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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

About the Book

Over the centuries this book has been called “The Book of Wisdom” (from the Latin translations), “The Wisdom of Solomon” (from the Septuagint), or variations of either title. Although the author does not explicitly identify himself as Solomon, the identification is implied in several first person references ( 7, 5; 8, 21; 9, 7f; see 1 Kgs 3, 5–15 ). This might be due to the author's presumption that the somewhat unconventional character of the book's ideas might require Solomonic authority to be accepted as orthodox teaching. (For an explanation of Solomonic authorship see Proverbs, RG 254 ; Ecclesiastes, RG 262 ; Song, RG 267 , 270 .)

The book itself suggests an origin from within the Jewish community of Alexandria. It is clear that the author was steeped in the history of the Exodus (11, 2–16; 12, 23–27; 16, 2–19.22), was acquainted with the religious practices of Egypt ( 15, 14–16, 1 ), and was well versed in Hellenistic philosophy and science ( 6, 22–11, 1 ). The author reinterpreted his own religious heritage and critiqued the traditions, practices, and insights of the other two cultures. He did this in an attempt to support those Jews who were questioning the relevance of their ancient faith in the face of the radical cultural changes they were undergoing.

Most scholars date this book somewhere around the turn of the era, during the first century BC. At this period of history, the primary threat did not arise from the hellenizing Greeks but from the hellenized Jews themselves. The oppression from outside the community that had led to the Maccabean revolt had given way to a subtle undermining of traditional teaching and values. Even the religious leaders were not immune to this kind of worldliness. The author appears to have been concerned that the pious not be led astray, that those enthralled by Greek culture be convinced of the excellence of the biblical heritage, and that those already carried away by the currents of change be rescued.

Literary features of the book confirm that it originated in Greek. The form of the language is natural and free‐flowing, not awkward, as might be the case if this were a translation from Hebrew. The extensive scientific vocabulary reveals an author who possessed an exceptional comprehension of Hellenistic learning. References to earlier religious tradition correspond to the style of the Alexandrian rather than to that of the Palestinian version. The thought is similar to what is found in Jewish‐Alexandrian works of this period. The author frequently employed a form of expression that resembles the diatribe, a method of argument developed by the Cynic and Stoic philosophers of Greece that creates imaginary opponents who raise questions that the philosopher refutes.

Despite these Greek characteristics, this is basically a Jewish work. It is not difficult to detect the influence of Hebrew parallelism in the poetry. (For an explanation of parallelism see Job, RG 238 .) The description of God's care during the Exodus is a kind of homiletic midrash (a method of interpretation that the Jewish community devised in order to apply the Bible to new situations). Thus a law was restated as halakah, and a narrative is retold as haggadah in such a way as to give direction to a new generation. On the other hand, the Greeks, particularly Philo, developed allegory as a principal method of interpreting traditions. It is significant that the author of Wisdom employed midrash rather than allegory. This characteristic of the book further substantiates its Jewish, rather than Greek, origin.

The structure of Wisdom is a matter of dispute. There are not obvious divisions as can be found in some books of the wisdom tradition. The editors of the NAB have adopted a fairly general thematic division: (1) The Reward of Justice; (2) Praise of Wisdom by Solomon; (3) Special Providence of God during the Exodus.

Wisdom Teaching

The unifying theme of this biblical book is “the praise of wisdom.” Each of the three major sections addresses this theme from its own distinctive point of view. A cursory examination of each section will highlight significant theological elements found there.

The Reward of Justice ( 1, 1–6, 21 )

The first section is often called “The Book of Eschatology.” (Traditionally, eschatology refers to the last or final things: the end of the age, death, judgment, reward, and punishment.) In it we find the destinies of the righteous and of the wicked described in vivid contrast. The former, regardless of their obvious suffering, “are in the hand of God” ( 3, 1 ), while the latter “shall receive a punishment to match their thoughts” ( 3, 10 ). This entire section serves as a summons to fidelity to the religious traditions of Israel, a fidelity that will guarantee the rewards of wisdom.

At first glance this teaching might seem to be merely a restatement of the doctrine of retribution. A closer look will show that it is instead a radical departure from the traditional understanding. The author not only challenged some traditional views but also introduced several radically new ideas. First, he insisted that childlessness, a condition that by itself brought reproach in ancient society (see Gn 16, 4; 1 Sm 1, 7 ) is not a mark of divine displeasure ( 3, 13f; 4, 1 ). Regardless of the importance of offspring for the survival of the race, moral not physical fruitfulness is emphasized here.

The author further denied that suffering itself presupposes sin. In fact, an untimely death may be a righteous person's rescue from the wickedness of life ( 4, 14 ). We are reminded of the adage: The good die young. This author agreed with both Job and Qoheleth that virtue is not always rewarded in this life, nor is evil always punished. He went on to suggest, however, that whoever thinks that the death of the righteous is affliction or destruction is foolish ( 3, 2f ). Such death is, rather, a trial that they must endure in order to be with God ( 3, 5f).

