard which may not be identical to what they meant to say. 

In the podcast, the Sisters argue for the value of the Greek educational tradition. They did not explicitly say that this tradition is to be preferred over the Hebraic one but they argue fairly strenuously for the merits of the Greek and denigrate the Hebrew to the degree that I at least felt that they prefer the Greek over the Hebrew (option #4 above). Among other things they say that:

  • We should not reject the Greek tradition for being pagan because the Hebrew was also pagan.
  • God was preparing the Greeks for the gospel just as He prepared the Israelites/Jews.
  • There is something unique for the world in the Greek tradition (as opposed to Chinese or Indian or other traditions).
  • The New Testament uses the Greek language and Greek ideas. These ideas are necessary to convey the New Testament message.

There is a lot to discuss here, but I think we can boil it down into two main ideas: the latter two points tell us that the Greek culture was special and the first two tell us that Hebrew culture was not (or at least not that special). I am going to deal with the claims about Greek culture first and then turn to those about Hebrew culture.

Greek Culture: Is it unique?

Is Greek culture in some way superior to or more suited to the gospel than other pagan cultures? The short answer is I just don’t know. The Schole Sisters say essentially the same thing. There are no doubt people who are competent to do so, but neither they nor I have the kind of knowledge of, for example, ancient Chinese thought to be able to make a determination. From their discussion I gather that Jaeger in the book they were reading does make such a claim.

One author I have reviewed recently, Christopher Dawson, comes very close to making this claim as well. Dawson views the Greeks as having been prepared for Christianity:

“The Greeks and Romans had been prepared for Christianity by centuries of ethical teaching and discussion. Plato and Aristotle, Zeno and Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius had familiarized men with the ideas of man’s spiritual nature, the immortality of the soul, divine providence and human responsibility. But the Barbarians knew none of this.” Christopher Dawson, Crisis of Western Education (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2010; originally published 1961) p. 9

But note that the comparison here is between Greeks and Barbarians. It is not clear from his writing whether Dawson sees the Greek culture as inherently superior to other more developed cultures. He elsewhere praises the longevity and scholarship of the Chinese tradition (p. 4).  He lists as the Greek contribution three things: its ethics, the idea that man has a spiritual nature, and the concept of immortality.  But are these unique ideas?  I suspect we would be hard-pressed to find an ancient culture that didn’t have a moral code and didn’t believe that man embodies an immortal spiritual element. Certainly the Egyptians believed these things as did the Babylonians (known, by the way, for the Code of Hammurabi). Nor am I convinced that Greek morality was superior to that of other cultures (and, I will argue below, it was inferior to the Hebrew law).

It is an interesting question what would have happened if Christianity came to the world in a different time and/or place. Ultimately, it is not a question we can ever answer as it is completely hypothetical. But we can ask if God chose this time and place for a reason.

Because I believe God’s plan is perfect, I believe that Christ came and the gospel spread just as it was supposed to. God certainly could have built His church first in China or India but He chose to do so in a certain time and place. The Schole Sisters imply that the reason was, at least in part, the Greek cultural atmosphere, that is, its world of ideas. I am not convinced that that is so.

The Schole Sisters as much as say that the New Testament use of Greek language legitimizes Greek culture. The choice of Greek for the New Testament was no doubt a practical consideration. The Hebrew of (the majority of) the Old Testament had already become a literary and not an everyday language (the average Jew would have spoken Aramaic, a close kin of Hebrew, but not the same language). The gospel message was to go out to the world, to the Gentiles and not just the Jews, and therefore using the lingua franca of the day made sense.

But I do think that there is a bit more to the choice of Greek than this. I have heard it said that English is uniquely suited to the modern world. Because it is such a hodge-podge it lends itself well to technological enterprises. Hebrew is a language well suited to narrative. Greek is a language well-suited to philosophy and to more complex theology. As big a fan as I am of biblical Hebrew, it would be hard to convey all the messages of the New Testament in that language (sometimes I think it is hard in English!).

