The Primacy of Christ and Wisdom Literature

Luiz Ruscillo FAITH Magazine January-February 2007

Christ the Fulfilment of Wisdom

‘The Church, as early as apostolic times, and then constantly inher Tradition, has illuminated the unity of the divine plan in the twoTestaments through typology, which discerns in God’s works of the OldCovenant prefigurations of what he accomplished in the fullness of timein the person of his incarnate son.’[1]

We are familiar with the idea that Christ came to fulfil the Law and the Prophets. Less common is the appreciation that Christ completes the movement of theological thought which is expressed in the body of Old Testament writing described as Wisdom Literature. Yet the Gospel writers and St Paul use the concepts and imagery of the sages to develop a theology of Christ as Lord of revelation and creation to an astonishing degree in a very short period of time. Within decades of the death of Jesus of Nazareth his followers are committing to writing their insight that he is creating wisdom personified.

Introduction to Wisdom Literature

The origins of the wisdom movement in Israel’s thought and writing are lost in the mists of time. In the Ancient Near East (ANE) wisdom literature[2] can be found in all the cultures surrounding Israel. In Egypt the beginnings are very ancient and the writings span over two millennia. Most of these are instructional in style though some contain speculative disputes. The most ancient work is the Instruction to Ptahotep dating from around 2400 BC. The Egyptian composition with the greatest similarities to biblical wisdom literature is the Instruction of Amen-emo-pe (1200 BC) which closely resembles overbs (Pr) 22,17-24. Mesopotamia also produced extensive works of precepts, useful maxims, taunts and speculations particularly on the humancondition. Some of them are similar to Job and Ecclesiastes at least in theme. Other associations can be seen between Canaanite texts (Ugarit) and Judges and Proverbs, and possibly Syrian writings and the book of Numbers. Hellenistic thought and vocabulary also had an influence on later biblical writings.

The Wisdom Books of the Old Testament are generally considered to be Proverbs, Ecclesiastes (Qoheleth), Job, (some) Psalms, Ecclesiasticus (Wisdom of Ben Sirach) and Wisdom of Solomon. Some passages of Tobit and Baruch are also included[3]. This is not to say that the wisdom movement is unknown elsewhere in the Bible. Other books contain traces of wisdom literature. Furthermore, the figure of the sage is already established at the time of David. It is not inconceivable that both Joseph and Moses already had been exposed to Egyptian wisdom. Solomon, David’s son, is held to be the ‘Patron Sage’ of those who seek wisdom. It is generally considered that the wisdom movement was brought into Israel through contact with the cultures of thesurrounding peoples. Solomon’s reign (971-932 BC) was very cosmopolitan with close cultural links with all his neighbours. At the time of the exile in Babylon (587-537 BC) Jewish thinkers were exposed to Babylonian wisdom literature. The Hellenists exerted considerable influence from the time ofAlexander the Great (c. 330 BC).

What is remarkable is that in its treatment of the classical secular and humanist wisdom themes, Biblical wisdom literature set them in the context of its own received revelation and spirituality. For the ancient near-easterner wisdom is practical. It has to do with human experience, conduct and skills. The context may be in the lofty surroundings of the king’s court or in the more humble realm of family and commerce. It is a universal discipline which is not concerned with nationality and particular religions. The wise person reflects on the things of nature, wonders at its order, beauty and diversity, and attempts to list and categorise what he sees. He seeks to conduct his life in such a way that he obtains happiness. Every skilled expert, be it in sailing the seas or working withwood, is a sage. But the greatest sage of all is the expert in good living.

Wisdom and the Destiny of the Individual

If the prophets concerned themselves with the lot and destiny of God’s people, the wise person is primarily interested in the life of the individual. In this sense he is an existentialist in that he reflects on man’s situation in the whole of reality and his ultimate destiny. He seeks to fathom the meaning of existence itself. Central to this thought is the concept of retribution. Reward and punishment are understood to be a matter of justice. Through just retribution, wisdom brings prosperity and folly brings disaster. The great promise of wisdom is fullness of life. In this respect it is of the same mind as the Deuteronomist, that there is the way of blessing and life and alternatively the way of curse and death. It was the role of the prophets constantly to call the people to accountand show them the way which would bring blessing. For the Deuteronomist and the prophets the key was to choose God. For the sage it was to choose wisdom.

