Wisdom Literature: Theoretical Perspectives

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There is great ambiguity in defining wisdom literature within Jewish and Christian studies. This literary corpus has been defined alternately as (1) a precise canonical division of biblical books attributed to Solomon (traditional view); (2) the literary product of a particular social class (i.e., the sages of Israel); (3) an empirical literature developed to address the problems of government and administration; (4) an instructional literature developed to teach social conduct in the family unit; (5) a literary observation on creation in reaction to the failure of prophecy; (6) an international literature often characterized as universal, eudaemonistic (i.e., happiness as life's goal), secular, or humanistic; (7) a literature whose goal is to facilitate the reading and interpretation of sacred tradition and scripture itself; (8) a literature expressive of an intellectual tradition distinguishable from other types of thought in Hebrew culture; and, (9) most broadly, any literature that expresses a particular view toward reality (especially in clan, court, or scribal settings) in answer to the question "What is good for men and women?"

This representativebut by no means exhaustivelist of definitions reflects the lack of consensus about what wisdom is and how the wisdom tradition can be said to have shaped a literary genre called wisdom literature. The problem of definition may be elucidated by examining the relevant wisdom terms and patterns of usage in canonical deutero-canonical and extra-canonical texts through the Second Temple period (536 bce70 ce).

Professional Class or Canonical Division?

Despite the pervasive use of the words hokhmah (wisdom) and hakham (wise) and the Greek equivalents sophia (wisdom) and sophos (wise) in the Bible and Septuagint (third-century bce Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures), they do not technically describe either a professional class or a canonical division of scripture. Although the word hak-ham appears in Jeremiah 18:18 in a context that to some scholars suggests three professional classes (priests, prophets, and sages), such a reading is by no means conclusive and has been forcefully challenged by Roger Whybray (1968), among others. Other texts suggestive of a professional class of ha-khamim (sages) are similarly inconclusive (see Is. 5:21, 29:14, 31:2; Jer. 8:8, 9:22). Aside from these biblical references, certain external evidence of international school and scribal structures has been used to posit similar biblical institutions. However, lack of direct biblical evidence makes these theories somewhat speculative.

Whether wisdom constitutes an intra-canonical category is likewise debatable. Not until the apocryphal Book of Ben Sira (second century bce) is there even an allusion to the tripartite canonical division: law, wisdom, and prophets (expressed in this unusual order at 39:1)

Wisdom-Torah Identification

A related and more sharply defined issue in Ben Sira is the clear and striking identification of Torah and wisdom in chapter 24. Here Wisdom, personified as a preexistent entity with God at creation, is said to have found a resting place in Israel (Book of Ben Sira 24:9). Furthermore, wisdom is peculiarly merged with Torah so that there is no Torah study without the study of wisdom. Beyond the early association of wisdom and Torah in Deuteronomy 4:6, the logic of this identification may be sought in the second-century bce encounter between Judaism and Hellenism, whose rich philosophical traditions challenged Israel to provide a philosophical foundation for its own sacred history. In such a setting wisdom takes on a decidedly apologetic task. For the author of Ben Sira, Torah is mediated or interpreted by wisdomthe same wisdom perhaps that provides the international standard for the conduct of human affairs. The concerns of Ben Sira are echoed in Baruch (Bar. 3:94:4) and perhaps even in the final stages of earlier biblical books in which wisdom interprets sacred tradition.

This wisdom-Torah association persists in the later rabbinic literature. More typical of rabbinic interpretation, the Mishnah tractate Avot entertains the same wisdom-Torah juxtaposition but comes to the opposite conclusion: Rather than wisdom leading inevitably to Torah, knowledge of Torah now must precede and temper wisdom. In the words of the rabbinic sage Simon the Just:

He whose wisdom takes precedence over his fear of sin, his wisdom will not endure. That is why a person should first carry out the commandments, even if he does not understand the reasons why. He whose wisdom exceeds his works is one who does not carry out what he learns; therefore his knowledge of the Torah will not keep. (Avot 3.12)

In the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran, in which the wisdom tradition is variously supplemented or even supplanted by apocalypticism, there is surprisingly little hokhmah/hakham vocabulary. Nevertheless, selected scrolls (1 QS, 1 QH, 1 QM) are strongly reminiscent of the late wisdom writings (e.g., Book of Ben Sira, Baruch, Wisdom of Solomon ). Here an esoteric wisdom aids in the interpretation of Torah; what can be known about the origin and end of the world is not clearly discernible either in creation itself or in Torah plainly interpreted. Torah mysteries are revealed to the sectaries who become by membership in the community initiates into divine mysteries (1 QS 9:1718; 1 QH 1:21). And yet, this esoteric wisdom is still linked to ethics and piety as in the older wisdomTorah dialectic. The created order is still cause for praise despite its secrets (1 QH 1:1112), and the secrets will finally be revealed to the remnant of those who obey to the commandments:

But with the remnant of those who held fast to the commandments of God He made his Covenant with Israel forever, Revealing to them the hidden things In which all Israel had gone astray. (1 CD 3:1314; as cited in Vermes, 1962, p. 85)

A similar wisdom-Torah dialectic, now with different aims, may be at work in the New Testament Gospel of Matthew in which Jesus is depicted as both a new Moses (e.g., Mt. 5:1720; 23:3440) and as Wisdom's representative (Mt. 11:19, 2530; 23; cf. Book of Ben Sira 51) and in the Letter of James in which the "wisdom from above" (Mt. 3:17) seems to replace explicit Torah language.

