The title of the book “the Proverbs of Solomon” (Heb. mishle shelomoh), is generally shortened to “Proverbs” (mishle). In Greek it is paroimiai; in Latin proverbia. The proverb, the form which dominates the book, is a short, pithy saying, of one or two lines, that transmits truth by the use of comparison between opposite types or unlike phenomena, or by use of parallel thoughts that extend understanding. The book of Proverbs contains other forms than simply proverbs, however, including instructions (in Prov 1–9), poems (Prov 3, 8), short autobiographical narratives (Prov 7:6–20), numerical heightening (Prov 30) and even an alphabetic acrostic (Prov 31:10–31).

Canonical Status and Location.

Proverbs is found in the third division of the Hebrew Bible, the Writings (Ketuvim). It is usually grouped with Psalms and Job. In early manuscripts there is some variation in the order of books, with Proverbs either after Psalms and Job or between the two. In Christian Bibles, Proverbs is placed after Job and Psalms and before Ecclesiastes, in the second division of the canon often called the poetical and wisdom books. Proverbs is often classified as a wisdom book, along with Job and Ecclesiastes. It is arguably the mainspring of the wisdom quest. It has a relationship with the Psalms in that there is evidence of some wisdom influence on the Psalter, and a few psalms are generally classified as wisdom psalms (e.g., Pss 37, 49, 73).

Authorship.

The book of Proverbs is traditionally attributed to King Solomon, evidence for which is found at the beginning of the book (1:1) and in two later ascriptions within it (10:1; 25:1). Solomon ruled in the mid-tenth century B.C.E. According to the account of his reign in 1 Kings 1–11, Solomon had a reputation for wisdom (see Alt 1976 [1951]). He is to wisdom literature as David is to the Psalms and Moses is to the Law: the figurehead and authoritative personage. This “proverbial” status has led some to doubt whether Solomon actually wrote Proverbs (see Brueggemann 2005). Although the text ascribes great wisdom to Solomon, including the composition of proverbs (1 Kgs 4:29–34; some scholars doubt the strict historicity of this account), the Solomonic attributions in the book of Proverbs were probably added later to give authority to what was a miscellaneous collection of sayings, many of them originally oral. In fact, the book is certainly attributable to more than one author, as it naturally divides into sections or collections that probably originated at different times and in different circles (see Whybray, Composition 1994).

The largest collection of pithy proverbial sayings is found in 10:1—22:16. If any of the material is of oral origin, these sayings are the most likely candidates. Although there are thematic clusters from time to time (e.g., 25:1–7), the proverbs are generally presented in a miscellaneous manner. They were probably generated in an oral culture and passed down over many generations (see Westermann 1995 [1990]). They have the character of “folk wisdom” but they are collectively attributed to the monarch Solomon. This suggests that at some point they were collected and written down, probably by sages or scribes at the court of a preexilic king. This may have happened at the time of Solomon, which would explain their attribution to him, but another viable option is the time of King Hezekiah (715–687 B.C.E), since that king is mentioned by name in Proverbs 25:1 and is one who clearly continued the Solomonic legacy. Other separate sections include chapters 1–9, which form a kind of preface to the book, and which contain more overtly theological material. These chapters are likely to stem from a late date, probably during or after the exile, when they would have been added by scribes who were bringing the central proverb collection together. Proverbs 22:17—24:22 is another unit typically separated out due to its close similarities with the Egyptian Instruction of Amenemope, although there is no separate author named. This section is simply described as “the words of the wise.” Chapters 25–29 are attributed to the “men of Hezekiah” who are said to have copied Solomonic proverbs; there are a number of repetitions between this section and 10:1—22:16 (e.g., 21:9 is repeated in 25:24). Finally, chapters 30–31 are attributed to other authors: to Agur, son of Jakeh (30:1), and to King Lemuel, as taught by his mother (31:1). Each of these chapters in fact divides thematically into two distinct sections, thus casting doubt on these attributions, at least for the contents of the entire chapter. All these considerations suggest that different and distinct collections have been brought together in the book of Proverbs: the work of many different authors has been combined, probably by redactors among the wisdom community, who may be the same group that shaped the final book by the addition of Proverbs 1–9 as a preface.

