Monthly Archives: November 2015

The Evolution of Religion, Part 7- The Rise of Christianity: The Issue of Concept

Today’s Post

Last week we addressed the issues which arise when translating from a language rooted in one brain hemisphere to one rooted in the opposite.  Jonathan Sacks suggests that these issues arise from the influence of the thinking that goes into the translation.  Today we will continue to follow Sacks as he identifies some of the differences between the Greek and Jewish concepts found in the confluence of thought which resulted in the new religion of Christianity.

Contrasting the Concepts

As Sacks points out, a simple observation on this unprecedented new religion is that “Christianity got its religion from the Hebrews and its rationale from the Greeks”.

The Christian New Testament consists of the Jewish teachings of Jesus as translated into the Greek language, under the Hellenic influences of Paul.  As the new church grew, and continued to be explained and interpreted by early Christian ‘Fathers’, such as Irenaeus and ‘Doctors’, such as Augustine and Aquinas, the influence of Greek thinking continued to increase.

As Christian theology began to develop, much of the thinking of the great Greek sages, particularly Aristotle and Plato following their rediscovery by way of the Arabs, came into play as the original sacred books were interpreted according to the Greek masters.

Sacks sees many strands of Greek left-brained thinking in the development of Christian theology which contrast with the way the right-brained way that the Jews read the Hebrew bible:

Universality: Jews combine the universality of God with the particularity of the ways that we relate to God.  Christians, however, stress that Christ came for all but have historically denied any other route to salvation.  Sacks sees in this the legacy of Plato who devalued particulars in favor of the universal form of things.

Dualism: Much more so than Judaism, Christianity divides: body/soul, physical/spiritual, heaven/earth, this life/next life, evil/good, with the emphasis on the second of each.  Sacks sees the entire set of contrasts as massively Greek, with much debt to Plato.  He sees these either/or dichotomies as a departure from the typically Jewish perspective of either/and.

The tragic view of the human condition: Jews do not believe that we are destined to sin.  Sacks sees this belief as leading to the concept of ‘inherited sin’, which is unique to Christianity.  Unlike Christianity, the concept of ‘existential deliverance from the grip of sin’ does not exist in Judaism.

Separation of ‘faith and works’:  Jews believe that faithfulness is a matter of how you behave, not what you believe.  Jews, according to Sacks, see faith and works as part of a single continuum and have equal weight.  Sacks sees the Greek influence of fate, and the futility of fighting against it, leading to the Christian primacy of acceptance over resistance, the characteristic stance of the Hebrew prophets.

God’s nature: the Greek translation of God’s identification to Moses is, “I am who am”.

  • The Christian understanding is that God is “Being itself, timeless, immutable, incorporeal, and understood as the subsisting act of all existing”.
  • Augustine interprets the statement ontologically. He sees God as “that which does not and cannot change”.
  • Aquinas sees God as “true being, that is eternal, immutable, simple, self-sufficient and the cause and principal of every creature”.

Sacks see these interpretations as the “God of Aristotle, not Abraham and the prophets”.  The Jewish translation of God’s identification to Moses is, “I will be where or how I will be”, adding a ‘future tense’ omitted in the Greek translation.

God’s Relationship with Man:  Far from being timeless and immutable, Sacks sees the Jewish understanding of God in the Hebrew bible as active, engaged, in constant dialogue with his people.

Sacks sees Aquinas’ God of ‘pure being’ as being so remote- the legacy of Plato and Aristotle- that the distance is bridged in Christianity by a figure that has no part in Judaism, the ‘Son of God’, a person who is both human and divine.

Sacks understands Judaism as seeing all human persons as both human and divine, and sees its contrast to Christianity as an issue of ‘immanence’.

Sacks also sees the influence of Greek thinking in the writings of the ‘Doctors’ of the Church, such as Augustine and Aquinas, many years later, such as:

  • The philosophical proofs for the existence of God, derived ultimately from Plato and Aristotle
  • The concepts of ‘Natural Law’, derived from the Greek Stoics.
  • The idea that ‘purposes are inherent in creation’, that nature is ‘teleological’, derived from Aristotle

So, according to Sacks, in Christianity we see an unprecedented merging of the right-brained teachings of Jesus with the left-handed rationality of the Greeks.  However, as Sacks observes, this merging was not accomplished without contradictions between the essentially Jewish tone of the gospels (the base of religion) and the Greek influences (the base of reason) on the theology which continued to evolve from it.