The coexistence of such varied perspectives on the role of wisdom testifies to the highly pluralistic milieu of Hellenistic Judaism. Ultimately, for Judaism, Torah remained the standard by which all other scripture was to be interpreted, for despite the eventual recognition of the prophets and the writings as canonical divisions, at no time were these placed on equal footing with Torah. To the contrary, the challenge at Yavneh in the first century to the canonicity of Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes testifies to their tentative status, although the view that these books "defile the hands" (i.e., are to be revered as sacred writings) prevailed.

Wisdom Attributed to Solomon

The ascription of three books to the hand of Solomon, Judaism's preeminent wise man (1 Kgs. 35), is evidence of another link between wisdom and sacred history. Proverbs, Song of Songs, and (obliquely) Ecclesiastes all claim or allude to Solomonic authorship. The curious circumstance that Ecclesiastes is ascribed not to Solomon but to Qohelet, who is nevertheless described in language appropriate only to Solomon ("Son of David, king in Jerusalem"), is regarded by Brevard S. Childs (1979) as evidence of canonical shaping. By means of this device, the reader who knows the tradition of wisdom surrounding Solomon is instructed to read Ecclesiastes as an authoritative part of that tradition. If this assessment is correct, the assignment of texts to Solomon provides the earliest glimpse of a biblical category functioning as (what is now referred to as) wisdom literature.

Although modern scholars such as Whybray, Gerhard von Rad, Walter Bruggemann, and Joseph Blenkinsopp have tended to attribute a secular humanistic orientation to the literature of the Solomonic enlightenment, Jewish historian Josephus Flavius (37/38c. 101), the rabbis, and the early church fathers offer evidence for the inadequacy of this assessment. Both Flavius and Origen (c. 185c. 254) refer to the Solomonic works as theologically didactic, that is, teaching divine wisdom. In his famous discussion of the twenty-two books of scripture "justly accredited" and "containing the record of all time," Josephus observes that "four contain hymns to God and precepts for the conduct of human life [hypothekas ]" (Against Apion 1.39). These four are thought to be Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs.

In the prologue to his Commentary on Song of Songs, Origen places "three books written by Solomon's pen [in] didactic order" from Proverbs to Ecclesiastes to Song of Songs. In this order, he writes, the books present three general disciplines by which one attains knowledge of the universe. The Greeks call them ethics, physics, and enoptics (Origen, Commentary on Song of Songs ).

Origen's thought was further systematized in the fourth century by Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335c. 395), who writes that God used Solomon as an instrument to show "in systematic and orderly fashion, the way which leads upward to perfection." These three books, analogous to stages of growth in the physical body, reveal a particular order of development that brings human beings to virtuous life. From Proverbs 's neophyte wisdom, suitable for the child, to Ecclesiastes 's teaching that "beauty is that beyond anything grasped by the senses," to Song of Songs 's "initiation of the mind into the innermost divine sanctuary," the human soul is directed gradually toward its final "mingling with the divine" (Gregory of Nyssa, Homily on the Song of Songs ).

Wisdom since the Enlightenment

With the Enlightenment and the rise of modern biblical scholarship came a departure from the traditional definition of wisdom literature as material attributed to Solomon. Attention turned now to the issues of form and redaction criticism and particularly to newly discovered ancient Near Eastern wisdom parallels (especially Egyptian texts). In this period the term wisdom literature came to be a standard designation for a vaguely defined type of Old Testament literature.

Interest in the implications of scientific findings for the standing of wisdom in biblical theology also arose in the modern period, doubtless in reaction to the Enlightenment preoccupation with historical critical method. Von Rad's (1972) three-part chronological division of Old Testament wisdom history into old (secular) wisdom, theological wisdom, and apocalyptic wisdom is perhaps the most comprehensive result of such study, although it has received sharp criticism by such scholars as James Crenshaw and Gerald Sheppard.

In the 1950s a new and extensive exploration of wisdom influence on biblical texts generally not defined as wisdom literature was initiated by von Rad's (1966) study of the Joseph narrative in Genesis. Von Rad's claim that the Genesis narrative, through its use of wisdom themes and vocabulary, presents Joseph as one trained in the wisdom of the Egyptian court drew much criticism but also gave rise to a generation of similar studies. Studies of other narrative texts, like Whybray's (1968) Succession Narrative and Talmon's (1963) study of the Book of Esther, followed von Rad's lead. Legal and prophetic texts were similarly explored by Moshe Weinfeld, Joseph Jensen, William Whedbee, and others.