But this is still an argument about language. The Schole Sisters go further and argue that Greek ideas were essential. They point in particular the concept of logos in John 1 (logos the Greek word for “word”; thus it is used when John says that Jesus was the Word).  

The question, it seems to me, boils down to this: Do the New Testament writers use Greek culture because it is essential to make their point? Are there essential ideas derived from Greek culture which the Hebrew culture did not provide? Oa, alternatively, do they use Greek cultural references simply because they are appealing to a Greek (or Greek-influenced) audience?

This could be a huge question and it is probably beyond me to answer it fully. I will share my own observations and inclinations, but I suspect there is a lot more than can be said (and probably has been).

To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law.” (1 Cor. 9:20-21; all biblical quotes are from the ESV unless otherwise noted)

The apostle Paul here gives us a clue as to his own use of culture — he will use whatever he needs to to win people to Christ.  We see this played out in Acts 17 when he preaches about the unknown god. Paul takes something his audience is familiar with. He finds one point of connection and uses it to preach a sermon that they will understand. Though he refers to their poets, again making a connection with what they know, the language he uses of God seems straight from the Old Testament.

But what of the logos?  I am not convinced that there is an essential Greek concept here that John could not have done without. Hebrew has a very similar idea — that of Wisdom. Personified Wisdom is found in both the Old Testament (Prov. 8-9) and in Jewish works from the Intertestamental period (the Wisdom of Solomon and Ben Sirah, both of which are included in the Catholic version of the Old Testament). While the concept may not be identical, there is certainly something here that John could have worked with. I don’t think it is clear that he had to appeal to the Greek concept of logos. I find it more likely that John, like Paul, was using a Greek idea to draw in his Greek audience. John raises the Greek idea of the logos, which was an impersonal force, and identified it with a Person, namely God the Son, in order to draw in his Greek audience. [1]

When we think about why the gospel came into the world when and where it did, we also need to recognize that Christianity did not come into the Greek world as such. It came into the Roman world. Now, as I am sure we all learned in our own schooling, the Romans took over a lot of Greek things as their own (including the widespread use of the Greek language), but they also made their own contributions. When we ask why God chose this time and this place, a large part of the answer has to be Roman roads and Roman government. Simply put, the gospel could spread because people could travel relatively easily over a very large and mostly peaceful empire.

One final thought before we move on to the Hebrew culture: If we are going to argue that Greek ideas were somehow essential to the gospel, then we need to evaluate what this means for modern missions. When we bring the gospel message to very different places, from Africa to East Asia, we need to decide how much of the cultural stuff surrounding our message is essential and how much is, well, cultural. What can be adapted to the local culture and what cannot? If we begin with the presupposition that Greek ideas were essential, then we are likely going  to end up keeping a lot more of the trappings of western civilization as well. I do not know if this is bad or good but I do think it is an issue we need to consider.

My provisional conclusion on Greek culture is this: I believe God chose the time and place for the gospel message to come into the world and I believe He chose for the New Testament to be written in Greek. I think the Greek language lends itself well to more nuanced concepts. I have not yet seen any Greek ideas which seem to be essential to the gospel. What I see is what the Apostle Paul describes — that the New Testament writers appealed to Greek ideas to draw in their audiences. The Greek ideas (the logos, the unknown god) are a hook to grab the audience but then there is always something of a bait-and-switch as the apostle (John or Paul) uses the familiar concept as a means of making his point. I will say, however, that I have by no means done an analysis of all the ideas in the New Testament. I am open to other evidence on this point if anyone has any to present.

Defending Hebrew Culture

The flip side of the argument is that Hebrew culture is not special or different. The Schole Sisters call Hebrew culture pagan because the Israelites worshipped idols and (they note this particularly) did not keep the Passover. I would not use the word pagan in this way, but they are absolutely right that the Israelites did these things. They imitated their neighbors and worshipped false gods, and they did not do the things their God told them to. But — and this is a big BUT — the sins of the people and their failure to keep God’s law do not invalidate the law (Rom. 9:6).

