The Old Testament is written in Hebrew. The New Testament is in Greek. We are reading both in English or in one of the many languages of worldwide Christianity. Good translations are basic to understanding and spreading the Word of God.
But the issue is greater than finding comparable words. Hebrew and Greek are two different ways of thinking about truth, God, man, salvation, human nature.
I once visited a Sunday worship service at a church where the regular preacher was on vacation. Substituting was an actor who recited the whole of Jesus Sermon on the Mount. Hearing instead of reading brought some new insights. But by the end, I realized there was no Gospel, as I understood it from Paul’s letters. Grace is not at all obvious in Jesus’ sermon. Why?
The explanation comes by recognizing the Hebrew mindset. When Pilate asked his famous question, What is truth? he was responding to Jesus’ version of the truth. “I came into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” For Jesus, truth is the relationship with God. Pilate with his Greek mindset was not impressed.
For the Hebrew, truth is the relationship with God as understood in the community of his people. For the Greek, truth is an abstract description of reality The Hebrews recognize that God rules everything, so a relationship with God determines how things turn out. For the Greeks, man rules nature through understanding the application of rational insights. Right conduct is the ultimate concern of the Hebrew mindset, right thinking that of the Greek. Hebrew thinking extols the moral virtues as the substance and meaning of life. The Greek subordinates them to intellectual virtues.
A seminary friend of mine spent his career as a missionary among Muslims in India. He was criticized for proposing that we feature the One Hebrew God more than the three Persons highlighted in our Greek-influenced Christian creeds. It makes sense to first find common ground before advancing to God becoming a man in Jesus Christ.
What do these contrasts mean for interpreting the New Testament today? Recognize that the European mindset is definitely shaped by Greek thinking. For communicating biblical truth today, Paul is a better source than Jesus, who was speaking to a different kind of audience with a mindset poorly understood today.
Go the Jesus and the four Gospels to better grasp truth as the right relationship with God and wrong relationships as whatever departs from his will. Sins can be listed, as in the Ten Commandments. Go to Paul today to recognize the underlying condition of sinful nature more so than sins. This is important for ministry especially with people who do not understand a covenant relationship with God but do recognize that their natural human condition does not bring a fulfilling life.
Go to Jesus to understand mercy as forgiving transgressions and restoring relationships. Go to Paul to understand grace as more than the gift of mercy but also the gifts of the Spirit in empowering better living of love, joy, and peace now.
Go the Jesus for a strong sense of living in community as the separated covenant people of God. Go to Paul to offer fellowships of the Spirit open to all who are followers of Christ.
Do you want to minister more effectively today? Go with Paul and his Spirit-shaped, grace-focused perspective on life with God.
Jesus taught by telling specific stories. Paul solved problems by constructing abstract generalizations. Both were proclaiming biblical truths. Today there is a growing awareness that stories communicate better than doctrine. That is why both Jesus and Paul are necessary for bringing Bible truths to those who don’t already know them.