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



The ancient scribes were the bearers of an intellectual tradition which they themselves called ‘Wisdom’. This wisdom consisted first and foremost in knowing how to behave properly towards one's fellows, particularly social superiors. At the most trivial level it was concerned with etiquette, at the most profound with how to live the life of the sage, honoured by all and influential in society's affairs. The scribes invented an ethical literature which embodied their wisdom on how to live the good life, examples of which have been included in the canon, notably in Proverbs, which is attributed to one of the great patrons of Wisdom, King Solomon. Proverbs illustrates one of the classic forms of Wisdom—the short, gnomic utterance that encapsulates in striking and memorable language a wise saying.


This tradition of ethical wisdom flourished throughout the Second Temple period and beyond. A late example of it, still largely in the classic form of a collection of pithy sayings, is found in the Chapters of the Fathers (Pirqei ῾Abot), one of the tractates of the Mishnah (ANTH D.1). ᾽Abot, probably the single most influential ethical treatise in the history of Judaism, is anomalous within the Mishnah (on which see MAJ GEN B.11). It is the only non-halakic tractate in the whole corpus, and its inclusion within a law-code raises sharply the question of the relationship between ethics and law. Whoever included ᾽Abot within the Mishnah (possibly Judah the Prince, the Mishnah's traditional editor) must surely have felt that its contents were a necessary complement to the legal material contained in the rest of the work. But in what sense does it complement the law? Is there an implication that ᾽Abot expresses the universal moral principles that underlie the concrete prescriptions of the halakah? This may well be the intention, though as some rabbinic jurists pointed out, it is hard to find a rational, moral basis for some of the ritual laws of the Torah, such as the prescriptions regarding the red heifer (Num 19:1–13 ), which nevertheless should be obeyed as divine commandments (Pesiq. Rab Kah. 4.7).


Given the scribes' basic concern with morals, and their increasing involvement during Second Temple times with Torah, it was inevitable that the relationship between ethics and law should have become an issue for them. There is evidence of a lively interest in this topic. Philo argued that the Ten Commandments were the basis of all the detailed legislation of the Pentateuch, which he called ‘the special laws’: each special law is the concrete expression of one of the broad, moral principles of the Decalogue (Philo, Dec. 154; cf. Spec. Leg. 1.1). This view was also, apparently, acceptable to some rabbinic jurists, though some were worried about overemphasizing the Decalogue, and banned its separate liturgical use, so that heretics should not say that only the Ten Commandments were important. In the gospels Jesus is challenged to identify the fundamental principle of the law (Mt 22:34–40; Mk 12:28–34 ). He replies by citing Deut 6:5 and Lev 19:18 (the ‘love commandment’). On another occasion he is quoted as saying that the Golden Rule is the sum of the law and the prophets (Mt 7:12; Lk 6:31 ). Jesus' contemporary, the Pharisaic scholar Hillel, is depicted in rabbinic tradition as giving the same answer to a proselyte (ANTH D.2). A late echo of this debate is found in a remarkable passage in the Babylonian Talmud (b. Mak. 23b–24a), which concludes that Hab 2:4 , ‘the just shall live by his faith’, is the essence of the Torah. (On the Talmud see MAJ GEN B.11.)


Besides the sayings-collection, another form of ethical literature that has survived from early Judaism is the Testament. This purports to be the last will and testament of some biblical figure who, on his deathbed, at a moment of particular solemnity and insight, passes on to his posterity his accumulated wisdom (cf. Gen 49:1–28 ). The best-known example of such a work is the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. (Gk. text: de Jonge (1978 ); trs: Charles, APOT ii. 282–367; de Jonge, in Sparks (1984: 505–600); Kee, OTP i. 775–828; commentary: Charles (1908 ); see further de Jonge (1953 ).) Though some maintain that this composition, which survives only in Greek, Armenian, and Slavonic, is Christian in origin, behind it (with its unquestionably Christian elements) probably stands a Jewish text, only minimally Christianized, which may date back to as early as the second century BCE. Certainly such testaments were known in Second Temple Judaism, as the Aramaic fragments of a Testament of Levi from Qumran prove. The Testament of Reuben, the first of the testaments in the collection, illustrates one of the themes explored in wisdom, namely the nature of woman, her place in society, and how the sage should behave towards her (ANTH D.3). This topic features prominently already in Proverbs, which in its account of ‘the woman of valour’ paints a picture of the ideal woman, ideal at least from the standpoint of her husband (Prov 31:10–31 ), though it also notes her less than ideal sisters, the prostitute and the adulteress, and warns against their snares (Prov 2:16–19; 6:24; 7:10–23 ). Testament of Reuben takes an altogether darker view: ‘Women are evil, my children, and by reason of their lacking authority or power over man, they scheme treacherously how they might entice him to themselves by means of their looks.’ The world of the scholars and sages was an intensely male world, in which women seem to have played no part.