The more courageous wisdom traditions realised that the simplistic rule of retribution, expressed through reward or punishment consequent on one's way of life, was seen not to hold in reality. The books of Job and Ecclesiastes confront this problem with astounding honesty unique in ancient near eastern literature. Other similar wisdom writings ask the same questions but fail to follow logic to its devastating conclusion. Although neither Job nor Ecclesiastes find an easy solution to their greatest dilemma, still despair does not triumph. On the contrary, they begin to explore the depths of the mystery which is man’s relationship with God. It is a mystery which brings Job to silence and Qoheleth to recognition of the vanity of human self-sufficiency. Only with the book of Wisdom and thedevelopment of a belief and understanding in an afterlife does a solution begin to emerge. In prophetic literaturea similar, almost parallel, development can be seen. The hard evidence of the people’s experience after returning from the exile was that the blessings of God, promised in the covenant, would never be fully realised. The prophetic tradition reflecting on this mystery gradually spiritualised and universalised the covenant promises. The promises were developed into the expectation of the Day of the Lord and the advent of the Messiah. As prophecy awaited the Messiah to re-establish the Covenant, Wisdom looked to the afterlife to bring about just retribution. It could be said that when the two currents of prophetic and wisdom thought met, they produced that genre which we callapocalyptic literature. Daniel is the natural heir of both.

The Sages as Successors of the Prophets

Biblical Wisdom did not differ from that of the surrounding cultures except in its honesty and courage. The major difference is its total immersion in the revelation and spirituality of Israel. Solomon is the best example. He receives Wisdom as a gift while still a young man. It is not something which he acquires through study, experience and age. He prays for it. Wisdom is more than a key to right living and achieving prosperity. It is the key to the divine plan behind all of creation (Pr 8-9; 30,2-4;). The sage is inspired as well as the prophet. The prophet is given the ‘word’ and called to speak it to the whole people. The sage is given wisdom and is called to apply that light to reflection on human experience and all existence.

Although the theme of retribution, mentioned briefly above, produces some of the most powerful and well known writing in wisdom literature, there are two other themes which will be the subject of this paper: the personification of Wisdom and the role of Wisdom in creation. These are the areas which have inspired so much of New Testament Christology. This is not surprising when the ‘activities’ of wisdom are listed. Wisdom is present at creation (Pr 3,19; 8,27-31; Si 24,5), governs the universe (Ws 8,1), plays a part in salvation history (Si 24,7-19), is identified with the Torah (Si 24,23-34), in providence directs history (Ws 10,1-11,14), resides among men (Pr 8,31; Ba 3,37), assures salvation (Ws 9,18). God acts through Wisdom as He does through His Spirit (Ws 9,17) and intimacy withWisdom is hardly distinguishable from intimacy with God (Ws 7,7-14; Pr 3,13-26).

Personification of Wisdom

Personification as a literary tool is not rare in the Bible. In fact we find a number of occurrences in the book of Proverbs itself. Wine is personified in Pr 20,1 and of course folly in Pr 9,13-18. Simple personification as a literary tool can be found in Pr 14,1 where Wisdom is said to build a house and Folly pulls it down. Wisdom is also presented as the object of desire, a mother toones children and even a wife (Si 14,22-15,10). What makes the personification of Wisdom so remarkable is the intensity, quality and quantity of certain principal texts. They are Pr 1.8.9; Si 24; Ba 3,9-4,4; Ws 7-9. As we shall see, these writings have moved beyond the realm of personification as figure of speech into something much deeper.

Wisdom as the Direct Voice of God

In Pr 1 Wisdom speaks in the first person, addressing the people in the fashion of the prophets. There is, however, one very important difference. Wisdom speaks of herself. The people are not admonished because they have rejected God, as the prophets would proclaim. They are rebuked because they have refused to listen to Wisdom herself.