Nineteenth-century scholarship was the first to challenge the presupposition that Solomon was the author of the whole of Proverbs and to begin to identify the different character of the collections. In fact, majority opinion dated Proverbs late, probably well into the postexilic period, mainly on the grounds that it was concerned with the individual and with individual ethics, a development that was thought to have arisen out of the Israelite exile and loss of collective nationhood. Hence Proverbs was ranged with Psalms and Job in this later period. Proverbs 1–9 was identified as the main evidence for this late dating and its author/compiler seen as the final shaping hand of the whole book. This line of scholarship continued well into the twentieth century, and it was not until the discovery in 1923 of the Egyptian Instruction of Amenemope and the noting of the remarkable parallel with Proverbs 22:17—24:22 (see Emerton 2001) that scholars started to reconsider their dating conclusions. The result was that key sections of Proverbs came to be seen as preexilic. The interest of form critics in the oral prehistory of material also aided this process of restoring Proverbs to an earlier and more formative period (see Morgan 1981). The theory of a Solomonic enlightenment (see Von Rad 1966), offered by scholars in the mid-twentieth century, seemed to bring Solomon back into the center of the picture. Scholars also noted wisdom influence in other parts of the Hebrew Bible which indicated that proverbial material and concerns penetrated well beyond the confines of wisdom literature proper. Other suggestions quickly followed, including an emphasis on Hezekiah's reign (see Scott 1955) rather than Solomon's, and renewed attention to the exilic or postexilic shaping of the book. The editorial nature of scribal activity was also investigated afresh, in part because this was another possible wisdom influence on biblical books and thus a possible marker of later wisdom activity. Hence, it may well be that the book of Proverbs, in its different collections and emphases, spans a number of centuries. It seems to have been a constantly evolving book until the canonization process halted further change. Even the questioning of the proverbial worldview as found in Job and Ecclesiastes, which might indicate that Proverbs is earlier than these books, is not necessarily a reason for thinking that there would not have been continued adherence to a proverbial worldview later and after these books, and thus ongoing interest in shaping the book of Proverbs proper. In fact the book of Ecclesiasticus (Sirach), which is also dominated by proverbial material, indicates that the proverbial tradition, while questioned, remained intact and continued to be an important part of Israelite self-understanding.

Dates of Composition and Historical Context(s).

The different collections of Proverbs were probably composed at different times and in different historical contexts. A distinction needs also to be made between the time in which original oral material would have circulated and the date when materials were finally committed to writing. The former may go back to the earliest days of Israelite life—the nomadic context, for example, where maxims are exchanged around the campfire or some other early social setting where the community needed basic ethical principles. The earliest contexts are lost in the mists of time, but all ancient societies generate proverbs to explain basic patterns in human life in interaction with God (or the gods) and the natural world, and Israel was no exception. The oral period may run from 1100–950 B.C.E., and could possibly stretch back still further. When we get to the time of Solomon, there may well have been some attempt to bring oral material into a written collection. An older scholarly theory posited a Solomonic enlightenment, a period of exceptional growth of the monarchy and new possibilities of international trade and cultural links with the wider world (see Heaton 1974; Von Rad 1966). This is why the period of Solomon was later regarded as such a golden age—it was a time of peace and prosperity. Solomon's international links led to his interest in and contact with the wisdom tradition, which seems to have originated mainly from Egypt. His riddling with the Queen of Sheba (1 Kgs 10) is a good example of this international wisdom activity. All these considerations provide a plausible historical context for the main sayings collection in Proverbs and would explain the Solomonic attribution, but other plausible possibilities have been suggested by scholars. One such is the reign of Hezekiah (see above and, again, Prov 25:1). There is more archaeological evidence of written materials from the eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E.—as opposed to the tenth—and this might suggest that such writing activity did not really flourish until then. Perhaps the Solomonic enlightenment was rather a Hezekian one.

