Skip to main content

Wisdom (in the Bible)

WISDOM (IN THE BIBLE)

The subject will be treated under these main headings: wisdom in the OT, extra-biblical wisdom literature, concept of wisdom, and wisdom in the NT.

Wisdom in the Old Testament

The concept of wisdom in the Bible must be delineated against the background of the so-called sapiential books, which are the fruit of the wisdom movement in Israel.

Origins and Development. The origins of the wisdom literature are probably to be sought in the Israelite court. This does not deny that a great fund of popular wisdom and practical insight derived from the common people and the family; but the general impetus to the movement was provided by the court. This assumption is based upon a similar movement in Egypt. Just as Israel imitated its neighbors, especially Egypt, in establishing a kingdom (1 Sm 8.5), it also found here a tradition for the training of its courtiers. There are extant pieces of Egyptian wisdom literature covering a period of some 2,500 years, and many of these bear close resemblance to the teaching of the OT sages (see extra-biblical parallels below). The bureaucracy and demands of court life required a trained personnel, and the counsels of the elders were handed down for this purpose.

Confirmation of these royal origins is found in the description of Solomon in 1 Kgs 4.2934 (Mt 5.914): His wisdom surpassed that of "all the people of the East and all the wisdom of Egypt." Wisdom is now recognized to have been an international possession. The standards were those set by ancient sages, such as the Egyptians. Solomon became the patron, or "author" of whatever passed for wisdom; hence the attribution of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Wisdom to him; he was the prototype of the sages or hăkāmîm, who arose in Israel. During the monarchical period these men seem not to have been important in Israel's religious development. Thus, Isaiah's reference to them in 29.14 is harsh: When the Lord destroys Israel, their wisdom shall perish (perhaps they were the king's faulty advisers). But his words concerning the Egyptian sages are also threatening (19.1112). Israel's wise men are described by Jeremiah as opposed to the preaching of the Prophets (8.89; cf.18.18).

The paradox of the wisdom movement in Israel is that it reaches its climax when the kingdom no longer exists. All the OT sapiential literature was written in the postexilic period, with the exception of parts of Proverbs ch. 1029 and perhaps a few wisdom Psalms. During this time the sage was a more markedly religious figure, a teacher with a school (Qoheleth, Eccl 12.911; Sirach, Sir 51.23), and "fear of the Lord" was the sapiential commonplace. The author of Proverbs 19 exemplifies this mentality: there is a more clear-cut orientation of the traditional "practical" wisdom to religious ends. The older proverbs had emphasized the solid virtues of diligence, integrity, honesty, and correct social conduct; these still had an important role to play in molding the character of young men, as the sages realized. If they were not always directly relevant to moral decision, they prepared a young man for the crises that involved such decisions. What are the effects of jealousy (Prv 14.30), of pride (Prv 29.23)? To what dangers should one be alerted in social relationships (Sir 8.19.16)? Thus the hard-headed, experiential lessons were put to the service of morality.

Characteristics. The style of the postexilic sages has been aptly characterized by A. Robert as "anthological composition," i.e., they were so permeated with the language of the earlier biblical writings that they borrowed even their very expressions. The process was often unconscious, but sometimes there were deliberate allusions. This style is characteristic of Proverbs 19, Sirach, and Wisdom (which, being written in Greek, depends on the Septuagint).

It is not possible to sum up adequately the wide range of topics that are treated in OT wisdom literature. The emphasis is on the practical: how to act, or not to act, in various situations: savoir faire, savoir vivre. Most often the lesson is founded upon experience. As G. von Rad has pointed out, the proverb is an attempt to master reality (and this includes the mysterious ways of God), to grasp the laws operating in nature and human society and in man himself. And both the popular wisdom and the "educated," stylized insight of the court sage are at one in this.