Pr 8 is the longest passage personifying Wisdom and the most detailed. It seems to be in four parts:

1-11 Wisdom calls
12-21 Wisdom identifies herself as guide
22.31 Wisdom identifies herself as creator
32.36 Wisdom calls
The first and last sections are the invitation to receive Wisdom. She is at the crossroads and at the gateways beckoning all ‘sons of men’, even the fools. If they choose her way and enter her gates then life and favour await. In the middle sections Wisdom talks of herself. Vv. 12-21 contain three occurrences of a peculiar construction normally reserved for God when He speaks. ‘I + abstract noun’ without the verb ‘to be’ expressed. Thus we read in v. 12 ‘I (am) Wisdom’; in v.14 ‘I (am) Understanding’; in v. 17 ‘I (am) Love’. It is similar to Dt 32,39 which reads, ‘I (am) He.’ Pr 8 is using divine terms and, in a sense, adivine construction in the mouth of Wisdom to describe herself.

We will return to the third section (vv. 22-31) when we look at Wisdom and its relationship to creation.

Pr 9 presents Wisdom as the perfect host who offers meat and drink and life. She is contrasted with Folly who invites the foolish only to the shadows of Sheol.

In Si 24 Wisdom is seen to have her origin in God from all eternity. She searched for a dwelling and was directed by God Himself to reside in Israel. Israel is described as God’s inheritance and Wisdom is to make Israel her inheritance too. There are striking similarities with covenant theology here. Through the covenant Israel is elected by God from the beginning to be His possession.

Wisdom as Divine Presence and ProvidenceThe assertion is that it is part of the blessing of the covenant that Wisdom is given to Israel. Like the covenant itself, Wisdom’s presence brings blessings. Indeed, Wisdom is directly identified with the Law itself, ‘the book of the covenant of the Most High.’ (v. 23) This identification was already made in Ps 19,7 and Dt 4,6-8.

Ba 3,9-4,4 makes a similar identification of Wisdom with the Law and the blessings which her presence brings.

Ws 7-9 develops even further the qualities of Wisdom. She is a spirit who fills the world (Ws 7,7.22) and reaches from end to end mightily (Ws 8,1). She is an effusion of divine glory, the refulgence of eternal light (Ws 7,25-26) even sharing the divine throne (Ws 9,4). Her relationship to God could not be expressed more intimately in Old Testament terms. At the same time she has entered into the very lives of men (Ws 7,27).

Wisdom has come to be regarded as a semi-independent power. She is the intermediary between God and the world. By identifying Wisdom and the Law, Ecclesiasticus brought wisdom literature into the mainstream of the covenant tradition. So close and familiar with God, still she shares in the lives of men. Earlier wisdom literature expressed the awareness of the distance between man and God, between the wisdom possessed by men and that possessed by God. Gradually it comes to understand and to express that this gulf is spanned from God’s side through the agency of the divine Wisdom who takes residence and possession of Israel.

Wisdom and Creation

The whole of Wisdom literature and theology can be described as ‘creation theology’.[4] The wise person reflected on all aspects of creation, earth, plants, animals and humanity. God’s work can be seen in the animals (Jb 12,7-9) and even the behaviour of the beasts finds comparisons, or can teach lessons, to humans (Pr 30,15-31). G von Rad comments:

‘the most characteristic feature of [Israel’s]understanding of reality lay, in the first instance, in the fact that she believed man to stand in a quite specific, highly dynamic existential relationship withhis environment.’[5]

Yet experience of his environment and observation of human relationships are not the only things that creation offers. As we read in Ps 19, creation is understood to communicate the glory of God to man. It can even be understood as the expression of God’s government of the world as we read in Jb 38-41. The mediation betweenJANUARY/FEBRUARY 2007 faith God and man through creation is made possible throughthe mysterious activity of Wisdom.

Wisdom as Foundation of Creation

The key text which expresses this mystery is Pr 8,22-31 which was identified above as the third section of chapter 8 in which Wisdom identifies herself as creator.

This text was the centre of great controversy during the Arian crisis. The Arians took v. 22 to mean that God created Wisdom. Tertullian, Justin and Origen used this same text in different ways to show the distinction of Wisdom from God. The pivotal term, qnh, in Hebrew, means ‘to acquire, get, originate, create’. Its translation in the Septuagint, ktizé, means ‘to build, found, establish, create’. The sense of the verse is better communicated by the term ‘establish’ or ‘possess’ or even ‘ordain’. Thus v. 22 reads, ‘YHWH ordained me the first principle of His ways.’ The next verses, up to and including v. 26, speak of Wisdom pre-existing the creation. She was present with God before the earth or the water or even the chaos existed.

