The GREEK New Testament

“For from ancient generations Moses has those who preach him in every city, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”  Acts 15:21  NASB

Moses – Typical Christian exegesis of the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 concentrates on the requirements (or lack thereof) for Gentile believers.  But this fixation on what Gentiles must believe and do misses James’ critical point, i.e., Moses is taught every week in the synagogue.  You might not appreciate the enormity of this statement, so let me explain.  The First Century Mediterranean world was a Greek world, the world of Alexander’s Hellenism.  As Hans Jonas writes:

The Submersion of the East . . . Anyone who had something to say had no choice but to say it in Greek, not only in terms of language but also in terms of concepts, ideas, and literary form, that is, as ostensibly part of the Greek tradition.”[1]

What this means for Acts 15 is that our Greek text was the only way to communicate the information across the Roman Empire.  But James makes the point that this is not the way Gentiles were taught.  Those who converted to Judaism, becoming members of The Way with Yeshua as their Messiah, were taught Moses, and Moses didn’t communicate in Greek.  That means they were taught Hebraic “concepts, ideas, and literary form.”  When they went to the synagoge, they didn’t listen to Torah readings in Greek.  They didn’t pray in Greek.  They weren’t introduced to the Jewish way of life in Greek.  They learned from Moses.  They had their contemporary Greco-Roman ideas and behaviors transformed into Hebrew ideas and behaviors.  They might not have been proselytes, but they were Jewish in thought and deed.

Why is this so important?  Because the Greek concepts of basic theological ideas like “human,” “law,” “God,” “redemption,” and “prophecy” are fundamentally different than Hebrew ideas.  If these Gentiles understood Scripture from a Greek perspective, as the later Church Fathers did, they would have quickly moved away from the Hebraic worldview of Moses.  They would have become Ignatius, Tertullian, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, or Clement, and no longer have been associated with Jewish synagogues.  In other words, they would have remained Greek in their thinking and acting.  But they didn’t!  They “converted” to a different paradigm and the language of that paradigm was not Greek.

Today we read the Greek New Testament as the original document of the Christian Church, but that actually can’t be true.  Everywhere in the Greek New Testament we have hints of an underlying Hebrew worldview.  This passage in Acts is but one example.  Jonas tells us why our New Testament is in Greek despite the fact that the Greek was not the native tongue of the original believers and the original authors.  If you wanted to communicate across the Empire in the first century, you had to use Greek, even if you thought in another language.  It is much the same today.  If you want to do business internationally, you have to use English, even if your mother tongue is Italian, or Mandarin.  But if we want to know what the authors thought, we had better not rely on Greek categories and ideas.  We need to look deeper.  And our translations into English should not deceive us into thinking that Greek was the language of the early believers.  Read English, see Greek, think Hebrew.  Can you do that?

Gordon Fee (a well-recognized Christian New Testament scholar) adds some important clarification:

A text cannot mean what it could never have meant for its original readers/hearers.

Interpretation that aims at, or thrives on, uniqueness can usually be attributed to pride (an attempt to “outclever” the rest of the world), a false understanding of spirituality (wherein the Bible is full of deeply buried truths waiting to be mined by the spiritually sensitive person with special insight), or vested interests (the need to support a theological bias, especially in dealing with texts that seem to go against that bias).

The concern of the scholar is primarily with what the text meant; the concern of the layperson is usually with what it means. The believing scholar insists that we must have both. Reading the Bible with an eye only to its meaning for us can lead to a great deal of nonsense as well as to every imaginable kind of error—because it lacks controls. Fortunately, most believers are blessed with at least a measure of that most important of all hermeneutical skills—common sense.[2]

You are believer-scholars, or else you wouldn’t be reading this.  Time to exercise God-given commonsense when you dig into the text.

Topical Index:  Greek, Hebrew, Gentile, Moses, Acts 15:21

[1] Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion: The message of the alien God and the beginnings of Christianity, p. 18.

[2] Gordon D. Fee, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth

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The GREEK New Testament