Retribution. There is a continuing dialogue in one particular area of this literature: retribution and the justice of God. The doctrine in Proverbs and Sirach is frozen: God rewards the good and punishes the evil. This is the traditional theory of the sages, and can be illustrated from almost any chapter of Proverbs (10.4; 11.5, etc.). The sages were aware that this belief was not always easy to accept. In the face of the prosperity of the wicked, they counseled against envy (Prv 3.31; Psalm 36 [37]), and they pointed out the pitfalls awaiting the wicked, all of them in this life, since after death sheol awaited both the good and evil. There was a brave way of interpreting the suffering of the virtuous man: it was the "discipline of the Lord" and not to be disdained, "for whom the Lord loves, he reproves" (Prv 3.1112). But the tradition tended to a mechanical view: suffering was punishment for sin, prosperity was reward for virtue. The author of job wrote his work to demolish this rigid position, yet without himself escaping the traditional framework. ecclesiastes denied that there exist any clear signs of divine approval or disapproval in the government of the world (8.515). The author of Psalm 72 (73) seemed to have reached a solution; he nearly slipped away from his faith, so great was his scandal at the prosperity of the wicked. But he saw that their end is not to be compared with the fate of the virtuous who will always be with God. In other words, man's true good is determined by his relationship with God. The Book of wisdom finally spells this out: justice is immortal (1.15; cf. 3.14; 5.15).

Extra-Biblical Wisdom Literature

The international character of wisdom literature has already been suggested by the court origins of the movement. Proverbs (30.1; 31.1) refers to collections by Agur and Lemuel who were not Jews, and Job is described as an Arab from the land of Us (Jb 1.1). "Wisdom literature," however, is a term vague enough to include both the OT sapiential writings and the related literature of Israel's neighbors, since these are less oriented to religion. Here, what is common to ancient Near Eastern wisdom is pointed out.

Egypt. There are about a dozen extant examples of Egyptian "teaching" (Sebayit ), from the early instruction of Hor-dedef (27th century b.c.) down to the Insinger papyrus of the Ptolemaic period (see J. B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts relating to the Old Testament "2d, rev. ed. Princeton 1955" 405410; 412424, etc.). These are teachings communicated in "father to son" style, and are designed to prepare the son for his duties in life, especially in the court. The Egyptian is concerned with Maat, or justice, which is the order or truth established by God; man's life must be in agreement with Maat. The advice handed down covers a wide range of situations: conduct at table, dealings with superiors and inferiors, friendship, evil women, honesty and reliability, diligence, self-control, etc. The wisdom of Amen-em-Ope bears a striking similarity to Prv 22.1723.11, and it is probable (against E. Drioton) that the Israelite author modeled his 30 sayings on the 30 chapters of Amen-em-Ope. Besides these works of practical wisdom, Egypt produced "onomastica," systematic lists of persons and things in the world of nature. This sort of thing may have been the antecedent of the "nature-wisdom" that is ascribed to Solomon (1 Kgs 4.33; see also A. Alt, Kleine Schriften 2.8999). The problem of the suffering of the righteous man finds a precedent in the Egyptian "Dispute over Suicide" and the "Protest of the Eloquent Peasant," but neither of these is as acute as the Hebrew or Mesopotamian works on the same theme.

Mesopotamia. The studies of S. N. Kramer, J. van Dijk, and E. Gordon have discovered the riches of wisdom literature in ancient Sumer, especially the collections of proverbs (see E. Gordon in Bibliotheca orientalis 17 [1960] 122153). There is little evidence, however, for the royal associations of the wisdom literature in Sumer, except for the "Instructions of Shuruppak," which are the advice of a king to his son (fragments in W. Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature [Oxford 1960] 9294). The Babylonian "Counsels of Wisdom" are in the tradition of the Egyptian Sebayit, the admonitions of a vizier to his son. The story of ahikar is another famous wisdom tale, which originated in Mesopotamia. The theme of Job also is expressed in several works, such as the poem "I will praise the God of Wisdom" (J. B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts relating to the Old Testament [2d, rev. ed. Princeton 1955] 434437), and the "Dialogue of Pessimism" (ibid. 439440) has been compared to Ecclesiastes. While the biblical works are independent of these Mesopotamian writings, they follow in the same tradition, in the same world of thought.

Canaan. Although strong claims for Canaanite sources of Hebrew wisdom have been made (W. F. Albright [Vetus Testamentum Suppl 3; 1955] 115), not very much evidence has as yet been published. Nevertheless, the poetic forms (types of parallelism) and even the phraseology of Ugaritic literature are echoed in Proverbs and elsewhere, and there is some evidence of "Canaanitisms" in Proverbs (see Albright, ibid. ), Job, and some Psalms. The contention of M. Dahood concerning the Phoenician origin and background of Ecclesiastes remains problematical.

