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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

The Wisdom of Solomon - Introduction

This book, preserved in Greek and in versions made from the Greek, forms a high point not only in ancient Jewish literature but also in Greek literature as a whole; yet it belongs above all to the sapiential stream of Jewish biblical tradition, and crowns the series of earlier biblical wisdom-books: Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Ecclesiasticus (Sirach). In the early church it was one of the books linked with Solomon, together with Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs, and the non-canonical Psalms, Odes, and Testament of Solomon (ET in Sparks 1984: 649–751); but Solomonic authorship was often questioned, and some ascribed Wisdom to the author of Ecclesiasticus (Jesus son of Sirach of Jerusalem, early 2nd cent. BCE), or to the Jewish philosopher-exegete Philo of Alexandria (c.25 BCE–c.50 CE) (Horbury 1994a ; 1995 ).

The Wisdom of Solomon begins with instruction to kings on wisdom, as regards the suffering and vindication of the righteous (see chs. 1–5 ); the doctrine of immortality is presented as the confirmation of the righteousness of God. From these chapters, which are close to the judgement scenes in 1 Enoch and the Psalms of Solomon, and opposed to the this-wordly emphasis of Ecclesiastes and Sirach, the church drew a theology of martyrdom and an interpretation of the passion of Christ. Then in chs. 6–10 King Solomon emerges by implication as the speaker, telling the Gentile kings how he prayed when young for the heavenly gift of wisdom, as is related in 1 Kings 3 and 2 Chr 1 . Recollections of his ardent love for wisdom are mingled with praise for her in terms that appropriately suggest ‘the spirit of wisdom and understanding’ promised to the Davidic king (Isa 11:2 ); she is an all-pervasive loving spirit issuing from God, the fashioner and guardian and renewer of all things as well as the giver of knowledge and the guide of life. Wisdom is set in the divine realm, following Prov 8 with the young Solomon; these chapters differ markedly from Eccl 1–2 , in which the old king views wisdom as an ultimately pointless human acquisition. Lastly, chs. 11–19 praise God through a meditation on the Exodus that inculcates repentance and faith and defends providence ( 14:3; 17:2 ) and the election of God's ‘people’ ( 12:19 , etc.); a digression (chs. 13–15 ) on the origins of Gentile idolatry has affinities with the beginning of Romans. Throughout chs. 11–19 the writer continues the address to God, rather than the kings of the earth, which was begun in ch. 9 , and wisdom is named only in one passage ( 14:2, 5 ); these chapters recall Sirach in their theodicy (Crenshaw 1975 ) and in their dependence on the biblical histories, but otherwise they show less kinship with the sapiential books than with Jewish exegesis of Exodus and Christian paschal homily ( 17:1 ).

Four great characteristics of Wisdom's teaching can be discerned throughout. First, it has an element of mysticism, in the sense of the soul's quest for the divine ( WIS 2:13; 13:6 ), especially divine wisdom ( 7:10; 8:2 ); conversely, the immanent deity is the lover of souls ( 1:4; 7:27; 11:26–12:1; 16:21 ). Secondly, to some extent by contrast, it is also focused on the people of God ( 9:7; 12:19 , etc.), although Israel is not named—much as in 1 Peter the church is central, but the word ekklēsia is lacking. A link with the mystical element is formed by verses on inspired or ecstatic communal praise ( 10:21; 19:9 ). Thirdly, it is permeated by zeal for righteousness ( WIS 1:1 ) in collective and individual morality; God helps the righteous, divine punishments are just ( 5:20; 12:15; 16:24 ), and God's people and their heroes are exemplars of virtue. Lastly, in accord with its emphasis on the nation (Barclay 1996: 181–91), Wisdom shows deep familiarity with Scripture and interpretative tradition; artistic allusion is pervasive (Chester 1988 ). Many biblical characters are portrayed, but, like Israel, they are all unnamed ( WIS 4:10 ).

In biblical style, but with a tinge of philosophical language, Wisdom welcomes a number of Greek philosophical conceptions. Broadly speaking, the book sounds both Platonic and Stoic. Its mystical strand has affinities with Plato; ‘understanding [phronēsis, cf. 7:7 ] would arouse terrible love [cf. 7:10; 8:2 ], if such a clear image of it were granted [cf. 7:22–8:1 ] as would come through sight’ (Plato, Phdr. 250D). Wisdom is more particularly indebted to Plato, perhaps through intermediaries, on the virtues, pre-existence, primal matter, and beauty ( 8:7, 19; 11:17; 13:3 ), and in the treatment of the soul (WIS A.3; 8:20; 9:15–17; 15:8 ); but Plato's theory of archetypal ideas (Stead 1994: 18–21), which is central in Philo's theology, here stays in the background ( 9:8; 13:7 ). Wisdom's own central conception of a beautifully ordered world guided by immanent spirit ( WIS 1:7; 8:1; 19:18 ) has antecedents in the biblical sapiential tradition (WIS A.3), but comes mainly from Plato as interpreted by the Stoics.