Unfortunately, we know nothing of the period of the authors mentioned in 30:1 and 31:1—Lemuel seems to be a foreign king, which may again underscore the international nature of proverbial wisdom. Similarly, the link between Proverbs 22:17—24:22 and the Egyptian instruction texts might suggest that material used in Egyptian schools (from circa 1100 B.C.E. to teach reading and writing) was sufficiently common in and around Israel/Palestine to have influenced Israelite groups. This would further suggest a link with education of young people, which is stated strongly in Proverbs 1–9 by the repeated address to “my son.”

Finally, Proverbs 1–9 is generally regarded as the latest section of the book. It assumes a city context rather than an agricultural one, and ideas and motifs are more theologically developed (notably the figure of Wisdom in Prov 8) (see Perdue 1997).The use of the instruction form in this section, however, which echoes the older Egyptian form, might indicate earlier roots for at least parts of this collection. The exilic or early postexilic period (the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E.) would be possible contenders for this section, but there are no clear historical indicators in the text, and the entire section is attributed to Solomon, as is the collection beginning in 10:1. The book of Proverbs as a whole was thus probably shaped in the early postexilic period. It forms the canonical predecessor of the other wisdom books—Job and Ecclesiastes—which question the more fixed notions of divine reward and punishment contained in the book of Proverbs.

Literary History.

The book of Proverbs is clearly a composite collection. The basic form of a proverb, a one- or two-limbed saying, may have had an oral origin, although some have argued that a literary origin from the start is more likely, at least for the sayings that are more complex in their construction (see McKane 1970). Occasionally one encounters thematic clusters; for example, 16:10–15 about the king, and some have argued for other, more literary clusters of material (see Heim 2001), but the general opinion is that the shaping of the main collection in 10:1—22:17 is the work of collectors or redactors rather than creative authors. Chapters 25–29 have a similar pattern of miscellaneous sayings, and it is likely to have come together just after the main collection, or possibly at the same time. It may also contain older oral material but when speaking of literary-history the focus must remain on the writing. Proverbs 22:17—24:22 may have had a separate existence as a text used by those learning to read and write in an educational context, much as its Egyptian prototype had. This parallel is particularly interesting. Egypt is arguably the mainspring of the wisdom enterprise—although there was wisdom activity in the older Sumerian culture and throughout later Mesopotamian civilizations (Babylonia and Assyria)—and the appearance here of very similar maxims and sentiments, most notably in the smaller section 22:17—23:11, may yield important clues as to cross-cultural transmission and similar educational institutions. In Israel, it is often thought that the court would have been the primary focus of education, particularly for young men who would become leaders of society, and so wisdom texts may have found their place there. In Egypt, there was a school context for the instructions where learning was done by copying. Egypt was a larger state with greater administrative needs than Israel and so it is likely that the Israelite situation was on less of a grand scale than the Egyptian educational system. It is also likely that Proverbs 30 and 31 are older pieces of (possibly foreign) wisdom material incorporated into the whole by later redactors or groups. Such redactors (or groups) may even be those who added Proverbs 1–9 to form an introduction to the whole book, since it is a section containing (1) musings on the nature of the wisdom enterprise; (2) instructions from father and mother to child, much like Egyptian exemplars, and (3) poems about Woman Wisdom and her counterpart Woman Folly, as two possible paths for young men to travel, the former being decidedly preferable to the latter. Woman Wisdom is seen in Proverbs 8:22–31 to have had a role alongside God at creation, cementing the relationship between God as creator and orderer of the world and the wisdom enterprise in the book of Proverbs. Again, Proverbs 1–9 is arguably the most theological part of Proverbs—many of the maxims outside this section do not mention God, although it is not that God does not appear at all. God stands at the beginning and end of wisdom, but he does not take an active and revelatory role in the everyday patterns described in the proverbial material. The focus is instead on human relationships and interactions. A pattern exists set up by God at the beginning, that human beings must learn to be aware of; it is in the minutiae of life that this pattern is worked out. There is a lively debate in the scholarship about how secular or theological wisdom literature might have originally been (see McKane). Dell's opinion is that it was always theological, but became more overtly so as it developed, as indicated by the different literary-historical stages of the material.

