Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

The MOST Theological Collection: Free From All Error: Authorship, Inerrancy, Historicity of Scripture, Church Teaching, and Modern Scripture Scholars

"Chapter 14: Wisdom Literature"


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A powerful form of snob appeal was tempting many Christians, by the late second century, to join a bizarre group called the Gnostics. Some today are representing the Gnostics as just one of several ways of understanding Christianity, a way that happened to lose out because of superior political ability on the part of the bishops. There is almost a parallel to the Gnostic situation to be seen in some of these modern defenders of Gnosticism. One has only to look into the actual tenets of the Gnostics to see how vain is the claim that, but for politics, we might all be Gnostics today.

There were many varieties of Gnosticism. All had some things in common however. First, they had a most exalted idea of God- something missing today in many Catholics. But, sadly and secondly, they thought that matter is evil, not made by God. From God there "emanate"-they do not make clear what they mean by that word-pairs of aeons, male and female. The first pair produces the second, the second a third, and so on. As the chain stretches out, the aeons become less and less perfect. It is easy to see that sooner or later a pair would be evil. The evil ones were cast out of "the pleroma" (the full assembly of aeons). An evil aeon, the Demiurge, created man and the material world. This evil creator is the God of the Old Testament. High-sounding names abound as the Gnostics describe things: a pair is a syzigie ." For example, the syzigie Proarche and Ennoea produced Nous. who is Monogenes, and Aletheia. Then Logos and Zoe, etc.. etc.

We can read the details of Gnostic thought today in works, found in 1946-1947 at Nag Ha'amadi (Chenoboskion), in Egypt. We also have the descriptions by St. Irenaeus, in his great work Against Heresies. which was entirely aimed at Gnosticism.

Clement of Alexandria, head of the catechetical school at Alexandria in the late second century, decided to set up a counterattraction. He would offer courses giving a deeper understanding of Christian doctrine.

Unfortunately, in his scriptural work, Clement relied heavily on allegorical interpretation instead of trying to find out the literal sense (what the inspired writer really meant to convey-considering the genre chosen. the peculiarities of his language, culture, and so on). Allegory had deep roots at Alexandria. Jews, such as Aristobulus and Philo. had used allegory to defend the dietary laws of the Old Testament. Christian thinkers in some cases thought the literal sense unworthy of God, and so they turned to allegory. Later, St. Ambrose's use of allegory solved St. Augustine's worries about incidents in the Old Testament.

In books II and III of his Paidagogos, Clement tried especially to get a deeper knowledge of the rules of morality. He gave highly specific rules for how a Christian should do everything: eat, drink, sleep, dress, use sex, and so forth. He supports his injunctions with quotations from Scripture. In Paidagogos 2.7.58, Clement says: "I believe that one should limit his speech [at a banquet]. The limit should be just to reply to questions, even when we can speak. In a woman, silence is a virtue, and adornment free of danger in the young. Only for honored old age is speech good: 'Speak, old man, at a banquet, for it is proper for you.... Speak, [young man], if there is need of you, scarcely, when asked twice."'

Clement is quoting Ecclesiasticus/Sirach 32:3 and 7. Clearly he does not understand the matter of genre in Scripture. Clement seems to think the words of Ecclesiasticus are divinely revealed commands or advice on what one should do at a banquet. But Ecclesiasticus did not mean his words to be taken that way. He was writing in a genre we call wisdom literature, which aims most basically at giving wordly-wise maxims on how to get ahead in the world. He was not giving a religious injunction at all, at that point, though there are connections to religion at certain points in Israelite wisdom literature. So we need to distinguish religious injunctions from mere worldly advice in the wisdom books of Scripture. Clement failed to do that. We can see this more clearly with a bit of history of the development of wisdom literature.

Many nations wrote that kind of literature. The Egyptians were specially famed for it, as we can gather from I Kings 4:30: "Solomon's wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east, and all the wisdom of Egypt."

The starting point of Egyptian wisdom was wordly-wise advice given by a father to a son, especially, though not exclusively, to train a successful courtier. However, there was also a connection to the religious concept of ma'at in Egypt. No one English word carries the full meaning of ma'at. John A. Wilson, in The Culture of Ancient Egypt (University of Chicago, 1956), writes that the word is "variously translated as 'truth,' 'justice,' 'righteousness,' 'order,' and so on.... Ma'at then, was a created and inherited rightness, which tradition built up into a concept of orderly stability ..." (p. 48). The concept seems to be that what furthers good order and good morals is also beneficial to humanity.

St. Augustine has a similar thought in Confessions 1:12 when, speaking to God, he says, "For you have ordered it, and it is so, that every disordered soul is its own punishment." Similarly, St. Paul answered the licentious in Corinth who abused his teaching that they were free from the law: "'All things are lawful for me,' but not all things are helpful" (1 Corinthians 6:12).

As a result of this type of thinking, later wisdom works in the Old Testament identified wisdom and the law. So in Ecclesiasticus/Sirach 24:22-25, we read: "Whoever obeys me [wisdom] will not be put to shame, and those who work with my help will not sin. All this is the book of the covenant of the Most High God, the law which Moses commanded us as an inheritance for the congregations of Jacob. It fills men with wisdom, like the Pishon, and like the Tigris at the time of the first fruits." Similarly, Proverbs 1:7 says that "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction!.