It is in this book that the reader of the Old Testament is first introduced to the Greek concept psyche (soul, 1, 11; 3, 1 ). Although in some passages the word is used with the same meaning as the Hebrew nephesh (being or life, 12, 6; 14, 5; 16, 9 ), in other places it clearly marks the adoption of the body‐soul dualism, which was part of the Greek understanding of human nature. The Greeks held that human nature was a combination of an impermanent material body and an eternal spiritual soul. This combination was dissolved at death. Caution is in order here. We must be careful not to take accommodation to Greek thought farther than the author did. Nowhere does this book speak of an immortal soul.

A second and related idea is that of life after death. This notion is quite different from the earlier perceptions of Sheol, the abode of the dead (see Psalms, RG 250 ). There is just enough ambiguity in the use of the words “immortality” ( 3, 4; 4, 1; 8, 13.17; 15, 3 ) and “incorruptibility” ( 2, 23; 6, 18f ) to prevent us from making too many definite statements about the author's view. One thing does seem clear, however. Immortality is not an inherent quality of human nature; it is the fruit of union with wisdom (8, 13.17; 15, 3). Although 2, 23 claims that God made humans to be incorruptible (imperishable), 6, 18 suggests that incorruptibility is contingent upon fidelity to wisdom. We are not sure whether the author was speaking merely of physical death, or of physical death followed by spiritual death, or of spiritual death alone. The thought does seem to pass over physical death, and attention is directed toward spiritual death. Later in history, Saint Paul will have to face this same question when dealing with the unexpected deaths of Christians (1 Thes 4, 13–18 ). Unlike the author of Wisdom, his answer will be quite specific.

Finally, the author of the book of Wisdom brought the two earlier creation narratives together and reinterpreted them. The statement about being made in God's image ( 2, 23 ), an allusion to Genesis 1, 16.28 , is followed by the claim that the devil's envy brought death into the world ( 2, 24 ), a reinterpretation of Genesis 3 . (A few commentators believe that the latter reference is to the envy of Cain, which resulted in the death of Abel [Gn 4, 1–8 ]. However, in a nonbiblical Jewish text, another writer of this time stated that Gadreel, a fallen angel, led Eve astray [1 Enoch 69, 6 ]. This latter citation supports the interpretation offered here.) The author of Wisdom was the first biblical writer to identify the serpent of the Genesis account with the devil.

Praise of Wisdom by Solomon ( 6, 22–11, 1 )

The second major section of the book is an address acclaiming the glories of wisdom. It is from this section that the book receives its name, and it is here that we find a representation of personified Wisdom (see Proverbs, RG 260 ). This characterization of Wisdom is quite different from that found in the earlier tradition. The author may have realized the unconventional nature of his depiction and felt that claiming Solomonic authority would be necessary in order to gain acceptance for this reinterpretation. At any rate, this section begins with an account of his own humble origin, his prayer for wisdom, and God's bestowal of this immeasurable gift in answer to his pleading ( 7, 1–7; also see 9, 1–18 ). This is unquestionably an allusion to the prayer of Solomon (1 Kgs 3, 5–15 ), and it characterizes the author as the wise king.

The actual description of Wisdom is composed of elements from various sources: Israelite tradition ( 7, 22a; see Prv 8, 30 ); from the cult of the Egyptian deity Isis, goddess of wisdom and patron of culture, whose praises were extolled in the form of listings similar to that found in 7, 22–8, 1 ; and from Hellenistic philosophy and science (see 8, 7 for mention of the cardinal virtues of Plato). This section may well be the heart of the author's argument in favor of the superiority of the religion of Israel.

Earlier traditions spoke of “a spirit of wisdom” (Is 11, 2 ), but here Wisdom itself is called a spirit ( 1, 6; 7, 22 ). The author has brought two quite distinct and dissimilar concepts together by merging the notion of intelligence, the basic meaning of wisdom, with that of energy or power, the central idea in spirit. Having done this, he could then speak of the wisdom‐spirit as “an aura of the might of God” (Wis 7, 25 ). It is in this book that Wisdom is referred to as “the spirit of the Lord” ( 1, 7 ). (The theology in this verse functions significantly in the liturgy of Pentecost.) Although spirit played a major role in Stoic philosophy, it was clearly a prominent theme in Jewish tradition as well. In his description of the nature and dignity of Wisdom (7, 22–24), the author may well have employed the attributes of the world spirit, a concept found in Stoic philosophy. However, when he recounted the early history of Israel he equated Wisdom with the spirit of the Lord. He did this by ascribing to Wisdom what earlier Israelite writers attributed to the spirit of the Lord: the creative power in the world ( 7, 22a; see Jdt 16, 14 ); the source of Joseph's honor in Egypt ( 10, 13; see Gn 41, 38 ); the inspiration that prepared Moses for the Exodus and led the people through the wilderness ( 10, 16f; see Is 63, 11.14 ).