Abstract reflection on the wellsprings of ethical behaviour reaches its climax, as far as the surviving literature of Palestinian Judaism is concerned, in the Instruction on the Two Spirits from the Qumran Community Rule (1QS 3:13–4:26) (ANTH D.4). The discursive, systematic, theological nature of this text is hard to parallel in Hebrew literature before the Middle Ages. The author sees the world as a battleground between a spirit of good and a spirit of evil. Each individual's behaviour is good or bad according to the extent to which he is dominated by one or other of these spirits. Only those dominated by the spirit of good are fit to join the community. In the providence of God the spirit of good will ultimately triumph over the spirit of evil. The rabbis also, later, reflected on the sources of moral action and identified within the human personality two tendencies—an inclination towards evil (yēṣerhārā῾) and an inclination towards good (yeṣer hāṭṭôb). For the rabbis these two inclinations belong to the human psyche and are essentially under the control of the individual's will: the inclination towards evil can be suppressed and the inclination towards good promoted through the study of Torah and the observance of the commandments. The Qumran theologian's position, however, is less clear. It is possible he is saying little more than this, but some have argued that he holds that each individual's moral character is irrevocably predetermined by cosmic forces beyond his control. The uniqueness of the Instruction on the Two Spirits within early Palestinian Judaism favours the view that it has been influenced by Persian dualistic thought about the cosmic conflict between Ahura Mazda (the spirit of good) and Angra Mainyu (the spirit of evil). The Instruction on the Two Spirits comes from the preamble to the Community Rule (on which see MAJ GEN F.2), which deals with initiation into the community and the definition of its boundaries. It is clearly attested only in the Cave 1 version of the Rule, which dates palaeographically to around 100 BCE.


Though Wisdom originally may have had to do with morality, the content of the term seems to have been expanded from an early date to include also knowledge of how nature works. Solomon, the great patron of Wisdom, was seen as being expert not only in the principles of correct behaviour but also in the mysteries of nature (cf. 1 Kings 4:29–34 ). Opinion seems to have been divided in early Wisdom circles on the question of whether nature could be comprehended by the human mind. At the end of Job, a text dating probably to the fifth century BCE which belongs fundamentally to the Wisdom tradition, the view seems to be taken that nature is intrinsically unknowable: it is deeply mysterious and beyond human comprehension, and the only human response possible to it is one of awe and praise of God's power (Job 38:1–6 ). In Proverbs, however, which dates probably from roughly the same period, a very different position is taken. There it is claimed that Wisdom was used by God as the architect of the universe, and that that same Wisdom is accessible to men (Prov 8:22–33 ). The implication clearly is that there is a rational order in nature (what the Ionian philosopher Heraclitus, probably a near contemporary of the author of Proverbs, called a Logos), and that this rational order could be comprehended by the human mind. To put it in the language of Proverbs: man can attain to Wisdom, and that Wisdom includes an understanding of how nature works. We have here the first glimmerings of Jewish interest in science—the establishment of the necessary preconditions that make the rational investigation of nature possible.


This interest in the workings of nature is clearly attested in the earliest layers of 1 Enoch—the Book of the Heavenly Luminaries (ANTH D.5), which probably dates to the Persian period. (On 1 Enoch see MAJ GEN A.7.) The underlying astronomical ideas of this part of 1 Enoch are probably Babylonian in origin, though they are almost certainly primitive compared to the best Babylonian astronomy of their time. This Babylonian science came to the author of the 1 Enoch treatise through the medium of Aramaic, which was the official language of administration and diplomacy in the Persian empire, and which would have been known, of necessity, by Jewish scribes in Jerusalem. This explains why 1 Enoch is in Aramaic and not in Hebrew. It was probably a group of such scribes, alive to developments in thought beyond the borders of Judah, who introduced this alien wisdom into Israel.


According to 1 Enoch it was the angels who revealed this knowledge to Enoch. The appeal to revelation is standard in early Jewish ‘science’, and it is for this reason that scientific texts are largely to be found in the apocalypses. This is puzzling to the modern mind. Since the basic premise of the scientific approach is that nature is governed by laws that can be discovered and understood by the human mind, why involve revelation? Surely the author the Book of the Heavenly Luminaries knew that the observations of the sun's motions which he has reported went back ultimately to painstaking observation and recording in the great temples of Babylonia. Why then claim that this doctrine was divinely revealed to the antediluvian sage Enoch? Perhaps he felt that this was the only way in which to get a hearing for these ideas. While he himself might have had faith in the power of the unaided human intellect, his compatriots needed the stronger validation of divine revelation. However, it was common throughout antiquity to link scientific discovery to divine revelation. Great new advances in knowledge or technology were routinely traced back to culture-bringers (whether divine or human) who derived their crucial knowledge from the gods.