We need to be clear that what the Israelites had, what the Old Testament presents to us, is not their law so much as it is God’s Law (big “L”). Other peoples, the Greeks included, had only a shadow of the law, derived from general revelation only (Rom. 2:14), while Israel had God’s revealed Law.

The Scriptures never say look what we are giving you is good and the proof is how great the Israelites were and how well everything worked out for them. They make it quite clear that these were rotten sinful people who couldn’t remember 10 minutes after He did it that it was the LORD who brought them out of Egypt. The law never made anyone good; it shows us our sin (Rom. 3:20).

No people or culture has ever been outside of God’s plan or control (Ps. 47:8). Did God work in Greek culture? I am sure He did. But the Scriptures also make it quite clear that He chose one nation: Israel (Deut. 14:2) and that He gave them something He did not give  any other culture: the Law (Rom. 9:4-5) and that He sent salvation for all peoples in the form of His Son through Israel and not through any other culture (Matt. 2:6). Even when this salvation spreads throughout the world to all cultures it is not because their cultures are deserving in any way but because they become engrafted into the nation of Israel (Rom. 11:17ff).

In His perfect plan, God chose a particular time and a particular place to send salvation. But He also chose a particular people through which to send salvation. They were a people prepared for two millennia — a people chosen in Abraham, instructed in the law by Moses, defined by the exodus from Egypt, and cured from their idolatry (but by no means sinless) by the Babylonian exile.

Because the Schole Sisters single it out, I’d like to focus in on the Passover for a moment. Their claim is that Hebrew culture is no better than pagan culture because the Hebrews did not actually keep the Passover (at least until the time of Josiah; 2 Kgs. 23:22-23). While this is true, the idea of the Passover still comes to us through Hebrew culture. And  there is more necessary, beautiful, and awe-inspiring truth in it than in all of Greek thought put together. Both in what the Passover remembers (the exodus from Egypt) and it what it points toward (Jesus’ work of salvation) the story and the celebration associated with it are a beautiful picture that tell us much about God and about ourselves. One might argue that this is only religious knowledge and that there is much more that we can and should know in this life. I would counter that we cannot truly understand science or history or art unless we understand the world from a godly perspective. None of those things make sense unless we first understand the Creator (as I argued in this post). So in giving us the story of salvation encapsulated in the Passover, the Hebrew culture  — whether the Israelites themselves appreciated it and kept it or not — gives us more truth and beauty than all of Greek culture.

 

A Little Historical Perspective

I have not taken a historical approach to this question. I am not generally find arguments that begin “the early church said . . . ” conclusive (knowing that God’s people can go astray so quickly), but I wanted to include the two quotes below to give some idea of the   scope of thought in the earliest Church. Both are from William Barclay’s book Train up a Child: Educational Ideas in the Ancient World (I expect to review this book soon so stay tuned). Barclay gives very thorough analyses of different ancient educational traditions. These quotes are from his chapter on the early Church and their use of the classical authors. Barclay himself is quoting early church writers —

“‘Avoid all books of the heathen. For what hast thou to do with strange sayings or laws or lying prophecies which also turn away from the faith them that are young? What is lacking to thee in the word of God, that thou shouldst cast thyself on these fables of the heathen? If thou wouldst read historical narratives thou hast The Book of Kings; if philosophers and wise men, thou hast the prophets, wherein thou shalt find wisdom and understanding more than that of the wise men and philosophers. And if thou wish for songs, thou hast the Psalms of David; if thou wouldst read of the beginning of the world, thou hast Genesis of the great Moses; and, if laws and commandments, thou hast the glorious Law of the Lord God. All strange writings therefore which are contrary to these wholly eschew.'” William Barclay, Train up a Child (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1959) p. 230

