By Robby Galatty
The first step in understanding Jesus as a Jewish rabbi is to take a closer look at the Hebrew language and thought. The Hebrew language tends to be characterized as dynamic, impassioned, and explosive, in contrast to the more abstract and systematic Greek language that has influenced much of our Western culture. In his book Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek, Thorleif Boman writes: “Greek mental activity appears harmonious, prudent, moderate and peaceful; to the person to whom the Greek kind of thinking occurs plainly as ideal, Hebrew thinking and its manner of expression appear exaggerated, immoderate, discordant, and in bad taste.” Adopting a Hebraic mindset forces the reader to think with two hands simultaneously: on the one hand and on the other hand. “[Apparent] contradictions and inconsistencies,” cites Hebrew theologian Brad Young, “are part and parcel of God and his mysteries.”
One immediate implication of the Hebrew way of thinking is in the cultural approach to learning. As Brad Young puts it, the Middle Eastern mind “learns by doing.” Young summarizes this mindset:
The Eastern mind loves riddles and is fond of mystery. On the contrary, the Western theologian explains much and understands little. The Eastern mindset of Jewish theology reveres God and wonders at his unexplainable mysteries. All attempts to systematize God fall short. If we are to understand God like an Eastern Jew would have, we must stand in amazement. We should wonder in awe. Jesus is like that. He never wrote a creed. He did not occupy himself with systematic theology. But He is a profound theologian even if He would feel uncomfortable with this Western designation. He is a theologian, but his theology is Jewish to the core, being rooted in Torah-faithful Judaism. He stressed action more than belief [see John 6:28–29]. His theology emerges in the metaphor of parable and a holy reverence for life.
Sometimes this way of thinking is called “dialectical thinking.” James Fleming, Jewish scholar and author, describes it as keeping opposite and even opposing concepts in mind. He compares this Eastern way of thinking to our common Western perspective: “In Western thought, A + B = C. There is a one statement conclusion for A + B. In Middle Eastern thought and in the biblical mind, there is dialectical thinking. The diagram for this is A + B = AB. There can be more than one statement. The answer is yes, yes, or AB. Many of the difficult sayings of Jesus are examples of dialectical thinking.”
This ability to hold multiple options in tension may be why many Western readers of the Bible struggle with paradoxical concepts. We long to have a single answer to a question or a problem, and we apply this approach to doctrines such as divine sovereignty vs. free will, the kingdom of God being future vs. present, and election vs. man’s responsibility. But these seemingly contradictory doctrines may be congruent in the Jewish cultural framework that gave birth to Christianity. If you ask a Jewish man, “Did God choose you or did you choose God?” he will likely say, “Yes.”
This unique way of thinking allows us to understand our omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent Creator with a fresh perspective. The cultural framework in which Jesus operated helps us navigate the divine tension we see from time to time in the Scripture. As we read the Word through this lens, my prayer is that we live out our faith with confidence.
*This is an excerpt from “The Forgotten Jesus” by Robby Galatty. You can pick up a copy here: http://a.co/4QrpEJF
Robby Gallaty is the Senior Pastor of Long Hollow Baptist Church in Hendersonville, TN. He was radically saved out of a life of drug addiction on November 12, 2002. He is also the author of Unashamed: Taking a Radical Stand for Christ, Creating an Atmosphere to HEAR God Speak, and Growing Up: How to Be a Disciple Who Makes Disciples, Firmly Planted, Rediscovering Discipleship.