Enoch, then, was acclaimed by the Enochic circles as the patron of the new science—a role that he continued to play within Judaism for many centuries to come. It is interesting that they did not try to appropriate Moses as their patron, or link their doctrine more obviously with the account of creation in Gen 1 . This might be because in their day Moses had not yet achieved the position of supreme authority within Judaism. This seems unlikely, since they probably lived after the reforms of Ezra, which, apparently with Persian backing, promulgated the Torah of Moses as the law of the Judean community. It is more probable that by claiming to be heirs of ancient doctrine from well before the time of Moses they were challenging Moses' dominance and proposing an alternative Enochic paradigm for Judaism. Certainly their new knowledge had repercussions in the strictly religious domain. On the basis of their astronomical observations they appear to have advocated a reform of the calendar, which would have involved following a strictly solar calendar rather than the luni-solar calendar that prevailed in Judaism at the time. Certainly, as is evident from the Book of Jubilees, the Book of the Heavenly Luminaries was later used to support calendrical reform. The Qumran community seems to have adopted the Enochic solar calendar and this was one of the reasons for their split with the Jerusalem establishment which controlled the temple and still followed the old luni-solar calendar.


Wisdom also embraced much that we would loosely today regard as falling within the domain of magic. Historians of science have long recognized that it is impossible to distinguish sharply between ‘magic’ and ‘science’ in pre-modern times. Magic often shares with science the belief that there are rigorous laws governing natural phenomena, which can be known and manipulated. Pseudo-sciences (such as astrology and alchemy) have contributed much to the growth of real science. The interconnection of religion, magic, and science in early Judaism is seen most clearly in the field of medicine. There was a widespread belief in late Second Temple Judaism that sickness was caused by demons. The demons could be expelled in a variety of ways. The victim could exercise self-help by praying, repenting of his or her sins, and bringing gifts to the temple. An exorcist could be called in to drive out the demon by reciting incantations or performing other magical rituals. Or a doctor could apply medicine in the form of herbs or other materia medica. Sometimes a combination of these different methods of healing would be used, as a vivid description by Josephus of an exorcism in the name of Solomon shows (Ant. 8.44–9). The arts of healing were seen as belonging to the domain of Wisdom. It is not surprising, therefore, that Solomon was revered also as the great patron of ‘magic’, and that exorcists and other magicians often claimed to be relying on doctrines and practices that went back to him.


That the darker magical arts were also practised is shown by the Book of Mysteries (Sefer ha- Razim; text: Margalioth (1966 ); tr. Morgan (1983 ); see further Alexander (1986 )). The framework of this strange Hebrew work, which has been successfully reconstructed from a number of medieval fragments, consists of a chain of tradition showing how it was passed down from the time of Noah, who received it from the angel Raziel, followed by a description of an ascent through the seven heavens, and concluding with a doxology to be recited before the Throne of Glory. Into this framework, which recalls the apocalypses and the Hekalot literature, has been woven a series of incantations for curing sickness, harming enemies, influencing people, and so forth. The Book of Mysteries is basically a magician's manual of a type well known in antiquity, from which the magician would have copied out and personalized an incantation for the use of a client. What is so shocking about it is that its magic is almost totally black, i.e. it is aimed at causing harm (ANTH D.6). The Book of Mysteries cannot be dated in its present form before the late fourth century CE, but the sort of magic it contains is well attested earlier. The fragmentary Qumran text 4Q560, dated palaeographically to the early first century CE, is probably the remnants of a broadly similar book of magical recipes. (Text and tr.: García Martínez and Tigchelaar (1997: ii. 1116–17).)


The Dead Sea scrolls indicate that some Jews in Second Temple times were interested in another early ‘science’—physiognomy. 4Q186, the key text, dates palaeographically to the Herodian period (text: García Martínez and Tigchelaar (1997: i. 380–3); tr.: Vermes (1997: 358–9); see further Alexander (1996: 385–94).) The language is Hebrew, but it is written in a rather childish code, which suggests that its contents were deemed esoteric within the community (ANTH D.7). Physiognomy is based on the idea that a person's character or the nature of their ‘soul’ can be deduced from their physical appearance, such as the shape of their limbs. Possibly originating in Babylonia, physiognomy was a respected branch of knowledge in antiquity, with an extensive body of technical literature, including a treatise on the subject by Aristotle. It remained influential in Western thought down to the nineteenth century when it had a late flowering in the pseudo-science of phrenology. At Qumran physiognomical lore was probably the province specifically of the Master (Maskil), the sage who was the spiritual mentor of the community. It may have been used for divinatory purposes, to determine who belonged to the Sons of Light, and hence was worthy to enter the exclusive community at Qumran. The Pythagoreans and the later Hekalot Jewish mystics may also have used physiognomy to control entry into their conventicles.

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