Book of Wisdom
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The Book of Wisdom (also known as the Wisdom of Solomon or simply Wisdom) is one of the Deuterocanonical books of the Bible. It is one of the seven sapiential books of the Septuagint Old Testament, which includes Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon (Song of Songs), and Ecclesiasticus (Sirach).
According to Saint Melito in the second century C.E., the Book of Wisdom was considered to be canonical by Jews and Christians, and a Hebrew translation of the Wisdom of Solomon is mentioned by Nahmanides in the preface to his commentary on the Pentateuch.
The book is believed to have been written in Greek, but in a style patterned on that of Hebrew verse. Although the author's name is nowhere given in the text, the writer was traditionally believed to have been King Solomon because of unmistakable references such as that found in IX:7-8, "Thou hast chosen me to be a king of thy people, and a judge of thy sons and daughters: Thou hast commanded me to build a temple upon thy holy mount..." The formulation here is similar to that of Ecclesiastes I:12, "I, Koheleth, was king in Jerusalem over Israel," which also fails to denote Solomon by name, but leaves no doubt as to whom the reader should identify as the author. However, the traditional attribution of The Book of Wisdom to Solomon has been soundly rejected in modern times. Says the Catholic Encyclopedia: "at the present day, it is freely admitted that Solomon is not the writer of the Book of Wisdom, which has been ascribed to him because its author, through a literary fiction, speaks as if he were the Son of David."
Although purported to have the same author as Ecclesiastes, the Book of Wisdom's beliefs about the afterlife are significantly different. Chapter II, in particular, seems to be in direct response to the futilism of Ecclesiastes: "For they (the ungodly, in KJV) said within themselves, reasoning not aright, short and sorrowful is our life; And there is no remedy when a man cometh to his end" (Wis. 2:1). Compare this, for example, with Ecclesiastes VI:12, "For whom knoweth what is good for man in this life, all the days of his vain life which he spendeth as a shadow? For whom can tell a man what shall be after him under the sun." It is clear that if not a direct response to the text of Ecclesiastes, the Book of Wisdom is at least taking issue with the philosophy of uncertainty and despair that Koheleth appears to preach.
In its place, the Book of Wisdom offers the much more traditional and pious philosophy that trust and fear of God provide the path to redemption (e.g., Wis. V:15) "But the righteous live for evermore; their reward also is with the Lord, and the care of them is with the most High." This is not the only such rejection of Koheleth's philosophy to be found in the Apocrypha. Ben Sira offers a direct rebuttal to the intellectualism of Koheleth's quest to "seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven" (Ecc. I:13). Ben Sira writes, "Seek not out the things that are too hard for thee, neither search the things that are above thy strength. But what is commanded thee, think upon with reverence; for it is not needful for thee to see with thine eyes the things that are in secret. Be not curious in unnecessary matters: for more things are shewed unto thee than men understand" (Ben Sirah 3:21-23).
The philosophical influences on the Book of Wisdom may include those of classical and Middle-Platonism. Some religious and ethical influences may stem from Stoicism, also found in the writings of the Alexandrian Jew, Philo, to whom Book of Wisdom has on occasion been wrongly attributed. This is evident in the use of the four Stoic ideals which are borrowed from Plato. A sorites (polysyllogism) appears in Chapter 6 (v. 17-20). This logical form is also called chain-inference, "of which the Stoics were very fond."
One passage (Wis. 8:2-18) has notable similarity to Virtue's speech to Heracles in Xenophon's Memorabilia, Book 2, 1:37.
Relation to other Jewish writings
Although the Book of Wisdom is non-canonical in the Jewish tradition, the work was at least known to medieval Jews, as Ramban attests. That it was known to ancient Jews as well is also true, as that was the milieu of its composition.
According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, the last section of the Book of Wisdom (9:18-19:22) is devoid of all connection with what precedes it. The speaker is no longer Solomon, but the author or the saints (16:28, 18:6 et passim), who recite the history of Israel's redemption from Egypt and other enemies. Furthermore, the words are not addressed to the kings of the earth (9:18; 10:20; 11:4, 9, 17, 21; et passim), but to God, the deliverer from the Red Sea. The whole section appears to be part of a Passover Haggadah recited in Egypt with reference to Gentile surroundings, and it, accordingly, abounds in haggadic passages of an ancient character.