Structure and Contents.

Proverbs 1–9: “The Proverbs of Solomon.”

This section is an exilic or early postexilic preface to the book. It consists of the attribution (1:1), a prologue (1:2–5), warnings against evildoers (1:8–19), and an introduction to the figure of Wisdom in prophetic terms (1:20–33). There are ten instructions in the section in 1:8–19; 2:1–22; 3:1–12; 3:21–35; 4:1–9; 4:10–19; 4:20–27; 5:1–23; 6:20–35; 7:1–27 (see Whybray, Proverbs 1994) punctuated by other poems about Wisdom in 3:13–20 and chapter 8. There are also small sections of autobiographical narrative such as 7:6–20.

Proverbs 10:1—22:16: “The Proverbs of Solomon,” Part 2.

This is a miscellany of sayings on many topics always containing contrasts between types of people, for example, between “wise” and “foolish,” rich and poor, diligent and lazy, patient and angry persons, restrained speaker and gossiper, or—the most common antithesis—between the “righteous” and “wicked.” Important themes in this section include wealth and poverty (see Whybray, Proverbs 1994), the importance of work and correlate indictments of laziness, the importance of communication, the place of discipline, truthfulness versus lying, considered action rather than hasty mistakes, just weights and measures, the folly of pride, relationships with others, and so on. The main types of proverbs are antithetical and synonymous: antithetical proverbs provide a contrast between the first and second lines; synonymous proverbs use the second line to extend the thought of the first. Antithetical proverbs dominate chapters 10–15, while synonymous proverbs are more common from chapter 16 onward.

Proverbs 22:17—24:22: “The Words of the Wise.”

Thirty sayings (see Prov 22:20) that closely parallel topics found in the Egyptian Instruction of Amenemope. Topics include application to teaching and the value of wisdom, trusting God, treatment of the poor, disassociating with angry people, giving pledges, reverence for ancestors and parents, table manners in the presence of the king, avoidance of excess, the fleeting value of riches, disassociating with mean or wicked people, not wasting words on fools, good treatment of orphans, and the place of discipline. The prostitute or adulteress (cf. Prov 7) also features here.

Proverbs 24:23–34.

This is a short collection entitled “sayings of the wise,” which resembles the main sayings-collection (10:1—22:16).

Proverbs 25–29.

These chapters contain other “proverbs of Solomon copied by the officials of King Hezekiah of Judah.” They comprise a series of miscellaneous sayings on a wide variety of topics and are sometimes repetitious of 10:1—22:16.

Proverbs 30: “The Words of Agur, Son of Jakeh.”

Verses 1–6 have the character of a personal testimony by one who has not succeeded in the wisdom quest. The section resembles Ecclesiastes in its questioning style. Verses 7–33 contain a number of numerical sayings using numerical heightening (“two…three …”) to range together unlike phenomena in order to illuminate a particular issue or topic. These are another wisdom form and tend to use extensive imagery from the animal world.

Proverbs 31: “The Words of King Lemuel.”

This claims to be an oracle taught to Lemuel by his mother and so gives interesting evidence of the mother's role in education (also found in Prov 1–9). The teaching in verses 1–9 concerns the behavior of kings. The section 31:10–31 is on the subject of the capable wife. This may continue the advice to Lemuel or may be a separate poem. Its form as an alphabetic acrostic may suggest (see Yoder 2001) the latter option. It links up with the emphasis on the feminine in Proverbs 1–9, in the figure of Wisdom.

Interpretation.

The coining of proverbs, which make a pithy contrast between different aspects of life or of human character, is a basic human activity. Parallels have been found in all cultures in the world, including African (Golka 1993) and Norse sayings. It is thus not a peculiarly Israelite activity, and, traditionally, wisdom material has often been regarded as rather outside the mainstream of Israelite thought. However, with its emphasis on God as creator, orderer, and sustainer of human society and the natural world, the book of Proverbs and other wisdom literature finds its place in wider Israelite thought that is less tied to historical events and more concerned with theological and ethical ideas (Waltke 2004). The maxims of Proverbs, while not to be equated with law, give people truisms by which they can lead their lives, thereby providing them with a thorough ethical framework. The contrast between the righteous and the wicked is a stark one (after all, no one is entirely righteous or wicked) but it gives a parameter for judging grades of behavior within those poles.