The book defends providence, afterlife, and the reward of virtue. These Platonic themes became central in the Stoic and Epicurean philosophies of the second and first centuries BCE ( ACTS 17:18; Stead 1994: 40–53). Philosophers then nurtured by the Greek cities of Syria and Palestine include the Stoics Poseidonius of Apamea and Antiochus of Ascalon, and the Epicurean Philodemus of Gadara; all drew upon the classical philosophers, and were influential among educated Romans as well as Greeks (Hengel 1974: 86–7). Wisdom takes, broadly speaking, the Stoic side; Stoics argued for a universe pervaded and directed by a vital force ( WIS 1:7 ), and the survival of righteous souls, but Epicureans envisaged non-intervening deities and souls which perished with the body. In the first century CE Josephus (Vita, 12) compares the Pharisees to the Stoics, and his outline of Sadducaic opinion recalls Epicureanism.

‘Wisdom’ itself (Gk. sophia, Lat. sapientia, 1:4 , etc.) was a weighty term in philosophical vocabulary. In Plato it included morality and the art of government (Rep. 4.6,428B–429A), in Aristotle it was identified with abstract philosophy and knowledge of principles as opposed to practice (Eth. Nic. 6.7, 1141b), but its practical moral association was strong among the Stoics. They linked sophia and sapientia with their ideal figure of the imperturbably virtuous Wise, the true king among mortals, who goes ‘where heavenly wisdom leads’ (Horace, Epistles, 1.3.27).

Platonic and Stoic sophia therefore readily converged with the moral as well as intellectual portrayal of sophia in the biblical wisdom-books (WIS A.3; A.9). Educated Jews were aware of possible associations between Judaism and the Greek schools of thought, as can be inferred from Josephus. Thus Aristobulus, in the Egyptian Jewish community of the second century BCE, mentions Pythagoras, Plato, and the Aristotelians in his fragmentarily preserved Pentateuchal comments, and urges that the philosophers drew on Moses (Hengel 1974: 163–9; Collins 1985; Barclay 1996: 150–8; WIS 6:12 ). Wisdom does not give names, but shows similar awareness, especially with regard to Stoicism. Like Aristobulus, but implicitly, it urges that the wisdom of biblical tradition anticipates and includes the philosophical truths and virtues ( 7:17–27; 8:7 ); at the same time it implicitly modifies biblical tradition, and integrates it fully into Hellenic culture (Chester 1988: 164). In the church this aspect of the book led to assertions (in line with the earlier Jewish argument seen in Aristobulus) that Wisdom itself was the original source of Platonic and Stoic doctrines ( WIS 7:24; 11:17 ).

The philosophy of Wisdom leads it also to differ, on points debated by early Christians, from what in the end became the most approved church teaching. The soul is pre-existent and not originated in connection with conception ( WIS 8:19 ); the world is made from pre-existent matter rather than ex nihilo ( WIS 11:17 ); and the soul's future life is described (A. 9) without reference to the body (Stead 1994: 29–30).

Within the Apocrypha the philosophical theology of Wisdom recalls 2 Maccabees, which is likewise concerned with martyrdom and afterlife, but speaks of resurrection (anastasis) rather than immortality (athanasia); Wisdom expresses future hope just as vividly, but seems to expect a spiritual rather than carnal revival of the righteous ( WIS 3:7 ). The personified wisdom of WIS 7–10, linked with the wise king of Israel, compares and contrasts ( WIS 7:22 ) with that of Sir 24 and Bar 3:9–4:2 , linked with the Jerusalem temple and identified with the Pentateuchal law; all three passages are patriotic Israelite developments of the goddess-like figure of cosmic wisdom in Prov 8–9 and Job 28 , could have been associated by Greek-speaking readers with the philosophical and moral overtones of sophia noted above, and owe something to contemporary portrayals of Isis (Knox 1939: 69–81; WIS 7:22 ). The cosmos in Wisdom is a world of spirits, good and bad, including ‘the spirit of the Lord’ ( 1:7 ), ‘angels’ ( 16:20 ), and ‘the devil’ ( 2:24 ), as is already the case in the LXX, and wisdom herself is spiritual, as already noted ( 7:22–7 ); correspondingly, human beings are envisaged above all as ‘souls’ ( 2:22 , etc.; WIS A.3), which are probably held to be pre-existent, as in Plato and Philo ( WIS 8:19 ). In assessment of this spiritual aspect of Wisdom it is noteworthy that, for Stoics, the world-soul and individual souls were material, even if superfine ( 7:22–4; Hengel 1974: 199–200). Philosophy had links with widespread conceptions of energetic good and evil spirits (P. Merlan in Armstrong 1970: 32–7), and spiritual immortality ( WIS 3:7 ) need not have seemed insubstantial by contrast with resurrection, which could itself be envisaged spiritually (Mk 12:25 ).

