Wisdom, Book of

views updated


Biblical book written when Judaism faced a serious crisis in the 2d and 1st centuries b.c. because of its failure to enter the mainstream of Greek wisdom. Defense of the Jewish way of life is the objective of this book.

Background and Nature. The Book of Wisdom was written in Greek for Greek-speaking Jews. The large colony in Alexandria was probably the immediate audience. The political persecution and oppression suffered there inspired an anonymous Jew of deep religious spirit to defend Judaism from the attacks leveled against it and to encourage his coreligionists to fidelity to that wisdom that gives meaning to life. Proselytism, however, is not outside his intention (Wis 18.4). The author writes in the name of King solomon. This is a literary fiction intended to give the book authority. Addressing those "who judge the earth" (1.1) and "kings" (6.1) is part of the same literary device. The kings are really those who embrace divine wisdom; this leads to a kingdom (6.1). see wisdom (in the bible).

The author's acquaintance with Greek philosophy is apparent in his use of some of its terms. Alexandria, where Greek wisdom flourished, could well have provided the philosophical knowledge. The Egyptian backgroundpreoccupation with Egyptian idolatry and Israel's slavery prior to the Exoduspoints also to Alexandria. The Greek original reveals an author capable of writing according to the rhetorical standards of Alexandria. The book was written c. 100 b.c. or at least sometime shortly thereafter.

Literary Form and Organization. The Book of Wisdom is an exhortation in meditative form. The reflection follows different lines, as is seen in the various approaches found in the distinct parts of the book. Chapters 19 make a case for Hebrew wisdom by the method called anthological (borrowing thoughts and phrases from Biblical books and setting them in a sapiential context). The pattern of thought remains entirely Jewish even though there is a real attempt to use whatever Greek thought had to offer. The result is not a systematic theology, but a theology that strings together whatever earlier Scriptures could contribute to the subject matter. Chapters 1012 and 1619 are haggadic midrash. The Exodus narrative is exploited and given meaning for the author's contemporaries. Midrash does not merely copy the older Scripture, but gives a commentary. It handles the data freely, adding, subtracting, and exaggerating, to give it new life. The deliverance of the Jews from Egyptian slavery in the past was admirably suited to the author's purpose. Chapters 1315 form a distinct literary piece. They are parenthetical and constitute a satire on idolatry. Ridicule and irony are effectively used to disarm the religion of Hellenism.

The book's unity has been questioned. Despite the variety in forms and, to an extent, in language, the unity is generally upheld. Some suggest that the same writer composed ch. 1119 separately (perhaps as a Passover haggadah, the commentary for a Passover meal) and later added it to his anthological reflection on wisdom. Chapter 10 does form a neat transition between the two parts.

Content and Teaching. The book is often divided into three parts to outline its content. After an introduction exhorting the reader to embrace wisdom (1.115), the desirability of striving for it is established by referring to the end to which wisdom leads (1.165.23), its nature (ch. 69), and its historical justification in the lives of Israel's heroes and the life of the nation (ch. 1019).

Life, union with God, is the lot of the just (2.23). Death, separation from God, is the lot of the wicked (1.16; 2.24). Traditional views on retribution are swept aside. Numerous offspring (3.104.6) and a long life (4.719) are not necessarily signs of God's favor; moreover, virtue is what God rewards. The manner of life with God is not defined. Neither the immateriality of the soul nor the resurrection of the dead enters into the perspective of the future life. Eternal life is envisioned as an entering of God's court, joining the "sons of god"(5.5).

Chapters 69 explore the nature of wisdom. Personified wisdom is said to come forth as an emanation from God to communicate herself in the physical and moral order (7.258.1). Her greatest activity is in the souls of men, whom she makes friends of God (7.27). This personification is literary and is not a revelation of wisdom as a person distinct from God.

Chapters 1012 and 1619 show the special providence of God in Israel's history. A sevenfold antithesis makes up the midrash on Exodus. The historical reflection specifies God's ways with man. Thus God uses one and the same thing now for helping man, now for punishing him (11.5); God punishes man by the very things through which man sins (11.16); God is merciful in punishment (12.1); the universe fights in behalf of the just (16.17).

The parenthetical development of ch. 1315 analyzes different forms of idolatry. The powerless, lifeless gods of the pagan world are no match for the living God of Israel. In 13.19 is a beautiful summary of creation's role in bringing men to a knowledge of God.

Christian Use. The Book of Wisdom has been called the bridge between the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Church's use of the book from apostolic times makes the title accurate. John and Paul found no better source to express the new revelation of God's Son than the pages of this book. The Word made flesh, the highest communication of divine wisdom to the world, was presented in terms of the poem of 7.228.1. The spirit of God of which the book speaks (1.7, 9.17) was then seen clearly also as a divine person manifesting the power and the life of God. The great popularity of this book among Christians played its part in the Jewish refusal to admit it into the canon. But its language and late origin also were factors in this judgment.

See Also: sapiential books.

Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, translated and adapted by l. hartman (New York, 1963) 258991. j. fichtner, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 195765) 5:134344. j. reider, The Book of Wisdom: An English Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New York 1957). É. osty, Le Livre de la Sagesse (BJ 20; 1950). j. fischer, Das Buch der Weisheit (Echter Bibel: Altes Testament, ed. f. nÖtscher 1950). p. w. skehan, "Isaias and the Teaching of the Book of Wisdom," The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 2 (Washington, DC 1940) 289299; "Borrowings from the Psalms in the Book of Wisdom," ibid. 10 (1948) 384397. r. t. siebeneck, "The Midrash of Wisdom1019," ibid. 22 (1960) 176182. j. p. weisengoff, "Death and Immortality in the Book of Wisdom," ibid. 3 (1941) 104133. m. delcor, "L'Immortalité de l'âme dans le Livre de la Sagesse et dans les documents de Qumrân," Nouvelle revue théologique 77 (Tournai-Louvain-Paris 1955) 614630. a. m. dubarle, "Une Source du Livre de la Sagesse," Revue des sciences philosophiques et théologiques 37 (Paris 1953) 425443. g. ziener, "Weisheitsbuch und Johannesevangelium," Biblica 38 (1957) 396418; 39 (1958) 3760.

[r. t. siebeneck]

About this article

Wisdom, Book of

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article