Apologetics Thursday – Greek Thinking vs Jewish Thinking

Brad Jersak takes exception to the popular claims that Greek thinking is in contrast to Jewish thinking. He lists several “problems” with this type of reasoning. He starts with wondering “What Greek thinking” because Greek thinking incorporates a lot of various beliefs:

Which ‘Greek thinking’?

Not all Greek thinking is even close to the same. Much of this critique of ‘Greek thinking’ is based on faulty assumptions that come from reading the Greeks with Cartesian lenses (i.e. Enlightenment era rationalism that Plato would scoff at) and notions of dualism that are Gnostic but not Platonic in the least. So, what many critics of Plato are describing is actually Cartesian rationalism (Rene Descartes, early 1600’s) and then reading the entirety of Greek literature through those lenses. This shows how much we are conditioned to reading the Greeks through the very lenses we think they’re critiquing (in Plato for example). That is, it’s a projection of our own modernism that blinds us to Plato’s critique of rationalism and his actual epistemology, the core of which is contemplative.

The “What is Greek thinking” question seems more like a feigned ignorance than a serious question. True, not all Greek thinking is the same. But the Platonists are preciously what is being addressed. In his book “The Great Partnership”, Rabbi Sacks speaks out on the Platonism (and accompanying Negative Theology) that corrupted Christianity:

We owe virtually all our abstract concepts to the Greeks. The Hebrew Bible knows nothing of such ideas. There is a creation narrative – in fact, more than one – but there is no theoretical discussion of what the basic elements of the universe are. There is an enthralling story about the birth of monarchy in Israel, but no discussion, such as is to be found in Plato and Aristotle, about the relative merits of monarchy as opposed to aristocracy or democracy. When the Hebrew Bible wants to explain something, it does not articulate a theory. It tells a story.


The fifth and most profound difference lies in the way the two traditions understood the key phrase in which God identifies himself to Moses at the burning bush. ‘Who are you?’ asks Moses. God replies, cryptically, Ehyeh asher ehyeh. This was translated into Greek as ego eimi ho on, and into Latin as ego sum qui sum, meaning ‘I am who I am’, or ‘I am he who is’. The early and medieval Christian theologians all understood the phrase to be speaking about ontology, the metaphysical nature of God’s existence. It meant that he was ‘Being-itself, timeless, immutable, incorporeal, understood as the subsisting act of all existing’. Augustine defines God as that which does not change and cannot change. Aquinas, continuing the same tradition, reads the Exodus formula as saying that God is ‘true being, that is being that is eternal, immutable, simple, self-sufficient, and the cause and principal of every creature’. 8

But this is the God of Aristotle and the philosophers, not the God of Abraham and the prophets. Ehyeh asher ehyeh means none of these things. It means ‘I will be what, where, or how I will be’. The essential element of the phrase is the dimension omitted by all the early Christian translations, namely the future tense. God is defining himself as the Lord of history who is about to intervene in an unprecedented way to liberate a group of slaves from the mightiest empire of the ancient world and lead them on a journey towards liberty.

So, one of the key differences between Platonized Christianity and Jewish religion is abstract thinking about the nature of God. This is a key and heavy element in Platonism (and other varieties of Greek thought), but it was the Platonists who really captivated early Christianity. Justin Martyr, an early Christian apologist, makes the absurd claim that Moses was the one to influence Plato. Anything that Plato taught was just rehashing of Moses! Augustine claimed the Bible is absurd unless it is read in light of Platonism. Augustine elsewhere suggests stealing Platonistic philosophy. Origin shares tutelage with the famed Neo-Platonist Plotinus.

And all the Church Fathers show this Platonic influence in their writings. They deal with undermining the text of the Bible in favor of the abstract, in favor of the immutable, in favor of Platonism. This is where Christianity and Platonism need to part. In the wise words of Walter Brueggemann:

What is most crucial about this relatedness is that Israel’s stock testimony is unconcerned to use a vocabulary that speaks about Yahweh’s own person per se. Israel has little vocabulary for that and little interest in exploring it. Such modest terminology as Israel has for Yahweh’s self might revolve around “Yahweh is holy,” but this sort of language is not normally used, and most often it occurs only in specialized priestly manuals. More important, Israel’s characteristic adjectival vocabulary about Yahweh is completely lacking in terms that have dominated classical theology, such as omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent. This sharp contrast suggests that classical theology, insofar as it is dominated by such interpretive categories and such concerns, is engaged in issues that are not crucial for Israel’s testimony about Yahweh and are in fact quite remote from Israel’s primary utterance.

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