The so-called Wisdom literature

The Hebrew Bible does not use the category or term of “wisdom literature,” just as it did not use the classification or phrase “historical books.” Thus I prefer to use the name of “so-called wisdom literature” in reference to these seven biblical books. The Jewish Hebrew Bible refers to the historical books as prophetic, Nevi’im, while these wisdom literature books are listed among the writings, the Ketuvim. However, the term “Sapiential Books” or “Wisdom Literature” has been widely used as a reference for some books of the Jewish Bible in the Greek Septuagint version.

These sapiential books are in the broad tradition of popular wisdom literature that was prevalent in the Ancient Near East, especially among scribal circles. A variety of religious writings are sometimes called books of wisdom. We even at times refer to the whole Bible itself as a book of wisdom. This generic wisdom literature tries to teach about heavenly matters, gods, and virtues. While using some story-telling, these books presume to offer insight and wisdom about nature and reality. They try to teach us about life and morality. Today we might call them “self-help” books. They are somewhat like philosophical works with lots of simple generic statements. These kinds of ancient elite writings were directed towards young men who would take up careers in royal courts.

The most famous example of this wisdom literature is actually found in the Bible. In the Christian version of the Old Testament of the Bible, the following specific seven books are classified as biblical wisdom literature. (1) The Book of Job, (2) Psalms, (3) The Book of Proverbs and (4) Ecclesiastes are included in all versions of the Christian Old Testament. However, (5) The Book of Wisdom, (6) Song of Songs and (7) Sirach or Ecclesiasticus are regarded in some Christian traditions as deutero-canonical since they only appear in the Greek Septuagint.

These biblical post-Exilic writers of the wisdom tradition developed the idea that wisdom existed before creation since God used wisdom to create the universe. Borrowing ideas from Greek philosophers who held that reason bound the universe together, the wisdom tradition taught that God’s wisdom, word, and Spirit were the grounds of cosmic unity.  Christianity, in turn, adopted these ideas and applied them to Jesus. In fact, the prologue to the Gospel of John identifies Jesus with the creative word.

Wisdom means both a way of thinking and a body of knowledge, as well as the practical ability to apply it to life. Can this wisdom be attained through human effort or only as a gift from God?  This kind of wisdom literature was not confined to the Israelite biblical writers or to Israel. In fact, this wisdom literature had an influence on the works of the Gnostics in 1st and 2nd centuries (CE) during the early Christian era. Some of these Gnostic groups believed that knowledge alone would save people.

Wisdom, or the wise person, is often compared and contrasted with foolishness or the fool, someone one who is lacking in wisdom and uninterested in instruction, not one who is merely silly or playful. In the biblical sapiential wisdom literature, wisdom was synonymous with the fear of God. They praise wisdom, but remind the reader that wisdom has its limitations and is not man’s main concern. The journey to knowledge is incomplete, although the journey itself is important.

There is some confusion about the names of these books. The Book of Wisdom of Solomon should not be confused with the Wisdom of Sirach or Ecclesiasticus.  The Proverbs of Solomon is not the same as the Book of Wisdom of Solomon. Ecclesiasticus is not to be confused with Ecclesiastes.  Ecclesiasticus is commonly called the Wisdom of Sirach or simply Sirach.  Ecclesiastes was written by a Hebrew Qoheleth, meaning teacher or preacher. Both these books, Ecclesiasticus and Ecclesiastes, literally mean a Church book. One is accepted as canonical by all, Ecclesiastes, while the other Ecclesiasticus is not accepted because of its later Greek Septuagint status.

1) The Hebrew Book of Job belongs to this so-called wisdom literature. Several texts from ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt also offered parallels to the story of this non-Jewish person called Job and his search for the meaning of suffering.

2) Psalms falls into the so-called poetic or wisdom literature.   The English title Psalms is derived from a literal translation of the Greek psyalmoi, meaning instrumental music, as these words were accompanied with music. About half of the psalms have been attributed to King David.

3) The Book of Proverbs is based on the Hebrew word mashal that was translated into the Septuagint Greek as παροιμίες and finally into the Latin Vulgate and English as proverbs. These proverbs were part of the wisdom literature that was widespread throughout Egypt and Mesopotamia. However, the biblical proverbs leave the impression of being family instructions. For the most part, Proverbs, often attributed to King Solomon, offers a simplistic view of life with few grey areas. Much of this wisdom appeals to human reason and observation.

4) Ecclesiastes is one of the Ketuvim or Writings of the Hebrew Bible. Among the Christian Old Testament books it appears with the wisdom literature books. The titleEcclesiastes is a Latin translation of the Greek έκκλασία, based on the Hebrew Qoheleth, meaning teacher or preacher, something like one who convenes or addresses an assembly. Qoheleth may also have been influenced by the Greek schools of Stoicism and Epicureanism. He proclaims that all the actions of humans are vain.

5) The Song of Songs love story has parallels with the pastorals of Theocritus, a Greek poet who wrote in the first half of the 3rd century BCE. However, it also shows the influence of earlier Mesopotamian and Egyptian love-poetry from the first half of the 1st millennium.

6) The Book of Wisdom is like Proverbs in poetic style. This Book of Wisdom of Solomonis not one of the books of the Hebrew Bible, but is included in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Bible because of its place in the Greek Septuagint. This book was an encouragement to help refute any compromise with idolatry with a strong condemnation of false idols. The later part of this book portrays and reflects on the Israelites and their arguments and disputes with the Egyptians. The power of God is shown throughout this work.

7) Ecclesiasticus is not to be confused with Ecclesiastes since it is commonly called the Wisdom of Sirachor simply  It too was not in the Hebrew Bible just like the Book of Wisdom, but in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Bible because of its place in the Greek Septuagint. This is an extremely long book that ends with a history of the famous Israelite leaders.

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