THE BOOK OF WISDOM – PART I
INTRODUCTION AND OVERALL THEMES
I. The Book of Wisdom concludes the wisdom literature of the Old Testament with a call to pursue the wisdom of God as against injustice and idolatry.
A. The Book was written after 200 B.C., for it quotes the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament that was composed in Egypt about 200 B.C. and was later widely used, especially by the New Testament authors.
1. Given that
the book does not seem to reflect specifically messianic expectations
(although it does refer to the time of visitation, see Wisdom 3:7, 13)
that were common in the days of Christ, it is very unlikely to have
been written before Christ was born.
2. On the other
hand, it does use Greek thought, including the reference to the four
cardinal virtues listed by Aristotle, see Wisdom 8:7, and such terms
as "the Author of beauty", see Wisdom 13:3, and "the formless
matter" of the universe, see Wisdom 11:7. These references would
be more likely in the first century before Christ that in the century
3. The most common
dating for the time of composition is in the latter half of the first
century B.C. because that is when Jewish contacts with the Hellenistic
world in Egypt, which is the most likely place of composition, were
at a height. See, e.g., Addison Wright, The Book of Wisdom, New
Jerome Biblical Commentary 510 (1990); "Introduction to the Book of
Wisdom", Wisdom Books in Navarre Bible Series 302 (2004); John Rybolt,
Wisdom in the Collegeville Bible Commentary Series 6 (1980); but see
"The Book of Wisdom" in The Catholic Encyclopedia (2007) (arguing
that dating is very difficult for the book.)
B. Given the fact that the book refers heavily to the Exodus and describes at great length how God was calling even the Egyptian people to repentance, and given the relative paucity of reference to other peoples, it seems most likely that the book was written in Egypt. In particular, there was a large Jewish community in Alexandria, Egypt, which makes it the most likely place for composition.
- Both the Greek language
that the book seems to have been originally written in and the near
absence of references to the rites of the Jews or the Temple worship
(except in 9:8); it is very unlikely that the book was written near
or in the Holy Land.
C. The Book of Wisdom
was most likely written originally in Greek, but by a Jewish author
who had Hebrew styles in mind. There have been some arguments
that there was an original Hebrew version of this book that has since
been lost. However, most commentators are of the view that the
book was originally written in Greek. That is one reason why the
Jewish Council of Jamnia in 90 A.D. rejected the book as a part of the
Jewish canon. The Protestant denominations, following the Jewish
canon, likewise do not consider this book to be inspired.
D. The Book of Wisdom
is an attempt to take what is good in Hellenistic thought, and most
especially the dedication to wisdom, the belief in the universality
of God's call and moral law, and a life after death, but defend them
in the context of the Jewish belief in the all powerful and loving personal
God, who guides human history. The book opposes both polytheistic
worship and the cynical view that there is no justice or point in worshipping
E. The author of the Book of Wisdom is unknown, but appears to have been a well educated Hellenistic Jewish scholar (or scholars) in or around Alexandria.
- Some have argued
that Philo, the great Jewish philosopher who lived from 20 B.C. to 54
A.D., was the author. However, while there are similarities between
his thought and that of the Book of Wisdom, his writings do not refer
to this book, nor does this book refer to his writings. In addition,
Philo interpreted Hebrew Scriptures in a heavily allegorical fashion,
which this book does not. Thus, it appears more likely that the
same currents of thought affected both Philo and the Book of Wisdom.
II. Overall, the Book of Wisdom is generally seen as having three main parts.
A. The first section, which covers chapters 1-5 and the first 21 verses of chapter 2, is a call to seek justice and the description of the rewards for doing so.
1. This section
describes wisdom as entering the heart of the just and pure, and the
folly of those who see no connection between justice and destiny.
2. Starting in chapter 3, this section plainly describes the reward of the just after this life, and in the future time of visitation.
- For most
of Jewish thought until the second century B.C., the notion of immortality
was very vague. There were a few passages that seem to refer to
a reward for the just and punishment of the unjust after this life.
See, e.g., Ps. 49:16, 73:23-24; Is. 26:19; Dan. 12:2-3. But for
the most part, the matter was uncertain. See, e.g., Eccl. 3:16-22.
- Likewise, at the time of Christ, the matter of whether the dead would be raised was heavily debated. See, e.g., Luke 20:27-40.
most of the Old Testament, the reward of the just was in descendants
who would carry on one's heritage, one's reputation, the prosperity
of the nation, and the sense of timelessness from worship. See
John McKenzie, "Aspects of Old Testament Thought" in The New Jerome
Biblical Commentary (1990) 1285-86.
denying any of these benefits, the Book of Wisdom, as the Book of Daniel
and chapter 7 of the Second Book of Maccabees, describes the greatest
reward as the ability to live and reign in honor and glory forever.
See, e.g., Wisdom 3:7-9, 4:20-24, 5:16-20, 6:21.
3. On a similar note, the book addresses the questions raised especially in the Books of Job and Ecclesiastes, as well as such Psalms as 37, 49, and 73, about why the wicked seem to prosper and the just suffer.
- The book
describes the struggles of the just as testing and disciplining in preparation
for greater glory. See, e.g., Wis. 3:4-6, 15, 4:10-13.
- Likewise, the prosperity and even fruitfulness of the wicked are still under the judgment of death, and will result in dishonor in the end. See, e.g., 3:13-29, 4:4-6, 4:19-5:13, 5:20-23.
4. This part
ends with a transitional section, calling upon all, and especially rulers,
to seek Wisdom, now presented as a woman who guides one to justice and
B. The next section then exhorts the reader to pursue wisdom, presenting the attractiveness of wisdom in various capacities.
