Glossary of Terms



Harper’s Bible Dictionary

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

wisdom, a term in the Hebrew Bible (ot) standing for many things ranging from the technical skill of the artisan (Exod. 36:8) to the art of government (1 Kings 3:12, 28). It also designates simple cleverness (2 Sam. 14:2), especially the practical skill of coping with life (Prov. 1; 5; 11; 14), and the pursuit of a lifestyle of proper ethical conduct (Prov. 2:9-11 and throughout). Wisdom is also seen as belonging properly to God (Job 28), associated with creation (Prov. 8:22-31), and even identified with the Torah or Law (Ecclus. 24:23).

Wisdom Literature in the ot: In the Hebrew Bible, ‘wisdom literature’ is generally understood to refer to Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes; among the Apocrypha, it includes Ecclesiasticus (The Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach) and The Wisdom of Solomon. The extent to which other parts of the Bible can be described as ‘wisdom’ (e.g., the story of Joseph in Gen. 37-50) is disputed, but certain Psalms seem to betray wisdom influence (e.g., Ps. 37). The relationship between wisdom and apocalyptic and the extent to which the latter was influenced by the former also remains a moot point.

This literature has characteristic traits: (1) There is an absence of reference to the typical salvation beliefs, such as the patriarchal promises, the Exodus, the Sinai covenant, etc. (2) The object of the Hebrew sage is to transmit the lessons of experience, so that one may learn to cope with life. The teaching inculcates certain goals, such as self-control (especially in speech), honesty, diligence, etc. If one follows the counsels of the sage, wisdom will bring life; its opposite, folly—a practical, not merely intellectual folly—brings destruction. (3) A characteristic problem is retribution, the way in which the wise/foolish (i.e., virtuous/wrongdoers) are treated. Proverbs upholds the optimistic view shared by such books as Deuteronomy but disputed by Job and Ecclesiastes. (4) Certain literary forms are cultivated: the discrete, separate saying, which is usually a pithy expression in two parallel lines; the admonition, whether positive or negative, which is often accompanied by a motivation; wisdom poems (typical of Prov. 1-9); and reflections (characteristic of Ecclesiastes). Job is dominated by disputation speeches between the protagonist and the three friends (chaps. 3-31).

Solomon was famous in biblical tradition for his wisdom (1 Kings 4:29-34); hence Proverbs and Ecclesiastes came to be attributed to him. The origins of Israelite wisdom are presumed to lie in the insights, oral and written, of the family and clan and also of the wise men who could have provided training for courtiers in Jerusalem. The existence of some kind of ‘school’ may be inferred from similar institutions in Mesopotamia and Egypt. Wisdom, in fact, is an international possession, cultivated throughout the ancient Near East, and many parallels to Israelite wisdom, both remote and close, have been proposed (e.g., the teaching of the Egyptian sage Amenemopet and Prov. 22:17-24:22).

An outstanding trait of biblical wisdom is the personification of Lady Wisdom in Proverbs 1; 3; and 9 (cf. Job 28; Ecclus. 24). She is described as originating from God and is associated with creation (Prov. 3:19; 8:22-31). According to G. von Rad, she is ‘the self-revelation of creation’ and, one might add, the revelation of God in and through creation (Ps. 19:1). Wisdom theology is a theology of creation, for it was within the area of creation and human experience that the Hebrew sages operated.

The Wisdom Tradition in the nt: The wisdom tradition continues through the intertestamental period (Ecclus., Wisd. of Sol.) and appears in Christianity (nt) and Judaism (Sayings of the Fathers). First of all, Jesus is presented in the synoptic Gospels as a wisdom teacher, a rabbi. The many logia (sayings) attributed to him are cast in the aphoristic style of the sages (e.g., Matt. 6:19-7:27), and comparisons and parables abound. The wisdom of Jesus is ‘greater than Solomon’ (Luke 11:31; cf. Mark 6:2). In Matt. 11:2-19, and Luke 7:18-35 Jesus is implicitly designated as wisdom (cf. Matt. 11:27; Luke 10:22). What appears as a threat by wisdom in Luke 11:49-51 is a means for Matthew to identify Jesus with wisdom (Matt. 23:34-36). Like wisdom in Proverbs 8, Jesus issues an invitation to all to follow him and take up his yoke (Matt. 11:28-30).

‘Wisdom’ does not occur in the Johannine literature, but Jesus is proclaimed as the divine Logos or Word, who has become incarnate (John 1:1-18). This interpretation was served by the personification of wisdom (Prov. 8; Ecclus. 24; Bar. 3:9-4:4; Wisd. of Sol. 7-9). Some would claim that a sophia (Gk., ‘wisdom’) myth, which comes to development in later Gnosticism, underlies this portrayal.

Wisdom is a serious concern in Paul’s dealings with the Corinthians. Here he contrasts their worldly wisdom with the folly of the cross (1 Cor. 1:17-25; cf. 2:6-16) and affirms that Christ is the ‘wisdom of God’ (1 Cor. 1:24). The ot personification of wisdom seems to lie behind the christological development in Eph. 3:8-10 and Col. 1:15-20. In Col. 4:5 and Eph. 5:15 the Christian is to walk in wisdom, and the ‘spirit of wisdom’ (Eph. 1:17) is a gift from the Father.

The Letter of James as a whole bears striking resemblance to traditional wisdom literature because of its hortatory or parenetic nature. Wisdom is a gift to be asked from God, who will grant it (1:5). This is practical wisdom. While it is ‘from above,’ in contrast to the wisdom that is ‘earthly,’ it expresses itself in exemplary conduct; it is ‘peaceable,…full of mercy and good fruits’ (3:13-18). Many themes of biblical wisdom appear in the writings of the postapostolic age (e.g., Didache; The Shepherd of Hermas) and in Gnostic literature (e.g., The Gospel of Thomas).

Bibliography Murphy, R. E. Wisdom Literature. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1981. von Rad, G. Wisdom in Israel. Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1972. Wilken, Robert L., ed. Aspects of Wisdom in Judaism and Early Christianity. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1975.


Edited for by Robert Nguyen Cramer