Proverbs probably arose in a primitive culture; aphorisms are easily memorable in a predominantly oral environment in which most people could not read or write. There is evidence of catchwords, plays on words, alliteration, and assonance in the Hebrew original which may indicate aides to memorization, as well as being clever literary techniques in themselves. The main collection reveals a largely agricultural background and one in which there was a real danger of falling into poverty if one did not work hard. While some proverbs concern the king and the court (e.g., Prov 16), these are few in number and do not indicate an overall court context for all of the proverbs, even if that was a stage through which the material once passed. It looks as though the primary function of the book was ethical guidance, but in turn it clearly had an important educational function, as parts of the book were used for teaching purposes, notably Proverbs 1–9 and 22:17—24:22. The instruction texts are addressed to “my son” and seem to be aimed at young men, the main recipients of education first in the home and then subsequently in a school setting (see Newsom 1997). The female element comes in at the level of the mother's involvement in the teaching process (1:8), in the picture of the capable wife in Proverbs 31, and in the two female figures of Proverbs 1–9 (see Camp 1985, Yoder). In her role in the creation, Wisdom is not just a female opposite to the foreign or loose woman, but a presence with God from the beginning of time. The theological picture here is of God as primarily creator and orderer of the world. By being a part of the order from the start, Wisdom functions to bridge the gap between God and humanity. God creates the world through Wisdom, in an ordered and structured way, and in turn human beings through wisdom can access an understanding of that order that functions not just in the creation and the processes of nature but also in human society. Human beings can then aspire to wisdom at the most profound level. God creates the world and sustains it and Wisdom delights in God's created world (8:30–31). In turn, human beings can lead virtuous, ethical, and ordered lives by following Wisdom's path and fearing the LORD (itself the beginning of wisdom). The rewards of wise behavior are longevity, offspring, wealth, the respect of others, and a fulfilled existence.

This theological context is mainly provided by the material in Proverbs 1–9, which appears to have shaped interpretation of the whole. The prologue itself indicates that the learning about wisdom and instruction is the purpose of the book but that ultimately “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge” (1:7; cf. 9:10; 15:33). Although God arguably takes a back seat in this literature, God is nevertheless presupposed by the whole wisdom enterprise. The suggestion that the proverbial material was in some sense secular clearly makes little sense in this broadly religious worldview and context. Furthermore wisdom's moral and educational context clearly includes a seeking after the divine. God is the author of all wisdom and understanding, only a small part of which is accessible to human beings (16:1–2, 9; 21:30), and yet the figure of Wisdom mediates understanding to human beings (8:4–5; 9:5–6) and puts them on the path to “life” (3:16–18) as opposed to death, which is represented by wisdom's antithesis—the strange or loose woman (see 2:18–19).

There is some debate in the scholarship as to where the idea for the Wisdom figure came from (see Yoder). The suggestion that she is a vestige of some kind of goddess figure from the wider ancient Near Eastern world has been repeatedly made. The Canaanite goddess Astarte is one contender (Lang 1986), but perhaps the closest fit is the Egyptian goddess Maat, who is an abstract principle of order, truth, and justice that was accorded divine status as a goddess. She is portrayed as holding in her hands symbols of life, riches, and honor that closely resemble the description of wisdom as holding long life in her right hand and riches and honor in her left (Prov 3:16). Maat is described as the plaything of the great god, Re-Atum, just as Woman Wisdom is at God's side, delighting in his created world in Proverbs 8:30. Maat was depicted on both amulets and chains hung around the necks of the chief judges in Egypt; similarly Wisdom is described as a “garland” worn around the neck of her followers (Prov 1:9; 3:22). While the literary overtones seem to be strong here and the Proverbs picture may owe something to Maat, especially given other Egyptian connections with Israelite wisdom, there are also objections to too close an alignment. The fact that Wisdom is created by God mitigates against her being an equal partner in creation, and the essential monotheism of Israelite belief also indicates that the idea of God having a consort is essentially foreign to Israel's thought. Perhaps it is best to see Proverbs 8 as a highly poetic passage with Wisdom as a poetic device used to convey the theological truth of God's wisdom, existent with him from eternity but also available to human beings. That said, the figure of Wisdom interestingly conveys a feminine aspect of the creative process, linking up with the spirit of God, another feminine aspect of the divine.