Concept of Wisdom

OT wisdom (Heb. okmâ ) is not a univocal concept, nor can its ramifications be schematized. At best one can indicate the wide area within which wisdom is applied at various points in the OT. It describes the ability of an artisan (Ex 36.12), a professional mourner (Jer 9.17), a sailor (Ps 106 [107].27), as well as the royal adviser (Jer 50.35) or the astute matriarch (2 Sm 20.16). Animals (ants, in Prv 30.24) as well as humans are included. But the preferred area is human conduct, the ability to cope with life in all its situations (Proverbs, Sirach, passim ), especially correct moral life, for "fear of the Lord is the beginning [i.e., the chief point] of wisdom" (Prv 1.7; cf.3.7). From this point of view, the wise man is the pious man, equipped with all the moral virtues, and even with a great deal of practical savoir faire. His opposite is the "fool," whose folly is primarily moral, not intellectual. Proverbs is characterized by the moral contrast between the just man and the wicked, between wisdom and folly.

Divine Wisdom. Wisdom is applied to God also, but only rarely and in later books, as M. Noth has pointed out (Vetus Testamentum Suppl 3; [1955] 225237). For some indefinable reason wisdom belongs to the human sphere. Although Yahweh "makes wise," and "gives wisdom," much as He "makes rich" or "gives riches," both of these values belong on the human level. Perhaps there were some early associations about wisdom to prevent Israel from affirming it of God. But eventually it becomes His prerogative (Jb 12.13; Dn 2.20) and is manifest in His creative work (Ps 103 [104].24; Jb 38.37; Prv 3.19). Once this occurs, the pendulum swings to the opposite and wisdom becomes divine.

The "theologizing" or divinization of wisdom is a striking fact in the wisdom movement of Israel. The first significant step is the recognition of the inaccessibility of wisdom. This is paradoxical, in view of the urging of the sages to obtain wisdom (Prv 2.1; etc.). Chapter 28 of Job warns us that wisdom is hid from the eyes of any man: "God knows the way to it" (28.23). Ecclesiastes admits that man cannot discover wisdom (8.1617). God's exclusive knowledge of wisdom is affirmed also in Bar3.1522 and Sir 1.57. Wisdom's inaccessibility is due to the fact that she is with God.

Wisdom Personified. Secondly, wisdom is described as a person (feminine), who is born of God, before creation, in which she herself took part as "craftsman" (Prv 8.30, interpreted by others as "nursling" or "little child"). Such is the picture emerging from Prv 8.2231; Sir 24.312; Wis 7.2526. The personification of wisdom as a woman may be due to several factors, among them the fact that okmâ is a feminine noun. She remains a personification, not a person, just as her opposite is personified as Dame Folly (Prv 9.1318). Her divine origins are shrouded in mystery, for she was begotten before anything was created. The sages struggle for words to express this unique relationship; she is "poured forth." Pseudo-Solomon makes her a consort at God's throne (9.4), a "pure effusion of the glory of the Almighty," "the refulgence of eternal light" (Wis7.2526). It should be noted that wisdom is eventually identified by Sirach as the Torah, the Law (Sir 24.8; Bar4.1). It was by this lawproperly observedthat Israel was to give evidence of its wisdom to the nations who would be compelled to say, "This great nation is a truly wise and intelligent people" (Dt 4.6). The Church Fathers identified this wisdom with the Divine Word, but this point of view is too facile and too much of an over-simplification. The figure of wisdom is not meant to indicate a plurality of persons in God; this is a strictly NT revelation. But it does prepare for the Christian message in that it underlines that God does communicate Himself in some way. The supreme communication, in the NT view, is Christ, whom Paul calls the "wisdom of God" (1 Cor 1.24).

There are other important aspects of the personified wisdom developed by the sages: she leads to life, she is a spouse, and she is associated with the divine spirit. The relationship of wisdom and life is a commonplace in Proverbs ("he who finds me finds life": 8.35). While it is true that the "life" envisioned by the sages was length of days and earthly well-being, the notion of life was something that could developinto the "eternal life" of Wisdom and John. It is not surprising then, that wisdom can be viewed as a spouse. Pseudo-Solomon, in particular, describes his courtship of wisdom: "I sought to take her for my bride and was enamored of her beauty" (Wis8.2; cf. Sir 51.21).

