The Wisdom of Solomon - Introduction
The Wisdom of Solomon was written as a message of encouragement and exhortation for Jews living somewhere in the Diaspora (the Jewish communities outside the land of Israel) during the Greco‐Roman era. Immersed in a cosmopolitan, pagan culture, one that generally viewed Judaism with suspicion if not contempt, many Jews felt hard‐pressed to remain loyal to the basic principles and practices of their faith. This book simultaneously affirms the basis of that faith and critiques those who oppose it, in the interest of promoting adherence to Jewish traditions in changing, difficult circumstances. The Wisdom of Solomon is included among the deuterocanonical books of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, but is considered one of the Apocrypha by Protestant churches.
Although the author claims to be King Solomon (with parts of ch 9 based on his prayer for wisdom in 1 Kings 3.6–9 ), this claim has been recognized as a literary fiction since ancient times. Instead, the author was an anonymous Hellenistic Jew writing sometime in the late first century BCE or early first century CE. The book's bitter polemic against Egyptian religion (see, for instance, ch 12 ) suggests Alexandria as a location, and anti‐Jewish uprisings in that city may have been part of the background for the author's reflections.
The book consists of three major sections. The first, chs 1–6 , contrasts the lives of the just and the wicked, dramatizing the ultimate destinies of the two groups. The section begins and ends with exhortation to seek wisdom and righteousness ( 1.1–15; 6.1–25 ). The next section, chs 7–10 , celebrates the figure of divine Sophia. The author's self‐identification as Solomon emerges most clearly here, as the king describes wisdom and his pursuit of her. The third section, chs 11–19 , adopts the approach of historical comparison, presenting an elaborate system of contrasts based largely on Exodus 7–14 . A series of digressions in 11.17–15.19 explains why God's judgment manifested itself differently in dealing with the Egyptians and the Israelites. This adaptation of the Exodus story is meant to complement the arguments of the first two sections, providing biblical examples of the righteous and the unrighteous, and demonstrating how the power of divine wisdom operates in human history.
Written in Greek, this book is among the most Hellenized works of the Apocrypha; that is, it reflects extensive interaction with Greek literary and philosophical conventions (see, for example, the use of the standard list of cardinal virtues in 8.7 ). The author's intention, however, is not to promote the achievements of Greek culture, but to appropriate them, so as to prove the excellence of Judaism in categories relevant to his readers’ multicultural environment. As for its literary genre, many modern critics describe the Wisdom of Solomon as a form of didactic exhortation that demonstrates the superiority of a particular way of life or school of philosophy (in this case, Judaism) over its competitors and detractors. (This is technically called “protreptic discourse.”) So, for example, while the author can describe wisdom as an emanation of divine power that pervades the entire world, he contends that it comes to most perfect expression in God's revelation to Israel, and depicts it in terms familiar from the personified Wisdom (Gk, “Sophia”) of passages like Proverbs 8, Job 28, Sirach 24, and Baruch 3–4 . Above all, the author is concerned to portray wisdom as the guiding force of divine providence, saving righteous Israelites and punishing their wicked adversaries. In conjunction with this aim, the book also asserts the significance of Jewish faith in terms of the ultimate benefits it confers. Thus persecutors, sinners, and idolaters face divine retribution in the afterlife, while the faithful will “live forever” ( 5.15 ). This emphasis on immortality represents one of the book's distinctive features, as well as something of a new development in Jewish thought (see 3.4n .).