Vv. 27-31 tell of the place and role of Wisdom in creation itself. The references to ‘fixing the heavens’ and ‘circling the face of the deep’ apply to the creation account in Gn 1. This is further emphasised by the six line account of creation (vv. 27-29) beginning with the heavens and ending with the earth. As we read in Genesis, ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,’ (Gn 1,1) and Pr 8 could not state any more clearly that Wisdom was present and working in that moment as ‘the master craftsman’ (v. 30).

V. 31 indicates that Wisdom’s place is not only before creation and in the act of creating. She also has a continuous role in the created world, ‘at play everywhere in His world, delighting to be with the sons of men.’ The nature of Wisdom’s involvement is to lead men in her ways that they might find happiness and life (vv. 32-36).

Wisdom as Revelation of Divine Mystery

Wisdom, then, has a role in revealing the order and beauty of creation. She is also the voice of God in creation, distinct from God, but His gift to those who seek her. All things considered, Biblical wisdom is considerably and substantially more than a concept of skill and expertise in a particular realm of human activity or reflection as portrayed in other ancient near-eastern wisdom literature. It goes far beyond a concept of a rule of life. It has been developed into a revelation of the mystery of God in His creation, a revelation which is so intimate that it is best expressed as a personal, divine reality

The fact that Pr 8,22 became the battleground between the Arians and the orthodox indicates that both camps identified the Wisdom spoken of here with the Logos of the New Testament.

Wisdom and Jesus Christ

The next part of this paper will look at how, for the early Christian writers, the wisdom movement came to its fulfilment in Jesus Christ.

‘The affirmation that this revelation [ofwisdom] came to fruition in the incarnationlies at the very heart of the Christianunderstanding of “Biblical Theology”. It is noaccident that much of the “high Christology”of the New Testament is couched in wisdomterms. Christ is that “Hagia Sophia” incarnate,in whom the “new creation” is realized.’[6]

For Paul Christ is the Wisdom of God contrasted with the wisdom of the philosophers (1 Cor 1,17-31). While the wisdom of the wise is destroyed (v.19), Wisdom is identified by Paul directly with the person of Christ, ‘who is the power and the wisdom of God’ (v.24). ‘He has become our wisdom.’ (v.30).

There are numerous other occasions in Paul’s writing where the same identification is made explicitly or implicitly but Col 1,15-20 is the most rich:

First born
Col 1,15
Pr 8,22
Creator
16
27-29
Thrones/kings
16
15-16
Before all
17
23-26
Father's pleasure
19
30-31
Unity/craftsman
17
30


The Synoptic Gospels also contain wisdom references, some more explicit than others.

In Mt the invitation to bear His yoke (11,28-30) is a parallel of Si 24,19.

In Lk Jesus grows in wisdom (2,40.52) and has the power to give wisdom to His own people in time of persecution (21,15).

Both Mt and Lk present Jesus as claiming for Himself the title of Wisdom when questioned about His eating and drinking (Mt 11,16-19; Lk 7,31-35). He knowingly identifies Himself with wisdom just as he identified himself with the prophets (something greater than Jonah, something greaterthan Solomon, Mt 12,38-42; Lk 11,29-32).

‘I bless you father…’ (Mt 1125-28; Lk 10,21-22)does not mention wisdom but clearly shows the Son as personified Wisdom since it is He who reveals the Father to those whom He chooses. Mk is not so explicit as the other two Synoptics, though Jesus is said to have been granted wisdom (6,2) and He addresses His disciples as children (10,24) which is a trait of personified Wisdom.

Yet it is John’s Gospel which gives the clearest identification of Jesus with personified and creating Wisdom. The references throughout the Gospel aretoo numerous to list here.[7]

It is more profitable to concentrate on the prologue alone and the many instances of how John has ‘capitalized on and developed’[8] the primitive New Testament tradition of the identification of Jesus with personified Wisdom.