There has been a significant amount of discussion regarding the influence of this figure of Wisdom on New Testament writings. Some scholars believe that the influence was direct. Others hold that the obvious similarities suggest that there was a general treasury of thought, imagery, and language that served as a common source. Whichever position is more accurate, early Christian theologians reinterpreted the figure of personified Wisdom as they struggled to understand Jesus the Christ. Paul explicitly referred to Christ as the wisdom of God (1 Cor 1, 24.30 ). The most obvious example of this reinterpretation, however, is found in the Gospel according to John. There we find Jesus described in ways that Wisdom had been depicted earlier: as being with God in the beginning before the world existed (Jn 1, 1; 17, 5; see Wis 2, 22 ); as sent from heaven to accomplish the will of God (Jn 6, 38; see Wis 9, 10 ). Current scholarship is only beginning to pursue the implications of Wisdom imagery for Christology.

This section of the book ends with a summary of the way that Wisdom guided the ancestors of Israel, brought them out of Egypt, and, through the agency of Moses (see Hos 12, 14 ), enabled them to prosper ( 10, 1–11, 1 ). It is clear that this Wisdom, once thought to be the possession of the king, was now considered the constant companion of true Israelites, those faithful ones of the past as well as the committed Jews of the present.

Special Providence of God during the Exodus (11, 2–19, 22)

Here the book shows an observable shift in focus. The poem in praise of Wisdom gives way to midrash that extols the ancestral God of Israel. This version of the experience of the Exodus and the time in the wilderness illustrates two points: (1) the sufferings that befell the Egyptians were the direct result of their sinfulness ( 11, 16 ); and (2) the very elements that afflicted the Egyptians benefited the Israelites ( 11, 5 ). This rereading of the past is done through a creative selection of biblical data as well as the addition of material not found elsewhere. The author did not set out to recount historical facts or to repeat traditional testimonies. He seemed intent on addressing the challenge raised by Hellenism. His goal was to remind Alexandrian Jews that once before they had suffered at the hands of the Egyptians and, in the face of impossible odds, had been rescued. This midrash provides “historical” basis for continued trust in the God of Israel.

There are two digressions within this third division of the book. Both of them are found in the second example of God's providence. The first is a testimony to God's mercy ( 11, 17–12, 22 ). Although it breaks the midrashic line of thought, it may have been prompted by the mention of punishment in the preceding line ( 11, 16 ). The second digression is a condemnation of idolatry ( 13, 1–15, 17 ). It follows the claim that the Egyptians “saw and recognized the true God whom before they had refused to know” ( 12, 27 ), yet they continued in their idolatry. It should be noted that the language used in the condemnation of nature worship ( 13, 1–9 ) might be the best example of the author's broad grasp of scientific knowledge.

Theology in a New Context

The author of Wisdom did not set out in search of new theological insights. Since he was committed to prove the enduring value of the religion of Israel, he explained traditions and themes that were familiar to the Jews of his day. What made his contribution unique was the method that he employed as he went about his task. He incorporated elements of other cultures into this theological thinking.

Throughout its history, Israel had been forced by circumstances to deal with the religious and cultural traditions of other societies. The Bible itself shows that these encounters were sometimes peaceful and beneficial, and at other times violent and destructive. Whatever the situation may have been, elements from those cultures found their way into the traditions of Israel. The religion of Israel reinterpreted features of the other cultures and then assimilated these new ideas into its own perspective. Israel seldom assumed the fundamental religious worldview of the other culture. This changed with the hellenization of the world. It was precisely the attraction of Greek civilization that threatened Jewish faith. Now the community wrestled with an agonizing dilemma: Could one accept the prevailing culture and remain faithful to the traditions of the ancestors? The author of Wisdom undertook the task of answering this question in the affirmative. In doing so, he did not try to reconcile Judaism with Hellenism. Instead, he used the ideas, the language, and the literary style of Greek culture to demonstrate the excellence of the Jewish faith.

In taking Greek culture seriously, this theologian did what theologians after him would have to do whenever cultural lines were crossed. The challenge of interpretation facing him was not so different from the one facing us today; that is, to render a religious heritage that originated in one cultural context into another very different one. The purpose of the author of the book of Wisdom was apologetic. He sought to defend his ancestral faith. Our purpose in reinterpretation is usually evangelical. We seek to proclaim the word of God in a variety of contexts. In this we have much to learn from both the message of this wisdom teacher and from his method of theological reinterpretation.

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