1. First, as
if to encourage the reader that anyone can pursue wisdom, the author
describes how eager he is to share wisdom. See Wis. 6:22-25, 7:13.
2. The author
then takes on the persona of Solomon, the preeminent example of wisdom
in the Old Testament, describing how he is a man like all others, but
became great because of his desire for wisdom. See Wis. 7:1-12.
3. In the context of pursuing Wisdom, Solomon sings her praises in different ways.
he describes how wisdom guides one to the proper understanding of all
he presents Wisdom as the most pure reflection of God and the closest
thing to Him. See Wis. 7:22-30
he describes how she leads a man to be noble, virtuous, and honored
forever. See Wis. 8:1-16.
4. The author then returns to the theme that Wisdom is a gift from God, and that, without it, all else is worthless. See Wis. 8:17-9:18.
- In this
context, the author again describes how wisdom is the controlling principle
of creation and of worship. See Wis. 9:8-9.
5. The book then
gives examples of how it is that Wisdom guided great peoples, from Adam
to Moses, up to the time of the Exodus. See Wis. 10:1-11:1.
This section thus transitions into the next section, which describes
how God's providence is shown throughout history.
C. The third section, which encompasses the last half of the book, uses the Exodus as a case study in how to view history wisely, that is, from the standpoint of God's providence and teaching.
1. From the Jewish
standpoint, the Exodus is the central saving event. See, e.g.,
Hos. 11:1-7. Thus, it makes sense to use this event as the main
2. After a brief introduction, this part describes how the plagues sent upon Egypt were fitting punishment for them, but also calls for the nation to repent as they saw the favor God shows His people.
- Thus, the
turning of water into blood is fit punishment for the murder of infants,
the plagues of insects fit punishment for worshipping insects and other
animals, storms for the refusal to worship the Lord of creation, darkness
for those who imprisoned the people meant to be light of the world,
the death of the first born for those who killed children.
3. In the midst of these descriptions, there are two long excurses
- The first
one, from chapter 11, verse 15 through chapter 12 discusses God's
punishments as attempts to bring about repentance and reform among sinners.
It insists that God does not want destruction, but improvement and that
He allocates punishments accordingly. This notion passage argues
that all people are loved by God and that His love is shown even in
punishments. Other books had described God's judgment on the
nations, see, e.g., Is. 13-23, 28, 33-34, 47; Ezek. 25-29; Amos 1-2.
The prophets and psalmists also sometimes described the gathering of
nations in the new kingdom. See, e.g., Is. 2:1-4, 56:1-8, 66:28-21;
Zech. 14:16-19; Ps. 87. This passage brings together both notions,
the punishment and the calling.
- The second
excursus, which consists of chapters 13 through 15, describes various
ways in which idolatry comes about. It both mocks idolatry as
the worship of things weaker than humans, and also describes how people
might fall into such folly. The Old Testament had condemned idolatry
over and again. But here there is a psychology of idolatry, meant
both to condemn idolatry, but also to make it more understandable how
people could fall into it.
4. This section
ends with a conclusion describing how God provided for His people in
the Exodus, but also brought them to repentance through punishments.
God's people are closer to Him than others, but also must experience
both His mercy and His justice.
III. Written shortly before the time of Jesus, the Book of Wisdom serves as a bridge to the New Testament.
A. Although there
are not clear messianic expectations in the book, this book describes
as clear as any in the Old Testament the notion of a life after death
and a time of judgment, themes that Jesus and the New Testament writers
would elaborate on. The discourses on the merit that comes from
suffering also prepares one to understand the merit of Christ's suffering
and of all suffering united with Him.
B. The book still
presents Wisdom as created, but also there at the beginning and the
ordering principle of all of creation. See Wis. 7:22, 25-26, 9:2-4,
9:9. Thus, while the description of Wisdom here does not directly
apply to the Son of God, it prepares the way for an understanding of
creation through the Son. See John 1:3-4, 10-11; Heb. 1:3.
The New Testament does describe how the humanity of Christ is the controlling
principle of creation. See Col. 1:15—20. In this sense Wisdom
C. Likewise, God
sends this pure spirit of Wisdom to inspire the hearts of His beloved
to know all things and to be virtuous and filled with joy. See
Wis. 7:22-30, 8:2-8, 21, 9:4-18. In this fashion, this book prepares
the way for understanding the sending of the Spirit to inspire God's
D. The notion that
God loves all peoples and seeks their repentance, not destruction prepares
the way for Jesus' universal mission.
E. The letter to
the Romans picks up on the Book of Wisdom's themes about both natural
wisdom and the failure of those who stayed at the level of nature.
See Wis. 13:1-9; Rom. 1:18-23. Romans likewise continues on the
theme that idolatry leads directly to sin. See Wis. 14:22-31;
Rom. 1:24-31. In Romans and Ephesians, St. Paul also draws upon
the idea of using the armor and weapons of faith. See Wis. 5:17-20;
Rom. 13:12; Eph. 6:13-17.
F. Overall, the book balances the unity and mysterious holiness of the Wisdom of God with her universality and accessibility. It presents: (1) the call exclusive faith in the God of Israel and His special providence for the Chosen People; and (2) the mystery and glory of the Wisdom that comes from God and reflects His glory; but also presenting (3) God's love for all peoples; and (4) the usefulness of concepts drawn from the Hellenistic world and creation to describe Wisdom and make her accessible to all the world. Thus, the book prepares the way for a Church that is one, holy, Catholic (that is universal) and apostolic (i.e., sent out to all the world.)