“‘If those who are called philosophers, and especially the Platonists, have said anything that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our use from those who have no lawful possession of it . . . In the same way all branches of heathen learning, have not only false and superstitious fancies and heavy burdens of unnecessary toil, which every one of us, wen we go under the leadership of Christ from the fellowship of the heathen, ought to avoid; but they contain also liberal instruction which is better adapted to the use of truth, and some most excellent precepts of morality; and some truths even in regard to the worship of God are found among them. Now these are, so to speak, their gold and silver, which they did not create themselves, but dug out of the mines of God’s providence, which are everywhere scattered abroad . . .'” Barclay, pp. 231-32

Two different views are represented here. They amount essentially to “no Greeks, no way” and “use what is good in the Greeks but prefer the biblical tradition.” They show, on the one hand, that even in early days there was no clear consensus on how to approach the classical material. But, on the other, it is not a free-for-all. The more open position still takes the biblical tradition as the measuring rod and is selective about what it accepts from the Greek sources.

Summary and Implications for Education

There is a lot here and I feel I have just scratched the surface. What I feel confident in saying is that God revealed Himself to Israel in a way He did not, and still has not, to any other people. Christ’s work does not undo this special relationship; it just expands it. Israel is redefined (with some branches put out and others grafted in) but the special relationship still exists. The culture and traditions of the Old Testament come from God; those of the Greeks (or Chinese or Romans or any other society) come from man. This is not to say that there is not some truth which comes to us through those pagan cultures but that nothing they have to offer can even begin to rival what God gives us in His Law, in the story of His dealings with His people, in the beautiful poetry of the Psalms, in the wisdom of Proverbs and the other wisdom books.

I began by positing four options for incorporating Greek and Hebrew culture. The Schole Sisters, as I understand them, would include both cultures but give preference to the Greek. Though I did not go into this series with a clear opinion on the matter, as I reread my own writing, especially posts like this one, I am sure it sounds like I at least give preference to the Hebrew culture. To some extent, this is true though I would phrase it in a slightly more nuanced way — The things we learn through the Scriptures are true in a way nothing else can be. Yet there is very little they tell us about very many areas of knowledge. What they do give us is the theological and intellectual framework by which to understand every fact that comes our way. I do think we can receive truth from other traditions, but what we receive from them must be selective and must be filtered through the lens we get from the Hebrew tradition. The Hebrew tradition, then, is the only essential one and the basis for evaluating what is good in the others.

Comparing the Greek culture to other pagan cultures (again, the Chinese or the Indian or any other), I have yet to see a strong reason to prefer the Greek or to hold it in higher esteem. It is, of course, largely the foundation of western civilization of which we are part and as such we should learn about it, but I am not convinced that it is in any way superior to other pagan cultures (though I am still willing to be convinced if anyone has evidence to present on that issue). But whatever we may take from those cultures, we need to do so with discernment. It is not going to be a matter of take all of Greek culture and reject all of Chinese culture or vice-versa. All things should be held up to the standard we are given in Scripture (1 Thess. 5:21).

Nebby

[1]  For a very brief introduction to the logos, I will refer you to this article on Logos from Ligonier Ministries.

4 responses to this post.

  1. […] so that we may compare the two (you can see some of my thoughts on classical education here and here). There are things we can learn from the model Drazin describes and there are details which perhaps […]

    Reply

  2. […] number of times on the modern philosophy of education known as  Christian classical (see here and here). The long and short of it is, I am not a huge fan. I was excited to stumble across this article by […]

    Reply

  3. […] with discernment, accepting the good and rejecting the bad. (Hebraic vs. Hellenistic Education; Revisiting Hebraic vs. Greek Education; Douglas Wilson’s Christian Classical; The Crisis of Western Education; Van Til on […]

    Reply

  4. […] [5] For some posts on what Hebraic education was and what it had to contribute see: Book Review: History of Jewish Education; Book Review: Train Up a Child; Hebraic vs Hellenistic Education and Revisiting Hebraic vs Greek Education. […]

    Reply

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