St John's Prologue and similar themes found in the Wisdom literature

In the beginning was the Word:

pre-existence Pr 8,22-23

The Word was with God

Si 24,9; Ws 6,22

and the Word was God.

from and with God

He was with God in the beginning.

Si 1,1

Through Him all things came to be,

creator

not one thing had its being but through Him.

Pr 8,27-29

What took place in Him was life

life and light

and that life was the light of men,

Qo 2,13; Pr 8,35

a light that shines in the dark,

everlasting light

a light that darkness could not overpower.

Ws 7,26; Si 1,29

 

 

A man came sent by God. His name was John. He came as a witness, as a witness to speak for the light, so that everyone might believe through him.

 

  

He was not the light, only a witness to speak for the light.

 

 

 

The Word was the true light

light

that enlightens all men;

Ws 7,26

and He was coming into the world.

enter the world

He was in the world

Pr 8,31

that had its being through Him,

creator/artificer

and the world did not know Him.

Pr 8,27-30

He came to His own domain

rejection

and His own people did not accept Him.

Si 15,7; Ba 3,12

But to all who did accept Him

 

He gave power to become children of God,

lead to life

to all who believe in the name of Him

Pr 8,32-34

who was born not out of human stock

 

or urge of the flesh or will of man but of God Himself.

 

 

 

The Word was made flesh

descends from heaven

 

Pr 8,31; Si 24,8; Ba 3,37; Ws 9 set up tabernacle Si 24,8

He lived among us,

 

and we saw His glory,

emanation of glory Ws 7,25

the glory that is His as the only

 

Son of the Father,

glory and grace Si 24,16

full of grace and truth.

teach truth, Ws 6,22; 8,4; 9,9-10.16-18

 

 

 

 

John appears as His witness. He proclaims:

 

‘This is the one of whom I said:

 

He who comes after me ranks before me

 

because He existed before me.’

pre-existence Pr 8,22-26

 

 

Indeed, from His fullness we have, all of us, received

receiving Pr 9,1-6

yes, grace in return for grace,

 

since, though the Law was given through Moses,

 

grace and truth have come through Jesus Christ.

grace Si 24,16

No one has ever seen God;

 

it is the only Son, who is nearest to the Father’s heart,

only Son first born

who has made him known.

Ws 7,22


It is clear that almost every line of the prologue has a parallel in wisdom literature referring to the personification of Wisdom. It is the Incarnation which gives John the inspiration and licence to takepersonification much further than anything in the Old Testament. Yet it is the Old Testament wisdom literature that gives John his vocabulary andtheological categories. New Testament Christology is firmly rooted in the Old Testament and the Old Testament is brought to its completion in the New.

The Logos

It is clearly evident that the New Testament writers identified personified Wisdom with Christ. Yet personified Wisdom in the Old Testament is always a female figure. One reason for this is that the Hebrew term for wisdom, hoqmah is a feminine noun. Another reason is conceptual not grammatical. Wisdom invites the wise man to embrace her and enter into relationship with her. A male figure would not be appropriate in that context. Even so, the New Testament authors find no problem, when the context is changed, with making the transfer from the female figure to a male one when it is applied to Christ. Tertullian certainly had no hesitation in applying the category of Wisdom personified to Christ:

‘The power and disposition of the Divine Intelligence is set forth also in the Scripture under the name of Sofia, Wisdom; for what can be better entitled to thename of wisdom than the Reason or the Word of God? Listen, therefore, to Wisdom herself, constituted in the character of the Second Person.’
[9]

Tertullian identifies the most significant attribute which connects the Second Person of the Trinity and Wisdom personified. It is the Divine Intelligence. This is the Mind which is at the origin of creation and which gives purposeto all things. It is in this context that we find the term logos employed.

Wisdom and the Logos of St John

The use of the term logos in the Prologue of John’s Gospel indicates that the author was making the same connection as Tertullian, though not perhaps in such a clear, philosophical manner. It is often suggested that John drew on the writings of Philo (an Alexandrian Jewish Philosopher, 25 BC-50 AD) to develop the concept of logos as used in the Prologue. This opinion has been largely rejected by modern scholars. The vocabulary and imagery of the Prologue are so clearly seen to be influenced by Old Testament wisdom literature and not Hellenistic philosophy.