The ideas that the Book of Wisdom in Chapter II puts in the mouths of the "ungodly," presumably the Epicureans, bears strong literary resemblance to a prominent passage from the Jewish High Holiday liturgy, "Man begins from dust and ends in dust" (אדם יסודו מעפר וסופו לעפר) from the Unetanneh Tokef prayer (cf. Genesis 3:19: כי עפר אתה ואל עפר תשוב). The relevant verses from Book of Wisdom (II:2-5) read in part, "the breath in our nostrils is as smoke... our body shall be turned to ashes, and our spirit shall vanish as the soft air... our life shall pass away as the trace of a cloud... and shall be dispersed as a mist... for our time is a very shadow that passeth away." The Unetanneh Tokef prayer seems to offer a close parallel: "As to man, his origin is dust and his end is dust... he is like a broken vessel of clay, like withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shadow, a drifting cloud, a fleeting breath, scattering dust, a transient dream."
If this similarity is more than a coincidence or the common citation of a third text, such as Isaiah 40:7, it would not be the only instance of Apocryphal influences on the Jewish liturgy. Elements of Ben Sira are also found in the High Holiday service and other prayers.
Messianic interpretation by Christians
The Book of Wisdom contains verses that personify the concept of Wisdom with divine attributes. These verses have long been taken by Christian exegetes as references to Christ, who is called the "Wisdom of God" (1 Cor. 1:24) by Saint Paul the Apostle. For example, in chapter seven, Wisdom is said to be “the fashioner of all things” (v. 22), “an associate in his [God’s] works” (8:4), and a “pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty” (7:25). For Christians, the most definite indication that personified Wisdom refers to the Messiah is the paraphrasing of Wis 7:26 in Heb 1:3a. Wis 7:26 says that “she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness.” The author of Hebrews says of Christ: “He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power” (Hebrews 1:3).
Christians also interpret the Book of Wisdom to include a prophecy of Christ’s passion. First, the ungodly men are described (Wis 1:16-2:9), followed by their plotting against the righteous man (2:10-20). The passage describes in detail the treatment of Jesus by the Jewish authorities. The first indication for Christians that it is a prophecy of the Messiah is in verse 11. Where the RSV reads weak, the Greek has achrestos, a play on the title Christos. Verse 12 is a quote of the LXX version of Is 3:10; Is 3:10 has been taken to refer to Jesus since the first-century Epistle of Barnabas. On the whole, this treatment of the suffering of the righteous man is heavily indebted to Isaiah; particularly the fourth Suffering Servant song (Isaiah 52:13-53:12). Verse 13 uses pais (child, or servant), from Isaiah 52:13. Verse 15 says his very sight is a burden, referencing Isaiah 53:2. In verse 16, he calls God his father, which is thought to be based on a poor understanding of pais as in Isaiah 52:13. Verse 18 is comparable to Is 42:1. Verse 19 makes reference to Isaiah 53:7. A final reference to the Messiah is the righteous man’s “shameful death” in verse 20. This death has been identified with Jesus’ death on a cross, a cursed death hanging on a tree.
The Gospel of Matthew contains allusions to the Book of Wisdom. Parallels between this book and the Gospel of Matthew include the theme of testing, and the mocking of a servant of God's claim to be protected by God. Matthew's gospel teaches that Jesus is the suffering servant of God. (Compare Wis. 2:17-18 with Mt. 27:43).
- New Advent: Church History Book IV Retrieved May 25, 2008.
- New American Bible: The Book of Wisdom Retrieved May 25, 2008.
- New Advent: Book of Wisdom Retrieved May 25, 2008.
- James R. Royse, The Spurious Texts of Philo of Alexandria: A Study of Textual Transmission and Corruption, with Indexes to the Major Collections of Greek Fragments. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1991.
- Zeller, Stoics, p. 216 note.
- Robert Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 95.
- Wilken, 119.
- M. Suggs, “Wisdom of Solomon 2:10-5,” Journal of Biblical Literature 76:1 (March 1957): 30.
- David Winston, op. cit., 120. W.F. Albright, Matthew: The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1979), 348.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- This article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia article, "Wisdom of Solomon" by Kaufmann Kohler, a publication now in the public domain.
- Law, Philip and Adrian Plass. The Wisdom of Solomon. Westminster John Knox Press, 2000. ISBN 978-0664222093
- Royse, James R. The Spurious Texts of Philo of Alexandria: A Study of Textual Transmission and Corruption, with Indexes to the Major Collections of Greek Fragments. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1991.
- Suggs, M. “Wisdom of Solomon 2:10-5,” Journal of Biblical Literature 76(1) (March 1957): 30.
- Winston, David. The Wisdom of Solomon: The Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday, 1979.
- Wilken, Robert. The Spirit of Early Christian Thought. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.
All links retrieved February 8, 2022.
- The Book of Wisdom - Latin Vulgate with Douay-Rheims version side-by-side.
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