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Wisdom of Solomon

The Oxford Companion to the Bible What is This? Provides authoritative interpretive entries on Biblical people, places, beliefs, events, and secular influences.

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    Wisdom of Solomon

    The Wisdom of Solomon, a Greek work of a Hellenistic Jewish author, is not found in the Hebrew Bible. In the Septuagint it follows the book of Job; in the Vulgate it follows the Song of Solomon. The book is thus considered one of the Apocrypha by Jews and Protestants but is accepted as canonical by the Roman Catholic and most Orthodox churches. It is never quoted in the New Testament, but some commentators find allusions to the vocabulary of Wisdom 7.26 in Hebrews 1.3 and to its description of the “son of God” mocked and persecuted by his enemies (2.18–20) in the passion narratives of the Gospels.

    Scholars have dated the work from 100 BCE to 100 CE on the basis of links to Hellenistic philosophy, literature, and science. Cultured readers of that period would have been familiar with its terminology, such as “intelligent spirit” that “pervades” and “penetrates” all (7.22, 24), “living spirit” (15.11), with its description of the human body as an “earthly tent” (9.15), and with references to the cosmic god Aeon. They would applaud the use of compound terms, including over seventy beginning with the negative prefix equivalent to the English “non‐.”

    Allusions to Jewish scripture, especially the Psalms and Isaiah, show that the author used the Septuagint rather than a Hebrew text. The style is that of a writer familiar with textbook rhetoric and literary figures like balance, personification, irony, and ring style; he is skillful in making plays on words, even to the point of creating new compounds. A good example of rhetoric appears in the vivid contrasts between true and apparent sterility, true and apparent fruitfulness, and true and apparent stability (3.1–5.1) In translation the style at times appears heavy and prolix.

    Content and Structure.

    The overall literary form of the work was popular in Hellenistic Greek, namely, the protreptic or rhetorical exhortation. This complex form served the author's purpose, which was to glorify traditional faith and to encourage Israel's future leaders to commit themselves to God's saving presence in history. The opening address to “rulers of the earth” is a literary fiction in keeping with the goal of arousing enthusiasm for Israel's covenant‐God and for its historical mission.

    The author uses this literary form, which goes back as far as Aristotle, with great flexibility, skillfully integrating a variety of minor literary genres. Its four major developments are connected by interweaving them to avoid abrupt breaks in continuity. Part I (1.1–6.11) begins with a carefully structured and tightly argued prologue urging readers to seek that divine “righteousness” that is “immortal” (1.1–15). Motivation to do so is steeped in biblical tradition and assumes familiarity with values of the Mosaic covenant. The appeal is further developed by a series of descriptions contrasting persons who faithfully pursue uprightness with the conduct of their arrogant foes. Such polemical contrasts identify those who seek God's will as the truly wise, for they will reign with God forever.

    This identification of righteousness with wisdom leads into Part II of the book (6.12–10.21), which is devoted to singing the praises of Lady Wisdom, partner of both God and the author (6.14; 9.4). It is in this part that the author assumes the person of King Solomon and builds on his famous dream asking for a listening heart to serve God's people (1 Kings 3.6–9).

    In an extended explanation of his life, Solomon tells how, while praying for prudence, Lady Wisdom came to him as his bride. She is God's craftswoman who gave him such gifts as scientific knowledge, her own spirit with its twenty‐one desirable qualities, the four cardinal virtues prized by Hellenistic philosophy, and even immortality (7.1–8.2). This lyrical celebration of Lady Wisdom recalls the Greek aretalogies or prose poems honoring the Egyptian goddess Isis, patron of wisdom, who was worshiped in many Hellenistic shrines. With good reason, then, Part II of the book has been called “the Book of Wisdom proper.” (see Wisdom.)