It is conceivable that John has also been influenced by a number of other Old Testament or rabbinical traditions, namely the semitic understanding of the term ‘word’, dabar and the identification of Wisdom with the Torah.

Dabar and the Prologue

This term refers to much more than the ‘spoken word’. It has a wide range of active meanings including ‘thing’, ‘affair’, ‘event’ and ‘action’. dabar has power to create,to heal, to challenge and even to judge. Hebrew thought did not personify the dabar as it did Wisdom, but still it considered that once spoken it had a quasi-substantial existence. This is the sense of the word as spoken in Is 55,18 and indeed the word spoken at the beginning of creation in Gen 1,1. Jn 1,3 easily fits into this vision.

Yet this active, powerful, revealing and creating ‘word’ is possibly identified even more directly with the Son in Heb 1,1-4. It gives deeper meaning to the contrast between speaking ‘in the past to the fathers’ but now speaking in ‘one who is Son’. Wisdom literature also identifies faith personified Wisdom with the ‘word of God’ (Pr 9,1-9).Coupled with the clear relationship between Ws 7,25-26 and Heb 1,2-3, it could be said that the author of Hebrews and John, who wrote the Prologue, have moved in the same direction in their development of their Old Testament sources.

Wisdom, the Torah and the Prologue

In later rabbinical writings the Torah is considered to be created before all things and used as a pattern on which God created the world. As the Torah is increasingly idealised, wisdom literature begins to identify personified Wisdom with the Torah (Si 24,23 and Ba 4,1). Also the Torah and the ‘word of the Lord’ become interchangeable as in Is 22,3; ‘Out of Zion shall go forth the Law and out of Jerusalem the word of the Lord.’ It is not surprising, given this late development in Jewish theology, to find parallels between this idealised concept of the Law and the logos in the Prologue. The Torah is ‘the light’ inPr 6,23. It is also described as the great example of ‘grace and truth’ by the Rabbis using exactly the words referred to the logos made flesh in Jn 1,14. Perhaps Jn 1,17,‘Since, though the Law was given through Moses, grace and truth have come through Jesus Christ’ is the Christian response to Jewish Torah-theology.

Among all these strands of Jewish theology it is the theology found in wisdom literature which best serves the specific vision of Christ in the New Testament. The first Christian theologians saw clearly the linear development of personified, creating Wisdom to the reality they encountered in the incarnate Word. The universalist outlook of the sages, with their reverence for the Wisdom of God’s creative, revealing and continuing providential activity in the world, furnishes Christians with the perfect vocabulary and categories to describe the new reality of Christ, the divine Mind of God. While their experience of Christ is radically original, still they recognised that His advent had been prepared and expected culturally, theologically and in literature.
‘In the mind of the theologian of the Prologue the creative word of God, the word of the Lord that came to the prophets, has become personal in Jesuswho is the embodiment of divine revelation. Jesus is divine wisdom, pre-existent, but now come among men to teach them and give them life…And yet, eventhough all these strands are woven into the Johannine concept of the Word, this concept remains a unique contribution of Christianity. It is beyond all that hasgone before, even as Jesus is beyond all who have gone before.’[10]

[1] Çatechism of the Catholic Church, 128.
[2] “Wisdom Literature” is a term which is used rather inaccurately to
indicate a broad range of writings in the ANE which have styles,
themes and content which exhibit common characteristics: the
content is human experience, the theme is life and the style
poetically complex so as better to express the themes and content.
[3] Only Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job and Psalms form part of the
Protestant Canon. The others listed are considered apocryphal. In
this paper they will be abbreviated as follows: Pr, Qo, Jb, Ps, Si,
Ws, Tb, Ba.
[4] W. Zimmerli, J Crenshaw (ed), Studies in Ancient Israelite Wisdom,
New York 1976
[5] G. von Rad, Wisdom in Israel, Nashville 1972
[6] H Hummel, The Word Becoming Flesh. An Introduction to the
Origin, Purpose and Meaning of the Old Testament, St Louis, 1979
[7] R E Brown, The Gospel According to John, Vol.1, London, 1965
gives a rather extensive listing.
[8] ibid
[9] Tertullian, Contra Praxeas, 6
[10] R E Brown, op.cit.

Faith Magazine

January - February 2007