Already in Job there is a certain kinship between wisdom and spirit. Elihu (Jb 32.79) says that wisdom is due to a certain spirit or breath in man. Sirach speaks of the spirit of understanding that God gives to a man who will then "pour forth his words of wisdom" (39.6). Pseudo-Solomon identifies God's "holy spirit" with wisdom in Wis 9.17 (cf. 1.67; 7.7, 22). Hence if the spirit (or breath) of God played an active role in creation (Ps 32[33].6; 103 [104].30), so also did wisdom (Prv 3.19; 8.2231; Wis 7.22; 8.5). Indeed, Pseudo-Solomon describes wisdom as "the holy spirit of discipline," "kindly spirit," and finally as "the spirit of the Lord which fills the world" (Wis 1.57). Finally, the place of wisdom in the messianic era should be noted: the messianic King is to be endowed with "a spirit of wisdom and of understanding" (Is 11.2, the attributes of Yahweh in Jb 12.1314; cf. Is 7.14).

Wisdom in the New Testament

In the NT a certain continuation of the OT wisdom movement may be detected. There are no sapiential books, in the strict sense, although the Epistle of James is in that general tradition. But more importantly, Jesus Himself appears as a wisdom teacher.

Jesus as Wisdom Teacher. In Lk 11.49 and Mt 23.34 it is indicated that Jesus is the "wisdom of God." The sending of prophets, wise men, and scribes is attributed to Jesus ("I" in Matthew), who is identified as the "wisdom of God" (Lk 21.15). Similarly, Jesus and John the Baptist appear as sages in Mt 11.1619 (cf. Lk7.3135): their work is treated lightly by the evil generation that rejects them. The supreme comparison is between Jesus and Solomon, the sage par excellence of the OT (Mt 12.42; Lk 11.31): if the Queen of the South came from the ends of the earth to hear Solomon's wisdom, "behold, a greater than Solomon is here."

This portrayal of Jesus as a sage finds support in many of His sayings that have a sapiential coloring, such as, "Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me" (Mt 11.2829). R. Bultmann analyzes several wisdom sayings of Jesus in The History of the Synoptic Tradition ([Oxford 1962] 69108), where he treats of "Jesus as a wisdom teacher." Despite his skepticism about attributing many of the logia to Christ, the sapiential style of Jesus' sayings is readily admitted by most scholars.

Wisdom in Paul, John, and James. Wisdom plays an important role and assumes various meanings in St. Paul's letters. The most typical Jewish usage is in Rom 11.3334, where "the depth of the riches of the wisdom and the knowledge of God" are praised (cf. "the manifold wisdom of God": Eph 3.10). It is the divine plan of salvation that is meant, by which God has had mercy upon all (Rom 11.32). In 1 Corinthians he is polemicizing against the "wisdom of men" (2.4) that would do away with the cross of Christ (1.17). Whatever be the precise connotation of the Corinthians' wisdom, Paul will have no part of it; he came to them preaching Christ crucifiednot with lofty words of wisdomso that their faith might rest in "the power of God" and not "in the wisdom of men" (2.15). But, paradoxically, this Christ is the "wisdom of God" (1.24).

In Colossians the Pauline understanding of wisdom is different. Here he uses wisdom in an exalted sense, praying that the Colossians "be filled with the knowledge of His [God's] will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding" (1.9). He himself, "teaching every man in all wisdom" (1.28), preaches Christ "in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (2.3).

In Revelation wisdom appears as one of the characteristics of the eschatological age, to be received by the Lamb along with power and wealth (5.12; cf. 7.12). But it is also the gift of insight (13.18), such as is enjoyed by an OT Joseph (Gn 40.8; 41.1213) or Daniel (Dn2.1930), both of whom interpret dreams in virtue of a power from God.

The Epistle of James is the only single NT writing that can be said to approximate the OT sapiential books. He begins by considering the trials that Christians meet (cf. the attitude of the sage in Prv 3.12), and in 1.5 he urges those who lack wisdom to ask it of God (as in Prv2.36; Wis 9.4, Sir 51.14). The entire epistle is didactic and hortatory. In 3.1318 he distinguishes between a wisdom that is "earthly, sensual, devilish" and true wisdom that "is from above." The former is characterized by disorder and strife; but true wisdom is pure, peaceable, etc. There is a completely ethical and practical turn to James's doctrine on wisdom.