Among the NT books Wisdom has affinity not only with Romans (WIS A.2) but also with the speeches in Acts on repentance and faith, with the sapiential morality of James, and with the vindication of righteous suffering in 1 Peter. In the treatment of wisdom and logos as intermediaries ( WIS 7:22; 9:1 ) Wisdom also shows kinship with the Christology of word, spirit, radiance, and image in John, Paul, and Hebrews. From a wider range of ancient Jewish literature, Philo's philosophical exegesis of Scripture, Josephus's presentation of the Jewish schools of thought as philosophies, and 4 Maccabees on Jewish martyrdom as adherence to true philosophy, all broadly resemble Wisdom as Jewish expositions of Judaism using Greek philosophical terms. It should be stressed, however, that all these NT and other works are written in Greek prose, and are far removed from Wisdom's adherence to biblical poetic style (WIS B.1). The portrayal of Christianity as a philosophical school by the Apologists, such as Justin Martyr (later 2nd cent.) and Tertullian (early 3rd cent.), adapts the philosophical interpretation of Judaism attested in Wisdom (WIS A.4–8). Similarly, rabbinic biblical exposition current in third-fifth-century Galilee and embodied in the Talmud and Midrash, although it is handed down in Hebrew and Aramaic rather than Greek, evinces a debt to philosophical vocabulary and Greek conceptions of a spiritual cosmos which once again recalls Wisdom.

Affinities between Wisdom and Christian books later than the NT emerge in 1 Clement ( WIS 4:10 ) and in the mythopoeic treatment of wisdom's love for the Father (cf. 8:4; 9:9 ) by Valentinus and his school, as recounted in the later second century by Irenaeus (Haer. 1.2). Signs of Wisdom's direct influence on the church are evident from this time onwards (WIS C.1). Wisdom helped to mould not only dogmatic and moral theology, but also baptismal instruction, hymnody, and prayer. The philosophic and exegetical treatment of wisdom as intermediary in Wisdom 7–10 was joined with the Pauline view of Christ as the wisdom of God ( WIS 10:1 ); Christological indebtedness to Wisdom is especially striking in the early third-century Origen ( WIS 1:4; 7:22 ). Wisdom also formed the clearest biblical source for the notion of pure universal love permeating and ordering the cosmos ( WIS 7:22–8:1; 11:20–12:1; 14:3; 16:7, 12 ).

In the fourth century Athanasius (Festal Letter, 39) put Wisdom first among those books which (he says) are not canonical, but were approved by the fathers for reading to newcomers (catechumens). Jerome (WIS B.1) likewise stressed that Wisdom was outside the canon, but endorsed the reading of this and other approved extra-canonical books for edification, as is recalled in the sixth of the Thirty-Nine Articles (1562). Augustine, by contrast, worked for church recognition of these approved books as canonical, and noted Wisdom's prophetic witness to Christ (De civ. dei, 17.20). The later Christian West found Wisdom congenial, as medieval commentaries show (Smalley 1986 ); the book's influence on forms of prayer ( WIS 1:7; 3:7; 8:1; 9:1; 11:24; 16:6, 20 ) appears at its most famous in the antiphon O Sapientia (8.1). The old acclamation of Christ as the wisdom of the Father's heart, echoed in the poems of Prudentius (end of 4th cent.), was reunited with mystical passages of Wisdom in the warm Christ-mysticism of the Swabian Henry Suso (Seuse) (c.1295–1366); in the language of courtship as well as piety he called himself ‘servant of the eternal wisdom’ ( WIS 7:10; 10:9 ).

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