Sacks nonetheless sees Christianity as a “wondrous creation, a monumental step toward relating to reality with the ‘whole brain’ “:

 “Christianity combined left-hand brain rationality with right-brain spirituality in a single, glorious overarching structure.”

While identifying areas of what he sees as right-left brain imbalance in Christianity, Sacks does not address the potential of this ‘wondrous creation’.  With its resonance in both right and left modes of human thinking, Christianity carries within itself the potential for continuing to respond to the human need for actualizing its potential.   We will explore this in the third section of the blog as we look at the potential of reinterpreting the legacy beliefs of Christianity in the light of Teilhard’s insights into evolution.

The Next Post

Having looked at religion from the perspectives of history, modes of Western thinking, neurology and Christianity,  the next three posts will begin a look at the evolution of religion from the last perspective, that of evolution itself.

The Evolution of Religion, Part 6- The Rise of Christianity- The Issue of Language

Today’s Post

Last week we saw how the evolution of language was either precipitated by or led to increased use of the left brain hemisphere to make sense of things differently in Athens than in Jerusalem.

These two major modes of thought can be seen to re-merge in many ways with the advent of Christianity.  As Sacks points out, a simple observation on this unprecedented new religion is that “Christianity got its religion from the Hebrews and its rationale from the Greeks”.  Today we will begin to address this confluence by addressing the issue of language.

Why Greek?

The gospels, the stories of the life and teachings of Jesus, never appeared in the Jewish dialect, Aramaic,  that Jesus spoke.  They first appear in Greek, so would not have been understandable to Jesus.  Sacks considers this to be very important in understanding the unprecedented dual foundations of Christianity:

“Jesus spoke Aramaic and Hebrew, but every book of the New Testament was written in Greek.  Jesus wouldn’t have been able to read the New Testament”, therefore, “We have here a unique phenomenon in the history of religion: a religion whose sacred texts are written in what to its founder would have been a foreign and largely unintelligible language.”

Sacks sees the key influence here as Paul, who was not only Greek educated, but had the objective of carrying the message of the gospel to the Gentiles.  He saw Greek scriptures as more suited for dissemination into a wider non-Jewish, Greek-educated culture.

The story of how Paul succeeded in pursuing his objective is told in the Epistles of the New Testament.  These ‘epistles’ tell of the struggle with James and Peter, who considered the followers of Jesus to be a new Jewish sect.  Had Peter and John succeeded in this struggle, the Gospels would probably had been first documented in Jewish or Aramic.

As Sacks sees, using Greek translations of the gospels, Paul

“..found a ready audience among the Hellenistic Gentiles of the Mediterranean, especially those who had already shown an interest in elements of Jewish practice and faith.  It was the Greek- not the Hebrew/Aramaic speaking population that proved to be the fertile soil in which Christianity took root and grew”

The Issues of Translation

The resulting action of translating the Gospels into Greek thus reflected Paul’s goal of making them available to the world at large, but not without issues. As James Barr, Christian Biblical scholar (Biblical Faith and Natural Theology), remarks on the Bible in Greek:

“The attempt, at one time popular and influential, to argue that though the words might be Greek, the thought processes were fundamentally Hebraic, was a conspicuous failure.”

Sacks explains why:

“Had the languages in question been closely related, part of the same linguistic family, this might have been of little consequence.  But first-century Greek and Hebrew were not just different languages.  They represented antithetical civilizations, unlike in their most basic understanding of reality.”

Sacks agrees with Barr that you can’t translate a right-hand text to a left-handed one without changing some of the meaning.  The resulting translation will be different in small, but important, ways.  As we saw in an earlier post, many of the wonderful concepts developed by the Greeks have no counterpart in Jewish thinking, and vice versa; their different understandings of reality are, as we saw earlier, orthogonal.

The results are not necessarily contradictory, but effect new understandings of the original Aramaic gospels, and ultimately of the whole of the ‘Old’ Testament (also translated into Greek), due to the influence of the left brain as it reads the texts originated in the right brain.

The Next Post

Many issues arise in the translation from a left-handed language to one oriented on the right.  The larger issues arise from the coupling of Jesus’ Jewish right-brained thinking, to Paul’s left-brained, Greek thinking, and eventually to that of the ‘Fathers of the Church’ who followed him.  We will address this unfolding of thinking in the next post.