Finally, the Johannine development of the theme of Jesus as the wisdom of God should be noted, although it is subtle. The prologue to the Fourth Gospel presents so many contacts with OT wisdom that one can hardly doubt that the Evangelist was rethinking much of the traditional sapiential heritage in presenting Jesus as the logos, or Word. A convenient list of parallels has been drawn up by C. H. Dodd (The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel [Cambridge 1953] 274275), and he remarks that one can hardly doubt that "the idea of the immanence of Wisdom in men, making them friends of God, provides a kind of matrix in which the idea of incarnation might be shaped." M. Boismard (Saint John's Prologue [Westminster, Md. 1957] 7476) has pointed out that the sequence of thought in Jn 1.118 follows the pattern found in the OT description of personified wisdom. In Proverbs 8 and Sirach 24 wisdom describes herself in this order: as close to God, as playing a role in creation, as dwelling among men, and as bestowing benefits upon men. The same order is reflected in John's prologue: Jn 1.1 (the Word was God), 1.3 (everything was made by the Word),1.914 (the Word came into the world), and 1.1218 (the Word brought the grace of sonship, and grace and truth).

John 6, the discourse on the Bread of Life, is also reminiscent of OT wisdom themes, as A. Feuillet and R. Dillon (Catholic Biblical Quarterly 24 [1962] 268296) have pointed out. Jesus interprets the miracle of the loaves in a manner that recalls the interpretation of the manna miracle in Wis 16.2026. In both, the bread from heaven is the word of God sent from above, which believers eat as a divine nourishment in contrast to those who would understand the bread of heaven as merely bodily food. Moreover, the banquet offered by wisdom (Sir 24.1821; 15.3) is akin to the nourishment offered by the Johannine Christ. In the Cana story also the bread and wine of wisdom's banquet are the background for the Johannine symbolism.

Bibliography: Old Testament. j. l. crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom (Atlanta 1981); ed., Studies in Ancient Israelite Wisdom (New York 1976). c. r. fontaine, Traditional Sayings in the Old Testament (Sheffield 1982). r. e. murphy, "Wisdom Literature," Forms of Old Testament Literature (Grand Rapids 1981). g.t. sheppard, "Wisdom as a Hermeneutical Construct," Beibefte zur Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 151 (Berlin 1980). p. w. skehan, Studies in Israelite Poetry and Wisdom, Catholic Biblical Quarterly Monograph Series 1 (Washington 1971). g. von rad, Wisdom in Israel (Nashville 1972). r. n. whybray, "The Intellectual Tradition in the Old Testament," Beibefte zur Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 135 (Berlin 1974). j. williams, Those Who Ponder Proverbs (Sheffield 1981). Extra-Biblical Literature. b. alster, The Instructions of Suruppak (Copenhagen 1975). r. braun, "Kohelet und die frühhellenistische Popular-Philosophie," Beibefte zur Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 130 (Berlin 1973). c. larcher, "Études sur le livre de la Sagesse," Études bibliques (Paris 1969). m. lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature 3 v. (Berkeley 197580). j. reese, Hellenistic Influence on the Book of Wisdom and Its Consequences, Analecta biblica 41 (Rome 1970). New Testament. w. beardslee, Literary Criticism of the New Testament (Philadelphia 1970). j. d. crossan, Cliffs of Fall (New York 1980); In Fragments (New York 1983). p. perkins, Hearing the Parables of Jesus (New York 1981). b. scott, Jesus, Symbol-Maker for the Kingdom (Philadelphia 1981). In general, see The Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. r. e. brown et al. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J. 1968). Full surveys and bibliography are available in r. e. murphy, "Hebrew Wisdom," Journal of the American Oriental Society 101 (1981) 2134, and in j. l. crenshaw, "The Wisdom Literature," The New Hebrew Bible and Its Modern Interpreters, eds. d. a. knight and g.m. tucker (Philadelphia 1985).

[r. e. murphy]

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Wisdom (in the Bible)." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 24 Sep. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Wisdom (in the Bible)." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 24, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/wisdom-bible

"Wisdom (in the Bible)." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Retrieved September 24, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/wisdom-bible

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.