Reception History.

The authors of later texts like Ecclesiasticus (Sirach; early second century B.C.E.) and the Wisdom of Solomon (first century B.C.E. or first century C.E.) were clearly familiar with Proverbs. Sirach uses the main proverbial forms at some length and clearly inhabits the same thought-world as Proverbs, but its main theological link is in the use and development of the idea of Woman Wisdom. For example, Sirach 24 rereads Proverbs 8 by identifying Wisdom with Torah. Sirach thus makes following the path of wisdom and its moral injunctions identical with following Israelite law. It thus cleverly unites two areas of Israelite thought that had often been kept separate (but cf. Ps 1, which makes the same connection and may have been added to the Psalter by a wisdom editor) and brings Israel's saving history into the wisdom literature. The Torah becomes not only human legal prescriptions but divinely ordained Wisdom, existing with God before time immemorial.

The Wisdom of Solomon continues this development of the idea of Wisdom and sees personified Wisdom as a hypostasis of the LORD (e.g., Wis 7:22–8:2). The author of the Wisdom of Solomon does not align Wisdom with Torah, but rather elevates her role so as to see her as an actual attribute of the divine: “a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty (Wis 7:25). Here we have a bold statement of the divine feminine; she has a cosmic role alongside God in creation and is superior to all created things.

Fragments of Proverbs were found at Qumran (4Q102, 103), and a few previously unknown wisdom texts seem to use its imagery (e.g., in 4Q185 the figure of Woman Folly from Prov 5, 7, and 9 reappears). The most extensive piece of wisdom from Qumran is Sapiential Work A (4Q185) which takes the form of a wisdom instruction, along lines similar to Proverbs 1–9, but with scattered maxims on various topics such as good relationships with parents, wife, and children, and advice in handling money

Proverbs

Egyptian Goddess Maat.

Mural painting in the Tomb of Nefertari, c. thirteenth century B.C.E. Maat may be an inspiration for the figure of Woman Wisdom in Proverbs (cf. 1:9, 3:16, 8:30). Photograph by S. Vannini.

© DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/ART RESOURCE, NY

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or lack of it, and with particular exhortation to the poor. Legal texts are sometimes cited as a starting point for wisdom instruction (e.g., Num 30:6–15). There is reference to a “mystery that is to come,” which coincides with an eschatological element. It is referred to thirty times and its reference is unclear—it may well refer to a body of teaching, such as that encapsulated in a book like Proverbs.

Proverbs seems to have influenced the rabbinic wisdom collection Pirqe Abot (The sayings of the Fathers) in the Mishnah. There has furthermore been some interest in the Septuagint translation of Proverbs which may well have been influenced by Jewish midrashic technique rather than by Hellenism (see Cook 1997). A certain freedom was used in the translation of this text that allowed the translator to make interpolations and to rearrange material so that the ultimate religious intention of the translator comes across.

Early Christians saw Jesus in part as a wisdom teacher (see especially the Q material in the Synoptic Gospels) and employed traditions about personified Wisdom to understand his identity and mission (e.g., John 1:1–18; Col 1:15–20). The concept of the logos, probably derived from Philo, was aligned with the idea of personified Wisdom so that the author of John's prologue was able use this connection to express the truth about Jesus. It is noteworthy that, in this case, the significance of a human male figure is presented in terms inherited from the female symbolism of the Hebrew Bible and the Apocrypha. The letter of James in the New Testament contains wisdom instruction, and its author exalts “wisdom from above” (Jas 3:13–18), echoing portrayals of Woman Wisdom in Proverbs.

