I've recently encountered the belief the NT is a fundamentally Hellenistic collection of writings, with significant pagan Greek philosophical and cultural influences. To what extent is this true? Is the NT more on the Greek or the Hebrew side of things, culturally and philosophically speaking? Or is it a syncretic blend of pagan Hellenistic and Jewish ideas? Can one argue the NT is a fundamentally Jewish or Hebrew collection of writings, despite being written in Koine Greek? Why or why not is this the case?
Jewish culture and idiom
Claude Tresmontant addressed much of the relevant evidence in his book “The Hebrew Christ.” (you can guess from the title which side he comes down on). His is primarily a linguistic argument, and he points out the strong connections between culture, thought, and language.
His work demonstrates the significant and ever-present Jewish thought and Semitic idiom behind the Gospels. He touches briefly upon other New Testament texts, but principally focuses on the Gospels. He provides scores of examples where the Gospels make sense in Semitic Jewish culture but do not make sense in Hellenistic thought and expression.
Tresmontant draws substantially from a knowledge of the Septuagint to show that the Gospels betray Hebrew thought and Hebrew structure in much the same way that the Septuagint translators retained the Hebrew form (and often even Hebrew word order!) of the original material when writing in Greek (see The Hebrew Christ pp. 7-14).
Though Tresmontant could have used the organizing hand of a final editor, his book is a wealth of linguistic and historical detail, which is unafraid to challenge beloved theories when they don’t align with the evidence. He concludes decisively that the earliest Christians, and their written Gospels, were culturally very Hebrew.
Trends in scholarship
There is something of a Hebrew Gospel renaissance taking place among New Testament studies of the last few generations, (E.g. see here, here, and here), with particular focus on the Gospel of Matthew. The certainty that all New Testament documents were originally written in Greek is again being challenged. For years scholarship downplayed the Jewish nature of early Christianity, in no small measure because of late 19th and early 20th century dominance in the field by German scholars with anti-Semitic views—they wanted to make Jesus as un-Jewish as possible. Scholarship is still recovering from this bias.
What kind of Greek?
Granting that somewhere between most and all of the books of the New Testament were originally written in Greek, they are not written in the Attic Greek of the great philosophers, they are written in Koine Greek, the street-Greek of the Roman world at the time. This would have been a practical necessity in order make them accessible to audiences across the Mediterranean.
Even then, these Greek writings have significant underlying Hebrew structure. As Jean Psichari observed, “In considering all these different Hebraisms, it is impossible not to realize how much the language of the New Testament constituted one of the principal initial obstacles to the acceptance of the faith among the educated classes in the first and second centuries. These Hebraisms were hardly what was called for to impress the educated classes.” (“Essai sure le Grec de la Septante”, in translation of “The Hebrew Christ” by Kenneth D. Whitehead)
If they were writing to try to "fit in" with Greek philosophy, they wouldn't have written this way.
What audience is assumed by the authors?
I find especially interesting several of the most Jewish books of the New Testament: Matthew, Hebrews, James, and Jude. These documents are written to people who consider themselves both Jews & Christians, tying them to a rather narrow slice of time and space. They rely heavily on Jewish literature and custom, and do not go to the trouble of explaining Jewish concepts to the readers.
Various scholars have pointed out that the New Testament—and the Gospel of Matthew in particular—speak to an audience that does not need to have Jewish concepts explained to them. Bernard Orchard (see “The Order of the Synoptics: Why Three Synoptic Gospels?” pp. 233-234) assembled a list of conspicuously Jewish features found in the Gospel of Matthew, a few of which include:
- It makes conscious connection between the Old Testament and the New
- Focus on the Law of Moses and temple ritual
- The Gospel of Matthew expects it readers to be familiar with the views and customs of the groups named as the scribes, the Pharisees, the Herodians, and the Sadducees. The author never explains who these groups are—the audience is expected to already know.
One of the principal themes of the Gospel of Matthew is that you can be a good Jew and believe in Jesus. Indeed, it goes further than that—Matthew argues that if you are a good Jew and believe the Old Testament you should believe in Jesus, because the Old Testament prophesied of Him. I have argued elsewhere for the significant implications of the very Jewish nature of the Gospel of Matthew.
What do Hellenistic Christian documents look like?
Perhaps one of the strongest evidences that the New Testament is a product of a Jewish world-view more-so than Greek, comes by comparing 1st Century Christian writings with those of the latter half of the 2nd Century and later—there we do find significant influence from Greek philosophy (e.g. Justin, Tatian, Clement of Alexandria, to say nothing of the full-blown Gnostic movement). The difference between later Christian works steeped in the Hellenistic world and earlier Christian works steeped in Judaism is striking.
Compare, for example, the Gospel of Matthew’s critique of the Pharisees in Matthew 23 with Irenaeus’ critique of the Valentinians in Against Heresies Book 1 (see esp. Chapter 8). These authors live in different worlds and are focused on different problems. Matthew is the product of a Hebrew world; Irenaeus a Hellenistic one.
In summary, later Christianity certainly shows the influence of Greek thought, but the earliest Christian writings are the product of a Jewish world.