Glossary of Terms

Wisdom of Solomon


Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

You are strongly recommended to add to your library the excellent revised edition of Harper's Bible Dictionary titled, The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, Revised Edition [book review], edited by Paul J. Achtemeier, with the Society of Biblical Literature (NY: Harper Collins, 1996). It is currently the best one-volume Bible dictionary in English, and it is available at Border's Books, Christian Science Reading Rooms,, or

Wisdom of Solomon, the, a poetic discourse composed in Greek by a Hellenistic Jew, probably in Alexandria, Egypt. The latest likely occasion for its composition is the persecution of Egyptian Jews under Gaius Caligula in a.d. 38-41, although dates as early as the last half of the first century b.c. have also been suggested. The writer assumes the identity of Solomon (cf. Wisd. of Sol. 7:1-14 and 8:17-9:18 with 1 Kings 3:6-9) to speak in praise of wisdom and righteousness and warn against the folly of oppression and idolatry. While the wicked may seem to prosper in this life, they are not aware, he claims, that they must face a future judgment (4:20) and even at birth in effect cease to be (5:13). Righteousness, on the other hand, is immortal (1:15). The book has survived as a part of the Septuagint, or Greek version of the ot. It is considered a part of the Apocrypha by Protestants and one of the deuterocanonical writings by Catholics. Its parts include:

I. A discourse on the justice of God (chaps. 1-5)

II. In praise of wisdom as a guide for life (chaps. 6-9)

III. Wisdom as a key to history, from Adam to Moses (chaps. 10-12)

IV. The origins and forms of idolatry (13:1-15:17)

V. A case in point: the Egyptians and the Israelites in the Exodus (15:18-19:22).

The initial discourse (chaps. 1-5) proclaims that ‘Because the Spirit of the Lord has filled the world,…no one who utters unrighteous things will escape notice, and justice, when it punishes, will not pass him by’ (1:7-8). The ungodly, it argues, have made a covenant with death, and, assuming this life to be the whole of existence, they live as they please and oppress the righteous. With allusions to the Enoch tradition (4:10-15) as well as to Second Isaiah’s suffering servant (5:1-8; cf. Isa. 52:13-53:12), the discourse speaks of a righteous one who was persecuted but, to the consternation of his persecutors, comes to be numbered among the heavenly beings (5:5) at the final judgment. A parallel account of martyrdom among Egyptian Jewry—perhaps even related to the same occasion if the Wisdom of Solomon is from the time of Caligula—is the account of the death of the righteous Eleazar in 4 Maccabees. The latter goes beyond the Wisdom of Solomon by appropriating the theme of vicarious atonement found in Isa. 52:13-53:12 (see 4 Macc. 6:27-30).

The second section of the Wisdom of Solomon picks up the story of Solomon, the king who chose wisdom (cf. 1 Kings 3:5-9), and advocates that all rulers should seek wisdom from beside the throne of God in order to rule wisely and justly. Wisdom is defined as God’s spirit, intelligent, holy, the fashioner of all things, an emanation of God’s glory, a reflection of eternal light, and an image of divine goodness (7:22-26). The passage clearly understands divine wisdom (cf. Prov. 8:22-31) in terms of Hellenistic philosophy, in a manner similar to Philo’s logos or rationality of God, a subordinate agent responsible for creation. While the Christian idea of the Word (logos) of God in John 1:1-5, 14 is similar, neither the Wisdom of Solomon’s divine wisdom nor Philo’s logos are to be thought of as consubstantial or one with God, as in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. In listing the various topics of natural and cosmological lore—both secret and manifest—taught to Solomon, Wisd. of Sol. 7:17-22 gives us a look into the scope of Jewish speculative wisdom of the age—a form of wisdom also appearing in apocalypses like 1 Enoch, where an angel reveals cosmological secrets to the seer (see 1 Enoch 41).

Chaps. 10-12 then use the theme of wisdom as a key to unlock the secrets of history from Adam to Moses. Curiously enough, it pictures wisdom as protecting Adam and delivering him from his transgression. Cain thus becomes the first to perish through folly (10:1-3). At the end of this section, the book shifts its attention from oppression to the idolatry of the Egyptians and Canaanites to demonstrate that ‘one is punished by the very things by which he sins’ (11:16).

The writer then turns to an interesting discussion of the roots of idolatry that goes beyond the polemics found elsewhere to suggest several different theories of its origin (13:1-15:17). Led by the beauty of God’s creation to worship the natural phenomena, humanity subsequently assumes that it can fabricate gods and begins to trust in the works of its hands. Another suggestion echoes that of Euhemeros (ca. 300 b.c.), who claimed that the gods were the result of the deification of heroes. The Wisdom of Solomon suggests that parents make statues to remember dead children and kings create images to impose their authority at a distance, so that out of the grief of parents and the vanity of kings spring the cults and secret mysteries of paganism.

The Wisdom of Solomon concludes (15:18-19:22) by turning to the Exodus to demonstrate the theory of poetic justice enunciated earlier (cf. 11:16). The ultimate irony is that the Egyptians, who had imprisoned the people of God, are really themselves captives of the power of darkness. In developing this idea, the writer explores the Hellenistic idea of the psychological self-punishment of the guilty (chap. 17; cf. Philo Flaccus 162-80). The radical drama of liberation is symbolized through the image of the transformation of nature, so that fire burns in water and yet has no power over human flesh (19:18-21).

While the Wisdom of Solomon claims to address alien kings in order to teach them how to rule wisely, its real audience is more likely the Hellenistic Jewish community in Alexandria and its purpose to support it in facing persecution and in resisting the dangers of idolatry in a pagan culture.


Edited for by Robert Nguyen Cramer