    After praising Lady Wisdom, Solomon offers a fervent prayer to God to continue to let her be the delight of his life, guide of his reign, and teacher of salvation to all on earth (9.1–18). The conclusion of the prayer employs for the first time the verb “save” that will dominate the activity portrayed in the rest of the book. A long description of the saving work of Lady Wisdom on behalf of biblical heroes from Adam to Moses, although none are mentioned by name, brings Part II to a close (10.1–21).

    The power of God's saving presence dominates the rest of the book, but in ways that enfold its relation to the entire universe. This shift in perspective mirrors the author's preoccupation with the relation of the chosen people to all creation. He starts to reflect on God's saving intervention for Israel in the Exodus, which he presents in a series of seven contrasts. God's activity in rescuing the chosen people took the form of using elements of creation to favor them and to punish their enemies. But after describing God's first intervention, the author interrupts the contrasts to formulate a polemic that makes up the third part of the book, its richest theological development (11.15–15.19).

    Part III of the book serves a double purpose. First, it provides an apologia for God's justice in ruling the world (11.15–12.27). God's way of punishing sinners is not capricious or vindicative but displays how he manages all events “by measure and number and weight” (11.20). God shows wisdom by allowing the effects of sin to take place, because sin includes its own punishment (11.16). Second, Part III appeals to Jewish readers to reject false religions. The elaborate condemnation of various forms of idolatry warns readers not to be trapped by such foolish practices that have harmed the gentiles.

    Nature worship is a display of ignorance in that it refuses to recognize the world as handiwork of a wise creator (13.1–9). Idol worship is still worse in that it places hope in the weak works of mortals and seeks salvation in helpless objects (13.10–14.8). The Egyptians, identified only as enemies of the chosen people, merit special condemnation because they worship gods in the form of animals (15.14–19). Included in this polemic is an explanation of the origin of idolatry according to the theory of Euhemerus (ca. 300 BCE), namely, that the first gods were deified mortals (14.9–15.6).

    Part IV of the book begins at 16.1 with the second of the seven contrasts based on the Exodus. These are remarkable for their poetic descriptions portraying God's care for his chosen people amid the plagues sent against Egypt. These contrasts are addressed to God to remind him how he once used the same creatures and situations, such as water, animals, sudden death, light, and darkness, to save the Israelites and punish their foes. The author updates the biblical narratives by introducing psychological details that captured the Hellenistic religious imagination. For example, he describes darkness as creating a prison of fear for the Egyptians (17.2–21).

    Teaching and Significance.

    An analysis of the content of the Wisdom of Solomon reveals that, as the book progresses, its style shows less clear‐cut parallel phrasing. The contrasts based on the Exodus become overloaded and obscure. For this reason some scholars have postulated a different author for the latter part. Yet the large number of flashbacks and deliberate allusions to earlier chapters point to composition by the same author. The complexity results from the double polemic: against unbelieving gentiles and against Jewish apostates falling under the spell of Hellenism. Possibly the author was unable to revise and polish the final chapters.

    The book is pseudonymous: its author's identity is hidden by the literary technique of writing in the person of Israel's great wisdom‐ figure, Solomon. This approach fit the author's purpose: to compose an apologia for Israel's traditional religious beliefs in a cosmopolitan setting. Such a procedure would not have misled the cultured audience to whom this sophisticated composition was directed. Omission of proper names assumes that readers were familiar with Israelite tradition. The style and religious intensity identify its author as a pious teacher.

    The “autobiography” of the idealized Solomon, whose life was a search for Lady Wisdom, describes the plan of action necessary for Israel's future leaders. Wisdom's gifts to the devout include qualities and skills valued in Hellenistic Alexandria. Enthusiasm for Israel's tradition is no barrier to cultural progress. The author believed that Israel's role as God's chosen people was as important as ever and guaranteed by constant divine protection (19.22). The Wisdom of Solomon preserves the carefully planned appeal of a learned and imaginative Jewish teacher to his cultured students to cultivate loyalty to their revealed faith in an environment threatening their religious identity. Only fidelity to their received revelation wins eternal life with God (1.15; 15.3).

    James M. Reese, O.S.F.S.

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