Of premodern Jewish commentators on this book, the work of Gersonides (1288–1344 C.E.) is of particular interest. He presupposed Solomonic authorship and regarded Proverbs as a parable. He saw proverbs as having meaning on two levels: a practical one, and a deeper, more philosophical one, interpreted in the light of Aristotelian philosophy.

Proverbs features prominently in many early printings of the Bible. In the 1490s in Naples the Soncino Bible produced a Hebrew edition of Psalms, Job, and Proverbs (in that order) which contained accents and vowel points. Of early Christian Hebraists, the German Sebastian Münster published an edition of Proverbs preceded by a Hebrew grammar in 1524. Luther produced a preface to the “Books of Solomon,” including Proverbs, in 1531, and commented that Proverbs could well be entitled “A book about good works.”

Another Reformer, Melanchthon, did a Latin translation of Proverbs from the Hebrew, and lectured on Proverbs and Psalms. His lectures in 1523–1525 were published in an unauthorized edition on the basis of student notes. This angered Melanchthon, largely because of inaccuracies, and so he instructed the same publisher to produce his translation of Proverbs from Hebrew into German. Another edition appeared in 1529, followed by a full commentary on Proverbs in 1550 (republished in 1555). In the preface to the 1555 work, Melanchthon challenged those who thought that Proverbs, with other wisdom literature, was of less value to the Christian church than other Old Testament books. He pointed to passages such as Proverbs 1:7, which speaks of the fear of the Lord; Proverbs 3:12, which concerns God's chastening of those he loves, which Melanchthon saw as a reference to the cross; and Proverbs 14:32, which Melanchthon viewed as a reference to the afterlife. He likened Woman Wisdom's call to humanity to Christ's preaching to the church. He regarded faith in Christ as implicit in the book, which clearly preceded the Christian era. Although it was not as obviously accessible as the Psalms or the prophets, Melanchthon argued strongly for Proverb's place in Christian teaching. He has been criticized for a sporadic handling of the texts in his commentaries, and questions have been raised about his skill in handling the Hebrew language, which clearly did not equal his superior abilities with Greek. Much of his commentary is thematic introduction, although his easy writing style made him popular among his contemporaries, and his principal aim was to make the meaning of the original sources accessible to the youth of his own day.

Over the centuries many others have written commentaries on the book of Proverbs. At Cambridge University, Ralph Baynes, a lecturer in Hebrew, published a commentary on Proverbs in 1555, but not until he had fled England for France because of Henry VIII's break with Rome. Also at this time, James Pilkington, Lady Margaret Professor at Cambridge—a refugee from Mary Tudor's reign in Geneva—wrote a commentary on Proverbs, extending his New Testament interests into the Old. A Roman Catholic scholar, Cardinal Cajetan, wrote a commentary on Proverbs in 1533 in conjunction with Job, Ecclesiastes, and Isaiah 1–3. Later Christian Hebraists such as Albert Schultens wrote commentaries on Proverbs. In 1748, Schultens made extensive use of Arabic to elucidate obscure Hebrew expressions. The text for a complete Hebrew Bible, including Proverbs, was brought together by Francke and Michaelis in the late seventeenth century with commentary done as extensive marginal glosses next to the Hebrew text in very small type.

The book of Proverbs has thus been a significant biblical book over the centuries for Hebraists, translators, and commentators on the Bible. Outside the scholarly world, the use of the proverbial form and of proverbs for moral instruction is widespread across countless different cultures. Biblical proverbs are often combined with proverbs of a particular nation in the folk culture of that nation—English proverbs are a good example of this. In African society, there is much use of traditional proverbs in everyday life and speech, and they are also used in legal frameworks to decide both ethical and criminal matters. The proverbial form and moral instruction is found in many literary contexts—for example, Aesop's fables—but specific use of the book in contemporary popular culture is more difficult to pinpoint.

[See also ECCLESIASTES; JOB; PSALMS; SIRACH; and WISDOM OF SOLOMON.]

Bibliography

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Katharine J. Dell