Cross-cultural Studies of Wisdom in the Ancient Near East

The international context of biblical wisdom is already suggested by the claim in 1 Kings 4:30 that Solomon's wisdom surpassed that of all the peoples of the East and Egypt. The comparison of Egyptian instructional literature to Proverbs by Adolf Erman (1924) and Paul Humbert (1929) opened a new phase of inquiry into wisdom literature as a genre. From the Egyptian sebayit (teaching) with its central idea of maat (the divine order of truth established by God) to the Sumerian and Assyro-Babylonian instructional texts of Mesopotamia, parallels to nearly every presumed wisdom category in the Hebrew scriptures have been found. Egyptian texts relating advice to the student were found to bear strong resemblance to the biblical Proverbs, whereas texts listing the works of nature, such as the Onomasticon of Amenemope, were compared to texts such as Job 3839. Likewise, the biblical theme of the suffering of the righteous and the skeptical tradition of Qohelet found rough parallels in certain Egyptian texts (such as the papyrus Dispute over Suicide ) and even stronger resonance in Mesopotamian texts like the poem Ludlul bel nemeqi (the Babylonian Job), the Dialogue of Human Misery, and the Dialogue of Pessimism.

Despite these strong family resemblances, however, many scholars have objected that ancient Near Eastern parallels have been exaggerated in the secondary literature. W. G. Lambert's (1960) pivotal study of Babylonian literature stresses the inapplicability of biblical definitions of wisdom to the Akkadian word nemequ, usually translated "wisdom." Unlike biblical wisdom, nemequ most often refers to skill in cult and magic lore in which the wise man is the initiate. Although Babylonian literature exhibits thought patterns similar to those often characterized as biblical wisdom (e.g., proverbs, advice on living), "there is no precise canon by which to recognize them" as wisdom texts (Lambert, 1960). In any case Lambert cautions that the term nemequ does not adequately define these writings.

Equally problematic is the attempt to equate proverbial or folk sayings with wisdom. Once again the cross-cultural resemblance is undeniable and yet one cannot limit wisdom to proverbs without depriving the term wisdom of its rich nuance. Proverbs, after all, occur in the widest variety of cultures, often without any religious content or implication. The discovery of Egyptian parallels to biblical proverbs is far from establishing an international standard for wisdom.

Wisdom as a Category in the History of Religions

If it is somewhat problematic to speak of a cross-cultural wisdom literature in the ancient Near Eastern context, it is even more difficult to do so in the context of contemporary comparative religions. It would be tempting, for example, to draw a correspondence between Buddhism's prajñā, sometimes personified as a goddess who brings enlightenment to all buddhas, and the personified Wisdom of Proverbs 8. Both figures are praised in hymns that endow them with feminine traits, and yet the practices directed toward achieving the two statesprajñā and biblical wisdomare near opposites. Buddhism, particularly Mahāyāna Buddhism, undertakes to awaken prajñā "found slumbering under ignorance and karma which come from our unconditioned surrender to the intellect" (Suzuki, 1958 p. 5), whereas biblical wisdom is often characterized as an intellectual tradition. In other words, wisdom in the biblical tradition is often associated with knowledge, and prajñā more like antiknowledgeis characterized by detachment from the intellect and the cultivation of a transcendental insight into things "just as they are" (yatha bhutam ), without conceptual distortion.

Closer to what scholars associate with biblical wisdom is the wisdom of Zoroastrianism, which is manifest in perfect control over the will, shown in "good deeds, righteousness and good repute," according to Denkard, a ninth-century encyclopedia of Zoroastrianism. The source of this wisdom is the Creator "who is essential wisdom"; the created "receive it through their own faculties" (Denkard 380.19382.3). As in much of the Bible, wisdom and righteousness go hand in hand.

Islamic mysticism offers another example of wisdom as anti-intellectualism. For the ūfīs, all wisdom (aqul; universal reason) is included in the letter alif, the first letter of the Arabic alphabet and symbol for God. It requires no study of books or philosophical quest because knowledge is immediately derived from God. Furthermore, it is typical of Persian mystical literature to elevate love over intellect or to substitute "rapture for reasoning" (Schimmel, 1975, p. 431).

Each of these traditions undoubtedly exhibits internal diversity and nuance in its definition of wisdom equal to or exceeding the variations in biblical and other ancient Near Eastern texts. The problems encountered in the comparison of the latter, texts from similar temporal and geographical settings, are only exacerbated in the broader cultural context of contemporary history of religions. If there is no consistent use of the term in the ancient Near East, there is far less consistency of definition about a wisdom genre outside of that milieu. The question remains, then, whether wisdom can be spoken about as a category of literature either within the Bible or in the broader and more problematic cross-cultural context of world religions.

See Also

okhmah; Prajñā; Sophia.


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Alexandra R. Brown (1987 and 2005)

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