We could add a psychological reflection. The sane man is he who sees reality as it is, and reacts appropriately. The insane man is he who sees reality as it is not. He thinks himself Napoleon, or imagines everyone is after him, and then, of course, reacts inappropriately. He who understands the advantage of serving God and acts accordingly is the most fully sane man, the wise man.

Yet as we saw, not every bit of advice in the wisdom books is a matter of divine law. Wordly wisdom suggests additional things, including some that Clement did not understand well.

There are many striking parallels between the Old Testament wisdom literature and the Egyptian wisdom of Amenomopet. For example. Proverbs 15:16-17 reads: "Better is alittle with fear of the Lord than great treasure and trouble with it. Better is a dinnger of herbs where love is than a fatted ox and hatred with it." Amenemopet says: "Better is poverty in the hand of the god than riches in a storehouse. Better is bread, when the heart is happy than riches with sorrow." Proverbs 22:17 to 24:22 is especially close to Amenemopet. For example, Proverbs 22:17-18 says, "Incline your ear, and hear the words of the wise, and apply your mind to my knowledge; for it will be pleasant if you keep them within you, if all of them are ready on your lips." Amenemopet says: "Give thy ears. Hear what is said, give thy heart to understand them. To put them in thy heart is worth while, but it is damaging to him who neglects them"1

The Book of Proverbs consists mostly of short, pithy sayings and has little continuity. The sayings represent much of the worldly-wise wisdom aspect of wisdom literature, though 1:7 makes the tie to religion: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge." The book opens by claiming to be "the proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel." This does not mean that the whole book must be attributed to Solomon. The Israelites, as was said before, often used pen names, frequently preferring the name of a famous man. Solomon's renown for wisdom led to such attributions. It is quite possible that parts of this book may really stem from Solomon. Chapters 10-29 are probably from before the Exile. On the other hand, the long prologue is apt to come from the fifth century B.C.

Israel made use of wisdom found in other nations. Thus chapter 30 of Proverbs is entitled "The words of Agur son of Jakeh of Massa." Massa is the name of an Ishmaelite tribe in north Arabia that was thought to have the wisdom of the East. Chapter 31 opens: "The words of Lemuel, king of Massa, which his mother taught him." (It is not certain that Massa was meant as a proper name. The word might mean an oracle or prophecy.)

Proverbs ends with a beautiful alphabetic poem on the ideal wife. We do not know when or by whom it was composed. Recall that in the ancient Near East, rights of authorship were not insisted on; later hands might make additions. Thus several inspired authors may have contributed to this work. When they use wisdom from outside Israel, they do so because the judge it good, either in the worldly-wise sense, or in the religious sense.

Ecclesiasticus/Sirach is in many ways similar to Proverbs in that it includes many pithy sayings. Yet there is in Sirach some grouping by ideas, even though one could hardly make a logical outline of the book as a whole. Yet the book was probably written centuries later than Proverbs. Probably composed in the second century B.C., it, too, includs a strong religious aspect.

There are some lines in the Book of Proverbs that raise questions about the afterlife (see our discussion in chapter 7). Clearly, though the writer did not know the answers we know, he nonetheless did not teach any error. Those answers finally appear in the Book of Wisdom. For example in 3:1-3 we read: "But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be an affliction, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace."

The Book of Job earlier had wrestled mightily with the problem of the just man meeting great affliction. It seems in a way to have given the answer in the last lines (42:10-17). Job was rewarded richly before his death. Yet the more substantial answer of the book seems to be to bow down trustingly before the inscrutable majesty of God. The author of the Book of Ecclesiasticus, Qoholeth, too, had struggled mightily. Seeing the emptiness of all earthly things, he added not a few lines that seem to point ahead, though not clearly, to future retribution.

But by the time the Book of Wisdom was written, probably in the first century B.C., Israel's thought had been divinely guided into an agonizing reappraisal. The Israelites knew that God acted justly, but their eyes told them that not always do things work out rightly in this life. Yet their realization of future retribution was dim at best. So, they without being able to see, were called on to hold to God in heroic faith. The agonizing reappraisal was probably sparked by the dreadful deaths of the martyrs under Antiochus Epiphanes. One could not say that they were repaid before their deaths! The reappraisal of their thinking was aided, perhaps, by contact with Greek thought, in which the twofold nature of man, body and soul, showed better how to find room for future retribution.

We saw above that wisdom came to be equated with the law. In a further stage, wisdom is personified. Wisdom 9:9-18 says: "With thee is wisdom, who knows thy works and was present when thou didst make the world, and who understands what is pleasing in thy sight.... Send her forth from the holy heavens, and from the throne of thy glory send her, that she may be with me and toil, and that I may learn what is pleasing to thee. For she knows and understands all things.... For the reasoning of mortals is worthless ... for a perishable body weighs down the soul, and this earthly tent burdens the thoughtful mind. We can hardly guess at what is on earth ... but who has traced out what is in the heavens? Who has learned thy counsel, unless thou has given wisdom and sent thy Holy Spirit from on high? And thus the paths of those on earth were set right, and men were taught what pleases thee, and were saved by wisdom." (In the Old Testament, "Holy Spirit" means a power that comes forth from God, not the Third Divine Person, for the Holy Trinity had not yet been revealed.)


1 The texts of Amenemopet cited can be found in J. B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts (Princeton, NJ: University Press, 1955), pp. 421-424, or in Jack Finegan, Light From the Ancient Past, 2nd ed. (New York: Princeton, 1974), pp. 124-125. Finegan gives texts of Proverbs and Amenemopet in parallel columns.

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